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Now and Then, and then again…

Words, music, pictures, and more words

“We’re from England, and lost”

Back in late 1983, we, the Directors of our business, decided to run a company-wide competition which everyone could enter. We devised the rules so that everyone had targets, regardless of the level of responsibility and experience. No-one was disadvantaged and absolutely anyone could win. The prize would be ‘something you wouldn’t normally consider doing/booking’ – and that prize was a return day-trip from Heathrow to the Pyramids in Egypt on Concorde – Wow, with a capital W.

I managed to win the competition by a very short head, and the tickets for the trip were duly booked. But, alas, one week before departure, we were informed that the company running the trip had gone bust – so no trip on Concorde ūüė¶ I was asked what I wanted to do, and suggested putting the value of the prize to a holiday trip to Florida for Sue, I and our then 3 children under the age of 7. And so it came to pass….

The stories I could tell about this two week break at Easter 1984 are legion, even though, as far as the US Immigration Department was concerned, we were never there. I’d omitted to fill in a form upon landing – probably something to do with lugging suitcases with no wheels, and manhandling 3 children, and with airport staff taking pity on us and ushering us through quickly. Anyway, upon leaving Miami to come home, I was asked for this form which I had omitted to fill in, and said that I’d never had one and couldn’t produce it. The man said (quite loudly) “As far as we are concerned, you have never been to the United States of America”, and ushered us off in the direction of our flight.

We visited Disney, EPCOT*, the Gulf Coast, a MacDonald’s restaurant for the first time, and generally had a memorable stay. During our second week there, we moved from Orlando to a condominium in Indian Shores overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, watching the prehistoric-looking pelicans flying past the windows. We took advantage of the proximity of Tampa, to visit the world-famous Busch Gardens. It was an easy hour’s drive in our rental Chevy Station Wagon, taking the long road bridge across Tampa Bay, listening to the local rock FM station playing good music – living the dream.

Once off the I-275 and into Tampa itself, we managed to lose the signs for Busch Gardens, drove round for a bit and ended up in the ‘wrong’ part of town – the part where there were big guys in baseballs caps on every street corner, seemingly without much to do. I was lost – I had to ask someone for directions. There was nothing for it – play the lost Brit card. So, I was out of the car, walking up to the first burly guy with “We’re from England, and lost. We’re trying to get to Busch Gardens.” It seemed at first to be a bit of a stand-off – no immediate reply. Perhaps he was deciding whether I was worth eating. I tried to let no sign of emotion show on my face, although the heart was beating rather quickly. Soon enough, a drawled response with instructions (which happened to be correct), and I smiled a thank you. He didn’t smile back, so I was back in the car and we were away without too much indecent haste.

I remember telling someone that we’d had to ask for instructions in this not-so-salubrious part of Tampa, and the first comment was ‘And I hope you didn’t get out of the car…’ There was a look of disbelief when I recounted what had taken place – a look that said ‘Are you truly deranged or what?’

We had a great time in Florida, even though we’d never officially been there. We managed to lose one child in Disney World – we were beside ourselves until we located him. He wasn’t bothered at all. We dressed all 3 children in identical Mothercare track suits (see under), making them easy to spot. This was fine until a fourth child in the same tracksuit ended up in close proximity. A confusing moment.

1984 was less than 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War. We were reminded of this when the pilot of the shuttle ‘plane between Miami and Orlando announced that our destination was now off the port wing, and that ‘we’re goin’ in‘, as he banked the craft steeply and down to the airport. I imagined he said the same thing on a bombing mission in Vietnam. I never did get to fly on Concorde….

*EPCOT = Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

(Adam, Sally and Chris in their matching Mothercare tracksuits)

Don’t Look Behind You Now, but…..

We can remember those halcyon days of February 2020 in all their ‘old normal’ glory, but with a rather nasty COVID-shaped cloud bubbling up on the horizon and heading our way irresistibly.

That February was also the month of my 70th birthday, with a trip planned to Paris for day itself, even though there were an increasing number of worried looks cast towards the horizon throughout the month, as that nasty bubbling cloud grew larger.

A couple of weeks before Paris, we had booked an overnight stay in London, due to a natural desire to see my brother (shortly to be 75) and his wife for lunch. We live 300 miles apart, and get-togethers are infrequent. The lunch was excellent, partaken in an eatery adjacent to Covent Garden.

As brothers, we seemed to miss each other for large chunks of our younger lives. When I was 8 he went away to school. When I was 12 he came back and started work, and I went away to school. At 18, I came back, and brother by then had left home to work over the Pennines in Stoke-on-Trent, then Manchester. Many years missed, but as the years went by, and my job took me around the UK, I enjoyed regular overnight stays with him in Berkshire, as well as shared but intermittent family get-togethers. Do we know each other well? Well enough, I suppose, but whilst we share views on many things, for some reason which I could never understand, he voted for Brexit, whereas I (being the sensible one), didn’t. Anyway, we both had our reasons and it hasn’t interrupted normal service between us, and we speak most weeks, which, as I understand from other friends with brothers, is exceptionally frequent. Some don’t speak from one year to the next.

Anyway, back to the title. Tickets had been booked for Sue and I to see the stage play of Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre, being fans of the TV programme and of Ben Elton’s writing. The play had opened only a few days before, and was still going through its settling-in process, but was getting rave reviews already.

I managed to secure seats only a few rows back from the front, and quite near the side aisle. Curtain up time was fast approaching, and I looked across to Sue on my left, and my attention was shifted by a slight hubbub in the row behind. I whispered to Sue “Don’t look behind you now, but Lord and Lady Lloyd Webber have just taken their seats”. Of course, she turned quickly under some pretext, and nodded her agreement with a knowing smile.

Come the interval, the Lloyd Webbers beat a hasty retreat to privacy, before the motley could make fawning comments, and came back just before curtain up for the second half….only this time, accompanied by Ben Elton. I whispered to Sue “Don’t look behind you now, but Ben Elton is sitting next to Lord and Lady Lloyd Webber”. Sue agreed that he was indeed. At the end of the fine production, after the standing ovation for the actors, led by David Mitchell, and just before their eminences in the row behind beat a hasty retreat, Sue said something nice to Ben Elton, who was kind enough to thank her for her comment.

‘Live’ theatre seems a lifetime ago as I write this in January 2021 – even the always-brilliant pantomime at the Customs House in South Shields fell victim – but at least memory retains the joys and laughter of that night in the West End, and the lunch with my brother and his wife, just before that bubbling cloud enveloped us all and the world as we knew it was put on hold.

At least we managed to fly to an eerily empty Paris for three days, just days before lockdown in France. Never in my lifetime could I have imagined sharing the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, with only a handful of other people. Here’s Sue proving the point….

Sue’s New Car

I have been married to Sue for over 46 years, and she is not given to spending money carelessly – an admirable trait in a person. All expenditure is carefully weighed up and justified.

Over our many years together, her venture into car ownership began in 1974 with a Hillman Minx bought for ¬£50, and which dripped more petrol than it ever used, and which, when finally disposed of, was used by Rotherham Council Trading Standards department as an example of a car “which you should never buy” due to its multiple faults.

Over the years, the needs of ferrying four children at various stages in their growing-up, were met by Sue with a number of cost-effective solutions, including four second hand Citroen 2CVs. Sue was then the recipient in 2004, of a piece of husbandly forward-planning, being presented with a brand-new SEAT Arosa in metallic black.

For the next 13 years and 80000 miles, this car provided trusty and economical transport for both her and a variety of children. Regular servicing, a few new tyres and other consumables, and one new battery, and a purchase price of only £6500, was as good an investment as any new car is likely to be.

But many things in life start to sag after 13 years of hard use, and, to coincide with Sue’s retirement from her post at Newcastle University in 2016, she promised herself a well-deserved replacement, and one which would no doubt see her through the next 13 years.

So, what to buy. I have always prided myself as being something of a car buff, and offered my willingness to assist in the selection process. When suggesting that she point out anything she considered a ‘possible’ when we were out and about, and not much being forthcoming, I then asked her base criteria. “Small and red” was the answer. Not perhaps a technical argument for choosing a particular model, but at least straightforward and actionable.

I pulled up pictures of the best-selling and most highly regarded ‘city cars’, as first impressions count for something – it has to look decent, after all, and preferably red. There were some instant ‘No!” and “Really?” comments, which suddenly reduced the list of the motor industry’s pride and joy, to three cars – a Smart, a Suzuki Swift, and a Citroen C1.

We set aside a few hours to go and see them.

Firstly to Mercedes Newcastle (the Smart car dealer). After 10 minutes of walking around the ones in the showroom (all locked), someone finally deigned to speak to us. It then took them 15 minutes to find a ‘salesperson’ who knew something about the Smart. Then they couldn’t find keys to unlock the ones in the showroom – so more waiting. After a half hour, Sue and I looked at each other, shook our heads, and walked out. I daresay if we had come in to spend ¬£50000 on a Merc, one of the smart-suited and -coiffeured young men might have sycophantically welcomed us to the garage – but alas, the Smart is very much the brand’s bastard brother on this showing. Suffice to say, there will be no return to that particular garage in my lifetime. I couldn’t even be bothered to let them know what I thought about the ‘customer experience’, and they probably wouldn’t have cared if I had have done.

Chastened by this, we hoped for better from Springfield (now Sherwood) in Gateshead, who sell Suzuki and Citroen from adjoining showrooms. We had a welcome (!), with Sue taking a look at the Swift before announcing within 5 seconds that it was “too big”. Muttered apologies to the salesperson, before walking across the carpark into the Citroen showroom. Once again, a real welcome and a helpful approach from the senior salesman. There was a C1 sitting there – and yes, it was the right size, easy to get in-and-out of, comfortable, but alas they didn’t have a red one in stock. At least this one had red wing mirrors to offset its white paintwork.

As we were in the market now, didn’t need finance, and could sign an order there and then, a fine deal was offered with a small trade in allowance for the Arosa. Sue signed the order form – and it was a very good deal!

19000 miles and four years on, Sue is delighted with her C1 Furio, with the 1.2 litre engine. It is a fast little car, suited equally to town and motorway, never short of power when needed – the engine size is greater than the car needs, but it’s always good to have something in reserve. 50 miles per gallon, town or country, a compliant ride, and genuine fun to drive. No problems to report – and I grab the keys whenever I can!! Good choice, Sue.

P.S. Exactly 4 years on from the purchase of the C1, it’s possible to buy a brand-new C1 to essentially the same spec, for even less than the deal we struck at the time. That’s great value, to my mind. Fine little cars.

Arosa

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Citroen C1

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A Legacy Issue

It has been said many times over the centuries that Nature is only interested in the future of the species.

I read that as meaning that the sole purpose of our lives, and hence our individual legacies, is a continuation of the line. ¬†That’s quite satisfying for anyone who has brought up children in their own image, with appropriate standards and ethics – broadly as laid down in many a religious tract – love thy neighbour, do good, love, work hard etc.

It’s not unreasonable to say that I am nearer the end of my life than the beginning, so, as a retrospective, what do I feel it has it all been for.

As I start to write this, it’s my intention that it should be the last in this series – not so much because I have nothing left to say (I could go on and on about all sorts), but rather that it’s a convenient break point, whilst sitting in the middle of the great uncertainty that is 2020. ¬†This uncertainty may be the very reason why I should continue, but I’ll live with this divergence of thinking.

In one major stroke of good fortune and privilege, I was born in a ‘first-world’ country at a time when there have been no major wars or military service. ¬†Many people have talked about never dwelling on the past, because the past is the past, and you can do nothing about it except learn from it, however ‘ordinary’ it has been. ¬†We know that life is only like it is now because of what happened in history – yes, going all the way back to man #1. ¬†I enjoy retrospectives, whether Renaissance and Baroque music, black and white pics from my youth, or the development of our countryside. ¬†But too much looking back inclines me to wonder how on earth a supposedly increasingly intelligent and informed general public gives us the blonde twins, Trump and Johnson, to map out our futures. ¬†Hopefully, it has all been done for a reason, and we will learn by these gross errors of judgment, and the world can plot a more straightforward path in the times to come.

All we have is the present –¬†yesterday is history, and tomorrow’s a mystery¬†– so isn’t it just up to me to make the most of the moment? ¬†I hope that I do, in my way. ¬†There are no great schemes, just trying to stay healthy, mentally (Sudoku, jigsaws, challenging books, good conversation), and physically (walks, cycling, keeping myself supple), and to give time and spread a little happiness along the way. ¬†Importantly I think I know what I should be doing, and conversely,¬†not¬†doing. ¬†I don’t feel the need to have lots of outside friends, group memberships, clubs etc – I enjoy the company of a small circle, but most of all my family, whose challenges they all are willing to share to ease their burden (and increase mine). ¬†I’m pleased that they feel they can discuss things. ¬†I regard that the successes, attitudes and principles of my four children as a major success on the road of childhood and parenthood.

Yes, the future of the species…..

Most of all I am not alone, with Sue being a constant inspiration never more so than now.  We bind well.

And, fortunately for my life in the present, the grandchildren are all delightful and non-judgemental. ¬†We have five currently, with two more due to appear by the end of this year. ¬†I’ll have to make do by seeing one via Skype only, until those who are about to emigrate to Malaysia return to base for a holiday at some point in 2021, or alternatively we can visit them without enduring a 14 day quarantine.

I seem to have what I want in the present, so what about the future?

Every year is a bonus from this point on, and I say this as longevity is not a strength of ‘my side’ the family. ¬†It’s up to me to contribute to those around me in the best way that I can, whilst understanding how they may want me to contribute, hopefully enjoy myself in the process, and feel that I have real purpose – not just another older person winding down the clock.

There are more books I want to read, than years I have left, so I’ll have to be selective. ¬†Fortunately, my bucket list of places/experiences to be visited, is not long. ¬†I’m not a global traveller, hate the whole airport bit, and not being in control of my immediate destiny. ¬†So if I get around those parts of the UK and France that I love, I’m a happy man. ¬†And if by chance I can’t, I have wonderful memories to fall back on, so I won’t get mardy (a lovely Yorkshire word).

I want to continue to be affected by what happens around me – the music, the words, the sights, the smells. ¬†I want to¬†feel,¬†I don’t want to suffer the frailties associated with old age, although they are inevitable, in whichever forms they come to affect me.

I want to see my children and grandchildren live and grow up in a world that comes to its senses, and realises that climate change is real, that not everyone needs a car and multiple social media accounts to be happy, that there is great joy in simplicity and living in harmony.  I am not sure about the reality of these aspirations, but I instinctively know they are correct.

One day I won’t be here, but prior to that moment I shall know that my own legacy as borne out in my children, and their children and the love they bring, is the only real worthwhile legacy…..in other words, I’m only really interested in the future of the species.

Eyes Wide Open at Heathrow

In 1971, when chartered accountancy and I agreed that we weren’t made for each other, the National Cash Register Company (NCR) offered me a fresh start as a career trainee, based at their office in Sheffield, 3 miles from home.

I was straightway booked on my induction course at their UK Education Centre in Greenford, close to Heathrow Airport.  In an excited frame of mind, and having just acquired my first car, a brilliant red MINI 1000, I set off on my drive to the hotel, at which I would be staying for the week.  Minis are not designed with long motorway journeys in mind, so after something on a bouncy, deafening 3 hours on the road, I pulled up at the hotel.

I announced myself to the receptionist “My name’s Barnes, and I’m booked in until Friday morning.”

‘Your initial please?”

“R”

“Yes, that’s fine – you’ll be sharing with 3 others in your party, and they are here already”

This was news to me as was at least expecting my own room for the week, but at least I would get to see colleagues at work and play, for better and worse.

Key in hand, I sallied forth to my room, put the key in the lock, and was met by three girls in various states of undress, who, it must be said, were surprised to see that I’d let myself in. ¬†And, for a 21 year old innocent on his first big assignment away from home, my immediate reaction, apart from a mouth hanging open, was that this might be a lucky day.

“Er….I was told that I was in this room…..”

“Are you here for the conference?” queried one of the three girls – and not just any three girls, these were girls of cinematic beauty, fully equipped in all departments.

“I’m on a training course starting tomorrow in Greenford. ¬†Is that what you mean?”

“You’re not here for the Faberg√© sales conference?”

Ah, these were three of the famously gorgeous Fabergé cosmetics promotion girls.

“No – I must have been given the wrong room and key – which from my point of view is a great shame.” ¬†Lots of laughter and smiles, and an invitation to the party that they were having that evening.

Back to reception, enquiries were made, and there were two R Barnes guests Рthe other one being the girl destined to share with the Fabergé beauties.  I never did meet her.

I know that I went to the party, but disappointingly can’t remember a single thing about it. ¬†What I can remember, is buying a drink in the hotel bar, and standing on the terrace overlooking the main Heathrow runway, and watching, for the very first time, a Jumbo jet (Boeing 747) take off. ¬†What a sad man am I….

The Commodores are here!!

The world of business computing changed around 1980 Рonly 40 years ago Рwith the advent of machines such as the Commodore Pet Рwith separate screen/keyboard, dual floppy disk drives and printer.  This enabled small and not-so-small businesses to use the power of inexpensive technology to help in their back office, to look after their financial accounting, payroll etc etc.

I was in on this breakthrough, with the company I helped to found in Sheffield, being the dealers/specialists in that area.  We used to hold seminars in hotels and invite businesses in to see the technology in action, and how it would help them manage their companies.

One of the most successful campaigns we ran, took advantage of a scheme run by the Royal Mail, whereby they would deliver mailouts to every business in designated postcode areas. ¬†We did one which one which simply stated “FOR THE BOSS” on the envelope. ¬†It elicited a fantastic response.

So began another round of seminars, and a hotel – the Carlton Park, I think it was – in Rotherham was selected as one of the venues.

It could be quite difficult to get hold of the Commodore equipment, as it was in such high demand, and we were dependent upon a promised shipment arriving at the hotel on the afternoon prior to the seminar, otherwise…..

We waited and we waited, and around teatime, one of my colleagues rushed breathless into our seminar room, and shouted “The Commodores are here!!”. ¬†Thank goodness, relief all round, and we could get on with setting up.

So we all trooped along the corridor, ready to pick up large boxes and carry them back into our room.

But what met our eyes, was a group of garishly-dressed ‘black guys’, surrounded by many excited people. ¬†We looked around for boxes, but there were none to be seen.

Yes, The Commodores were indeed here, but this was American soul band of the same name – Lionel Richie and all……Easy (like Sunday morning), Three Times a Lady etc – who were staying at the hotel prior to a gig somewhere in the local area. ¬†Quite exciting in its own way, but it didn’t solve our particular problem.

The micro computers must have arrived at some point shortly thereafter, as I have no recollection of having to abandon the seminar.

One of life’s coincidences, and the subject of many laughs at the time.

A Commodore Pet….and The Commodores

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The Other End of the Wheel

27 February 1950 was one end of my wheel, and now, 70 years on from that day, I head relentlessly towards the other end of the wheel.

Everyone is supposed to have their magnum opus, defined accurately in my case by Dictionary as:

  1. a work of art, music, or literature that is regarded as the most important or best work that an artist, composer, or writer has produced.

and this could be writing a book, climbing a high mountain, or running an ultra-marathon Рin other words, something that is beyond the boundaries of your normal expectations of yourself.  I have no inclination or ability to hang my hat on any of the foregoing, but I did write and record an album of 10 songs, entitled The Other End of the Wheel.

The actual recording took place in 2005, as a result of getting my song-brain in gear over the preceding couple of years, when time and inspiration permitted me to write both the music and the words.

I have played a guitar since persuading my Dad in the early ’60s, that this would be a good idea, having heard the Shadows play Apache¬†and thinking that it couldn’t be too difficult (I was wrong there – if it had been that easy, everyone would have had #1 hits). ¬†The guitar duly arrived after some repeated persuasion, and him playing the old ‘you save half and once you have, I’ll put the other half to it‘ card. ¬†I can’t remember if this played out in full, but I did become the proud owner of a 6-string acoustic together with an Ivor Mairants Tutor book of chords. ¬†I learned the basic chords, found how they fitted together melodically, developed calluses on my left-hand finger ends, and found in no time that it was quite easy to strum along with all sorts of songs – I suppose this is because I have what is known as a ‘musical ear’. ¬†But my skill and confidence levels really increased when I found I could play the guitar parts in Paul Simon’s songs in essentially the same way as he could – note for note. ¬†Ray Davies’ songs, particularly from Sunny Afternoon onwards, were also comfortable to pick-and-strum along to. ¬†Fortunately hit songs of the ’60s weren’t complicated, and this ‘musical ear’ saw to the rest. ¬†I should add that all this ‘playing along’ was done by ear, not by reading the ‘dots’.

The guitar, and singing in general, took something of a back seat for much of the time up to my 50th birthday Рcareer, family etc etc.  I would always pick it up to keep my hand in, but nothing more serious than that.  My inspiration to do something a little bit more serious was directed towards a fundraiser for the Romania Aid Programme in the early 1990s Рduly recorded as a family effort on which we all sang, even Alice who must have been only 4 at the time.  Every cassette made was sold, and raised enough money to buy a second-hand ambulance to ferry goods over to the orphanages there.  A fantastic result!

Then it was our Silver Wedding anniversary in 1999 – and what lovelier thing to do than to write and record a special song for your wife. ¬†I did, and it was well received. ¬†The seed was sown….I enjoyed the process, so why shouldn’t I write and record an entire album.

I set to it without a particular plan and without specific influences.  I wanted the music to form and settle within itself, with sequences of chords and notes which co-exist happily, and then the words and stories could settle with them, as if they should always have been together. I had grown to like that classic pop/rock combination of guitars, piano/organ, and soon I had completed the writing and arrangement of 10 songs with which I was happy.  Then came the next big question.  Where to record and who with?

I asked around, and the name Fred Purser at Trinity Heights studio in the west end of Newcastle upon Tyne cropped up more than once, on the basis of ¬†‘if you want it done properly, he’s your man’. ¬†As I might only do it once, better to have it done properly.

I met up with Fred, explained all, got on very well with him, and a full-on 4 days were set aside in February 2005, for the recordings to take place.  I would sing and play acoustic guitar, Fred (Penetration and Tygers of Pan Tang) would play lead and bass guitar, his friend Adam Burgess would play piano/organ, my son Adam (the M00bs and Big Red and the Grinners) would drum, and there were spot roles for daughter Alice on piano, and the family Clare РRoland, Linda, Jane and Peter, from Westbury-on-Trym Рat whose house one of the tracks was recorded, and mastered by Fred in Newcastle.

Each song was layered up instrument by instrument, and Fred then waved his magic wand over it all, with the end-result being better than I thought it would ever be in my imaginations. ¬†It’s a cracking recording, well played and finely engineered.

The only outstanding difficulty when planning the recording, was the actual title of the album.

Sue and I had taken off to London for a few days in 2004, part of which was a prearranged ride on the London Eye, followed by a boat trip down the Thames. ¬†The Eye was great, and as we disembarked, we were looking around for the boat which would take us on part 2 of the event. ¬†Not seeing anything likely, I ended up asking a man in uniform. ¬†He volunteered straight away that the boat I wanted was at ‘the other end of the wheel’ – in other words, along the quay to the east end of the London Eye. ¬†Sue and I looked at each other, and smiled instinctively. ¬†We had our title!! ¬†An expression which means what you want it to, especially as wheels don’t have ends, but a title which resonated immediately.

The last track on the album carries the album title as well – a thank you for a life, about a wheel coming full circle, for which the album title seems particularly apt. ¬†And by one of life’s strange coincidences, on the day I was recording the vocal for this song, my brother Rodney ‘phoned to say that our Mother – 91 and in a care home – had taken a turn and was not likely to live much longer. ¬†After a couple more messages over the next couple of hours, Rodney texted to say that she had finally succumbed. ¬†I said to Fred that if I was distracted, it was because of the news I’d just received. ¬†He immediately assumed that the session would be terminated, but I was equally quick to say ‘no’, as carrying on seemed an honourable thing to do, and also a way of saying thank you to my Mum for all she brought to my life.

This new and unexpected circumstance added real depth and meaning to the words, and poignancy to the recording, which I hope shows through. ¬†I’m really proud of this song, as indeed I am of the entire album. ¬†It’s dedicated to ‘George and Elsie Barnes, without whom….‘. ¬†It’s my magnum opus and something of me to leave behind, come the day when my wheel ceases to turn.

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The Other End of the Wheel – Rob Barnes (the song)

Days at Low Wood Bay

Volunteering takes many forms.  Some people are naturally drawn to it, others not.  I do a bit, and I enjoy doing what comes naturally, and what falls in with other commitments I have.

My main volunteering focuses on others exerting themselves, whilst I guide and encourage them to do so.  This sounds like a good deal for me, and usually takes the form of a weekly 3 hours at Souter Lighthouse Рthe National Trust property on the NE coast of England Рwhere I am on the team for the Great Run Local every Sunday morning, helping manage the 5k and 2k running events.  I love it, and the people of all ages who are involved, many of whom have become friends.  My presence there extends to other events at the location, such as the twice-yearly Night Run, complete with head torches.

Daughter Alice was Social Media Manager with the Great Run Company, before starting her own business, and this connection has extended to our (Sue and I) being asked if we could volunteer at the Great SwimRun event at Windermere in early June.  It would be an all-day 8-5 commitment on our part.

For our first time, we were stationed in the pouring rain at the boathouse at Brathay – I’d never been as wet in my life. ¬†Picture below of me looking happy, in spite of the weather.

For 2018 and 2019, we were stationed nearer the finish line, at Low Wood Bay.  I was given the prime position directly opposite the prestigious Low Wood Bay hotel, ensuring that runners moved safely off the Ambleside Road pavement into the relative safety of the park next to the yacht club from where they would leap into the water for their final swim to the finish line.

The Ambleside Road is one of the busiest in the Lake District, and on a sunny Saturday in June, was a magnet for many classic cars making their way between Windermere, and the show ground at Grasmere, so lots of lovely old cars to spot.  It is never arduous, but it does require concentration at all times, and fortunately, I had clear sight of any approaching athletes for about 600 yards, so was able to time any toilet breaks to perfection, across the road in the hotel.

I also warned the hotel that I would be out there, not to worry about me and would be quite open to them bringing me the occasional coffee and cake, if it looked as though I was flagging.  Well, there are times in life when you just have to be bold.  The picture below is an example of their hospitality.  Much appreciated, Willow.

In spite of my solo position, occasionally interrupted by athletes coming through, each day of 8 hours passes extremely quickly, making the volunteering job a real joy to do – especially when the sun is shining as it did in 2018, a real novelty in the Lakes.P1000454-0011528653629-picsay

The Empress of Japan

When able to take breaks away from our home area, one type of holiday we’ve found to suit us well, is a cycling tour in the company of others – and especially in France, a country we have come to love, having taken the children there on camping holidays for many years. ¬†We’ve covered most of the country in that time.

It undoubtedly helps in our relations with the locals, that we could speak good enough French to get by. ¬†They¬†definitely¬†wouldn’t stoop so low as to speak English, so we always felt on an equal footing with them. ¬†I have never found the French to be anything but unfailingly polite and pleasant. ¬†I can only assume that their reputation for being haughty and starchy, is due to Brits and other nationalities not being prepared to make the effort to learn a little about French language and culture.

Our first venture on two wheels, was with the specialist tour company¬†French Cycling Holidays, who seemed to have garnered many favourable reviews. ¬†We couldn’t have made a better choice, and have made repeat bookings with them since, taking in¬†Provence (including a slow ride up the iconic 2000m Mont Ventoux), the Languedoc, the Dordogne, the Loire Valley, and this year it will be Normandy.

Our first tour was around Roman Provence, in the south. ¬†We arrived in Avignon on one of France’s wonderful high-speed TGV trains – a treat in itself – before being collected by Mike (the owner of FCH), and his co-host, Henry.

We bedded in for our week of moderately strenuous cycling with a trip to Île sur la Sorgue. before settling down in our French country hotel.  Suitcases are taken onward each day, picnics at lunchtime, whilst all you have to do is cycle around 40 miles each day and lap up the scenery!

Our fellow travellers (see pic below) were from the US, NZ, Oz and the UK Рand by the end of the week we felt like we had known each other all of our lives.  Lovely company, as it has been on every tour.

Day 4 of this tour took us to Les Baux de Provence, a famous fortified medieval village atop a hill.  We had the chance to wander the streets and look at the historical artefacts, and, when enjoying an ice-cream in the main square, whistles started blowing, and police and security staff swarmed around, pushing we poor tourists to the side, and being told to stay where we were.  They had dark suits, dark glasses and gun-shaped bulges under their jackets, so it was no time to break ranks.

It transpired that the Empress of Japan (sans Emperor) was paying a visit. ¬†Important in her own Japanese way, I suppose, but not exactly someone to get excited about (unless you’re Japanese). ¬†Who even knew what she looked like! ¬†No-one in our party had any inkling, other than presuming she would be slim, smartly dressed, with dark hair. ¬†We were right!!

We needed to be off on our bikes again to maintain our day’s schedule, but were held back for what seemed like an unreasonable time. It seemed an appropriate moment for a show of resistance, so, being bored and British, and feeling mischievous, both Mike (the owner) and I started whistling the theme from Bridge on the River Kwai – the classic 1957 war film about the building of the Burma railway by POWs, overseen by the cruellest Japanese troops. ¬†There were muffled sniggers around us, but not a move from the security staff (fortunately).

All very childish really, but irresistible in the moment, and soon we were on our way back down the hill from Les Baux to continue our leisurely journey around sunny Provence. ¬†Memorable times…. for us and the group you see below. ¬†We’re at the right hand end.

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