It’s Christmas Eve and we’re stopping home this year to soak up the village vibe. Thank you to Mr Marks and Mr Spencer for the superior festive fare. It’s not that Liam can’t cook – he’s actually rather good (me, on the other hand…) but after a few sherries down the local on Christmas Day, I fear a killing in the kitchen, and not in a good way. So best to minimise the risk with pre-prepared grub. After all, as the slogan goes…
“This is not just food, this is M&S Food.”
And who am I to argue?
God rest ye merry gentlemen, ladies and all those in between.
This year, Liam and I jollied in London for our birthdays. A state of the art, hi-tech micro-room in St James’ was the perfect base for our foraging. We arrived on Remembrance Sunday and the centre of town was buzzing with blazers, badges and bling under a canopy of Christmas lights. It was fun being tourists with time on our hands to roam and drink it all in, something we rarely did when we were worker bees on the treadmill.
Talking of drinking it all in, no trip to the West End is quite the same without a jar or two in a local hostelry. As seems to be our habit these days, we ended up at Halfway to Heaven, a gay bar just off Trafalgar Square and the splendid den of iniquity where Liam first caught my roving eye 13 years ago. Quite by chance, we arrived just in time to catch their annual Remembrance Day show.
The pub was rammed with military veterans – men and women, young and old, straight, gay and everything in between, all in their Sunday best – enjoying a convivial mingle with the regulars.
Halfway to Heaven has become something of a safe and welcoming place for ex-military LGBT people. Who knew? But it was a wonder to behold. When we were at the bar ordering drinks, a middle-aged woman was chatting to the manager.
“Thank you for being so nice to my dad and his husband,”
she said, pointing at two old soldiers in the corner.
Recently, Liam and I were enjoying a drink at a local watering hole, entertained by a lively band of Vikings – rowdy, boisterous and very, very drunk but much less troubling than the deliciously named Sveyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, who sacked and torched Norwich in 1004 (and went on to become the first Danish king of England). Eventually the marauding sons of Odin decided to go pillaging elsewhere. As they stumbled to the door, a hulking red-faced redhead threw Liam a broad smile. Thinking his longboat had come in, Liam started to chat and asked the man where he was from. ‘Norway’, came the reply with a proud flourish. He offered us a palmful of loose change. ‘I’m going home, I won’t need this. Give it to charity,’ he slurred. We directed him to the charity box at the bar which he managed to find, but only just. Then off he staggered down Timberhill – to catch the last longboat home, I guess. Or maybe just a flight from Stansted.
It was that time of year again when I joined my partner in crime and the force of nature that is Jo Parfitt for our annual general meeting to discuss this publishing malarkey and plan the road ahead. It also provided a welcome excuse to have a proper natter. Previous AGMs have been on this side of the North Sea and so Jo suggested we pop across the water to her elegant gaff in The Hague. We bit her hand off.
Not that it was all work and no play. That would make Jack a very dull boy. Naughty gossip was definitely at the top of the agenda, accompanied by tasty fare and free-flowing wine. Jo and husband were generous hosts. The ‘any other business’ involved a walkabout. As our lodgings were city-centre chic, we had plenty of time to amble round the cobbled streets of the tidy and graceful City of Peace and Justice. We had to keep our wits about us – looking left not right, eyes anxiously peeled for the trams and cyclists coming at us from every which way. We were lucky with the weather: warm and breezy with a few heavy rain clouds that failed to burst, and we took full advantage of the café culture spilling out all over the bricked pavements.
We even got the chance to hop on a tram to delightful Delft, a mini-Amsterdam without the reputation, criss-crossed with pretty canals and home to blue pottery and the House of Orange. The still waters were distinctly green in places: a quick dip would have been unwise.
Just to demonstrate we’re not total lightweights, cultuur-wise, we took in the cute and bijou Vermeer Museum to sample Delft’s most famous artist. Liam was definitely plugged in to the Vermeer vibe.
We flew the KLM City Hopper to and from Amsterdam’s manic Schiphol Airport courtesy of the rather sedate Norwich International which is more of a hut than a hub, but then we were home 30 minutes after landing, chilled white in hand.
One gloriously sunny Sunday, Liam chucked me on a bus for one of our regular jollies to the small towns of Norfolk. We caught the right 5a to North Walsham, not the wrong 5a run by a totally different bus company going nowhere near North Walsham. Why two different routes with the same number? Beats me. Must be a Naarfuk thing. The right 5a bumped along twisting country lanes past spooky woods, grassy pastures and bountiful fields of glowing rapeseed. 45 minutes later, we landed in North Walsham’s market place.
According to Wikipedia, North Walsham is…
…an Anglo-Saxon settlement, and with the neighbouring village of Worstead, became very prosperous from the 12th century through the arrival of weavers from Flanders. The two settlements gave their names to the textiles they produced: ‘Walsham’ became the name of a light-weight cloth for summer wear, and ‘Worsted’ a heavier cloth. The 14th century ‘wool churches’ are a testament to the prosperity of the local mill owners.
Sadly, North Walsham’s glory days are long gone. We took one look around and got back on the bus. 45 minutes later we’d returned to Norwich, drowning our sorrows in a bottle. The bus fares were a tenner. That’s ten quid I won’t see again.
One thing we confirmed during our cheery jolly to Shrewsbury is that, according to Salopians (as Shropshire folk are called), it’s pronounced Shroosbury, as in ‘Taming of the…’. We also discovered that it’s tranquil, polite and stuffed with interest – from amazing ‘olde worlde’ architecture along Dickensian streets with quirky names to match to an embarrassment of watering holes and eateries to suit all tastes and pockets. And rain didn’t stop play – well this was the wet West Country (or rather the West Midlands as pointed out by an old friend – you know who you are). It’s west of East Anglia so that’s good enough for me. In fact, the number of Welsh accents we heard almost convinced us we were actually in Wales.
After a good old gander round the narrow streets and little lanes, we happened upon ‘The Nag’s Head’, a bijou pub on Wyle Cop (yes, that’s the name of the street) to be welcomed by an old codger at the bar supping Guinness. He said…
I knew you were comin’ so I put ABBA on.
‘Dancing Queen’ was followed in quick succession by Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael. As Liam slurped his large Merlot, I googled ‘gay bars in Shrewsbury’ and guess what came up? Yep, The Nags Head.
Britain’s longest river, the Severn, wraps around Shrewsbury like a leafy boa (very much like Norwich’s Wensum) which presumably provided an effective defence against the marauding Welsh way back when. These days the calm waters provide a pleasant riverside stroll and opportunities for a tipple or two on sunny days.
Day two was spent in lovely Ludlow, a genteel medieval, Tudor and Georgian assortment sitting on top of a hill overlooking rolling Shropshire countryside. Poet Laureate John Betjeman described Ludlow as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’ and we could see why. The sun poked through the clouds for market day and judging by the posh merchandise on offer, we knew Ludlow was a notch or two above. The town is famous for food so, after a good look around, we settled on delicious Thai for lunch provided by an Anglo-Thai gay couple. We seem to have a nose for the gay thang.
So that was Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Are they on the leader board for our dotage? Shrewsbury certainly, Ludlow less so. Lovely as it is, I don’t think we’re nearly posh or genteel enough.
British weather is notoriously changeable – from drab to sparkling, drenched to parched, cold to clammy – sometimes all in the space of a few days. Perhaps that’s why it’s a bit of a national obsession and the staple of many an awkward conversation in a lift. It pays to take full advantage when a fine weather front rolls in. And take advantage we did when balmy air blew up from the Continent to bestow a mini heatwave for Easter. We jumped on a bus and headed for a riverside pub in Thorpe St Andrew, a pretty hamlet on the outskirts of Norwich. Liam wanted ducks, I wanted wine. The wine won. The only duck we saw was on a road sign.