Monday, 17 August 2020

A Letter to My Son

I’m writing this to you ahead of Thursday, when you’ll receive your GCSE results. I know you’re feeling anxious about this but I wanted to share a few words of reassurance with you because I know those feelings of uncertainty and worry very well. But now I’m a “proper grown up” I have some experience of life to share with you; things I’ve learnt about failure and disappointment, and how to cope with things when life feels very out of control.

The first thing I want you to remember is that you have been living through an extraordinary time recently – nothing could have prepared you to cope with a global pandemic. I’m proud that you’ve managed to live through the uncertainty, fear and boredom of many long months spent at home, dislocated from your normal routines and friends, and the everyday things that you enjoy. It’s very hard for a teenager to see their horizons shrink so suddenly, especially in a year that was meant to be filled with memory-making and milestones.

I know you’ve missed out on some special experiences and this makes me sad but I want you to know that so many other wonderful moments await you in the coming years – there will be time to make up for those lost opportunities. I’m proud that you’ve managed to, if not always smile through the experience, accept it and make the best of a difficult situation.

Secondly, be proud of the fact that you were making such great progress in your exam preparation – all your teachers had great expectations for you fulfilling your potential and I really think you would have shone in the exams. As one wrote to me: “It was such a pleasure teaching your son and seeing him grow more confident each week. He is such a brilliant young man and he has an incredibly bright future ahead.”

Now, a few words about exams, assessments and tests. It’s important to remember that exams don’t tell the full story of what makes you you, or what makes you special and unique. They are – like many things in life (driving tests, job interviews, for example) - a ‘necessary evil’ but they do teach us some important things; they help you learn how to manage your time, give something your full concentration and be resilient even when you feel utterly terrified by the prospect of sitting in an exam room.

But they can’t measure everything about a person – they’re really only an ‘indicator’ of your abilities and so I want to make sure you know that you are so much more than the grades written on the letter you’ll receive on Thursday. Exams can’t measure where your imagination goes to when you’re drawing something amazing on Sketch Up, or how your brain pulses with ideas and enjoyment when you’re DJing or making a new music track. They don’t test the emotional intelligence that you have by the bucket-load (and there are plenty of hugely successful people out there who don’t have an ounce of your empathy, kindness and deep engagement with the world around you) Exams are just part of the puzzle that makes up the journey through life, and there will be many more tests you’ll encounter on that journey.

So, here’s the important bit: exams are just one of the many tests that make up a life, and we can’t pass them all. There will be many times in life you’ll feel disappointed or experience feelings of failure. Even the most “successful” people have encountered many failures along the way; learning to accept failure is essential in accepting the reality of life, which is full of joys but sometimes disappointments. 

All we can strive for is giving things our best shot and accepting that sometimes the outcomes might, at first, not be what we want. But I’ve learned that life has an interesting way of reframing what we think of as failures (not getting the grade we expected in an exam, or not getting a job) to actually be of benefit to us in the long run…it can just sometimes take a bit of time for us to see that benefit.

Ahead of Thursday, please remember that 2020 has been an unprecedented year and there’s every chance you won’t have been assessed as fairly as you could have been. This is not a reflection on you and your abilities – we all know you’re a bright, interested, thoughtful and hardworking young man. And going forward, as you embark on the next stage of life, remember that all we ever want is for you to try your best; don’t let fear of failure hold you back or think “I can’t”; instead, how about thinking “I can try”…

I found a letter written by a writer to his son as he was about to leave for university – I think this excerpt is great advice that will serve you well in life, and encapsulates my hopes for you as you sit on the cusp of adulthood:

“If you can’t win the scholarship, fight it out to the end of the examination.

If you can’t win your race, at least finish—somewhere.

If your boat can’t win, at least keep pulling on your oar, even if your eye glazes and the taste of blood comes into your throat with every heave.

If you cannot make your five yards in football, keep bucking the line—never let up—if you can’t see, or hear, keep plugging ahead! Never quit! If you forget all else I have said, remember these two words, through all your life, and come success or failure, I shall proudly think of you as my own dear son.”

Lots of love now and forever,



Thursday, 19 March 2020

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I've often felt embarrassed about writing a blog. It frequently feels like a vanity to put your thoughts and feelings onto paper, preposterous to think that your own personal concerns are worthy of a wider audience. Why would anyone give a fig that you went to a few nice restaurants when you were in New York, or that you "personally discovered" a new face cream and it's doing wonders for your wrinkles. It's a question I've often wrestled with before putting finger to keyboard in this digital space.

But now we are in a strange new world and putting finger to keyboard, or pen to paper, has never felt quite so important. Sure, I'm still wondering why anyone would give my few words on my personal experience of the current situation a second glance, or that I'm elevating my status into some kind of 'documenter' of these turbulent times when there are many more basic yet elemental things that need to be done right now -  "NO! I MUST WRITE! PEOPLE NEED WORDS RIGHT NOW. You go and get the bog roll!"

I've always tried to present a realistic view of life in anything I've written - I have a natural tendency to self deprecation and am, in all honesty, a glass half empty kind of person. Under normal circumstances, I quite like reading not about things going right, with wonderful happy endings, but about things going wrong. I love art house cinema, for god's sake; one of my favourite films depicts the slow and agonising distintegration of a marriage ('La Separation', in case you're interested). Gallows humour and viewing the world through cynical eyes is something I'm totally comfortable with.

But it's one thing to write a wry blog post about a disastrous holiday or your struggles with potty training. Never did I ever imagine that one day I would sit down to try and process my thoughts around a terrifying global pandemic that currently threatens to dismantle everything I thought I knew about life. Sure, in the past I've idly wondered if say, I got cancer or a life limiting illness,  I'd feel compelled to write about it, but never have I thought: "If the world suddenly goes into almost complete lockdown and we are stranded in our homes for upwards of two weeks, I'll probably write a blog post about it".

But anyway, here we are. Only few weeks ago I was wondering if two lots of hand gel was enough to get us through a short trip to Spain, as news started to trickle in  about the increasing spread of what felt, back then, like something to just be vaguely aware of. We steered clear of the airplane seat trays, I warned the kids of the dangers of errant face touching and nose picking. We washed our hands more often. Life was as you'd expect in Spain - we had no sense that this was a country  teetering on lockdown and that just a few weeks later the restaurants, cafes and bars that we visited on our trip would all be shuttered up. What a difference a month makes.

Back home, life has quickly descended into a surreal suspension of pretty much everything. A week ago we realised we needed to self isolate, as coughs and temperatures began circulating in our household. By this point we'd seen what was happening in Italy and had begun to properly take notice of government advice. As friends and relatives in the country started to post updates on Facebook, we started to get a sense of what might be coming our way. 

Mentally, I'm not actually sure I have the power to process all the 'what ifs's, the 'whens', the 'hows' and the 'what the actual fucks' that are crowding my head now that the inevitable has happened here at home. Every day brings a new challenge at the moment, not least now that schools have closed and my son's GCSEs have been postponed. In many ways, it feels like we're in some very odd grieving process - grieving all those things that just won't happen this year - weddings, festivals, holidays, family well as ways of life that have indefinitely been put on hold while we try and work this immense problem out. 

I'm personally grieving the abrupt end of my son's secondary schooling. Who would have thought a 16 year old boy would be sad about the cancellation of exams? But that's exactly how he was feeling last night, as the ramifications of school closures really hit home. How to manage the realisation that a child has been denied the sense of achievement that comes with sitting exams, as well as the camaraderie and celebration that accompanies such a significant moment in a teenager's life - it's tough for them. I worry how social distancing will affect them when being part of a group is lifeblood to young people. We are quickly realising how the comforting routines of school and work are vital to our well-being. 

We'll all have a ton of personal stories of life in the time of coronavirus - I've got friends and families having babies soon, work colleagues with weddings on the horizon. My best friend left her job of 20 years this week to embark on a new career - but the expected extravagant send off was replaced by her colleagues, all now at home, joining her on google hangout, each member of the team reading out a special poem they'd written to mark her departure. Celebrating birthdays remotely and having care packages left on the doorstep has become the new normal.

For someone who - under normal circumstances - gravitates towards tales of things going wrong, I desperately want things to go right now. I'm lapping up videos of DJs belting out crap Euro house from balconies, old couples dancing in their front rooms and films being projected across apartment buildings. Things I probably wouldn't normally give time to.

I'm not a naturally community spirited person but I'm realising how vital it's going to be to pull through this together. I've been amazed at how friends and even strangers have come to our help as we've been in isolation - from dropping round essentials to finding a bag of Lidl's finest Pastel de Nada on the doorstep, our family has felt cared for from afar.  

Meanwhile, work 'continues' in a way I think we'll all take some adjusting too but I'm realising how glad I am to work for a company that makes films already proving to be a comfort for people stuck at home. I'm not sure I could say the same if I was pushing out communication for an asset management company or an insurance firm right now. It's heartwarming to hear of families in lockdown finding joy in watching Shaun the Sheep or Wallace and Gromit.

I guess we'll all have to be resourceful in finding pockets of joy in the coming weeks. As someone who tends towards cynicism, this isn't something that comes naturally to me but I'm up for the challenge. Joy isn't likely to come in the shape of holidays abroad, dancing in nightclubs or having breakfast at a favourite cafe any time soon.

But it will come in the shape of an unexpected message from a friend, finally learning that skill we've always wanted to try and the chance to spend unhurried, quiet time at home with those we love (and I say that with a true cynic's pinch of salt - there will be those of us who need our personal space more than others!) But seriously, we could perhaps consider this period at home like a strange, not altogether welcome gift, but one that we understand is important to acknowledge and take the best from. And I suppose we could have done with a reminder that it's so very easy to take normal, everyday life for granted. 


Tuesday, 19 November 2019

What Does Success Look Like?

What makes a 'successful' life? As I get older, this is a question I find myself pondering on a frequent basis. As an inherently self-doubting, perfection-striving individual, I have, throughout life, tended to view my 'achievements' as somehow lacking or not quite enough. The nagging suspicion that I may not have ever really fulfilled my potential - both at work and in my personal life - has in more recent years cemented into something much darker and ever present. I know I'm not alone in feeling like this - it's this sense of dissatisfaction that defines the classic mid-life crisis and makes many of us hit our mid forties heavy with the feeling that our lives may never be as 'successful' as we expected them to be.

But what if we really took the time to redefine what is meant by 'success', and looked at our lives through a much kinder and more rational lens? To start your own personal process, I recommend listening to the podcast 'How to Fail' with journalist Elizabeth Day, and more specifically the episode with philosopher Alain de Botton. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the 50 or so minutes I spent listening to this episode have made me completely reassess the concept of failure and see that failure as defined by contemporary standards hinders our ability to lead contented lives. 

Because at the heart of this episode is the celebration of the ordinary; a life lived that is ordinary and average (which is, after all, the statistical norm. Not many people actually become hugely wealthy, experts in their field, or global celebrities) is not a flawed life. It's how most of our lives will be defined. Hurrah! 

I found it hugely comforting to consider that my averageness is absolutely fine. In more recent years, where daily I've been reminded of the successes of others - the promotion splashed across Linkedin that contrasts with my own floundering career progression, the fabulous holiday afforded by those who I assume have made better career and financial decisions than me, the family member who only ever texts to share their child's latest glittering achievement - I've often felt overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness. Why are my own horizons seemingly so limited? My financial outlook so shaky? My parenting skills so ineffective? 

But rather than consider that some failure on my part has led to this, perhaps a reassessment of expectation is needed. We've become so obsessed with a one-size-fits-all guide to success in contemporary culture. It's why individuality has been stripped away from our education system which places value on a very restricted set of skills.  It's why domestic ordinariness has become stigmatised - not only must we be go-getters at work but 'living our best lives' at home too, 'acing' our love lives, raising high-achieving children and filling our weekends with sporting endeavours (extra Brownie points if you can fit in some charity work or volunteering too). 

The very lexicon we employ reinforces this idea that we must be excelling all the time, with cloying expressions like 'YOLO', 'Good Vibes Only' and 'Strong Girls Club' (yuck) splashed across our social feeds to remind us that we must never be anything less than brilliant. 

As I've got older, I've found all this exhausting. I don't doubt social media is a major contributor to fuelling unrealistic ideas about success. But, as the podcast helpfully points out, it's important to remember that, when thinking of the personal contentment of those so-say successful people all around us, their level of happiness is much more consistent with our own that we might imagine. The point is - and this is something I find hard to remember - that even the most successful CEO will have problems of their own, or be experiencing feelings of failure too (they are just likely to be 'failing' in different areas of their life to you.)

What's also helpful about this podcast is its historical framing of success through the centuries. In ancient Greece, for example, the concept of failure - played out in the myriad of Greek tragedies - was positively embraced and seen as a vehicle for making those watching more empathetic and kind to the people around them. Those tragedies were a reminder of the capricious and fragile nature of life. No matter how wealthy, successful or noble born you may be, no one is immune to how luck (or bad luck) may play out in your life.

I think this is an important point, particularly in the age of social media where influencers flog unrealistic lifestyles and present sugar-coated images that rarely reflect that true messiness and unfairness of life. We make awful judgements about ourselves based on the assumed brilliance of other people's lives, gleaned solely from pictures featured on their Instagram feed. As the recent digital misadventures of influencer Mother of Daughters attest, the lives of others are rarely as gilded as we imagine them to be.

So, what I have learnt about my own situation? Mainly to be kinder to myself and view the small moments of contentment that pepper life as valid indicators of success. To not always be striving for societal constructs of success: the amazing job, the big house, the good school, the annual skiing holiday, for example. 

To celebrate the small but often significant wins that make a life: the fact that I'm great at organising our family's holidays; that I've discovered the joy of yoga and find the discipline to practise every day; that we have a lovely home (not the biggest, or the fanciest), decorated with care and filled with our personalities; that we have raised children who may not be the most academic or gifted but who fill me with pride when I overhear them talking to other grown ups. And I think these 'little' successes are enough....

To listen to the How to Fail podcast, click here.

I also recommend this piece on marriage by Alain de Botton here.


Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A Family Guide to New York

"New York, just like I pictured it...skyscrapers and everything..." So goes the interlude in one of my favourite Stevie Wonder songs, a phrase that encapsulates the sense of wide-eyed wonder that most first time visitors experience to one of the world's most dynamic, unique cities. When I first went, some 20 years ago, the city really was just like I pictured it. Back then - when Sex and the City had exploded on TV screens and everyone wanted a slice of Carrie Bradshaw's impossibly cosmopolitan lifestyle - the New York of my imagination came to life as we wandered the streets of Greenwich Village, sipped on coffees in Dean & Deluca and spent all our wages in Urban Outfitters (this was in the days before the store had outposts across the globe) and Saks Fifth Avenue.

We got manicures at Korean nail bars, took in the art at the Guggenheim and gazed at the chi-chi apartment buildings in the Upper East Side. This was pre-9/11 and we scaled the precipitous towers we'd seen in a million and one movies and photographs. New York was everything I'd imagined, a city shaped in my mind from countless films, from Mean Streets to Falling in Love, Ghostbusters to Annie Hall. But would the city still leave me under its spell almost of a quarter of a century later, and with two kids in tow too? Well, it's New York! How could it not...

If you're thinking at this point, "Really? It wasn't stressful and frenetic and exhausting and just, well, too much, with children?" I have to point out that I wouldn't have undertaken this trip with children younger than my two (15 and 11). We'd specifically waited a few years to do our first long-haul adventure, holding off until we felt that our boys would truly appreciate the experience and that we wouldn't have to cope with jet lag and whining or find that the trip would be exhausting rather than life-enhancing. 

On reflection, we did the right thing; we had no trouble with jet lag, the boys were able to cover huge distances each day and they embraced everything we wanted to share with them, from eating breakfast at quirky Jewish diners to hanging out in Carrie Bradshaw's old neighbourhood. 

When money is an object (as it is in our case) I don't see the point in attempting a longer trip until your children can truly embrace it. In the case of New York, flights, accommodation and eating out can rack up significant costs. New York is a pricey place. We were lucky enough to have a friend to stay with for some of our stay, decamping to an Airbnb in Brooklyn for the remainder. This helped us stay within our budget, though Airbnb bargains in good locations in the city are quite hard to come by. 

I'd really recommend looking outside of central Manhattan - while parts of Brooklyn trade on their hipster credentials and can be just as expensive, when I was researching accommodation it felt like stepping across the water made prices a little more wallet friendly.

We decided to do just one major tourist attraction. As there's so much you can do free of charge in NYC, this didn't feel like a hardship. But if you want to pack in the major sights - skyscrapers, ferries to Liberty Island, a basketball game or a Broadway show - you'll can expect to pay upwards of £100 dollars per family for each experience. We opted to visit the Top of the Rock, an observation deck at the top of the Rockefeller Building. Having scaled the Empire State on my previous trip, I enjoyed this experience more. 

While you can't quite see my favourite skyscraper in full glory - The Chrysler - you do get spectacular panoramas across Manhattan, including an uninterrupted view of the Empire State. I think it's also better if you're not keen on heights; there's more room to hang back at Top of the Rock and, weirdly, the upper platform was fine for me - a vertigo sufferer - as you're not looking directly out against a sheer drop. You can spend as long as you want lapping it all up and there are indoor and outdoor areas where you can gaze across New York's inimitable skyline. Book tickets in advance to secure a time slot that suits you.

It's worth noting that you can easily 'do' lots of other must-see New York icons - the Empire State, Flatiron, Chrysler and Grand Central Terminal are all located in central Manhattan and you don't need to pay to enter these impressive buildings. The lobbies of the Chrysler and Empire State are beautiful spaces, endowed with spectacular Art Deco features, while Grand Central is breathtaking. Younger kids will know it from Madagascar while parents will undoubtedly reference that scene from The Untouchables. 

I always say this when writing about our travel experiences, but I don't think the true joy and authenticity of a place is to be found in the more touristy places; sure, when in NY, you'll want to pop your head into Times Square, stroll down Fifth Avenue and visit Macy's. But we probably had our best moments just absorbing the city's unique atmosphere rather than joining the masses for the more obvious attractions.

Eating donuts in Tompkins Square Gardens, strolling through Chinatown and Little Italy, visiting a lesser known gallery for a wonderful Basquiat exhibition...all of these felt like truly quintessential New York experiences costing us virtually nothing. Another free must-do is the High Line, a brilliant way to experience the city from another perspective. There are lots of interesting examples of modern architecture to look out for as you traverse this disused rail road, including the recent additions of The Shed and The Vessel at Hudson Yards.

Dissecting the interesting Meatpacking and Chelsea neighbourhoods, there's lots of cool stuff in this area, from the foodie heaven of Chelsea Market to the exhibitions at the Whitney Museum. We did a lot of walking around here, taking in the cooler than cool Bowery district and enjoying brunch in the gorgeous surroundings of Freemans.

On the subject of food, this is basically where all our spending money went. Eating as essentially a family of 4 adults made this a significant expense for us - if you want to venture beyond the standard chain burger joints and similar (and really you will want to - New York has a fabulous food scene) you'll find you rack up a pretty hefty bill. 

We had lunch at Eataly a couple of times, a vast food hall dedicated to all things Italian where you can take away slices of pizza or sit at communal tables and enjoy pasta and other dishes. It's a bit like the Harrods food hall but much, much bigger, and there are branches at various locations in the city. A brilliant option for keeping hungry kids topped up. 

Brunch is a must while in New York - it's something they do really well here and it's a good way of making breakfast go further so you can skip lunch when you're out and about. I loved the brunch at Mud Cafe in the East Village - the burritos and pancakes here are insane, as is the coffee (the best I had in NY). For something cheap and very authentic, also in the East Village, try B&H Dairy. 

Sit at the Formica bar and order Jewish specialities and huge pancakes, washed down with endless cups of coffee. It's a no-frills place, rather like Soho's Bar Italia. The kids didn't quite get the pared-back vibe, but I loved it. An impressive selection of bagels can be found at Tompkins Square Bagels with a cream cheese selection to match, while over in Williamsburg, Bedford Avenue is home to Bagelsmith, another great place to fuel up for the day.

Before we headed over to Williamsburg for the second part of our stay, we spent a morning at Central Park (an absolute must-do) and visited the Freedom Tower and memorial to 9/11. Having been up the original World Trade Tower previously, it was at once interesting and incredibly moving to be back at the spot where those iconic buildings once stood. I did wonder if it would feel mawkish coming to see this area, but it doesn't. It's a very respectful place, not least as a tree - the Survivor Tree - found charred but still standing in the wreckage of 9/11, has been replanted in the shadow of the new building, reminding visitors of the city's resilience in the face of such terrible tragedy. 

It's also worth taking a look inside the Oculus while you're here, and then heading towards Wall Street and the beating heart of the world's financial markets. People queue to photograph the Charging Bull while it's a bit easier (and more meaningful, I think) to take a moment to appreciate the steely determination of the Fearless Girl.

You can easily access Battery Park and its ferries over to the Statue of Liberty here (the queues looked pretty off putting, though) or just take a moment in the park to cast your eyes on this indelible symbol of the American Dream. 

You might be wondering where shopping - another NY institution - fitted into all this. In short, it didn't. In today's globalised world where you can get anything online we shocked ourselves (both me and my other half do quite enjoy shopping) by not really being bothered about hitting the department stores or West Village boutiques. I had a browse in Sephora, the boys had their minds blown at Nike Town and we shopped for baseball hats at Lids, but aside from that, shopping just didn't feature. 

My 20s-something self would scarcely have believed it, given that on our previous trip involved lots of cheap Calvin Klein, a trolley dash around Century 21 and a lengthy perusal of Bloomingdales. The rubbish exchange rate and ability to buy most things back home now just didn't spark the desire - instead we came home with sweets from Dylan's Candy Bar (colour-coded candy heaven), a couple of mugs from Fishs Eddy (a brilliantly bonkers homeware store) and a vintage poster from Chelsea Market. 

The savings made on lack of retail therapy helped to justify expensive cocktails at Westlight, a personal highlight of our trip. If you find yourself in Williamsburg you must go here - it offers cocktails with a side order of incredible views across Manhattan. We really enjoyed exploring a different side of New York's persona in Brooklyn. From mooching about in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and crossing that iconic bridge to people watching on super-cool Bedford Avenue, this area has a very different feel to Manhattan. 

There's street art on every corner and amazing cafes, boutiques and bars to explore. It's worth remembering that in the US ID is required when visiting bars and that there's a pretty strict policy regards taking children into drinking establishments. You may find that many don't allow children after 6pm (as was the case with Westlight). 

Furthermore, some of the cooler restaurants might not feel quite so inclusive as similar places in the UK; a great family-friendly option in Brooklyn that we really enjoyed (and felt comfortable eating at) is Sweet Chick.

We ticked off a lot of New York traditions on our 6-day trip, concluding our stay with a wander through the West Village. When we last came, we had coffees in the sunshine on Bleeker Street and it felt like Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte might stroll by at any time. Some 20 years on, we walked past Carrie's fictional Perry Street Brownstone (and yes, people still sit on the stoop to have their picture taken) but New York has changed a lot since the late '90s. It's more expensive and a little more polished than I remember. 

There's still the sense that something is missing on that incredible skyline, even now. I don't think my 20-something self would have imagined that one day I'd be sitting in the middle of a New York Nike store, surrounded by insanely expensive trainers whilst two boys, amazed at the sense of scale of this special city, would look over to their mum and smile because I'd brought them to New York.

It's was a completely different experience coming to New York with children but a brilliant one. In the words of that aforementioned sportswear brand, if you're thinking of planning a family trip to New York yourself, Just Do It...


Wednesday, 27 February 2019

A Weekend in Manchester

Being an adult is complicated. Just when you think you're nailing life, with all its attendant concerns - work, parenting, finances - something knocks you sideways and you realise you'll probably never really know how to truly do life right. Which is possibly why I spend quite a lot of time reminiscing about more simple times: a time when work was just about financing the rent cheque and going out dancing; when weekends were for sleeping in and hanging out, not about trying to pack in as many mundane domestic tasks as possible in 48 hours just to feel slightly on top of things at the start of the new week. When I think of that pre-home-owning, child-rearing period, I always think of Manchester, of being young and in love, of having limitless time to just, well, be. 

A teenage love affair with New Order set me on the path of discovery to this great northern city. Evenings ensconced in the family living room, watching things like The Tube and Old Grey Whistle Test, made me fascinated by life Up North. Having never been further than Birmingham, I became enthralled by the idea of this mythical land that lay beyond the Midlands. Home to amazing music, charismatic impresarios like Tony Wilson and era defining clubs like the Hacienda, 'Up North', or rather Manchester in particular, had a magnetism that I found intoxicating. 

Features on upcoming bands like the Stone Roses, of 'Madchester' fashion and acid house in magazines like The Face lured me in even further. I became friends with a guy from Bury at Sixth Form and realised that I loved the self-deprecating, no nonsense attitude of Northerners, and their wit and sense of humour. It's no wonder, really, that, within months of starting at university, I met a young man who hailed from just outside the city...we're still together today.

I fell in love with a Mancunian (well, someone from Saddleworth, but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it) and Manchester. Weekends at uni were frequently spent zooming up the M1 to hang out in the city. I'm sure it wasn't the case, but I always remember those days as being sunny - a far cry from the grey landscapes that come to mind when you think of the industrial North.
In those days, we'd scour the stores at Afflecks Palace, buy records at Eastern Bloc (owned by a member of 808 State) and hang out in cool stores, picking up club flyers to paste to the breeze block walls of our halls of residence. We'd go to the Hacienda and dance to Italo House and acid. Owned by New Order, I had my tiny mind slightly blown on passing Bernard Sumner in the club one night - he even said "Alright, mate" to my other half, an event that still crops up in conversation to this day: "Remember that time when Barney from New Order said hi to you in the Hac?!"
But that was a long time ago, and we don't go to Manchester much anymore. So with half term rolling around, and February always being a tricky one to get right in terms of travel plans - UK beaches seem too unpredictable - I decided we'd make a long overdue trip, with the kids, to a city we both hold with affection in our hearts. 

It's a great destination for families - easy to get around, with lots of free attractions and plenty of things to do indoors when those Northern skies, inevitably, open. It would be hard to describe Manchester as 'pretty' - it has photogenic corners, for sure, but this is a city that encapsulates the concept of Northern grit, with its imposing Victorian architecture and hints of its industrial heritage around every corner.  

There are graceful squares and smart streets here, such as St Anne's Square and King Street, while the revived Northern Quarter has brought a vibrancy back to the city that reminds me of my visits here back in the '90s. Back then it was all about the aforementioned Hacienda (now luxury apartments), Man U footballer's hangouts along Deansgate and the pre-club scene at the Dry Bar. But today the Northern Quarter draws the cool kids to hang out at its cafes, bars, vinyl stores and boutiques. 

We loved mooching about this area, stopping at amazing homeware store Oklahoma and Evelyn's, a gorgeous cafe-bar blending industrial-style fittings with a profusion of overhanging greenery - it's a great spot for breakfast, brunch or cocktails. We also loved Federal Cafe, just up the road. Plenty more hip drinking spots vie for your attention in this area; if we'd been visiting without kids we definitely would have hung out here come nightfall - I loved the look of some of the drinking haunts in the area, including Cane & Grain, The Abel Heywood and Trof.

Shopping comes in all shapes and sizes, from high-end fashion at Harvey Nichols and Selfridges (these are big stores rather than provincial concessions) to vintage pop-ups, with the huge Arndale Centre featuring all the usual high street stalwarts. But more interesting shopping lies back in the Northern Quarter, where you'll find independent boutiques and streetwear stores filled with hard-to-source Nikes and Vans in all colours and styles. 

We dragged the kids around Afflecks, our go-to shopping destination in the old days. Yes, they're still flogging 'And on the Sixth Day, God Created Manchester' t-shirts, alongside a proliferation of bee embossed merchandise (the bee is the symbol of the city) but there are lots of specialist, niche things to be found in this treasure trove of the weird and wonderful. Housed in a grand old department store, which started life as a drapery called Affleck & Brown, it's a maze of eclectic indie shops, selling everything from rare vinyl to American candy. You can pick up vintage curios, get a tattoo or a piercing, or enjoy vegan coffee and cake. It's a ramshackle feast for the eyes, with retro arcade games in the corridors and old band posters plastered to the walls - an absolute must-visit for soaking up Manchester's unique vibe.

Child-friendly all-weather entertainment can be enjoyed at the Football Museum (£25 for a family ticket) or the excellent free Science and Industry Museum - this is a brilliant collection of exhibits that trace Manchester's industrial history, taking in steam engines and locomotives, as well as textile machinery (more interesting than it sounds - this part of the country was built on cotton wealth) and early computers. The adjoining Air and Space hall is closed at the moment but will hopefully reopen soon, allowing access to a fantastic collection of planes and vehicles. An interactive science area is filled with stuff for kids of all ages to play around with. 

Manchester Art Gallery is another cultural highlight in the city. Entry is free and there's lots to see, including evocative paintings of the city by LS Lowry which are a highlight. On our visit there was a brilliant Martin Parr exhibition, featuring photos of Manchester from the 60s up to the present day, as well as a great collection focusing on Nordic Design. It's a lovely place to hang out, with a pleasant cafe and shop to explore, too.

If architecture is your thing, you're truly spoilt in this city. I love the contrasts that decorate the skyline in all directions here; it's a place where cranes abound and sleek high-rises stand next to squat old Victorian pubs and there are lovely gems all around if you look a little more closely. You can stumble upon unexpected loveliness in Manchester's urban heartland - the Peveril of the Peak pub, a beautifully tiled building and the only detached pub in the city - is a wonderful relic of Manchester's bygone days. 

Take a wander to the cathedral and stop by Shambles Square, home to the Old Wellington pub, built in the 1500s and the oldest building of its kind in the city. If quirky bookstores, housed in buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Brooklyn, are your thing, be sure to pop by Paramount Books on Shudehill. 

The sweeping square that houses the city's town hall is also worth a look, while Barton Arcade, just off Deansgate is a lovely place for a coffee - its tiled floor and glass dome is lovely. While you're here, if you have football fans amongst your number, don't miss a quick stop at the Classic Football Shirts shop.

Indoor child-friendly entertainment abounds in the cavernous Printworks complex, where you'll find a cinema, adventure golf and lots of family-orientated eating options. If you're playing it safe with food, try an find one of the chain restaurants that's housed in an interesting venue - thanks to the proliferation of vast, grand Victorian buildings in Manchester, many fail-safe restaurants have taken up residence in old banks and other impressive buildings. 

The Zizzi on King Street is a perfect example - if you must keep the kids happy with pizza, it's nice being able to do so in such impressive surroundings. If you do have more flexibility on the restaurant front, I highly recommend El Gato Negro, also on King Street - it serves exceptional tapas in a lovely setting. 

Music and football are defining features of this city; you can go on a The Smiths tour or make your own pilgrimage to key locations synoymous with this legendary Manchester band - we'd been wanting to visit Salford Lads Club for some time and did so on this occasion. With its dedicated The Smiths room and interesting history, it's worth a little detour if you want to see an old school lads club in action (it remains a working facility) and have an interest in Manchester's musical history. 

On this side of the river you'll find Salford Quays too - home to MediaCityUK, this area is well worth a visit. Kids will love seeing the buildings where their favourite CBBC and Cbeebies shows are produced. You can also visit the Blue Peter garden and check out the stars honoured in the walk of fame. ITV also has a base here, and tours of both respective broadcasters HQs are open to the public (the ITV tour focuses on its classic Northern drama Coronation Street.)

Look over the water and you'll catch a glimpse of Old Trafford, a reminder that this city is passionate not just about the arts and music but football too. I'm not really a football fan, but we did go on a tour of the stadium a few years back and I found it much more entertaining that I expected. 

But for me personally, Manchester is about music - it's might be a very long time since Voodoo Ray blared out of car stereos or members of New Order said hello to us in the Hacienda, but this city will forever remind me of my musical awakening and the vibrancy of Northern club culture, of kids wearing Stone Roses-style bucket hats and baggy flares. It's changed a great deal in the intervening years, but Manchester remains a defiantly brilliant counterpoint to its southern counterparts. And I remain in love with it.

For budget-friendly accommodation in the city, we stayed at the perfectly located Premier Inn Manchester City Centre (Arena/Printworks)


Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A Weekend in Bruges

Despite what you may have seen on film, you're pretty unlikely to meet a couple of hit men in Bruges. Or a dwarf. You might, however, stumble upon a moustache convention, as we did on a previous trip - yes, a moustache convention, i.e. big groups of men walking around the city with incredibly coiffured facial hair. But that, I have to say, is about as edgy as things get in this most genteel of northern European cities. 

I love Bruges. I've visited the city countless times over the years, first on a school coach trip, then at regular intervals throughout my twenties as my boyfriend's dad lived in the city for 10 years. I know it pretty well, but that's not a difficult task given its size and manageability. And that's the first thing that makes Bruges the perfect place for a long weekend - you can easily cover it in 3 days. Add to that the fact that it's regarded as 'The Venice of the North' thanks to its pretty network of canals and elegant architecture, as well as a being a famed producer of some of the world's most delicious chocolate, and you have two more reasons for planning a visit. And did I mention the beer?

You won't find Bruges listed on the EasyJet destinations list; the nearest airport is Brussels, but most people arrive in the city via cross-channel transport. The Hull to Zeebrugge crossing makes the city accessible if you're travelling without a car; Bruges is about 25 minutes away from the port by shuttle bus. We usually travel on the Tunnel as the journey from Calais is quick and easy. The motorway deposits you in Bruges in just over an hour when traffic is clear. We financed this trip thanks to our Tesco Clubcard Vouchers, a brilliant way to make your money go further and redeeming your vouchers is really simple. And it's so wonderful to get some payback on all those long hours spent trawling the supermarket.

Hotels and B&Bs can be expensive in Bruges so I wouldn't even bother looking into these if you're travelling with children. One thing to note when choosing your Airbnb accommodation is that if you're based in the heart of the old city, parking might be an issue. Staying just outside the main hub, as we did, should mean you can find street parking (but you'll still need a permit or blue badge; our host supplied the latter)

We stayed at a brilliant Airbnb about 10 minutes from the city centre - owned by a super friendly and efficient host, it was the best accommodation of this sort we've stayed in. Modern, incredibly well equipped, sparkling clean and spacious. I can't recommend this place highly enough - take a look here.

As I've mentioned, Bruges is a supremely walkable, accessible city. You won't need your car to get around - walking and cycling are the preferred modes of transport here (cycle hire is readily available across the city.) The main sights are in a small cluster, running form the Markt and Belfort (the main square and bell tower), through the Burg (a smaller, picturesque square) and across to the canals. There are no expensive, must-see sights here - Bruges is more about strolling through squares, crossing bridges and finding quiet corners to drink in the typically Flemish ambiance of the city. 

It's a place to visit throughout the year; summers can be very pleasant and warm, and tend to be more reliable than the UK. The winters can get very cold - I've visited when temperatures have dipped so much that the canals have frozen over. Autumn is a lovely time to visit; during our stay we had bright, chilly days, which ended each evening with a spectacular sunset. When night rolls in, Bruges' special atmosphere really comes to life in its cosy bars, cafes and restaurants. You'll always find a log fire burning somewhere, the perfect accompaniment to enjoying a glass of Belgian beer.

Start by getting your bearings at the Markt, the city's main hub which is lined with colourful buildings, overlooked by the towering Belfort (bell tower) which you can ascend for unbeatable views across Bruges. The city's key shopping streets lead off this square. You won't really find cutting-edge fashion, or hipster cafes here; the vibe in Bruges is rather conventional and unchallenging. I always refer to it as more staid but no less charming Amsterdam. 

But what Bruges lacks in the hipster stakes, it makes up for in chocolate - virtually every other shop features mouthwatering displays of the sweet stuff to tempt you in. Be warned that some are very much tourist fodder and don't really offer the most authentic creations. Try The Chocolate Line, The Old Chocolate House and Depla for a more interesting experience. The Chocolate Line is an amazing shrine to all things cocoa-based and you can also see chocolates being made here. Everything from chocolate pills to chocolate lipstick is on offer, as well as a sublime selection of imaginatively flavoured truffles.

Other stores worth a visit include Hema, a sort of Tiger meets H&M meets Ikea, with a bit of Wilkos thrown in. It's great for good value stationery, homeware and kids clothing. And don't miss Be in Bruges, a collection of rooms dedicated to all things Belgian. As well as housing a beer wall and bar, it's a must-visit if you have children in tow - you'll find the 'Tin Tin Chapel' here, a lovely collection of models, books, posters and other memorabilia dedicated to Herve's legendary creation. Including obscenely expensive collectibles, it's perhaps not a place to spend your pocket money but you're free to browse (Belgium's other big names - the Smurfs and Rene Magritte - also feature.)

A little more tranquil than the bustling Markt is the Burg, my favourite square in Bruges. This picturesque spot is lined with ornate buildings, including the spectacular town hall (Stadhuis), a gold-encrusted gem of a building (and the venue of my sister-in-law's wedding) that epitomises the golden age of the Low Countries. But my favourite building in this square is the small but perfectly formed Church of the Holy Blood, particularly the beautiful Romanesque lower church, a simple, unadorned but atmospheric place that offers some respite from the bustle of the city. It's a truly lovely place.

Carry on beyond the Burg and you'll soon hit the canals, a defining feature of this pretty city. Crowds tend to monopolise the most picturesque views, eager for selfies overlooking the water, but Bruges never feels too invaded with tourists. I particularly love to wander around the canals in the evening, when the buildings are spot lit, casting stunning reflections on the water. I also love the stretch on the Djiver, a tranquil, tree-lined street where you'll find a flea market at weekends.

As I mentioned, the beauty of Bruges is in the wandering and seeing where you end up; if you pass the Fish Market and just keep on going, you'll eventually wind up near the pretty Astrid Park, a lovely haven, particularly in the summer. My father-in-law used to live in this area and it's one of Bruges' loveliest quarters - a little off the beaten track, you'll find some authentic bars and restaurants here, including the cosy L'Estaminet (one of my favourite bars in the city) and the Belleman Pub. 
A little further on again is a bit of a locals' secret - the excellent Bistro De Schaar. It's not cheap but the food here is delicious, with expertly cooked meats and seafood the speciality. Small and intimate, it's one of my favourite places to eat in Bruges. Also recommended, and in the same area of town, is the Nieuw Museum, another authentic place to eat in cosy surroundings.

You can, of course, see all the main sights from the comfort of a canal boat - these operate in key locations along the river and aren't expensive. It's a must-do during any trip to Bruges, taking in all the main historic buildings. Other must-sees include the fairytale-esque Bonfaciusbridge which can't fail to make you feel like you've been transported to medieval times, and the Beginhof, a collection of exquisite traditional white houses, once home to the city's unmarried, pious women and currently inhabited by an order of nuns. This quiet corner of Bruges leads onwards to the lovely Minnewater park, where the Lac d'Amour provides the city's most romantic beauty spot. 

To complete the Flemish idyll, you'll also find a collection of windmills on the edge of the city. At the other end of the scale, the busy Zand offers a more modern perspective - it's a large square lined at one end with restaurants and is home to a bustling weekend market. But it's the quieter corners of the city I enjoy most, particularly when it's a lovely day and you've found the perfect cafe where you can sit back and soak it all up. 

There are literally hundreds to choose from, from traditional creperies and pancake houses, to more contemporary espresso bars. We liked the quirky Li o Lait and the gorgeous Juliette, the perfect place to enjoy a waffle in the sunshine. Incredible patisseries and bakeries are also in abundance - Bruges isn't an easy place to watch your waistline. 

Museums and more churches vie for your attention amid the chocolate and beer shops but it's the latter we spent more time indulging in on this trip. Bruges isn't the cheapest of cities for eating out but you'll find plenty of places to refuel hungry kids - think cones of 'fritures' (rather than the French 'frites' - this is the Flemish part of the Belgium) served with a dollop of mayonnaise to keep them going. We also found a brilliant takeaway pasta place called Bocca - brilliant for cheap and tasty food on the go. There are also plenty of supermarkets across the city. For restaurant dining that won't break the bank, try the quirky The Hobbit - you can enjoy hearty meat dishes, including all-you-can-eat ribs and delicious kebabs. 

If you have room for beer, directly opposite lies the atmospheric Brugs Beerjte, the perfect place to sink a Brugse Tripel or two. In my days of visiting Bruges pre-kids, trawling the city's bars featured heavily, but it's not a place to come expecting much in the way of nightlife. But that's what's so appealing about Bruges - it doesn't demand anything too energetic of you. I can't recommend it highly enough for a truly laid-back city break. 

For more information about Bruges, take a look at the Visit Bruges website.
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