Catch my drift

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No, I didn’t spin off into a field. The photographer is in the field. I’m on the tarmac. Honest.

#ChallengeCompleted: Drifting

When? Saturday 5th August

Nominated by: Alex

Alex, a fellow petrol-head, once mentioned to me how much he’d love to try drifting, which is essentially hurtling round a race track largely sideways with massive opposite lock, a lot of tyre smoke and loud squealing (of wheels). It’s a bit like rallying on a circuit, if you like. Sounded awesome, so it was win-win in suggesting drifting would make a great #ChallengeKate. Alex took the bait.

And so it was I found myself in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead at 8.15am on a thankfully neither wet nor overly chilly Saturday morning. Several eager participants were already parked up and staff were manoeuvring a variety of mud-splattered performance cars, supercars and other vehicles towards what I guessed was the circuit. Lots of guys, there for one of the various driving experiences on offer, were strutting about or peering out eagerly from their cars, all subtly sizing each other up. Make no mistake: this was Male Territory; the testosterone and the ‘I’m going to be better/faster than you’ undercurrents were palpable. ‘Girl Power’, I oozed in response.

Alex arrived and we duly signed our lives away, gave up our driving licenses and tried to ignore the four-figure write-off liability surcharge listed before heading into the briefing room. Driftlimits offers a variety of experiences; alongside Drifting, there’s a choice of supercars you can race round a track. The performance car/circuit driving briefing was first. This was familiar territory, as I’d devoted a large part of my early 20s to racing a variety of single seaters and tin tops at Brands Hatch and the like. It’s an addictive sport – but ultimately one reserved for the wealthy or technically minded. Preferably both.

Drifting, on the other hand, was something I knew very little about and I had no real idea what skills I’d need. But I’ve done skid training, been through various rally schools (albeit many years ago) and am confident of my car control. I’d be fine. Nevertheless, the drifting part of the briefing seemed very short in comparison to the supercar part; I didn’t finish the briefing much the wiser…

Time to get a helmet – always a challenge for me; the smallest size they had was a Medium and with that on, I could turn my head 45 degrees and the lid didn’t move. Probably not the safest piece of kit… Luckily they managed to dig out an XXS. Ready!

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As Alex and I stood outside waiting for our turn, I confessed I was now wavering hugely between being super excited and eager for my go, but also really quite nervous. Lots of talk of hay bales and extra insurance premiums hadn’t helped. Alex looked a little awkward. ‘Um,’ he started. ‘I have a confession…’

Go on…?

‘I’ve done this before. I wasn’t sure whether or not to tell you…’

‘What! What do you mean you’ve done it before? Are you actually some kind of semi-professional? I thought drifting was new to both of us!’

Turns out a friend had bought Alex a Drifting experience for his birthday a couple of months earlier. So not only had he broken his Drifting virginity, it had only been a matter of weeks ago! This ‘competition’ wasn’t really very fair, was it?!

Pretty much straight after this revelation, Alex was called for his turn, so I had no real time to grill him for information. Instead, I headed up to the viewing platform to watch. Shame, though, that the drifting circuit was a little way off. I knew Alex was in one of those Mazda MX-5s but I had no way of telling which one. Still, that said, they were all pretty hopeless (sorry, Alex, but it’s true!).

 

When he got back I had limited time to pump him for information; I  had a gazillion things I wanted to know…

‘Make sure you let go of the steering wheel’, was his one most important piece of advice. What?! I hadn’t even been expecting that one!

With no more time to think about it or press Alex for extra tips, my name was called. I was introduced to Dave, my instructor, who then chauffeured me off to the circuit. My adrenaline spiked. I was ready; let me at it!

Not so fast. ‘Erm, I think we have a flat tyre,’ Dave said, pulling into the pit area. He got out and looked around the car. ‘Nope, they look OK.’ He then set about performing two demo laps to show me the circuit layout, marked by painted lines and cones indicating turn-in points, and tell me what to do when and how to do it and what not to do and what gear to be in and… and… and… I was supposed to remember all this?! Dave’s third lap was the ‘hot lap’, where he really let rip and threw the MX-5 round the track. Impressive!

Still it wasn’t my go. Dave drove back into the pit area. ‘I think I will change those tyres,’ he said. Cue even more more opportunity for nerves to build as he jacked the car up and put on two fresh rear wheels.

At last I was in the driving seat. It’s very easy to get the back of a rear-wheel-drive Mazda MX-5 out of line as you throw it into a corner. And it snaps back into line very quickly once you release the steering wheel. So lightening reactions are imperative. Hey, I can manage this! As I went round the track, Dave was shouting instructions to me – primarily, ‘more power, power, power!’ Seems I was far too light with my right foot – which might come as a surprise to some of you.

As I completed more laps I slowly started to get the hang of it. This was fun! Yes, I did end up doing more than a few pirouettes. Yes, I did end up in the field once (maybe twice). But to be fair, the edge of the circuit was very close to the field – see for yourself in the pictures. But yes, I also managed a fair few ‘drifts’ rather successfully, although linking from one turn to the next was still not quite happening.

After 10 laps we returned to the main waiting area, where I caught up with Alex and we headed in search of refreshments. This was thirsty work! Steaming cup of tea (Alex) and cooling bottle of water (me) in hand, we headed back out… just as Alex was called for his second stint. He looked longingly at his full cup of tea. ‘Or Kate can go back out first,’ offered the instructor. A little more time to process my first stint would had been good, but who am I to separate a man from his hot cup of tea? I passed my water to Alex and hopped back in the car. I’ll take one for the team.

This time I had a different instructor: Bill. At first I thought it was a shame not to have continuity. But I quickly discovered Bill had a different way of explaining things and, actually, it made a lot more sense. What I’d been doing was feeding in the power; what I actually had to do was stamp hard on the throttle – all or nothing. And my turn-in needed to be a lot sharper, not smooth as I’d learnt on a race circuit. The clarity made a Big Difference. And with each of my 15 laps I got more and more feel for what to do when and how. I was drifting!

Kate Best-4
Yes, this is the direction my wheels should be facing and yes, I am looking in the direction I’m going. This is a Perfect Drift. Trust me!

Fifteen laps went far too quickly. Just as I was really building a rhythm and even starting to link two corners together and slide from one pretty neatly into the next, I was being told to pull off the circuit and trundle back to base. What a shame!

I was tempted to buy more laps. I was also tempted to have a go in one of the performance cars on the other circuit – although doing that immediately after conditioning myself to throw a car into a corner sideways was perhaps not a great idea. Alex was tempted to drive the Lamborghini. In the end we both agreed we’d probably spent enough money (motorsport doesn’t get any cheaper). Still, it’s always good to have something to go back for, huh?!

Unfortunately (fortunately?) there had been no timings or scoring or anything, so Alex and I had no way to compare how we’d each got on. Obviously, I was the better driver. Now, just remember not to floor it and force the car sideways on approach to that roundabout getting back onto the A5…

Thanks for a fab #Challenge, Alex. Let me know when you’re ready for a rematch!

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Going for a song

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#ChallengeCompleted: Singing lesson

When? 23 July 2017

Nominated by: Sarah

I’m sure I’ve got it in me to sing. I play the piano, so I get pitch. But while I somehow always muddled through the aural parts of my piano exams, holding a line without being able to hear the tune, and belting out a proper song have never been something I’ve managed.

Step forward my colleague Sarah, who Challenged me to find out what kind of singing voice I have, with a beginner’s taster singing lesson at City Academy in Soho.

Neither of us really knew what to expect as we whetted our whistles with a cooling ice cream prior to our group lesson.

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There were a dozen of us in the group, a variety of ages and nationalities. Our tutor, Jonathan, first asked us each to introduce ourselves and say briefly what we hoped to get out of the session. Experience ranged from an older gent who had been an actor for 20 years (albeit allegedly ‘retired’ for many years since) and had been through something called ‘Mountview’  (it earned respect; turns out it’s some kind of British Fame Academy for wannabe actors, dancers and singers), to a young girl who simply enjoyed singing in the car/shower and was curious to learn more about using her voice. I’m not entirely sure where Sarah and I fitted in – really just there for a giggle…

Jonathan explained that our hour’s session would involve the ‘warm-up’ routine that kicks off every lesson. It began simply enough: ensemble humming of two tones (doh-ray-doh-ray-doh-ray-doh; up a tone and repeat); gradually working up the scale as Jonathan banged out the notes on the piano. Even I could manage this and I hummed loudly and confidently.

Next stage was the same two tones, this time alternating between ‘mmm’, ‘aaah’ and ‘oooh’ sounds, so starting to form shapes with our mouths to change the sound. Again, not overly tricky. So far, so good!

Then it was time to learn the ‘warm-up song’: ‘Comedy’. The lyrics aren’t tricky, largely (read: completely) involving the line, ‘There will be some comedy tonight’, across four verses. We learnt them one at a time. First, the line was sung legato (smoothly) to a simple tune. Next, just the word ‘comedy’ was sung, quickly and staccato. The third verse returned to the original line, twisted into ‘Comedy tonight, there will be some’, with crescendo for excitement. Last verse was… actually, I can’t remember. But there was definitely a fourth verse. And while it might sound simple to you, you try remembering all of it, and the tune. Seriously, it was a Challenge!

Anyway. We moved on. Time to explore range. We went to a top E flat and revisited our ‘ooo’, ‘eee’ ‘aah’, ‘eee’, ‘ooo’ sounds, up and down three tones. Next up was a (very) brief experiment with ‘retraction’ (where you sing through your nose) and ‘expansion’ (pushing the sound out more roundly). More sounds to try: ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ for retraction, as though you’re sneering at someone; ‘yah yah yah’ for expansion, like a posh twit. More ‘lyrics’; more tunes. You still think this is easy, don’t you? Think again!

The final challenge: tongue twisters. And here is where it all started to go horribly wrong. ‘Fluffy puppy’ I managed. ‘Red lorry, yellow lorry’ I could do. Even ‘Seth at Sainsbury’s sells thick socks’ and ‘unique New York’ I achieved (more often than not). All this and new tunes for each, too

But then came the pièce de resistance. We all know how it goes. Goodness knows we’ve most of us got drunk to this tongue twister: ‘I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m a pheasant plucker’s son; and I’m only plucking pheasants till the pheasant plucker comes’. You think you know what’s coming, don’t you?

Wrong. My confidence was up. I sung, ensemble, with gusto. Over and over, word perfect. This was fine! But then.

Oh. Then.

Jonathan singled out the first girl in the group, indicating for her to sing the tongue twister solo. Shocker! In fact, I think she was so shocked, she got it perfectly right. Jonathan immediately pointed to the next guy; his turn. He also managed it.

Trouble was, Sarah and I were the last two in the group, which meant we had far too much time to think about how we were going to ‘perform’ this tongue twister. And every person was taking their turn without screwing up. No pressure.

I was there. I was ready. I was good to go. Word perfect. Just the girl immediately before me to go. She was virtually through it.

Then, as she got to the last line, she transposed the syllables (you’re with me, right?). It had to happen. It had just been a matter of when. And who. Everyone fell about laughing. Jonathan played a comic sting on the keyboard. The moment was lost. I was lost.

But no – Jonathan quickly picked up again, pointed at me and said, ‘Go!’

‘I’m not a pleasant fuc…’ I started, confidently. Oh dear.

Start again.

‘I’m not a pleasant fuc…’ Oh dear. I’d lost it.

Third time lucky.

‘I’m not a pleasant fuc…’ Nope, it’s gone.

Jonathan helpfully reminded me of the correct lyric. I know the lyric. I KNOW the lyric. I’d had it all totally sorted in my head. Till that blasted girl before me had screwed up.

‘I’m not a pleasant fuc…’

It simply wasn’t going to happen. The moment was lost. I’d lost it. Sarah – you take your turn. She was kind to me. She totally lost it, too. Several similarly aborted attempts to get the correct lyric out followed from her. It wasn’t going to happen.

Neither of us managed our solo moment. Guess we’re just meant to be part of a team. Who needs the solo spot, anyway?

 

 

(On a post-) Bali High

#ChallengeCompleted: SPECIAL CHALLENGE: Holiday to Bali

When? 25 May-5 June 2017

After the 30-something-degree heat and balminess of 10 days in Bali, London was cruel welcoming me back with lashing rain and a distinct chill that was more January than June. But you know what? I still ♥ London. Which got me thinking: while I love my holidays (you all know I love my holidays!), coming home is nevertheless always a special part. Because it’s the reflecting on my trip that cements my experiences of those new cultures and ways of life I’ve experienced and which consequently broaden my life. Plus my holidays put things firmly in perspective, reminding me about the elements in my life that are most important to me.

My friend Julie found herself in Bali some eight years ago… and never came home. I’d always considered Julie a complete Londoner,  the last person you’d expect to move out of the capital – let alone set up life on an island as far away in both distance and culture as Bali. So planning to visit her in what she now firmly considered her home I did wonder if I might be enchanted by a similar spell.

There have been cities I’ve visited that have made me wonder what it might be like to live there. But it always comes back to the same thing: I could never move away from my friends and family for any length of time, let alone permanently. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t struggle to make new friends; but what makes my friendship circle so rewarding is its diversity. From girls I’ve known since I was a toddler to people I met only this year; from colleagues in some of my very first jobs to people I’ve met through more unusual circumstances; from people half my age to those considerably older. It’s a gloriously wide, wonderful and eclectic group. With every friend I’ve experienced something unique, and each enriches a particular aspect of my life. The thought of relocating to another country and giving up 50 years of friendship history is, for me, simply impossible.

So when it comes to wondering what it might be like to live in the particular city I’m visiting, however zen or zingy I feel at the time, the answer is always swift: no. Home is where my heart is. Home is London. (Yeah, Essex. But let’s not split hairs.)

This blog post sits under #ChallengeKate. As with my Japan trip, Bali wasn’t specifically a #ChallengeKate (although Julie might beg to differ: technically she did Challenge me to visit when we first started getting serious about booking the trip). But it is a holiday I undertook because of my 50th birthday this year – two of my best friends also reach their half-century this year and, having celebrated our 30th and 40th birthdays together, we’d always said we’d do something very special together to mark this decade. So this post rightly belongs here. And while this blog entry might not have resulted in the post-holiday report I’d envisaged when I started, the way it’s turned out has made me realise even more how important my friends are to me. Ipso facto, that’s EXACTLY the point of #ChallengeKate.

Turning Japanese

#ChallengeCompleted: Holiday to Japan

When? 12th-25th April

Special Challenge

Japan was my choice for this year’s ‘family’ holiday with my dad and sister. Friends who have been (and even lived) there paint it a fascinating country and I’m also eager to learn about different cultures.

Before I went I read A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton, a novel set in Nagasaki that starts just as the nuclear bomb is dropped in August 1945. Prefacing each chapter is the Japanese word for an attitude or feeling, followed by an explanation of what that means, both literally and culturally. These perhaps more so than the novel itself started to give me a good insight into the culture and how very different it is to ours. I couldn’t wait to go.

Reflecting on the trip, I find it’s the little details that make Japan so unique.

*It’s all so clean – no graffiti, no fly-posting or fly-tipping, no discarded chewing gum, no cigarette butts. Indeed, no litter anywhere. Yet, more pertinently, very few litter bins. Everyone simply takes their rubbish home with them. Amazing – especially when you factor in the super-excessive amounts of packaging on Japanese goods.

*They heat their loo seats. Even the public ones (of which – thankfully – there are plenty). What’s more, loos frequently feature an integral bidet and ‘shower’ (one for ‘front’, one for ‘back’). With adjustable water pressure. And an odour suppressant. And, on occasion, even a ‘noise cancellation’ button or music/sound effects you can play (with volume control, of course). Seems the Japanese are obsessed about toilet behaviour.

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*In fact, they’re obsessed by cleanliness. Toilets aside (see above), part of the ritual of their Shinto religion involves the systematic washing of your hands and mouth before approaching the shrine.

*I saw no sign of homelessness or begging. With unemployment at around just 4%, there inevitably feels like there’s quite a lot of job creation going on – do you really need three people employed at the entrance to every car park to help direct traffic and pedestrians?

*You can set your watch by Japanese efficiency. You have exactly three minutes to get on/off the bullet train at each station (and it’ll pull in bang on time). And even on one occasion when we saw a huge group of schoolkids getting on/off, everyone managed it. Without any pushing or shoving or huffing and puffing or panic. NB: I didn’t travel on the Tube. I understand they do push and shove – a lot – to get people on that!

*Politeness is ingrained in the people. For example, when the ticket inspector entered our carriage on the Bullet train, he stood and bowed politely at everyone. And when he reached the other end of the carriage he turned and bowed politely again before moving on.

*Which makes it strange that there isn’t really a Japanese word for ‘thank you’… (although a host of other sign-offs are used).

*Apparently the word ‘no’ is very difficult for a Japanese person to say. If you really push you might get a ‘maybe’.

*Hotel rooms are so well equipped. I had a clean nightshirt or robe to wear every night, plus slippers. And the vanity tray in the bathroom always included a toothbrush and toothpaste, hairbrush, razor, hair scrunchy and cotton buds/pads, as well as the familiar shower cap shampoo/conditioner/body wash, and so forth. There was also usually a torch and useful night light in the room.

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*Restaurants build plastic replicas of the dishes they offer and display them in the window to tempt you in.

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*People are encouraged not to eat while they’re walking. Or use a phone while they’re walking. Or smoke while they’re walking. Seriously – it’s the little details that really do make life so much easier.

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*All pavements (and I mean pretty much all) feature a ‘rumble strip’ down the middle, which branched off to indicate crossings, entrances to the station and such, to enable blind people to safely navigate the streets.

*Worryingly for these blind people, Japanese Kamikaze are alive and well… and riding bicycles. Bikes are a popular form of transport – although cycle lanes have clearly not reached Japan. And roads are busy. Hence common practice is to hare along the crowded pavements at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of the pedestrians. How no one ever gets hit is beyond me.

*Packaging is some kind of extreme art in Japan. With sweets, for example, there’s a cellophane-wrapped box. Inside the box are individually wrapped sweets, each neatly seated in a cardboard holder. Truly excessive.

The language wasn’t quite the barrier I feared it might be. In Tokyo, where our trip started and finished, I had expected to see western words alongside the Japanese kanji (despite having been warned I wouldn’t). And, on the whole, this was the case – road signs, maps, signage in the stations and so forth largely featured western words underneath the Japanese characters. Of course lots of the shops and restaurants only had Japanese writing and, with a lot of the food unrecognisable (is it even sweet or savoury?), finding somewhere to eat could sometimes be a challenge. Maybe that’s how the displays of plastic dishes first came about?

I enjoyed the food. To be honest, I would have liked to have tried even more Japanese dishes but the practicalities of trying to find a restaurant that suited me, Dad and Wendy in terms of both menu (content and understanding) and location wasn’t always easy. Where possible I tried to find somewhere serving the specialities of the region: teriyaki in Tokyo, buckwheat soba noodles in Matsumoto, Hida beef in Takayama, okonomyaki in Hiroshima. Lots of noodles and rice; a little sushi and some tempura – neither as much as I might have liked. And I’m getting the hang of chopsticks…

So what didn’t I like? I actually came away feeling Japan isn’t as beautiful a country as I’d imagined. Yes, the cherry blossom was magnificent, the temples and shrines extremely picturesque and the gardens rightly rated among the world’s most beautiful. But beyond those I found buildings in the cities grey and boxy; roads often ran over multiple levels with ugly flyovers that stretched for miles. The beauty of rivers was too often compromised by angular man-made concrete banks.

The Bullet train was amazing. What would have been more amazing would have been to watch the countryside whizzing past. Unfortunately, Japanese railway builders clearly have a great love of tunnels…

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Things I learnt:

*Buddhism has five commandments. The fifth being words to the effect that ‘thou shalt not drink so much saki as to not be able to carry out your duties’. Well put!

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*Japanese people love moss. While British gardeners spend half their lives trying to get rid of the damn stuff, their Japanese counterparts are eagerly cultivating as much of it as possible.

*No part of the animal goes to waste. One tepanyaki bar we passed in Tokyo displayed a menu offering various cuts of pork… including (and I kid you not) fat of the head, small intestine, womb, overies and vagina. On a stick. No, we didn’t go in.

*Tipping is not a thing. No one seems out to make money. Even costumed people parading around temples were eager to be photographed – but never once asked for money.

*They love a vending machine, particularly for drinks. And you can get both hot and cold drinks out of the same machine. Just look for the red label (hot drink) or blue label (cold).

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*Making tea is a Big Deal. I kinda knew this before I went (most people have heard of the Japanese tea ceremony). But seriously – all that time and effort and ritual just to make a single cup of something that tastes like grass? No thanks.

*Starbucks and McDonald’s are commonplace. Indeed, it seems despite the horrific history, Japan now has quite the love affair with America and has embraced its language (in favour of English English) along with its fast-food and coffee outlets.

*You can reserve a table in Starbucks. We popped into Japan’s first-ever Starbucks (don’t judge me), which is in the Ginza area of Tokyo. There’s a commemorative plaque on the wall. There’s also a sign saying that if you intend to eat/drink in, you should reserve a seat first. Little ‘reserved’ signs are provided. What’s more, people place these signs on a table – or leave their jacket or even their laptop – to reserve their spot. And their table – with all of their belongings – is still there when they’ve got their drink. I can’t imagine that happening in London!

*The majority of the people you see wearing kimonos are not Japanese. They’re most likely Chinese, Korean or Filipino and have hired the costumes for the day.

*Similarly, if you see a geisha in the street, you didn’t see a geisha. Geishas are incredibly private and will rush from taxi to tea house in the blink or an eye.

*Speaking of geishas, it’s considered impolite these days to use the term. They’re called ‘Geikos’, while the younger girls still training are known as ‘Maikos’.

*After the A-Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the people decided transport links were far and away the number one priority for getting the city and its people back on its feet, and the tram system was the most practical thing to fix. It took just three days for a comprehensive tram system to be up and running, ferrying injured people away for treatment and bringing help and aid into the city. As a result of the super-human efforts of the trams people during this period, to this day trams are revered across the city.

*My understanding is (and apologies if I haven’t got this quite right) that the Shinto religion believes deities are too numerous to count and can live virtually everywhere and anywhere – even in the toilet, which is why it along with everything else must be kept super-clean. They also believe that when someone dies, they become a god, despite what kind of person they might have been during their life. It explains why the Japanese respect their elders so much – the older someone is, the closer they are to becoming a god…

*Food is extremely over-packedaged. There’s a cellophane-wrapped box. Inside the box are individually wrapped sweets, each neatly seated in a cardboard holder.

*At least some of the Japanese language has logic to it. The ‘kanji’ for tree is like a crucific with two sweeping lines, like curtains drawn either side. Draw two of these kanji and it means ‘grove’. Draw three and it means ‘forest’. Not so tricky after all, huh?

*The famed ‘nightingale’ floor in one of the temples in Kyoto (so called because it makes a bird-like chirping noise when it’s walked over) happened by accident, not design.

*Tatami mat floors (made using compressed rice straw with a woven seagrass cover) feel lovely underfoot. I really quite fancy one of these. It’d work particularly well in my new travel room…

 

 

Pottering about

#

ChallengeCompleted: Harry Potter On Location: London Walk

When? Saturday 29th April

Nominated by: Stacey

Stacey’s first #ChallengeKate sadly failed to get off the ground; we had hoped to see the exhibition of Harry Potter artworks at the House of MinaLina gallery in Soho, but the queues on the day we pitched up were ridiculously long and neither of us fancied the wait outside on one of the coldest days of the year. But Part Two of Stacey’s Challenge was to do London Walk’s Harry Potter on Location tour, which promised ‘the Westminster locations that riveted you in Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixThe Prisoner of AzkabanHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’.

I’ll be honest: while I enjoyed the walk, it was light on the HP film locations and heavy on general London sights, monuments and historical points of interest of which our city is so rich. How much of this was down to the fact the (extremely knowledgeable) London Guide leading this tour was filling in for the unwell Potter expert who usually leads this walk, and how much was due to the fact there aren’t actually that many locations in this part of London is hard to know. Suffice to say the tour didn’t start blindingly well: the guide didn’t even get the name of The Order of the Phoenix’s headquarters wrong, calling it Grimmauld Lane rather than Grimmauld Place.

The walk kicked off at Embankment, evoking memories of how members of the Order of the Phoenix, in the eponymous book, had swooped above the Thames on their broomsticks on their way to London for Harry’s disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Magic. We were then led along the Embankment, with various little (non-Harry Potter-related) architectural details being pointed out. Interesting, but far from relevant.

Our first ‘proper’ stop looked promising: a mysterious little door set into the side of Westminster bridge. I didn’t recognise it but, in my defence, while I’ve read the Harry Potter series a couple of times, I’ve only ever seen the films once; most of my knowledge of how sets look comes from visits to the Warner Bros film studios at Leavesden near Watford and the Wizarding World in Universal Orlando, neither of which is particularly heavy on London locations (although there is a Knight Bus parked outside Leicester Square Tube in the latter’s reconstruction of London).

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What could this door be? I wracked my brains trying to remember its purpose. Our guide magicked up all sorts of suggestions as to the wizarding connection this door might have… before concluding it wasn’t actually in any of the HP films. But it did feature in a James Bond movie. Oh.

We fought our way down into Westminster Tube. This was used in the scene during which Mr Weasely is bringing Harry to the Ministry of Magic to face charges of performing underage magic and the Patronas charm. You might remember the scene: people are streaming through the ticket barriers, opening the gates with their tickets; Mr Weasely ignorantly copies the commuters and simply waves his hand at the spot where the ticket should be inserted but, of course, the gate doesn’t open and it’s left to Harry to explain the Muggle method of accessing the Underground platforms.

Interesting fact alert: we were told the station was closed for three days (!) while this scene was filmed. I’m sure it wasn’t. I can’t believe TFL would permit a major Tube station such as this to be closed for three whole days. I could believe it was shut for a period of time on three different days for filming purposes. I’m sure that’s what she meant.

We then thrust our way through the hoards of tourists to a viewpoint of Big Ben (cue lengthly history lecture about the naming of the bell and tower). It almost a felt a bit forced the way our guide tried to make a connection between the Houses of Lord and Commons to the four Houses at Hogwarts.

Next – and probably the most interesting – HP stop was Scotland Place, just off Whitehall, the location of the Ministry of Magic. Sadly the phone box Mr Weasely uses to gain access to the Ministry was a prop brought in for the filming and long since removed. But at least the building is recognisable.

We then pushed our way up to Trafalgar Square, over which, we were reminded, Death Eaters launched a destructive air attack on London (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opens with them swooping down over Trafalgar Square). We missed out on exit one of Leicester Square, which appeared in the same sequence, and the relevance of Charing Cross Road, down which the Death Eaters then headed, leaving a trail of death and destruction. Neither did we get as far as Piccadilly Circus, to which Harry and Hermione apparated when the Death Eaters launched an attack on Bill and Fleur’s wedding in Deathly Hallows Part One. Harry, Hermione and Ron had then headed off up Shaftesbury Avenue. Our tour didn’t. And although we virtually walked past Hardy’s Sweet Store on Charing Cross Road, no mention was made of the fact it’s reminiscent of Hogwart students’ favourite, Honeyduke’s, nor of the fact it sells an assortment of Harry Potter-themed sweets, including every flavour beans and chocolate frogs. Hmm.

We wound up at Cecil Court, easily believed to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley thanks in part to its curious mix of bookshops, antique shops and even nods to the occult. Clearly one shopkeeper is confident the link is true, as the window display features a selection of ‘Magic Money’ – novelty Galleon notes featuring Harry Potter and other characters from the franchise.

And here the tour ended. Along the way there had been vague references to inspiration JK Rowling had possibly drawn from various aspects of the city but I didn’t feel I’d learnt anything new about Harry Potter, let alone the filming of it in London. And I’m sure some of the young HP fans in our group wearing Harry Potter scarves and glasses were disappointed. I don’t blame them. While I always enjoy a guided walk through parts of London and learning something new, the magic of the Harry Potter franchise simply wasn’t brought alive as this walk promised it would be. I certainly didn’t feel I’d peeked into a magical world. And that’s a shame.

There is a second walk, which covers the film locations in the City. If this is run by London Walks’ ‘original’ Harry Potter expert, I’d be interested to give it a second chance. Besides, Stacey, it’s always lovely to spend time with you…

 

 

 

 

Mmm, chocolate…

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#ChallengeCompleted: Chocolate-Making Workshop

When? Saturday 25th March

Nominated by: Susan

Technically, this wasn’t originally a #ChallengeKate; it was a Christmas gift. ‘Kate, I am so excited about this!’ Susan exclaimed when she presented me with the voucher in December. ‘I just KNOW you will love it!’ A workshop dedicated to learning about, working with and – most importantly – tasting chocolate? Absolutely! In fact it was such a fabulous gift, Susan agreed to turn our activity together into a #ChallengeKate.

The Original Chocolate Workshop Susan had booked was run by My Chocolate and took place in Islington. The two-and-a-half-hour course promised a ‘quick (and tasty) history lesson’, then the chance to get stuck in, making giant chocolate buttons and fresh truffles to gift wrap and take home.

Having not long returned from Costa Rica, a fabulous trip that included a tour of a chocolate farm, I felt pretty well versed in all things cacao-related. But the recap that kicked off this course was great in reiterating a lot my new-found knowledge. Our first tasting involved blind-testing two chocolates: one a high-quality piece, the other a cheap alternative. The difference in texture and taste was immense and the superior chocolate, with its creamy texture that lingers in your mouth for ages rather than melting quickly and its bend of perfectly sweet but bitter tastes, was picked out without hesitation by every person in the group.

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With my chocolate appetite whetted, I was more than ready to get hands on and stuck into some chocolate. Preferably quite literally. First up: creating a giant chocolate button. The Master Chocolatier running the session first demonstrated how to achieve the round shape and create a marbled effect on top, then gave us ideas of how we could personalise our button with the edible treats available – marshmallows, white chocolate flakes, honeycomb pieces, salt granules (to be used very sparingly!) and grated coconut.

The hardest part was being instructed in no uncertain terms that we were NOT to lick our spoon after it had been dipped into the molten chocolate – or, indeed, not to let any body part (fingers, faces…) come into contact with the tempting bowls of liquid, glossy tempered chocolate presented to each group of eight to play with. Instead, she demonstrated how we should wipe our chocolate-sodden spoons clean on the paper towels provided. Sacrilege! (She did concede to allow us to suck the paper towels later, if we so desired…).

I was quite pleased with my button. I felt I’d achieved a good size (coaster-size) and round shape and my milk chocolate frosting looked good on the dark chocolate base. My line of honeycomb pieces across the middle worked well. I wasn’t so sure about the marshmallow cross lines; a case of less is more, perhaps – although when it comes to sweets, I think I’d already decided there was no such thing as ‘less’…

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Next up we were shown the art of truffle-making – the quicker of the two methods, with no time-consuming chilling required. Add three parts double cream to six parts tempered dark chocolate (measured with our spoon), mix well together to blend completely, then spoon into a piping bag. We were shown how to pipe bite-sized pieces then, coating our fingers with cocoa powder to stop the ganache mixture becoming too sticky in our hands, we moulded each piece into a ball. Each sweet should then be tossed into the bowl of either tempered milk or dark chocolate to coat, then fished out with the dipping fork, excess chocolate tapped off and the truffle gently deposited on to the table top to be decorated and allowed to set. We were each given a slab of chocolate fudge to incorporate into our creations (perhaps used as a centre to the truffle, or shaped with the cutters we were provided for use as a garnish), and some transfers we could use to imprint a delicate edible pattern on the top.

I got creative. As a true chocoholic, I also thought it through: why use the delicious fudge to stuff into the truffle? Why not just chuck a chunk on its own into the tempered chocolate, coat that, and just have an ‘extra’ sweet? Ditto the left-over pieces of marshmallow. My five pieces of ganache quickly grew into a set of ten tempting handmade chocolates…

It was messy. Isn’t that the point? But oh, how hard it was diligently wiping every trace of chocolate off my dipping fork in between every single submersion of it in the bowl of liquid chocolate my group shared. How much more efficient it would have been if I could simply have licked the fork clean each time…

Chocolates made, hands washed and the worst of the mess cleared up (the joy of a course such as this, of course, is that we didn’t have to worry about washing up – although I reckon I could have left that bowl of tempered chocolate pretty clean given half a chance…), we were given presentation bags and ribbons to package up our chocolates and take home.

The parting advice was to remind us that the truffles had fresh cream in them, so wouldn’t keep very long. What I shame, then, that once I’d got home, I ‘couldn’t remember’ which of my sweets had the ganache in and which were purely chocolate-covered marshmallow or fudge. Better eat them all, then, just to be sure…

Thanks, Susan, for a fabulous #ChallengeKate!

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Gentlemen (and lady): Start your engines

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#ChallengeCompleted: F1 Race Simulator

When? Sunday 12th February

Nominated by: Jon

This Challenge was right up my race track. Appealing Big Time to both the petrolhead and the F1 fan within me, the opportunity to ‘drive’ a Formula One car round a Grand Prix circuit was super-exciting.

I was under no illusions I’d beat Jon, my Challenger; he does a lot of karting and, by all accounts, is pretty handy round a race track. It’s also been a long time since I’ve put pedal to the metal in gritted determination. Mike, a fellow F1 fan and also a karter, was joining us and I fully expected to be beaten by him too, although I at least hoped I might give both boys a run for their money.

We went first into a briefing room to learn how to get comfortable in the cockpit and adjust the pedals (there are only two; no clutch. I’d rapidly have to learn left-foot braking). We were shown how to attach and remove the steering wheel, what the various buttons on the wheel did (I was relieved it wasn’t covered in buttons and switches like Lewis Hamilton’s is – there were only four, three of which I probably wouldn’t even need), and how to change gear – flick the paddle on the right to change up and the paddle on the left to shift down.

Hungary for success?

The facility offers all the current Grand Prix circuits; we’d be driving Hungary’s Hungaroring, a twisting circuit with only one real straight. This, we were told, is a ‘middling’ circuit: not overly difficult for the first-timer to get to grips with, but still offering challenges for more experienced racers.

I know the Hungaroring. Well I say ‘know’; I could probably have picked it out of a circuit line-up. When the lap diagram came up on the screen in the briefing room, yes: I recognised it. I also knew each and every one of those corners  would come as a surprise as I drove round…

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I was actually quite nervous as we entered the Race Room. Ten F1-esque monocoques lined up across two rows; no wheels, noses or wings but realistic enough nonetheless. Each car had three wraparound display screens. Getting in was a lot easier than I imagine it is squeezing into a ‘real’ F1 car and I virtually disappeared as I submarined into the cockpit. I’m not tall and the virtually supine driving position left my head all but completely below the rim. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. I guess I’d have felt differently in a ‘real’ car on a real circuit.

We now had a 15-minute qualifying session, then a short break to receive personal telemetry that would potentially help us see where we could improve our performance. Then we’d be back for a 30-minute race.

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My heart was thumping as the lights dimmed and qualifying was go, go, GO! Cars streamed past my garage as I flicked into first and gingerly pressed the throttle, hoping nothing else was coming as I joined the pitlane. Safe! Changing gears seemed straightforward enough; I even remembered (eventually) to deactivate the speed limiter as I joined the track. Tentatively I approached the hairpin. The brakes were super-sharp so not only had I braked far too early, I virtually stopped before getting off the brakes and navigating the corner, past several cars already scattered in the gravel traps pointing in various directions.

Before I had time to be smug I’d joined them. I’d spun. Someone hit me (or did I hit them? It was all a bit of a blur, really) and I barrel-rolled (thankfully the simulator was limited to vibration only), ending up nose-on into the barrier. Where’s reverse? How the heck do I get back on to the track? Where even is the track? I spent a good while repeatedly crashing into the barrier and spinning in an attempt to get going before the computer apparently took pity on me and put me back in my garage to start again…

This time there were no cars to hit/be hit by, so I successfully (eventually) got round the first corner. From now on I didn’t have a clue what bends were coming next. Sometimes there were boards counting down to the corner, which helped. Sometimes I was in a corner – or, more accurately, the gravel the other side of it – before I’d realised. I did find a lot of gravel traps.

Fifteen minutes flew by. I was learning nothing about the track but had become proficient at driving through gravel traps. I was also good at selecting neutral or reverse at inopportune moments. I kept missing gears by not pulling on the paddles strongly enough. Hey, I could at least brake hard with my left foot!

Seventh heaven?

I managed a feeble five laps, with a best time of 2:07.475. To be fair, three other drivers also only managed five laps, the rest doing six. And that said, if the fastest lap was a 1:40.690 he must have had some serious ‘offs’ if he was that much faster yet only managed one more lap in the 15 minutes!

I’d qualified seventh. Out of seven. On the plus side I was the fastest girl. I’m taking that.

The most useful thing I learned from my telemetry was that there are, in fact, eight gears. For some reason I thought there were only six so I’d stopped upshifting at that point. I also saw my braking was either fully on or fully off. Is that a bad thing? I didn’t appear to have completely floored the accelerator at any point – I could certainly resolve that. At least my telemetry implied I was roughly accelerating and braking in the right places. And while I’m sure not one of my five laps was free of some kind of excursion/spin/crash, I don’t think it’s obvious where I struggled. Other than, erm, everywhere…

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Blue line represents me; red line represents the fastest lap set

The break was swift. Quickly we were back in our cars, lined up on the grid. My tactics were obvious: hang back and let everyone crash on the first corner, then tiptoe through the debris and hang on…

Lights out! I hesitated… but quickly realised the car in front (Mike) was going really slowly so I floored it – passing him and a further car (two cars?) as we headed into the hairpin. Hey, I can DO this! Predictably, the exit of the hairpin was carnage; cars off all over the place. Equally predictably, I joined them in the gravel…

The race was long. At one point it got quite dark and ‘rained’. Should that make a difference? Should I go slower? Brake earlier? One thing I shouldn’t have done was put a wheel on the grass as I floored it down the straight; instant spin and crash. Doh!

Sometimes I came up on another car (usually recovering from an incident). Sometimes I even drove past it… but I was re-lapped pretty quickly.

I never did manage a clean lap. The most frustrating moments were when I was actually going quite well, then simply bashed from behind or barged off the side. Yes, I swore out loud on more than one occasion.

The hardest part was the lack of any impression of speed or deceleration beyond the visual display. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t looking to experience the incredible G-forces F1 drivers endure, but only the onscreen speedo and selected gear display gave any real indication of what was happening in terms of traction. I’m also thankful that virtual tyres are apparently a great deal more resilient than Hamilton and co’s Pirellis, because I appeared to spin my wheels a lot, mainly by being in the wrong gear and using too much throttle.

Steering was tough on my arms – especially when trying to manoeuvre back onto the circuit. I felt a small kick every time I changed gear and there was a definite bump when I hit the barrier and a jolt when I went over the kerbs, but nothing even approaching uncomfortable, let alone painful. I certainly wasn’t experiencing the physical thrill of F1 driving, although the adrenaline rush was definitely there.

I was almost relieved when the half-hour race finished as I was starting to get frustrated at my lack of progress. But I was disappointed it was exactly on the 30-minute mark that my display suddenly cleared; I didn’t even get to finish my lap and take the chequered flag.

Scores on the doors

So how did I get on? Sixth. Yes, I beat Mike. There was a good reason for that, but I’ll spare (more of) his blushes on that one. I’d managed 11 laps, finishing three behind the winner – my Challenger, Jon. On the positive side, I had improved my lap time by a whopping seven seconds. Not many F1 drivers find that much speed between qualifying and the race!

That said, I don’t think Lewis Hamilton – let alone the back of the grid – have much to worry about… Hey, I finished the day the fastest girl. I’m taking that.