Love In The Time Of Sheep Racing

Living on Sark comes with its challenges much like living on any island that isn’t a booming tourist destination or owned by some millionaire. One of the most challenging aspects of living on an island is by far the company. With little to do and even fewer people to surround yourself with, it’s hard to find your people and even harder to find a significant other.

I went to Sark single and with every intention of leaving a single lady but as it turns out I found myself doing the exact opposite. I have indeed found myself a man… And he is a pretty decent one at that.

I’m not one for cliché stories but the way in which we met is possibly my favourite story to tell. We bumped into each other (almost literally) one very drunken night after a weekend of sheep racing.

Now although sheep racing is exactly what it says on the tin I am going to delve just a little deeper in to this island past time. As it turns out this is the biggest fund-raising event of the year on Sark. It doesn’t sound like much but when you are stuck on a really (and I mean really) small island in the middle of the English Channel you have to become adventurous with these things.

Unfortunately for me I was working the majority of the weekend and sleeping during my breaks which looking back now probably wasn’t worth missing this remarkable event. No fear though, I have been treated to the story of how Derek won Alan £2.50 on more than one occasion. So sheep racing for those who are pictorially challenged is where you do your best to strap a teddy bear to a sheep and encourage it to run an obstacle course as fast as its four legs can carry it. I’m not even joking. Check Google images if you don’t believe me, unfortunately as I didn’t attend I don’t have any photos to prove it for myself. You win some and you lose some, it’s always a gamble but for those who don’t like to throw money at beats running there are plenty of other ways to be entertained. A well stocked bar for one is always a good place to start but there are fancy dress competitions as well as other typical fete themed fun stuff to enjoy too.

So what exactly was Alan, a physiotherapist from Stratford doing in Sark for a weekend of watching woolly wildlife race? Well, he didn’t come over from London specifically for this occasion, he was working on Guernsey and when living on the islands one has to just get involved with island life shenanigans!

I can assure you that I had not expected to meet a man on the dance floor, many a cider down and borderline drunk and I am sure that Alan hadn’t expected to meet such a diamond in the rough either (excuse the cheese… and the modesty). He has believe it or not said that I am a diamond more than once so technically these are his words not mine.

We met on the dance floor somewhere between the Rolling Stones and The Fray. It wasn’t love at first sight for me, he was wearing a cookie monster t-shirt and was getting far too emotional and in to the music than my drunken self could handle but for him apparently he couldn’t keep his eyes of me (or so I’m told), and apparently couldn’t resist my epic dance moves (thank you Rekorderlig) and my cattle whistling (thank you sibling rivalry). One cider obviously led to another and before you know it I was willing to hand out my number to any stranger brave and forward enough to ask for it.

Instantly regretting my decision I prayed to the universe to have put one digit in wrong but apparently even intoxicated I’m still capable of typing. In true ‘morning after the night before’ fashion I woke up with The Fear and prayed once again to the universe that the previous night hadn’t happened. Not only did I hand my phone number out to a complete stranger I also decided that outside the church and in front of the cemetery would be a fine place to have a wee. Forgive me God; I don’t know if this is a sin!

I hadn’t foreseen that four months later we would be living together in Bangor and planning a trip to Kenya for Christmas for him to meet the family. Don’t get me wrong, getting to this point hasn’t been easy but it’s been pretty incredible.

At first I was a little skeptic, he was laying on the cheese thick and was being quite intense from the get go so of course my sober mind was telling me that all he wants to do is chop me up in to little pieces and store me in his refrigerator. Turns out he just really liked my eyes and loved me from the very first moment he set his eyes on me. I thought this kind of thing only happened in movies but like most things in my world I end up having to swallow my words.

It has only been four months but what a glorious four months it has been. I still remain un-butchered and he continues to spoil me with weekends away as well as bacon sandwiches in bed (I should say that he’s a vegetarian!)

If Sark has taught me one thing, it’s that even though you are stuck on a very very small island in the middle of a sea you never know who you will meet or what opportunities will come your way. Not only have I met some of the coolest people who know how to live island life to the fullest but I’ve also met someone who I have begun to think I could spend the rest of my life with.

I once read that you never know what comes from a few seconds on insane bravery and it couldn’t be truer. Alan has shown me what it means to be loved and to love in return and it’s because of his few seconds of courage that I now know that even with all my sides of crazy I can be someone’s whole world.

It’s been a long time coming but feeling this happy has been worth the wait. I’ve said it once before and I’ll say it again, never settle for anything less than extraordinary but most importantly never underestimate what travelling to unpopular and out-of-the-way places can do for you, more often than not it’s life changing. There really is nothing better than this in this world. True story.

My Kind Of Village

I never thought that visiting my Grandfather would actually end up being an enormous hoot. I expected early morning walks and endless amounts of tea and tales of way back when he was my age, I didn’t expect to find a little slice of gin heaven. It comes in the form of a pub and it’s tucked away down a not so main street in the little village of Woodbridge in Suffolk.

I know that many of you are going to be checking your maps and trying to work out where this place is or even wondering if gin is really worth the journey. I am here to assure you that you will not be disappointed.

Woodbridge doesn’t have just gin on offer. Fortunately for this little village it lies on the sea and we all know what goodness comes with salty waters. You guessed it: Boats and obviously fish.

Surprisingly large amounts of people are finding themselves quite literally stuck in the mud and living on houseboats in this small harbour. I can’t say that boat life is for me and if I were to do that I wouldn’t want to be stuck in the mud but it seems that real estate doesn’t always mean bricks, mortar and a small amount of land. If there were a place where I would swap the studio apartment for a canal boat then Woodbridge would probably be the place to be. Just over and hour and a half from London you are still very much within reach of the city but with the luxury of coast-life and the countryside.

If you find yourself in these muddy waters then take a walk along the waterfront and breathe in the sea air, there are so many boats of all shapes and sizes for you to be bored by and the scenery doesn’t disappoint either. If you fancy a little history lesson too, head to the Tide Mill (you can’t miss it… it’s a big white wooden building) and watch in awe at how waves help make flour. This isn’t as boring as it sounds, there is an art to milling and back in the day when there was no technology or heavy-duty machinery everything was made by hand and people had to get inventive. This particular mill was actually the last commercially working tide mill in the UK, which has now been restored to working order. There is quite a lot of history packed in to a building and the views out of the window are pretty awesome too. Just remember everything was made by hand and everything depended on the tides.

When you have milled and mulled over boats until your heart’s content, then casually stroll through the streets of Woodbridge. From old buildings housing pubs to colourful doors and water wells there is a lot to take in. Walk in and out of the alleyways and don’t forget to stop in for a beer here and there. My personal favourite watering holes are The Table for some awesome alfresco dining when the sun is shining, The Kings Head Inn because the building is the oldest in the town and worth a snoop around, The Anchor because although when we arrived it was more a working mans pub than a place where women go to drink they still pour a good pint. FYI women are welcome… we just so happened to be the only three in there! And last but by no means least The Angel is a definite stop spot, perhaps save it for last because you are going to need to dedicate many hours to get the full effect of how awesome this place is.

If you have read my post about Australia you will of course know that Grandma’s Bar in Sydney is my favourite pub in the whole world I am going to have to put The Angel as a very close second. With 150 different types of gin on offer this is literally my kind of heaven. The only thing I regret from my weekend is not having enough time to sample them all but collectively between us we managed to get through nine.

I actually don’t remember what most of them taste, I think that had something to do with our pub crawl but there were some awesome fruity flavours like blackcurrant and blueberry but the two that really stick out are Elephant Gin distilled in Germany and Mombasa Club distilled in London.

If you are big in to conservation, especially Elephant conservation then Elephant Gin is the drink for you. Proceeds from each bottle sold go to saving the species in Africa and every bottle that is distilled is dedicated to one Elephant in particular. The bottle I was drinking from and consequently finished was helping to save an Elephant called Nana. Rather fitting considering my grandmother was known to Nana by us all. Not only does this bottle of gin taste mighty fine but when you can drink and save wildlife in one go I am all for it. This I feel is an iconic drink for an iconic species and one I will be ordering from somewhere and stocking it on my shelf. It is after all in the name of conservation… I am doing it for the Elephants!

The Mombasa Club recipe dates back to the colonial days where they used to drink gin by the gallon in the era of the British Empire on the coast of Kenya. It has a very distinct flavour and one that definitely reminds me of home and definitely one I will find myself sipping anytime anywhere. For all of you non-gin drinkers out there I urge you to do a little alcohol explorations. If ever there were a gin to convert these two would be it.

Woodbridge may be a little village for the retired or eager seamen but it certainly doesn’t disappoint the young traveller either. Not only will I go back to spend some more time sipping tea out of mugs that remind me of my childhood and listening to my grandfather recount his youthful days I will certainly go back to complete the challenge of trying all of that gin. 150 gins in 150 Days or possibly even hours… who’s to say it’s impossible?

Death By Indulgence

The only thing to do when you turn 25 is mask the fact that you are half way to 50 with copious amounts of chocolate cake, cider and champagne. This is a well-known fact of course so with the thought in mind that facts are good I proceeded to do just that for 5 whole days. It was marvellous and now not only am I feeling old but I am certainly feeling a few thousand grams worse off. I imagine you are picturing me waking up and replacing the healthy goodness of a bowl of all bran with a large enough slice of cake, this was not the case. It remained a civilised affair and we drank at reasonable hours (surprising really as normally I find the excuse “It’s 5 O’clock somewhere in the world” somewhat legitimate when all I fancy is a cold one at 10am on a weekday!)

It was a case of early bed times and days filled with countryside shenanigans, sophisticated yet not over the top. What I am failing to tell you is that the early bed times were usually because we had finished off the bottle of port and only had the wine stored in the back of the cupboard to drink which didn’t smell nor taste too good. And yes, although our day time activities were kept to a mature nature (paint a pot and river swimming) we always ensured that we would either finish near a pub or at home after we swung via the shop to replenish the booze cupboard. I may be getting older (25, eish) but I did not let that stop me from enjoying some of the good life.

The sunshine didn’t help in the death by indulgence either. There is nothing greater than sipping on a Strongbow whilst soaking up the sun rays and catching up on all gossip. Thankfully I was not drinking alone, the good thing about the company that I was in is that binge drinking is encouraged and alcohol was always on the shopping list. Plus it had been a few years since we had last gathered so the catching up was entertaining and we even planned a women only adventure down Africa. Not a bad way to spend a few days down in The Shire (Devon specifically), in fact so good that I have booked a bus ticket back down and this time will be staying for 2 weeks. Unfortunately afore-mentioned company wont be there but I have no doubt that I can indulge and enjoy for two weeks whilst looking after the house, dog, cat and garden! 25 after all you know, I figure I am somewhat responsible?!

All joking aside, Devon is a really great part of England. My time down in The Shire goes way way back to school days, (I went to boarding school in Somerset and used to escape to this exact same place when the going got rough) but as I age the quintessence of Devon becomes more apparent. It’s a sophisticated county with much to do, I only ever thought of it as country bumpkin territory where old folks used to walk around saying “alraight me luver” instead of the more usual “Good Morning” or “Hello”. It still holds a little of this, I couldn’t help but laugh when a sweet old man cracked one out whilst I was mooching in a charity shop but it does have a lot to offer in terms of age appropriate activities.

For a start the Moor is always a good place to explore the county and see the panoramic vistas of the typical English countryside. River Dart offers a few spectacular woodland walkways as well as “countryside beaches”. Not the normal sea-sand combo we are used to but pebbly and grassy areas where you are more than welcome to set up camp and enjoy the summer. Anyone crazy enough to brave the cold waters can go for a dip whilst the others watch from the side and laugh at the hysterical effings and blindings about the freeeezzzzzzing cold temperatures. If you are not quite frozen from the core an ice cream truck is always strategically parked in close proximity. When we headed down we took nothing but towels and cameras but the impressive pop up tent and wind breaker villages that we saw was definitely the essence of British Countryside and country bumpkins at their best.

Too cold for ice cream and need warming up with a larger? Not a problem, quaint country pubs are never too far away and the winding lanes always make for beautiful driving scenery. We ended up at a really sweet pub (possibly even my favourite) called The Rugglestone Inn. Picture a classic English cottage and cover it with creepers and plonk a few farm-yard animals in the garden and you have the Rugglestone. It is beyond adorable and the food is delicious. Cider was pretty good too; a local home-made brew if you like, not for the faint hearted as it is genuine Shire Cider. There are so many other pubs in this area, I could literally write a book about them (obviously having to revisit many – in the name of research) but I can guarantee they all have their own character and they are each filled with the best of their locals. For anyone coming in to the UK who has never been, put “Visit a genuine English pub” on your bucket list. It is well worth it for more than one reason.

If a pub is not quite up your street (I suggest rethinking this) there are always restaurants around too. Again I am sure there are endless books on these and so much I could tell you but one in particular which is new for me and I think for Devon too is The Riverford Field Kitchen. This is more than just a restaurant, I see it as more of an experience. Without sounding like a food critic or even an expert in cooking this is definitely by far one of the best restaurants I have visited. The idea is simple: fresh organic produce straight from the farm to your plate. How could you go wrong? The truth is you can’t. Get a great chef and cook everything in butter and you are on to a winner. The best thing of all though is keep it simple, Riverford does just that. Their menu changes daily depending on the crops available and you don’t get a choice. Not the best restaurant for someone who likes to choose or even someone a little bit fussy but I am going to suggest going out on a limb and booking a table, you will not regret it, I promise. The restaurant itself is adorable too, an old converted barn where everyone sits on big tables a little bit similar to a school dining room. Dinner is served in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. Three courses of mouth-watering, tasty, organic produce that you know has been loved and nurtured from seed to harvest. And the desserts! Hmm…To die for. Again with the help yourself concept you have to go up to the kitchen where the chef will do his best to sell you the desert of the day from a choice of 7 or so. As I am fussy I took a while to decide but settled on a chocolate mousse that out-did any I have had before. The chef was charming too which made the decision even harder (he was suggesting a custard tart to a non custard fan) but I left with a large bowl of chocolate heaven topped up with and an unhealthy serving of cream as well as a candle and a whole restaurant singing happy birthday to me. It was cringe worthy but I was loving every moment. At the end of the evening I made a conscious effort to thank the chef, not only because the food was good but through my wine goggles he was cute too. In his defence he was cute and charming even before the wine and he can cook!!

If you don’t fancy just eating and drinking yourself in to a stupor there are many things to do that don’t involve eating or drinking in and around Devon. Totnes offers a great non food market and a chocolate box (excuse the food related description) town to walk around. Be warned though, you can come away with a whole bunch of nik-naks that you don’t need and enough fudge to induce diabetes. Ok so you don’t have to get the fudge I admit but I was not on the food avoiding tour so I couldn’t resist. China Blue is also a great place to take the kids (although we did see tables of just adults, ours being one of them) where you can paint cups, bowls, jugs and pots until your heart’s content! (I just read on their business card that their slogan is: Shopping heaven since 1997. Really, how could you resist with that?!?!) Being a little creative I loved this and I look forward to taking all my nieces and nephews there too as an excuse to add to my collection. Pot painting paired with a pub lunch and an afternoon stroll on Dartmoor is definitely the ingredients required for a day well spent.

To end with something a little civilised though, may I suggest a visit to the Sharpham Wine and Cheese farm (not sure what the correct terminology is for a vineyard that also produces cheese). A short walk round the vineyard is finished off with a tasting session and if you fancied planting yourself there for an afternoon they have a well stocked bar and a view anyone would enjoy. The ice cream is great too and the garlic and herb cheese goes down nicely with copious amounts of wine. It really is a stunning place and in the summer just beautiful. I will indeed go back but perhaps stay a little longer to really see if the Rhubarb and Custard red wine still tastes as good at the bottom of the bottle. Please note it isn’t officially called Rhubarb and Custard, I can’t remember its actual name or the spiel about why it is unofficially called Rhubarb and Custard, it is good though and the perfect way to end a summer day.

The long and short of if is that Devon has the best of the British countryside on offer and anyone who doesn’t risk heart failure by really getting stuck in to country life is simply bonkers and needs to take some time out to re-evaluate life. I am also going to make a suggestion that this re-evaluation occurs in the warmth of a typical countryside pub with a generous helping of pie and cream all washed down with a pint (no less) of perfectly crisp and lovingly brewed countryside cider. Indulge a little… for you have no idea what you are missing out on.