Sunday, 30 May 2010

Connemara: Some Words, Some Photos

I doubt it would be possible to write about my week in Connemara as a true reflection of what it was for me. I simply don't have the language ability, or maybe the language I speak just doesn't contain the words I will need.

What I found on that ragged Atlantic coast was something I never dared to believe really existed. Untouched landscapes, long wild views of the world as it was always meant to be, unreachable horizons where the sky is undifferentiable from the sea. In that week I found a part of myself which has been absent for a long time, if it ever existed at all. I felt no need for anything but the moment I was in; the landscapes were there to carry us along through the week, we didn't have to think about making plans as the plans were already laid out for us in the mountains, the beaches, the hills and coves.

Connemara is an outdoors lover's dream: we trekked over untrodden fields, jumping gates and fences, clinging onto cliff faces and scrambling up rocky mountainsides. Compass and OS maps were in constant use, with cairns, hilltops and low cols as our route guides. On four of our five walking days we didn't see another soul, and we could pretend for a little while that we were in another universe, which was not hard to believe.

I leave you with some photos, though even the best photography skills (which I certainly do not posess) could not capture the depth of this place; it remains a visual secret only for those who visit!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Time for Another Adventure

At last! Hoilday time has come, and I am so ready for it! Tomorrow morning we head off early to catch a flight to Galway in the Republic of Ireland. From there we'll head as far West as land will allow us, to a little cottage looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, which will be our place of rest for a blissful week. No internet, no TV, no phone. Just lakes, shores and mountains to explore. We head off with two pairs of sturdy boots, two Virginia Woolf novels (our respective favourites which we are going to swap), a book of poetry and more cereal bars than is probably healthy to consume in seven days. I'm ready for adventure, itching to be set free in the wilds like a dog from its leash - not a glamorous analogy, but probably an accurate one!

I have only been with Daniel for a year and a quarter, but already our relationship has seen many adventures, including three short adventuring trips. When we were talking about what we wanted in our perfect summer holiday, it turned out that we wanted exactly the same thing; to be cut of somewhere wild and exciting, with an unknown wilderness to explore. This dream holiday is coming true tomorrow, and I can't wait to be cooped up in our warm cottage with Altantic winds blustering outside the window.

I don't consider myself to be well-travelled; I was lucky enough to spend three weeks crossing over Canada when I was 18, but apart from that all of my holidays have been in Europe, and most of them in the Lake District. However, I don't feel untravelled; every trip I've ever taken has been filled with exploration and adventure, and so long as this continues, I'll be happy wherever my travels take me. My biggest adventure was the Dales Way, which put to the test every muscle in my body and every ounce of courage within me. The week to come will hopefully contain tidbits of that nature, but I'm not intending it to be quite so full-on! We'll see; the Twelve Bens mountain range might be a little too tempting...

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Potato-Shaped Love

I'm a lucky lucky thing, this I have been sure of for quite a while now.

I have a man who brings me tasty cereals when I'm sad. Someone to explore bookshops with, eat porridge with and read poetry with. Someone who even writes poetry for me. Someone who drops in at work to bring me carrots and celery when I have run out.

Indeed, he'll come and play badminton with me (and let me off when I play badly) even after an arduous day at work. He never puts football or computer games before me, and has often walked home in torrential rain, deep snow and gusting winds at all hours of the night after spending a little too long at my house.

Every Tuesday he volunteers after work at a local reading group, where he reads about football, steam trains and wartime heroics with eccentric old men, who he always has time for. He arrives at my house for tea after a working day longer than any I have ever known and I treat him to some homecooked grub. I usually use this opportunity to test out some new recipes, and there have been some successes and some failures. But he always gobbles it up, even if I've added way too much chilli or its soggy or a little on the overcooked side. Despite his awesomeness and the many opportunities I have had to treat him to his favourite food, I never have. How terrible I am! (in fact, many of our arguments are based upon the useless nature of this said food, and how there's no need to cook it as it serves no purpose neither health-wise nor taste-wise!)

Until today! Today, for the first time, I treated Daniel to some 'lovely potatoes', and me-oh-my were they good! Jersey Royals are in season at the moment, and since they were on offer in the supermarket, I decided that this would be the week - especially appropriate as we are heading to Ireland on Thursday! I even managed to follow a recipe (almost) exactly, making for what was one of the tastiest potato experiences in my memory!

Jersey Royals in the Bag: so simple!

Pre-heat oven to 180C and prepare a few sheets of baking parchment on the worksurface. Scrub the Jersey Royal potatoes and add a portion-size to each piece of parchment. Put a little bit of butter in each potato-package and season with salt and pepper (and fresh parsley if you have it, which I didn't), then wrap up into a parcel and place on a baking tray in the oven for 35-40 minutes.

I served these with more red lentils, this time simmered with celery, coriander, onion and LOTS of garlic to make a stew. And lots of fresh crunchy veggies!

I thought this was a labour of love, but it turns out that Daniel was being awesome bi-proxy by introducing me to the joys of a good potato.

Lovely potato!

Monday, 17 May 2010

Saccharin and Soup

Oh dear. I am officially a hypocrite. And I hate hypocrisy, which makes me one up from a hypocrite, whatever that might be.

I regularly preach to anyone who'll listen (so Daniel, really, though I'm never sure if he's actually listening or not) about the sins of 'diet' food. I don't see any reason to need 'extra super light margarine' on a sandwich every day, or a huge dollop of 'almost-no-fat mayonnaise' on a delicious salad three times a week; not when you could have real butter and real mayonnaise every now and then, thus avoiding all of the artificial rubbish that is piled into these 'diet' products in order for them to taste enough like their chubby counterparts, as well as dodging the dangerous mindset that these super-light equivalents are actually good for you.

The greatest of all these evils, in my eyes, is artificial sweetener. Apart from all of the nasty consequences is provides in later life, it's just....eurrrgh. I love love love Ribena, but I drink it with the awareness that it's packed with sugar, and so only have it a couple of times a week. Until now! A while back I had a niggling virus that woulnd't go away, and I was advised by a nurse to sip on water all day long. Well...I don't really like drinking water. I always always have three pints a day, but sipping it all day long simply isn't an option, so I hit the corner shop for some squash. Of course, they only had bright orange or purple stuff packed with every unnatural nasty under the sun. Just this once I sighed, and bought a bottle in the least vivid shade I could find.

The good news is that over these months I've started drinking loads more drinks that aren't tea. The bad news is that most of this has involved sweetners. On my weekly shopping trip I stopped by the squash aisle for some more Ribena...but there was an offer on the 'extra light' variety. I checked the ingredients; yep, packed with everything I hate. I put it in my trolley anyway, where it sat peering up at me as I continued my shop. I hesitated to take it out of there a few times, but never did. Now it sits, evil red eyes glowing in the corner of my kitchen, daring me to open it. I taste just as good as the sugar-packed variety it whispers. We'll see, if I ever manage to peel back the foil and test it out. But I'm hereby promising myself, in full view of the blogosphere, that this is my last bottle of such evil. Give me rotting teeth and a bulging waistline over the evils of aspartame any day....these consequences can at least be detected and reversed!

Now for an update on my Sunday Soup! This week: carrot, ginger and lentil (yep, them lentils once again!), inspired by a recipe given to me by my friend Annika :-)

1 onion
3 cloves garlic
2 sticks celery
5 carrots
2 inch/cube ginger
120g red lentils, washed
1 litre veggie stock

Normal soup techniques apply here! Fry veggies and add lentils and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes then blend up a storm!

(Ok, so it looks exactly the same as all of my other soups! But this photo also shows my delicious homemade spelt loaf!)

Now I'm heading off to challenge Daniel at badminton!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Wearing In Our Boots

We learnt the hard way while on the Dales Way that walking boots become tough and ill-fitting when left to sit in the cupboard for an extended period of time. We'll be doing a lot of walking on our holiday (if the ash allows us to get there!), and not wanting a repeat of the horrendous blistering that we encountered after a few days' walking over the Dales, we took a different approach to the Saturday afternoon pint, crossing through dry fields in the afternoon sun to seek out a sunny country pub garden to while away some hours.

One of the many things I love about walking is the conversations it promotes. In the countryside thoughts seem to pass as freely as the breeze, and I always find that talking is less inhibited, more thoughtful and more provoking on a long walk. Fittingly, we discussed the joys of walking and the reasons why we love it so much. It seems to have a reputation as a way for old people to keep fit, or even worse, a pastime for the dull-minded; but for me it reflects only adventure, challenge and freedom. My Grandad was an enthusiastic walker - he walked and walked and walked, even when he was in the advanced stages of cancer, he carried on walking through it. He used to take me and my brother off with him when we were really young, and we would be gone all day, lost in his tales of the war and the excitement of the lands he discovered. My Gran would dispair when we returned, always late for tea and tired out, but still we walked with him every time he asked us to come along. And an integral part of any walk with my Grandad involved a pub stop, which is a strong tradition fifteen years later, of course!

We found the perfect beer garden. In fact, I've never found one quite as perfect! A few (very cheap) pints and some MSG-filled treats later, we headed back home. Everything seemed a little abstract when seen through beer-goggles, and it was impossible to approach the stiles in the same spring lamb-like fashion as earlier. But still, we made it back fuzzy and content, to an evening of holiday plans, sweet treats and rubbish TV.

These boots are made for walking, and (fingers crossed) that's just what they'll be doing on Friday!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Some Blanks, Because it's Friday!

Friday again! Who would've thought it?!

It's an unusually busy Friday for me - I'm going on holiday next week, and so I need to make sure everything is in the right place before I head off. My usual Friday involves a lie in, a long run and some cleaning. Today has included all of those, and we're only at midday (!), but my usually slow afternoon spent writing my blog and perusing other blogs will instead involve me rushing from place to place, trying to figure out computer programs and reading up on word learning.

I had a lovely run this morning - I'm glad that I skipped an afternoon 10k yesterday as this morning was beautifully sunny, which enticed me to turn left rather than right at a critical moment, going alongside the river and out of the city through fields and farmland. I went further than I intended, so it's a good job I was so greedy with my porridge portion this morning! ;-) I love the freedom of being a student. This will all stop soon, and the thought of a 9-5 job is starting to terrify me; I'm convinced that it'll pull me away from myself and my priorities, and I'll be on the rat race that I've always been adamant I'd avoid. Throughout my last two academic years running has not only been a way of keeping fit and staying sane, but it played an active role in my dissertation writing. I 'wrote' my conclusion to my French dissertation while running along Fulford Road, I completely re-vamped my arguments for my German dissertation alongside the River Ouse. And today I contemplated a point I was trying to make in a seminar yesterday, ready for Tuesday when I will argue my views for all my worth! Plato and Locke and Freud were runners, I am convinced!

Some blanks
, to distract me from the inevitability of impending real life!

1. The very best thing about the summer is
picnics! Sitting out on the grass with friends into the late hours, chatting and eating and drinking and not even being too cold - heaven!

2. My first crush ever was on a boy who later started bullying me. Typical! Things never worked out between us, mainly because I never said a word to anyone about it - I didn't know how to confess to these wierd feelings towards another person, not to my friends or my Mum or anyone!

3. This may sound really silly but I prefer vegetables to chocolate. "Wow, healthy!" some might say, but trust me, it has its repercussions!

4. I squeeze my toothpaste from the bottom of the tube, and it drives me mad when people do otherwise! Daniel ALWAYS squeezes from the top, so when I use his toothpaste I have to squeeze it all back into place before I brush my teeth.

5. My absolute favorite "comfort food" is crumpets with honey. After my last break up, the only thing I could face was honey on crumpets. When I'm down or ill it is the perfect way to feel a bit better.

6. A random fact about me is that my favourite sandwich filling is banana with cashew nuts and raisins. My Dad used to make them for me when I was little! One Christmas my brother got a scale-extric, and I got a huge tub of cashew nuts and raisins - happy sandwich times!

7. The one piece of technology that truly makes my life better and I couldn't live without is a kettle. If I had to boil water on the hob instead, my tea consumption would directly cause the environment to collapse, I'm sure .

Have a great weekend everyone! I'm heading to Daniel's tonight for potato wedges and chilli - lucky meeee! Tomorrow we're going walking to wear in our boots for an exciting holiday in the mountains. Busy busy bees!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Checking In!

I am still here!

I've been a busy busy bee over the past two weeks, collecting data for the project I'll be working on for the next four months (more on that soon!). It has been a mind-numbing task from start to finish, and staring at my computer screen all day long has left me with no will to blog, and nothing interesting to blog about! On the plus-side, incessant copying and pasting needs no real concentration and I've been able to enjoy hours and hours of radio!

Last night I met Daniel in town after he'd finished work to catch the first afternoon showing of Robin Hood. I would have had no intentions to see this film, blockbusters being far from "my thing", but Daniel lured me in with promises 12th Century linguistic excitement and the thrill of a mega-film on opening night. Thrilling it really was; brilliant music, great sets, lots of muscular action and gruff tales of the grimy dark ages. Imperfect, but who cares; it was a really great few hours. Maybe I'll be a film-bum yet?

I got up at 6:30 this morning to continue with my data nightmare. I didn't have time for the afternoon run I had planned, or even some yoga to un-slump my poor back, but I did finish it all - my data is together and I'm ready to roll! Exciting stuff!

Tonight Daniel is away in London, and I intend to indulge in this with a bit of time for myself. Thomas Hardy and some hot chocolate is on the cards, followed by an early night. Granny-style is the new black, really!

Friday, 7 May 2010

Baking the Blues Away (It's Friiiday!!)

After the intensity of the past few weeks and the triumph of completing the race on Sunday, it wasn't surprising that I experienced a long, slow come-down from the top of my mountain. The past few days have been long and dull, as I've started the loathsome task of collecting data for my Master's dissertation (more on that soon!).

Times like these require cake. In my case, an exciting experiment involving my favourite things: spelt flour, scones and ginger!

Carrot and Ginger Spelt Scones

2 cups spelt flour
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup sunflower oil
1/3 cup honey
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground ginger
1/3 cup hot water
1/2 cup grated carrot
1/2 cup sultanas

Mix together everything until combined, put small blobs of mixture onto a greased baking tray and bake at 190C (gas mark 5) for 15-20 minutes until golden brown - easy peasy!

Now I feel much more like myself, back into some sort of routine and excited for the project ahead. All it takes is a good scone!

And it's Friday! Today's Fill In The Blanks is about books!! I can talk about books!

1. My favorite book growing up was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton; possibly the only book my Dad has ever read! We read it together when I was really little and we both loved it. That fuelled my love for The Famous Five and Malory Towers - I loved Ms Blyton!

2. The funniest book I've ever read was Ohhh I have no idea! Defining The World by Henry Hitchings is an amusing read - it tells the story of Dr Johnson and his odd ways - I loved it!

3. The one book that has truly changed my life is Atonement by Ian McEwan. I was quite young when I read it, probably a little too young, but it opened my eyes to literature; it taught me to read beyond the words and see books as literature and not just stories .

4. If you're looking for a real "tear jerker" you should probably read The last Harry Potter book! I wept and wept, and I rarely cry at books!

5. If I could meet any author living or dead I would want to meet Virginia Woolf. I don't know what we'd talk about, but I'd love to sit and take her in; I bet she was as immediately absorbing as her books .

6. The next book on my "to read" list is To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I'm going on holiday in 2 weeks, and Daniel is going to read my favourite Woolf novel while I read his; I can't wait to be swept up along the bleak Irish coast, and then be swept away in a book by the fire in our little seaside cottage! .

7. If I was snowed into remote cabin in the woods and could only choose three books to bring with me I'd bring Ulysees by Joyce as I bought it but I know I'll never read it! Then a poetry anthology - probably Philip Larkin because he suits my every mood, and Atonement as I've never re-read it but would love to one day, when I have lots of time to think about it all properly!

Thanks Lauren :-) Have a good weekend!!!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

A Little Day Trip to Keswick

I spent the past few months building up to May 2nd. It loomed large in my mind as I started to take my running more seriously, going from 2 or 3 leisurely runs a week to 4 planned, timed runs, increasing my weekly distance at a scarily quick rate. Then, in March, right at the end of a 9 mile route, my knee gave way, and since then I haven't completed more than 5 miles without severe discomfort.

I didn't know how to approach the Keswick Half Marathon; whether to skip it completely or give it a go, and finally giving up on the idea of running it was one of the most dejecting things I had experienced in a long time. Over lunch on Saturday I discussed the issue with my Mum and Daniel, and we came up with Plan: Run It Anyway; my aim was to start the race with the other runners, and take a loop back round to the start after 4 miles, providing me with a 7 mile route and the opportunity to run at least some of this amazing course.

We set off early for Keswick on Sunday morning. For those who don't know this amazing part of the world, Keswick is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts on the edge of Derwent Water in the Lake District. The Lake is surrounded by some of the most exciting mountain trails in Europe, and the views are incredible. I spent every family holiday by Derwent Water for 20 years, and I still haven't grown tired of the adventure that surrounds that lake. I chose the Keswick Half Marathon as my first 13 mile race because of this; it was an adventure I hadn't yet experienced here, and the route passes by so many places that are special to me; the little cafés and cottages, streams and hills and mountains that for one week every May had contributed a rare freedom in my childhood.


The route was essentially a circuit of Derwent Water, treating the runners to some of the most stunning views of the Lake District. We arrived early, so took the opportunity to show Daniel around Keswick while we stretched our legs after the drive. We headed to Derwent Water, and the sheer size of the Lake surprised me, despite having seen it, rowed accross it and swam in it on many an occasion. It was clear to me how far 13 miles really was, and I was amazed that I'd even started training with such a huge goal in mind!

We headed back to the carpark to get ready, which was now swarming with runners. The atmosphere was incredibly stern; everyone had their own goal in mind and the presence of the task ahead loomed large. Despite the fact that I wasn't intending on running the whole race, and in essence was just going out on a leisurely 10km run in an amazing environment, I was a bag of nerves. I couldn't eat anything despite my Dad's insistence, and I was quite ready to give in and opt out. The starting point was a mile out of Keswick, so we jogged our way through the fields alongside the other runners, and as I jostled around in the hub of runners I started to feel a pang of excitement - I was here, and I was going to run; that was the main thing.

It was chaos at the start! Everyone was lunging and stretching in different directions, squashed in between two garden walls by the sides of the road. I made my way towards the back, but suddenly the horn sounded, and we were off!

I knew the race started on a hill, but the other runners and the cheering crowd carried me up it easily. People started to spread out as the route widened out; speedy latecomers fled past, while I found myself overtaking other runners. Everyone fell into their own pace and their own run in preparation for the next 13 miles. There wasn't much time to bed down into a steady stride; the first hill flattened out to give way to a long, steep incline; my first run outside Yorkshire presented me with gradients that Yorkshire just could not prepare me for, no matter how prepared I had been! My legs were already burning as I approached the top and I wasn't even a mile in, and as the peak flattened out I let out a loud cry, allowing the strain and the aches to wash over me as my heart rate slowed down.

The long hills continued for the first four miles. I couldn't believe how hard it was; and I took comfort in the fact that even if my training had gone to plan, it wouldn't have made this any easier. Even so, I had no complaints; every hill took us higher, and before I knew it I was looking down over Derwent Water, with the bright daylight creating streaks and shadows accross the valley. It was more beautiful than I could have imagined, and I was loving it. I missed my turn-off at the 4-mile mark; I didn't want to turn back. Every mile seemed surprisingly long, yet my knee wasn't even aching; I was running comfortably and loving every step. So i continued, knowing that the stewards were spread out along the route to get me back if I needed it.

I was in my element; running on roads that I'd walked, cycled and driven on throughout my life, and as I ran the memories ran with me; feeling such warmth towards the versions of myself that had been there before me, and the adventures I'd had when my life was no bigger than the family around me. There was an important reason I'd chosen Keswick as my first Half Marathon, and I kept thinking of my Dad, probably miles ahead of me, whose love for adventure had provided me with so many of my greatest adventures, this being one of the biggest of them all.

I passed the fifth mile marker and then the sixth; I had almost done my 10km, but the route was getting more and more beautiful as we got higher - the roads were opening up to reveal the Lake stretching out to my left, and on my right the land swept upwards into the blue. The seventh mile brought us to Grange, and I knew the route back from here like the back of my hand. I also knew that I'd be crossing that finish line, whether running, walking or hobbling - I was on the home straits. Six more miles along the flat Borrowdale Road seemed more than do-able, especially as it would be scattered with landmarks that I knew and loved.

I wasnt far down the road before I started to ache. First in my hips, then right the way down my legs. With every movement my legs begged me to stop; they were moaning as if from boredom, they wanted to stretch, a break from the same push-pull repetition of the previous 7 miles. I upped the pace a little and watched the miles pass by even more slowly than before. The familiar landmarks didn't help; they just demonstrated how far I had left to go. At 10 miles I started to lose my strength. I'd come further than I'd managed during my training, and every step reminded me of how under-prepared I was. My insides felt bone-dry, my head was throbbing, pains were shooting up and down my legs and my head was heavy, desperate to loll to the side and sleep. I've never felt such an intense need for sleep while my body is being so active before, and I was worried: maybe I actually couldn't do it. To make matters worse, my lungs started to tighten. I never suffer with breathlessness normally and as my chest squeezed up I started to panic; I felt as if I were breathing through thistles, and coughing sounded more like barking. Maybe this will kill me! I thought, with visions appearing of my wheezing lungs collapsing alongside me on the curb.

I passed a water-point, and tipped my head, open-mouthed, to drench myself with what felt a lot like new life in a cup as it splashed into my mouth and over my face. Two miles to go. I knew I had to do it, I just didn't know how. Runners ahead of me slowed down to a walk; I had to pass them before they tempted me to do the same. The road was quiet and I cried out to myself words of motivation; "2 miles and you're home, nearly there, come on".

I couldn't help but carry on, pushing through the agony as I thought of my Dad (aiming to finish in 1 hour 45) and Daniel at the finish. The road had been flat for 2 miles and it was more than my stiff body could bear; I was anticipating the infamous hill at 12 miles, the steepest of the race, and I was grateful for the change in muscle tension that lay ahead.

Like a mirage the 'Welcome to Keswick' sign appeared ahead of me, along with the hill I'd been waiting for. I pushed and pushed. I gave it all my body could give, which wasn't a lot. The final mile felt like a marathon in its own right, but the on-lookers' claps and cheers gave it a fresh face and I couldn't help but well up with joy - here I was!

I approached the finish line and heard my name over the tannoy as everyone started to cheer. Daniel and my Dad were hanging over the barrier, huge grins of pride on their faces, and I saw the huge stop watch - 2;24.32 - "is that hours or days?!" I shouted, not believing for a second that I'd been out there less than 2 and a half hours - it felt like forever!

I ran over the line. 13 miles (and a bit). A woman handed me my medal, and I carried on running, round and round; I couldn't stop. I was in agony. My face was crusted with sweat and saliva and dead flies; my body was covered in sores, each of my toenails was throbbing and threatening to fall off, my head was pounding and my legs were in so much pain that I felt sick. I drank and drank and coughed like I have never coughed before. At once I felt the most terrible and the most amazing that I have ever felt.

Back at the car I flopped. I managed a bag of Mini Cheddars. I couldn't move my fingers or my legs or anything else. When I looked in the mirror, a hideous red-faced woman looked back at me - I was a mess!

I arrived home to a hot bath, a roast dinner and a well-earned pint. Two days later I still ache, I still feel nauseous and I am incessantly thirsty. Pangs of pride and wonder keep interrupting periods of dejectedness, as I mourn the passing of this amazing challenge and my body comes round from the trials I put it through. Two days later I'm eager to do it all again; it can't have been that hard, can it?