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.

Ugh – Holiday Blues!

Holidays, best thing in the world, right? Holiday blues, not so great! I’m doing my very best not to mope around with my lower lip on the floor, but I admit I have already looked up prices for a return trip and investigated timeshares in Orlando whilst wearing my Minnie Mouse ears (which will forever be known as my extra ears because Crush the turtle in Turtle Talk with Crush at Epcot called them so). However, I have also learnt not to make holiday blues fuelled decisions so I’m trying my hardest to focus on the positive.

First positive aspect of being home? Well it’s two actually.

We really missed these two little furry things, and from the reaction we’ve had from them, I think the feeling was mutual! They haven’t left our sides since we got home.

Secondly, it was great to see the changes in the garden. Luckily (for the garden, not for people who weren’t on holiday) the weather at home wasn’t great while we were away so the greenhouse didn’t get hot enough to fatally dry out my seedlings and the rest of the garden got a bit of rain to keep it going.

When we pulled up on the drive we practically had to fight our way through the front garden because the grass has grown so long. That’s not so much of a positive, but it illustrates the difference a week makes! We have one more day off work so hubby’s planning to get the mower out tomorrow (hopefully it’ll make it through the meadow!)

The first thing I did after fussing our little furry girls was head out the back to check everything was ok.

This is the progress in the greenhouse.

Top left are my Sunflowers and Calendula and next to that are my Sweet Peas and Cosmos. They’re all getting quite big so I’ve started to harden them off ready to be planted out.

Bottom left are my Chillis and Spices. Woohoo – progress! The Habaneros and Cayenne Peppers aren’t showing any signs of life yet, but the Jalapeños, Cumin and Coriander have all germinated.

Bottom right is my Funky Veg. There were signs of life in the red Brussel Sprouts and the Rainbow Swiss Chard before we went away but now the purple Carrots, yellow Courgette and stripy Tomatoes have sprung up too.

I really need to think about where I’m going to plant all these now they’ve germinated. I don’t think I was confident enough that they’d actually grow to plan further ahead than sowing them!

Outside the greenhouse there’s now life in the raised beds.

On the left are my peas and on the right, carrots. No sign of the red onions or leeks yet, but I’m happy that it looks like we’re going to get peas and carrots. We ate in Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Orlando. It’s a Forrest Gump themed restaurant, and for those not familiar with the film, Forrest says of his best friend, ‘me and Jenny went together like peas and carrots’ so it seems appropriate that these have chosen to germinate while we were away.

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Next to the peas and carrots, the potato bags have grown hair!

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In the rest of the garden colour has appeared all over the place.

Top left is my Dicentra Bleeding Heart. This was from the sale table last year and was past flowering, so this is the first time I’ve seen its beautiful bloom. Next to that is a shrub that we inherited with the house. I don’t know what it is, but is has lovely yellow flowers which the bees seem keen on. On the end is one of many buds on one of my many roses. This is on one of my standard roses, but most of my other roses are in bud too.

On the bottom row are my orange Geum and my beautiful Erysimum. Both of these were from the sale table last year too. The Erysimum kept a couple of flowers all through Winter but now it’s exploded with flowers. They’re such a lovely bright pink.

Hopefully I’ll be over the jet lag enough tomorrow to get out there and do some maintenance. There’s a fair bit of deadheading and general tidying that needs doing. It feels quite overwhelming at the moment, but I know that’s the holiday blues and tiredness bringing out the pessimist in me.

Other positives about being home? I got to catch up on Gardeners’ World from the last two Fridays, although I did take my fix with me.

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I don’t have to put suntan lotion on every day because, well, it’s flipping freezing here! For anyone that’s interested, Boots Soltan Once doesn’t work as well as P20. With P20 I can put it on once before I go in the sun and, even if I’m in and out of water, I still don’t burn. I thought I’d give Soltan Once a go because it’s a lot cheaper, but it turns out that in this case you do get what you pay for. I didn’t burn horrendously, but I did have pink shoulders. It’ll be good enough to use here in the garden though if we get some warmer days, as long as I’m not out there all day.

My hair is back to its normal volume. I saw this meme on Facebook and had to post it because it describes exactly what happens when I go somewhere with high humidity.

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More positives. Of course, I get to see my family and friends, that’s a given. I can drink water from the tap (which I’m sure would be fine in Orlando, but apparently it tastes bad so I prefer not to).

Last, but most certainly not least, I can start researching, planning and dreaming about our next holiday (after the next two that are already booked, of course!) In the meantime, I’ll avoid thinking about the negatives until they become normal again, and I’ll content myself with living vicariously through my photos.