Sandybrook Country Park (and a few bits and bobs).

What a truly excellent long weekend! Just what the doctor ordered.

I drove out of work on Thursday afternoon full of the joys of Spring (when the weather was still behaving appropriately for a season beginning with S) knowing that I had three days of rest and relaxation ahead of me.

My long weekend started with a trip to the theatre with hubby. I’d forgotten until a couple of weeks ago that in the deep, dark midst of the January blues I’d booked tickets to see Thriller Live at the Alexandra theatre in Birmingham so we’d have something to look forward to.

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For those who lived under a rock in the 80s, Thriller is an album by Michael Jackson. Now I realise that he’s somewhat of a controversial figure these days (I guess he always was, but for different reasons) but from where I stand, whatever he may or may not have done, (and I guess we’ll never know for sure now) his music is still iconic and I grew up with it. The first album I ever bought (on cassette tape from Woolworths!) was Bad and I loved it.

Anyway, the show was brilliant and really took us back to our school days. I didn’t know if they’d turned his music into a story like they have with We will Rock you did for Queen, or if it was going to be just like a concert. It was somewhere in between. There wasn’t a story but it wasn’t like a normal tribute act either. There are five lead singers, one of whom is a woman, and lots of backing singers/dancers. If you can get past the controversy, I’d highly recommend seeing it for a bit of escapism.

Anyway, on to the main event of the weekend – I was going on a mini break with five girl friends that I’ve known forever. We were heading for a return trip to Sandybrook Country Park near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. It’s a complex of fifty two lodges, ranging from one to four bedrooms, some with hot tub, set on a hill just a short walk away from the Tissington trail. We requested the same lodge, number sixty five, that we had last year. It’s at the top of the hill, one of the furthest away from the entrance so it has lovely views and is relatively quiet with little to disturb you when you’re sat in the hot tub or on the decking.

Last year we went over the early May bank holiday weekend and the weather was glorious. This year, not so much. I took the photos above on Sunday just as we were leaving which was, typically, the nicest day, weather-wise. The rest of the time it was pretty rainy, but there were breaks in the drizzle so we did all get to use the hot tub without being rained on (although some of us are such hardcore hot tub devotees that a bit of rain didn’t stop us!)

We headed into Ashbourne on Saturday for our pre-booked afternoon tea at Betty’s Sewing Box. Last year we walked along the Tissington trail to get there, but this year it was definitely a car kind of trip!

This place is like some kind of heaven mixed with cake! Not only does it serve a great afternoon tea for only £12.50 …

but it also has various crafts hanging around for you to have a go at …

and it’s attached to a craft shop…

This year we got to eat, drink and craft to a background soundtrack of the likes of Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. Honestly, I’m amazed I ever managed to drag myself away! I did leave a little piece of myself in the form of a granny square that I knocked up over lunch!

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After we’d consumed our fill of sandwiches, scones and cake and drunk enough tea (or Diet Coke in my case) to keep the whole of Derbyshire hydrated we moseyed on into Ashbourne to have a mooch. We all have a bit of a penchant for charity shops (of which there are lots), and there’s a fabulous bear shop that I was very excited about returning to.

I came away with this gorgeous Charlie Bear called Shelby (a la Peaky Blinders) …

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and these books from a couple of charity shops.

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I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to which cost me lots of money! He did have ten percent off though (hope that doesn’t mean they’re closing down.

We didn’t let the rain dampen our spirits. When we got back from Ashbourne with our spoils and full tummies, we managed to fit in a hot tub session before we knocked up a buffet tea and then set about the important business of chatting, laughing and reminiscing over a glass of Prosecco or three ….

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and in my case a couple of Bric Royales.

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This is a cocktail that I discovered when hubby and I went to Malta in January. It’s rosé wine with a shot or two of passionfruit liqueur added. Can you count a drink as a cocktail if it only has two ingredients? Not sure.

I signed up for Slimming World a couple of weeks ago, which probably wasn’t the best move given that I had my girlie weekend coming up. I followed the plan for the first week and managed to start a downwards trajectory …

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… but I wasn’t going to be beholden to it while I was away. I didn’t want to be awkward for communal catering, and I also wanted to be able to tuck into my afternoon tea and enjoy a tipple in the evenings, but I did try not to go mad.

I started each day, as I have been at home, with overnight oats that I made and took with me.

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This is the first batch I made. It’s just oats, fat free Greek yoghurt and frozen fruit layered up – free on Slimming World. Doesn’t it look like cheesecake? I was really hoping it would taste like it, but no such luck. It’s quite nice but cheesecake, it’s not!

I certainly indulged a little, as well as the afternoon tea and the booze, we had buffet teas with pizza, quiche, crisps and hummus (not all at the same time) and that’s my favourite kind of meal so I could have gone crazy, but I managed to reign myself in a little, at least more than I would have if I hadn’t just started Slimming World.

Anyway, wonderful weekend though it was, I think it’s left me a little sleep deprived – you never sleep as well in a strange place do you – so I can hear my bed calling. Only two more days to get through though – I have another four day week because I’m off to Gardeners’ World Live at the NEC on Friday. Whoop! Excited muchly!

 

Spring Bank Holiday Weekend

Life is for living, so they say, and I completely agree. But living doesn’t have to be big and bold, it can be the small things as well. The things that make you smile, make you laugh. The things that bring you calm, bring you peace. The things that make memories you will treasure for ever. This weekend was full of experiences that tick the box in every way. I was enjoying myself so much that I completely forgot to take pictures of everything, so I’ll have to improvise.

The weekend began with a meal out on Friday night for my very good friend’s birthday.

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We went to the Albert in Tamworth which, as you can see, doesn’t look massively special from the outside, but the food was delicious, and the service was good, and the company was excellent.

On Saturday hubby and I went on a bit of a garden centre crawl! We went for lunch at Wyevale, which we seem to have got into a habit of doing and we need to break the habit because it’s expensive both in cash and calories! I didn’t buy any plants, but I did come out with this beauty.

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Next we decided to have a look in the garden centre at Homebase but it was very disappointing – loads of bedding plants and not a lot else – so we decided to pop into our local garden centre, Halls, as recompense. Good move! I picked up a couple of plants from the sale table.

On the left is a Leucothoe and on the right is a Hellebore.  Both were half price, but they’ll both be fine with a bit of care. This is my third Hellebore now, and I like them because they’re evergreen and they flower over the Winter and early Spring when the rest of the garden is sleeping.

On Sunday, we had a day trip and overnight stay planned. We put loads of biscuits down for these two …

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… reassured them that we weren’t leaving them for long and headed off down the M40. Destination?

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Huge excitement! This was the fourth visit for me, but the first for hubby. However, there were first time experiences for both of us. First up they’ve completely changed the entrance to the tour. Now, rather than the main attraction in the queuing area being the cupboard under that stairs which was Harry Potter’s bedroom for the first eleven years of his life, you’re greeted by this sight.

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Pretty impressive! It’s a Ukrainian Ironbelly Dragon.

After this, the first half of the tour was largely unchanged, but it was great to see hubby’s reaction to it all, and I’ll never tire of gazing upon Harry Potter artefacts.

We entered through the Great Hall which was as awesome as ever.

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See the women with Hogwarts house ties on? They were on a hen do – what an amazing activity for your hen do!

Just a few of the sets (and they are the actual sets which were used during filming). Top left and going clockwise, the boys’ dormitory – see the RW on the trunk under the closest bed? Ron Weasley’s trunk. Then Dumbledore’s office – this looks exactly as it does in Hogwarts in Orlando. The Burrow, residence of the Weasley family. The magic is very much evident here with a jumper knitting itself, dishes washing themselves and a knife chopping a carrot completely independently. Finally the Gryffindor common room complete with Hermione’s and Harry’s outfits.

This is Tom Riddle’s grave on the left, which is somewhat more elaborate than the grave that I saw in Edinburgh in February, on the right, which was allegedly the inspiration for JK Rowling to create Tom Riddle.

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After the sets is the Hogwarts Express which was the first major change to the tour a few years ago and was the reason for my second visit.

This is swiftly followed by the reason for my third visit, the introduction of the Forbidden Forest exhibit.

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As well as the giant spiders, which move in and out of atmospheric smoke, in the Forbidden Forest you’ll find Buckbeak the Hippogriff and Hagrid.

Next we moved on to the first attraction within the tour that was new to me.

4 Privet Drive. The house has been there from the beginning, but now you can go inside and there’s a scene in the living room of all the Hogwarts letters flying around.

Next we moved on to the reason for visit number four, and the part I was most excited about – Gringotts.

This is the bank run by goblins, and where anyone who is anyone in the Wizarding world has a vault full of treasure. This section of the tour was amazing! I didn’t expect them to have done it so well! It looks so like Gringotts in Orlando that it felt really strange not to be heading behind the head goblin teller to ride the Escape from Gringotts ride, but we soon found out that there was even more to the exhibit than just the main floor of Gringotts. There are other items on display and there’s even a replica set showing Gringotts after it’s been ravaged by a dragon, and there’s an exciting extra which I won’t ruin for anyone who might go.

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After I dragged myself away from Gringotts, I knew I still had two treats to come. Namely …

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Diagon Alley, and, the piece de resistance …

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Amazing, incredible day! I’d recommend a trip to anyone. Even if you’re not a massive Harry Potter fan, it’s still worth a visit. Oh, and the shop is AWESOME!

We reluctantly left the world of Potter behind, but were soon feeling excited again because we were heading for a visit with my ex-boss and and his wife who live nearby. R retired at the end of April, and we’d had this visit planned for months. I worked for R almost continuously for fifteen years up until I moved to my current job and we had a great working relationship which, over the years had developed into a great friendship. I’m very sad that I don’t get to see him very often now, but I’m happy for him that, after seriously paying his dues to the company for over forty five years (I know!) he now gets to relax and do the things that bring him joy. His retirement also gave me the opportunity to meet his lovely wife, and for the two of them to meet hubby.

We went out for a delicious Italian meal in St Albans, and as I knew we would, had a great evening and all got on like the proverbial house on fire. I have lots of family who live down south, so hopefully we’ll be able to meet up when I’m en route to them – gives me a good excuse to take a whole day off work as opposed to my normal half day!

We headed back this morning after having a guided tour of the garden, which I was very interested to see because R is a keen vegetable grower so I was intrigued to compare his fledgling seedlings to mine.

Speaking of which, despite having caught hubby’s cold (the only down side to the whole weekend!) I headed out to appraise our garden, and there’s good progress.

On the top row left to right one of the potato plants has buds. Strangely it’s the second earlies not the first, but hey, who am I to argue with nature? The carrot seedlings have developed their first true leaves so I definitely need to thin those out. The strawberries are starting to develop which means I need to sort out some netting to keep the birds off. They’re all mine! The peas are getting bigger so I’ll have to go on the hunt for some sticks for them to grow up.

In the greenhouse, bottom row left to right, I repotted the yellow courgettes because they’ve got quite big. I’m keeping two myself and I’ve got four more which are going to good homes. The purple carrots are now looking like proper carrot seedlings but they’re not quite big enough to pot on yet. Last but not least, the jalapeño seedlings and coriander plants are coming on nicely.

What a perfectly balanced weekend! Good food, exemplary company, an awesome day out and a bit of gardening! What could be better?

Oh, anyone know what this little fella is?

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He took a liking to me!

Taranto Trip

My company made a huge acquisition last year, of a steel mill in Taranto in the south of Italy. It’s the biggest steel mill in Europe but it didn’t come without its issues, so my first trip was only organised this week. Even the model of it was huge and required the guy explaining it to use a big stick and lights to illustrate which bits he was talking about!

I seem destined to work with mills which are, without putting too fine a point on it, a pain in the bum to get to, so my Monday consisted of flying from Birmingham to Dublin and then Dublin to Bari. This was with Ryanair. For those of you who know me, or are regular readers, you’ll know my opinion of Ryanair – money-grabbing and seemingly hellbent on making travel as irritating and difficult as possible. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll still go out of my way not to fly with them if at all possible, and it continues to irritate me beyond belief that they have no seatback pockets in which to stash your stuff, leaving you doing a juggling act with your hand luggage (40 x 20 x 25cm and not a millimetre over!) your passport (which you had to show to board), your phone (which you needed to keep in your hand to use your mobile boarding pass and then show as you boarded to prove that the combination of you and the ground staff weren’t stupid enough to get you to the wrong plane) and your bag of essential sustenance (because you can guarantee Ryanair will have sold out (or not bothered to load) what you want to eat/drink, however Monday’s experience was actually reasonably pain-free and seamless, helped by the fact that I had check in luggage due to the length of my trip and the fact that work were picking up the bill, so I didn’t have to rush to board in order to do battle for a space in the overhead lockers.

Yes I had to book my connections as two separate flights (Birmingham to Dublin and Dublin to Bari) because Ryanair don’t want to be held responsible if you miss your connection, which meant I had to collect my check in luggage in Dublin and recheck in for my onward flight and deposit my bag again, but for once, Ryanair’s insistence on making you doing their job and making everything as speedy as possible worked really well! In Birmingham I had to go to the self serve machines and print my luggage tag and attach it, and then check the bag in myself on the conveyor. In Dublin my bag was one of the first out, then I had to go through the same process again and then I was on my way. No standing in queues or even speaking to people! I do find the fewer people I’m forced to speak to, the more advantageous it is for my state of mind!

Both flights were pretty much on time (which breaks my recent trend of being delayed everywhere I go!) but thankfully they didn’t blow their stupid bugle upon bouncing down, and pretty uneventful, with the exception of the luggage, passport, phone, drink juggling situation!

Being a seasoned traveller, I thought I’d got that sussed. Hoodie! I thought. Wear a hoodie – easy access to a pouch to stash the aforementioned belongings, and, although I was officially working, I was in transit so no jacket required (eat your heart out Phil Collins). This worked perfectly in Brum, but by the time I got to Dublin it was too hot for a hoodie, so then not only was I juggling my luggage, passport, phone and drink but I also had a hoodie tied round my waist that kept threatening to fall off. Sigh!

Anyway, I arrived at Bari airport without incident with it now cool enough (south of Italy versus Ireland – go figure!) to make use of the hoodie pouch and I headed out to meet my shuttle driver. Bari is the nearest airport to Taranto, but it’s still over an hour’s drive to the town so transport of some sort is needed. The shuttle driver informed me through some combination of semaphore and sign language due to the language barrier that we had to wait for another flight to arrive because he was collecting more people. Hands shoved in hoodie pouch (did I mention it’s a Gryffindor hoodie?) and another sigh, ‘ok,’ says I (somewhat redundantly since I had no choice in the matter) ‘wait we will’.

Sometime later the doors from arrivals open and I spy a familiar face heading in our direction. Imagine I’m hovering around the clouds (hopefully not with my head in them!) in terms of business hierarchy; this person is somewhere orbiting the moon. And there’s me in my Gryffindor hoodie! Sigh. Again. This is someone with whom I would only ever want to make the best possible impression and here I am demonstrating my allegiance to Godric the brave! I mean, I guess it could’ve been worse …. it could’ve been a Slytherin hoodie!

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Anyhow, I did my best to make intelligent conversation during the journey to the hotel (did I mention it’s over an hour?) and I don’t think I let the side down. I pondered the situation that I’d found myself in as I was settling down to go to sleep (in Mickey Mouse pyjamas) and I concluded that wearing a Gryffindor hoodie (or a Pooh Bear T-shirt or carrying a floral Cath Kidston laptop bag rather than a boring, black, corporate uniform laptop bag – you get my gist) is an integral part of who I am, and I’m not prepared to change who I am in order to fit into a corporate box. I am absolutely prepared to work hard in order to prove myself and forge a worthy career, but I’ll be doing it with colour and interest and quirkiness on my side.

During our visits to the mill we had to leave our passports with reception when we arrived, and collect them again at the end of the day. One of my colleagues (who I didn’t think knew me particularly well) was handing back the passports one day and he got to mine and without even opening it said, ‘oh, well, that’s Sarah’s’. How did he know?

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It’s in this case. This made me happy. 

The hotel I stayed in was called Albergo Del Sole and inside it was pretty nice. I felt like I was sleeping in a cathedral!

Even the bathroom had the same feature.

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The breakfast room was on the third floor with a lovely view of the sea.

They even had Coco Pops which pleased me greatly.

Outside there was a cute little church with a bell that pealed out each hour.

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Unfortunately, outside there were also several homeless people who, whilst not aggressive, were very persistent and made me feel uncomfortable being outside. For once I was glad of the male domination of my industry because I was always with a group of male colleagues who I suspect were more of a deterrent to the hassle than I would’ve been alone or in a group of women. Several of our group had hire cars, and the homeless guys would try to guide them into parking spaces and then request money in return. Worryingly, one of them was the spitting image of our window cleaner (this actually says more about our window cleaner than the homeless guy!)

The area we were staying in was, I think, the old town, and I still can’t decide if it was Mediterranean shabby chic, or if it’s just run down and in need of a cash injection. We ventured further out in the evenings and as I was being chauffeured around on the second night I saw some of the traditional houses that the area is known for. They have round roofs and reminded me somewhat of a Hobbit house, but they were lovely. I bought a fridge magnet representation at the airport.

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On the last evening we walked for twenty minutes or so to a restaurant called Desco. At first I felt wary because we were strolling through back streets with graffiti and guys sat around on mopeds but then we came out onto a nice sea side promenade and we crossed a bridge into what I guess is the new town. It was much more lively and vibrant and, bonus points for Taranto, I found a cat to ease my pining for these two.

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It was a plump ginger tom and it wound its way round my legs happily.

I was determined to have some decent pasta before I left Italy, and I managed it at Desco.

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Tagliatelle con Porcini – yum!

Coming home I came a completely different route with an airline that is the antithesis of Ryanair – Lufthansa. German efficiency and service at its best. The first leg was Bari to Frankfurt. I like Frankfurt airport – it has a McDonalds which, even if I don’t go to it, reassures me that there’s some home comfort available should I feel in need of it. Its seating area has a great view of the airfield too so you can watch the planes taking off.

It also has Steiff bears!

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How I resisted I don’t know! They even had a Blue-footed Booby for goodness sake!

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When we were in Orlando I tried to find a neck pillow for the plane, but they only had boring plain ones so I used my new Eeyore as a pillow instead. I wanted an interesting one, I was really angling for a Disney one of some sort, but it wasn’t to be. Today though, I found this one.

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This one’s not boring and it does kind of look like Melman, the giraffe from Madagascar.

The homebound leg was Frankfurt to Birmingham and this time I didn’t have to collect my bag, it was all one booking so I checked in my bag at Bari all the way though to Birmingham. I’m typing this on the flight so hopefully my bag is somewhere underneath me waiting for us to be reunited shortly! (Edit: it was).

I love flying! I don’t understand being scared of it (but that’s because I’m not). I love settling into my seat with all my comforts and letting someone else be in charge for two or four or nine hours. I have my kindle so I can read, my iPad so I can watch downloaded shows or films on Netflix, my phone so I can Candycrush (is that an acceptable verb?) and the aforementioned drink to keep me hydrated. After that I just settle back and enjoy the ride.

I love the feeling when the plane starts to accelerate down the runway – I find this is best in a smaller plane like an A320 or a Boeing 737. The bigger planes take too long to get up to speed so you don’t get that pushed back in your seat feel. I especially like it when they accelerate round the corner onto the runway and then continue into the ascent without stopping. It makes me smile the way a rollercoaster does.

I love airports too. Even when it’s for work, they’re still exciting because other people are going on holiday and there’s a buzz. I love the moving walkways that get you round the long distances. I don’t understand why people avoid them or just stand on them. You need to walk on them, it makes you feel like your legs are sixteen feet long because you’re going so fast without any extra effort. It reminds me of a recurring dream I used to have where I was running super fast, taking massive lolloping steps.

Anyway, I’ve landed – I’m home, whoop – and this has turned into a mammoth post, so I’ll finish here and post when I get home.

Friday tomorrow already! Happy weekend all when it arrives.