24 hours in Manchester

I think I have been to Manchester before some where in my dim distant past, but last weekend Peter and I spent 24 hours there, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We were blown away by the slick service, the sophistication and the fantastic energy of the city.

We went to Manchester to see John Mayer who was playing at Manchester Arena – I have to admit that you cant help thinking about the horrific attack that took place there two and a half years ago, but as I said to somebody, you cant live your life in fear, and the atmosphere inside was certainly fearless and electric.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Leaving aside the six hours it took for me to get to Manchester, when I eventually arrived, we still just about had enough time to get our supper which Peter had booked at Dishoom. What an incredible slick operation – I haven’t experienced service like that for a long time. Despite us being over half an hour late for the booking (we did call to let them know), we were whisked to a table, drinks orders taken and fairly swiftly after that our food order.

Dishoom is contemporary Indian, and I have to say the food was as slick as the service. Our okra fries arrived with our drinks – demolished within minutes. Followed by masala prawns, lamb sheekh kebab, house-style chicken tikka and gunpowder potatoes. Did I mention the service? Super friendly, efficient with plenty of managerial presence conducting proceedings without a hitch. We were in and out within an hour, but dearly would have liked to stay and linger with another glass of wine…

A ten minute walk took us to the Arena and swiftly through (very tight) security and into our seats. A fantastic concert – two and a half hours of all of his best tracks with a super-talented band and backing singers – and of course it doesnt hurt that John Mayer is fairly easy on the eye!

Peter had found and booked us a hotel called Native Manchester. If you havent stayed in a Native before, do yourself a favour and check them out. They are studio apartments in old refurbished buildings or super-cool modern developments or even mews houses, with a great contemporary design and lots of extra details you wouldn’t expect. The one in Manchester is an old converted warehouse in the Northern Quarter and has only been open a month.

In fact, I am pretty sure we were the first to stay in our room, as it didn’t look like any of the bath/body products had yet been opened. We booked the smallest room as we were only there for one night but it was still spacious and edgy with the original girders and brick work. But wonderful design details – a little table attached to the end of the sofa, a discreet drawer under the sink in the bathroom, gorgeous lotions and potions from Bramble, set up by somebody from Cowshed. Every studio apartment has a little kitchenette which had the basics you would need to cook something simple but everything was quality, even a Sabatier knife!

We got a late check out as it was all important rugby World Cup quarter finals in the morning, so whilst Peter languished in bed watching England thrash Australia, I nipped down to the oh-so-cool lobby and fetched us some cinnamon rolls and flat whites – it all felt very New York.

Rugby over and we had a lovely wander through Manchester. Those of you who know me, know that no outing is complete without a stop for coffee, and of course this was no different and top of our list. We found a Scandinavian artisan coffee house called Takk – they actually have three outlets in Manchester, and like our whole experience of Manchester, it was slick, sophisticated and plenty of substance.

Manchester – we will be back, and cant wait!

My beautiful mother – one year on…

I know I have posted this photo before but it is the photo on my iPad that I look at a hundred times every day, so that’s why I feel like I want to post it again.

I have been sitting rereading my posts of the last few years – grief, death, love. And reflecting on the past year, in particular, as we approach the first anniversary of Mum’s death. Some people dont think about dates or marking anniversaries, but it seems to be something deep within me. It’s not something that I necessarily do consciously. I just find that my mind has often been cast back over the past couple of weeks, to this time last year, and reliving those last few week’s of mum’s life.

So this weekend I have been thinking about this weekend last year, when we realised that it was now a question of days not weeks, and that Mum did not have long left to live.  The agonising feeling that you didn’t know when she was going to die – it could be any time. Every time I left her house, I wondered if that was going to be the last time I would see her alive. Had I said everything to her that I wanted to? Had the children said their goodbyes? As she became more sleepy in that week and started to slip away, it was hard to watch and witness other people’s pain and try to hold them as well as holding myself together.

In the end of course, Mum slipped into unconsciousness a few days before she died and I remember her penultimate day being a happy one. For some reason a peace and calm surrounded her and her room and I even remember playing some of her favourite music including a bit of Nina Simone’s ‘my baby just cares for me’ and dancing round the room and singing – she would have loved that, and I hope somewhere deep down she heard me and smiled within.

Rereading my posts, I have taken comfort from realising that its true what I wrote just over a year ago, that she would be with me always, and smiling down on me, helping me with the tough decisions, that life inevitably throws at one.

And its true what they say that it just takes time, time for grief to ease, never fully go away I dont think. Certainly at the beginning of this year, I turned a big corner. I had a distinct feeling of Mum looking down on me and saying, ok, time to let go now, time to move on, a new year, a fresh start. She said, I’m ok, I’m whole again, you need to focus on your life now. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

But everybody says its the first of everything after a person dies, that is the hardest. My birthday last year was particularly hard, as she would have been the first person to ring and wish me a happy birthday. Then there was Christmas, but actually, Mum’s birthday, which was last month, was a happy occasion, marked with a lunch with Emma, at Mum’s favourite restaurant in Winchester.

I think that with each of these occasions, the anticipation has been worse than the reality and so that is what I keep reminding myself as we approach next Saturday, the first anniversary of her leaving this world.

So one year on, the grief has not completely gone, but since the beginning of the year, it has no longer been overwhelming, and mostly when I think of Mum, its with a smile and a feeling of warm shining love. It’s just now with the first anniversary looming, that I cant help but focus on the loss of her.

But I am happy to report that I have kept my promise to Mum – I think about her everyday and she is certainly forever in my heart 💜💜

The end of an era

I wrote this blog post at the end of last year but for some reason never posted it….

It was three years ago that I wrote about the sad and fascinating process of packing away a life, as Thomas was coming towards the end of his. And now it has been six months since Mum died, and we are at the very end of packing away her life. We have finally exchanged contracts on Apple Tree Cottage, the house that Mum and Tom lived in for the last 25 years, and are due to complete the sale in the next few days.

Every inch of their life has been rummaged through, picked apart, from the finances, to their clothes, to the jewellery and precious personal possessions and letters. As anyone who has been through this process will know, it can be gut-wrenching at times, bitter sweet, as happy memories abound and the reality that they are gone for ever hits you again and again.

Grief seems to come in waves, every time you think that you are beginning to move forwards and leave it behind, the next breaker crashes down.

A few weeks after Mum died, when the tears were flowing freely, a friend pointed out that there was a reason that we used to wear ‘mourning’ black for a period of time after a bereavement – so that people knew that you were fragile and needed to be treated kindly. Now this makes more sense to me.

Tomorrow, I will lock the door and leave the keys behind at Apple Tree Cottage for the last time, and that part of my life will be over. It was a part that spanned nearly half of my life. Perhaps with all of its overwhelming emotions, it will also bring some sort of closure and enable us, Emma, Daniel and me, to move on. I certainly have many lovely things to remember them by, not least the bird table that I look out on every day and know how much Mum and Tom used to enjoy watching the birds in it.

Nothing like a road trip….

Escaping for a few days R&R has given me time to reflect on the past few weeks. Goodness, you can’t underestimate the power of a little bit of downtime, always so difficult to allow, but the effects are huge.

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks, and whilst there is still so much to do – probate forms to fill in, estate agents to appoint, the house to clear out, when Peter announced last week that he needed to go away for a few days for some business research, I jumped at the chance to go too. Always up for a road trip, but right now, more importantly, I realised that I needed a change of scene, and a chance to unwind, even if only for a couple of days.

We stayed the first two nights at the Cow at Dalbury Lees, in Derbyshire, which I booked following an article in the Times on Saturday morning, very fortuitously for us, about the best summer pubs in Britain. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, but a real gem. It is newly refurbished, and uses lots of reclaimed wood and recycled items, such as old polished milk churns for bar stools. Our only negative was that we were put in a room right above the bar, so our first night was fairly noisy, but when we mentioned it the next morning, we were moved to a delightful room at the back of the pub.

As regular readers of my blog will know, coffee is always at the forefront of my mind, and what a pleasant surprise, when a fabulous flat white was served up at breakfast yesterday. I don’t think pubs are usually renowned for their coffee, but the barman at the Cow certainly knew how to make a good one. In fact, everything they served was on point. The chef clearly knows a thing or two. Produce was fresh and everything cooked really well – simple and of the moment.

In fact we have been blown away by the wonderful quality of produce and service everywhere on our trip so far. How times a-change. Lunch yesterday was at Bear in Derby, again lovely contemporary concept – lightly battered cod bites and pulled pork in soft tacos with slaw and avocado, and good flat whites.

Now sitting here in the wonderfully named ‘Medicine Kitchen and Bakery’, this cafe reminds me of some of the fabulous places in Sydney, large airy open spaces with lots of big wooden tables, for lingering over. And whilst I may presently get the probate forms out, it is still wonderful to be in a different environment. Somehow it just makes me feel lighter, less burdened, less sad.

But I am keeping my promise to Mum, wherever I go, she comes with me. I look out of a window, and for a split second, imagine that phone call, where I describe where I am, what I am doing, what I am about to eat or drink. And then I remember, all too quickly, that of course, I can’t do that. But this morning, when those thoughts popped into my head, I smiled, because I realised I was keeping my promise. Of course I will never forget you. I will think of you every day. Forever in my heart, Mum 💜

 

Grief: my beautiful mother

 

My beautiful mother died on Friday morning. Of course, as seems so often to happen, I wasn’t there, even though I had spent most of my waking hours there all week. But I’m ok with that, as we had so many conversations over the week, even if they were one way after she became unconscious the last couple of days. I firmly believe that she could still hear me on some level, so it was important, to keep telling her how much I loved her, and that would never change, even when she was no longer with us, I would still go on loving her. And I also told her that I knew that she would never stop loving me, even when she was no longer here. I would carry her in my heart forever, and she would always be there when I needed her, and I could feel that love when I needed some help with whatever difficult situation life would throw at me.

Grief is such a complex and difficult thing, and as I wrote in my last blog post, mine was kick-started when I was reminded of the cracking woman (as a lovely friend of mine called her) she was. The thing is that as somebody gets older and more frail, it is so easy to forget that. My daughter, Daisy, expressed this so well, and has given me permission to share it.

“It seemed inevitable that the frail elderly lady who has been getting weaker over the past weeks was going to die, but when you remember that woman was Judy Strafford, the artist, who did all those amazing paintings, made all that incredible food and wrote that beautiful book, it hits you that that was the same person, and feels completely overwhelming.”

This totally resonates for me and seems to sum up some of the conflicting emotions that constitute grief. I think one of the harder things is that feeling that you will never see them again. I know I felt that with Thomas, and nothing can take that away, except time, and allowing yourself to feel it. And perhaps the occasional gin and tonic 😍

My beautiful mother

I don’t know if everybody experiences grief in different parts of the body, but mine is firmly in the coeliac plexus (formerly known as the solar plexus!) – right there between the ribs, below the breastbone. This is the second time I’ve watched somebody dying in as many years, and whilst I am so grateful to be able to be here daily with my mother, holding her hand, looking into her eyes and telling her that I love her, it is also hard being so close.

I started to go through some of Mum’s papers last week, and what really kick-started my grief was coming across some wonderful letters and photos. One was from Charles Spencer, in response to a letter Mum must have written to him after the death of Diana and his tribute at her funeral. Another was a letter she had published in the Times in 2002 on her love of sprouts, and all the delicious ways to cook and eat them. There was a gorgeous photo of eight glamorous women, called the Lunch Bunch, which was the bridge club Mum was part of for forty years or so.

And I realised that in these past few years of caring for a sick, fading, elderly lady, I had forgotten what an incredible, vital, vibrant, creative creature my beloved Mother had been. She was all of those things and more – not least a fantastic cook producing amazing suppers night after night, and she has loved life and lived it to the full, particularly in most of her thirty five years with Thomas.

I don’t think she will be with us for much longer now, as she no longer wants to eat, except for a few mouthfuls of yogurt, that are gently fed to her by the ever-caring Liz, but her colourful, energetic and beautiful soul are what I want to remember, not the past weeks, or even months or couple of years.

Love you, Mum

Conversations about dying

You know when you open Facebook and those memories pop up? Well, yesterday that happened to me, and my heart skipped a beat. Pure deja vu, and overwhelming sadness. This is what it said….

“Had a lovely chat with Thomas on FaceTime yesterday, so I could see him sitting up in his hospital bed, to which he is now confined, in Mum’s old studio, so he is surrounded by paintings, and looks out onto his beloved garden! He has lots of care and support and still the same old Thomas – strong, stoical and spirited. He has been setting specific time goals to aim for the next thing he wants to be around for – previously it was Christmas, then Mum’s birthday, and now, in the best Thomas spirit, it’s the EU referendum!!!! It did make me smile – I am so happy some things don’t change 😍😍😍“

It is with a heavy heart that I now write about my dear Mother, who has been bedridden since the beginning of March, as her body has weakened significantly, and her appetite is reducing daily. She spends most of her time asleep, and her waking time gazing out of the window at her beloved garden, just as Thomas started to do two years ago.

Mum is of course being looked after beautifully by her (our 😍😍) wonderful carer, Liz, who ensures that she is always comfortable and brings the all important smile to her face.

But I can’t lie, it is very hard being faced with somebody you love dying, and in the same place, same bed, same room. The funny thing was that before even reading ‘my facebook memory’ last night, every time I have walked in and seen Mum over the last week, I have been struck by these feelings of overwhelming sadness that here we are in the same situation again.

We have had many conversations about dying over the past weeks, and you may think this is something intensely personal, and not to be shared. But I think it is a conversation we should be having more often. It is bloody scary, and of course none more so than for the person dying.

One of my mother’s fears is that she will be forgotten. I reminded her that she once told me that she thought about her beloved Mother every day, and had never forgotten her, and I assured her that I will do the same and I will keep her in my heart forever 💜

Winter warmers for a cold and snowy week

Last week was certainly a week for winter warmers, if ever there was one, and I, for one, loved every moment.

Whilst our temperatures here in the South of England plummeted to a freezing -6C for several days, the snow fell and our already beautiful countryside looked even more magical. This was indeed an unexpected pleasure, as having had magnificent snowfalls in Istanbul over the past four years, it is not such a regular occurrence in Hampshire.

But back to the winter warmers – this sort of weather definitely calls for warm and hearty fare, usually meaty as far as we are concerned, and gave us all the inspiration we needed for some delicious suppers all week.

Sunday: was a traditional roast rib of beef, as Waitrose had one last rib going cheap (always an eye on a bargain), which we decided to roast using the untraditional reverse sear method, taking inspiration from Jess Pryles and her Hard Core Carnivore book. That means, instead of the usual sear in a pan to brown all over, and then whack in the oven for a short time, you cook it in the oven at a low temperature first, and when it has reached the right colour of pink for your taste, achieved by using a meat thermometer, you rest the meat for a while before searing in a hot pan, which gives it a gorgeous colour as well as wonderful caramelisation. The result was a beautiful even pink throughout with no grey bits around the edges where the meat has cooked a little more. We had this with roast potatoes and roast purple sprouts doused in walnut oil. A triumph, as Thomas would have said.

Monday: Cold rib of beef, of course! With sweet potatoes and horseradish creme fraiche.

Tuesday: A warming and divine Bengali chicken curry from Peter’s new cook book, Indian Kitchen by Maunika Gowardhan. I was full of cold and requested a warming curry from Peter, and he certainly delivered!

Wednesday: was the remains of the rib of beef made into a very warming and hearty ragu, which we had with fresh tagliatelle and a winter salad of red cabbage, little gem, goat cheese,broccoli and walnuts.

Thursday: we managed to nip out to Waitrose for a quick stock up before we became completely snowed in, and bought some beautiful fresh Cornish hake – might not sound hearty, but with the addition of chunks of chorizo, and crunchy cubes of potato, it certainly worked for us!

Friday: after several days of being confined to our cottage, with heating and fire blazing, we decided to break out and head to the local pub with some lovely friends and neighbours, and had a gorgeous homemade steak and ale pie in a rich gravy with light crispy pastry.

Saturday was homemade pizza – well, the kids were home from school, what more can I say? Topped with yet more chorizo, and local Laverstoke Farm buffalo mozzarella. Perhaps our least hearty meal of the week.

 

Sunday – we rounded the week off with a magnificent venison chilli – local venison cooked with several different types chilli, using a fantastic recipe again from Hard Core Carnivore. This was superb – rich, unctuous, with lots of flavour from the sweet chilli, but never overpowering. We ate this spooned in soft tacos with dollops of creme fraiche. This probably wins the vote of most hearty dish of the week.

Usually we try not to drink alcohol during the week, but sometimes you have to throw reason to the wind, and these suppers cried out for full-bodied rich red wines, from a Barolo, to Rioja, to a Southern Italian Primitivo. I have loved our winter week full of snow and hearty food, but I think my waist line will appreciate the spring weather when it arrives!

My January health kick

 

So the festivities are over, the tinsel is packed away for another year, the kids are back at school, and I, like millions of others out there, stood on the scales last Monday morning and got the fright of my life. Initially I was too shocked to move off the scales, but this was swiftly followed by disbelief as I got on and off the scales checking that it was true.

When I have been over-eating, or rather eating too many of the wrong things over a period of time, then I definitely find that part of the weight gain is due to bloating and fluid retention, as my system is inflamed from the amount of food thrown at it – in my case, far too many profiteroles, slices of Yule log, cheese, crisps, croissants, etc, so I figure if I can reduce the inflammation, then I can shed the first kilos quite easily.

But it was more than that, I realised I had had enough of feeling bloated, sluggish and even unwell, and with all the newspapers and online media full of every health tip under the sun and every different diet to try, I realised it was time for me to start being a bit kinder to my body.

 

For most of us, our biggest enemies are probably what I call the bad carbs – so the usual culprits that include anything with sugar, plus crisps, croissants, which are my personal downfall, and i know that if I just cut those out, then I will lose those extra kilos fairly quickly.

However, as it was not just about losing weight, I decided to kick start the healthy eating plan by also giving up dairy, fructose and red meat, so as to better give my system a bit of a breather.

My biggest discovery, and the one element of fun in this whole process, has been the food diary app, MyNetDiary. I absolutely LOVE it – it definitely appeals to my OCD tendencies. I cant help laughing when I say, or type, that, because it is something that Peter has been using for several years now, and boy, have I given him a hard time about it – weighing every nut that he consumes!

So now, it is my turn. I am having to eat my words (and sadly not much else), as I pedantically weigh every oat flake, houmous lick and oil dribble. But it is fun – i know, maybe not everybody’s idea of fun – I adore scanning all of the bar codes and adding all of the data (again, sad), and it sort of gives it all a focus. The scary bit is that it actually makes you realise how many calories you consume and what and where they are hidden. That handful of nuts I am used to chucking in my mouth, whenever the urge takes me, is practically 150 calories right there and then.

And the more activity I can add, the more calories it gives me to eat, so guess what, it definitely encourages me to fit an extra walk in where I can.

So far so good – day ten and hopefully it goes without saying that I feel much better already – slowly getting rid of the bad stuff from my body, as well as shedding two kilos of unwanted extra baggage.

Sunday morning treat – sugar free pancakes with low-fructose fruit and maple syrup

Moving from closure to new beginnings…

New year, new resolution. So far so good. But its more than that; I feel a sense of excitement about what this year is going to bring. It’s been more than six months now since we’ve all been moved back to the UK in our lovely little cottage in Ovington; lock, stock and barrel. We’ve rather come back in dribs and drabs because it was 2016 that Billy, Daisy, Dave and I came back, but now we’re all back, the whole family – Peter and TC, our Turkish stray cat are also here – and so there really is a sense of new beginnings.

So on a personal level, I really want to restart my blog, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t written now for more than a year since Thomas died – but it was kind of difficult to get back on to it again. For me, writing is about the heart and soul, so I needed to process those emotions around losing Thomas, before being able to start again on a new tack.

I still miss him and think about him every day, and often ‘see’ him when I’m out and about – walking by the river, or someone driving a little white van, or shopping in Waitrose, which he loved! But I really found that our little trip down to his river on the first anniversary of his death, helped me enormously. I dont think ‘closure’ should ever be under-rated, as I have always found some sort of acknowledgement of the end of something in which you have made a significant emotional investment – whether painful or happy – to be hugely beneficial.

Our ceremony was as simple as a walk next to the river, surrounded by my loving family, meandering past Thomas’ hut which was his hub when he was the river keeper on his stretch of the Itchen. We visited the tree that was planted to remember him, and it was a way to feel close to a very special and dear man.

In memory of our beloved Thomas

And now to 2018….