We’ve just returned from our adventure into Shakespeare country and I want to share some of the wonderful moments with you. The five of us – Myself, Efan, Annemarie, Taylor and Isabelle set forth on a breezy day in August to brave the motorway and a two-and-a-half-hour journey to Stratford Upon Avon. It’s not the first time we’ve been, nor will it be the last, but it’s the most recent so we’ll crack on.
Stratford Upon Avon is a Tudor town, where William Shakespeare was born back in 1564. It’s still the home of some spectacular Tudor architecture, as as well as many original features, the flavour of the time is everywhere. It’s like stepping into an alternate reality where past and present co-exist in the same moment of time.
Our adventure, with one or two sidetracks, follows Shakespeare’s life, from his mother’s farm, to the place he was born, to where his wife was born and where they made their home. I think a little historical setting is appropriate, especially as we take things out of order.
The story starts in the early 1500’s with Robert Arden, who owned extensive land interests in Warwickshire, and one of his tenant farmers, Richard Shakespeare. Although the youngest of eight daughters, Mary Arden inherited a large chunk of land, including a farm at Wilmcote from her father when he died in 1556.
In 1557, Mary married Richard Shakespeare’s son, John, and they moved to Stratford, where their children, including their son, William were born. It’s not known whether William spent his entire childhood in Stratford, because around the time of his birth the town was struck by The Plague and it is thought he might have been moved to the safer location at Wilmcote.
In 1582, at the age of eighteen, William married Anne Hathway, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of a wealthy yeoman farmer from nearby Shottery and they had 3 children at a place now termed New House, of which nothing remains other than a garden.
Williams oldest daughter, Susanna, born 6 months after his wedding *wink wink* married a physician, John Hall and they lived in a newly build house Hall’s Croft, in Stratford, until Shakespeare’s death in 1616 when they moved into New House.
So these are the five places owned and maintained by the Shakespeare Trust and of whih we visited all but Hall’s Croft. I myself, didn’t visit Anne Hathway’s Cottage, or New House either, but the others did .
Day 1 Friday 17th August 2018
We packed up, dropped the dog at the kennels then picked up Annemarie, Taylor and Isabelle and headed for Stratford-Upon-Avon. The journey was pretty good and we arrived at our home for the next week – Avondale Holiday Lodges – at tea time. Whilst the lodge was in no way the best holiday cottage we’ve been to it wasn’t too shabby at all, with all the necessary facilities, comfortable beds, a bathroom and, joy of joys, no stairs. The great disappointment, however, was that even though it had wifi as advertised, it might as well not have.
Neither of the boys could play their computer games, although Taylor could play one or two games on his Play Station, even though they buffered. The saddest part was that Taylor turned 16 on 20th. Over night on 19th 20th was some wrestling thingie that was a big deal to him. He’d been very much looking forward to it. He watches every year and this is only the second time it fell on his birthday. When it came down to it the livestream was so laggy it was almost impossible to watch, at least until it hit the early hours when more wifi freed up. I’d taken my laptop but as, effectively it was either me work online or Taylor play his game, there wasn’t really much contest. Could you imagine two tech-mad autistic teenagers with no internet and nothing else to do?
After resting on Friday evening, we ventured out into the world on Saturday and discovered a place called Wild Things, which is along the lines of a mini zoo with lots of information, animals, learning experiences and play times. I didn’t get to see as much as I’d have liked because my back and knee were sore from driving, and I spent most of my time in the cafe. I did, however, get to meet some sharks.
The others walked around and reported it to be fab and well worth the entrance fee. The boys then went to play golf while Isabelle ran riot on the jungle gym.
We found a shop and bought more vodka. What? We’re on holiday. Then we had a glorious evening of doing nothing at all. In fact, that set a precedent for the whole rest of the week. Apart from the chocolate. The chocolate came later.
Sunday 19th August
Today we engaged in some culture, at the home of William Shakespeare where it just so happened a troupe of players were performing some of his most famous scenes.
Shakespeare’s cottage is today owned by the Shakespeare Trust and has been beautifully maintained/restored with many original features.
Just across the street from Shakespeare’s cottage are two of my favourite shops – the Christmas shop, where it is Christmas all year around, and the Harry Potter shop which also stocks things pertaining to Game of Thrones
One of the reasons Stratford-Upon-Avon has been our favourite place for a long time is a particular shop called The Leaky Cauldron at Magic Alley in the wizarding town of Wizard’s Thatch. The shop is a mix of real and fantasy magic, theatre, museum, cafe and interactive experience. It’s hard to describe the wonder without having experienced it.
The shop itself sells everything from porcelain dragons to wands, crystals, books etc. Then there is the museum, which is a walk-through collection of all kinds of wonderful things, from tiaras to trees, crowns to velvet cushions and all kinds of books and bottles, potions and playthings. There are puzzles, codes, clues and all kinds of teasers and treats. And that paragraph exhausted me 😀
We made a bee line for the shop – only to find it had gone. To say we were gutted was a massive understatement. We loved the place so much we were invited to their twenty-fifth birthday celebrations a few years ago.
Efan was absolutely gutted, but I wasn’t about to let things just drop. After having been in business for twenty five years there’s no way a shop was going to disappear in a year without a trace somewhere. Unfortunately, the wifi signal in Stratford is shit and it took some time and trouble to find the shop has not closed, only moved. We therefore went in search.
After some fumbling, we finally tracked down the Creaky Cauldron and discovered its wonders all over again in a completely different setting, with a different focus and new stories. It isn’t the same, but it’s still good. (Objectively, it’s better because no more tiny, steep staircases and small, dusty rooms, but to us it’s change and we liked the old way)
In case anyone is interested, here’s a link to the shop website. NOTE the picture is of the old place. I don’t have anything of the new place because my phone was out of charge.
On Sunday night Taylor wanted to watch a wrestling live stream but unfortunately the wifi was too weak and it was a bit of a mess.
Today was Taylor’s birthday. Originally he wanted to go to Kidderminster to catch the steam train, but the other plan was Cadbury world and we couldn’t do both, so we decided to postpone the steam railway until Friday. We therefore set off for Cadbury world and a day full of birthday goodness
Cadbury world was awesome. It was built on the site of the former Bourneville factory and village which was essentially a social experiment way beyond its time. The Cadbury experience told the story of how the Cadbury brothers, having risen from poverty became disenchanted with the lot of the poor person in Birmingham at the time and built an entire village for their workers. It’s an amazing story and well worth a look-up.
I should have taken more photographs but I was so enthralled I forgot. There was one particular part that really appealed to me. It was the story of chocolate from its discovery in South America. Some very interesting and charming methods were used to convey the story. My particular favourite was the dioramas which had projections of real people, about six inches high.
The best thing about the whole experience was the fact that every time we moved on to a new section, they gave us chocolate. Couldn’t fault it.
My favourite thing I took away from the day was a chocolate teapot, which was absolutely beautiful and just proved that a chocolate teapot can be useful after all. (Well it looked pretty and tasted awesome, so I’ll leave it to you to decide how useful that was.)
Today was not the best day for me. After all the walking I did yesterday, I was in a lot of pain. It was decided that we would go for a boat trip and visit Hall’s Croft and The New House. Sadly, the walking from the car park was too much for me, so I found a nice little pub just opposite where the boats left, and settled in. It’s called Encore and their frozen yoghurt and strawberries is to die for.
I then went back to the car and napped while the others went to the houses.
Mary Arden’s farm. I remember going here before and was excited about it. Efan was excited to look up the blacksmith because swords and I was more than happy to oblige because eye candy.
I think Mary Arden’s Farm is an ideal place to take children like Isobelle because there is so much room for them to run around and burn off energy. The downside, of course, is that someone has to run after her.
The highlight of the day, as with the last time we came, was the falconry display. Those birds are amazing, even if they were a little reluctant today. For some reason, I only took two photographs. Go me. I’m terrible with taking photographs. I never think of it. Maybe it’s because I take my photos on my phone now and I haven’t got a camera in my hand or around my neck to remind me.
On the day that everyone went on the boat, they found a little hidden gem. It’s called the Tudor House Museum. From the road, it just looks like another building in a row of shops. Absolutely nothing about the outside catches your eye. (Yeah, we got blase about the Tudor houses by now) As an aside, I’m pretty sure that blue blob isn’t supposed to be there. No idea where it came from.
But once you step under the arch… Well, let’s wait for that because before we went into the museum we decided to have something to eat. Just across from the museum we found the most amazing place (today was a day of discovery), a 1940s tea room. Wow. The food was great (not rationed or 1940’s) and the atmosphere exemplary.
And so, full of food and 1940s good cheer (apart from the three younger members of our happy group who were less than thrilled and bored). we headed across the road and stepped through the arch into wonderland.
This was what was under the arch.
And this is what was inside the house.
Home time. Before we returned to the Valleys, we took one last trip – to Kidderminster, to ride part of the Severn Valley Railway on a steam train. This was Taylor’s treat and I must admit, not really my cup of tea. On the whole, I enjoyed the trip but I have to comment that if anyone with a disability is thinking about going here, don’t. The facilities, especially parking for people with mobility problems are practically nonexistent. Not only was the closest parking a very long and painful walk away, I was forced to stand for part of the journey even after telling the guard about my disability. I would not, therefore, recommend this for anyone who has mobility issues.
Having said that, there is always a certain excitement in travelling on a steam train, especially when, as this one did, they are corridor trains. I felt like I was on my way to Hogwarts. I even shared a carriage with a dementor.
And thence home to plan our next adventure.
It was quite sad getting up on the last day, knowing we were leaving and would probably never see Chaira, Mendel or Flash again. They’d been part of our lives for such a short time but had touched us and it will be a long time before either of us will forget. Although I think Efan will remember the cat for longest.
We had a lie in and left ourselves plenty of time to get to the station and have something to eat before we got on the train. Everything went smoothly, maybe a little too smoothly for me, until we’d gone through the barriers at the station and realized all the restaurants, cafes and shops were on the other side. With more than three hours to kill, we had nothing but a muffin between us, and I was way too thirsty to eat the muffin.
That was an… interesting couple of hours in the blazing heat on a plastic seat, watching trains and people come and go.
Finally. finally, our train arrived. Thank goodness it comes in fifteen minutes before leaving time. We had plenty of time to find our seats and store our stuff. I actually think, that after all the dehydration I’d shrunk just enough to fit into the seat a bit better.
When we started moving, I send Efan foraging. When he came back, he wasn’t impressed. Apparently, despite the train announcement that the dining car had hot food, and all the notices that said there was hot and cold food available when he got to the counter it was to discover there was no food. He came back with a coffee, two bottles of water and a packet of popcorn. Not the best forager ever.
The journey went well, and yes, it seemed much quicker on the way back.
When we arrived in Brussels, we had 50 minutes to change trains. I foolishly thought we had enough time for a pee, so I trotted along, confident in my knowledge on how to work a Dutch toilet. I even taught a confused American lady how to work it, and it was the best 60c pee I have ever had. On the way out, I found the American lady explaining to more confused peers and it gave me a warm glow to know my wisdom was already cascading.
We got utterly confused looking for the platform until a helpful shopkeeper (actually he was grumpy git who seemed to think we were mentally retarded – ok he could have been right there) pointed out it was on the other side of the station.
I have not run for years, but this was the closest I’ve come in a very long time. It was such a long way and I was in tremendous pain when we got there, not to mention working myself up into a meltdown.
The line for security and passport control was enormous. We joined the end and meandered through the maze. I was okay until time started to get precious. The line didn’t seem to be moving much.
I was relieved when we got to security with still ten minutes to spare. The line split into four which ultimately resulted in us ending near the end of the line instead of near the middle where we’d started. This was partly to do with the fact we were pulled aside by security and had to empty our cases. Whatever the issue was turned out to be Efan’s Nintendo Switch.
By the time we were through security, I was having an anxiety attack and doing everything I could to distract myself. Breathing exercises, rocking, tapping, biting my nails. Efan was surprisingly calm which is good because I really don’t know what would have happened if he’d started to panic too.
Once through security, the line for passport control was even longer. It turned out there was only one booth open. In the end, they opened the business class line, just to get through passport control.
I thought the passport checker was going to haul me off for being a suspicious character because, by the time I got to her, I was frantic and crying. However, things went smoothly, although there was a hitch when I went through and there was a bit of confusion when he waited to come behind me rather than going to the next stall and the guard thought he was trying to get through with me and not show his passport. (it’s a weird machine where you put the passport in and see yourself on a camera then the gate opens)
By this time we were ten minutes past the time when the train was due to leave. There were rumours flying from “they’re holding the train” to “we’ll be put on the next one” to “we’re stuck here unless we buy another ticket.”
I was freaking out. When we finally got through we were motioned toward stairs to the platform. Thankfully as EU citizens (for now) we went through the faster lines for customs etc, and were finally on the platform. The train was there, but the guards were waving and I continued to have the biggest anxiety attack I have ever had.
We were in carriage ten. The carriage next to us was twelve. I looked in one direction and there seemed to be only one carriage, so I figured it would be the other way. I called out to Efan with the result he stopped and I then proceeded to trip over the corner of the case and fall. Fortunately, I managed to take a few quick steps before my body finally succumbed to gravity and crashed down, landing on my knee and him. If I’d fallen from standing with my whole 22 stone coming down on my knee, I think I would have ended up in hospital.
As it was the pain was indescribable, not only in my hip and knee but in my back, which is not good at the best of times.
Generally speaking, if I’m on the floor, the only way I can get up is by crawling up the furniture. Even then it’s touch and go. When my back is in spasm it’s a drawn-out ordeal. I could not afford that here. In a blind panic, I somehow managed, with Efan’s help, and a post like one of those in the picture above, to get upright. The only possible upside was that I probably made a pretty good show for the people looking out of the windows – a grey-haired, fat lady going arse over tit then trying all ways to get up while clutching a sheaf of papers and yelling “we’ve got to get on the train” over and over. It was a shit experience for me but it would be nice to think it helped someone else’s journey to start off a bit happier because we were ALL stressed.
It didn’t help that I was by now utterly convinced this was the wrong train. I sought out a guard and thrust the ticket in her face. She was very concerned about my fall, and probably my mental state. She ushered us onto the train, in carriage thirteen and suggested we walk through the aisles so I wouldn’t have to get off the train and panic about missing it anymore. That was an interesting journey.
I didn’t start calming down until we were sitting in our seats with everything stored, and I could hide my face and crack up. Not that I did because Efan was distressed and I had to be the responsible adult now.
Finally, we got underway. I calmed down and Efan went on another foraging trip – to a dining car with no food, but at least I got a coffee, even though it was shit.
The journey to London was uneventful, as was the journey from the train to the underground and through the underground to Paddington. There was a slight hiccup when we got to Paddington because we couldn’t find the trains. Yeah, I know, but this is me right.
We found a cafe where two lovely ladies directed us to the trains and we stopped for a coffee and calm down. They too must have thought we…okay I…was completely barking mad, because I was stressed and babbling, but they were really lovely and I managed to calm down a lot.
We found the trains without too much trouble, except that I’d made another major boo boo when I’d read 19:00 as 9 o’clock, and we had a four-hour gap between arriving in St Pancreas and departing Paddington.
Anyway, we found somewhere to eat, which was sadly healthy, then located our train easily. We gave our last euros to a homeless boy, which broke my heart because I only had 4 left and no English money.
I could have cried when the train pulled out of the station and we began the last leg of our journey home. While waiting in the rather nice waiting room on Paddington station there’d been an announcement to say there were no reserved seats because the printing machine had broken. As there were hardly anyone on the train (it was 22:45) we had our pick of seats and were very comfortable. As we were also almost alone in the carriage I felt it safe to doze (snoring!) so the journey passed very fast.
We were lucky at Cardiff station to find a taxi immediately (after taking money out of the cashpoint finally) and were transported back to our car. I could have cried when I set eyes on her.
The driver gave us a bit of an odd look as Efan took the cases out of his boot and loaded them into ours, but he didn’t say anything and almost as he was driving down the street I was safe inside Sarah-Petunia again and finally felt like I was home.
It was a difficult journey thanks to my injured knee, but thankfully uneventful and we made it home in about 40 minutes. After that, it was nothing but dump case, remove clothes, climb into bed and…it’s tomorrow.
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with us. We’ve got a few trips planned over the summer and I’ll be sure to take plenty of photographs to share.
After the luxury of an amazing shower, we set off at around seven thirty on a perfect day. Even though it was so early, it was very warm, but not yet hot, so in my books, perfect.
We strolled down to the tram stop (pause here because what I thought were trams were in fact busses and I didn’t figure it out until the last day. As Efan helpfully pointed out, busses have wheels and trams don’t, which is something that normal people would have noticed. Although I’d obviously seen the wheels, they had just as obviously made no impression on my psyche). Trams (okay busses, but that doesn’t sound nearly as exotic), run every few minutes to Central Station, so although there was some confusion with the first one, we were on board within five minutes.
Due to extensive research beforehand, it was easy to purchase tickets and sign in. Of course, it would have been better to get a 48 or 72 hour card but that would have been too easy! At the end of the journey, we completely ignored the driver and the many signs reminding us to sign out, so I’m not sure what that actually did. I hope it didn’t blow up the bus. (as an aside this was not a deliberate act, and I hadn’t even noticed until Efan mentioned it about ten minutes later)
Our luck held when we got to Central Station and we managed to buy tickets to Schiphol airport, and find the right platform very easily. The train was lovely. Not as good a Eurostar, obviously, but soooo much better than we have in the Valleys.
We passed through somewhere called Lelylaan (pronounced lay-lee-lahn) and something about the way the announcer pronounced it really caught my attention and made me smile. It just sounded so happy, like a song.
Anyway, we arrived at Schiphol airport and found our way to the stand where the shuttle bus would pick us up and take us to the hotel.
At this point, due to the fact that one of the plug converters we’d bought was faulty and we didn’t know, Efan’s phone had very little charge. Mine, of course, was still at home in Wales.
Why, in the name of all the gods, I thought there would be one airport hotel and one shuttle bus I couldn’t tell you. When I saw how many buses and how many hotels there were I freaked the heck out.
Conversations with various shuttle bus drivers resulted in utter confusion, and probably dinner-table stories about crazy foreigners who thought there was only one hotel in Hoofdorp.
Yes, it would have been better if I’d written the name of the hotel on my itinerary, but I had not a thought in my head that whispered I needed to. How could there possibly be more than one hotel, right?
That was when we checked up on the Epc group to find we were unable to locate any mention of the name of the hotel, either in the group or on the website. The only thing we found was a banner from last year mentioning the Hotel Berlin, which caused hilarious confusion for a while until we realized it was last year’s banner.
With Efan’s phone on its last legs we messaged Marc and Dani and eventually got the name of the hotel, just at the hotel bus was pulling in. Thank the gods we were on our way at last.
By the time we got to the hotel, which was called the Van Der Valk by the way – dut dut duh, dut dut duh, dut dut dutututut duh, dut dut duh dut dut dutdut duh. Duh dutut duh dututututut duh dutut uh duh dutut dutut duh – Van Der Valk Theme – I was strung out, freaking out and worn out.
Dani was great, and settled us both down with our lanyards and coffee. We hid behind a pillar and Nora Phoenix gave us our first smiles of welcome, and that steadied me no end.
Having arrived over two hours late, not entirely the fault of our tussle with the shuttle bus – we’d missed the opening and dived straight into a panel on diversity. It was very interesting and something that came into my mind a lot over the course of the weekend. We all think of ourselves as embracing diversity, being a welcoming and supportive community, but are we? Labels can be bad, but they can be important too. We all need to find where we fit, and in order to do that, we have to find the labels that fit. Once we’ve done that, we tend to hold on to them. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so good.
One of the things talked about was that we have a responsibility to the people who are still lost, still seeking, young and old. It took me over fifty years to find where I fit, and I’m still learning about it. Part of the reason for that was because I never felt welcome enough in any community to explore. People seem to feel more comfortable saying “you don’t fit here” than “let’s see if we can help you fit here.”
Another panel both Efan and I thoroughly enjoyed was the research panel. I never realized my fellow authors would go to so much trouble to get research absolutely right. To be honest, I don’t think I would ever find the courage to contact the FBI or write to scientists or the military, to answer a question for my story. I think it goes hand in hand with my persistent nagging doubts about being a “real” author.
One of the first things that happened at the first break was meeting up with Kia (aka Rosa and Emmy), whom I absolutely adore and love to bits (that’s a weird saying but I’m going with it). That she was actually looking for me was everything. You’ll understand more about why later, I think.
I have to say that I loved Kia’s table best of them all. You could buy lovely, inspiring words and phrases, then colour them in rainbow colours. And then, of course, there were the books. I had a present and a rainbow dedication on Her Elysium. Spoilt 😀
I could talk for a long, long time about lunch. It was buffet style but like no other buffet I’ve ever been to. Oh my gosh, so much food. Hot food, cold food, green food, creamy food, fishy food, fruity food, delish chocolatey food. As much as you want as often as you want, with am-a-zing coffee. So smooth. Was the food the highlight of my weekend? Er…mayyybeeee.
After lunch, we found some plug sockets downstairs and Efan settled in to charge all our electrical equipment. I sat with him for a while, feeling overwhelmed, but it was the book fair that afternoon, so I had to make an effort. Why? Let me explain.
One of the reasons I decided to attend Epc as a reader and not an author was because of my experience of books fayres at previous meets. Having spent a lot of time and energy planning tables and treats, little touches to entice and work as talking points, it destroyed a little bit of my soul when no one came. On one occasion, I shared a table with a popular author. Her side of the table thronged the whole time, but only one person talked to me, even though I did all the really hard things, like smile and try to make eye contact.
That might sound like whining, but it was a reason. A reason why I didn’t attend as an author, and a reason why I’d promised myself I would attend the book fayre and somehow find the courage to talk to every single author who didn’t have anyone at their table. I tried really hard, and I think I did manage to talk to most, although “talk” might be a euphemism. I suffer from acute social anxiety and when I talk I babble the first thing that comes into my head, which is usually a load of bollocks.
I did, actually, have some good conversations. In particular, it was awesome to speak to Blaine Arden, who I adore. She’s an amazing person and I’m comfortable enough to almost not babble with her.
I’m aware that when I’m in social situations, especially when I’m trying to speak to new people or be courageous in what I say or who I speak to, I come across as very stiff and probably quite odd. That’s because I am – odd that is, but I have to admit that I ticked a box in the social interaction category that afternoon, and felt rather pleased with myself.
It’s strange how many authors have issues with social interactions. I had a lovely meal with Olivia Helling being terribly socially awkward with each other.
There were quite a few times over the weekend when I felt safe enough to approach other authors. Some, I still feel safe with, others not so much. I don’t blame them, because they’re probably struggling with the same things, but it is as it is, and it’s the reason I’ve decided not to attend any more conferences or get-togethers. I know networking is important, but so is my mental health.
On Sunday, we arrived without lanyards because we’d both forgotten them. Bless her, Dani didn’t bat an eyelid and provided us with new ones straight away. We took the opportunity to pretty up our names with rainbow colours.
We missed the readings, so the first panel we went to was the polyamory panel. It was fascinating because we had a friend who’s polyamorous and we’ve heard about it from her perspective, which is different to that presented by the panellists, so it was good to get another facet to the diamond.
My favourite panel of all – the 3D art panel – took place that afternoon. I loved every minute but I’m very worried about the DAZ suite because I’m so tempted to dive into it and so afraid I won’t find my way out for a very long time.
I have to say that my least favourite part of the weekend was the raffle. I hate raffles. I usually sit frozen in fear, praying my number won’t be called, because that walk from my seat to the prize table with everyone looking at me is excruciating. This time, there was no escape because everyone got a prize so it was just a matter of waiting for the axe to fall. I survived though.
Did I enjoy myself at the conference? Yes. Was I glad when it was over? Yes. Will I go again? No. Not to this one or any other. As conferences go Epc truly is amazing, and next year will be their 5th anniversary so bound to be special. I would not, under any circumstances want anyone to be put off by my experience because that was just my experience as someone with extreme social anxiety and lots of communication issues. All around me people were meeting each other, chatting, eating together and getting to know each other. I’m sure that’s the more usual experience.
Anyway, on Sunday afternoon, we hugged Dani and wandered out of the hotel to wait for the bus. it wasn’t as hot as the previous day and it was pleasant to sit in the shade listening to the people around with all their different accents.
Arriving back at Central Station, we couldn’t find the right tram back, which was because it was a bus, and this was the point at which I realized that. Well no, the point when I realized that was after we’d had a really nice meal in the restaurant attached to the information center.
As an aside, it struck me as odd that the information centre at Central Station, attached to a small museum about the history of Central Station, did not sell so much as a postcard with a train on it. One of our friends’ son loves all things train related and we really did have a good look around but there was absolutely nothing here, or on the station itself that bore any relation to trains. In fact, there was nothing in the whole of Amsterdam that was train related. Plenty of trams and board, but no trains. Oh well.
The meal, by the way, was amazing. Efan had a burger and I had a poke bowl, which I thought had something to do with Pokemon but was actually a bowl of rice with lots of raw vegetables – shredded carrot and beetroot, soya beans etc. It also had raw tuna which I discovered I hate.
On the way out of the restaurant, we met a beautiful dog that made Efan’s whole day, and I also found an interesting option for a cruise next time we come to Amsterdam
By the time we got home, we were exhausted so we had a shower, put our pyjamas on and just lazed around for the rest of the evening
Breakfast at The Belgrove was, like the room, basic but quite nice. The dining room was sunny and bright, in the old servants quarters of the old Victorian townhouse. We were below street level with quaint white wrought iron steps and a tiny little garden outside the french doors.
After breakfast, we headed back to the station and located the correct platform for the Eurostar train. It was absolute chaos. People were queueing for security and passport control, a train was holding for some of the passengers who were still in the queue, people were panicking and staff were frustrated. My anxiety hit a level where I nearly had a panic attack.
Fortunately, I was able to go to the assistance desk and ask for help. The response could not have been more different to what Cardiff and Paddington had to offer. A beautiful lady in a smart uniform, immediately reassured me that she would take care of everything, then radioed for someone to take us through the fast-track. An uncommunicative (I think he was French and didn’t understand our Wenglish too well) but extremely efficient young man, directed us through security, then sailed past the crowds to show our passports and before we knew it we were through and in the departure lounge. He settled us, showed us where to go when our train was called and checked we were fine and didn’t need anything else before leaving us with instructions to text our assistance number if we were worried about anything.
Absolutely nothing went wrong and we were able to locate our carriage and seats with no problems at all. I was feeling quite smug as we settled into our seats. Being completely honest here, as two large people, with me in the outside seat, there was some hangover, and I had to have the armrest up. I was making some last minute adjustments just as the guard/driver walked past. Sad to report but his balls were given an intimate, and quite unexpected, introduction to my elbow. He was very nice about it, but it had to hurt.
I can’t honestly say it was the most comfortable journey I’ve ever taken, but that was hardly Eurostar’s problem. Two extremely large people, on a terribly hot day, with outbreaks of social anxiety and a claustrophobe trying to cope with 75,000 feet of earth and a whole load of water over her head, make for interesting travelling at the best of times. At least I didn’t try to castrate anyone else.
As we drew closer to Brussels my anxiety ramped up. This was the part that made me most nervous. Changing trains in a completely different country in just under an hour. Sure, an hour seems like a lot of time, but when you walk like I do it’s not much when there’s a lot of ground to cover. I had tried to arrange assistance, but there were problems with the online application forms, and I’m not able to telephone.
When it came down to it, however, it couldn’t have been easier. The announcer on the train, who could either have been a woman or the man I’d emotionally and physically scarred, (adding another octave to his voice range) told us which platform the ongoing train would be leaving from, as well as the number of the train. We got off the train, followed everyone down an escalator into a sparkling white concourse, then easily located the signs for the platform. A short lift journey had us on the correct platform in plenty of time.
In fact, there was so much time to spare that, feeling brave, we went back down into the concourse and had great fun buying bottled water from a vending machine that took debit cards. (I might not have had quite so much fun if I’d realized that every time I used my credit card I was charged a transaction fee. Something to note for future European trips)
It was just as easy to find our carriage and seat, which were slightly larger than those on the Eurostar train (This one was Thalys) so were even more comfortable. As we were settling, a gentleman in uniform came up to us and asked our names. Rather startled, I told him and he apologised that he had not been able to locate us sooner and show us to our seats. Apparently, the application for assistance had gone through after all. After more apologizing for something that was definitely not his fault, or anyone’s really, he left promising more assistance in Amsterdam.
The journey was pleasant, and I dozed until I woke myself snoring, then didn’t dare to do it anymore. I learned my lesson the Christmas I dozed off after lunch and had my own flesh and blood post a video on social media.
When we arrived in Amsterdam Central Station, two ladies were waiting for us when we got off the train. The gentleman from before must have radioed our description, because they came right to us and helped me off the train, which was lovely because I was stiff from all the traveling (We got on the train in Paddington at 9 and got off the train in Amsterdam at about 3).
They asked us where we wanted to go then took us straight to the taxi rank. After checking out our destination (which I’d written out on the itinerary, they gave instructions to the taxi driver, then shook our hands before we got in. They’d smiled the whole time. They were so lovely and friendly and approachable. Well done Amsterdam Central. The award for the best assistance goes to you with stars on.
The taxi took us straight to the apartment where we would be staying and offered to help with our cases, but I volunteered Efan, because he’s a big, strong boy and could do with the exercise. I might not have been so quick to rope him in if I’d known about the two flights of stairs that were so narrow I almost touched the sides. Somehow, however, we both made it in once piece.
We were renting a room through Airbnb. Our hosts Chiara and Mendel were absolutely charming. I can’t express how lovely they are. They’re young, sweet, in love, and have a beautiful home and amazing ginger cat called Flash. Flash and Efan instantly fell in love with each other and Efan had a constant companion when we were at home.
Our room was light and airy, with a balcony we could walk out onto, and a rail that was more than big enough to hang all our clothes. There were very few rules, but tons of helpful tips, hints, and recommendations. The flat was beautiful. It had hardwood floors throughout, a massive, curved balcony in the main room, and a very calming ambience. I have to wonder though by what magic they managed to get the solid furniture up the stairs.
We soon discovered they have their ways. On our first venture into town we saw police and ambulance cordoning off part of a road. At first, we thought there’d been an accident, but finally worked out that someone was moving into an apartment on the third floor, taking the furniture up by winch, onto to the balcony and through the window.
After introductions with Chaira, Mendel and Flash, we went out in search of food, and conversion plugs in order to charge our electronics. We’d have been properly in the shi…er…in some difficulty if we hadn’t found one. Yeah, there were some ways, more of which you will discover later, where my meticulous preparations were pathetically incomplete.
We had intended to wander a little way to find somewhere to eat. However, I cannot express enough how hot it was. It was so hot my nose melted. Well, maybe not melted but burned enough to shine and peel like crazy. Not far from the apartment, we found a small square with the kind of fountain that has no bowl, just little jets of water shooting out of the pavement. The fountain was skirted, on one side, by some large trees shading wooden benches. We decided to find something to take away, then sit under a tree, watching children have fun in the water.
Fortunately, as I was melting at every step, we found both a phone shop that sold conversion plugs, and a pizza place with the most am-a-zing takeaway pizza within a very short distance. I also had my first taste of ice-cold Lipton’s Iced Tea, which was beyond amazing given what a damn hot day it was.
We took our pizza and drinks back to the square and sat under a tree. That was when I discovered my melting nose and that the top of my head was also beginning to burn. We therefore decided not to stick around for long. I’d promised Efan an icecream from a little kiosk in the square, so I went to raise some euros because I only had twenties. I thought if I rose fifty I’d get a ten, because who pays for ice cream with a twenty? Not even that was easy because the cashpoint gave me fifty. What bloody cashpoint does that? The ones in Amsterdam apparently. As it turned out, the whole exercise was wasted in any event, because the kiosk sold seafood, not ice cream. Not even seafood ice cream.
After we’d eaten, it was about half-past four. We had a boat trip booked for seven, so we decided to take a taxi to dock, then have a stroll along the canal until it was time to board. When we got there, however, it was too hot to stroll anywhere, so we sat on a bench for two hours, stressing about whether we were in the right page, and whether we should go across the bridge to get something to eat from one of the restaurants on the other side.
In the end, we procrastinated for so long it was too late and it was time to board the boat.
We’d originally booked for a pizza dinner cruise but I’d received an email while on the train that morning, that the boat had overbooked, so we booked a different one that didn’t include dinner but had a historical narration. In the end, I’m glad we picked this one because it was fascinating.
It is very tempting to go into some of Amsterdam’s fascinating history, but this is going to be a long post as it is. Maybe I’ll do a separate post later. In the meantime, here are the photographs.
It was a great trip and we finally managed to relax after all the tension and anxiety of the trip. It helped that I got a free glass of wine.
After getting off the boat, we decided to check out the restaurants. Efan was immediately drawn by the sushi restaurant, so we headed over. A glance at the menu had me shaking in my shoes. A light lunch was 25 euros and a five-course meal was 58 euros. I figured that would sit a modest dinner with drinks at around the 35 – 40 euros each, and I just didn’t have 80 euros to spend on dinner the first night. I hated to disappoint Efan, but that wasn’t happening.
We looked around half heartedly, but everything was so busy. In the end, we decided to walk back toward the apartment and see what was going on. Bad move. Walking is not something I do. Pain is not the word to describe what I was feeling after five minutes.
Efan spotted a Japanese restaurant, but we couldn’t cross the road. I know it sounds simple, but when you factor in trams, busses and bicycle lanes it’s a dangerous endeavour without a designated crossing. Actually, even walking along a pavement can be dangerous, as I demonstrated aptly by almost killing at least two people by knocking them off their bikes. One of them, a small but wiry Japanese lady was definitely not impressed. Trust me, if I could have I would have run.
In the end, we found our way to a little cafe. I had no idea what food it served, but it was close and there was space inside, so we went in. It turned out to be a Turkish restaurant, and I can’t say enough good things about it.
It’s called Fifty Cafe in Overtoom 85, Amsterdam.
We took away some chocolate Moofins (which I thought were some kind of special Turkish cake, but turned out to be muffins with a really cute accent). I confused the poor waitress constantly. I mean, fair play, not only did she have to cope with me speaking English, but it was actually Wenglish, warn it butt?
After a fabulous experience in Fifty, we took a taxi home and collapsed into bed. Day 1 was pretty eventful, for sure.
I write LGBT+ books, mainly for young adults (13 – 18) or new adults (18 – 25). the difference is YA had no sex and NA has a bit of sex. Although all my books are published through publishers, they are small “indie” presses which mean I effectively have to handle marketing and promotion myself. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what publishers do for us once the books are “out there”.
I have no shame in saying that I am completely clueless and useless at marketing and promotion. I try soooo hard, but most of my efforts go down the tubes because I’m not directing my energy in a focused way, in the right direction. I know this, and that’s why I keep running off in different directions, trying to find “the one”, which isn’t easy given a) I’m broke and b) I am still frightened of technology and basically clueless as to how it works. I guess the same can be said of marketing and promotion as a whole.
One thing I did pick up was the importance of networking. The LGBT+ writing community runs various conferences through the year which are effectively networking conferences. Most are unavailable to me because they are in America but there is usually one in the UK and one in Europe that are accessible to me. I have now been to three UK Meets, so I decided this year to try the European once. Hence Efan and I headed off to Amsterdam for Euro Pride Conference 2018).
I am a complete control freak. From the minute I passed my driving test I was the designated driver. First, because I don’t drink much (I don’t like the feeling of being drunk and out of control), and secondly I always had the car to ensure I was able to go home when I wanted without having to rely on anyone or public transport. When I go on any trip I have to plan ahead and make sure I know the route, where to park, have the hotel reservations confirmed etc. I’m very good at making spontaneous decisions to travel, but only if it gets planned the hell out of once the decision is made.
True to form, I arranged the accommodation, in Amsterdam, spoke with the person we rented off, google mapped it and logged everything from address to distance from Central Station to local landmarks.
I heard that Eurostar (the train that goes through the Channel Tunnel are now running to Amsterdam, so with my fear of flying, it seemed the logical conclusion to travel by train. One problem was that there wasn’t a direct train at the times we wanted so we had to take one that changes in Brussels. That complicated things.
With Efan and I both suffering from extreme social anxiety travel was always going to be a nightmare so I tried to minimise it as much as possible by planning ahead, with assistance. The journey was in four legs. Cardiff to Paddington (train). Paddington to Kings Cross/St Pancras (underground). St Pancras to Brussels Midi (train). Brussels to Amsterdam (train).
With the help of the inimitable Zara, my amazing support worker, we arranged support at Cardiff Station to help us get on the train, Paddington to help us get to the underground, Kings Cross to help us board the train, Brussels to help with the connection. I wrote a detailed itinerary of train times, assistance numbers etc etc. Amsterdam TripAmsterdam Trip Back With all that done, we were as ready as we were ever going to be.
The day started well enough with a lie-in and a leisurely lunch at our favourite Deli. We dropped the dog off at the animal hotel (their words, not mine, although it is a very nice kennel, which is why we always board Bella there). As usual, she was all bounce getting in and out of the car, couldn’t wait to get down to reception to meet her human friends there, but as soon as she started to walk toward the kennel block she planted her ass in the dust until I walked with the handler into the block, after which she trotted off happily.
We had arranged to leave my car outside my cousin’s house while we were away, so there was someone to at least check it hadn’t been stolen every day. Because we were due to return in the early hours of the morning, I handed over a spare key to the car and took the main bunch with us. I would then simply drive off the car when we got back without having to wake them. I had the spare key tucked into a plastic folder in Efan’s messenger back which I borrowed for the occasion. Along with the keys were our itineraries for each day, all the tickets (Eurostar ones I printed off), booking confirmation for the hotel we were staying in that night, and our accommodation in Amsterdam, oh and our passports.
Things soured a little when we hit traffic to the point we were almost fifteen minutes late getting to my cousin’s house and late getting to the station. This wasn’t a problem per se, as we had been asked to be there half an hour early to meet the person who would be assisting us.
After a tense drive through rush-hour traffic, we arrived at the car park to find most of it blocked off. We got permission to go through the bollards, because of my disabled badge, and finally got out of the car and into the station. We asked first a surly ticket seller who seemed only to know how to grunt and head-point, who head-pointed us to a much nicer lady in a smart uniform with a walkie talkie. She summoned our knight in
shining armour a bright orange reflective vest.
Oh my goodness. From the moment I first saw him lumbering toward us, I was intimidated the hell out of there by him. To be fair, I’m pretty sure he had no idea of this, and while he was not exactly friendly, he wasn’t unkind in any way. He rushed us through a tunnel, telling us he had someone else to help so we should hurry. It was while I was
running hell-for-leather limping at a snail’s pace along the corridor, that Efan’s phone rang. My cousin informed me I’d left my phone in the car. Our assistant wasn’t best pleased but finally conceded that Efan could go back for the phone if he hurried. Efan was so flustered he had a mini meltdown so, long story short, we headed off on our adventure without my cellphone. Just great!
The station platform was hectic and I panicked straight away. We were led to a platform filled with people waiting for a train to Plymouth, then abandoned with the promise he would return before the train departed. I’ve had promises like that before and ended up almost stranded, so I wasn’t about to depend on this one. I therefore stressed out, checking and re-checking boards, trying to hear conversations, and straining for the tannoy, all while trying to be calm and cheerful for Efan.
A message came over the tannoy that the train everyone was waiting for had been changed to a different platform, and they all made a run for it, which left me panicking about what would happen if they moved our train. I don’t do running.
Something came over the tannoy about our train but I couldn’t understand it, neither could Efan. The board was showing that the train was due but there was no sign. I was getting more and more frazzled, searching for our assistant who was nowhere in sight. Finally, the train pulled in and the assistant arrived just in time to show us to the right carriage – something we would have been capable of doing ourselves. I can’t help but think they misunderstood the meaning of “assistance” in this case. It wasn’t about hauling a case into a carriage, it was about not leaving us abandoned on the platform freaking out about the crowds and not knowing what was happening with the train. Not the best start.
When we got to our seats there was someone else in one of them. They were table seats, so there were four seats in all. We were supposed to be facing each other across the table, next to the window, but there was an elderly gentlemen in one of the window seats. No way was I ever going to tell him he was in the wrong seat, so we sat down next to each other and stressed whether the person whose sat I had taken would show up. Thankfully, they didn’t.
About ten minutes into a three hour journey there was an announcement that the air conditioning in our coach wasn’t working and we were advised to find a seat in another carriage. Given that our tickets say they are only valid if we sit in our assigned seat, we both suffered great stress and anxiety in deciding whether to go or not. In fact we were so stressed we were hilarious. I kept thinking of the three crows in Dumbo. “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”, “I don’t know, what do you think….” We finally moved and it was, indeed, much cooler.
Upon arrival at Paddington Station, we had no clue what to do.
Fortunately, we found a large button that said “press for assistance”, which I did. A loud voice boomed out, scaring the crap out of me, asking what we wanted. I was completely tongue-tied and didn’t know what to say. I burbled something, he couldn’t understand me, I couldn’t understand him, he got cross and I started to cry. He said “hold on”.
We held on for a while but when nothing happened, we decided to just try to find our way to the underground by ourselves. The crowds had thinned a bit and I was feeling braver. We were about to head off when our knight in
shining armour yellow reflective vest, arrived, mounted on a mighty steed golf cart.
By this time, I was more or less unable to speak, so babbled like an idiot until he loaded us on board and we headed off, in what I hoped was the right direction.
After a few weird twists and turned, we were turned out in a quiet, empty corner and our strong but silent driver disappeared off
into the sunset up a ramp.
Fortunately, the empty corner wasn’t entirely empty in that it contained a set of turnstiles into the underground. After a moment of blind panic that our tickets wouldn’t work (they did) we were through and a very nice (and exceedingly cute) young man with the most amazing waist-length dreads explained exactly where to go and what to do, which we immediately did and within minutes found ourselves on a subway train, heading around the Circle Line on our way to King’s Cross. It was much easier than we’d been led to believe, which is always so much better than being harder, and in no time we were on Kings Cross station.
Our plan was, to find a taxi to take us to the hotel we were staying in, in order to break up the journey. Of course, we couldn’t find a taxi rank and realized that even if we did, we had no money to pay. At this point, all our cash was in euros. We decided to have something to eat and locate a cashpoint to raise some paper money. (Actually, I’m not sure we can still distinguish paper and plastic, because even the paper is now plastic, but hey)
As we left the station, a very sweet, older gentleman approached us for change. Ordinarily, I would have given, especially as we were off on an expedition I’d spent enough on to feed the poor guy, and probably his family too, for a year. However, as previously mentioned we were penniless and I doubted he would have taken plastic. I asked him to wait and hurried into a nearby shop to get him some hot food. Of course, the shop was about to close and had no hot food, so we grabbed some snack food and a few bottles of water. By the time we came out the man had gone. Great.
For some reason, the disappearance of our homeless friend sent me into a panic. We were abandoned in London, unable to locate a taxi and with no money to pay for one if we did.
Spotting a HSBC bank across the road, next to a Burger King, we decided to take some cash out of the bank, then have something to eat at Burger King then book a taxi online while we ate. Yay. We had a plan.
The cashpoints were all out of order. Panic sets in. Let’s cure it with burger and cheesy bites. Oh, and I’m bursting to pee too. Joy, layered upon joy. The toilets were locked. Worst of all, there were no milkshakes.
Our luck turned with the arrival of the cheesy bites which were delayed a little. We learned from the man who brought them to the table that the toilets were open for customers, they just had to press a button to let me in, which they did. The door was opened by a delightful young man who said it was his pleasure to hold the door open for such a lovely young lady. Yeah, alright, put the sick bucket down. It did lighten the burden a bit though.
When I got back, we returned to the task of booking a taxi. It seems that all black cabs accept plastic, and so do Uber. We weren’t, however, able to work out how to book either, not without trying and filling in my details about a hundred times. Eventually, I asked Efan to look up how far the hotel was to walk, because it hadn’t looked that far on a map. Google maps said 5 minutes. After mulling it over, we decided to walk. Or rather, Efan walked, I hobbled because of course my stick was still in the boot of the car, along with our coats.
We followed the little line of dots on Efan’s phone to the corner of the street and…um…okay, the hotel was MUCH closer than we’d thought and wasn’t in fact 5 minutes walk, even for me. Not that I’m complaining, even though I’d acquired quite a few more grey hairs over the whole taxi thing. At least we had some snacks to eat in our hotel room.
I won’t lie, it was pretty basic, but it was as clean as an old house can be, and the bed was very comfortable. In any event, I was so tired I would have been happy to crash anywhere.
Of course, I’d forgotten to pack our nightclothes and the clothes for Day 2 separately, so we had to rummage, then Efan dropped the open case off the end of the bed. Sod it. We stuffed everything back in temporarily, had a shower (I HAD to, just because it was there) and went to bed.
Day Two to follow shortly
I have never been to a “Murder Mystery” dinner, although I have always wanted to. I envisaged it being a Cluedo-type event with everyone sitting around a table in 1920’s costume being very serious, rather like a game of Dungeons and Dragons.
When I received an invite from a carers support group I belong to, to attend an Alice In Wonderland themed murder mystery, I was intrigued, to say the least. I managed to persuade my friend, Annamarie to go with me but sadly she drew the line at dressing up. Not so many of the other guests. I was absolutely blown away by some of the costumes.
The setting was Miskin Manor, a beautiful hotel/spa on the M4 turnoff near Talbot Green. I’ve passed the entrance many times but had never been there before. It really is a beautiful place.
When we first arrived I was impressed, but a little intimidated by a knot of folk in the most amazing costumes. At first, I thought they might be actors but they turned out to be guests just like us (only braver).
Inside, the dining room was the most impressive I’ve been in for a long time.
I didn’t take any photos of the tables because if you’ve seen one restaurant table you’ve seen them all, and to be honest these weren’t the most inspiring.
On each table, was a pamphlet containing all kinds of information. There were snippets, reports, advertisements and puzzles.
Even as we were taking our seats, actors began mingling. The scene was the anniversary dinner for Queen Alice of Wonderland. We were all attending the celebration at which she was due to announce some new laws. The initial cast of characters
The Red Queen
Humpty Dumpty (head of the army)
I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of Humpty who was a bigger queen than all the others combined 😀
Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
wandered around, totally in character, chatting and dropping hints that only became obvious later. I can recommend to anyone who attends one of these events to mark every single word, and never think they know who did it, or even who it was going to be done to, until the end.
I’m not going to spoil the surprise by telling you who died or who dunnit in case you ever go to see the show yourself, but I can say this. The clues were pretty clear, but we were led up the garden path so many times and slapped in the face with so many red herrings we ended up not being able to see the wood for walrus (who sadly was unable to attend).
Later in the evening, we were joined by the lovely White Queen, who had escaped from her watchers and come in search of fresh blood. If any man in the room had been safe from the Red Queen, he certainly wasn’t from her mother the White Queen.
The plot was so thick I could have stirred my coffee with it – if I had a coffee. Tea and coffee were conspicuous by their absence. I’ve never been for a meal in a fancy restaurant where they haven’t offered tea or coffee afterwards. It was the tin hat on what had been a singularly uninspiring meal. To be perfectly honest, the meal was the blight on the proceedings. It is the only reason I might hesitate to go to another event there. I can’t recommend it as a pure dining experience for sure.
I had the vegetarian option which turned out to be what the Red Queen helpfully described as a “donkey dick”. Basically, it was a giant spring roll stuffed with some kind of slimy green sauce stuff and really weird mushrooms that had me worried the whole thing had been infected by an alien spore. I THINK they were Enoki. At least that’s the closest picture I can find. At first, I thought there had been a mistake and there was chicken in there, then I cut it open and I couldn’t eat any more. This is a case where trying to be fancy shot them in the foot.
It would have been better if there had been more vegetables to compensate but all they had were two dishes, smaller than dinner plates, bearing carrots, extremely soft roast parsnips and very dry cauliflower cheese. This was between 7 people. There would have been nine, but two didn’t turn up. Again, this was the first time I have attended a dinner at a fancy restaurant where there weren’t plentiful vegetables and the option of more.
Dessert was sticky toffee pudding, which was okay until I choked on date skin. And then no coffee 😦
Thankfully, the wonderful players of Smoke and Mirrors
took my mind of the distinctly lacklustre food and I was too absorbed into the story to really care much what I ate, a fact the establishment probably counted on because I can’t see them getting away with serving food like that very often. I even got talking to strangers which was a big step out of my comfort zone.
My one regret is that my social anxiety and awkwardness didn’t allow me to get as involved with the actors and my fellow diners as I would have liked, but that was never going to happen and the small steps I took was a big deal for me.
At the end, the best contribution by a guest was rewarded with a box of chocolates, and the best sleuth was awarded with a bottle of champagne. I’m pleased to report that we got the murderer and the murder weapon, but got a little skewed on the motive. It was a satisfying end to a wonderful evening.
After the performance wound down, the actors stayed around to chat generally and to have their picture taken. I was sorry to leave, but at least I didn’t try to rip the underside of my car off with the massive, stealthy sleeping policemen, as I almost did on the way in. Thank goodness for Ann’s eagle eyes.
I have to say that more lights and some signposts would have been nice as that place is not as easy to get out of as it might seem, but we made it back onto the A4119 in one piece, and from thence home. A good night was had by all and I am still buzzing. I want more!
For more information on Smoke and Mirrors, who also do bespoke (that’s made-to-measure for us commoners) events for parties of 10 to hundreds, in locations from castles to living rooms
A friend recently introduced me to the art of genealogy, and of course it’s become an obsession. Thanks to Ancestry.co.uk and Find My Past I’ve discovered a lot, not only about my family history, but the history of the valley where I live. The above photograph is the main street of my town in around 1910. The building on the right with the white columns is Barclays Bank which is the first place I worked after leaving school. It’s now a children’s day care center.
Although there is evidence of occupation in the Rhondda since Neolithic times, and there is plenty of evidence for settlements throughout subsequent history, with an Iron Age hillfort, medieval earthworks, two castles and even an abbey.
Until the sixteenth century Penrhys, on a mountain overlooking where I live, was one of the holiest places for Catholic pilgrims in Wales. This was due mainly to the Holy Well. The well was originally a spring, sacred to the goddess Brigid, who is responsible for holy wells generally and healing in particular.
There is a legend that, at some point, a statue of the Virgin Mary appeared in a tree beside the well. No one was able to take it out of the tree until a building was erected to house it, so a little chapel was built where the statue was housed until 1538 when, during the dissolution of the monasteries it was taken to London and the chapter burned to the ground.
The chapel didn’t stay down for long and was rebuilt before of the end of the century where it remains to this day
Near the chapel, higher up the mountain was a monastery which included a dormitory for travelling pilgrims. Although not technically a monastery in its own right, but a manor of the Cistercian abbey in Llantarnam, it became very prosperous, probably due to this enterprise.
It wasn’t until the discovery of coal during the industrial revolution that Rhondda really took of though. In 1801 it had a population of under 1000 people, by 1901 that had risen to over 100,000 with immigrants from all over Wales, the south of England and even Italy. There are still a fair number of Italian cafes and fish and chip shops scattered around. Italian ice cream is a particular favourite.
It seems as if most of my family come from either mid Wales or Somerset, its members migrating to the Rhondda during the heyday of the mining industry. The Somerset contingent were both coal and tin miners, while the Welsh contingent were farmers. One of my relatives by marriage was a warden at Brixham Prison in London, but by and large once we arrived in Rhondda we stayed here. From the start of coal mining in Rhondda to the very end, my family were miners.
Contemporaneous reports compare the Rhondda to a “wild west” town, with mud streets and a godless population. Houses were cramped and close together with its characteristic terraces of miners’ cottages, one of which I live in today.
In the mid-eighteenth century a cholera epidemic swept through South Wales. The cramped and dirty conditions were an ideal breeding ground for the terrible disease. During the worst outbreak in 1842 over 50,000 people in England and Wales died.
The cholera epidemic was followed by a breakout of smallpox, so severe a separate isolation hospital was built in Penrhys in 1907.
Another illness which badly affected the valleys was influenza of which my great grandfather died in 1901.
My great-grandfather, John James Hughes is the one in the center, with my grandfather, John Robert Evans is the good looking on to his right (our left). All of the men in this photograph were miners.
John Robert Evans
One of the major causes of death among young men in Rhondda was coal mining accidents. The Senghenedd disaster in October 1913 killed over 400 men and wiped out families leaving women and children destitute. 60 victims were under 20 years old with some as young as 14.
Due to the dreadful conditions of the “wild west” and the godless nature of the miners (although I suspect much had to do with encouraging the miners to work harder and suffer the conditions with a better grace) the valleys were ripe for evangelism and there were two “great” revivals, one in 1869 and a bigger one in 1904.
In the run up to the great revival my great grandmother’s brother, David Leyshon, became an evangelist and in the late 1800’s, he travelled to Lancashire where, in the 1901 census his occupation is listed as “evangelist”. He returned to the Rhondda in 1904 after the tragic death, in a mining accident” of his brother William (23 years old). His wife, Annie, remained in Lancashire where their daughter was born in 1906. In the 1911 census, Annie was living alone with the children in Lancashire.
My father started work in the mines at 14. He’d been successful in obtaining an apprenticeship as a car mechanic but the family needed his income. As apprenticeships were unpaid he had no alternative but to turn to mining. He retained his love of cars all his life and spent a lot of time under the bonnet of a car, not always successfully to my mother’s annoyance.
My parents John Samuel and Marion Evans, with my grandmother Mary Jane Hughes (wife of John Robert Evans) and aunt Audrey Olwen Evans (Leigh)
And then there was me
So, it’s over. All the hype, the stress, the rushing around. All the glitter and fakery and terrible films. All the smiles and “Merry Christmas”‘s. All the friends and family (well, they’re still there but let’s face it we only make the effort at Christmas).
I love Christmas. I mean really love everything about it. I love watching cheesy Christmas films, all the tinsel and glitter, even my least favourite jobs of writing cards and wrapping presents. It’s all part of the excitement, the sheer joy of living a little faster, a little brighter, a little more social.
And now it’s over.
I am sunk in the post Christmas melancholy that always starts a new year for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy or depressed, just a little sad, a little listless, a little wistful.
I’ve been very lucky in that all my Christmases so far have been good ones. There has always been enough of everything – presents, food, good company. My decorations are cherished and all hold pleasant memories. Even my cats sit and stare at them sometimes, without feeling the need to mess with them. Well, one of them did pee on the wrapping bag a year or two ago but I’m sure people didn’t mine their wrapping paper smelling slightly of cat urine.
The prospect of taking down the trimmings is a daunting one. There’s a lot of work involved and it’s not as rewarding as putting them up. Having said that, I will enjoy the memories as I pack and January is about the only time I ever feel my house is relatively uncluttered. That’s what comes of being someone with a lot of “stuff” in a tiny cottage.
I’m not a hoarder by any means (at least that’s what I tell myself) but when you add up the books, the witchy stuff and a seventeen-year-old son there’s not a flat surface in the house that isn’t crowded.
Looking back on this Christmas, I’ve had some lovely times. In the run-up we went Christmas shopping twice with friends (to Cwmbran and Chepstow, both of which pleasantly surprised me), visited Winter Wonderland (which was a complete bust for reasons), watched far too many cheesy films, and filled the house with beautiful things.
I even tried my hand at making some beautiful things as a craft project for a friend.
We spend Christmas Eve with my daughter and her housemate and had such a great time. We were royally spoiled with a feast that would have fed an army (to be technically correct it would have to be a really small one, who wouldn’t mind living for a while on a handful of Pringles and a sausage roll, but the point is there was more than enough for us).
We played Cards Against Humanity and Truth Bombs which turned out to be not as shocking as we thought it might. It seems we all know each other too well. We played the same game the following day and it didn’t turn out quite as well. (sorry Linda for starting the complaining thing).
On Christmas Eve we picked up my cousin’s son who stayed with us until Boxing Day. His mother joined us Christmas Day. What a brilliant Christmas Day! Not only did we have great company but my son cooked Christmas Dinner and it was spectacular.
Efan likes to cook. Mostly, he likes to bake but when he cooks his attention to detail has ensured there has been very little we’ve been unable to eat, if anything. For Christmas Dinner this year he decided, instead of the purely traditional he would make a “Winter Veil Feast” from his World of Warcraft Cookbook, followed by cinnamon and butterscotch pie inspired by the PC game, Undertale.
Think herby turkey cooked in cider with rough-chopped onion and…stuff. (I wasn’t allowed to interfere so don’t know the details. I do know that we bought more alcohol this Christmas than I have for years and most of it was for ingredients). Add apple and pear stuffing made with wholemeal bread, honeyed carrots, and the usual Christmas vegetables and you have an amazing feast. There was one slight hitch with the gravy, as I’ve never explained to him that in order to activate cornflower you have to heat the liquid, but fortunately we all like thick gravy.
The pie was to die for and we even had snow cookies later on in the day. None of us had any complaints I can assure you.
On Boxing Day, Efan enjoyed another Christmas with his father, and his step-family, and I spent an entire day eating crap and watching films on Efans mahoosive monitor that he’d brought down as we don’t have a television. Somehow my film watching developed a drag queen theme and I was introduced to Cherry Pop and Too Foo Wong and revisited an old favourite The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. To keep my foot in reality I also watched Transamerica which I’d never heard of but absolutely adored.
My greatest regret about this Christmas is that I’ve been too ill to socialise as much as I planned and wanted. I’d planned to visit family I don’t see often, including my sister and niece, but I just wasn’t well enough. I’m still not. I think I’m going to have to stagger visits over the next couple of weeks. I’m so sick of being sick and good health absolutely tops the list of my hopes for 2018.
Later in the week, we had another fabulous day with our friends, and later still a cinema trip with my daughter to see The Greatest Showman. Man what a film. It’s old style musical at its best. Okay, it’s been pointed out that as a social commentry it’s wanting and the “freaks” could have been given a bigger role, but at the end of the day it was meant to be pure entertainment and what lessons it has to teach are secondary rather than of primary concern. I am unashamed and unapologetic to announce myself totally fangirl about the film.
This was my daughter’s “unicorn shake” from our dinner at TGI Fridays after the show. It was so amazing we had to photograph it for posterity.
New Years Eve was spent with my ex and his new family, and given I really wasn’t in the party mood, we ended up having a brilliant time. I really struck lucky in that department. When my ex started seeing the lady who became his wife all I hoped for was that she would be good to my son, I never thought I was about to gain a whole new family. I’m forever thankful, especially as Stacey had promised to include me in the granny flat with her mother when I’m too old to take care of myself. Not that she has a granny flat yet but I’m still hopeful.
And now we’re back to reality, with only a few days left before it’s back to the normal grind of everyday life. I’m hiding in my bubble for just a few days longer with the prospect of a Lord of the Rings/Hobbit marathon still to look forward to.
So that’s about it for my stellar Christmas this year. As I wave goodbye to the sparkle and glitter, start thinking about taking down the trimmings and saving for next year, I can say bye bye and thanks for the time of my life.
Here’s to next year. There are only this many sleeps to Christmas.