Shining Autumn

The nights are drawing in. Darkness is gaining ground, slinking belly-down ever around the edges of the day, gnawing a little more precious light away with each blood orange sunset. The air is suddenly crisp and smells of damp earth, decay, and the imminent death of the year. Outside, conkers and pine cones are two a penny underfoot, and have crept indoors too, adorning hearths and mantels like little treasure-piece time-machines. Temperatures are sinking; step out in the morning and your breath heralds your entrance to the world in a rush of dragon smoke, and the coming bite of first frost threatens any still straggling berries. Autumn is here, a blackbird’s song on his lips, russet leaves in his hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind, eyes green as apples.

Ashridge Autumn

Winter obliterates; an icy dementia. Autumn’s memory is deep. Inside each golden frond lives still the balmy warmth of chlorophyll-fuelled summer, and the pale promise of spring. Autumn is the cinnamon and bergamot scented season of hot-buttered nostalgia, where a cup of tea can cure all.

Gem's breakfast in bed

Pine cones

Gem and Cat

At this time of year, my heart yearns for a nothing more than a dog beside me, a long road ahead of me, and an apple and blackberry crumble waiting for me when I come home. But a cuddle with my cat and a slice of two of peanut butter toast will have to suffice for now!

Picnicking Perfection

Picnic is my favourite word. I’m also a big fan of Akimbo, Wiggle, Kerfuffle, Whimsical, Pyjamas, and Sausages when you say it whilst moving your mouth as little as possible. Soshergis. But picnic is my favourite. Say it as fast as you can: picnicpicnicpicnic. Or as slowly as possible: pic-ker-nic. Whatever the speed you choose to utter it, it’s the best thing in my vocabulary (which includes gems like Sycophancy, Loquaciousness,  and obviously Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) because as well as being easy on the ears, it combines two of my greatest loves: food, and the outdoors.

And you rarely say Picnic unless a picnic is on the cards. It would be a little bit superfluous (another classic) and more than a little bit mean. So in the spirit of sharing, I’m inviting you to be a sneaky fly on the wall at the very best picnic I’ve ever been on.

Gem and hamper

Once you’ve packed yourself up a hamper full of deliciousness, there are just a few more ingredients you require if you wish to achieve picnicking perfection. In the Gemma book of picnicking, these are as follows: a view (preferably of the breath-taking variety); a tree (the more romantically shaped the better); and a rug (must be featuring a checked pattern otherwise it’s scientific fact that the food won’t taste as good).

Coombe Hill view

Picnic tree

Picnic view

Picnic spot
Let’s just all take a moment to bow down before the utter perfection of this picnic spot. Coombe Hill, ladies and gentleman, was unbeatable on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at the end of July.

Gem on picnic rug

Picnic view


With the sun beaming, the harebells dancing in the breeze, the hillside awash with the sound of leaves rustling, the swaying sea of rosebay willowherb resplendent in all its purple hazey glory, and the vale spread out below us, we unpacked our treats. In my beautiful hamper – thank you so much Lucy! – and an extra canvas bag I’d squeezed: a mini bottle of Champagne; tea cakes and strawberry jam; the mother of all sausage sandwiches for my decidedly non-vegetarian picnic partner (comprised of caramelised onion and pork sausages in a cooked baguette with fried mushrooms, caramelised onions, and barbecue sauce, with cheddar melted over the top – salivate away, meat-eaters); roasted pistachio nuts; and last but by no means least, wafer cones, raspberries and Chantilly cream to create picnic-proof ice cream cones (patent pending).

Best picnic ever




Make-do ice cream cone
Sat up there, with good food, and good company, I felt like I was in some kind of strawberry jam and Chantilly cream flavoured dream. A few families were making the most of the school holidays, and dog walkers with various charming four-legged friends were enjoying the beautiful weather too, but up on the hill away from the world the murmered noise of play and far away conversations only added to the atmosphere. It’s by far the most peaceful I’ve felt for months.

Gem and teacake
With tranquillity seeping into my soul with every breath, it was easy to see why the commanding structure of Coombe Hill was erected here. Perched at the end of the ridge, where the view stretches to both sides of the horizon, is a memorial to the 157 men of Buckinghamshire who gave their lives in the Second Boer War. Overlooking the land for which they fought, and the homes where they lived, loved, and tragically never returned; I can’t think of a better place for their memories to linger.

Coombe Hill momument
The stone reminder that our existence is a fleeting one possibly explains why, of all the people with whom we shared our afternoon on the hill, my inner romantic was most drawn to a pair of elderly gentlemen who were sat on a bench quietly gazing over the vale with the manner of two people who have perfected the art of contentment. I hope that I’ll still spend afternoons sitting in sunshine watching the world go by when my hair is grey and my face is lined with a lifetime of memories.

Old friends
That’s a long way away though, and for now, I’m happy. I don’t remember a day that better matches my favourite Oogway quote so perfectly: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift – that is why it is called the present.”


Operation pull-funny-faces-at-the-last-minute-and-sneakily-ruin-Gemma’s-attempts-at-a-‘nice’-photo may well have been a roaring success, but I think that second one might be my favourite picture of us, ever.

Eventually, with much less stored in the hamper and much more stored in our tummies and on my camera’s memory card, we decided to head home into the cooling afternoon. And then, as if there wasn’t already enough happiness in the world on this sun-soaked English Tuesday, the breeze and my dress conspired to decide that this was the perfect moment to show Coombe Hill my knickers, and I very nearly have photographic evidence.

Happy ‘today’, everyone!

Admission of Guilt

I did an unbelievably stupid thing the other day. I mean, unbelievably stupid. Not like dropping-your-phone-in-the-bath dumb, or metal-in-the-microwave foolish: I’m talking stick-yourself-in-a-cone-of-shame, admit-you-aren’t-equipped-for-adult-life, write-it-into-a-sitcom stupid.

I don’t ever remember being so mortified by my own brain in such a private setting. My prior list of embarrassments – of which there are too many to count let alone recount – have, largely speaking, occurred in front of an audience. The time, years ago, where a poorly calculated maths lesson daydream allowed a friend to nudge me out of my oblivion and tell me, deadpan – causing me to walk across a classroom full of baffled students to an equally baffled headteacher – that the head wanted a word with me outside. The time, more recent that I’d like to admit, that I mistook a wandering albatross for a herring gull in front of an award winning wildlife photographer. The (countless) times anyone’s ever overheard me rapping along to the Lethal Bizzle classic, Police On My Back. (Not sure why people are so amused by a tiny law-abiding home counties white girl growling, in a Brixton accent, “Useta be a criminal, top car deala”.) The time last week, ahem, I mean absolutely ages ago, where I tried and largely failed to learn how to cartwheel in my lunch hour, in front of quite a high number of serious professional type people.

Anyway, I’m sure that the question of why shame seems to occur more often in public than in private has been much philosophised upon by great thinkers who doubtless know how to do a cartwheel. Let’s get back to me being an idiot.

I’d come home last Friday, shame-free, after an evening spent imitating taxidermy* at the Natural History Museum. That’s right, you heard me: no shame felt in doing this in a public place at all.

Gem at Natural History Museum

No. Shame. Here.


*Quick aside to make sure we’re all clear that this particular model of a giant ice age monster bear (yes that is its scientific name) is most definitely not taxidermy. Thank god.


I’d left Rachael at Victoria, navigated the packed tube without wanting to scream at anyone, meditated on the train and felt like a good little hippy, driven home with the windows down and the wind in my hair, and parked perfectly on the drive. It was all going so well.

I get out of the car. I lock the car. I grab the front door keys, open the front door, and then realise the car windows are still open.

And here, folks, is where everything went horribly wrong. It is at this moment that all logic, intelligence, and spatial awareness left me.

I put my hand through the open window. I put the keys back in the ignition. I start humming R. Kelly under my breath. (“It’s the remix to ignition, hot and fresh out the kitchen…”). I turn the key. (“Sipping on coke and rum, I’m like so what I’m drunk…”). I flick the window switch upwards. (“Bounce, bounce bounce…”.)

So just to clarify… My hand is inside the window, which has started to close. The keys are in the ignition. The car itself is locked.

And some kind of logic-less animal instinct kicks in. Rather than grabbing the keys, or hitting the switch to halt the window’s upwards trajectory, I pull my hand out of the shrinking space and out of danger. I guess I (unbelievably stupidly) thought I’d have time to pull the keys out of the gap at the last second. (An oversight for which I’m tempted to blame Indiana Jones.)

So I’m left standing on my drive, gazing with horror at my car; locked, running, and with the keys inside. I genuinely pressed my nose against the window in order to feel a little closer to my poor abandoned keys. I cursed my stupidity. I cursed my inability to hot wire a car. I cursed Lethal Bizzle for not going into more detail about his top criminal car dealing business. (Some tips would have been nice, Mr Bizzle!)

In the end there was nothing for it but wait for the spare keys to come home from London (with my sister, not of their own volition) a few hours later. My opinion of myself was pretty much as flattened as the car battery.

So yes, in summary… not my finest moment!

First Impressions & Animal Impressions at NHM

(Disclaimer: I take the business of museum-ing very seriously. Very seriously indeed. I’d like you to bear this in mind throughout this post. Oh and I definitely don’t wear my red tea dress too much.)

Through some sort of massive oversight, up until a few weeks ago I’d never been to the Natural History Museum before. I don’t really have much of an explanation, other than the fact that my home town houses part of the collection, but that isn’t really a fantastic excuse when you consider how much I love nature, history, and museums in general. So when we were done chasing butterflies, Niki and I went in search of dinosaurs.

Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum Entrance Hall

Natural History Museum Entrance Hall

Natural History Museum

Entrance Hall at Natural History Museum

The main hall was absolutely breath-taking. I was having such a nice time ooohing and ahhhing at the architecture (not to mention the Diplodocus) that I didn’t even really mind the gargantuan queue to get into the dinosaurs section.

Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

T. Rex at Natural History Museum

T. Rex at Natural History Museum

I especially enjoy these photos of the giant animatronic T. Rex, because it sort of looks like he’s told a joke and is then giggling at himself. I think my amusement at this may have been what triggered the next set of photos…

Niki at Natural History Museum

Gem at Natural History Museum

Niki at Natural History Museum

Gem at Natural History Museum

Niki at Natural History Museum

Gem at Natural History Museum

Remember what I said about how seriously I take museums? Yeah.

I was back within a few weeks for a mammoth visit with Rach. (A visit to the Mammoth Exhibition that is, rather than like a really giant trip.) We wanted to see baby Lyuba, the wonderfully preserved month old mammoth who died when she fell in a bog 42,000 years ago. There were strictly no photos allowed of her little body, which still had ginger hair clinging to her knees and inside her ears. I’m sure the no photo rule is for some kind of science based reason, but when you’re there and looking at her, with all the information on her short life, and the animated videos of her with her herd, the ban on photography seems like a mark of respect.

Thankfully the rest of the exhibition proved entertaining enough to stop us from turning into two emotional wrecks.

Mammoth Exhibition at Natural History Museum

Mammoth Exhibition at Natural History Museum

And then, well, what can I say? I obviously just can’t help myself.

Rach at Mammoth Exhibition at Natural History Museum

Rach at Mammoth Exhibition at Natural History Museum

Gem at Mammoth Exhibition at Natural History Museum

Having unleashed our inner ice age, it was time to head back out into the summer evening. As we walked through the emptying main hall, I turned to say goodbye to Darwin.

Entrance Hall at Natural History Museum

At first I thought he might have been glowering disapprovingly at us, but at second glance I reckon I caught a twinkle in those marble eyes.


A Day at the Zoo

Last Saturday, I had a date. And it wasn’t with my sister, my cat, or a melt-in-the-middle Marks & Spencer chocolate pudding.

Nope. It was an actual date. With an actual man.

But don’t panic; I’m not about to get all yucky and gooey eyed or put my Bridget Jones please-don’t-let-me-die-alone-and-be-eaten-by-Alsations hat on. (Although how great a hat would that be? Would probably be a bit misshapen and feature some suspicious looking stains courtesy of vodka and Ben & Jerry’s.)

I just want to write about the zoo.

Whipsnade Lion

Whipsnade Zoo, to be precise. We only live a few miles away, and whenever I see the chalk lion carved into the hillside I can’t help but smile. In years gone by my mum and dad would pack me and Chlo into the car, buzzing with excitement, and take us to what was basically heaven for mini me with my love of animals and over-priced ice cream. I’d run around with sticky fingers, captivated by lemurs, lions, and llamas alike – there are so many species that you’d struggle to herd your children around them all in just one visit.

My absolute favourite thing was the sea lion show. Barclay, Liz, and Salt (with a little help from their trainers) would have kids and grown-ups alike in hysterics. Barclay in particular was everyone’s favourite: the highlight of the show was him launching himself into the air in a burst of stream-lined brawn, touching his nose to a ball hanging a few metres above the water, and belly flopping back into the pool to ensure the resulting splash soaked as many giggling children as possible.

Barclay, Liz and Salt have presumably long since taken their place in the big ocean in the sky, but the new recruits definitely lived up to their predecessors’ legacy and my childhood memory. The morning show had been cancelled after a few minutes when it became clear the sea lions didn’t really feel like doing tricks – their trainer explained that they never make the animals do anything they don’t want to, and added with a grin that it’s their breeding season at the moment so they were a little sleep deprived. (Cue some confused children and sniggering adults.) But Bailey and Lara had obviously napped before the afternoon show.

Sea lions at Whipsnade

Sea lions at Whipsnade

Sea lions at Whipsnade

They showed us their powerful front and back flippers, demonstrated by playing dead the perils of water pollution, applauded when the audience answered questions correctly, had everyone laughing at their impressions of seals, and floored us with (my favourite) their flipper-over-the-face horror at the idea they might be mistaken for one. (I do an outstanding impression of an affronted sea lion who’s been mistaken for a seal. Ask me about it after I’ve had a few drinks. You won’t be disappointed.) Despite the smaller females not being big enough to recreate the epic Barclay splash when they leapt from the water, Whipsnade had figured out another way of drenching anyone sat in the front row…

Sea lions at Whipsnade

Sea lions at Whipsnade

Hoses. So simple, so very effective. One thrilled boy of about six looked as though he’d not so much been sprayed with a hose but actually dunked in the pool. (His parents didn’t look quite so over-joyed.)

Hot, sweaty, and rather jealous of the hosed-down kids we decided an emergency ice cream stop was a must before we carried on with our sight-seeing.

Mara at Whipsnade

Brown bear at Whipsnade

Otter at Whipsnade

Red panda at Whipsnade

Asian Elephants at Whipsnade

African Penguin at Whipsnade

Wallaby at Whipsnade

Whipsnade is the biggest zoo in the UK. It’s owned by the Zoological Society of London, so works as part of the charity to raise funds for conservation. And no, they haven’t escaped controversy: a quick Google comes up with a shot chimp, penguins killed by a fox, and a chlorine problem that damaged the sea lions’ eyesight last year. So they’re not perfect. But I think Whipsnade care about their animals, and look after them to the best of their ability.

Still, you can’t help but wonder what kind of life they have.

Amur tiger at Whipsnade

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and this one certainly sums up my problem with zoos. Out of shot is a reasonably big enclosure with lots of foliage and climbing platforms, but even with the best will in the world no zoo enclosure can emulate a territory of hundreds of square miles. My date, seeing the photo I was taking, said sadly that it looked like the tiger was in a prison. Excellent sign for the date, not such an excellent sign for the tiger.

But saving endangered species and improving quality of life for zoo animals are sadly not problems that one woman can fix, alone, in just one afternoon. So I stuck my head back in the sand and turned my attention to a problem that could be fixed: my growling tummy.

Having spent the day being big kids, we then popped out for a very civilised grown up dinner at The Greyhound in Aldbury.

The Greyhound, Albury

To Share Or Not To Share

Asparagus and hollandaise at The Greyhound

Sorbet at The Greyhound

Crème brûlée at The Greyhound

Crème brûlée at The Greyhound

A smashing end to a smashing day! (See what I did there? God I’m hilarious.)

Kensington’s Flamingos

On Monday, a project I’d helped to work on won an Institute of Fundraising Award. This came as a rather large shock to me, as those in the know had knowingly and humbly informed me that we most definitely would not win. We were up against baby tigers and Christmas crises. I don’t know very much about, well, anything really, but I’d already mentally picked the baby tigers as the winner. Because they’re tigers. And they’re babies. Baby tigers. Not even the scientifically correct ‘tiger cubs’. No. These are baby tigers. Bonus points for the tugging-at-the-heart-strings factor.

So our lovely little team had graciously – and, as it turns out, rather prematurely – accepted our defeat and gone out to lunch to celebrate our nomination. (It’s an honour to even be nominated, and I’d like to thank my mum, my dad, my mouse mat…)

Kensington Roof Gardens was a highly enjoyable but rather surreal experience.

First off, as the name helpfully suggests, the venue is several storeys above Kensington, so the view’s a bit of alright.

View from Kensington Roof Gardens

It was a trainer-and-jeans-free zone inside.

Sofa Kensington Roof Gardens

Seafood bar at Kensington Roof Gardens

Centrepiece at Kensington Roof Gardnes

Spot the Gemma.

I then had a lovely time stuffing my tummy full of yummyness, and snapping Suze and Hannah’s food as well as my own.

Food at Kensington Roof Gardens

Food at Kensington Roof Gardens

Risotto at Kensington Roof Gardens

Food at Kensington Roof Gardens

Dessert at Kensington Roof Gardens

Dessert at Kensington Roof Gardens

Petit fours at Kensington Roof Gardens

It was only after the Alice in Wonderland inspired petit fours box that things started to get curiouser and curiouser.

I discovered that there’s a fish tank built into the wall where you’d normally expect to find a mirror behind the sinks in the ladies’.

And the garden – presumably due to it being a party venue – made me feel a little bit like Samuel Taylor Coleridge having some sort of laudanum induced hallucination. The best way I could describe it would be as English country meets a kind of watered down vision of Xanadu.

Kensington Roof Gardens

Kensington Roof Gardens

Kensington Roof Gardens

Kensington Roof Gardens

Kensington Roof Gardens

Kensington Roof Gardens

I really liked this strange little garden. There was something very British about the faux exoticness of it all. We Brits do love our pastiche.

But then we walked around a corner and it got really, really odd.

Flamingo reflection at Kensington Roof Gardens

Guess who…

Flamingo at Kensington Roof Gardens

Nope, that isn’t an ornament. That’s an honest-to-god flamingo. Living in Kensington. On a roof.

Flamingo at Kensington Roof Gardens

There’s something sad about how beautiful they are. And something extremely unnerving about how much they look like artwork rather than living creatures.

Don’t get me wrong, I was very, very excited about the fact that I was going to be able to see flamingos. I was excited about the fact that I was going to work in London, and then popping out for a spot of lunch, and then seeing flamingos. It was the wildlife equivalent of going to a supermarket rather than an independent grocers: a little bit cheat-y but ever so convenient.

And then, when I was done trying to take a photo where the poor creature didn’t look like it had been purchased at a garden centre, came the worry. Then came thoughts of logistics: of space, or lack thereof; of pollution; of loneliness; and – worst of all – of clipped wings and what it would mean to fly and then to never fly again. I felt physically sick when Suze told me the disgusting rumour of a drunken party-goer having thrown one of the flamingos from the roof, to its death presumably, its ornamental life extinguished in a puff of pink feathers and pain on the pavement below.

I hope this isn’t true. I hope they have a lovely existence in their little urban oasis, on their rooftop corner of Kensington. I hope they have as much joy in their lives as they bring to those of the people taking photos of them for their Instagram accounts and their personal blogs.

Positive thinking is quite the power tool in the fundraising world. And you can take it from me. As of Monday, I’m award-winning.




Sensational Butterflies

“Always remember that the past was a lie, that memory had no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

The last few months have all been a bit topsy-turvy in Gemma land. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this Gabriel García Márquez quote and sulking. (By the way, how desolately beautiful is that sentence? One Hundred Years of Solitude is a wonderful book.) But like a butterfly emerging gratefully from an uncomfortable cocoon, I have brushed myself down, stood back up, and got a grip. This mental shakedown would have been much more tedious if it hadn’t been for my oldest and oddest friend, Niki. (More on the ‘odd’ later.) We’ve spent so much time together in our pyjamas of late that we’re becoming a bit like an old married (under-dressed) couple.

Bearing this in mind, we’ve been trying to spice things up in our relationship a little, by wearing proper clothes and and going on adventures. Second in our series of dates that will ruin our hair (although admittedly the humidity was not as drastic a hair-destroyer as the balloons) was a trip to the Natural History Museum’s Sensational Butterfly exhibition.

Niki & I in Sensational Butterflies

(Pause here to nod politely and agree that we make a great couple.)

Parked on the front lawn of the English landmark and tourist hotspot is a decidedly exotic adventure, in tent form. Stepping inside is to step out of English summer and into a tropical garden, bejewelled with butterflies. They hatch from their chrysalises and then float around, charming guests as they go.

Pale Owl and chrysalis at the Natural History Museum

They were everywhere.

Peeking at us from behind leaves…

Plain Tiger

… Perched on colourful snacks…


… And bewitching visitors when they spread their wings.

Niki and a Great Eggfly

Great Eggfly

We were like two kids in a sweetshop, running around and pointing out an increasingly gorgeous array of the least creepy crawly of the creepy crawlies.

Me and a Paper Kite

Tiger longwings, red lacewings, scarlet swallowtails, blue morphos, postmans, paper kites, and countless other fantastic (and fantastically named) creatures were everywhere you looked. I love the butterflies native to the UK, but these foreigners were just phenomenal.

Paper Kite

Scarlet Swallowtail


Great Mormon

As we wandered around the tropical tent, we kept seeing rebellious butterflies breaking the ‘no touching’ rule and landing on enchanted guests, and wondered somewhat dejectedly why no butterfly had found either of us an attractive looking perch. For some reason the stars seemed more likely to land on a child than an adult, and wide-eyed kids were were wandering around with handfuls of butterflies, gently carrying their treasures around to show the grown-ups.

Tiger Longwing

I was pretty jealous of these encounters, because I’m still love-drunk by my new camera’s macro skills. I was snapping away madly, addicted to the level of detail in each shot.

I think this is a Clipper

Red Lacewing

Even when focussing on one tiny thing and one much bigger less dainty thing (hi there) it does a great job.

Common Mormon and Gem

That tent was like snap-happy heaven. Great picture opportunities were just everywhere you turned. If you haven’t been already, then you should go. It’s only a fiver, and it’s so good for the soul. Stand in the heat, listen to the soundtrack of rainforest noises, and let yourself by hypnotised by the butterflies.

Common Mormon

Passion flower

Zebra Longwing

Great Mormon? Not sure

There’s nothing more soothing than nature. But sometimes documenting it can be nothing short of stressful. Still sulking at the butterfly-based rejection, Niki decided that the best way to entice a butterfly was to get 90% of the way to one and hope that her butterfly beau would go the other 10% of the distance. (Yup, just like in Hitch. That well known butterfly documentary.)




A few tentatively paused on her person, but not for long enough to write home about (or long enough for me to take a photo.) But perhaps butterflies prefer it when you play a little harder to get, because while I was snapping away a Great Eggfly landed on my sunglasses.

Great Eggfly on my sunglasses

He was old, tattered, and tired, and – like any weary weather-beaten traveller – was content to rest for a while.

Me and my Great Eggfly

It’s easy when you’re in a place like this to focus – with your mind and with your lens – on the bright and the beautiful; to gloss over the old and imperfect. And I think we’re probably all a bit guilty of doing this in our day to day lives, too. So I’m glad that a tiny, tatty butterfly picked me as a place to temporarily rest his hat, and reminded me in the process that true beauty doesn’t fade, even if stereotypical loveliness is an ephemeral truth in the end.