Go to Wimbledon – number 38

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The excitement begins!

Every year I’m glued to the television when Wimbledon is on and every year I lament the fact that I haven’t got tickets. So after Wimbledon 2015, I made sure that I would remember. I made a note in my calendar when the ballot opened so that I couldn’t miss the deadline. In September the reminder popped up and I duly sent off for the form and returned the completed form in double quick time.

I’ll be honest, I then forgot about it until one bleak day in February when a non descript white envelope arrived in the post. I rarely get post these days that isn’t trying to give me money (in the form of a loan or new credit card that is) or asking for money so didn’t really think anything of it. When I opened it though – the excitement began. I first noticed the Wimbledon logo and then the words ‘ballot successful’. And it just got better – Centre Court, pair of tickets….Friday 8th July 2016. At that point I started bouncing around the room – Friday 8th July is men’s semi final day, and I had Centre Court tickets! I’d get to see Djokovic and maybe Murray and Federer too! I had a few days in which to pay or the tickets would go back into the ballot. I didn’t need to think, I paid straight away.

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Gangway 114, on the right court side

The tickets themselves didn’t arrive until May and at that point I had no idea where we were sitting. I opened the envelope with the tickets and saw gangway 114. I had expected to be high up so this was no surprise. I googled the seating plan for Centre Court and imagine my surprise when I discovered gangway 114 was in fact court side and the tickets were for row C. Could this really be right – could I really be only three rows back on the best court in the world for the semi-finals of the best tennis tournament in the world? It seemed so and I was bouncing around the room with excitement again.

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Gordon Reid on his way to Wimbledon victory

Following much excitement in the lead up and, of course, avid watching of the tournament so far, the day finally dawned. My expectation to see Djokovic had been dashed but I was not perturbed. Still not quite believing I had such good tickets, I did half expect to get turned away at the gate. But that didn’t happen and here I was at Wimbledon drinking in the atmosphere and looking at all the familiar places. The first tennis we saw was the semi-finals of the men’s wheelchair singles. This is the first year that wheelchair singles has been played at Wimbledon, so much as it was great to see, it does feel somewhat sad that it has never been played here before. We watched about a set and the tennis was amazing. It’s very different as the players are much closer to the ground so the angles are completely different. This made it just as exciting as any other match and we had the privilege of seeing Gordon Reid who not only went on to win Wimbledon but also the Gold Medal at the Rio Olympics.  We left only because it was time to head to Centre Court, via the shop in which we spent a small fortune!

We had ordered a Wimbledon picnic which we picked up at the food court. A brass band was playing and as we rounded the corner to pick up our food they burst into a rendition of the theme tune used for the BBC coverage – perfect timing and perfect lead in to our walk out onto Centre Court.

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Sue Barker and chums!

Still not quite believing our tickets could possibly be so close to court side, we headed into Centre Court looking for gangway 114. There was no mistake, we found our seats which were perfect. Three rows back from court side, in line with the service line at the Royal Box end. I felt quite overwhelmed as I stood there gazing around me. And there on the other side of the court was Sue Barker chatting to John McEnroe, a chap whose back was to me and for a moment looked just like Donald Trump, but it was only Boris Becker. There was a third man and I couldn’t work out who he was from behind. It could be Tim Henman as this was just before a British player was aiming for a Wimbledon final spot but it just didn’t quite look like Tim. When they moved, and the mystery man turned round it was clear that it was Lleyton Hewitt.

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Roger Federer – what a Champion!

The first semi-final was between Roger Federer and Milos Raonic. The players came out onto the court and the atmosphere was amazing. Roger Federer came to the Royal Box end of the court to warm up – we were so close I could almost tickle his knees! I then turned around and the players’ box was just behind us and standing there was Mirka, Mrs Federer.

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Mirka standing just behind our seats!

The match was amazing – five sets of incredible tennis from both players. I was firmly on Roger’s side and cheered and shouted for him with the rest. Sadly it was not to be and Raonic took the match on the final set. He was a worthy winner and it was an incredibly exciting match. But the day was not over, there was another match to come and our very own Andy Murray. However, after 5 gruelling sets of tennis a comfort break was needed and the best time to go as we didn’t miss any of the tennis.

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Andy Murray in action

Andy Murray was in charge of his match from the first ball. It was a master class in tennis and Tomas Berdych really was never in it. So as fantastic as it was and great to see our home grown talent up close, the match was not as exciting as the first one.

What a day – we headed home giddy with the excitement vowing to apply for tickets for Wimbledon 2017, though I can’t believe we could ever be as lucky two years in a row, but you never know…

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What does 2017 hold for us?

Go to see Tom Jones – number 45

This was a last minute addition before actually going to see Tom. In a lot of ways it was quite unplanned but when the opportunity arose, soon after missing Duran Duran by 24 hours, I seized it with both hands!

An old work colleague, who I hadn’t seen for 5 years, posted on Facebook that she had a spare ticket to see Tom Jones live at Westonbirt Arboretum, where she now works, on the very same weekend we were visiting the Cotswolds. It was the perfect opportunity to meet up with someone I hadn’t seen for a long while and go to a fun outdoor concert. So I messaged her to ask…have you still got the ticket? The answer was yes and I proceeded to get myself ready to see Tom. No, that didn’t mean raiding my knicker drawer!

The day arrived and I drove what I thought would be the short distance from where we had been staying to my friend’s near Tetbury. It turns out the Cotswolds is bigger than I’d realised! It didn’t matter, I was going to see Tom! I arrived late afternoon to preparations for the picnic, decanting drink into plastic bottles (no glass allowed) and lots of food. I had taken my own contribution though it was starting to feel somewhat inadequate. As I had been taken in as guest and promised a bed for the night I offered to drive the short distance to the Arboretum.

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Westonbirt Arboretum but the sun was missing when we were there!

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side. The rain started at about 5pm, by the time we arrived to set up our chairs and picnic there was a steady fall. Thankfully, one of the party had brought along rain proof ponchos and I gladly accepted the offer of one. I now had my coat and the poncho wrapped around my legs. This worked reasonably well, though occasionally a trickle of water made its way from on top of the poncho onto my seat and dampened my jeans. Oh I did hope Tom would be worth it…

The support act came on and she was great but quite folksy. On a wet Sunday evening we really needed something lively to get us going. As a result we stayed in our seats, saying how lovely this music would be if the sun was shining. What felt like an age later, it was finally time for Tom. Still raining, though I have to admit it was easing, our dedication was rewarded. Tom strolled onto the stage and started to sing. I had never seen Tom live before and, of course, he’s not as young as he used to be, so I was slightly wary. I need not have worried, if anything Tom’s voice has got better with age. Our seats were forgotten as we stood and danced (well, sort of moved in a sort of rhythmical way) and sang along with Tom. He was at times saucy, sexy and provocative (and yes the knickers did fly, but not mine!) and at others gospel like.

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Not a great photo, that is Tom honest! Check out those rain hoods…

Tom talked about his wife, so sad that she had passed away so recently, yet here he was performing, very much I understand as she wished. It was a lovely tribute and a great reaction from the crowd. There was a tangible feeling of love and support, and from the way Tom talked I’m sure he felt it too.

The encore was amazing. Tom and the band left the stage and we, the crowd, did what was expected of us to get them back. The band returned first and started to play the James Bond theme. Then Tom sauntered back on, not many people can get away with sauntering onto the stage to the James Bond theme, but if anyone can, then Tom Jones can! It was a great moment and, having already spent over an hour singing, he gave us the most amazing rendition of Thunderball.

Finally we had to go, trudge over the mud back to the car. Thankfully, we were parked where it was easy to exit so didn’t get caught up in long queues to get out. Returning to my temporary new home for the night, a glass of wine and dry underwear were the order of the day!

Who knows how many more live shows Tom Jones will do, I am amongst the privileged who can say I’ve seen him live.

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And I got to go!

Visit the Eden Project – number 33

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Those iconic biodomes

When we arranged out Jurassic walk I figured we were not far from the Eden Project and it would be a good opportunity to head down there. Well, I searched on Google maps and our final B&B was 111 miles from the Eden Project! Not exactly close but certainly closer than from where we live and I’d got the idea into my head by then…

So following our three days of walking we headed off to Cornwall for our next adventure. We visited the beautiful Cornish seaside town of Fowey (pronounced Foy to rhyme with Joy as it tells you in the car park). A great place to potter and wind through its narrow streets with quirky shops and places to eat. We had a very fine afternoon tea for our lunch. The climb back to the car park was quite steep which tested our already tired legs.

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Spike the tea cosy!

Our B&B for the next couple of nights was interesting. We had the ‘Blue room’ where true to its name everything was blue, down to the blue plastic roses on our pillows. The owner was a little eccentric but all the more delightful for it, especially when she presented us with a tea cosy called Spike for our morning cuppa. Suitably refreshed, we took the road to the Eden Project.

There is always a worry when you finally get to go to somewhere you’ve wanted to go for a long time that the reality doesn’t quite live up to your dreams. I was delighted to find that this was not the case with the Eden Project, it was everything I hoped it would be and more. In fact, I was a little emotional when we got there and saw those iconic biodomes on a such a beautifully sunny day. Inside was just as amazing, seeing these tropical plants so close, with leaves so enormous you could use them as blankets. But it was the outside which, to my surprise, really enchanted me. I had not expected the sculptures and novelties around.

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WEEE man

I particularly liked the WEEE man whose presence served to remind us all of the wasteful aspect of our lives. It seemed everywhere we turned a sculpture was hiding, all individual, made out of a variety of materials, including one made from old video tape.

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A random beautiful sculpture

Ice cream was a must to complete the day but the queues were enormous. So we settled for a slightly lesser ice cream purchased from the shop to avoid standing around for ages.

The down side….well there was one. We visited the Eden Project on Thursday, the very next day, Duran Duran were playing there live for the BBC Music Day. We were missing a fab group in an even more fab location by 24 little hours! Oh well, it had still been a day worth waiting for.

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We missed them by 24 hours!

Walk some of the Jurassic Coast – number 17

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The bent bike

Just six weeks prior to our great walk, my husband was knocked off his push bike. Whilst he didn’t break anything (and it’s a wonder he didn’t having been hit in the side by a car, thrown into the air and landed with a thump on the tarmac), it was a nasty accident and he was quite badly hurt. For the first week he was unable to move properly, on the second night after the accident he got stuck in bed unable to move! I couldn’t help, if I gave him a hand or a push up I would only end up hurting him more. After much gentle rolling from side to side he was eventually able to stand.

Needless to say this whole episode shook us up a bit, it could easily have been a very different story and as important as the coastal walk was to both of us, health and fitness had to come first. So started a remarkable road to recovery. The first couple of weeks were slow and painful but gradually  he was able to do more and more. I was concerned he would over do it, no matter how many times he promised me he wouldn’t! He didn’t run for five weeks, the longest time he has not run since taking it up. It was only the week before we went, that I really believed we would make it. Still concerned the route and mileage would be too much, I made him promise to tell me if it got too much. We could still go, but maybe use the help of a bus or two.

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The hill we thought was steep!

The day dawned and we set off to Lulworth Cove, in the car of course, it is after all over 150 miles from home! It was a beautifully sunny day, not really one you want to spend in the car and the traffic was awful but we arrived safe and sound if a little tired and grimy. We met with our friends Jane and Chris who were accompanying us on this adventure. We parked our cars in the car park at Lulworth Cove which leads onto quite a hill. Ooh we thought, that’s steep…

Our first B&B was great. They even made lunch for us the following day. The chaps sorted the cars so that we had one car here and one at the other end and we had a pleasant evening looking forward to getting out and walking. Sunday arrived, bright and fresh and we were all ready for the challenge ahead. We planned to walk 10 to 12 miles for three days. We climbed the hill then blow me down there was another, and this one was even steeper! Our first 3 miles or so was just a series of steep ups followed by equally steep downs.

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Durdle Door

The scenery was breathtaking, Durdle Door an obvious highlight but what struck us most was how much the path had moved. It was very clear in places where the land had slipped and the path with it. In other places the land had dropped 3 feet or so but otherwise unscathed. People were jumping onto it – braver (or should that be stupider) than me! It was a beautiful day, full sunshine, clear sky line and we could see where we had walked behind us.

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The earth moved for me!

Twelve miles later and we were in Weymouth, and very ready for a sit down! Following a much needed shower we headed out for tea. My legs felt surprisingly sprightly but after an evening sitting at the dinner table I struggled to stand up again! Thankfully it turns out I wasn’t on my own.

We had a good night’s sleep in our second B&B. We had arranged for a company to pick our bags up and deliver them to our next stop. This worked amazingly well and it was a treat to arrive on foot and find our belongings waiting for us. The good sleep worked its magic and we were all ready to head out again in the morning. We had a few miles of walking across Weymouth which wasn’t the best, but well worth it when we got to the coast again and followed the Chesil Bank.

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Chesil Bank in the background

There was not quite as much sunshine but having burnt the backs of my knees the previous day this was fine by me. There were lots of wading and other birds on this stretch which was slightly longer at 13 miles. The coastal path also took us inland for part of the day as we headed towards Abbotsbury. We walked us some very steep hills again and had an interesting altercation with some bullocks! The trekking poles came in handy to guide the bullocks away from our path. Abbotsbury is a truly beautiful and quintessentially English village. We had hoped to go to the Swannery on arrival but it was too late so that would have to wait for the morning. We consoled ourselves with a fine cream tea from the Abbey House.

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The cygnets were worth the wait

Our final day of walking started with a tour of the Swannery. Knowing we were so close at this time of year, it was a must visit place with all the new cygnets finding their wings. Totally gorgeous. This turned out to be our longest walk, 15 miles and more hills. We were all very tired by the end when we had to hurry in response to a phone call from the B&B owners to tell us they were heading out shortly and if we didn’t get there within 15 minutes we wouldn’t get into our rooms until after 10pm. Thankfully we made it with what felt like seconds to spare and amazingly as we arrived the rain did too. Having spent the last three days in glorious sunshine yet hearing of all our friends back home in cold rain and floods in France we had been incredibly lucky.

This experience surpassed anything I could imagine it would be. Walking to our accommodation gave a whole different perspective on arriving somewhere (helped of course by knowing our bits and pieces would be waiting for us!) and it is rare that we head out for a walk and not end up back in the place we started. We covered 40 miles in three days, a feat I know others can easily exceed, but for me quite an achievement. We all enjoyed the experience so much we have decided to continue next year – start at our last B&B and keep going round!

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Half a mile from the end of our walk

Re-visit Belgium and visit Flanders Fields – numbers 13 and 25

Our summer holiday this year took us to Belgium. As with the previous three years, we swapped houses with a family and it was their suggestion that led to this swap, we took this as a sure sign we needed to do the things we had planned. We stayed about 25 km to the east of Bruges and this of course was the opportunity to tick off two items on the list.

Firstly I will explain why I wanted to re-visit Belgium. For four and a half years, from being nearly 6 years old to 10 years old, I lived on the outskirts of Brussels. I have fond memories of living there and have been back once before but that now is also many years ago. This time I could take my daughter and show her where I used to live. My husband, his two children and I spent a full two weeks in the house, Lauren joined us from her home in Denmark for 5 days. The four of us headed to Brussels Airport at Zaventem to pick her up. We were subject to security checks and x-rays on our way into the airport, but with the bombing of the airport so recent that is hardly surprising. Lauren duly arrived and our first meal was dry bread and cheese on the benches at the airport – we know how to show a girl a good time!

The weather wasn’t good on the day, but we didn’t let that put us off, well not too much anyway. Stomachs filled we headed off to my old stomping ground, only a short drive from the airpHouseort. Driving down my old road was odd, familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time, and it certainly seemed much shorter. The one solidly familiar landmark was the garage across the road from our house. I remember how the light of the sign used to shine through my curtains. And there was my house…almost exactly as I remembered it but with a new front door. Well, I suppose the other one wasn’t new when we moved in and that was over 40 years ago so some change is inevitable. Our house was a three storey town house, with one more before the end of the terrace. However, now there are a further two houses on the end, very different in style but joined onto what was our neighbour’s house all the same.

Mannenken pis

From there we drove into the centre of Brussels, going past the park where we used to go, particular memories of sledging down its slopes. We drove under the Cinquantenaire a landmark I remember well and past the European Parliament buildings. These are all new now and very different from the curved faced ones from when I was there. In Brussels the rain came down quite heavily but we still braved it to see the Manneken Pis, pictured, and the Grand Place. Wet and weary we then headed back to our holiday home.

This break also enabled us to go to Ypres. Linked of course to the Poppies in the moat (number 2) but also to the work my husband has been doing on Tommy’s Footprints. This is about the training camp at our local park, set up by the Duke of Bedford between 1914 and 1916. Over 2300 men trained there, over 700 never returned. For this visit, we focused on those lost on the night of 19-20 April 1916 defending the canal leading into Ypres itself.

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Six crosses for the six fallen

We went to the Flanders Fields museum first which gave a history of the war in the Flanders region and where our local men were sent to fight. From there we headed to the Essex Farm Cemetery. Located alongside the canal where they fought, this cemetery served to bury those killed just a few feet away. We knew six of the men who had trained at the camp were buried here and set about locating their graves and leaving a small cross on which we had added their name and the name of the camp in remembrance. Others from the Bedfordshire Regiment were buried alongside our six. The cemetery is host to 1097 known casualties and standing there among the graves of these fallen men was a truly humbling experience. To know that this was just a fraction of those killed in Flanders, let alone across the whole war, was heartbreaking and to see that the youngest in the cemetery was but 15 years old, brought home the waste of so many young and vibrant men and boys. For more information on Tommy’s Footprints, please go to the Facebook page.

 

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Plaque with text of In Flanders Fields in Essex Farm Cemetery © MarnixR

This is where the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae served as surgeon, the dugouts where he tended the wounded still there. It must have been a very grim experience, noted by the poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, written my McCrae after the funeral of a fellow soldier and friend. McCrae himself did not survive the war.

From here we headed back into Ypres and to the Menin Gate. Another gut wrenching moment when the enormity of the loss is illustrated by the names on the inside of the gate. Soldiers, of all ranks, from Great Britain and the Commonwealth are remembered here, 54 389 men whose bodies were never identified or indeed so torn apart that nothing remained. We found a further 13 of the men who trained locally here and had perished that same night. Every evening at 8pm, the Last Post is sounded at the Menin Gate and we stayed for this moving ceremony. Every night since 1928 (excepting the 6 years of WWII) this act of remembrance has filled the early evening. On the day we were there, air cadets from Swadlincote were taking part in the ceremony. The Last Post was sounded, wreaths were laid, the poem for the fallen recited and finally the Reveille sounded to end the ceremony. It was all very dignified and, while on the one hand nothing anyone can do could alleviate the hell of the time, it felt a fitting tribute that has lasted and will continue to last for years to come.

On this holiday, we also went to the site of the Battle of Waterloo. One hundred years before WWI, it also painfully highlighted the destructive nature of war. This is a site I had visited as a child, but much has changed, not least because of the bicentenary in 2015. The 3D film showing key points in the battle and our visit to Hougoumont Farm, the British and allied headquarters and site of much blood shed depicted the horror that all sides endured. The original crucifix in the chapel at the farm, charred and with one leg burnt away, looks down on the now peaceful site with sorrow.

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The crucifix burned during the fighting

Test drive a Mazda MX5 – no number

On Sunday I did something I wasn’t expecting so didn’t put it on my list though I wish I had. Adding an item after I’ve done it seems like cheating so I can’t add it but I will write about it anyway. I might add a couple of ‘mysteries’ to the list for future surprise events to cover this sort of situation. But that would still be doing it after the event on this occasion so in the spirit of not cheating I won’t do that either!

A bit of background to the day – we were heading off to the MX5 owner’s club rally. Our MX5 is a 10th anniversary edition mark 2.

Well, when I say our, I mean my husband’s of course. A few years ago, my husband changed job roles and no longer needed a car so handed back his company car. For a little while we were a one car family but my husband had other plans.

Nissan Figaro, for a long time my husband's favourite quirky car

Nissan Figaro, for a long time my husband’s favourite quirky car

He had always rather fancied a little Nissan Figaro but after a test drive decided that it didn’t really have quite enough umph for him and that there could well be a big problem with rust. A series of other possibilities were thought through, MG, maybe even a Boxter? But eventually the Mazda MX5 was the winner. Then ensued the hunt for the perfect MX5. Much internet searching, Auto Trader scrutinising later and my husband found the car he wanted to call his. In North Wales. Some 180 miles away. On a dismal day in late November 2012 my husband set off on the train to Wales to pick up what he hoped would be his new pride and joy. November isn’t usually a good time to head out for a spin in a two seater soft top but this was hailed as the ‘wettest week in 50 years’ by the Met Office with the suggestion that ‘folk stay at home’. Hmmmm…

Left at home to ruminate, I set about finding a name for our new family member. Yes, I know she’s a car but she really is part of the family so needed a name. And anyway, every car I have owned has always had a name (and they’ve always started with an ‘H’!), so this is a task I take seriously. I had a little look at baby names websites for ideas and felt that something Welsh would be suitable.

Our very own numbered edition

Our very own numbered edition

Whilst the Mazda may be Japanese by birth, our MX5 has Welsh heritage. And then there it was, the perfect name jumped off the screen at me, Myfanwy. It told me the name means ‘my woman’ in Welsh which seemed just perfect. Clearly this new little MX5 was going to get a lot of my husband’s attention so she would be his ‘other woman’. Further research indicates the name actually means ‘my dear one’ which is even more appropriate as she gets a special rub down after every outing.

Back to the day in question, Myfanwy’s grand day out! We went to the rally last year when Myfanwy had scored 278/300 for her condition. A great score but she did not win any prizes. A lot was learnt from this experience and the last year has seen a lot of cleaning, polishing and putting little things right. Much excitement greeted this new rally in the hope that all this work my earn a prize.

Front page of the programme

Front page of the programme

My husband arrived at the arena (well fields…) at Kelmarsh Hall with cleaning equipment to hand and immediately started polishing and buffing. I arrived a little later and the judges had been on their rounds but the results were not yet known, we had to wait until mid-afternoon for that. We set about enjoying the day, having experienced a fairly dismal summer, this September Sunday was treating us to spectacular sunshine and perfect blue skies. There were plenty of cars to look at and a jousting show which was impressive and funny in equal measure.

Mazda UK had brought along 5 of their new mark 4 MX5 for people to test drive. You needed to get your name down early as the slots disappeared very quickly. To my surprise, my husband had put my name down for this – I just had to go along, show my driving licence and sign a disclaimer. Just before my allotted time we discovered that Myfanwy had won second prize in her class – excellent result!

A proud second, my husband with Myfanwy and bears Maurice and Friendly

A proud second, my husband with Myfanwy and bears Maurice and Friendly

Though, of course, my perfectionist husband felt that anything less than 1st for his beloved Myfanwy wasn’t really how it should be… We would get the score later.

With slight trepidation I headed to my test drive. I would be accompanied by a professional Mazda driver and was a touch worried that my driving would be under scrutiny! In fact, the Mazda driver took to the wheel first to ‘show you what the car can do’. Ooer…

Being driven out of the field by the professional

Being driven out of the field by the professional

We trundled out of the field and once on the road he put his foot down, immediately my head hit the headrest and we were flying along! Another Mark 4 was in front of us with another professional driver giving it the same treatment. As a rear wheel drive car the corners can be fun, at least if you know what you are doing. For inexperienced RWD people like me it also means you can lose the back end! My driver sped round some corners and demonstrated its acceleration very well. I made the comment, ‘I might drive a little more sedately…’.

Before long it was my go. My first challenge was to get the seat in the right place. I sat in the seat and my feet couldn’t even find the pedals. Pulling the seat forward so that I could use the clutch meant the steering wheel was nearly under my chin. Maybe I’m not quite the right shape for the car. You can adjust the steering wheel but I didn’t for such a short drive. Finally strapped in it was time to give it a go. 30mphI was starting out in a 30mph zone so had a good excuse to take it slowly. It felt incredibly smooth as I pulled away and despite having a very small gait in the gears these were also very smooth. The accelerator was responsive under my foot and as we approached the 60mph zone I decided to see what happened. It is such a small car compared to what I am used to, so very low to the road and its 2-litre engine ensures it goes like….well the proverbial off a shovel! I quite got my confidence zooming around the Northamptonshire countryside and was amazed at the smoothness of the ride and how little road noise there was. We did of course have the roof down – how could we not on such a glorious day! I was pleased to keep up with the chap in front (of course, they too had swapped over so it was not the professional driver), though I’m sure the occasional village we went through with the 30mph restrictions helped. Far too soon we were turning back into the field and I had to leave the little car behind. A fine drive, yet quite intense with such power under foot.

Heading back to Myfanwy who now had a rosette and a trophy and found out she had scored a very fine 288/300 and the winner has pipped her to the post by 2 small points. My husband had warmed to the idea of a second deciding it wasn’t that bad after all.

Presented with the trophy, a knight on hand just in case

Presented with the trophy, a knight on hand just in case

If you want to read more about Myfanwy and her adventures this is the place to go Mazda MX5 10th Anniversary Edition

Visit Highclere Castle – number 21

We have just returned from a lovely weekend away and properly immersed ourselves in Downton Abbey mania. We got into Downton quite late, it was not until series three was about to air that we started watching it. Fortunately, ITV3 re-ran the previous two series in the lead up so we were able to catch up quickly. Our favourite is, without a doubt, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham and the great put down lines that were written for her. But we love the pace of life, tracing the differences between today and then and of course the story lines.

I’ll come back to Downton in a moment. It seems only right and proper to tell the weekend as a whole. It started on the Saturday and we headed down towards Wiltshire. We chose for some reason to go M1, M25, M4.

The Road to Hell...

The Road to Hell…

Well, the M1 was ok but the M25 was, well I suppose normal! Chris Rea was right, it really is the ‘Road to Hell’. We persevered, our only other choice was to head through Watford and that really didn’t appeal. Eventually we found the M4 and guess what? More speed restrictions and we queued to get on it. Grumpiness was building but thankfully the bottle neck was short lived and we were able to finally get out of third gear! However, the breakfast time pot of tea was starting to take its toll and a pit stop at the services was needed. We turned off and into…another queue! I have never seen such a busy services and the layout and parking was atrocious. It was a quick in and out to queue again to get back on the motorway. Relieved we trundled on hoping that would be the worst of the traffic over, and thankfully it was.

Our first excursion for our weekend was at Avebury, somewhere I have never been though I have visited it’s slightly more famous nearby cousin of Stonehenge. Although still stone circles, Avebury is very different to Stonehenge and what is most pleasing is that you can get right up to the stones and touch them.

6000 years standing - wow!

6000 years standing – wow!

There are many theories as to how and why these stones were placed where they are, but in my opinion nobody knows for sure and that I find rather satisfying. Our ancestors from thousands of years ago, and very probably over a period of 1000 years, built something amazing and that has lasted far longer than anything we build today is likely to. The why doesn’t matter to me, it is just their being that is amazing.

Having walked through the stones we then headed to our B&B, a spacious yet cosy loft area. Being intrepid explorers (erm…!?!?!?) we decided to walk to the pub for our dinner. This involved tramping over fields in the fading light with little knowledge of where we were going. Still, it was only a mile. Fortunately I had brought my umbrella and some walking shoes and the directions given to us were easy to follow. It took a little longer than expected and we arrived at the pub a little damp and very ready for our dinner. Except, they had a big party in and couldn’t fit us in, at least they couldn’t take our order for another hour or more. So we headed back out into the damp to find the next pub, another mile down the road. We arrived damper and even more ready for our dinner and thankfully they were able to accommodate us.

Suitably refreshed after our dinner and a good night’s sleep we headed to Downton….sorry Highclere! I have been looking forward to this for a long time, but really to see the inside of the house. I have never felt that Highclere is the best looking house. I am spoilt really, living so close to Woburn Abbey which is a very beautiful building and another of my favourites is Castle Howard. Both are sprawling houses, inviting your into their grand entrances and most definitely built to impress. Highclere Castle is very different Victorian Gothic (or Jacobethan) architecture, very square and on the TV not so imposing. I was in for a very pleasant surprise as we drove along the drive through the rolling countryside and the house came into view.

Highclere Downton Castle Abbey

Highclere Downton Castle Abbey

Every bit as imposing as Woburn and Castle Howard, Highclere sits magnificently in its surroundings rising up proudly to greet you. I was so very glad to be there and experience this house for real. It is in some ways more compact than other big houses but in many ways this makes it more accessible. We were able to walk all the way round it, admiring the arches and intricacies all the way round. A pleasing cup of tea in the coach house preceded our amble around the fine grounds. A word about the cup of tea (or coffee for himself), in most places like this I come away feeling robbed the price is so high, but not here, £1.50 for a pot of tea and another £1.50 for a filter coffee. It made it taste even better!

Our trip inside the house was after lunch. No photography was allowed inside which is a great shame on the one hand, but on the other made sure we concentrated on what we could see and just enjoyed the experience. Walking in was just like heading onto the set of Downton, it was grand, beautiful and familiar all at the same time. I love that this house is lived in, I love that a TV programme has enabled the family to stay, live there and carry out renovations. There are lovely family pictures all around the house (not all grand paintings!) and a real fusion of the old and the new. They make the most of the Downton connection (and why shouldn’t they?) but it is clear that this is the Carnarvon’s house. Upstairs was a bit busy as we queued in the narrow corridors to peek into the bedrooms. It must be amazing to sleep there (as they are clearly still in use) but most odd to get up in the morning, tidy everything away in the knowledge that a huge line of people will come peering in. I’m glad my bedroom isn’t quite so scrutinised.

We discovered the Downton kitchen is a set, but the visit downstairs at Highclere was no less interesting for that. Here, the Egyptian connection manifested itself in a wonderful exhibition. A 5500 year old sarcophagus with exquisite detail decorating the outside, colours that were once probably incredibly vibrant still radiated their beauty. It is very humbling to see such amazing work carried out so very long ago.

King Tutenkhamen's mask © Mohamed Soliman

King Tutenkhamen’s mask © M Soliman

The next room held memories of the unveiling of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Everything is a replica (the originals are quite rightly in Cairo) but this did not detract from their beauty. What a moment that must have been when Howard Carter looked into the tomb and relayed to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon  up above that he could see ‘many wonderful things’.

The 5th Earl was clearly quite a character with his Egyptian adventures and escapades in motor cars. Despite all the danger he put himself in it was an infected mosquito bite that killed him (unless you prefer to believe the curse of King Tut…). I’d had such a wonderful day I was inspired to buy the two books written by the current Lady Carnarvon. The first is about Lady Almina, wife of the quirky 5th Earl and inspiration for Lady Grantham in Downton. I’m looking forward to reading this (in fact I’ve started it!) but I have three other books to get through first!

This had been a wonderful day, we returned to our B&B with the rain falling again but with smiles on our faces. The first thing we did….order the box set of Downton on DVD. Well, we have to watch it again now don’t we?