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Weeks 6 and 7: Friends, felines and funtimes

Regular readers of my blog (hello to you both) will have noticed a distinct lack of waffle last weekend. Those of you who still haven’t got around to muting my feed will have been relieved at the absence of humble brag photos depicting sun, sea and sand, and will have no doubt hoped I was now home. I’d like to say that the reason for the lack of diary entry last week was we were having far too good a time – which is mostly true – but actually we were nursing broken hearts (more on which below) and weren’t yet ready to talk about it. 

Before all this our friend Karen joined us for a few days in the Algarve, and since Oma only sleeps two, we created a cosy nest in the garage, complete with blow up bed, several rugs and blankets, a lamp and a spider plant. Not everybody perhaps would be game enough to sleep in the “hold” but Karen took it in her stride and even claimed to quite enjoy her accommodation. 

The coastline around here is truly stunning. Azure ocean sparkles against ochre cliffs, jutting against a sky so bright and blue it hurts the eyes. The light is beautiful too and the whitewashed buildings with their terracotta roofs, tiled windowsills and brightly coloured doors soak it up and reflect it back. We paddled in the surf and explored caves, whilst I was the only one woman enough to brave the Atlantic and swim (it’s cold).

Further coast hugging took us to Europe’s most westerly point (that’s two points of the compass now bagged, the other two being in various place in Russia, and for another time), after which we started slowly heading north. 

And then we met Nugget. Within minutes of this little black and white scamp bounding into the bus and demanding tuna, we were smitten. We spent two nights in his company, during which time he barely left our laps, chests, shoulders – indeed anywhere he could get a cuddle. Abandoned six weeks earlier by people visiting the area (how?? Why?? It’s beyond belief), this little cat has made the campsite his home and feline-friendly motorhomers his prey. He ate us out of tuna, prawns and ham, and had us seriously looking into the bureaucracy of transporting kittens across countries (I think Brexit was less complicated). 

Sadly, it was not to be, and with heavy hearts and not a few tears, we bid him farewell, hoping it won’t be too long before a kind-hearted EU citizen welcomes him aboard their bus and to a new home. Yes, we are soft, and yes, we are missing our cats.

With Karen now departed we headed north to Vila Nova de Milfontes, a curiously named but delightful seaside resort where delicious food and a beautiful beach helped soothe our souls. Cocktails helped too.

From there we drove through miles and miles of cork forests (who knew that was a thing?!) before a quick stop off in Sesimbra and onward to Lisbon. We’ve been looking forward to this as it’s a real foodie destination.

In 2014, Time Out magazine created the first of its food markets in Lisbon (there are now others in London, Prague and several cities in the States), curating the best food and drink from across the city’s many hundreds of restaurants and bars to the delight of weary tourists confused by the array of choice (and weary of the city’s seven hills). It’s a brilliant concept and very fun, ordering as you do small plates from the 40 or so different vendors and then bagging a seat at one of the communal tables. We went twice – once on Friday night, when we definitely drank and ate too much, and again on Saturday, where we were slightly more restrained and needed something to cushion the hangover. All delicious.

On Sunday we again got an Uber into the city and jumped on to the iconic number 28 tram, which rattled its way (and our bones) up the tiny cobbled streets before depositing us at a gorgeous vista where the Tejo River sparkled invitingly below. Fortified by coffee, ginjinha (the local sour cherry spirit) and cocktails we wobbled our way around Alfama and towards the Santa Justa lift, which costs five euros and takes you about thirty feet to an area that can we reached on foot. Feeling somewhat touristed, we found instead a rooftop bar where at least you got a drink for your money, and the view was spectacular. The terracotta rooftops and the pastel coloured buildings glow with the setting sun – it’s truly beautiful.

It now being mid-November (how did this happen? How is it 25 degrees outside and there are Christmas decorations in the streets?) we now need to start to wend our way north fairly sharpish, stopping at some wineries en route, and come home. We’ll bring the booze.

Week 4: Seville and chill

To say that Spain is rather beautiful is something of an understatement. Our lazy cross-country journey this week has taken us past miles upon miles of olive groves, blanketing the gentle rolling hills like a patchwork quilt. A breakfast stop at an olive oil factory resulted in cupboardfuls of bottles of grass-green nectar (plus a fridge magnet) and full bellies from the enormous hunks of tostada and iberico jamon. Once out of olive country we meandered past fields of cotton and then orchards of orange trees.

Having experienced one of the most jaw-dropping sunsets I’ve ever seen, we pitched up at Dos Hermanas (two sisters, don’t know whose) for a few days, to relax, recharge (both ourselves and the van’s batteries) and, most importantly, do some laundry. I was delighted to find the pool still open and it was very much needed as the thermometer crept up to 33 degrees.

We chose this campsite as it’s a short bus ride from Seville, a city we’ve been looking forward to visiting. Starting off at Plaza de España, we gaped in wonder at the stunning architecture, the porcelain balustrades, mosaiced cobblestones, the ornate tiled benches and the rainbow-casting fountain in the centre. Huge coy carp swam lazily through the crystal clear waterway, on which you could hire a rowboat if you didn’t feel like you might burst into flame at any given moment. A tireless flamenco dancer strutted on a balcony, his wooden heels competing with the Spanish guitar nearby. Glorious.

We then walked past the Real Alcazar (the city’s royal palace) and started to wend our way through tiny streets hosting restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and art galleries. You don’t get through this city quickly. On every corner and in each of the numerous piazzas and squares is another delicious tapas bar or shop selling some delight such as nougat, artisan chocolate, pastries or other tempting treat. As has become our habit, we also had to frequent most of the tat shops to stock up on fridge magnets and postcards. I was disappointed not to find a matador’s costume for my nephew, but I shall continue to look.

Despite not getting very far we managed to walk a solid 15,000 steps, according to Samsung Health, a number that caused Ben to turn quite ashen, but we made up for it the next day by barely moving from the poolside/chairs, our most strenuous effort being to keep my laptop out of the sun, string up a few fairy lights and slap away a few flies.

From Seville we took the motorway south to the coast, headed for friends in Sotogrande. We’re currently parked up in their driveway, atop a steep hill that overlooks the Rock of Gibraltar and, in the distance, Africa. It’s a stunning view, and much less built up than the north coast. Yesterday I had my first proper sea swim (warm and wavy!) and ended the day collecting seashells on the beach before a delicious dinner. This week we’ll be heading into Portugal and will be very sorry to say Adios to this wonderful country, even if just for a couple of weeks.

Week 3: Into the mountains

I could totally get used to this climate. Day after day of sunshine, as consistent as the last. And if it’s a bit overcast today, don’t worry – mañana, it will be hot and sunny again. It’s the knowledge that it will be lovely again tomorrow that chills us out, I think. In the UK, the summer generally consists of three scorching days, generally mid-week, followed by rain and leaden skies for a fortnight, followed by another unexpected bout of sun. It’s why we flock to the coast like gulls and swelter in traffic jams, cos we never know when we’ll get the next opportunity. Here, if you can’t get to the beach this weekend – no worries, try the next. It’s almost guaranteed to be lovely. Perhaps this is the origin of mañana – if not today then tomorrow.

This week, upon leaving the hectic rush that was Barcelona, we headed inland into the mountains and parked up in the tiny back garden of a lovely old guy called Manuel, who had about as much English as we did Spanish (cero). When I tried to pay he just smiled kindly, muttered mañana and shuffled off to tend to his tomatoes. I was delighted.

Heading higher into the hills we expected the temperature to drop but it just kept climbing, even when we reached 3,500 feet. We stopped for the night at an old mining complex, the tracks for the coal wagons now utilised by the local old ladies to walk their evening circuits. And to re-enact a famous scene from Penelope Pitstop.

The next day was a public holiday so we headed into Teruel and spent a lovely lunchtime overlooking the medieval city whilst enjoying some tapas. As the sun set we descended from the mountains into a gorgeous valley where we managed to park up opposite a most picturesque castle perched on the edge of a craggy cliff overlooking the river Cabriel. It was so beautiful I could almost forgive the local council workers who started strimming at 8am.


The next three days were spent in the company of Ben’s aunt and uncle who live in a tiny village in Murcia. We caught up on gossip, put the world to rights and left with clean laundry and very well fed, a real treat.

A quick pitstop at the local IKEA later (which provides free facilities and 72hrs of parking for motorhomes!) we were back on the road, heading inland towards Seville. We’ve only been out here three weeks and have already covered around 1900 miles, so we’re going to take the drive slowly. When might we arrive? Who knows – mañana.

Week 8: Gnarly

Last year when we visited Portugal, our intention was to go to Nazare, famed for its giant waves due to the underwater canyon that funnels huge swells into its bay. Having got as far as Porto (and having driven upwards of 1,500 miles in just over a week) we were exhausted and needing to head back, so we didn’t drive down the last 130 miles of coast needed to hit this surfer’s paradise. We were gutted to discover that the storm of the century hit just one week later, resulting in waves over 100 feet high. We vowed next time we would return.

This year, the weather wasn’t on our side. I mean seriously, it’s been amazing – we have become totally accustomed to vivid blue skies each and every day, blazing hot sun at lunchtime and glorious sunsets to follow – but in order to get big waves you need to have rather less picture-perfect summer-holiday weather, and rather more gale-force winds and the odd spot of precipitation.

And so it was when we rocked up into Nazare on a gloriously still and warm afternoon, the waves were a little less gnarly than we’d hoped, and any aspirations of seeing any Patrick Swayze (r.i.p.) types roar out the back end of a totally rad tube (or something) were dashed away on the sand.

But not all was lost – on closer inspection down the beautifully broad and impeccably clean beach, the waves turned out to be very entertaining indeed, especially as they had sufficient power and depth to soak the unwary going in for a close up photo (us, and a local women’s rugby team, half of whom nearly lost their shoes after a particularly sneaky wave).

The swell visibly grew as we stood watching and the next day was even bigger, probably rising to around 12-15 feet. Perhaps a bit more knotty than gnarly but good enough for these Fenlanders.

Heading north we travelled through more pretty coast line (this stretch is called the Green Coast due to its numerous forests) and saw pine trees being tapped for their sap (I’m going to have to do a separate post at some point about all the crazy flora and fauna we have seen on our trip (cork trees! cotton! flamingos! erm, zebras?) as it’s been very educational.

One beautiful sunset later (it’s getting a bit old) we arrived in Porto, a city we seem destined to only see at night, and had a fantastic meal at a restaurant called Miss’Opo (if you ever go, go) whose menu was as picturesque as it was tasty, including a starter named “Deal with it” (we did). A wobble down the hill to the Ribeira took us back to a wine bar we’d visited the previous year so we popped in for a port (it would be rude not to in Porto) and Uber-d it home.

The next day was spent relaxing by the beautiful beach, readying our stomach muscles for the night’s feat – the Francesinha. Rather troublingly named “Little Girl” this French-inspired sandwich features, in ascending order: Bread, cheese, sausage, bacon, cheese, more sausage, steak, more cheese, bread, egg, more cheese, all sat in a pool of beer-infused gravy and served, just in case you needed a few extra calories, with French Fries. It was bloody delicious.

Last year we went through the Doura valley to get back into Spain but we decided this time to head north into Minho in the search for vinho verde – green wine, released just three to six months after the grapes are harvested – and so ended up on a long, loooong road out of Porto, which seemed to take most of the morning, and then east into the countryside. It will be a shame not to see any more coastline this trip, but I’m not sure the blue filter in my camera can take much more.

This week (our last) will see us head back into Spain, France and eventually (boooo) the UK at which point I will merrily stick on “Driving home for Christmas” and bundle myself in seventeen jumpers and all my wet weather gear. Look out, we’re coming home!

Week 5: Spain > Portugal

In the 1940s, General Franco changed the time zone in Spain to match that of German-occupied Europe. It doesn’t work – the ‘natural’ solar time is out of sync by around two hours in south-west Spain and, late-sleeper that I am, I’ve been shocked to find it still dark at nine in the morning.

This all changed today when the clocks went back and was further compounded by us moving west into Portugal the same day, so that in the space of 24 hours we’ve gained two. I write this at half past eight at night, feeling like it’s (at least) half past ten, and thus well past my bedtime. However, seeing as it’s Halloween I’ll type by the light of my carved Andalucian orange (we’re camping wild and Ben is routinely turning off lights as soon as I turn them on) and tell you a little about Week 5.

We were supposed to be in Portugal way before now but were having far too much fun to leave Spain. A wonderfully relaxing few days in Sotogrande (and a visit to one of the many hilltop white villages seen around these parts) led us down to the very bottom of Spain, and thus the most southerly point in Europe. Tarifa is a kite-surfer’s paradise, the warm waters of the Med colliding with the storm-tossed Atlantic Sea in the Straits separating the continent from Africa. The wind howled through the windows and vents and we sought shelter a little further along the coast in Bolonia and enjoyed a beautiful sunset at a rapidly closing bar.

The weather turned and we experienced our first rain in over three weeks, the first since entering Spain. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the Luz shopping centre where we parked up for three nights, hoping to ride it out, and we made the most of a brief break in the showers to cycle into Jerez de la Frontera, one of the three towns that make up the sherry triangle, for a tour and a tasting. We’ve got quite into sherry over the last few years, particularly the syrupy Christmas-in-a-bottle Pedro Ximénez varieties, so the tour was a real treat. Bodega Fundador is where Harvey’s Bristol Cream is made, and I hereby apologise if I’ve ever turned up my nose in the past when offered this, for it is delicious! (It just needs to be served right – cold, with ice and a slice of orange, not dusty, room-temp, and out of a bottle your Granny opened three years prior.)

After the tasting we stumbled our way into the restaurant where (I am told) we tried another four glasses and somehow cycled home. We did wear our helmets this time Mum.

The rain having abated somewhat (even if the same couldn’t be said for our hangover) we set off for Portugal and the beautiful Guadiana River that acts as a natural border. Deciding to give the zipline that you can ride from Spain into Portugal a miss (I can’t handle any more time zone transitions) we are now headed to Faro to explore the Algarve, a place I’ve not been since I was thirteen and developed a crush on a waiter at the resort where we were staying. He is likely in his late-fifties now so I probably won’t recognise him. We’ll be joined by a friend travelling out to meet us and shenanigans will undoubtedly ensue – until next time, adeus!!

Week 2: Carcassonne to Barcelona

There are worse places in which I could be suffering a mild case of food poisoning, I reflect, as I pray to the porcelain god at two in the morning. For example, I could be at home. There are numerous establishments back in Ely that could have served up a questionable mussel and I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun eating it as we had in La Boqueria food market in Barcelona yesterday.

I blame the pizzeria. Six years ago, Ben got some work on a super yacht in Barcelona and rented an apartment in Barceloneta, near Port Vell, where the boat was moored. He soon found an excellent restaurant right on the harbour front, which did lovely pizzas and a great vermouth. We were keen to reminisce, so after a light brunch (not light at all – see pic) at the Milk Bar in el Born, another favourite, we hired a couple of electric bikes and set off to find it.

Six years later and the pizzeria has gone, in its place yet another tired paella and tapas joint, and with it our hopes of walking down memory lane. Never mind, we thought – we’ll go up to Las Ramblas, buy some tat (our fridge magnet collection is growing magnificently) and go to Barcelona’s premier indoor food market.

We had a fantastic meal – a tray piled high with squid, mussels, prawns, crayfish, scallops and razor clams – washed down with ice cold cava and served under the mournful eyes of the elastic-banded lobsters primed for that evening’s dinner.

It was absolutely delicious, and reasonably priced, and at no point during the 45 minutes in which we managed to consume the lot did I think we’d have reason to question our life choices. Six hours later, back at the campsite, the lobsters got their revenge.

When your chemical loo is full and you have to run the mosquito gauntlet to the shower block to expel more foreign bodies than Priti Patel has in her entire term of office, you find yourself thinking ‘I really wish I’d just had a pizza’.

Never mind. This week has been a lot of fun. Giving up on ever trying to get into Aigues-Mortes, we travelled inland for a couple of hours and ended up at Carcassonne, parking up in a motorhome park right outside the ramparts. The skies cleared and we had a glorious evening wandering around the ruins (NB: really not all that ruined, feels more like Disneyland, and was apparently extensively restored in 1853, but looks more like a hundred years later) and a taste of cassoulet and gizzards (NB: we’ve got to stop eating weird things). The next day held more rain so we remained in place and I did some work, attempting to position myself on camera at an angle that didn’t invite too many questions. The sun finally reappeared and we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves charged a comparatively tiny amount for the two nights we had spent at this major tourist attraction (the equivalent of six hours in a carpark in Cambridge).

This country is amazing. Nevertheless, it was time to leave, and so we headed south into Spain and Barcelona. A glorious drive on the edge of the Pyrenees took us to a campsite 30kms north of the city. Not our usual choice but it’s out of season and boasts a pool and surprisingly few children so we’ve spent a lovely few relaxing days, catching up on laundry and work (using the free and remarkably good wifi) before heading into Barcelona itself for a whistle-stop tour and the aforementioned mussel attack.

Barcelona is a fantastic place, fizzing with life and energy and it was great to return, feeling the sun beat down on our backs as we cycled up to the Forum and enjoying a kicky vermouth at the beach bar in Barceloneta. Ben even found time to get his hair done.

Assuming the effects of the food poisoning wear off tomorrow we will be heading over into central Spain where the mercury continues to rise, as my tan lines need better definition and I can surely provide some more Spanish mosquitoes with sustenance. Hasta ahora!

Le grand tour – 2021

I wake to the distant sound of gunfire. It is a still morning, first light. We are somewhere north of Lyon. The wind, which has been buffeting the van all night, has dropped.

Another smattering of shot, much closer range. We have been in France a week now. There are no fuel shortages, the supermarket shelves are fully stocked. No civil unrest as far as we are aware (although we did witness the Union Jack being flown upside down at a port de plaisance the day before, an apt metaphor if ever there was one). What then is this?

Three short bursts at close range wake me fully. Wtf? And then I hear crows cawing, as startled as I am, and the bleat of a goat, and remember we are parked on a “France Passion” goat farm and the noise is merely a bird scarer. It worked.

Seven nights in and we’ve yet to visit a campsite. We’ve “wild camped” (the definition varies – from this remote auberge to a market town square to the curbside of a residential street) three times and spent the remaining nights in marinas or specially created “aires” that provide, often free of charge, all the facilities motorhomers need to merrily wend their way along France’s well-kept and pothole free roads. In return for such hospitality we’ve shopped in the local boulangeries and petits casinos, and stuffed ourselves at the many restaurants en route. Our tourist euros end up directly in the local economy and people are welcoming wherever we go. Considering the disaster zone we left via the channel tunnel last week, this feels truly like a land of lait et miel.

Enough political commentary! It’s been a fantastic first week. 

First stop is Toul, in Lorraine, where we kept our boat for three extraordinarily cold winters a decade ago. Remembering where the marina is proves a little tricky but we follow our noses and find the green gates of 13b Rue de la Champagne (how could I forget that address?) just as it’s getting dark. The marina mostly houses cruisers now but there are still a few “project” boats and it looks busy. We spend the next day wobbling around on our bikes, attempting to find familiar landmarks (the cathedral, the clothes shop I used to love, the vets that saved Sprocket’s life – sadly no longer there). 

A delicious lunch the next day at Le Table au Victor sends us on our way south to see some friends out on their boats in Savoyeux and Saint Jean de Losne. Would love to report on what we got up to but the amount of bottles we had to recycle the next day make it difficult.

Suffice to say – plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. We learn about both rumtopfs and rumtops and have a brilliant few days together before we head off again south in forty mile winds until reaching said goat farm.

France Passion is an initiative whereby farmers, vineyard owners and the like offer up pitches to motorhomers and campers in the hopes of tempting them with local produce and perhaps a “degustation” (tasting). Sadly, we were too late for either so we leave a note and a promise to come back the next time. Today we head to the coast – the fabled 3.5hr drive offered by the TomTom turns into an eight hour slog down the peage against gale force winds and petrol stations that might be fully stocked but certainly don’t want to take money off anything higher than 3.3metres. We figure it out in the end and finish up at Aigues-Mortes, which is apparently a beautiful medieval city, but has had a 2.5 metre height barrier installed in the recent past, scuppering all attempts to get close.

We are now parked in a windswept carpark where a game of petanque results in damn near losing the jack somewhere near the Mediterranean. I win though.

Tomorrow sees me “back to work”, but still heading south into Spain. As the internet to date is considerably better than in Ely, all bodes well. The weather looks pretty promising too. The van is running beautifully (despite losing the outer part of a window to a strong gust of wind and being left distinctly rattled by running straight over a brick carelessly left on the motorway) and my homme au foyer 😉 is working hard. A bientot until next week.

THanks for visiting!

Tom Hanks has been in the UK for the past week.

Based in London, just 70 miles – or one of my favourite train journeys – away, I can practically smell him (old spice and shoe leather is my best guess but I’m happy to debate this with whomever has their own views on this point).

My modus operandi to get hold of the Hanx has to date included:

  • Attempting to get tickets for the Graham Norton show, on which he appeared – no answer.
  • Applying to humiliate myself on the Red Chair on the same show – no answer.
  • Spending my life savings (about seven pounds) on texts to BBC radio 2, in an attempt to get Zoe Ball to ask him ONE SIMPLE QUESTION – she did not.
  • Endless tweeting and an excruciating 45 minutes of sitting through Heart radio breakfast show to ask the same question – only to find his interview had been pre-recorded and he was likely already halfway across the Atlantic, thanking his lucky stars he has escaped a whole week’s worth of endless press relatively unscathed.

Really, all these feeble efforts at attempting to get in touch are just child’s play, in the wider stalker’s smorgasbord of options.

  • Why have I not camped outside his hotel?
  • Why have I not bombarded his agents and publicists with requests for interviews?
  • Why have I not done anything even remotely restraining-order worthy?

Maybe I’m just too British for this sort of thing. Or maybe (cough) I’m being sensible and professional and going through the correct channels – i.e. googling producers and managers, writing letters of introduction, requesting to pitch – and growing slowly more despondent and drunker each day, like every other writer before me. Yay me!

One thing I have discovered throughout this process is that going on one of these press junkets must be massively tedious and exhausting. I’ve by no means watched, listened to or read all of his press appearances, but from the ones I have, I’ve heard the same anecdotes and stories several times. There are certain things he is allowed to say, and many he is not. He must by now be able to recite the Toy Story 4 synopsis in his sleep, and it appears most of his interviews have been held so early in the morning he really deserves to be. He does it all with good humour and high spirits, but I can’t help but think this isn’t what he signed up to when he first applied to drama school as a kid. Likewise, the reason I started to write a follow up to Big wasn’t to then spend endless tedious hours trying to get his attention.

To date my “Do you know Tom Hanks” social media campaign has not yielded much fruit (or A List actors). What it has done, however, is made me realise how many people are behind my quest, and excited about the potential of the film. I’ve had people I’ve never met, from the other side of the world, wishing me luck; I’ve had friends of friends asking their friends of friends if they have any kind of vague connection; I’ve heard from people on similar quests of their own. It’s given me faith that it’s not a completely crazy idea, and patience that it doesn’t need to happen today (although today would be nice). It’s given me a lovely warm fuzzy feeling that 211 people have gone out of their way to visit and ‘like’ my page in the midst of all the ridiculousness going on in the world – much as I am grateful to Tom Hanks for visiting our crazy isle, I thank you guys more. I shall now unglue myself from social media and Tom Hanks Google alerts to resume my usual position behind my desk, adjusting plot lines and editing typos – a position in which I am much more comfortable. And I hope that Mr Hanks will find some time to do what he does best soon, without the requirement to be endlessly cheerful at 7am. Nobody signs up for that!

It’s a cat’s life

I’m feeling guilty.

When I decided to start blogging again, I wrote down a whole list of topics that I could write about. The boat. My script. Definitely not Brexit. The cats. The car. No more trains.

So today I sat down to write about the cats, thinking “I must have done a load on Sprocket, so these two deserve a bit of screen time”. And then I looked through my entire site and couldn’t find one mention of the furry little bugger. After seventeen years of faithful fluffiness, the Greatest Cat in the World got less mention than Greater Anglia. I am ashamed.

Sprocket left us to go play in the great litter box in the sky last September. We were heartbroken. He was our family, our constant, the one thing that was always there – usually right under our feet.  Ben went out one night to buy a sink and came back with a kitten. At just eight weeks old he was tiny and terrified, and absolutely useless at holding water. We adored him from that first evening, and he became the perfect boat cat. Occasionally he would leap off the deck in the wrong direction and end up in the water; sometimes he didn’t come back when he was called, and on more than one occasion we thoroughly disowned him when he brought live and shrieking baby moorhens home in front of horrified children. But other than these teeny tiny flaws, he was just the best. Always up for a snuggle, especially if you didn’t want one. Brilliant at diverting your attention away from a book or the TV. He had the loudest snore I’ve ever heard emanate from an animal, and in his prime weighed in at over seven kilos. He is missed.

Which is why, approximately three days after he died, I was champing at the bit to go and get another kitten. I couldn’t stand the sight of the space where the cat bowl used to be, and it felt plain wrong to enter the boat without issuing a non-sensical greeting and hearing the thud of little paws racing towards me. A week later we had met and fallen in love with two gorgeous little cats, a brother and sister whom we named Rivet and Ratchet, to continue the mechanical theme.

But what we’d forgotten in our grief-ridden haste was that we were replacing an old, slow, boat-savvy cat with two balls of fluff that had never seen the great outdoors, were barely toilet trained, and moved at approximately ninety-five miles an hour.  They eat like horses and steal anything shiny or fluffy (upon moving the sofa last week we found a magpie-den of Christmas baubles, Rizla packets, bits of string and feathers, all carefully curated by Ratchet). They climb behind the lining and send ornaments flying. Rivet regularly poos on the floor of the back cabin or the saloon, usually in full sight of his pristinely clean and empty litter tray. They’re a friggin’ menace.

Most people by now know my stance on kids. A bit like veganism, it’s fine for other people to do it, but there’s only so many Insta pics of a cauliflower steak that I can admire. I’m pretty satisfied with my level of responsibility – a leaky old boat and an ageing husband (both in need of maintenance) – and prefer to spend my hard-earned cash in nice restaurants and time thinking about pretty shoes than on baby clothes that never get worn and worrying about catchment areas.

Why, then, did we buy two kittens? I’m now constantly buying stuff that doesn’t get used (two cute collars that they freaked out at, food of the wrong shape that doesn’t get touched, the litter tray) and worrying about what brand of worming tablet to use.

To me, now, a catchment area is the 50 square feet directly outside the boat where Ratchet is decimating the local fieldmouse population. I’m googling heights and weights of healthy cats, wondering if Rivet is underweight, overly-long, if his head has stopped growing prematurely and whether his tail should be wagging quite like that. Within two hours of bringing them home they vanished entirely, only to be found at midnight, by me in tears, curled up in a drawer under the bed. We haven’t slept through the night in months, and now the sun comes up earlier the cats find 5am the ideal time to pounce on the bed, play with the noisy toys in the bath, and knock glasses of water over (we now use sippy cups, after two dawn soakings).

In short, kittens are hard work! For beings that sleep for fifteen hours a day, they seem to spend the majority of the remaining 24 hours making a mess and being very loud. But also impossibly adorable and cute, which I guess (begrudgingly) is the same as kids, to a greater or lesser extent.

So, in apology to Sprocket, who never got his name in print, but lingers long in our affectionate memory, this is my humble ode to the joy that is cats, with their toe beans and their warm bellies, their chirrups and their snores, their thunder paws down the deck and their ability to stop whatever it is you are doing to go “awwww, you’re so KER-YOOT” at least seventeen times a day.

I am looking forward to the day that Rivet learns where his poo should go, when I get eight hours sleep in a single stretch, and when I can safely leave a half-eaten sandwich on the table without finding bits of it down the sofa three hours later. But equally, I don’t want those years to rush past too quickly. I need at least seventeen years of cat snuggles to pass before a) going through the heartbreak of saying goodbye, and b) forgetting the hard work that is kitten poo and mice carcasses, and having the urge to do it all again.

A day out at Downton

I’ve never been into period dramas. Maybe it was being subjected to too many Merchant Ivory movies as a child, but the hoity-toity voices and the funny wigs never really appealed. They all seemed to have the same plot; a well-spoken stranger would enter a village full of half-drunk yokels, and before the first advert break there would be an illicit pregnancy, some sort of improbable sub-plot in which a heaving-breasted wench is blackmailed by a butcher, and a bar brawl. By the time the credits rolled, the posh stranger would have wed the village sweetheart, rescuing her from a life of drudgery at the Dog and Duck, and the locals would have gone back to punching one another.

They are always on a Sunday night, and for about three hours, and if you happen to miss an episode, don’t even attempt to try and catch up – the second sister will have died, there will have been another illegitimate baby, and you’ll spend most of the episode wondering why the action now appears to be set in France.

So, no, not a fan. Until…

On a particularly dark night in October last year, when I can only assume I was feeling a bit peaky and couldn’t be bothered to argue, Ben persuaded me to watch an episode of Downton Abbey.

Ben is a Downton fan, and has been for some time. He has a ‘I heart Downton Abbey’ sticker stuck (the wrong way round) in his camper van, and is particularly fond of Mrs Patmore. We watched one episode. Then we watched another. And then we watched the entire six series – all 52 episodes – including deleted scenes and bonus features, cast interviews and documentaries on the making of. I was hooked.

Despite knowing several plot twists ahead of time (having had to comfort Ben upon Matthew’s untimely demise), I was gripped. Maybe because I KNEW Matthew was going to come to a sticky end on a bend in his sporty new motor, it made his and Mary’s all-too-short romance all the sweeter. And because I know Dame Maggie is set to appear in the film (released this September, whoop!), I didn’t have to worry that any time the Countess got a cold there might be a funeral in the offing.

As with Game of Thrones (I’m starting to think I watch too much TV), which started again last week, #DatAbbey has plenty of death, family feuds, and even a fair amount of sex, given the constraints of the period and the Dowager Countess’ steely gaze. It’s highly entertaining, and kept us occupied through a cold, dark winter. And so it was that, upon completing the series and feeling a little lost, we did a bit of Googling and discovered that it is possible to visit the Abbey where the drama is set – or rather, the castle.

Highclere Castle is in Hampshire – an ancient building that has seen much transition, becoming a castle in 1850 – set in 1,000 acres of gorgeous gardens, and home to the Carnarvon family. It’s not owned by the National Trust, and the entry price (plus afternoon tea) is very reasonable – and so with the promise of a jam-and-cream topped scone at the end of the (very!) long drive, off we went, with both mothers in tow (also fans). And it’s amazing. You drive down a very grand, long and sweeping driveway, and glimpse the castle from quite a distance away. It already looks very large and only grows in stature and magnificence as you get closer.

We’d chosen a beautiful sunny day, and the wild flowers were out in force in-between the statuesque and centuries-old cedar of Lebanon trees (the location for the village fete where Edith is cruelly dumped by Sir Anthony Strallan). The folly at the end of the garden (where Anthony Gillingham and Charles Blake both realise they are about to get cruelly dumped by Mary) is another beauty spot, as are the walled and secret gardens where nobody got dumped, presumably because it’s too cramped to walk away in a huff.

But of course the main attraction is the house. Now, I had this wonderful vision of strolling around the rooms in my Lady Mary mask, lolloping on the furniture and taking selfies in the bathrooms. Sadly this is not to be. It was packed with people, photos are not permitted, and not even the real Lady Mary lolloped on anything other than the Turkish attaché (the handy signs throughout the house pinpoint the rooms where other notable characters met their glorious and inglorious ends). I soon got over my disappointment, however, as the house is just stunning. The rooms used in the show are exactly as they were left by the Crawley family when the cameras stopped rolling, with beautiful brocaded armchairs, exquisitely polished tables and chairs, the stately dining room and the leather (leather!) wallpaper in the grand hall. The red-carpeted grand stairs lead up to the bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms of the lords and ladies, as well as the viewing gallery where that strumpet Sarah Bunting got Tom into so much trouble.

Around the back are the stairs leading to the servants’ quarters – sadly, we were not allowed access to these, probably for fear that being in such close proximity to the chambermaids might increase visitors’ blood pressures just a little too much for the village doctor to cope with all at once.

Around a third of the house is open to visitors, with some of the remainder still in use by the family, as well as a good deal closed for restoration. It has over 50 bedrooms (that’s more than Milton Keynes’ IKEA), and countless works of art to keep clean. As in the series, the house was opened to convalescing patients during the Great War, and the family still display the keepsakes from those who recovered there. In the grand cellars below the house lie not racks of wine (at least not in the cellars I found) but replicas of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as the fifth earl of Carnarvon was one of the party that discovered it, in 1922, shortly before dying of blood poisoning. How that storyline, or some variation of it, didn’t make its way into Downton I’ll never know. Maybe it’ll be in the film.

All in all, a grand day out. While we scoffed scones in the tearooms we reflected on the history of the castle and its ancestors, passing the castle from generation to generation. Well no, we didn’t actually, we titted about pretending to be Carson and Mrs Patmore, and tried not to talk in a loud Yorkshire accent. But I’m sure we wouldn’t be the first. The fact the castle was packed on a Wednesday afternoon in April is in no small way down to the fact that a very popular TV series was set in its glorious surroundings, which got me thinking about how other landmarks in need of a bit of money for a leaky roof might follow the same example. Ely cathedral has recently been the setting for The Crown, and Macbeth. Perhaps if an enterprising screenwriter (me?) wrote some sort of clergy-based soap opera, set in a market town in the Fens at the turn of the century, the diocese’s financial troubles would be over forever. Now, who would Maggie play?