Sunday, 29 June 2014

Newmarket Race Course

Going to the races is a very British thing to do, if you take your lead from the Royal family. But, also, a fun way to while away a day (golden rule: never bet more than you can afford to lose). Newmarket is about an hour and a bit's drive north of London, just past Cambridge in Suffolk. You park in a field, then walk past the entrance for the well-dressed (the Premier stand), the reasonably dressed (the grandstand) and then come to the little low building furthest from the car park field where they have the family enclosure, the price is right and you can pretty much dress anyway you want to, though a sign says "no swimwear".

Two things about racing in the UK that are different, at any rate, from going to the (admittedly small number of) races I've been to in the States. 1. You can get surprisingly close to the track and 2. You can place your bet directly with what they call bookies, who line up their stands under their umbrellas, often mom and pop (or, rather, mum and dad, pictured) operations, and everyone seems happy enough to take your £1 bet – to win or 'each way', which means your horse wins or ends up in the first three places and you get a quarter of what you would have if the horse won outright. Or something. I started out doing this, but as it costs £2 (£1 'each way'), I gave up after a while and just bet £1 to win on two horses in every race. Well, it gave me more to cheer for!

For the record, you can also go to the big company bookmaker to place your bet, if you prefer something official looking.

When I first came to the UK and noticed all the 'bookmaker' shops, I naively thought it was a very clever, bookish country, that had loads of little shops that made books. Aw, sweet, yes? I did eventually find out that this is what they call betting shops. If you want to know why they're called bookmakers, you can google it. Personally, I never forgave them for not being actual book makers.

The best bet of the whole day – which is admittedly probably more fun than it should be, seeing as we're using animals for entertainment – is when they thunder past and, just for a moment, you lose yourself in the noise of hooves hitting soil, huge horses going at great speed and riders intent on getting there first. However, if you can't be bothered to go up to the railing, there's also a great big screen where you can catch all the action, but then you might as well be sitting at home.

We got thoroughly soaked at one point when it rained for England, with the next race delayed for "3 minutes", then "2 minutes" because of the lightning. So precise! But eventually we mostly dried out again, though we never really warmed up and left before the final race of the day.

Winnings? Put it this way: I bet £14, won £5 and spent £6 on coffee, tea and hot chocolate, so you could say I was down £15 after four hours, but that wouldn't account for what a great day out it is.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Summer solstice

What to do on the longest day of the year? And, in Britain, it really is long: 4.43am to 9.21pm, that's over 14 and a half hours of daylight. Head for the countryside, was our answer, so after making enough picnic to choke a horse (a phrase my brother is fond of saying), we took off from London for western Hertfordshire. Less than an hour later we were parking up in the Ashridge Estate, though we hardly went into it this time, opting instead to follow paths that took us 'round the edge, past wheatfields that rippled like the sea in the softest breezes, and into pocket nature reserves, protected as sites of special interest.

One such was Aldbury Nowers, which claims to be home to more than 30 species of butterfly (not all active at once, unfortunately), though we did spot a Marbled White, which looks like a chequerboard, and a Common Brown, which looks, well, brown. Also a few Red Admirals, which I have decided are the British equivalent to the USA's Monarch. That is, they're abundant, similarly colored, and are pretty much the only one everyone can name.

At any event, after going uphill into the National Trust-protected reserve, there was a handy seat, where we ate most of the lunch, which was starting to weigh heavily, and got to look out over this view while we munched.

There were so many pretty spots and it was an incredibly varied walk, that took in woods, fields and, probably our favorite bit, when we came out on the ridge of the Chiltern Hills and had the vast view out toward, I suppose, Oxford and the Cotswolds. Of course, I don't think I actually took a picture of this, so you just have to picture fields, villages, hedgerows and, of course, the ubiquitous roads that seem to criss-cross everywhere, stretching off to the slightly hazy horizon.

On the return, we made for the actual town of Aldbury, which I'd read has been used as the location for various films and TV shows (Midsommer Murders, Morse, Bridget Jones's Diary...). I liked it, though it was terribly twee (translation for north Americans: a Brit word for something that's over-cute), my walking companion less so, who described it as "nothing special". We were making for The Greyhound pub, but as it was closed for a private engagement, we went on and found another, helpfully signposted from the central crossroads, called the Valiant Trooper (tel: +44 (0)1442 851203), which had a large sunny garden with plenty of picnic tables to sit at, a clean loo and a cosy inside, with a chalkboard promising good food. We didn't eat any, so I can't say, but it made a perfect resting point.

One last detail: as we entered Aldbury, we passed this barn which has its building date worked into its construction: the bricks across the top, in the point of the roof, spell out 1757. 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

London bicycle commute

On my cycle ride home yesterday, I had to stop here and take a photograph. I mean, come on, this is a first-world capital city. Not what you'd expect. At least, not what I would expect, but I think this must be a legacy of growing up in New York City, which is the citiest city I've ever been to. Even Hong Kong, so I'm told, has a mountain in the middle of it (which I hope to see one day!). 

Anyway, I thought I would share these pictures as it goes some way to justifying why I (mostly!) like living here. It may be a big city, but it can still feel like the villages it started out as.

The view below I think of as my 'lifeline' picture, because from it I can see many of the places I've lived, loved and worked. 


Friday, 13 June 2014

Summer in the city

This little fellow greets you when you go into the Charlotte Street Hotel in a pretty, villagey area of central London called Fitzrovia. We were there to see the UK preview screening of Million Dollar Arm. I know this has been out in the States for a few weeks, but it's not hitting these shores until August.

While there are those who say, if a film is based on a true story, you can't 'give the plot away', I argue that not everyone knows every true story and I prefer to see things blind: that is, without knowing what's going to happen, hence my dislike of the current style of producing trailers, which tell you absolutely everything. Is maddening. If the story is told well, I do not need to know what it's about before I see it. Another pet peeve: people who insist on giving away the punchline of a film before you've seen it. Please. Don't.). So, without giving anything about the plot away – even though it is based on a true story – I will simply say that as the film unfolded, I thought to myself, This will play better here than it did it in the States. I don't even know how it did in the States, but it contains certain cultural references which are closer to the hearts of the British people. Also? For what it's worth, I thought this was a charming movie and would recommend it, even if it is made by Disney.

The walk home from the bus stop afterward gave me this: an almost Narnia-like lamppost in the gathering twilight, but still, it was 9.30. That's PM, as in nighttime, and still so bright. We are having a perfect English June. Long, sunny days with temperatures in the low 70s. The green is in full swing and the birds seem to have multiplied over the winter so that, with the windows open, there's practically a cacophony of song. With all the sunlight, everyone is walking around smiling and being pleasant to each other. And you wonder why I bang on about the weather so much...

One last view of the park below, showing it's magical side. 

Saturday, 7 June 2014

One week in London...

Have just lived through possibly the busiest week of my life. London, how could you do this to me?!

I'm starting off with this very gorgeous sunset, captured Thursday evening on my way home. Although it looks almost post-nuclear, it's just proof of the old saying: "Red sky at night, sailors' delight...", because Friday was absolutely beautiful: soft warmth, blue sky – perfect. Of course it was, because most of the population was at work. Now that it's Saturday, the rain and greyness are out in force.

But back to the week... Aside from various teens and young relies coming and going for stay-overs on various nights, it went like this:

Monday A farewell dinner for the very delightfully positioned Queen's Wood writing group. We always met – at the kind generosity of one of our members, who runs the place – at the Queen's Wood Café in (obvs) Queen's Wood. This is one of those lovely things that make life in this city more than bearable: once the Victorian home of the woodsman and his family, now a café tucked into the ancient woods, which have thankfully been left alone to be woods, without a great deal of 'managing' and manicuring. As an ex-New Yorker, it's still astonishing to me that such a thing can exist in a world capital, a little pocket of left-alone old world.

At any event, a lovely meal and wonderful to see the writing group one last time, gathered for a jolly vegetarian spread provided by the café. It has been a treat to be one of the lucky ones who got to duck under the chain with the CLOSED sign on it, and waltzed in. I look forward to enjoying the friendships made there even if we're not meeting monthly.

Tuesday I made the post-work dash from Shoreditch to the West End, with my record of 45 minutes. Even so, I was just late enough to miss Sir Tim Rice's introduction to the cast and crew preview screening of his (now-filmed) musical From Here to Eternity, which they kindly gave me a plus one to and so I had a chum to watch it with. What did I think? A tricksy one. In truth, I'm not really a musicals kind of person. The songs often seem to just get in the way of the story and I find myself with that oh-god-here-we-go-again feeling as the next person takes a deep breath. The sole recent exception to this has been Matilda, which is performed entirely in song and is never boring. But back to FHTE... A couple of the songs have stuck in my head, notably '30 Year Man', which is a good sign, and it was very well acted, with some complicated and entertaining dance and fight routines. But, overall, it was too long. My companion, who is more of a musicals person, thought it could have lost a good 20 minutes, so it wasn't just me. I know which bit could be dropped: at least a scene each from the love stories. There was also a disconcerting moment when the lead had a little pick of his nose before remembering he was being filmed, the image of which has unfortunately stayed with me. Still, for all you musical and Tim Rice fans, look out for this in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from 3 July.

Wednesday Are you getting tired yet? Because I sure was. But an old friend I barely see since our lives have diverged for various reasons (OK, entirely because I no longer go to an Agatha Christie book group he is a founding member of, but let me stress, this is not how we met: that goes back to a French film evening class some time ago, but that's definitely another story), so when he emailed to say he was going to be in The Bull (, post attending yet another book group (this one a more general mystery one), I said yes. He lives in deepest, darkest sarf London, so I don't know when I'd see him otherwise. I'm glad I went. Was good to see him and, also, I got to hear all the book-group gossip, which would make the basis for a good murder mystery all on its own.

Thursday A long-standing arrangement to meet up with a couple of chums for drinks at The Alwyne Castle definitely couldn't be cancelled, even though going meant the fourth night out in a row post-work. We ladies always seem to be so busy, that finding a night we're all free is like finding a hen's tooth and not to be dismissed lightly. V glad I went. lots of laughter and bonhomie and general merriness – plus, two very clever, good-company drinkers. Here's to next time, ladies. Cheers! (

Friday At last, but no rest for the weary. Tonight's fare was a Graham Parker and the Rumour concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, with support from Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze fame. Oh, yes. If you don't remember these folks, it's not too late to discover them. Actually, it probably is. When these old rockers come out, it's their original fan base who are roaring and stamping their appreciation, and the love going back and forth, well, let's just say a new generation might enjoy the music but could possibly feel a little left out. Or not. Don't want to dissuade anyone from having a listen. All I know is, on the way there, with a headache from peering at a computer screen all week, plus exhaustion from working full-time, going out every night and wondering how the heck a new working arrangement (which I have NOT bored you with, you lucky things) is going to slot in, I wondered if going was such a good idea. By the time we left, after over 2 hours of rocking out, I was energized. Thank you, Graham Parker and, my fave name of almost all time, Brinsley Schwartz, for a fab night. (And apols: this is not my picture of them.)

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Paris, France

From Scotland, there was a brief, 48-hour stopover in London to wash clothes, go to work and other not-so-interesting things, and then – bang, off to Paris for the following 48 hours, as bro and his fam were there from California for a few days before heading down to the Dordogne. It was their first time in the French capital and not knowing when – or even if – they'd make it back, were keen to hit as many spots as poss. Thanksfully, they'd already been to quite a few before we arrived.

This first pic is the view from our room in the Hotel Beaumarais (, which was in the Bastille district and, working out even better than I'd imagined, around the corner from the apartment my brother had rented for their stay. Of course, I knew we'd be near, but not that near.

For the record, our hotel was absolutely fine: clean enough, great location (ie, around the corner from my brother's and, also, a perfectly reasonable walk to the centre of town or about a 2-minute walk from a Metro station). There's a bar downstairs, so if you leave your window open you can hear a fair amount of late-night chatter, etc, but this wasn't unbearable and we were tired enough to fall asleep anyway. Best thing about the hotel is the desk staff, who couldn't be more helpful. While it's true my bank card went walkabout during our stay, I can't hand-on-heart say it was taken from our room, though I didn't take it out with me either. Best guess is a cleaner, but I don't like to accuse without proof, so will continue to call it a mystery. But I digress...

We did a lot of walking, which is a lovely way to see this city. There are so many beautiful buildings and quiet corners, like an institute (pictured), whose courtyard was open to the public. Or the 13th century monastery, within a (slightly) more modern building. An artist had installed his piece that I think was called 'String' (also pictured). He was very friendly and spoke perfect English, telling us he spent many years in San Francisco and inviting us back for the evening festivities (music and a talk, and a sort of 'tying up' of things with the installation). It all coincided with Museum Night, when – as the name implies – the city's museums are open until midnight or even later, with free admission from the evening on. It sounded great at the time, but come that evening, we were quite happy to eat the local patisserie's quiche and bread with a salad and some nice wine in the rented apartment, and just talk.
When I was last in Paris, maybe three years ago, there were a number of so-called 'love locks' on the Pont de l'Archeveche, over the Seine near Notre Dame. Now on this bridge, there are locks on locks, locks on the lampposts, locks on the statues. In fact, there is so much metal that my sister-in-law, who knows about these things, said it must be reaching the point where the bridge could collapse under the excess weight. However, there were no gendarmes warning people off from adding their own love locks, as there were three years ago, so perhaps they've given up now.

We went to my (and 80 bizillion other people's) favourite Parisian museum, the Musée d'Orsay (, in the old train station opposite the Tuileries on the Seine. As well as admiring all the paintings, and the wonderful view of the city from the roof terrace, I got to pay a visit to Polar Bear, by François Pompon, who alone makes a visit to Paris worthwhile. It's always a good trip when I've been to see him.

The other 'big' thing we did this time round was go to Père Lachaise, the atmospheric cemetery in western Paris. Well, we did have two young things with us and they were keen, as it seems many young things are, to go see where dead famous people are buried. And this cemetery has more than its share of celebs: Chopin, Proust, Colette, Bizet and, my favourite, Oscar Wilde. Our young ones were especially taken by the idea of seeing Jim Morrison's plot, as he has made this cemetery a bit of a must-see for a certain sort of tourist. At least, so I confidently told everyone: "There will be goths dressed all in black standing about and his grave has its own guard to stop it being defiled."

How wrong I was. Now, it is crowded by daytrippers who have made a 'gum tree': wads of chewed gum stuck to the trunk of the nearest tree. Truly revolting. And everyone snapping away (moi included). Somehow, the spectactors have become the spectacle and I only wish Wilde were here in person, because I'm sure he'd have something pithy and clever to say about that.

Lastly, we were all taken by this haughty lion (not in the cemetery, but outside an official building) , who looks disdainfully at all who pass.

Paris, you are always a delight, even stuffed full of tourists. How the Parisians stand us all I don't know, but thank god they do.