Au revoir Brittany! Back to blogging!

Although it’s been a wonderful summer, it feels, as always, good to get back to my desk, to my computer and to my blog. I’ve had nearly 3 weeks ‘off’ – I use that term more because it is a general expression, not because I see it as any kind of chore. In truth, I have missed my blog! The reason I have posted so rarely is because I was a) doing so much reading, b) got totally sidetracked by a nearly impossible jigsaw puzzle at our holiday home (!), and c) was just having a great time with the family. When I wasn’t reading we were cooking, eating, talking, staring at the stars, a sight we are not so used to in our light-polluted Greater Manchester suburb, getting out and about, all the things you do on holiday, really. It’s been a fantastic break for all of us and we have all come back newly energised to face into the new academic year (it’s another big one for our family), ready to meet new challenges and set new goals.

974db1fd-e67b-4366-9e06-9cac492fef1b-1125-00000161832e76ce_fileI managed to read all three of the books I took on holiday with me, and enjoyed all of them immensely. They were Harvesting by Lisa Harding, Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. I’ll be posting reviews of them over the next few weeks.

So before I launch into the ‘new year’ (I’ve posted here before that I find September a more effective time to start things than January), I would like to close off the summer with some pictures of beautiful Brittany. We stayed in Cancale, well-known for its oysters, something I eat maybe once every couple of years – twice in a fortnight is enough!

I loved Mont-St Michel, over the border in Normandy. It was absolutely thronged, but we arrived early afternoon and by 5pm the crowds had thinned significantly.

We visited beautiful Dinan, ‘town of history and art’, a couple of times and I loved it. One tip if you go there – don’t expect to be able to get lunch after 2pm!

Another favourite was Ile-de-Brehat, a wonderful island, just off the coast near Paimpoul. It’s tiny, rugged, and there are no cars. You can hike from one end to the other, or as we chose to do, cycle all the way round.

Finally, from my holiday photo album, recognise this?

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I was delighted to be able to visit St Malo, setting of Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel All the Light You Cannot Seea truly beautiful town.

Have you ever visited Brittany or been to any of these wonderful places?

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The Hay Festival 2018

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Before the crowds and the sun arrived. Hours later children were climbing all over the famous letters.

This weekend I fulfilled a long-held ambition and visited the Hay Festival. First established in 1988, this foremost of literary events is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has spawned a number of copycat events worldwide – including in Mexico, Spain, Denmark and India. Bill Clinton famously referred to Hay as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’. I’ve been meaning to go for years, but it never seems to have been the right time. This year, circumstances were in my favour and I realised, only last week, that I could actually go! Hay-on-Wye, is in Powys mid-Wales, and although it was a long trip I decided to drive there and back in a day (mainly on country roads through beautiful Welsh and English villages incidentally). It was the most amazing and stimulating day and I’m already blocking out my diary for next year – I’m staying in one of those yurts!

Ruta

My day started with a talk from the wonderful American-Lithuanian YA author Ruta Sepetys, who was discussing her latest book Salt to the Sea. It’s a book about the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, by a Soviet torpedo, with the loss of 9,000 lives, mostly Lithuanian refugees, who were trying to escape the advancing Red Army. I can’t wait to read it, so look out for my review.

2018-05-27-13-53-56.jpgI then saw Rupert Everett (with whom I fell in love years ago after his appearances in films Another Country and Dance with a Stranger in the mid-1980s) in conversation with Alan Yentob. Everett has just completed his film about Oscar Wilde, a passion project which it has taken over ten years to bring to fruition. There was a BBC4 Imagine documentary about it a couple of weeks ago.

 

In the afternoon, I watched Cambridge academic Terri Apter give a talk about her new book Passing Judgement: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life which made me reflect on how I interact with my children, my partner and others around me, and how my responses to praise/blame may have been shaped by my early life experience. Fascinating stuff.

ElifShafakFinally, my last event of the day was hearing Turkish author Elif Shafak speaking about her new book The Forty Rules of Love. I reviewed her novel The Bastard of Istanbul on this blog a few months ago. I wasn’t made about it, but hearing her speak, I must say, was inspiring. She is a remarkable woman of deep learning, great sensitivity, multilingual and came across as a very nice person to boot. Stunning talk.

I lingered for some time, even when I knew I ought to be heading home to make sure my teenager had got out of bed. Though there was heavy rain and thunderstorms in the morning, the sun blazed all afternoon. It is a magnificent setting, the town, which I did not get to explore, is delightful, and there are so many events to choose from, many of them free. The Haydays festival within a festival, aimed at children and young people, offers a packed schedule for the little ones. There is a marvellous on-site bookshop, Oxfam bookshop, food outlets and a few retail stalls. But this is primarily a festival to make you think, not make you spend, and I heartily recommend it.

Next year’s festival takes place 23 May – 2 June. You can also subscribe to the Hay Player for £10 which enables you to watch or listen to the archive of thousands of events from Hay over the years.

Have you been to the Hay Festival? What were your impressions?

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Half-term literary activities for kids

As another half-term holiday approaches, parents up and down the land will be seeking-out activities to do with their children. Hopefully, the weather will be good, which, when mine were younger, meant picnics in the park, walks in woodlands or county cycle rides. As they get a bit older, these are not always as exciting as they once were and it is often the case that parents have to provide at least one ‘centrepiece’ activity, something that is a bit more special. You could do worse than provide a literary slant to such an outing, so here are a few suggestions:

Hill Top, Cumbria

hill TopFormer home of Beatrix Potter, now in the care of the National Trust. A must for lovers of Peter Rabbit, which may now have added resonance after the release of the film earlier this year.

Haydays Festival, Hay-on-Wye

The annual Herefordshire literary festival runs from 24 May to 3 June and there is as always a packed programme for children and adults alike, with forest schools and crafts, as well as the to-be-expected author talks. Tickets can be booked here.

Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

At the other end of the UK, there will be lots of fun and performance in Edinburgh between 26 May-3 June. See the full programme here.

Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, Newcastle upon Tyne

seven-storiesI was living in Newcastle when this place opened and I’m thrilled to see its thriving. They have a fantastic programme of events. Take a look here.

 

 

 

roald-dahl-museum

 

Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden, Bucks.

I haven’t met a child who doesn’t love Roald Dahl and so a visit here would be a huge treat. It’s the former home of the author, where he lived for 36 years and they have a running programme of events. Full details here.

 

Harry Potter experience, Warner Bros Studios, near Watford

At the pricier end of the spectrum and tickets need to be booked in advance, so it’s likely to be busy at half term, but a treat for die-hard fans of the young wizard. Details here.

Alternatively, you could visit Alnwick Castle, where much of the action was filmed, or Kings Cross station, and stand at platform nine and three quarters!

 

shakespeare's birthplaceStratford upon Avon

For year 9s and upwards, attention will be turning to GCSEs. A Shakespeare text is compulsory on the English literature syllabus, so a visit to Stratford, the Bard’s birthplace and home, will give some context. You could even take in a play. Details of all the relevant places are here.

I hope that whets your appetites.

I would love to hear your suggestions, particularly any events that may be a bit cheaper!

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Relaxing in The Netherlands

Holland is a fascinating country. My family and I have been going there for years, usually spending a week or so there in the Spring. Whenever I tell people that I am off to the Netherlands they utter an interested “Oh!” but I am sure that what they are really thinking is “Why?”!

IMGP0012.JPGWe spend our Spring break in the south of the province of Zeeland, in an area that borders Belgium and which was until very recently separated from the rest of the country by the mighty Schelde river.  The opening of a 6km vehicle tunnel in 2003 beneath the Schelde at the town of Terneuzen, brought huge economic benefits to the area. On a map, Zeeland looks like a collection of islands jutting out into the North Sea, which appear to be joined to the rest of the country by the most tenuous of links. In truth, this part of the Netherlands does indeed have a tenuous grip on the land, much of it having been reclaimed from the water by sheer force of will and human ingenuity. These tracts of land are known as polders and maintaining the dikes and the drainage systems, the sea defences and the canals, is a national preoccupation.

From time to time, the sea reasserts itself (and we will no doubt see more of this across the world as low-lying lands will be the first to be hit by climate change and rising sea levels). The last major incident was in January 1953, when a storm surge in the North Sea led to the deaths of 2,551 people, including 1,836 in the Netherlands, and 326 in eastern England and Scotland. A total of 9% of Dutch farmland was under water. (See the images below of exhibits from the wonderful Watersnoodsmuseum in Ouwekerk.)

I have only known about the 1953 flood since 2002, when we first started going to this part of the Netherlands, and every year I have learned more and am increasingly fascinated not only by the history of this and similar events, but also by the relationship the country has with the sea and mor widely with nature. Much of the landscape of Zeeland is man-made, many of the beaches where we have spent some glorious sunny days have been created, but I find there is a greater harmony between human enterprise and nature and an immense respect for the natural world that I have seen in few other places.

 

From where we stay in the village of Hoofdplaat, in the area known as West-Zeeuws Vlanderen (nearest town is Breskens), we are within cycling distance of many pretty Dutch towns. We are also driving distance from the Belgian towns of  Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, even Brussels. Amsterdam and Rotterdam are even do-able on a day trip.

Our annual trip to the Netherlands is one of the most relaxing and energising weeks of my year. The biggest problem is returning to gridlocked England and making the snail’s-pace journey back up to the north via the M25 and M6. As for the potholes…! Something you seldom see on Dutch roads. I recommend Zeeland for a relaxing break…just don’t tell anybody. Please.

Which places do you find most relaxing? What quality is it that creates that feeling for you?

 

East London treasures

I spent a weekend in east London over the half term holiday. I was doing some research for a book that I’m working on and wanted to visit the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, examining relevant documents, photographs and records. The staff there were fantastically helpful and knowledgeable and if you have any family connection with the area I definitely recommend paying them a visit.

East London is fascinating and historic, and if you are planning to visit the capital I would encourage you to spend some time there. It is less crowded than the more touristy beaten track, and a good deal less pricey, both for accommodation and food. Here are some of my tips for places you should definitely include on your next trip:

Whitechapel Art Gallery

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Stunning modern art and sculpture. It was the first publicly-funded gallery in London for contemporary art. It now incorporates the former Passmore Edwards library, which you can see to the right of the gallery entrance. Free entry.

The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green

V&A

Another stunning museum, displaying toys and other child-related goods through the ages. There are always different activities and changing exhibitions on, as well as talks and workshops. Also free entry.

The Ragged School Museum

ragged school museum

I haven’t visited this one myself yet as its opening hours are somewhat limited, but I’ve heard it’s a great experience, giving visitors a taste of a Victorian school pupil’s life. Definitely on my must see list. Admission free.

 

 

A day’s walk around the area will be enough to give you a sense of the history of this part of London. Don’t miss the following:

Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, 1936

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Stunning mural on the side of St George’s Vestry Hall. It commemorates the Battle of Cable Street which took place in 1936 when demonstrators protested against a march by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists through this area, which had a large and well-established Jewish community. Mosley abandoned his attempt to pass along this route.

The Parish Church of St George’s in the East

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Stunning parish church which was built in the early 18th century

Wilton’s Music Hall

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Opened in the mid-19th century Wilton’s was a popular and well-known music hall venue, but poverty and war in the 20th century saw it fall into dereliction and used for other purposes, including a soup kitchen. It is now Grade II listed and gradually being restored and remains a thriving arts venue.

 

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The former Church of St Augustine and St Philip in Newark Street, amidst the vast complex of the London Hospital, now houses the university medical library, but in the crypt you will find a fascinating public museum which tells you about the history of ‘the London’ and the establishment of the NHS more generally.

St Dunstan’s Church

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Beautiful church, parts of which date back to the 14th century, that was one of the few buildings in the area largely unaffected by bombing in the area in World War II.

Tower Hamlets cemetery park

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Resting place for over 350,000 souls (mostly in unmarked public graves) it is now a vast nature reserve with a very active network of Friends which works hard to preserve the heritage of the site and make it an enjoyable local amenity. Stunning, peaceful and very moving.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for gems of east London. 

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The Top 10 things I love about Lisbon

So, our wonderful holiday in Portugal has come to an end. After a week of rest and relaxation on the Silver Coast (near Obidos) we headed for a few days in the country’s capital, Lisbon, a city I have been wanting to visit for years. It did not disappoint. More compact and lower key than some other European capitals it comes in at number nine on TripAdvisor’s top European destinations, ahead of the likes of arguably more famous places like Amsterdam, Venice, Florence and Edinburgh. Excluding our arrival and departure days, we were there for four full days, and there was far more to do than we could squeeze in. The high August temperatures (mostly exceeding 30 degrees Celsius during the day) and the peak time crowds made sightseeing more challenging than it might be at other times of the year, which perhaps slowed us up a bit. Other people (and those without kids) might be able to pack more in. We were not in a hurry (we are determined to go back again anyway!) and spent a lot of time just watching the world go by in cafes, bars and restaurants. Here are the top 10 things I love about Lisbon:

1. The views

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Lisbon is a city of hills. There are many opportunities to get a higher perspective of the city and the surrounding area, including plenty of  well signposted Miradouros (viewpoints).

2. Castelo de Sao Jorge

2017-08-20 13.34.46This ancient fortress up on a hill is a potted Portugese history lesson. It’s fabulous and from here you can get a panoramic view of the city. You take the antique Tram 28 to reach it. Aside from the main site I recommend the tour of the ancient archaeological area (above, where they have found evidence of habitation as far back as the Iron Age) which is generally under-attended, and is fascinating because you get to see and understand exactly how people have lived in and used the fortress over the centuries.

3. Museu de Farmacia

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Quirky museum by day, bar and restaurant by night with some fab cocktails (both with and without alcohol), imaginatively served. See above, #Elixir, #Oxymetazol, Vinho Verde (see 6), and we-won’t-rip-you-off-by-making-you-buy-bottled-water H2O (see 4).

4. It’s relatively good value

I grew up in London, but haven’t lived there for 20 years now. When I go back as a visitor I am struck by the hugely inflated prices compared to the rest of the country. Sadly, this is true of many major cities. Lisbon, indeed, Portugal as a whole, does not fleece its tourists. Long may it last. Food, drinks, travel, entry prices all seem reasonable, even in the light of Sterling’s weakness against the Euro.

5. The Waterfront

We took many an evening stroll along the waterfront, where there was a great buzz. The stunning Praca do Comercio (above right) looks majestically out over the River Tejo. It lies at the foot of the area of Chiado, the main shopping and commercial hub of the city.

6. Vinho Verde

The so-called Portugese ‘green wine’ is very drinkable indeed, and ridiculously cheap for the quality!

7. Cascais

Golden beaches are less than half an hour by train (for 2 Euro!) from the city centre. The husband took the two girls for the day and had a fantastic time. A great escape if the sightseeing is getting too much!

8. Fish

To see? At the amazing Oceanarium on the Expo site to the north of the city – did you know that a cuttlefish looked like this?

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To eat? Fantastic fish is served everywhere, and Mr Cuttlefish is very tasty as well as cute! Cacilhas, a suburb of the city just a short hop across the river seems to be almost entirely made up of fish restaurants.

9. Pastellaria

If you have a sweet tooth, expect to be well-supplied in Portugal. From the delicious Pastel de Natas (ubiquitous small custard tarts) to Macarons (below) you will find much to choose from in the many small cafes and bakeries serving fine coffee and cakes.

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10. The people

Portugese people are warm, kind, laid-back and welcoming. The language is very different to Spanish and most visitors will not have even a smattering of Portugese, I suspect (though it’s a fascinating language and I’m determined to learn a little before I go again). The natives don’t seem to mind, however, and most speak excellent English. Lisboans seem quietly proud of their city and so they should be. As such, they are delighted to help you and keen that you as a visitor should have a great experience in their city.

If you have been to Lisbon I would love to hear what your highlights were. 

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