Rock Choir

Regular readers will know that I do not do well in the bleak months of winter.   Given the choice I would probably go to bed on New Year’s Eve and set the alarm for somewhere around the 1st March but as this is a bit impractical I have to find some other coping strategies.

My January mission this year was to try something new that is not connected to either work or parenthood.  I hate the expression but, for want of something better, let’s call it the dreaded ‘Me-Time’.

Option one was the new Clubercise class at the gym.  Leaping around to dance tracks in a dark room waving glow sticks?  Yes please.  Only problem is that all the super keen January gym bunnies have taken the spaces and it is fully booked for weeks ahead.

Option two was Rock Choir.

If you are not familiar with Rock Choir it is the current extra-curricular activity du jour for the Great British public.  Six or seven years ago the menopausal masses were flocking to Zumba classes, evangelical about the new found freedom of shaking their cellulite to the Latin beat.  These days it’s Rock Choir that commands the attention.  You can barely walk down a UK high street without having to fight your way through a flash mob belting out a tune in perfect harmony.

I am not a big fan of Gareth-patron-saint-of-all-choirs-Malone (irrelevant really as he has absolutely no connection to Rock Choir) and this, combined with the general flash mobbiness had put me off having a go in the past, but over 20,000 members can’t be wrong.  Right?

Also, and not to be sniffed at, is the well documented research that shows singing in a choir lifts you mood, creates a sense of well being and even strengthens your immune system. 

So off I trotted to a taster session at my local group.

Masses of people!  Everyone was very focused on finding their chair and this made sense when someone explained that you sit according to your voice range from bass at one end of the room to high soprano and the other end.  I sat in soprano as I had a friend there but it was bit high for me in bits, think Barry Gibb on speed, so I think I’ll be moving down the hall.

The session was led by an amazing instructor who was so full of energy and smiles and enthusiasm that even cynical old me was totally swept up in it.  There is no music to read, all done by ear and by the end of the hour and a half session we were belting out the first half of UpTown Girl and sounding pretty good!

The hardest thing was remembering which part of the arrangement you are supposed to sing, I kept getting carried away and leaping in at the wrong bit.  You also need to focus on hearing your own voice; several times I was thinking “Blimey, someone is singing way out of tune” only to realise that it was actually me.  Bit awkward.

So I have signed up for the term.  I’ll report back at Easter and let you know if my mood is lifted, immune system strengthened, and if I have managed to sit in the right chair and stay in tune.

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Dorset County Show 2015

One of my most favourite things since coming to live in Dorset is the Dorset County Show. We have been every year of the four that we have lived here – the first two just as spectators and the most recent two as spectators and competitors. I get stupidly excited as soon as the tents start going up on the showground on the outskirts of Dorchester, a canvas metropolis rising from the fields. The early bird ticket office appears on the high street and there is a definite feel of the circus coming to town.

To give you the back story, the Dorset County Show began in August 1840 when a group of local farmers formed the Dorchester Agricultural Society and staged the 1st Annual Exhibition. 175 years later and the show still largely run by farming families and still a key date in the Dorset and South West Calendar. It is a huge event with livestock classes, horse and pony shows, elegant carriages and bonkers scurry racing. There are dogs galore, birds and ferrets, oodles of shopping opportunities and mouth-watering food stalls at every turn.

The show is a two day event and it is hard work to fit it all in a one day visit. I generally drive the teen and the tween to distraction, marching them round on a schedule fretting that I will miss the Dog and Duck Man/Hounds Demo/Pig Judging/Grand Parade.

Of all the tents (and there are many) to look at my top favourite is Homecraft and this is where we have made our entries for the past two years. There are a myriad of classes you can enter and competition is stiff, especially in the jam and marmalade classes – we’re talking hardcore WI preserves here, no room for lightweights.

Jam and Marmalade2

Last year was our first year of entering. I chose the picnic hamper and lemon drizzle cake classes and had a happy time channelling my inner Kirstie Allsopp as I worked on my entries. The morning of the show dawned and we were up and out at 7am to drop the entries at the tent before the show opened. It is a brilliant feeling driving onto the showground at this time. The autumn mist hangs low around the fields and all around you the show is waking up – exhibitors are munching bacon sarnies, cows are being hosed down, ponies hooves are being polished. There is a sense of excitement and anticipation as the minutes tick down to the gates opening. We parked up at the tent and, full of first time enthusiasm, carried our entries inside. The atmosphere was quiet and tense. It suddenly dawned on me that this was not like ‘show and tell’ or the cake stall at the school fête. This was serious! All around me people were placing, tweaking, polishing and appraising their creations whilst casting furtive glances to the other competitors and their entries.

I placed my picnic basket in its allotted space and began arranging my foodie mis-en-scène as best I could. I tried to engage my neighbour in jolly banter about her entry – this was a  school girl error – a chummy exchange of picnic preparation angst was not going to happen, she slammed her wicker lid firmly shut as I tried to peer in.

Entries set, we returned home to have breakfast and get ready for our big day out. By now what has started out as a simple bit of fun ‘Yey! Let’s enter some stuff to the county show! Such fun!’ had become a nail biting, nerve racking, full on worry. I had gone in like a lamb to the slaughter, no idea that the volume and quality of entries would be so high. I had gone in not really thinking about the competition element but now I wanted to win something!

Happily, with a bit of luck and a following wind, I did win something. First prize for my picnic hamper – hurrah for me and two fingers to the lady who was so secretive about her entry at the start of the day. (I know, it is not attractive to gloat, but sometimes needs must).

Picnic Hamper

So now we had the taste for competing we resolved to build on our success in the 2015 show. This year we chose different categories – rainbow cake and marmalade for me, Victoria sponge for the tween and a scarecrow as a family effort with the teen leading the way. The scarecrow was the most fun – we laughed ourselves stupid trying to stuff tights with newspaper and feed them into old jeans from the charity shop. The theme for the scarecrow category was ‘Thomas Hardye’ but rather than go trad with our costume we styled our chap as a member of the film crew from the most recent adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd.

Scarecrow 3

It was a gamble but it paid off and we came away with second prize. The tween triumphed with a second prize for her victoria sponge but my cake and marmalade remained lurking in the depths of the un-placed; definite room for improvement there I think.

Produce

We enjoyed a great day; marvelled at enormous bulls, cheered on spaniels and labradors as they raced in and out of the lake, ate hog roast and fudge and indulged in some fantasy chicken purchasing -I like the ones wearing big feathery trousers, the girls prefer the fat and fluffy ones.

Animals Collage

We returned to the homecraft tent as the sun was sinking and the crowds were drifting home. We folded and squeezed our make-do man into the boot of the car and retrieved the tweens winning sponge. Stopping only at the bin of shame to dispose of my un-placed rainbow cake we headed home already discussing, in true reality TV style, how we could ‘up our game’ and really ‘nail it’ with our entries for the Dorset County Show 2016.   Watch this space.

A Very British Picnic

Bunting

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Knoll Beach at Studland Bay, Dorset.  Whether braving the bitter wind for a wintry walk or fighting for a patch of sand in the height of summer, it is always a lovely day out.

Last week we had some friends to stay and, to celebrate the start of the school holidays, I booked a National Trust beach hut at Knoll Beach for the day.

Our own patch

You can rent huts at Studland on a daily, weekly, annual or three season basis, but there is a lengthy waiting list for the longer rentals.  A day hire suited us perfectly and for £24 we had our own hut complete with two deck chairs and a wind break – what more could we want?!

I made the booking several weeks ago and, sure enough, as the day drew near it seemed I had put a hex on the weather.  The forecast swung between rain and wind to cloud and drizzle.  We ummed and ahhed but the night before the Met Office promised us a dry, if cool and cloudy, day.  That was all the encouragement we needed, we’re British goddamnit, freezing temperatures and low visibility were not going to stand in the way of our picnic.

Grey Skies at Studland

Clouds? What clouds?

We loaded the car with teens, tween, dog, picnic, scarves, blankets, flasks of hot chocolate and buckets of gung-ho spirit.

Cut to our arrival at the beach to find us staggering, sweating, to the beach shop to buy emergency sun cream and cold drinks.  Good old Blighty weather – always a surprise around the corner.

We collected the key to our home for the day and went in search of No.34.  When I made the booking I was told that the hut was not right on the beach but tucked behind a dune, so it was not a surprise to find that we were hidden away.  Initially I was disappointed not have an open view of the sea but, actually, it was perfect as the huts around us were not in use that day so we were able to set up camp in secluded bliss.  The beach was 30 seconds through the dunes so no hardship there.

No34     Path to the hut

We had a fabulous day.  Stuffed our picnic as soon as we arrived (sandwiches,  sausage rolls, jam tarts, fruit cake, strawberries), walked the dog on the beach, read our books.  The teens and tween ventured into the sea and hired a pedalo before returning to the hut to flop around languidly tattooing each other with henna.

Picnic at the hut2

Of course we had to eat all of the picnic within minutes of arrival

Jam Tarts

Jam tarts

Fruit cake and brownies

Fruit cake and brownies

Harry at the hut

Dogs are allowed on the beach all year round. Happy spaniel!

My lovely friend

My lovely friend

Pedalo2

A pedalo adventure

hennaphotobomb

Henna tattoos as the heat went out of the sun

When you take a day hire you can stay well into the evening and just post the key through the National Trust letterbox on your way out.  Had the weather stayed warm and sultry we would have done this but the clouds drew un and we packed up at six-ish to head home.  Next time I’ll stick a portable BBQ in the car and the day can roll into night over hot dogs and smores.

We arrived home both sunburnt and shivering which summed up our Very British Picnic perfectly.

Ice Cream

Sculpture by the Lakes

I am not particularly known for my cultural expertise, you won’t find me puffing on a Gauloises wearing a black polo neck and ballet pumps. But I do like to look at things that make me happy, make me cross, make me start a discussion, make me wish I could do it myself. This is what brought me to Sculpture by the Lakes, a fantastic hidden gem in Pallington, near Dorchester in Dorset.

Sign USE

A visit has been on my wish list for a while but as they do not admit children under the age of fourteen, I had to wait for a suitable child free weekend. I had the perfect opportunity when my girls were temporarily replaced by a lovely friend from the Isle of Wight who came to stay leaving her own family on the other side of the Solent for a couple of days.

Fruit USE

Fruit

Sculpture by the Lakes is the creation of artist Simeon Gudgeon and his wife Monique. They purchased 26 acre plot 2007 when it was a working fishery and immediately wet to work transforming it into the oasis that stands there now. Simon is one of the country’s leading bronze sculptors and Monique turned her back on a career in PR to become a landscape gardener; together they have created a perfect showcase for both of their talents.

Duel USE

Duel

Disappearing Worlds Use

Disappearing Worlds

This is not a run of the mill attraction. There is no tea room or gift shop, young children and dogs are not allowed. Visitors are limited to ensure that everyone who attends is able to fully absorb and enjoy the experience in total peace and tranquillity. Having digested this information before we went I was unsure what to expect, was it going to be all rules and public library-like signs demanding silence?

Pelicans USE

Pelicans

Deer USE

Roe Deer

I needn’t have worried as the caveats that have been issued are all valid and really did contribute to our enjoyment. Entrance is via intercommed electric gates on a lane of small cottages. On parking up we were met by a member of the team who gave us a brief intro and explained that a few of the sculptures were missing as they were on the way to the Chelsea Flower Show where the Gudgeons have a garden this year. There was only one other small group of visitors apart from us and we set off to explore.

Barn Owl USE

Falcon

Whispering Spirit USE

Whispering Spirit

It was utterly peaceful and tranquil, the only sound the faint hum from the tangle of electricity pylons that are strung over the acres like industrial bunting. The sculptures are set within the natural habitat of the grounds and whilst some stand out tall and majestic others creep up on you from behind trees or the banks of a lake. Words feature quite heavily, reflected on the water, made into a bench, sunk into a path beneath a tunnel of wisteria.

Love Builds Bridges USE

Unfortunately the weather was not on our side and so my photos do not do the pieces justice but they give you a flavour of what was on display. There were some that I loved, some that I didn’t and others that sat somewhere in the middle. The friend who came with me is not only an artist herself but also a gardener so I had a properly trained eye to help with my layman observations. I was worried that maybe it would be a bit ‘mainstream’ for her but there were things that appealed to us both for different reasons – it really was very accessible art without being dumbed down in any way.

Willow Man USE

Willow Man

The Gudgeons encourage you to stay for the day and there are many secluded sitting and eating areas if you choose to take a picnic. They also have a river keeper’s hut and island lake house available for hire for special events or extra nice picnics.

River Keepers Hut USE

The River Keepers Hut

Weather and time did not allow us to linger as long as we would have liked and I definitely plan to return very soon, I think there is much to be gained from a second visit and of course the gardens and grounds will change with the seasons. If you are planing a trip to Dorset, or live nearby, I can definitely recommend a visit to this unique and inspiring attraction.  Have you already been?  What did you think?

Bridge USE

Le Banc du Souvenir

Far From the Madding Crowd

PosterDorset is in the grip of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ fever.  You can take your Cornish coastline and your scything six packs and shove them up a tin mine chimney.  It’s our turn for the spotlight now and we are loving it.  The question on everyone’s lips is “Have you seen FFTMC yet?” so, in order to be able to roll with the Zeitgeist I thought I had better pop off to the cinema to see the film.

Despite being a resident of Casterbridge (albeit fairly recently) I have never read any Thomas Hardy, I didn’t even know the bare bones of the FFTMC story.  The friend I went to see the film with, however, is a mad Hardy fan and has read the book many times so we really were coming at it from totally different directions.

We went to the Dorchester Plaza which is a fantastic local resource and still only charges £3.50 for a Saturday night ticket (£2.50 Monday to Friday – total bargain).  The theatre was full with the chatter of excited Dorset folk waiting to play spot the location, and find the face in the crowd scenes – many locals were recruited as extras. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I didn’t expect to love this film as much as I did.

I was pretty much sold within the first 15 minutes when a tall and handsome Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) strode across the field carrying a new born lamb.  He presented  Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) with the lamb and then asked her to marry him.  Well, if that had been me I would have probably shrieked yes, flung myself at his feet, grabbed the lamb and dragged him off into the sunset.  However, I do appreciate that this would make for a very short story and not much of a feature film.  So, of course, Bathsehba said no and proceeded to juggle the affections of Gabriel and two other suitors along with managing an enormous farm and galloping around the place in a variety of lovely frocks.

Mulligan’s performance was, actually, perfect.  She was sympathetic, believable and of course, beautiful.  Michael Sheen trotted out his signature performance of a likeable loony tune and Tom Sturridge was a magnificent villain as the feckless and cruel Sergeant Francis Troy. The locations were beautiful although we didn’t see as much of Dorset as we thought we would.  The flavour of rural Britain in Victorian times was portrayed in  a palatable way, not too glitzy and not too grim.

A personal tick from me was the music score, I have a pet hate for film scores that jar or overtake the actual film.  The score for this movie is, to my mind, perfect and flows gently like the rolling hills it was written to accompany. At a minute short of two hours I was expecting numb bum syndrome but the time shot past in a flash, we couldn’t believe it was the end and were left wanting more which is by far the best way to leave a cinema.

So – a huge thumbs up for ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’.  It went a long way towards curing my Poldark withdrawal symptoms and satisfied both a Hardy ignoramus and a Hardy expert which was a pretty tall order.  Have you seen the film?  What did you think?