Peak District Mini-Break

Covid, lockdowns, running out of telly to watch, the cancellation of live sport and music, walk after walk after walk, no contact with dads and mums, no hugs, no pubs. It’s safe to say that we’ve lived sheltered lives for the last 18 months or so.

As a family we’ve spent a lot of time hunkered down at home and not suffered that badly from it all. We even managed to squeeze in a week’s holiday in North Wales when restrictions were lifted last summer, but other than that we might as well have had a force field within a mile radius of our house because we would have very rarely troubled it.

Lately though, the boredom has been taking hold. We’ve had to venture out, although still never far. But the delights of our back garden and the limits of our estate have pretty much worn off, so we had to start making plans. We were finally being forced to travel in search of adventure…as long as it wasn’t too far away; I mean, we’re not exactly natural adventurers!

With half term fast approaching, what we needed was something that was not that far away, yet far enough away that we wouldn’t be tempted to head home at the end of a day. So, with the Yorkshire Dales on our doorstep, the Yorkshire coast around an hour away and the Lake District not a great deal further, we plumped for…The Derbyshire Peak District!

We booked to stay in a family room in the Whitton Lodge in Hardstoft near Chesterfield and decided to spend two days around the Upper Derwent Valley in the Derbyshire Peaks. To be fair, this was a slight oversight on our part as we thought that the two places were a lot closer than they were and as a result left ourselves with an hour long drive after our first day in order to get to our accommodation! But what’s an hour in a hot car on narrow, winding country roads between friends!?

So on the Wednesday of half term (2nd June) we set off midway through the morning heading for an early lunchtime arrival at the Derwent Reservoir in the Upper Derwent Valley.

It has to be said, it’s quite an amazing journey. The first part is unremarkable, unless your some kind of motorway pervert and then I’d guess your blood really will be pumping, as we spent about 20 minutes on the M1, Britain’s foremost motorway. After leaving that though you are quickly transported to the middle of nowhere and there are times when all you can see is stunning countryside. It’s a difficult journey as a driver as the roads are narrow, winding and bumpy too. But it’s undeniably fun at the same time!

So by the time we get to the Derwent Reservoir and the visitor centre it’s fair to say that we’re a bit like one of James Bond’s martinis; shaken, not stirred! We circuit the car park unsuccessfully and decide to head back up the road to look for a space. We’re rewarded by a roadside spot a couple of hundred yards away and free parking for the day. Result!

Once we get down to the Visitor Centre we get our bearings before opting to walk without a map. It’s a friendly and helpful centre where you can purchase a map and also get some advice on the best walk to suit your needs, but today we settle for taking a photo of the route from a sign outside. Other than that we’re hiking on instinct alone. We’re off road and wrestling with whatever nature can throw at us!

Of course, I’m exaggerating so that we sound far more adventurous than we really are. We’ve actually done this hike once before, but it’s not as simple as just following regular signposts, so we’re winging it to an extent.

The Peak District is well known as an area of outstanding beauty – one of many in the UK – and it doesn’t disappoint today. It’s a scorching hot day and even just walking down near the side of the reservoir is lovely. But then, after about a half a mile of trekking and continually telling ourselves we’ve gone wrong, we take a sharp left over a stile, as signposted and start to head uphill.

The higher we climb, the more amazing the view. However, having tweaked a hamstring the day before while taking a coaching session, I’m making an extra effort to remain sure-footed and struggling a little bit. If you follow in our footsteps and take this walk be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted; it’s a steep climb and for much of the way it’s a narrow path with a steep drop to your right. It’s a rocky footpath too, so you need to choose your path carefully. It isn’t particularly dangerous, but with the wind blowing a little bit things felt quite hairy at times!

As we get closer to the top we decide to scramble up the banking to our left a little way and refuel. It’s picnic time. We’re sheltered quite well from the wind and we have the best of views. It’s safe to say that while it’s a welcome break from our upward hike, it’s a wonderfully relaxing one as well. We spend a good half an hour eating, drinking, chatting, fending off flies and taking in the view before finally hauling ourselves into a standing position and heading upwards once more.

Once at the top of the hill – and Strava showed my ascent as just short of 700ft that day – the view is incredible. A 360 degree sight that just takes the breath away. Looking back down from where we’ve come there’s the reservoir stretching through the valley, to our left moorland and the peaks of the next valley, to our right the steep sides that – I think – lead towards Hope Valley and then in front of us, what awaits our feet; miles of stunning moorland. It’s days like this and views like this that make me all the more thankful for living in England.

The walk takes you for another couple of miles across the top of this stunning landscape before you make the steep descent down towards the Lady Bower reservoir. This is definitely not a walk for smaller children, especially not this bit and it can feel a little treacherous at times as you’re descending sharply down a narrow and rocky path. Watch out for stray sheep too! And if you’re lucky you may well spot the odd bird of prey swooping or hovering over the valley seeking it’s next snack!

Once we make it down to the bottom we’re all shattered. My legs are like jelly after the descent, it’s stiflingly hot and I have a rucksack on my back. Yet there’s still further to go! It’s safe to say we simply amble along the path along the side of the reservoir diving into shade as we go.

Once we make it back to the Visitor Centre we queue for ice creams and slump on a low wall to rest and cool down. But we can’t stay too long as there’s another hour long drive ahead of us before we get to our accommodation.

Whitton Lodge is situated 6 miles outside of Chesterfield, in a pleasant part of the Derbyshire countryside. When we show up there is no one around and how we actually check in is a little unclear. However, we make a quick phone call and the owner is with us within a couple of minutes, greeting us with a warm smile and showing us around, before taking us to our room. The property has nine bedrooms, a breakfast room and best of all, a lounge with TV and a pool table. Our room – a family room – is huge and there’s more than enough room for us all to feel comfortable. Despite this, two members of the family still take up residence on my side of our bed when I point out that there’s a plug socket next to it. It’s OK, my phone charging can wait!

We drive back into Chesterfield for our tea, opting for Frankie and Benny’s to suit both our children and due to the fact that the gluten free and dairy free options are good.

Next morning, after a good sleep in the peaceful Derbyshire countryside we head downstairs just before 8am to be welcomed warmly by our hosts. Breakfast is excellent and again the gluten free and dairy free options are great. Best of all though is my cooked breakfast; lots of bacon, sausages, egg, beans and hash browns with a decent supply of toast, juice and coffee too. Our hosts are friendly and chatty, as well as being brilliantly efficient and we’re left waiting for nothing. We even have a chat about their goats as we leave and I’m sure we’ll be back in the future.

We’re homeward bound today, but not until late, so we’re heading back into the Peaks and the Hope Valley to visit the beautiful village of Castleton. We’re not quite sure what we’ll do, but in the spirit of adventure, we reckon we’ll find something.

In fact, there’s lots to do in Castleton. There are caves to visit, a Norman castle – hence the name – a number of walks, a visitor centre and lots of pubs, cafes and restaurants. We consider the caves and the castle, but then, already tired, settle on what we think will be a reasonably easy walk. We opt for the Cave Dale – Peverill Castle loop and very quickly find that it’s yet another steep, rocky ascent! It’s narrow too, with steep hillsides either side of us, but popular and lots of people are out on the trail.

Even though the walk is slightly short of 3 miles, we take our time today and there are several stops on the way up. It’s lovely though, as with the rest of the day ahead of us and hearty breakfasts to try and work off, the rest stops can easily be accommodated! I have to say I’m grateful for every last one of them! As you’d expect in the Peaks, the view from the top is stunning and once again we can see for miles and miles.

It’s approaching mid afternoon when we get back into Castleton and we just take a leisurely stroll back towards the visitor centre, where another low wall beckons us to have another sit down! It’s a busy little place though, so ideal for a spot of people watching!

Although we’re still feeling fairly well fed, we’re now very thirsty so we head for the Three Roofs Cafe, where again there are enough gluten free and dairy options to keep the family happy. We’re unable to resist the snacks and so crumpets, scones, chips, a sandwich and a tea cake are ordered and promptly scoffed, while we sit and enjoy the cool inside air. It feels like the ideal time for a coffee, but I have what I call a ‘pop thirst’ and so I go for a San Pelegrino Limonata which absolutely hits the spot and is the best thing I could have drank at this moment in time!

We have a quick stroll through Castleton at the end of the day, but by this point everyone is shattered and it’s clearly time to head home. We’re back in Leeds within an hour and a quarter and the country air seems a distant memory. There’ll definitely be a next time though and I’d recommend the Peak District to anyone who fancies some serenity, fresh air and incredible views.

I hope you enjoyed the blog. As ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Running Tips for Beginners and enthusiastic old people alike!

Let me start by pointing out that in no way am I any kind of expert on running. So I’m not claiming that what I write about in this blog is any kind of guarantee of success. There is no way on Earth that reading this blog is going to make you some kind of Olympian! However, as someone who’s ran on and off – more on than off, but a little stop start now and again – for most of his 49 years, I can certainly say that I speak from experience.

Running is something I’ve always loved. It was something that I started at school and success at junior school sports days whetted my appetite. I discovered very early on that I was in possession of a good turn of pace and despite my size, was capable of beating more or less anyone I raced. For a while at least. A heart problem put pay to that and once I recovered I found that I wasn’t the ‘athlete’* I’d once been.

*The term athlete is being used with quite an amount of creative license here by the way. I was a quick kid but that was about the size of it!

With my childhood heart problem taken care of I started running again, albeit not as well as before. But I really wanted to raise money for the heart unit where I’d had my operation and so, to cut a long story short, I started running more regularly and more seriously. I started to do sponsored fun runs and from there graduated to doing the Great North Run, a half marathon, raising money as I went. After that, I just kept on running either for fun or more competitively for clubs. In my time I’ve completed a number of half marathons, but mostly just ran for fun. That said, that’s a lot of running! And in the last few years, following more heart problems, I’ve started running much more regularly. It’s amazing what a health scare can do for you! So you never know, there might just be a bit of common sense in the tips that I can offer! So here we go…

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation! I can’t lie; there are far too many times that I go out having not prepared properly. If it’s an evening run I tend to make the excuse that I’ve been on my feet all day at work, so I’ll be fully warmed up anyway. But it’s never true and the proof is never more evident in those first couple of miles when I can’t get into my running or afterwards when everything seizes up! So, it’s a little bit of a case of doing what I say and not necessarily what I do here. Take time to warm up. Stretch thoroughly and perhaps even go as far as some running on the spot beforehand. Your body will thank you for it later! Stretching isn’t the only thing you can do though. I always make sure that I’ve had a blast on my inhaler – I’m asthmatic – as I don’t want to be too out of breath too soon. I’ve also started eating a handful of pine nuts and cashews before I head out, just in the hope of a bit of an energy burst. Pine nuts are good in terms of being heart healthy and contain things like iron and magnesium, which can boost energy. Don’t eat so many that you end up running with indigestion, but I always find they help me along the way. Cashew nuts contain healthy fats and again are heart healthy. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things dietary, but even if it’s as a placebo, I find that handfuls of things like this help me out.

The final thing that I make sure I do is to have a few jelly sweets in a pocket, ready for a quick sugar rush when I feel I might be flagging just a little bit too much. My personal choice are Mike and Ike’s, a nicely sugary coated import from America, available in B&Ms brilliant and strange American Confectionary section. Other jelly based confectionary, American or otherwise, is available. All over the place.

2. Clothing. Unless you’re into naked running, clothing is a vital part of your armour as a runner. Some would say it’s essential. From a personal point of view, having never tried naked running, I’d always go with clothing; no one repeat no one, needs to see me and my middle aged body charging down the road, in the nip as they say.

Silliness aside, good quality running gear is important. But there are levels here. I’m not someone who feels the need to splash ridiculous amounts of cash on what I’m sweating into, but I do want to feel comfortable and at least look the part without it being a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’.

The most important thing – in my humble opinion – is to get a good quality pair of trainers that you’re comfortable in. I used to run in Nike flats, but found that their very thin nature meant that they wore out relatively quickly. So eventually I went for a reasonably priced pair of New Balance 680 v6, which feature a nicely cushioned sole. Game changer! Suddenly I was running faster, going further and more importantly at my age, not suffering with aches and pains for days after. You could say that I’m a convert to cushioning. I’ve since bought a new pair of New Balance, but my 680s are hanging on in there and I’m out running in them regularly. I’ve found that some good quality running socks feel a lot better too.

In terms if what else I wear, I prefer 2in1 shorts, with an inner cycling short lining. I’m all for keeping those hamstrings warm! What I would also advise with running shorts is that you buy something with some kind of pocket. That way, anything light that you need to take can be stored away. My pockets always have a few jelly sweets and I find my door key handy for getting back into the house!

I’d also advise buying specialist running tops. I’m a t-shirt man myself. My build just doesn’t lend itself to vests and no one needs the sight of any more of my body! What I would say is that you should have something bright or even high viz, just for your own safety. It’s surprising how people many just don’t see you coming, so be as visible as possible, especially on more murky days or evenings. With this in mind, I was pleased when my wife bought me a couple of light up bands that I can wear around my upper arms in winter. If it gets too late and the light is cutting in, I just flick a switch and they light up, leaving me to focus on my running rather than whether or not I might get knocked over! They’re lightweight and comfortable too, which is ideal for people like me who hate running with anything annoying attached to me. You can see the kind of thing I mean below, although there are lots of variants on this particular accessory.

3. No excuses. Until the last 18 months or so I’ve always been brilliant at coming up with excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out for a run. And excuses as to why I should come in early from a run. Drizzle, too windy (weather, not me), a niggling and sometimes not real injury, not enough time, too close to lunch, not enough sleep, not in the right frame of mind, too windy (me this time), too sunny…I’ve gone through phases where anything I could tell myself would be enough to stay where I was and not head out for a run.

Don’t do it. Those endorphins won’t release themselves. However tired you think you feel, however bad your day at work was, get out for that run. Keep up the momentum. You’ll feel better for it. You’ll be pleased with yourself. You’ll have improved your fitness, just a little bit. But if you let that excuse keep you in then you’ll find another one the next time and even when you get back out again, you’ll excuse yourself some more, another time.

Once I stopped making excuses and just getting out there, I got fitter, stronger and faster. It’s taken me a long, long time, but nowadays the weather and the niggles don’t get in the way and I’m absolutely loving my running.

4. Plan a route (kind of). Personally, I don’t like to plan a very detailed route, but I like an idea of where I’m going, vaguely which set of streets I’ll be running along and more to the point, where I turn for home. I keep it vague for one reason: if I want to add a chunk of running in, I can and that means that I can feel good about myself once I get home. If I know that where I’m headed will take me say for 5km but I’m feeling good, then I might add a few extra streets in and before I know it I’ve covered an extra kilometre or two. And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Maybe it’s just a me thing, but I’d definitely recommend it. I suppose in a way it means I get to explore little bits of town, rather than just running another circuit of somewhere and I find my way a bit more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to keep my mind distracted from how my legs are doing and heading down a couple of new streets does just that!

5. Recovery. Over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that once I get back in after a run, my next hour or so is really important. I always used to make sure that I had a drink of water, but it was never anywhere near enough. And I’d never stretch.

Nowadays everything has changed. When I remember, I put a bottle of water into the freezer before I head out for my run. I’ll neck that as soon as I get in and then refill and drink slowly for a while. I might even refill again after that. I also make sure I eat a banana as soon as I get in. I might even have more cashews or pine nuts. If I have any pain I have a massage roller ball that I put in the freezer and then massage with when I get home and it works wonders! And I make sure I stretch again. This is usually done while lying or sitting down, touching my toes or painfully pulling my feet back behind my back. Before, I might well have just flopped down in a chair and watched television, then wondered why my muscles just stiffened up half an hour later. I’d wake up next morning and find it difficult to walk, such was the stiffness in my legs and back. And then lockdown happened.

During lockdown I read a lot of things about running and exercise. I also did online workouts and learnt the value of warming down and recovery from this. I can’t recommend it enough. The stretching helps to loosen and lengthen the muscles again and the fruit and snacking helps throw vitamins back into the body, which can only help. The water replaces fluid that you’ve lost while also refreshing you, obviously. It seems obvious now and why I totally ignored recovery for so many years is beyond me, but I would absolutely recommend that you take far better care of yourself after you’ve ran. You’ll feel so much better for it.

I hope these tips – some more obvious than others – will come in handy for you. Like I said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve found that these things have helped my running immeasurably. I’m faster and stronger, but more to the point, I enjoy my running much more than ever.

As usual, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Oh, and happy running!

Book Review: ‘Gone Fishing – Life, Death and The Thrill of The Catch.’

Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse have been entertaining the nation for the best part of 30 years. With classic comedy credits like ‘Vic Reeve’s Big Night Out’, ‘Shooting Stars’, ‘The Fast Show’ and ‘Harry Enfield and Chums’ to name but a few, it’s safe to say that the pair are national treasures. Both are people that I admire hugely.

So when they paired up to make a show about fishing, the subject matter…well, it didn’t matter. I was onboard immediately. The result was another cult classic in BBC2’s ‘Gone Fishing’ and the book is borne out of the show.

‘Gone Fishing’ is a great read and as you’d expect from its writers, it’s full of laugh out loud moments. But it’s much more than just a good laugh. The book details the pair’s friendship in a genuinely touching way, while also discussing health, happiness and of course, the art of fishing.

By the far the best parts of the book for me were the sections where Bob and Paul discuss their friendship of over 30 years. For those of you that don’t know, both of them have suffered from heart disease in recent years and both underwent open heart surgery as a result. And when Bob felt he couldn’t go on, it was Paul that reached out, offering to take him fishing. And not long after a TV show was born!

It was the heart health angle that really piqued my interest in the show. Having gone through heart surgery myself a few years back, felt I could empathise a little bit. And so, when this aspect of both mens’ lives was discussed in the book I found myself more than a little choked up.

The book makes quite an emotive start. First we’re introduced to both men, their history with heart problems and then their friendship. The realisation that both could have died felt like quite a revelation for me as a major fan. And the passage when Bob actually discusses the very real thoughts that he had that he was facing up to his own imminent death, makes for a powerful read. It certainly felt like a side of one of my heroes that I’d never witnessed in such detail before. It was discussed on the show, but it felt like the book gave the subject a slightly greater depth.

The book ploughs on; a mixture of humorous anecdotes, explanations of aspects of the show, the locations for the fishing and the episodes as well as some real insight from Paul Whitehouse on how to actually fish. And while this might sound a bit dull to some, I’d say don’t knock it until you try it. Certainly both men have quite an infectious enthusiasm for their hobby and while it didn’t make me want to return to fishing – a hobby I dabbled with as a lad – it did shed light on why grown men stand on riverbanks in all weathers for untold hours on end.

As we move further through the book Paul guides us through some quite encyclopedic knowledge of various species of fish, as well as the more ecological side of the sport. This felt like hard going at times, but it certainly never made me want to put ‘Gone Fishing’ down. By the end, Bob has thrown in some of his favourite recipes for cooking on the riverbank, spattered with his trademark wit and wisdom and in truth, you’ve got all of the knowledge you need to get out there and fish. It’s just a question of working out whether you can handle the early morning starts before getting out and buying the kit.

‘Gone Fishing’ is an optimistic read. Joyous and life-affirming at times, educational at others. If you’re a fan of Bob, Paul, the show or just fishing, it’s well worth a read.

I give ‘Gone Fishing’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Easter Goals – an update.

So, just before the Easter holidays rather than dreaming of chocolate and boxsets, I decided that this two week break would be different. I was going to try for something more goals driven and to help motivate me I wrote a blog about it. The thinking here was that if I formalised it in some way then I might be more tempted to actually work towards said goals. Usually formalising goes about as far as writing a bullet point list down on the back of an envelope, so this was definite progress.

I set myself a manageable number of goals, even though some of them were quite big projects. With two weeks away from work I was confident that I could achieve a lot of what I’d set myself and really, only fatigue or boredom (or my kids) could get in the way.

My first and biggest goal was to decorate the kitchen and paint the kitchen cupboards. After many years our kitchen is in need of a change, but in order to avoid the fuss of people ripping it apart, we’d decided to just update and maybe go for the whole new kitchen thing in Summer or even Autumn. We’d bought primer and paint and I had started a little bit of the sanding a while ago. So Easter was going to be used to transform the place.

Well, there’s good news and bad news with this one. The bad news is that I just didn’t get round to decorating the kitchen. I still intend to, but I simply ran out of time to do it. That and the fact that I lost the will to live too!

However, I did manage to sand down all of the doors, frames, sills on the units, then prime them before finally giving them all a good paint. Have a look! I think it looks great, but then I would say that I suppose!

Two of my other targets were running related and I’m pleased to say that I achieved both. Firstly, I was looking to break in my new running trainers, which I achieved very easily. I mean, some would say that it simply involved wearing said trainers for a couple of runs. And they would be right. That said, the trainers in question are a lot more comfortable now that they have a few more miles on the clock. They’re probably not quite as worn in as I’d like, but that’s just because I keep pulling on my older pair as I’m still very fond of them.

I also decided that part of Easter would be dedicated to improving personal bests at 5k and 10k. In truth, I didn’t manage either, but that was more to do with the fact that within a couple of days of my time off work starting I’d changed the goals a little. I decided that I wanted to try for a 10 mile run instead, as this was something I hadn’t achieved in over a decade. Having got the first weekend out of the way, I achieved this goal on the first Monday of the holidays. I did then attempt to beat my record for running 10k, but instead fell short and ran my second fastest ever. And while I’ll continue to attempt to better my 5k time, when I actually checked again what my PB was I found that it was just under 21 minutes and I’m still mystified about how I achieved that. So, in truth I can’t see that time being broken any time soon!

My other running goal was to research some runs or races that I could enter. The easing of our lockdown rules should mean that Parkrun will begin again quite soon, but I was keen to look for something more road based if possible. Sadly though, time got the better of me and just when it looked like I would happily waste away the last couple of days of my break, a friend got in touch to suggest that a group of us from work might enter the Pontefract 10k and so, presented with an open goal, I signed up. Roll on late June!

Another goal revolved around gardening jobs and, despite some lovely weather, this is where I failed quite miserably. Some jobs have been done – both lawns have been cut, even if I couldn’t quite be bothered to trim the edges or rake moss out as I usually would. Some weeding got done too, but not all of it. Roses were sprayed and my wife even pruned them, but all in all I’m facing up to late April and a garden that is not the best. To make matters worse my garden mad, retired neighbour has gone project crazy and now has railway sleeper lined raised beds in an area of his back garden as well as pristine lawns and many, many blossoming flowers. He also revealed plans for a new workshop style shed in his garden, much to my horror. His shed has always put mine in the shade, so his shed revolution is quite the blow, although you probably have to be of a certain age to understand why! I wrote a poem about it once though, and it’s on the link below.

Lockdown Literature – my stab at a poetry blog.

My worst failure came with my bonsai trees. Sadly, they’re still all in the box that they came in. I sit next to it every day and yet still haven’t managed to find the time or the urge to start their cultivation. Maybe next week, maybe next month, maybe next Easter…

So all in all – and I realise I’m probably being kind to myself here – I think I had a good break in terms of my goals. The whole kitchen thing was a big enough project that it took up a few days and in between running, writing for the blog and just settling down and being a husband and a dad, there wasn’t a lot of time for anything else. Maybe next time I’ll cut down on the ambition.

Easter Holiday Goals

Easter is one of my favourite times of year. Not because of the religious connotations. Not because of the chocolate. Well, maybe a little bit because of the chocolate. Mainly though, what Easter signifies is two weeks holiday from work. A significant rest before we go back to summer term and the last push with exam classes and finishing all of the topics that you needed to get through with all of your classes. The last break before subjecting yourself to the inevitable exhaustion and fending off student complaints about wearing blazers that summer term always brings.

However, as with any break from work, duty calls. There are always any number of jobs that I’ve been putting off while trying to get through the January to Easter slog at work. There are things to do with the family, who despite my best efforts have probably been neglected a bit in the months since Christmas. And there will be things that I want to do for me as well. So, this year, rather than a ticklist written on the back of an envelope, I thought I’d set some goals.

Here they are, in no particular order.

Decorate the kitchen and kitchen cupboards. For longer than I care to remember we have needed to get a new kitchen. But for various reasons that mainly come down to not wanting the hassle of people disrupting everything we do for a couple of weeks and making a total mess and the fact that we’ve also been thinking of moving house for ages, it’s a job we’ve not gone through with. We’ve come close on a couple of occasions, but each time we’ve ended up ducking out of it when the kitchen designer got a bit too pushy or fussy. Or, you know, designing a kitcheny…

Now though, in a fit of lockdown driven activity we’ve come to a compromise and decided to update things. So my biggest job and biggest goals of the Easter break will be to redecorate the kitchen and also sand down the cupboard doors and re-paint them. We bought the paint before Christmas, so we’re all set to go. It promises to be a tough job, but I’ve got time and am actually looking forward to having a go at it. I don’t imagine I’ll be able to produce any kind of professional finish, but I think I’ll be hard pushed not to improve it as the decorating hasn’t been finished from the last time I did it! I won’t reveal when that was though!

Break in my new trainers and attempt new personal best times for 5km and 10km runs. I’m hoping that the kitchen decorating will leave me enough time and energy to have a go at this! However, with two weeks off I should be able to comfortably squeeze in some running time, rather than having to rush home from work in the hope of getting an hour in before preparing tea for my kids. And maybe having not done a day’s work before a run, I might have a bit more energy and a bit more pace! I think the best I’ve managed for a 5k was around 24 minutes, so I think I’ve got scope to go quicker, even at my age!

I bought a new pair of New Balance runners in a Winter sale and have worn them for a couple of walks and one 7 mile run so far. The run proved that they’re not really broken in. For the last couple of miles my feet were uncomfortable and then after I finished I noticed later that one of my toes was bleeding! For the record, it was a good hour after I’d come home, taken off my trainers and socks and began pottering around the kitchen before I noticed this. Self care, ladies and gentlemen! Clearly, I needed to wear them for some more walks first! So that definitely represents an achievable goal and perhaps by the time the two weeks are ending I can go out for a more comfortable run in them.

Research some runs/races to enter. Covid-19 has meant that it’s been a long time since I ran with anyone other than my 11 year old son. I’m beginning to crave a more competitive edge to my running again. It was less than 6 months prior to lockdown that I’d started running properly again and as well as running locally both on my own and with my son, I’d done a few Park Runs. It was Park Run that had whetted my appetite for a bit of company and competition and now having been running mainly solo for over a year, I think I’m fit enough to test myself again. So this Easter I’ll be investigating any possible runs that I can enter. I know that they’re unlikely to be staged until some time in summer, but I’m quite excited about testing myself.

Garden Jobs. And there we have it. Two words the signify end of everyone’s fun. But there’s no denying that it’s that time of year again. Spring has sprung and the competitive side of me wants to be the first person in the street with his front lawn cut! After that I’m hoping I can do other things like paint some of the rougher looking fence panels, clear things like fallen leaves and twigs and maybe even finish painting the garden bench that I started at the end of last summer!

None of it represents a whole load of fun, but it’s a good way of reminding yourself that you’re an adult! If the weather is good enough I can easily potter about doing jobs and making the place look a lot better for a good few hours. So hopefully we’ll get a few days of sun. In the north of England. In April. Fingers crossed, eh?

Training Programme. Grassroots football will return over the Easter break and it’s something I’m very excited about. Firstly, we can begin training again from March 29th and then after that competitive games start on April 11th. Our season doesn’t then finish until June 6th. In fact, if there are any problems we have until June 28th to get everything done.

So, in a moment of optimism I decided that I was going to make sure that I was prepared. I’ve already done some work on this, but with training looming I must admit that I haven’t actually planned our first session. So that’s where we start this Easter. From there I need to make sure that training sessions are in place for at least a couple of weeks. As well as this though, I really want to think of ways to keep my team fit in between training and also I want to make some tactical plans for actual games. We’re close to the bottom of the league and there’s no way I’m allowing us to slip any further! On the contrary in fact; I think that with a bit of hard work we can move up the league and turn this into a relatively successful season. And given all the disruption that we’ve had, it would be nice to end the season on a high note.

Bonsai Trees! My final goal revolves around a present that I got for Father’s Day…in 2020. My children bought me a pack that will enable me to grow bonsai tress and as thrilled as I was with this, I’ve still not found time to actually sit down and get started. But if you can’t start growing mini trees in Spring, then when can you grow mini trees?

I’m really hopeful that I’ll get through all of my Easter goals. There’s a lot there, but hopefully, with a bit of determination and hard work I can head back to work knowing that I managed to get a load of things done with my time and still feel like I’ve had a rest!

Poetry Blog: Ghosts

This is a poem about loss. It’s not about loss in the traditional sense of losing someone who died though. This is about the loss of friends and friendships, which seems to be something has has afflicted me a lot over the years.

It’s a poem about losing touch and if I’m honest, probably losing interest. It’s about the transitory nature of friendships and how they grow, but also about how we can grow or move away from them, or them from us. I hope that makes sense. I suppose it’s about how they grow and how they fade.

It is, for me a type of loss though. I genuinely find staying in touch with people really difficult. This is partly because life is just so busy that if I’m immersed in my daily work routine or taking care of the everyday adventures of family life, I just get a bit lost. It makes me feel like an incomplete person, someone who’s clearly not a proper adult. Even while writing this I’m aware of the fact that I was meant to get in touch with my sister two days ago, as she’s unwell, but I haven’t done it.

My sister is an interesting ‘ghost’. I use the excuse that I’m six years younger than her and that we don’t have a lot in common – apart from parents and upbringing – but that’s all it is; an excuse. I really should keep in touch more than I do. And I get that these things are a two way street – she doesn’t call or text regularly either – but I need to be a better brother.

It’s a form of loss that really bothers me. I probably think about friends I’ve lost touch with most days, which would probably surprise some of those friends. Not all of them at once, but individuals will regularly pop into my head and it can make me tremendously sad to think that they’re only a call away, or an email or text and yet they might as well be on a different planet. Yet, something still stops me. Whether it’s the embarrassment, in some cases, that I haven’t spoken to someone in years and therefore I fear some kind of rejection from them, I don’t know. But I can easily envisage someone seeing my name coming up on their phone and just rejecting the call. It doesn’t give me a crippling sense of loss in the same way that a bereavement would, but it’s something that makes me feel a horrible sense of loneliness and guilt at times.

To my knowledge I’ve never lost a friend by actually falling out with them. I would say that in that sense, I’m a good friend. I do, however, seem to be cursed with becoming friends with people who then move away! Maybe they’re trying to tell me something. This has caused an awful sense of loss in some cases as well though. I desperately miss the friendship of someone who was only local to me for two years before they emigrated to another continent (I won’t name names, but they may well read this!) This was just someone that I clicked with completely and his loss did have an effect on me at the time that was akin to that of a bereavement. There are others too, that although I keep in touch with them and I’ve known them for most of my life, their absence from my every day life genuinely hurts. Texts and Facebook messages just aren’t the same.

Ghosts

I think of you often; ghosts.
Either re-living past glories or indulging in imaginary conversations
in the comfort of my head.
Keep in touch, we said.

Sometimes you re-appear from the past
and I blame myself, wonder why I went silent.
The girl who got the job, became the boss is just a miracle really.
The ghost who came back to life and helped to show you just how friendship works.

Other ghosts are far too many to mention, without a crippling guilt taking its toll.
I'll never know if it was me that drove you away,
but I'll always ask the question.
Keep in touch we said, 
and I disappeared like the dead.

The one who vanished, perhaps hiding the shame of a break-up.
I'll never know if I could have done more.
Those who had the audacity to carry on living lives without me,
some forever extending their hand,
while I make excuses, ignore the calls, hide in these four walls,
without ever really knowing why.

Those who, like paper aeroplanes, were taken away by the breeze,
and may float close by again,
tantalising like the promise of a meet up in the sign off of a text
until they fly so far that you'll never reach them again.
Keep in touch we said,
the embers now a dying red.

Then the ones that saw you at your worst.
These ghosts? You're forever in their debt.
The one who scraped you off the floor, mended the first real heartbreak,
talked you down, walked you round, held your hand,
now relegated to the occasional like on social media.

And don't forget the girl who looked out for you when work became almost too much,
boosted your confidence, while simultaneously kicking you up the arse
and telling you bluntly, to polish your shoes.
She who mothered you, but when she left called you her big brother,
still cast adrift years later without a reason why.

Those ghosts we lost along the way,
are no longer just there on the other end of a phone,
but leave a million shades of regret, of things you never said, of sleepless nights, 
and the ever-present pain in the gut that reminds you that you could have done more, 
should have done more...

Keep in touch we said
but all that's left is in your head.

I feel that some of these ‘ghosts’ must think that I’m a pretty terrible person who just doesn’t care. I do care. I’m just awful at showing it and at keeping up appearances. Even when I get in touch with people I imagine them thinking, ‘what does he want?’ This feeling probably isn’t helped by people like my dad who regularly answers the phone with such witticisms as, ‘We thought you’d died’. Hilarious. Funnier still given that my parents rarely ring.

I know there’s a saying that the best friends are those you don’t have to talk to every day to know that they’re still friends (or something like that) and I definitely have friends like that. But I wish I spoke to them more. And maybe this confessional will make me step up my friendship game (as no one said, ever) or maybe one of them will read this and check in on me (please no U ok hun? type things though). Anything would be good in these times of not being able to meet up.

I hope you enjoyed the poem. And at the risk of sounding like I just ate a whole block of cheese, if it resonated in any way, maybe you could call that friend you’ve been thinking of lately? Cheeseball or not, I know I’ve got some reaching out to do.

As ever, feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.

Blog Goals for March

I find running my blog incredibly fulfilling, yet extremely frustrating, all at the same time. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. What started as an outlet for some kind of creativity and initially to explain how I was feeling at a difficult stage of my life, has more recently become a little more serious and I would really like my writing to have a bigger audience.

I started my blog after having heart surgery. Writing a blog was something I’d thought about for a while, but it took what felt like a near death experience to give me the kick up the backside that I needed to actually start writing. It wasn’t really a near death experience, but it was a heart problem that required being admitted to hospital, then followed up with actual surgery, so there were lots of times when I questioned whether I’d get through it.

Once I was well, I started a blog, using my first couple of posts to write about what had happened to me. I suppose it was cathartic, but it was also my way of letting people know that I was alright. They’re on the links below this paragraph if you fancy a read. But then once they were out of the way, I began to write about anything and everything!

When did I get so old?

Conquering my fears. What’s the worst that could happen*?

Over 100 blog posts later though and I feel like I’ve reached a bit of an impasse with it. The blog is definitely growing in popularity, but at the pace of a glacier. Am I being impatient? I’m not sure. It’s fair to say that I only started taking things even kind of seriously since this time last year, when the pandemic meant I had a lot of time on my hands with which to write. But it’s definitely been a frustrating time over the last six months or so, when apart from one brilliant month, growth has been slow. So I thought I’d start to set monthly goals, in order to organise myself a little better and perhaps get some useful advice in response.

March Goals and Targets

  1. I need to find better ways of publicising my blog. I use social media and tweet about my blog quite a bit, without it being all I ever do on there. I also post on the blogging RT/community sites in the hope that I’ll gain regular readers, but despite a small amount of growth, it doesn’t really seem to work. I feel terrible, even in a comment post, when I’m commenting on people’s blogs, because ultimately it feels a bit desperate. I might as well just be saying, ‘Look, I’ve commented on your blog, so have a look at mine’ and I don’t like feeling that way. If it’s a specific subject of blog, like a sport or an educational blog I might tweet certain more applicable sites for a RT and this can work too, but I feel like I’m just relying on other people’s popularity and good will in doing so. My blog views for a typical month average around 400-500, which feels OK, but isn’t rewarding in terms of the effort I put in. I don’t know if I’m expecting too much, but then again I’ve read ‘goal’ type posts like this from other people before, moaning that they’re only getting thousands of people visiting their site per month. Looking at your stats on WordPress and seeing that another day has brought in 14 readers becomes no fun whatsoever after a while! I genuinely feel like I post my fair share of good quality posts and I’d love it to reach a bigger audience, but must admit, I’m pretty clueless! It’s lovely reading positive comments from people, but then again, I’ve visited blogs posts that consist of an inspirational quote (so, 12 words, let’s say) that get a load of positive comments and that kind of thing makes me wonder where I’m going wrong. Alternatively, maybe what I’m posting is utter rubbish! Whatever it is, I need to find some kind of answer in March!
  2. Stop posting utter rubbish! Just kidding; I have at least some faith in what I write. But that said, I want to write at least one post in March that breaks some personal records for my blog. Why not think big, eh? Whether it’s views, or likes, or just the number of people who read it in Luxembourg, I’d like to post something that captures the interest in the next month. I’ve had some that – for my little blog – have done really well and it’s a brilliant feeling that I’d quite like to replicate.
  3. Come up with better titles for poems and blogs. I seem to have no imagination for this at all. In the past I’ve written blogs called ‘I have some questions about music’, ‘Whatever happened to the mix tape?’ and poems called ‘Teams Meeting’ (about a Teams meeting), ‘Heart’ (about my heart operation) and ‘Early Morning Run’ (I won’t ruin the surprise with that one). It seems I’m very literal when it comes to titles, so maybe some snappier titles might bring those readers in!
  4. Write more poems (with better titles, of course). It took me ages to pluck up the courage to write poems consistently and then to actually post them online. They always get a good reaction and I love the process of writing them. It’s been quite a confidence boost. They generally come in bursts and I can write two or three, pretty much straight out in one go, in one sitting, but it’s been a while since anything new came along. I had an idea this afternoon, opened my notebook to write something then got distracted. A couple of hours later I noticed the open page of my notebook! Luckily I remembered what I had wanted to write about. I must try and make time to write more poems though and it would be good to find a proper place to showcase them too, as those regular 44 people that read them could be improved upon!
  5. This one’s not a blogging goal; more a creative one. I’d like to post more videos on social media. I posted one of me reading my poem ‘An Ode to Joe Wicks’ and it went down really well (relatively speaking; we’re not talking millions of views and instant fame here). More to the point, I really enjoyed doing it. It does feel like a real ego trip though – here’s me reading my poem, so watch! I struggle finding a reason why people would want to watch! But then, videos I’ve done for friends always get a good reaction. And I know that makes me sound like the tone deaf X-Factor contestant who tells Simon Cowell all her family tell her she can sing, once he’s finished laughing. I created a character based on every bad teaching stereotype I could think of and let friends see ‘his’ first video. Their reaction told me it has legs, so I’d love to see where that could go. I have lots of video ideas, mainly involving me making myself look like a complete knobhead (I’m a natural)…I guess I just need to find a way to link them to my blog now!

So there we have it. My goals for March and the kind of post that I think I’ll make a regular early in the month kind of thing. If you have any advice or would like to let me know what you thought, then leave me a message in the comments. Thanks for reading (you now know you’re one of about 35 in a rather exclusive club!)

Lockdown 3 – Some thoughts on my first week at work.

Here in the U.K., on the evening of Monday 4th January, it was announced that we would be entering lockdown once more, this time for a period of around six weeks.

As some of you will know, I’m a teacher and lockdown has meant that schools have closed again. Last time this happened, because I’m classed as being vulnerable to the virus (bit of a heart problem and asthmatic) I wasn’t allowed to come into work to help out with vulnerable students. So the first lockdown, despite various work-related IT problems and the paranoia that surrounded the whole virus thing, wasn’t that much of an unpleasant experience. In fact, faced with days of great weather and lots of time to go out for a run, work in the garden, or just do some actual school-related work with no pressure at all, it was downright pleasant at times.

Things have certainly changed this time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unpleasant, but there’s a definite change. Schools have once again been closed, but this time around, armed with greater technology and greater know how, students are generally being educated remotely online, via live lessons.

At my school I’ve been given the option of actually coming into school to teach my lessons remotely and so far I’ve done just that. I’m mulling over what to do for the rest of lockdown and will probably work from home occasionally, but for now, I’m in school. So I thought I’d get my first week and the experiences of it down in a blog.

On Monday night, when another period of lockdown and school closures was announced, I felt a little bit of panic. It wasn’t about the virus or anything particularly; I’d left my laptop at school, meaning that working from home – with two children doing the same – was going to be ridiculous. Luckily, I was brought gently back down to Earth a short while later when our Head Teacher floated the idea that we could actually come into school to work. Given that the technology is here, as well as things like registers and student details, it made perfect sense. I had a short discussion with my wife, who was going to be working from home, but now with the added responsibility of two children, and we agreed that it made a lot more sense for me to actually go into work. So, on Tuesday morning, that’s just what I did!

The Prime Minister also announced that there would be no exams for Years 11 and 13, meaning that for the second academic year running young people would be faced with teacher assessments based on a shorter time of working at their subjects, to grade them. This might seem like great news. Being 16 or 18 and not having to sit vital exams, avoiding all of the stress etc. But it isn’t really. Our students will be geared up for the exams. Some may feel that they need more time to get to the level that they want to be at or have been told they need to be at. Now, they don’t get the opportunity to show exactly what they can do and for a lot of them, that’s devastating. So a lot of the next 6 weeks will be about supporting our older students and reassuring them that actually, things will work out for them. And in order to do that, I would be better placed in school.

School without pupils – and indeed a lot of the staff – is a strange place. It’s calm and really quite pleasant, but there’s a certain eerieness that I’m not that keen on. It feels a little bit dangerous being in the building during a lockdown. But then again, it’s a lot more of a danger to my health when everybody’s here!

It’s noticeable on the first morning that the traffic is a bit lighter. And unlike the previous two-week lockdown that we had earlier in the year, there are a lot fewer people on the streets. Driving through town back then I’d see gangs of men heading to an industrial estate for work and wonder how this was possible, given the nature of lockdown. I mean, the clue’s in the name. That and the fact that it was made clear that only essential businesses should remain open. Now, I struggle to see anyone walking through town and it’s a lot more reminiscent of our first period of lockdown.

When I get in, I get the heating on in my classroom and start setting everything up. There are no resources to photocopy or give out, no behavioural issues to give a lot of time to, and of course no students. Everyone – even vulnerable students and those whose parents are key workers and are in school – is being taught remotely. I guess the big question is, how many will show up for their live lessons?

Despite my air conditioning being turned up in order to heat the room, the one thing I cannot escape today is that it’s freezing cold. Everywhere. It’s bitterly cold outside and as a quick email reveals, it’s bitterly cold in everyone else’s room. It seems blankets will be the order of the day with my female colleagues from tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do; a blanket seems a little extreme. I do, however, consider wearing running tights under my suit trousers!

Today, I have two lessons. Since September and with the need for social distancing and all the other precautions around Covid-19, we’ve been doing two lessons of 2 hours and fifty minutes per day. The students stay in one zone and we go to them. So now, I have the advantage of being in one room, but the ‘problem’ of relying on the internet working for almost three hours for everybody in the lesson! Oh, and did I mention that being in my room is a little bit like being in a walk-in freezer?

As it turns out, the lessons go well. My Year 10 group is a dream and take to remote learning really well. They’ve had a little practice when their ‘bubble’ collapsed earlier in the year, but credit to them; today we get through almost every slide of the PowerPoint and lots of them submit their work straight after the lesson. There’s no silliness with people unmuting microphones, no childish comments in the chat; it’s a generally good lesson. There are a few suspicious absences , but the majority of the group are up and ready for 8.40am and plough through almost three hours worth of work on English Language and Fiction Texts. I then have my Year 7s in the afternoon, who although they work well, are a lot more fussy and at times, silly. Some repeatedly leave the call then come back a minute later, blaming technology problems. Others clearly aren’t listening and keep asking what we’re doing using the Chat function. Typical Year 7s then! We get through it though and before I know it, we’re done.

Wednesday brings more freezing cold weather, which I confront head on by wearing a jumper! It helps in keeping my body warm, but by the end of the day, when I still can’t feel anything from my ankles down, it’s clear I’ll have to make an adjustment.

I only have the one lesson today, albeit a three hour one. However, it’s with my Year 10s and again goes smoothly and I make sure to congratulate them on their brilliant attitude and thank them for their hard work when it’s over. I have the rest of the day free, so knuckle down to a bit of planning and working my way through a list of jobs I made at the start of the day. Some of these are computer based, like preparing resources or feeding back to students who’ve submitted work, but others are more mundane, like getting Blu-Tac off the walls after most of my posters fell down over the Christmas break! In the middle of the lesson a couple of colleagues come round to my room. They have a tray of teas and coffees and have obviously been busy calling around everyone in the academy. It’s great to have a nice hot drink, but actually even better to see faces and have a minute or so’s interaction with two other human beings. It’s also nice that kindness seems to be at the forefront of so many minds in our school. It feels good to be being looked after in such troublesome times.

In the afternoon I have a meeting about my risk assessment as a vulnerable member of staff and it’s agreed that it’s fine for me to keep coming in as I’ll be out of the way for all but about 5 minutes every day. My classroom is outside of the buildings in a new unit at the back of school, so I rarely see people anyway, but during lockdown it’s really only going to be me and whoever’s using the room next door.

Two things strike me pretty much immediately at the end of Wednesday. The first is that this is a lonely way of working. It’s just the teacher, that’s all. Even the kids on screen are represented by an icon or their initials. It surprises me how isolated I feel and although I wouldn’t say I feel low or down, I realise quickly that this could cause a bit of strain mentally over the next 6 weeks. The other thing that strikes me is that teaching this way feels a bit dull. I’ve always viewed my job as just being showing off with the pinch of intelligence thrown in every now and again. And now, I have no one to show off to. I’m sat at a desk, I’m not up and wandering round a classroom, interacting with my class. The performance aspect of my job feels like it’s gone. The faces I might pull, the voices I’d put on when reading a text, the (bad dad) jokes I might crack or the gestures and body language that are involved in my job are all gone. I miss that already. It’s going to be a real adjustment to make and another thing that will be tough, mentally, over this half term.

I notice another thing as I walk to the car that afternoon too. This sitting at a desk is no good for my knees or ankles! It seems that everything has seized up and I hobble a little to get to my car! I resolve to take some walks round my room when work is being completed tomorrow. Remote learning’s desk based nature does not suit this old fella!

By Thursday it’s noticeable that quite a lot of staff seem to be teaching from home. It makes work an even lonelier place to be, but I can fully understand why you’d do it. No commute, for starters. But for me, with two high school aged children doing remote lessons and my wife working from home, I think the distractions would prove too much, not to mention the risk that technology might just fail me there too, as it did for almost the whole of the first lockdown.

Looking ahead, Friday will be the day when I’m most likely to work from home. I only have one lesson, meaning I’d be finished by 11.30 and provided I had at least my Monday planned, I could have a free afternoon to maybe sort out a few things around the house or even go for a long run, depending on the weather. Or I might to just take the chance to indulge myself in even more planning or creating resources! Or Netflix. There’s always Netflix!

As for the first Friday of lockdown, it would be hard to describe it as anything short of fun. We have a staff briefing – containing news of I think, the fourth different way of doing a register this week – which brings us up to speed about developments in the way we’re doing things. And that’s something to consider, if you’re unaware of how schools work (and especially if you’re one of those people who seems to have dedicated their life to criticising teachers). Things are changing by the hour in schools and of course with the guidance we receive about teaching in the pandemic.

We have regular briefings, daily bulletins and a raft of emails to get through in order to keep up to speed. With that brings the necessity to change what we’re doing or how we’re doing it on a regular basis. So you might spend hours planning a lesson and then just have to abandon it for something else or find a different way of doing it. The impact on our students can’t be underestimated either. While you might imagine sitting at home listening to your teacher talk you through a lesson would be simple and straightforward, you’d be wrong. Some kids are genuinely struggling with the stress of it all and even logging on to the Teams call leaves them terrified. Some don’t have the technology. For some, their internet connection means they’re regularly crashing out of the lesson and struggling to keep up. As a teacher, it’s my job to just act as if all of this is the most normal thing in the world, stay calm and make learning as interesting, fun and stress free as I can. And already, I can feel it’s taking its toll. By 10am on Friday, part way through a lesson, I’m yawning and rubbing my eyes. I genuinely feel like I could close my eyes and sleep.

However, I’m not looking for sympathy. Being able to teach remotely is still a privilege. I do get some interaction with my students and today’s Year 9 lesson is successful and in all honesty, a bit of a joy really. We get through the work, but we laugh together regularly too and that feels like I’m lightening the load a little for both my students and myself.

After that, I fill my afternoon with various tasks – from tidying up both the room and the storeroom and recycling old worksheets to responding to the work that students have sent in and planning things for next week.

It’s been a frenetic kind of week. Lots of planning, lots of reading various pieces of guidance or information on students, subjects and protocol and a full week of remote lessons. I imagined that lockdown and remote learning, bringing with it the promise of no actual students to deal with, would be easier and quite a relaxing way to spend my working days. It isn’t. It’s stressful and frustrating at times, infuriating at others. But it also has a feelgood factor. The fact that hundreds of students are logging on and listening to our lessons, contributing to online discussion and then sending their work in is a truly wonderful thing.

I end the week very tired. I feel like I’ve learned a lot though and I can definitely say that I’ve enjoyed myself. It’s very strange working on my own for long periods of time in a classroom that would normally have up to 30 students plus support assistants in for a lesson. There’s barely a noise now. I’ve seen my friends even less than usual and been left a bit forlorn when they’ve been working at home. And did I mention that it’s freezing cold, like working in a walk-in freezer? Here’s to 5 more weeks, at least!

Stay safe everyone!

Seven Reasons Why This Grinch Loves Christmas!

I’m going to start this post by addressing a little gripe of mine. It’s about my reputation. Or at least the reputation that I feel like I’ve picked up over the years. It seems that some people – colleagues, students, even some friends and family (even my wife) – regard me as a little bit grumpy. And when I say a little bit, I just mean grumpy. Very grumpy.

Personally, I don’t think I deserve my reputation. I’m not grumpy. Not anymore than anyone else I would imagine. I’m not relentlessly happy either, but I certainly wouldn’t refer to myself as grumpy. In fact, the fact that people refer to me as grumpy simply makes me feel…well…grumpy.

I think my problem is that I’m more of a realist than some would like. Maybe even too honest, when honesty is not what people are looking for. So if someone asks how I am, while most of the time I’m happy to toe the line and tell them I’m good, there may well be other times when I’ll tell them that actually I’m really tired, or that I’m sick of work, or that I just can’t be bothered to be doing what’s asked of me – I’ll always do it though. Similarly, as a coach or at work, if something needs to be pointed out to a kid as a bit of a target I’m not afraid to let them know.

I don’t believe in relentless positivity for relentless positivity’s sake. and I don’t walk around whistling show tunes or constantly grinning. But that doesn’t make me grumpy.

I’m writing this blog the night before our last day at work before the end of term break for Christmas. Tomorrow will be Christmas jumper day, so at this point I should add that my Christmas jumper features a huge picture of The Grinch on the front. Consequently, and no doubt also because people have just got the wrong impression, it has been known for a few people to actually refer to me as The Grinch. And yes, when they joke about it and point to the image on the front, I don’t laugh. It’s not a lack of a sense of humour and it’s not being grumpy; it’s just that stating the blindingly obvious isn’t very funny. In actual fact, the joke is on those who make the joke.

So then, now we’ve shattered the illusion, it’s time to let you know why this Grinch loves Christmas. Some of the reasons are predictable and obvious and others aren’t, but here we go.

  1. Christmas films. (Or Christmas movies if your grasp of English isn’t that great or your American) Not exactly a revelation this one, eh? I mean lots of people love Christmas films., so maybe I’m stating the obvious here. Christmas films are truly special though. You only watch them at Christmas, unless you’re trying to gain a reputation as a bit of a ‘character’ and they’re about the kind of stuff that we’re all doing anyway (apart from Home Alone and Die Hard – although I’ll put it on the record right here and now that the only time I run riot in a white vest is at Christmas), but still surely everybody gets at least a bit of a warm glow when watching them. Some of them aren’t even that good, yet we’ll sit through them and maybe even get a little teary-eyed at what’s unfolding in front of us. The Polar Express is a prime example here. I have to admit that while we watch it every Christmas Eve and it’s an obviously lovely film, there are periods of that film where I’ve just lost track and it’s just dragging. It genuinely feels like a 7 hour film. But if I’m cuddled up with one of my children, maybe sipping on a hot chocolate and watching some feel-good Christmas film (it might even be The Grinch, just for the sake of irony), I’m relaxed and I’m very, very happy.
  2. Decorated Houses. Now, to be clear, I’m not one those people who has every inch of the house covered in lights and twelve foot tall Christmas figures stood in the front garden. However, there’s definitely something about houses in the street or those around us being lit up that will make me feel a lot more festive. It’s genuinely astonishing the amount of effort that some people go to and I for one appreciate it greatly. Over the past few years, largely driven by my wife, we’ve gradually built up the lights and decorations around our house. We have lights in the tree in our front garden, others in some of the shrubs and we have light up candy canes bordering the drive. Or at least we did have light up candy canes until the whole unit dropped from the box as I was putting them out this year and broke. So now we just have candy canes. They still look great though. On top of this we also have a new addition; a projector on the front lawn that casts festive images on to the front of our house. Tacky? I’m not sure, but as I park the car on the drive after a long day at work and see it all in full flow it’s a sight that gladdens my heart. And it’s another reason to believe that perhaps I’m not the Grinch after all.
  3. Squinting at the Christmas tree. Yep, you read that right. It might seem a bit weird, but it’s something I always do and it always makes me feel happy. There’s no great explanation here. When it’s night time and we have the Christmas tree lit up, I like to stare at the lights and find that if I squint a bit it makes them appear a bit bigger and brighter. I just think it’s a lovely sight. Just me? I expect so, but if you’ve never tried it then give it a go. And if you don’t like it then maybe it’s you who’s the Grinch!
  4. Giving Gifts. Firstly, let’s get this out of the way. I absolutely love getting presents. Me and my wife still spoil each other rotten at Christmas and I still find it very exciting seeing what I’ve been bought. That might seem a little bit immature, but personally I think it’s just very normal. Surely we all like opening presents? I genuinely prefer giving though and it feels like I always go over the top. We’re lucky enough to be able to treat our children well at Christmas and it’s always a lovely feeling watching them open their presents. I still get a lot of pleasure out of shopping for my wife though. We have a budget, but I think we both overspend anyway! I like planning what I’m going to buy and trying to come up with things that my wife wouldn’t suspect she’s going to get and I feel like after all of the years we’ve been together. more often than not, I get it at least reasonably right! I still, as any bloke should, make sure that I ask for gift receipts though!
  5. Family. Again, nothing too startling here. Christmas is well known as a time for family and like lots of people, I enjoy getting together with mine. I’d include friends in that as well. I’ve lived away from my home city of Newcastle since I was 23 – so a long time! I love going home though. Every Christmas we visit family and friends and it’s always fantastic. It’s nice sitting in my parents house and just chatting and it’s lovely being treat like a bit of a kid again! We usually go out for a family meal and it’s brilliant seeing my kids with their grandparents as it’s something that doesn’t happen that often. We also always visit our oldest friends in their home and again, it’s lovely just to sit and chat (we usually do a lot of festive moaning about our families and children, but that’s besides the point) and always a bit of a tragedy when you realise how late it’s got and that it’s time to head back down the motorway to home. In fact, it’s almost the final sign that Christmas has come to an end and who wants that?
  6. The Annual Trip to The Panto! Now pantomime is a particularly British tradition, so it might need a bit of explaining. Panto (or pantomime to give it its full title) is best described as a play, but with more songs, farce and general silliness! It’s an occasion for the whole family and they are always hugely popular. They often involve celebrities playing handsome princes or beautiful princesses who have got themselves into a bit of trouble. There’s always a bad guy or two, but with a bit of singing, dancing and audience participation, everything gets resolved and often the handsome prince and princess live happily ever after together. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a recipe for a brilliant festive night out. We’re lucky here i Yorkshire as we have one of the best pantos in Britain at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford and for the last six or seven years we’ve gone along on the first Saturday of the Christmas holidays to watch the evening show. Over the years we’ve watched a Nolan sister, one of Steps, Christopher Biggins, Gareth Gates, a Chuckle Brother and Simon Webb of boyband Blue fame; all throwing themselves into a bit of panto fun. But they all take second place to the true star of the show, the legend that is Billy Pearce who always gets the audience shouting and singing along as well as laughing uproariously with some of the daftest jokes you’re ever likely to hear. It’s always a brilliant evening – I even enjoyed the one where I spent most of the evening in the foyer with my son who was sick all over my shoes and had to leave the auditorium in a bit of a hurry! Still, even the actual Grinch would love the panto.
  7. The Last Day of Christmas Term. As a teacher, I love the last day of any term, but the last one before Christmas always feels particularly special. It’s generally just a hugely relaxed atmosphere and there is little if any teaching attempted, with watching Christmas films being more the order of the day. It really feels like everyone is happy and with staff in Christmas jumpers and snacks galore to go around, it’s always a fantastically enjoyable day.

So there you have it. Although I might well have a reputation for being a tiny bit Grinchy, I still very much love Christmas and I’d love to hear what everyone else’s favourite parts of the most wonderful time of the year are, so let me know in the comments!

Happy Christmas everyone!

Heart ops, Strava groups and 7am starts – how I fell in love with running again.

Looking back, I’ve been a runner most of my life. From scratch races around our estate and school sports days, cross countries and a brief dalliance with a running club I’ve always done it. And I’ve always loved it.

I was born with several heart problems. The main one was a hole in the heart, but there were a few other things that when combined, put my life at risk. As a child, up until the age of about 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had open heart surgery at a young age when such a thing was very much still in its infancy. I was weak, scrawny and described by my surgeon as “a very poorly little boy”.

I got through, but for a long time I stayed as very much that same scrawny little boy. I don’t know whether my illness contributed, but I took a long time to really grow and always found myself playing catch up with kids of my own age. I was forever skinnier and until I was about 16 years old, I was shorter too. Where any kind of sport was concerned it didn’t bother me a bit. I was always doing some kind of actvity, and while I may not have been the best, I was prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.

In terms of running, I had a bit of an advantage from quite an early age. I seemed to have decent pace in sprints and about enough stamina to hold my own at longer distances. But I was never quite good enough to make me really happy. I still really enjoyed running though. However, always being not quite good enough began to get to me in the end and I would suffer mentally while running, whether it was a race or I was just out on a training run. Nothing terrible, just a bit of what I saw as a weakness. I’d drift off, losing focus on what I was doing and begin to hear my own voice often telling me I’d done enough, or that I was far too tired and that I should just stop and walk. As time went on I began to just lose interest. In the end on one of the final times that I entered the Great North Run (a famous UK half marathon) I had a bit of a shocker! I had trained sporadically and ended up just putting faith in the fact that I’d done the race enough times before to be able to know what I was doing. It didn’t turn out that way.

To compound my lack of fitness, it was a really sunny day and I got sunstroke. By the time I’d finished I found talking difficult and was slurring my words. I’d arranged to meet my then girlfriend – and now wife – along with, I think my mam and dad, at a certain point away from what would be a crowded finish area once I’d finished. However, by the time I arrived I think they were considering sending out a search party! I vaguely remember asking a man on the baggage bus where our meeting point was but really not understanding his explanation, such was the state I was in. In the end, I gathered my thoughts somewhat and just staggered in the general direction of where I felt it was and finally found my welcoming party. After that, I remember being forced to drink a lot of water and then falling asleep on the back seat of the car, draped across my girlfriend’s lap. I genuinely don’t remember much at all about the actual run.

Needless to say, the whole experience put me off running for quite a while and it was a long time before I found the motivation to start running seriously again. However, to cut a long story short, I got motivated enough to do one final Great North Run (my 6th) in order to exorcise those particular demons, ran it in a decent time, proved a point to myself and then more or less gave up running for a number of years.

Until my mid to late 40s I didn’t really run again much at all. And then – as has been documented in a few previous blogs – heart problems struck again and I decided that I needed to get fit. As far as I was concerned I’d had a gentle brush with death and wasn’t prepared to sit around and allow my body to go to seed any longer. So I ran for my life.

Even then my running was relatively sporadic. I’ve always been particularly prone to niggling injuries and sadly it’s always been something that I’ve allowed to put me off. I think as I’ve got older I’ve got mentally weaker in terms of levels of determination and used small injuries, colds etc. as a good enough excuse to duck out of a run or two. But then something else happened that completely changed my outlook and fortunately allowed me to make my body a great deal fitter and stronger.

When Coronavirus struck, I ran. Simple as that. Being told that I was particularly vulnerable to the virus and then watching how dangerous it could be, made me think. I needed to be as fit and as strong as possible. I had to be prepared to fight. So I fought. And this time I fought properly.

By March of this year I was in lockdown and unable to work. I genuinely didn’t know what I’d do to get through the initial four weeks that I was going to be away from work. So when schools closed and Joe Wicks decided that he’d run a live family fitness class every morning of lockdown, I jumped on it.

Initially it was our whole family. But when my four weeks turned into 6 months, things got busier for the rest of the family. My kids were being schooled remotely (until my then Year 6 son went back to actual school) and my wife was working from home. This left me, pig-headedly doing a Joe Wicks workout every morning at 9am and without realising it for a while, getting much fitter and stronger into the bargain. Suddenly one morning while having a shave I noticed the appearance of actual muscles on my arms, across my shoulders and chest and thought, well this is a bit different!

After a few weeks I felt fitter than I had in years and so started getting into the habit of finishing a workout and then heading out for a run on at least a couple of occasions in a week. And what a difference a bit of strength makes! A couple of weeks later and I was beating personal bests every time that I went out. If I ran 3km on the Tuesday, then I’d run 3.5km on the Thursday, until I was regularly running a 5k after a couple of workouts per week. Just over a year ago, I started to do Park Run and after a couple recorded a 5km personal best of 28 minutes and 56 seconds. That was enough to give me an excuse to stop again! Now, after a few months of going out running, that personal best has been broken several times and now stands at 24.48. Who knew that being actually, properly fit could make such a difference!

Clearly, taking fitness seriously has really worked for me. As someone who’s thought of himself as a runner for years, I’ve now realised that this is actually the fittest I’ve been in probably 25 years and at the same time, the best I’ve been at running! Other commitments mean that I have to limit my running to twice a week, but I find myself getting quite giddy in the lead up to a run. I can’t wait to leave work on a Thursday so that I can get home, stretch and then go for a run with my son. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed, but it’s definitely a mild addiction.

Recently, because of new lockdown rules, grassroots sport was cancelled and I usually coach an Under 12s football team. Armed with the knowledge of what the last lockdown did to my team, I was quick to put in a plan. And armed with a new fitness regime, it was always going to involve running!

The last lockdown meant that the only contact I had with many of my players was via a parents WhatsApp group and all that I could really do was check how they were. It also meant that by the time they returned to football, months later, many of them were really out of shape. So this time I had a plan.

We’ve set a 5km challenge, meaning that we’re trying to get every kid in a squad of 14 to run at least 5km per week. This will hopefully keep them fit. We’ve formed a club on the Strava app, meaning that we can all check each other’s progress, the kids are getting respect from each other and there’s a good level of challenge as they can see each other’s efforts in the app. As a coach I can keep an eye on who’s doing what and it’s definitely going to help me to pick a team when we’re all back together as, apart from anything else, I’ll know who should have the fitness to last an hour of playing time! While there are some who’ve avoided it, the majority have taken up the challenge and I know that they’ll be in better shape than last time when we finally play again. The whole thing seems to have kept spirits up within the team too and it’s been brilliant to see each of them trying to improve on their efforts. It’s also been a brilliant way for me to test myself and set a good example to my team too. We’ve even got one or two of the mums and dads joining in too, so running has been a bit of a saviour over the last month or so!

Yes, of course I chose my longest run to screenshot!

So where am I at with my running currently then? Well, given everything in my life – and I’ll be honest, my age – I’ve made sure that I only go out and run twice a week. I run on a Thursday evening with my son, simply because that’s when he should have his football training. I also get up ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and go out for a long solo run, while there’s hardly anyone around.

Fitness-wise, this is great. I’ve been out on the last four Sundays and starting with a 5 miler, have progressed up to my latest effort of 8 miles. This is the furthest I’ve probably run in at least 10 years! I have to say, I love it. There’s nothing quite like running through a foggy Yorkshire town at 7am, knowing that it’s more or less just you for streets and streets around! I’m alone with my thoughts, watching day break (sometimes I even see the sun come up, but this is northern England, so it’s a rarity) and just completely relaxed. It hurts, I must admit, but it doesn’t really matter. As I’ve previously explained, I’m much fitter and stronger and so feel that I can recover fairly quickly, where before it might have taken me days of walking like I’d had a blunt object inserted somewhere unpleasant before I was back to feeling even remotely normal. Like I say, it’s amazing what being properly fit will do for you!

The start of a beautiful sunrise during one of my early morning runs.
But sadly, it’s not always as lovely!

If the pandemic allows I plan to run at least one race for charity in 2021, partly to raise money for a heart fund, but also in memory of a couple of friends who we’ve lost this year. It’s been a tough time and I’d really like to be able to give a little bit back. And now I have a way of doing that again.

It feels like a bit of a success story. I’ve rediscovered something that I really loved and feel that I’ve become much, much better at it too. And for a man of my advancing years it’s been a real boost. Given the context of things with a global pandemic, lockdowns, normality being taken away and the fact that we’re unable to see family and friends, I think we all need a bit of a boost. Perhaps, if you feel like having one too, you might go out for a little run and see how it feels? I’d definitely recommend it!