A Perfect Day

Staring down the barrel of another winter, there’s nothing for it but to wrap ourselves in chunky knits and warm memories.

Before summer left us, I had a magical day of the absolutely perfect variety, that will no doubt haunt me for years to come in deep sleep and desktop daydreams.

It was a perfect day in a perfect week spent at Menabilly with my family. And it started very early – before the night had even left us. Armed with a torch and binoculars, I raced morning up the cliff path to watch the sun rise over the sea in a symphony of pink and orange. The silence was so complete that I could hear the fishermen talking from their boats on the waves below.

Menabilly sunrise1

Menabilly sunrise2

Menabilly sunrise3

If I’d had my paints with me I probably would have caught pneumonia on that hillside desperately trying to capture the wash of colour and the explosive moment the sun breached the horizon in a blaze of gold. Thankfully for my physical and mental health I made do with just my camera, and I arrived back at the cottage in time to catch the rest of my family finishing the last crumbs of breakfast. Some more hungry than others, we jumped in the car and headed into a fairytale – otherwise known as Tintagel. The legendary seat of King Arthur is perched on a Cornish cliff top on the north coast, and its rugged beauty had me immediately head over heels. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and there were ruins, rocks, waterfalls, caves and beaches to bounce around. It was my idea of absolute heaven.

Tintagel 1

Tintagel 2

Tintagel 3

Tintagel 4

Tintagel 5

Waterfall at Tintagel

Cave at Tintagel

Me on the rocks at Tintagel

When I was done clambering upon all that there was to clamber upon, and had finished imagining round tables, swords in stones, ladies in lakes, and all things Arthurian, we headed to Polkerris for dinner at my favourite restaurant – Sam’s on the Beach.

That night Sam’s outdid themselves: my huge bowl of white wine soaked spaghetti was so delicious that dignity went utterly out the window and I ended up wearing more sauce than makeup; they seemed to be exclusively playing a list of my favourite songs; and as we laughed, chatted, and enjoyed each other’s company we had the best seat in the house to watch the sun sink into the harbour.

Sam's on the Beach

Sunset at Polkerris

Chlo at Sam's on the Beach

Mum and Dad

Olives at Sam's on the Beach

Best pasta of my life

Sunset at Polkerris

So the perfect day ended as all perfect days should – with full tummies and full memory cards. And when winter bites, and you catch me with a glazed expression on my face, this is where I’ll really be.

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!

Magic Beans

I have started writing this many times over the last few weeks. Well, to be more precise, I have stared at the empty page in front of me for a few minutes before making a disparaging noise and flouncing away from my laptop with my nose in the air many times in the last few weeks. I’ve imagined the empty page floating in front of me like a poorly dressed up phantom every morning when I wake up, and every night before I fall asleep. But until about five minutes ago, I hadn’t written a single word – not even in my head.

You see, dear reader, my whole life right now is an empty page. And I mean that in the bestest, most wonderful, least terrifying way possible. Honest. (Well, maybe a bit terrifying. Just a bit. In a good way. Obviously. [Good terrifying, yeah? Like a sky dive. Or a polar bear who doesn’t get your sense of humour.] And yes, my voice is becoming more and more shrill as I type this. If you’re still reading then you should probably get a hearing test and double check that you don’t in fact have four legs and a waggly tail.)

To explain the current existential crisis, it helps to know that I graduated just over a year ago. At that point I was all loved up, had high hopes for a career in writing things, was planning to at some stage move in with the artist formerly known as Boyfriend, and dreaming about getting a dog. Fast forward to right now and I’m finding myself wandering rather aimlessly through life, constantly humming the Friends’ theme tune, and telling anyone who’ll listen that I’VE GOT MAGIC BEANS!” in a manner that is at best alarming and at worst psychotic. I am oh so very single, to the point where my mother has taken on the role of matchmaker/enthusiastic gal pal/pimp, keeps telling me I need to “put myself out there” and “have some fun”, and is one step away from going rogue and putting me on Tinder… or eBay. My job involves a lot of writing, but mostly only 140 characters of it at a time. I’m living the sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll dream in my childhood home with my parents – if by sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll you mean cuddles with my cat, peppermint tea, and over-hearing old Sting albums. And the closest thing I have to a dog is my friend Jess. (She will understand that this is the greatest compliment anyone can ever be given, by the way.)

Puppy love with my Jess, circa 2010.

Puppy love with my Jess, circa 2010.

But! (And oh, I love that but.) When faced with the many not-going-to-plan areas of my life, my main reaction is relief. Relief at not having to fight tooth and nail to keep my plan intact. Relief at not having a plan at all. (I don’t even have a “pla”.) And I should be clear – I am a self-confessed control freak. If there were meetings for my ilk I’d probably be the chairman, because I wouldn’t trust anyone else to do a good enough job at it. (Imagine those meetings, by the way. They would never start late and absolutely everyone would take impeccably written minutes.) But the last year has taught me the valuable lesson that if there is no plan then nothing can go wrong. And my life had become a monstrous game of plan-Jenga (patent pending) with bits wobbling willy nilly, everything threatening to crumble, and me racing around like a lunatic trying to hold it all together. And now that – a year on – it actually and inevitably has collapsed in a rather anti-climatic heap on the floor, all the things I thought I wanted (apart from the dog, I’m still dreaming that dream) appear at best unrealistic and at worst pretty silly. I feel like a bird released from a cage or a balloon cut from its string or Batman after he escapes from that pit prison thingy.

So it would seem that I don’t want to be a shoe any more. Maybe I’m a purse, or a hat. Maybe I’m a book, or an umbrella stand. Maybe I’m a battle ship, or a god damn dragon. Maybe I can be anything I want to be because I’m 22 and in possession of a brain. Not to mention my winning smile. And my magic beans.

Welcome to the real world, Gemma. It sucks. But I’m gonna love it.

Friends Rachel Magic Beans

P.S. On a totally unrelated note, happy belated 20th birthday, Friends.

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

Harebells

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

Raspberries

Teacake

Picnic

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.”

Us

Us
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.

Breezy
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.)