Monday, April 15, 2019

This weekend: we hiked the Chilterns

It all started Friday afternoon, when I took a train to Marlow, the Best Kept Village in Buckinghamshire:

Just in case you doubted.

I must confess, while I hadn't yet been to any other villages in Buckinghamshire, I could see it. It had everything one could want in a village:

A church on the Thames, next to the rowing club

A suspension bridge, natch

And the first pub in England with two Michelin stars: the Hand and Flowers. It's this that brought me here, where I had a table booked for lunch.

Lovage soup with Bramley apple, smoked eel, pickled garlic, and ham & cheese tortellini // Essex lamb 'bun' with sweetbreads and salsa verde. Everything was gorgeous and balanced and I enjoyed every bite.

It was after this filling meal that it was time to start Friday's hike: Marlow to the village of Skirmett, where Al would be meeting me after work. We were staying in a quintessential, ancient pub-inn called The Frog (get it! The Frog at Skirmett!). I had a hiking trail map the size of a single bed sheet to guide me there, and I set out with energy and confidence.

I immediately and successfully found the start of the footpath I was looking for; my heart soared. So far, so good! This map is the BEST.

It's a single lane! I can't get lost here!

Or here! 

Oh man, it's just too easy.

Now I'm practically skipping. I'll get to Skirmett in no time!

And then . . . I hit a forest. 

But that's okay! The path is still VERY clearly defined. No forks, junctions, or anything that could possibly indicate a turning or change of direction. Just keep following the trail, you're fiiiine.

Then, I get to this, the first of several IMPENETRABLE SIGNPOSTS:

Uh.

I soon spot a father with his two kids. He's wearing a sweater tied over his shoulders and his eyeglasses are bright blue plastic. Right away I knew he was the right man to ask. 

Me, unfolding parachute-sized map: Excuse me, can you tell me where I am on this? I'm trying to get here. (I helpfully point.)
Him: Oh yes! You're in this forest. (Points with vigour at a green blob much farther south than the one I had expected.) Did you know that these ravines you see everywhere are trenches from 1914 and 15, where they trained soldiers before they went off to war? (Kids start to wander off as he gets rolling.) 

Aforementioned trenches, actually pretty cool

Me: So, um, if I want to get here (pointing to green blob farther north and west), what path should I take? 

Him: You see that hill through the trees?: 


Me: . . . Yes. 
Him: You want to go down that valley and up over that hill and down the other side. You're in luck, we're heading that way ourselves! But we don't have to walk together if you don't want to. 
Me: Um. (fingers earbuds dangling from my neck)
Him: We'll see you on the trail, then!

And so we happily leap-frogged paths for the next hour, with a chat at each intersection. I learned why mother sheep holler so much (a lamb-call-and-response system) and which birds of prey could be found in the woods we traversed. The last I saw him was when he took a break with his kids on a pile of logs, thermoses in hand, pouring out tea. 'See you down the lane!' I called, waving. 'Try to spot the deer!' he called back. 

I never saw the family again, and immediately got lost.

I went up hills . . . 

. . . and down hills.

Across fields . . . 

. . . and over stiles. 

And then finally, I reached a road that I recognised on the map. That road led to a new footpath, next to a small parish, where yet another another kindly man emerged to show me on the map that I was in the home stretch. ('You're staying at the Frog in Skirmett?? Get it?? It's Kermit!') It's the first time in my two and a half hours that I'd encountered anyone who'd even HEARD of Skirmett.

I enter one last portal-path, a blissfully straight shot, much like how my journey began, so many innocent hours ago:


When I pop out the other side, my destination is in sight at last: the Best Kept Hamlet in Buckinghamshire:

I crossed that field at a near-skip, youguys. I was THRILLED. Also chilled to my bones. It was getting late, and cold. And that pub had a roaring fire, and local cask ales, and my cosy little room was tucked away upstairs, and I was happy.

The next day, I'm with Alan, and we're going to DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN. This time, though, the hike was three miles instead of six, and would take us through two villages, which turned out to be VERY convenient to keeping us on track. 

This wood was in full spring bloom, not a trench in sight.

It didn't take long before we crested a hill and saw the first village - Fingest! - at our feet. We bounced straight down, buoyant with flawless navigation.

Looks like a Fingest, doesn't it?


Once we passed the church, Fingest was done, and we joined the footpath once again. The guide we carried reassured us that we'd be gratified to see the windmill from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the top of the hill before dropping into the next village, but it was so high up and hidden by the owner's foliage, we could barely see the top.

COOL VIEW,  TOTALLY WORTH THAT STRAIGHT VERTICAL CLIMB.

But then we see Turville, the last village, at our feet, and once again we sail down the hill.  Fun fact about Turville: it's where the BBC filmed a show called The Vicar of Dibley.

Obviously a comedy.


The windmill shows off from literally every other vantage point other than the one that directly passes next to it.

Then that night, we head back into Marlow, where we stayed in a delightful guest house, the Glade End, and ate at another Tom Kerridge pub, the Coach, more casual but no less delightful. 

And then we come to Sunday, our last day of hiking before we head back to London. 

And within minutes, we take the wrong path going the wrong direction.
It's like a gift. Or a curse, specifically brought on by the entrance into a forest. 

But then we spot two bounding, friendly dogs, followed by two bounding, friendly ladies, and they immediately guide us not only on to the right path, but advised us to take a fun little detour: 

RIGHT ON TO THE GROUNDS OF CHEQUERS. 

That's right. A footpath sensibly goes right across it. It was just us, a wood, a field, and a million security cameras.

After this relaxing, random jaunt, we headed back toward the villages our guide actually wanted us to go to, where we encountered thatched-roof cottages and ponies at every turn. 

       
So picturesque I wanted to punch myself. Also, both of these ponies were very . . . assertive, in their attentions. The black one kept butting us while the blond one tried to eat my jacket. We couldn't climb the stile out of that field fast enough. 

Climbed a hill, saw a landscape, futilely tried to take a photo to capture it.

And then, exhausted but exhilarated, we headed back to London. 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Day 31: we slide

Remember that day we went rock-climbing and met friends at the pub after? These same friends had many great ideas for Tryanuary, one of which was trampolining, one of the biggest wins of this month of new things. The other idea I did today: the AcelorMittal Orbit slide. It seemed fitting when I booked it: the whole metaphor of ending a month of blogging on a rush, sliding into home, etc., etc. [insert fitting clich├ęs here].

Plus as a local, I got a whole pound off the ticket price! Bonus.

I must confess in advance that I thought I knew what part of this hot-mess-of-an-Olympic-viewing-platform was the slide. It's obviously the wide silver bit, right?

That looks fun!

But as I'm approaching, far closer than I've ever been before, I clock something: some sort of HVAC tube slinking down the back? What IS that? 

I get closer. My heart sinks as I realise: THAT'S THE MOTHER FLIPPING SLIDE: 

Yes, that thing held up by cables, that looks like the back of my computer station.

HOLY MOTHER OF NOOOOOOOPE. WHAT HAVE I DONE.

It's not improved by the lift up, peppered full of delightful facts like 'The ArcelorMittal Orbit is taller than the Statue of Liberty!' and 'The slide is the longest and tallest tunnel slide in the world'. That's when I tried to stop the elevator. This isn't happening.

When we get to the top, I see this pic they've got on display. My early, flopping fear crystallises:

YOUGUYS THEY PUT YOU IN A POTATO SACK TO GO DOWN. AND A HELMET. AND ARM GUARDS. AND THAT TUBE IS VERTICAL.

You don't understand what all this communicates to me in the course of the three seconds it took me to digest it. Unfathomable speed. Speed that would burn bare arms if they touched the side. And most importantly: UNCONTROLLABLE speed. 

Y'all, I purposefully wore my boots with the rubber soles this morning thinking I could use my heels to slow my descent. 

MORE FOOL ME NOW PUT THESE IN A SACK. 

I'm in a state of panic as the helmet gets strapped on and the arm pads get pulled on over my wool coat. OVER MY WOOL COAT. You know, because NO PART OF YOU CAN TOUCH THE SLIDE ON THE WAY DOWN, NOT EVEN YOUR COAT.

Then they lay you down on a giant, body-length pad with the pouch at the bottom (to conveniently collect your organs?) and give you a rope to hold onto that's attached to the foot pouch, and show you how to position your head (lifted, so as to see your death coming more clearly). This (not my pic, they wouldn't allow mobile phones on the slide, another red flag) is what it looks like:

'Don't let go the handle!' they say. 'Just relax your shoulders!' they say. 'Why are you crying?' they say. 

As they pried my fingers off the top of the slide, they reassured me: the drop you see ahead of you, that looks so vertical you can't see the bottom of it, that's the steepest one and then it's just straight relaxation all the way to the bottom. 15mph of sheer relaxation. THEY ARE LYING TO YOU. There were MANY drops that left my stomach behind and not a few instances in which I was whipped so far around the sides that I thought I'd do a full circuit around the top. The tunnel itself alternated between having a clear plastic top -  in theory to see the view, but in reality to see the blur - or being entrenched in total darkness. I preferred the dark every time. The void is the safe place. The windows always seemed to coincide with a mad drop-spin combo. When you see the light growing ahead, BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID. 

I should've seen it all coming when I saw this quote by the slide's designer in the ticket lobby:
Madness, Carsten. Just madness.

Oh, but the views from the top! Not at all too high! 
 I'm lying to you as much as an Orbit Operator lies to its sliders. 

Review: I survived. I didn't wet myself. And there was a moment, about halfway through, where I stopped swearing, and did indeed relax my shoulders. And then I sailed.

However, this is the future distance between me and the Orbit.

Mije, the jerk who suggested this, at least had the integrity to do it with me. The nail in the coffin of our friendship occurred when, while waiting for him at the bottom, I heard him inside, WHOOPING. 

It's been a wild ride, trying something new for 31 straight days. Lessons learned: new things can be AWESOME. Also terrible. And next year, we're doing this in February instead. 

Thanks to all who read along, and if I do any other firsts this year (the list of things to try has only grown), I'll definitely share it here. 

Big hugs and lots of love,
Essss

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Day 30: we box

I just got my butt kicked for an hour and a half. Quite literally, kicked.

Here is one of the many things I learned today: boxing is a TON of leg-work. I honestly had no idea. I thought it was just a bunch of bouncing around and jabbing. Turns out I was very, very wrong. I spent half of our session unsuccessfully blocking kicks from this guy:


Mike, our trainer, was so fast that when I'd throw out my (shin-padded) leg to block one kick, he'd instantly bounce to the other leg and WHACK! WHACK WHACK WHACK! It's like I was moving in slow motion. It was also a comedy when he was teaching me the various kicks. The high kicks were the worst. I don't know if you know this about me, but the highest my leg goes is roughly knee-height. It's just wonderful how flexible I am. Every time he'd encourage me to kick his side or his stomach, I'd futilely swing my leg up as high as I could and smack him in the thigh. At one point he grabbed my foot and lifted it to the right height and while I was windmilling, he told me, 'You have to open your hips.' OPEN MY HIPS. I gathered as much dignity and balance as I could while having my leg hoisted in the air and angled to the side like he indicated to get my shin facing the right way. 'You have to open your hips!' he repeated. I protested: 'I am!' 'No, like THIS' and before I could blink, he twisted my entire leg and I nearly face-planted on the mat. 'Like THAT,' he said with satisfaction.

It wasn't much better when I sparred with Nigel, the friend who brought me. He's a member of the boxing gym, fights in actual matches, and is clearly a madman. He was so good that he could block all my kicks without even breaking eye contact. He also had to keep reminding me to keep my gloves up; if I were in a real match, I would've been punched in the face every six seconds. 

I limped all the way home. 

Much to Mike's glee.

I'm almost sad that tomorrow we end this month of torture. 

Cheers,
S.



Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Day 29: we tartare

So today WAS going to be Curtain-Hemming Day (the great idea of Lisa), until I realised that I'd have to extract the ladder from the garden shed to get them down and I happen to be terrified of ladders. Luckily for me, I did some design research that told me pooling-curtain lengths are ALL the rage, so I've decided to embrace the look and remove 'hemming curtains' from my to-do list entirely. So the end result was the same: I got to take it off the list! Lisa, you're brilliant.

In its place, something else I've been wanting to do: make steak tartare.

I love raw food in any of its forms - carpaccio, ceviche, tartare, sashimi - there's not a version I don't enjoy (well, maybe not Torisashi, though *technically* I haven't tried it yet, and maybe it's amazing?? If you've had it, lmk). But while I feel comfortable messing about with raw fish, for some reason it didn't occur to me I could also mess about with raw beef. That is, until our neighbour in France invited us over for lunch last time we were there, and made it for us. It was so good and as he pointed out, so simple; I made a mental note to try it myself.

Today is that day.

First things first: I needed the right butcher. If one is going to eat raw, uncooked beef, it's got to be fresh. So I took a left at the bottom of our street instead of a right and headed for the fanciest part of our neighbourhood: Victoria Park Village.

They don't let you forget it's a village, either.

So much twee, so little money under the mattress. It's why I usually go right.

And then we get to my butcher of choice: Ginger Pig, with its ethical animal husbandry and best sausage roll in London. This is where to go to get a cut of meat good enough to eat raw: 

Church spire, unstripped bikes, fancy doggo - check, check, check. I jangle the coins in my pocket so everyone knows I belong. 

They dry-age most of their beef so I had to tell them I was tartaring it and they picked out the perfect cut for me: 
One of each. 

Then I took home my beautiful fillet tail and gazed at it lovingly for a no doubt hazardous length of time: 

Who wouldn't want to cram this raw straight into their mouth? 

But no, that's not how it's done. It must be cHopPeD first, because we are not a dOg. I used Nigella's recipe - mostly so that I had an excuse to look at her like I did at this meat - and it. was. great. I'd probably use slightly less gherkin next time (I suspect our pickles are larger than the ones she was suggesting), but that's the only thing I'd change. It was exactly what I wanted: 

That yolk on top - *kisses tips of fingers* - could watch it cascade over my beef all day. 

Uh. 

Happy Tartare Tuesday!

Cheers,
Essss



Monday, January 28, 2019

Day 28: we reflect

The gunmen entered his flat. They were going door to door, pulling the Tutsi out, and shooting them in the street. The killers saw his football pictures; he was a famous footballer, despite his youth. He was spared. He flees to a teammate's, who, with the help of the Red Cross, gets him out.

This survivor, 25 years later, of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, told his tale tonight at the British Library. Eric Murangwa says of being a refugee, a survivor: 'You cannot be unknown.'

We heard tonight not only from the Rwandan goalkeeper, but also from the Polish filmmaker of Birds Are Singing in Kingali - Joanna Kos-Krauze - and David Belton, who produced the film Shooting Dogs and authored When the Hills Ask for Your Blood.

It was a powerful night, reflecting on the numbers - one million killed in one hundred days - on the heels of Holocaust Memorial Day.

I also enjoyed the Cats Through Literature exhibit, but that's a talk for another day.

Big love to you and yours,
Esss