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.

Poetry Blog: Tunnel Vision

This is a poem that I drafted very roughly a couple of days ago. I’d just had some bad news and on top of feeling exhausted with work, sore with a running injury, sick and tired of living with Covid restrictions and worried about various other matters in everyday life, I think I’d just had enough. So, rather than simply explode and kick things about the place I scribbled some thoughts down.

I don’t normally suffer with my moods. I tend to manage to live life on the same level most of the time. I’m rarely too bothered by anything and have always told myself that things will work out, whatever happens to be going on. It’s definitely an advantage of being such a simpleton! However, over the last few weeks lots of things seem to have been bothering me and it sees to have all piled up and caused a bit of a bad mood logjam. Not the end of the world and at least it’s meant that I can be creative.

Here’s the poem.

Tunnel Vision

Feral dogs gather, sensing blood, teeth bared
snarling, putting a tentative foot forward,
circling without grace, eyeing you constantly
until they finally snap and leave their mark.

Every ache and pain nags and presents a new question,
crowds the mind, leaving a feeling of fog
until you feel like lashing out with a primal scream
from somewhere deep inside that you've never found before.

Questions, although answered time and again
remain, echoing back and forth, disrupting sleep
to pick away at the scab that they created,
allowing it to spread to unchartered territory.

Tunnel vision is adopted, just to get through seconds, minutes
as something hidden in the shadows threatens to grind you to a halt
like hazard lights on the motorway, just as the urge for freedom and speed 
is at its highest.

Searching for a way to break the cycle and feel a sense 
of achievement, or at least a moment's blessed relief
from the sheer boredom and strangely gargantuan effort
needed to just keep going.

Writing this helped. It’s very easy to sit and moan at anyone who’ll listen, but I much prefer to keep things to myself. It’s a mixture of embarrassment and just the thought that I don’t really want to burden anyone with my troubles. Especially as most of the time I feel like I’m exaggerating in even labelling certain things as ‘troubles’. I know that lots of people have things much, much harder than I do. And as I said earlier, I’m reasonably happy to get through and operate under the assumption that any mood will pass and that things will get better.

In the poem, I’ve tried to describe how I felt; as if the thoughts, the worries were circling me, taking turns at bothering me and bothering me on various levels and with various results. Hence the ‘feral dogs’ line which I felt summed up the fact that I didn’t feel like I had complete control at times and didn’t feel that I could just dismiss things. Those thoughts just kept coming back, biting me.

If it helps, or it’s of any interest, I think I feel better today. I’m just keeping myself busy and it definitely helps that the weather is great, I’ve been able to get out for a run and that the Euro 2020 international football tournament has just started. Like I say, I’m happy to keep things simple.

I hope you liked the poem – ‘enjoyed’ might be a stretch I suppose! Whatever your thoughts, feel free as ever, to let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Poetry Blog: ‘Distance.’

This is a poem that I rediscovered while going through a notebook recently. It’s about my sister and our relationship. I wouldn’t say that we’ve had a difficult relationship, but it’s not one that’s been particularly straighforward. It’s not that we don’t get on; it’s just that we’re quite different characters. I’m sure lots of siblings are exactly the same.

There’s a six year age gap between us and so, at times growing up it felt like we had little in common other than parents. It was just too much of a difficult age gap. There was and still is no shortage of love, but we just turned out very different and I think that meant that the bond wasn’t all that it could have been. I got thinking about it recently when I heard that my sister was ill and it led to me writing the poem and in a way reassessing how we are with each other and also realising how lucky I am to have her and how important she’s always been for me.

Distance

From the line where we started there was always a distance.
You were independent, strong, theirs long before me.
Later, when fate made me weak, doctors kept us apart and the distance grew.
You closed the gap as we got to know each other better,
looked after me, a fierce lioness to my runt of the litter.
Teenage kicks widened the gap again to a chasm 
and you were out more often than in.
Your influence remained even when you weren't around
as your music became mine, throwing me those White Lines
and an everlasting Motown lifeline.

Around this time you revealed to us your terrible taste in men
as a series of terrible choices took you away some more
and made you seem like a stranger.
No longer the apple of anyone's eye, especially not mine,
who, worldly wise at the grand old age of twelve was the perfect judge;
a pre-teen with a puritanical moral compass.
How that would change as we grew and underwent a role reversal.
At twenty one the bad choices still hung around as you set off, 
no more than a child, to become an adult,
from Miss to Mrs in the blink of an eye, my fierce, happy lioness just gone.
You were there, but not really...

My own growth widened the gap some more; a Grand Canyon of taste, 
culture, views and choices. And despite your own bad record, 
you were there to pick up the pieces when I made the wrong choice myself.
And, when I was too young to cope with loss you scooped me up, held me so tightly that it physically hurt yet emotionally helped and I endured the pain just to feel safe again.
Eventually it was geography that would create another mystery; the one that says
you cannot close a gap when neither of you will pick up the phone.
It's one we're still trying lazily to unravel.

Now the first knock on a particular door, the one that we were scolded just for mentioning when we were kids, brings the news that we had always expected with age and I'm a kid again,
grasping for words, gasping for air, unable to cope and looking to you for comfort me,
unfailingly, predictably.
The realisation that those gaps need to be closed hits me like a sledgehammer.
Forget the choices, forget the gaps, move on from the past and hope
that we can make the best of whatever future might remain.

I’m not sure there’s much else I can say about this poem. It feels like quite an emotive thing to write about and as such, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m not sure it really matters whether I think it’s good or bad, but I hope it does my sister and our relationship justice and I think it’ll be a subject matter that I’ll return to.

I’d love – as always – to know what people think, so 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!

Ten Days: an Isolation update.

I wrote a little blog last week about the horrible time we’d had in our house once not one, but two of our family tested positive for Covid-19. There’s a link below, if you fancy a bit of misery! Well, given that we’re still isolating, albeit nearly at the end of our time as a house of hermits, I thought I’d write a little update.

Ironically, it’s not been a positive week at all.

It’s now the Friday after the Wednesday before and it’s been a tiring week, to say the least. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve washed or sanitised my hands and have spent much of the week alone, yet with three other people living in the house. I wouldn’t recommend it.

This time last week we were in the car – a wonderful place to be with two people who’ve just tested positive for any virus, let me tell you – heading to a drive in test centre on the outskirts of Leeds. We would still be in the car couple of hours later, at a third test centre after a mix up with the system led to us basically embarking on some kind of grand tour of some of the less salubrious bits of our locality. Believe me, you’ve not lived until you’ve driven down a dead end street in Beeston to be confronted by someone sat in the gutter in their pyjamas looking less than enthusiastic about life, yet somehow oblivious to your car performing a hasty three point turn and screeched getaway. And while I don’t wish to be too ‘judgy’ I suspect the involvement of drugs.

Tests duly taken, the two positive results were confirmed the day after and so began a week extreme caution, constant alert and an undeniable sense of paranoia. Oh, and from a purely selfish point of view, it’s been a week when I haven’t been able to get out for a run, which has felt horrible and also means that when I do get back out, it’s going to hurt! I haven’t exercised and I’ve had a beer almost every night, so I’m preparing myself for a painful 10k sometime soon!

We decided very quickly that we wouldn’t be able to isolate fully. This was going to have to be an isolation from the outside world, rather than one where two people were locked away in bedrooms and I waited on them. This wasn’t me shirking responsibility, more the need for the four of us to stick together as a family. When one of the ‘positives’ is an 11-year-old boy and the other his mum, locking them away just didn’t seem to be fair.

So we’ve spent the week opening doors with sleeves over our hands, bottles of hand sanitiser dotted around the place and, worst of all, relying on me to do the majority of the cooking. That said, when my wife was feeling up to it she took over those duties, mainly to stop the rest of us from suffering. We’ve also developed a very delicate way of maneuvering around the house in almost balletic fashion, avoiding getting too close to each other, remaining vigilant, taut and balanced; keeping a more than safe distance without appearing too rude to the other person. It’s been a difficult thing to do and I must admit, it’s made me feel pretty terrible. When you can’t hug your wife or children before they go to bed, it’s a horrible feeling.

In order to confront a big issue with contact, I decided that I’d sleep downstairs in our living room for the whole of the isolation period. Sharing a bed and a confined space just seemed like a silly idea and an invitation for the virus to send me multiple invites to its nasty little party.

I spent the first night with only a few blankets for a mattress and a couple of dressing gowns for covers, due to the fact that we had to make our arrangements late and remembered that our camping mattresses were locked away in a shed. That particular luxury would have to wait until daylight hours. Suffice to say, I woke up on Thursday morning feeling like I’d been away on a two week stag do in Eastern Europe…and decided to run home to save money on a flight. Not a great start, but the inflatable mattress has somewhat alleviated the problem.

I’ve found however, that sleeping so close to the floor is not so good for my asthma and while I’ve slept quite well most nights, I’ve still woke up the next day feeling various shades of rough! For the first few nights I secretly popped upstairs to check on my patients in the small hours, standing in the dark just listening to their breathing in order to calm myself. Not a nice place to be. That said, had either of them woke up and switched on a light, I’m sure the sight of me would have been just as traumatic.

My wife and son have recovered in varying levels across the week. My son; young, fit, healthy, has been relatively OK. While his first few days were worrying to watch, his latter part of the week has just seen him look a bit more tired than usual and with the occasional headache. If you’re going to get Coronavirus, get it when you’re 11, seems to be the way forward here. My wife has been worse and it’s been hard to watch. She’s always been so healthy and so watching a shadow of the person I love shuffling round the house has not been good. And there’s not a lot I can do. She’s been nauseous, extremely tired and suffered terrible headaches. There were times in the first few days when I’d pop to our bedroom to check on her to find her passed out on our bed. Sleeping, but positioned as if she’d just fallen and gone out cold. So at that point, things were a bit worrying.

My son testing positive meant that several of his friends had to isolate too and some of them played for the same football team. This is the very same football team that I coach. So, with a game to come within a week, I contacted the opposition coach, who also happens to be kind of a big deal in our league, in order to try and reschedule our game. We were faced with having to play with 8 players at most in a 9-a-side game, after all. Simple decision, right? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong and then after that, wronger. I actually spent the next three days, messaging and emailing back and forth with various people and basically pointing out how ridiculous it would be to ask us to go ahead with the game. In the end I made them see sense, but only after a monumental amount of time and effort. Ridiculous really, but we got what we wanted in the end. As id to emphasis the need to reschedule, the game would have been last night and we trained instead with the friend who helps out taking the session. We had more players drop out and the session had 5 players taking part. So we would have had to try and play a game with 5 players!

As a result of all the unnecessary fuss, I can’t wait to see the opposition coach when we do play, as he seemed to be hell-bent on denying us the chance to just compete on equal terms. I expect he’s made the game take on much more meaning and importance than it ever had! All this for a game of Under 12s football! And all this while my son and wife were very ill.

So, in among all of the positive test news and the poorly people, this little bit of side-tracking just wasn’t needed. Meanwhile, after a fraught weekend, it was now Monday and my patients were beginning to show signs of recovery. Which was nice.

Monday meant more Teams teaching for me – a Year 11 lesson and one with Year 9. And on Monday, this felt like quite a nice novelty really. Fast forward a day and I was tiring fast. Peering into a laptop screen and attempting to teach a class while self-consciously looking at yourself on screen was little or no fun. And boy was it hard work. I quickly lost count of the amount of times I was having to repeat the on screen instructions or explain that, no I wasn’t going to be able to come into work. No matter how many times the phrase ‘self-isolation’ was mentioned, it just didn’t seem to hit home!

By Wednesday it was taking ten minutes for a class to write the date, title and learning purpose and I was shattered with the confusion of it all. Working from home has always sounded such a nice prospect, but the reality for me was that it was exhausting and incredibly frustrating. While attempting to teach my classes I have been having to jump off the call from time to time to check on my two poorly people as well as my isolating daughter and her school work. Working from home has been the least favourite part of my week.

We arrived at Thursday and I decided that a lie in was needed. My own Thursday promised to be a bit more relaxed as I didn’t have a class in the morning and because of Eid, my afternoon group were being collapsed into another, meaning in all likelihood, a free afternoon as well. Oh, and before people think that I got up late, my lie in was until 6.45am, just so we’re clear!

The morning was pleasantly sunny and my wife seemed to be feeling a lot better, albeit it in a Covid relative kind of way. She was even going to attempt some work, something that she’d done on a number of occasions during the week and that had made her decidedly ill along the way. But, taking the sun as some kind of optimistic cue, she set herself up in our bedroom (or for this week only, her bedroom) and got to work. Meanwhile, I got the lawnmower out and cut our back lawn, wrestling (not literally) with various types of animal poo along the way – I think some is cat poo, but have been left wondering if we may have a fox visiting at night times as well.

I got a lot done on Thursday, including having a socially distanced chat with a friend on our driveway, which to be honest, was a bit bizarre. Just the experience of talking to someone (who by the way, I’d spoken to only last week, as he helps me with the coaching of the football team) who wasn’t in our house was both strange and exciting.

By the way, my wife’s work on Thursday ended up with her lying prostrate on our bed with her head covered in a duvet, exhausted and suffering from everything being too bright. I discovered this when I popped up to ask her not to push herself too far. It seems I missed the deadline by about 30 minutes and she’d had just about enough strength left to put the laptop on the floor before she just flaked out. It’s clear that the virus still has a bit of a hold on her.

And so to today, Friday. The two patients are doing as well as can be expected. My son in fact, who comes out of isolation today, seems very much over the virus. In fact, I can hear him now jumping around in the front room while playing X-Box, while shouting at the television. So, touch wood, he’s beaten Covid-19. My wife is working upstairs, but pacing herself. She looks tired, but doesn’t seem to be suffering the headaches, the dizziness, the nausea or anything else that has punctuated her week.

Hopefully, we’re well and truly over the worst. Everyone is very tired, but we’re all looking forward to finding our way back to some sense of normality. I desperately want to be able to hug my wife and son once again. Myself and my son are also looking forward to Sunday and our next game with our football team. We still can’t go out to do the food shopping and I’m going to stick with my cautious approach and stay sleeping downstairs for a little while longer. But things are starting to look a little more normal.

As I type though, there are reports in the U.K. that the Indian strain of the virus is beginning to make quite an imprint here. I’m fairly sure that there’s a Prime Minister’s briefing live on TV tonight with speculation of some kind of further lockdown to come. We’ll wait and see.

Just when you think things are getting back to normal, some other kind of shit hits the fan. That seems to be just the way life is nowadays. I sincerely hope we can get through it all once again.

I have to finish with some thank yous. I’ll start with my work colleagues and friends who have made my week a great deal easier. Resources have been provided for my classes, Teams calls set up, worries alleviated left, right and centre and regular messages sent that have calmed me down no end. Thanks Big Sisters! I also have to say a huge thank my friends David and Sarah who have checked in electronically across the course of the week and just made me and my wife feel better about things. The best friends you could hope for! When we finally do catch up, that’s going to be one hell of a moan-fest! Thanks also to Nigel, my partner in crime at football, who has kept things running as smoothly as possible and gone out of his way to do so. And thanks to anyone who’s a Facebook, Twitter or Blog friend; I’ve received some lovely messages this week.

I hope you enjoy the blog.

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.

Poetry Blog: Big Garden Birdwatch.

Ornithology. Birding. Twitching. Whichever way you look at it, it amounts to the same thing. Bird-watching. And whichever way you look at it, it’s what’s led me to this. The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch; an annual event where those who take part log the birds they spot in their garden across an hour of one of three days in January. What is the world’s biggest bird survey, is something that we’ve taken part in, as a family, for several years now and it never gets any less tense. What should be a bit of fun, counting and identifying the birds in the garden, can actually play havoc with one’s heart rate and blood pressure. Surely, I’m doing it wrong?

While we’ve done it for quite a few years now, we’ve rarely had a really successful one. And by successful, of course I mean dramatic exciting, like an emu leaping the fence and having a go on the trampoline. (Well somebody needs to; ours is reduced to garden sculpture status these days). However, some would say that you’re missing the point if you’re only in it for the drama. The whole point is just to log what you see, however big or small the numbers or birds because that’s what helps the RSPB out. But as with anything, it’s always nice to stand out a little bit.

We have had some more remarkable birds in our garden in the past, but never on the day of the Big Garden Birdwatch. We’ve had a kestrel perch on our fence right next to the window as we were eating dinner at the table. I think we once, briefly, had a sparrowhawk, but its identity was shrouded somewhat by a huge camelia at the back of the garden (get me with my subtle garden based bragging!) and a heron landed on a neighbour’s roof one day. We sporadically have a Great Spotted Woodpecker that visits too. But we’re ‘reduced’ to our regulars more often than not on the day of the BGB. And rightly or wrongly, I’m always a little disappointed.

However, it’s always a bit of a thrill to take part and this year I felt inspired enough to write a poem.

Big Garden Birdwatch

Drawing the curtains, more in hope than anything else,
I'm bouoyed by a blackbird, rallied by a robin.
We plant the feet, scan the immediate horizon and stay as still as we can.
Away we go. A tense hour awaits and maybe this will be all we see.

Armed with a poster to confirm our bird spots and two pairs of binoculars at hand
we scope every inch of the  garden for more.
Every so often something flits across our line of vision, but it's difficult to tell
if it's in our trees or those in the fields behind. This struggle is real.

But then, the pulse rate quickens at the sight of something on a feeder.
We struggle to focus our sights, finding it, but losing it just as quickly. 
And then. There's yellow, no mustard, a black marking...
We check the poster to confirm a coal tit. I was hoping for a vulture.

A period of silence then ensues and we exploit this, taking turns to make breakfast,
keeping one eye, at least, on the prize at all times.
Within minutes, a burst of activity scatters toast and brings a clutch of sparrows,
but no sparrow hawk, a lone blue tit, but no blue macaw or kingfisher.

Suddenly they seem to be everywhere; sparrows scattered around the branches
Only everywhere's a slight exaggeration, but we almost have a five bar gate.
Close, but no cigar. Near, but still a bit too distant.
We mark them on our poster and frown, underwhelmed by our visitors so far.

We scan the garden for anything we've missed. Minutes tick by with nothing but hope.
And then one of our ubiquitous woodpigeons thunks on to a branch gaining our attention.
As I go to make a note a flash of red pulls me back.
A focused gaze shows not only red, but yellow and black - we've struck gold...finch.

These two have strayed from nearer the estate's equator to the frozen North of our silver birch
Never once seen before and probably never to be witnessed again.
From that mighty high, it's all downhill from here.
Typically, a magpie lands and no other species dares enter our birdwatch for the remainder of the hour.

We pack away our equipment and return to the more uniform duties of the day,
the birdwatch over for another year, but a moderate cause for celebration.
No doubt now an eagle will land, perhaps a dodo even,
But outside of our golden hour, although a thrill, none of them would count.

Hopefully, that gives an idea of not just our experience, but the large majority of Big Garden Birdwatch experiences. I imagine lots of us set out hoping for something that we deem ‘exciting’ to happen and in a way, miss the point of the whole thing. It doesn’t matter; I still I’ll always retain that approach!

I think in many ways, that’s what made the appearance of the two goldfinches so good. As I mention in the poem, if I head further down the hill on our estate (south towards the ‘Equator’ if you will) there are certain places where you’ll see them in the trees. But we’ve literally never had them in our garden before. So what a time for them to arrive.

A few notes, if you like, about the poem by way of explanation (or perhaps I’m just trying to sound like a proper poet). I deliberately used alliteration in the second line to convey the sense of excitement in our house at that moment. Myself and my son were first downstairs and we knew we’d be doing the birdwatch, but having done it before and spent an hour seeing two or three birds enter the garden, it was a genuine thrill to see two within a second! So I thought the alliteration there was apt.

The line, ‘The struggle is real’ is sarcastic. I’m laughing at myself a bit there as I do get a bit carried away with BGB day and actually, I shouldn’t be quite so serious as to be surveying the entire family as to whether or not ‘that bird’ is in our tree or another that’s beyond our fence. It’s a dig at my seriousness as much as my eyesight! Middle age means that I can’t accurately see which branches belong where nowadays! A little later on, the lines about a vulture, macaw and kingfisher are the same; me gently mocking myself (and possibly lots of us who do the BGB) and my hopes that something rare will suddenly decide that it needs to visit my particular corner of the planet so it can get ticked off on a survey. I don’t know if I think I’ll achieve some kind of fame and notoriety by being the bloke who spotted the particular bird that no one else saw!

Two other things to explain: the ‘five bar gate’ in the 5th stanza is just a way of keeping score. Four marks on a page and then when you get to a fifth, you cross the four to make a gate. The other thing was the ‘thunk’ of the woodpigeon. This is the noise I like to imagine these ‘thick set’ birds make. I know it’s not as they’re actually quite graceful in real life.

So, I hope you enjoy the poem and I hope that if you are someone who participates in The Big Garden Birdwatch year after year, you can recognise certain things in it. And I don’t just mean birds. Hopefully, the excitement and element of competition is not just to be found in our house!

Close Encounter

Here in the U.K. our first lockdown was quite the experience to go through. It was often eerily quiet with the majority of people unable to work. Large swathes of the population simply stayed indoors and those of us who took our daily exercise allowance found that the streets were often theirs.

Within weeks, people started noticing that in amongst all the quiet, birdsong was prominent. Suddenly, with no traffic noise, the sound of birds singing and chirping became noticeably louder. And I think lots of us found that fantastic. At the time, the weather was great and I can distinctly remember that we would do our Joe Wicks workout from 9am and then afterwards we’d go and do some stretches to warm down in the garden. Listening to the birds at that point become a regular part of our day.

Life has moved on since that point. We’re back in lockdown, but there’s a distinct difference; more people out and about, more cars and less in the way of wildlife as a result. This all changed for a fantastic few minutes for me on a recent Sunday afternoon. The pictures tell the story, but I’ll fill in the gaps. I had been meaning to fill up our bird feeders for a couple of weeks, but just hadn’t got round to it. However, I had a bit of time on this particular Sunday, so I wrapped up and out I went. As soon as I’d done, I felt like I was being watched. And then I heard some beautiful birdsong. Closer inspection of our tree revealed a small bird and when I watched for a further few seconds, I could see it was a robin. What happened next was just lovely and the poem tell the tale for me.

Close Encounter

I hear you before I see you,
a bright chirping preceding your bright feathers,
and then, only feet away, fearless, your red breast makes you known.

The feeders full, you're first to the banquet,
yet it seems you want to pause a while to chat.
I move slowly, but needn't bother as you simply stand and stare,
perfectly relaxed about our meeting despite your vulnerability.

Perhaps you're thanking me for the food.
Perhaps you're just wondering why I'm still here and why this took so long.
I neither know nor care; you've made my day,
brightened a cold and gloomy Sunday afternoon.

Robin. Little bird not even the size of a tennis ball,
yet bold enough to sit within arms length and attempt to hold a conversation,
I could stay here and stare at you for hours.

It doesn’t seem like much happened, but it was just a lovely few minutes. I didn’t even think to write about it until I posted some pictures of the robin on social media and a friend suggested it. Thanks Ruth!

I can’t stress enough just how close this bird got. I think it comes out in the images, but, if it doesn’t it was about three feet away. Close enough to make itself known, but far enough away to show it was still a little wary of me.

At first, as I tried to take pictures, the robin jumped down from the tree and would settle on a branch of a shrub below just long enough for me to see it, and then jump off. It was like it was toying with me. Then, after a minute or so, it just perched on a branch just above head height and started to sing at me, allowing me to click away and take some pictures. Annoyingly, I didn’t think to video it, instead spending a few minutes just watching – and yes, alright, I talked to it as well – before heading back inside, content to leave the robin alone and go and tell my wife about what had just happened.

I’m hoping to see it again and have another chat this weekend. Let me know what you think of the poem in the comments.

How to survive the pandemic – 5 Top Tips that might not be all that serious!

It’s fairly safe to say and certainly not anything new to learn, but it’s been one hell of a year or so. Since news of Covid-19 broke in early January of last year, things have gathered momentum somewhat. As the virus crossed continents our moods changed and then as the world was locked down things plummeted to new lows. And since then, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of decidedly average highs and Mariana trench sized lows.

Here in the UK, we’ve been hit hard and people have been forced to battle to survive not just the virus and it’s various strains, but the boredom and isolation of successive lockdowns as well as the idiotic behaviour of their fellow Brits. As I write news broke just a few hours ago of a school hall in London being hired out and unbeknownst to the school itself, playing host to a wedding where 400 people attended. Thousands have died, but it pales into insignificance at the thought of not having your 3rd cousin’s neighbours and their postman at your wedding, right?

Aside from problems like this, something that has most likely affected a large percentage of people is the sheer boredom of it all. Within weeks I’d painted every fence panel we have as well as our sheds. I’d trimmed shrubs and trees, cut lawns regularly enough that they could have hosted Wimbledon, walked every available route around our town, read book after book, watched television until my eyes hurt, skillfully sidestepped the sensation that became Zoom quizzes and exhausted myself exhausting every possible Joe Wicks video on YouTube. I daresay many of you were exactly the same. Although, perhaps it was just me that approached Zoom quizzes with such grumpiness and cynicism.

As we come up to almost a year of living in a pandemic, it seems boredom is at its absolute zenith. We can’t exercise as much – well not in the northern hemisphere anyway; it’s bloody freezing. And just when you think you’ve pretty much learnt to live with every Covid related u-turn that life throws at you, something else comes along and smacks you right in the chops, sending you back to square one once more. So, I had a little think and I hope that I’ve come up with some top tips that you can try out to make living through the pandemic that little bit more interesting. As usual with me and lists, they’re in no particular order.

Top Tip 1

Simon was determined to have a risk free walk…even if it meant taking the long way round again. Photo by Jenny Uhling on Pexels.com

Perfect your ‘anti-people skills’. Avoidance tactics are never more important than in a pandemic, so these skills include: never venturing near anyone at all, including your own family, walking in zig-zags in order to avoid fellow government sanctioned fitness freaks and fresh air junkies (you may want to never get used to walking on the same side of the road for any more than a few hundred yards), squeezing onto kerbs like a tightrope walker if you can’t get across a road to avoid oncoming humans and holding your breath like a free diver whose life depends on it. Because your life might depend on it.

Top Tip 2

Spotting that a Maths teacher had committed an apostrophe crime, Yvonne stifled a sob and prepared a suitably caustic, mocking email to her colleagues. Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Alleviate the at work boredom by writing sarcastic emails. This is also a lifestyle choice for me personally and there was no need for a pandemic to invoke this as a rule. However, in times of pandemic and as a teacher working alone, isolated all day in a classroom full of desks, chairs but no other humans, a slice of sarcasm often comes in handy. And while not revealing actual subject matter of work based sarcastic emails, I can reveal that the IT department remains, as always, a wonderful target. Always was and always will be. Furthermore, the silly ‘If you had to…’ style email is always a favourite.

Top Tip 3

Shit just got real in Sandra’s house. Someone was knocking at the back gate. Photo by Kony Xyzx on Pexels.com

Alleviate lockdown boredom by turning knocks at the door or tradesmen’s visits into a new and exciting game. We’ve done this for years in our house, as we much prefer not to answer the door to people until we’ve actually sussed out who they are. If you’re a relative you’re probably getting in…depends on the relative. So, in Covid times, imagine there’s a knock at the door or even a visit from the window cleaner. Now role play! Make sure you hide and shush as much as is possible. Shuffle on your front like an expert sniper and try seeing how close you can get to the window without its cleaner detecting your presence. I find chairs and sofas are perfect allies for this game. Try it. Next time there’s a knock at the door or you hear the rattle of a ladder, enter stealth mode and act like there’s a zombie apocalypse. Those confined to barracks hours will simply fly by!

Top Tip 4

These days, Emma found that calling lemons ‘Shit limes’ was her only source of fun. Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

See just how much you can get away with while wearing a mask. Local ruffians breaking lockdown rules and ‘hanging’ outside a closed off license as you walk by on a Boris appointed walk? Don your mask and stick your tongue out at them. Those cheeky scamps deserve your derision. Has a dog jumped up at you while tied up outside your local supermarket? Remember, you’re wearing a mask – it’s mandatory – so you’re free to call said dog a ‘massive arsehole’ or any other insult that you deem necessary. No one can see you doing it, no one could prove a thing. And surely no one’s going to ask if you just called that terrier an arsehole, are they? This game can also be played inside said supermarkets where volume control is your own issue, but the mask will cover your mouth so no one can prove a thing. So if you fancy making snide remarks at those supermarket dawdlers, now’s your time to shine.

Top Tip 5

“Good evening Wembley” cried Ian before pointing and winking at the fridge. “My name is Ian and I’m on a mission to rock!” Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The pandemic, coupled with several lockdown situations, have robbed people of a sense of normal life. We are missing out on many aspects of our social lives and this in turn has had an effect on the mental health of millions of people. Sport continues via almost endless TV coverage but one place that remains largely uncatered for is music. Yes, various bands and solo artists have put on Zoom gigs, but it’s not the same as the excitement of attending the real thing. So I have a solution. Kitchen gigging. Put simply, ask Alexa to play songs by your chosen artist and then sing along. Are you in the band or the audience? The choice is yours, my friend. Me? Usually the singer, as you ask, but I play a mean bass guitar too. You may want to factor in other additions to add realism here, otherwise or you’re literally just singing along to songs next to a sink. My sources tell me that footstools make great front of stage monitors, brooms or mops are ideal microphone stands, while a pile of distant balloons and a squint can give the illusion of a passable audience. They tell me that the key here is to have a large enough space to dance or throw other wild shapes, a vivid imagination, no shame or dignity and to remember that the words aren’t important; this is a live gig so you’re free to go ‘off piste’ as it were with the lyrics. You can even pause said device for a bit of pre-song banter with your ‘crowd’ for added fun. My sources also tell me that this is a whole host of fun, it’s extremely cool and that even in middle age, you can play the pretend rock god. Obviously, I have to take their word for it…

So there you have it. Just when you thought you might allow the share size crisps and 12 packs of lager to seduce you into extraordinary levels of lockdown weight gain, I give you five tips to help you get through our current crisis!

I’d love hear what people thought, so feel free to let me know in the comments. Similarly, if you have a go at window cleaner zombie role play or insult the odd dog, let me know how it went. And if you have any tips of your own, I’m a very keen listener! I hoped you enjoyed the blog!

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!