travel: our mince around the UK – part four

Hello! I’m not sure if all subscribers were sent an email last week to point them to a new page on the blog where Paul explained calorie counting and what works for him, so apologies if you never received it – it’s an excellent read! If you’re looking for some tips on how to get started, you could do worse than read that. But that counted as last week’s new content, so here is this week’s entry – part four of our seemingly endless tour of the UK. We’ve also released a collaboration with the lovely Lorna over at Feed Your Family For £20 – take a look here! So we’ve been busy. Hope you’re keeping well! Before we get started, I’m going to say – this is our longest entry yet. I apologise for nothing. But as before, all feedback is utterly welcome: I love hearing from you on these bigger articles, so please do chip in! Enjoy!

click here for part one | click here for part two | click here for part three

I have learned by now to not bother prefacing my travel entries with my usual ‘I’ll keep this punchy’ because it never works. So, rather like my lovemaking, with this post expect very little and whatever happens, happens. That said, unlike my lovemaking, there should at least be no crying afterwards and having to take a match to the bed-linen. After our cheerful day out in Liverpool we were straight back to the car and ready for our next destination: Manchester. Now being a cosmopolitan sort with a tart in every city I’ve been to Manchester a fair few times, although never really explored far beyond the shops and a couple of escape rooms. Plus there’s a few memorial streaks of me dashed across a few Premier Inn bed-throws, but we’ll say no more about that. Paul has never been so was very much looking forward to it. I explained with that sage face I use when I think I’m being clever that it will look like they’re filming Day of the Dead outside of Piccadilly Station but not to worry, that’s just heavy use of spice. He didn’t get it.

The drive was uneventful save for Paul taking it upon himself to mute the radio to bring a premature end to my singing, and we approached Manchester during rush hour – with our hotel being right in the city centre, because of course it was. I love driving but unfamiliar cities really stress me out, something doubtless borne from trying to navigate around Gateshead to get to the big Tesco a few weeks after my driving test and finding myself trapped in a circle of one-way systems and bus-lanes. Panic set in and on the second revolution around the roads, I almost hit an old woman crossing the street, who betrayed her sweet and innocent face by waving her stick at my car and calling me a useless fat grunt. I think that’s what she said, though I confess it was difficult to hear over the sound of my neck veins popping as I tried to find a way out. Happily, I saw the same woman on my third go around and was able to wave apologetically at her as I sailed past. Being a good sport she waved right back, though her arthritis must have been playing up as her fingers had curled into a claw whilst she did it.

Since then, driving in cities has panicked me tremendously. It doesn’t help that, rather like Liverpool, the road system seems to have been designed by someone drawing out a logical system, then shredding it, then having the work experience lad piece it back together whilst he keeps one eye on the football. Several times I would be guided into the correct lane via the wisdom of Waze only for Paul to shriek I was driving in a bus lane or the wrong way down a one-way street or driving up the on-ramp onto a ferry or suchlike. What didn’t help was, for almost the entire journey, I had someone in a Fiat 500 (of course), driving far too close to the rear of my car and only taking a break from swearing at me to check her phone or shave her legs. At one point she was so far up my arse that I almost pushed back out of sheer instinct. She turned off one street before we got to our car-park and, listen, I know this is mean, but I couldn’t help but hope she drove straight into the canal. If so, I guarantee that as the windows cracked and the water turned her car into a tomb, she’ll have been live-streaming the whole thing and pulling that face that makes your lips look like Mr Hands’ sphincter.

Please, don’t google that.

Now that you’ve googled it, it’s a terrible business isn’t it? But hay, anything for a stable relationship.

We were greeted at the Q-Park by a man who looked as though he’d blow himself over if he sneezed putting out a little sign saying the car park was full, but who then ushered us in regardless. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t, who could say, but we drove around that car park about eight times and could only spot one space. I say a space: it was almost a space, as some giant fucknugget had parked his Audi Q7 (an Audi driver driving like a prick – who would have thought?!) halfway across his space and a third into the space next to him. Plenty of space on his passenger side as there was a wall there, but clearly he didn’t want anyone dinging his precious car so thought he ought to take two spaces, presumably so he could climb out of the car without hurting his giant, massive, throbbing penis. We finally managed to get a space elsewhere as someone was leaving and were making our way to the exit when we spotted another car waiting, with two young ladies swearing and gesticulating at the Audi.

Well, never let it be said that Paul and I aren’t generous and kind. Working as a foursome, with perfectly executed hand gestures and gentle encouragement, we managed to squeeze their car into the reduced space with a little guidance. Always leave it up to the gays to slide more into a tight spot than you might expect. The result was them both having to climb out of the driver side door, but you couldn’t have posted a leaflet between their passenger door and the Audi. We all agreed on a job well done and went our separate ways. I know this is mean, but I couldn’t help but hope that on his return, the Audi driver got so wound up he had to clutch at his chest climbing into the driver seat from the passenger side and tumbled square on his gear-stick. For good measure, let’s keep our fingers crossed it was one of those stupid paddle gear-sticks too.

Car parked, friends made and a trap set, we bumbled over to our hotel, the Brooklyn. Now, when planning this trip, I had only booked one night here and planned to find somewhere the next day in between Manchester and Shrewsbury. However, on the ninth service stop on the way over, I checked Google Maps and the only two destinations that seemed sensible were Wrexham or Stoke-on-Trent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure both places are utterly lovely and full of delights and wonder, but you rarely see people making an urgent peregrination to Wrexham for thrills and spills. With this in mind, I asked the chap behind the counter how much it would be to stay another night. Well, honestly. I’m not sure if the bloke used to work as a car salesman or an estate agent or a car salesman who sold cars to estate agents but boy, could he sell. Not only did we pay for an extra night but we bought breakfast and then started talking room upgrades. We explained we had recently married (fifteen years is recent, no) and he gave us a bit of a leer and upgraded us into a suite. He offered us a choice between a room with a balcony or one with a bath in the middle of a room. Clearly he saw us both and knew we loved nothing better than a ridiculously humid room with water sloshed on the floor, so we chose the suite with a bath. He agreed that we had made the more sensible option, gave us a drinks voucher each and sent us to our room.

Smile, though your legs are aching…

It was a lovely room, though. The night before Paul and I were actually married we stayed in the honeymoon suite at the Hotel du Vin (room 1216, one after Magna Carta, as if I could ever make such a mistake!) where there were two baths in the middle of the room where you could wallow together. I’m sure other couples probably rutted like stuck pigs all over that room but Paul and I had hot chocolate and watched Deal or no Deal and were glad of it. Back in the present, Paul immediately went for his new hotel room tradition whilst I luxuriated in a steamy, bubbly bath, making sure to slosh as many bubbles onto the floor as I could get away with. There was a giant bed too which you can be sure we made good use of, eating biscuits whilst half-heartedly watching Emmerdale. I know, I know, the hedonism of our lives would put Dionysus to shame. After a rest and half an hour for Paul to shave his feet and put his orthotic inserts into his granny shoes, we went out on the scene, enjoyed a few drinks and had snacks.

Oh tell you what was lovely, though. I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not mentioning it to be all ‘look at us’, because lord knows we are about as utterly Z-List famous as you can imagine. If you were to build a ladder of celebrity, aside from the fact we shouldn’t be on it, we’d probably rank somewhere below Maureen from Driving School’s husband and somewhere above Dan Wootton. Not because he’s not famous, mind, I just think 99.9999% of people are above him. But when we are travelling about and posting pictures online people seem to keep their eyes out for us and occasionally – very occasionally – we’ll bump into folks who want to say hello. All for this! We walked onto Canal Street and there was a scream from someone straight away. First thought was it was some scene-queen gasping in abject horror at my £16.75 jeans but no, it was a group of folks who had seen our previous days in Liverpool and Blackpool and wanted a picture. We will always oblige, not least because it means other people looking over and wondering why people are clamouring to get their photo taken with the stunt doubles of Miss Trunchpole and Bruce Bogtrotter from the Matilda film. We had a bit of a chat, Paul spilled a pint all over my white t-shirt and then we carried on drinking. Seriously though: I know the odds are vanishingly small, but if you ever do see us out and about, and you want to say hello, please do. If it’s the two of us we’ll always do the same joke we always do (which I can’t say on here otherwise we’ll get a snotty legal letter) (again), if it’s me by myself you’ll see my nervous Hugh Grant-esque wittering and if you’re lucky enough to catch Paul on his own – as rare as a shiny Unown – you’ll be witness to someone who hates making small talk in case he says something mortifyingly offensive. That’s not beyond the realm of possibility: Paul could ring the speaking clock and end up apologising.

The next day we woke up bright (hungover) and breezy (wishing for death) but after I’d generously nipped out and brought Paul a McDonalds back to the hotel room (forgetting we had paid for breakfast in the room) we were raring to go. Paul’s first suggestion for a fun thing to do? A visit to the Museum of Policing. I can’t pretend it would have been my first choice but he explained there’d at least be policemen and weapons to gawp at so I went along with it. It’s his holiday too, after all. However, disaster: we turned up at 10am only to be told by a crackling voice on a speakerbox that the museum only opens on a Tuesday. Well, that makes perfect sense. I was tempted to point out that my mother was DCI Vera Stanhope (now retired, sadly, which means I’ll need to revert back to making jokes about my mother looking like Irene from Home and Away) and to let us in but I knew they’d hear my actual Geordie accent as opposed to the Geordie-via-Tromsø accent Brenda Blethyn chooses to use and know something was amiss. I promised Paul we’d come back another time, knowing we wouldn’t.

Happily, we found a distraction just around the corner in the form of The Dog Shop, a tiny little pet store selling all sorts of fancy things. For months I have wanted to buy Goomba an overcoat because he absolutely stinks when he gets wet and I had seen this Stutterheim rainbow dog-coat online on my searches. It’s amazing and just the thing for making sure any other passing dog-walking blokes know I take it up the gary but it was too expensive to justify. However, there it was in the window, and after some conversation with the owners and me doing my best puppy-dog eyes at Paul, he agreed that it would be utterly foolish not to buy it there and then. Frivolous spending is always so much more fun when it’s coming from Paul’s bank card. I should say, it’s not even that expensive – £50 and it’s good quality so it’ll last a few winters – but I’m the type of person to split a match in half to make the box last longer. You’ll be glad to know we got it home and put it on Goomba who proceeded to immediately shake it off, drag it into his crate and hide it under his cushion. I’m not sure if this counts as a hate-crime but it’s hard not to take it personally, you know?

We farted about wandering around the Arndale for an hour or so, looking at things we’d never buy and men we’d never have, until it was time for the main thing in Manchester that I had booked – The Cube Live. Yes! A chance to have a go at playing The Cube, the gameshow from off the telly where people stumble around trying to do tasks of ever-increasing difficulty within their nine lives whilst Philip Schofield shrieks in the background. Paul and I used to love this show, albeit we’d record it and fast-forward through all the non-game bits meaning each episode lasted about six minutes, and would forever sit on our sofa saying how well we would do and that there was really nothing to it. This confidence ignored the fact Paul has the manual dexterity of a washing machine tumbling into a quarry and I the co-ordination you’d expect from someone who places eating cheese higher than moderate exercise on his life priorities.

With this being Britain, I fully expected a white room with a couple of those naff ‘move a hoop around a wire’ games or some other tat, but no! It’s AMAZING. It’s just like being on the TV show, only without the chance of some knobber calling you a useless fat twat on Twitter afterwards because you failed to throw a beanbag onto a podium. It’s the little things. In order to maximise the people playing, they’ve built 14 different cubes, each playing a different game, and the idea is you get into teams and get a random selection of cubes. You have a host taking you round to make sure everything is done correctly – you get three attempts per game, and each time you lose an attempt, the prize amount goes down. There was a simplify too, and honestly, the aesthetic is so much like the TV show. The first three games get you 500 points if you win, the next two (harder) get 1000, the sixth 2,000 and the last 3,000.

Because it was just us two as a team, they paired us up (and put us into direct competition with) another team. I’m going to preface this by saying they were a very charming young couple and entirely pleasant to be with, so there’ll be no mean comments. However, the bloke was very much an alpha male, and well, Paul and I shop at Jacamo and have a herb garden. The host asked how we all thought our chances were: Paul and I said we fully expected to be crap because we’re uncoordinated and a shambles, she said she was there to have fun but he: he was there to win. His words. There was very much a sense that there was no way he was a) going to embarrass himself in front of his inamorata and b) he certainly wasn’t going to be beaten by a flabby gay couple who’d already had two Red Bulls to get them going. The game was on! Our host asked us for team names – we were sparkling in our originality and went for twochubbycubs, with the other team going to Crystal. The host followed this up by asking whether that was a reference to healing crystals or crystal meth – typical Manchester – and we all had a polite titter. Well everyone else did, all I was wondering was whether someone on crystal meth would be better or worse at The Cube for it. I have to imagine they’d get the games done in record time but end up humping the ball cannon. Who can say?

Composed

The games begin! The first, Exchange, involved posting twenty-five red balls from one container through a slot in another. Easy – Paul won on his first attempt (hero!), so did Team Crystal. The second was Pathfinder – you stood in the corner, the floor flashed up a sequence of tiles to follow across the room and then disappeared after two seconds. Put a foot on the wrong tile and it was game over. Team Crystal went first and the poor lass absolutely ballsed it up on all three attempts. At one point she came very close and then dithered, gambled and lost. I was excited – I have a brilliant ultra-short-term memory – and despite the sheer bloody panic of trying to memorise it whilst people are staring, I sailed through. I have a brilliant ultra-short-term memory. 2-1 to the Cubs. The bloke looked absolutely furious. So naturally Paul and I did the whole ‘eee, I have no idea how I did that, we guessed most of it‘ schtick. I know. Of course, I know how I did it – I have a brilliant ultra-short-term memory. The next game you did as a pair and involved standing in different corners of the cube and throwing a ball to each hit a target within 0.2 seconds of each other. I thought we were fucked – my T-Rex arms and Paul’s dancing eyes would surely do us in – but we did it on the first try. Team Crystal did not. His unhappy face grew a shade more rictus. 3-1 to us.

However, the next game did us in, and it was my solo game too. All you had to do was approach a circular table upon which twenty five cylinders were balanced. Once the floor flashed, you had to turn each one over so the opposite side was showing, all under twenty seconds. Sounds easy and I won’t lie, I thought I’d be a shoo-in, but nope! First I knocked them over. Then I was too slow. Then on the third and final attempt, I had one cylinder to turn, but my belly hit the table and sent a load of them clattering to the floor. Even though we were playing for fun, the actual disappointment was immense – I understood then why the other chap looked as though he was chewing his lip off. To add insult to injury, he went in and won the game, and fair play did a very good job of it. 3-2, though we were still well in the lead on points.

The next game we absolutely knew there was no chance of winning. You had a cylinder full of 50 red balls in the centre on a domed obelisk, and you had to lift the cylinder so the balls fell out of the bottom and all over the Cube. The game would start and you had twenty seconds, working as a team, to pick all the balls from the floor and deposit them back into the cylinder. No chance! I’ve been known to let a fiver blow away in the wind rather than exert myself picking it up and if Paul bends too quickly at his current skinniness he’ll fold up like a two-bob accordion. We gave it three tries but we were nowhere near, although I’m sure everyone enjoyed the sight of my arse-crack winking at them every time I bent over. Seriously, I bet it knocked one star off of their overall tripadvisor report. Team Crystal went in and failed the first two times, but only just. In light of this, they chose to use their simplify, which gave them three extra seconds – but she managed to kick a ball across the cube and the game was lost. He looked about ready to kick our balls across the cube when we clapped them coming out but we meant our sincerity, honestly.

The sixth game was even harder – Paul had to put on a blindfold (that made him look like a steampunk welder, was kinda hot not gonna lie) and then traipse around an octagon on the cube floor without stepping over the lines. Paul had excitedly pushed himself forward to do this one, and although I had reservations (namely I’ve been with him fifteen years and wouldn’t have been confident of him doing it even without the blindfold) I let him try. Three almost instant fails. Team Crystal were next, failing on all three attempts. No points for either of us!

So the final game – Increment. At this point we were in the lead but if we failed and they won the game, they’d win overall as they’d just sneak past us on points. Now this was an absolute doozy of a game and very difficult, as you would expect from the final challenge. Working as a pair, one person had to grip a cylinder, the other person had to put another cylinder underneath that one, and the first person would let go. So player two is now trying to balance two cylinders on top of each other. Rinse and repeat, swapping the person balancing each time, until you had a tower of eight cylinders balanced precariously on top of each other, being held in one hand. Imagine trying to balance a four foot tower of wobbling, narrow cylinders no wider than a thick marker pen and you’ll get the idea. To win the game, you had to declare when you were ready, and the tower must hold for four seconds with nothing hitting the ground.

To give you an idea as to how difficult this would be for us:

  • Paul has genuinely troubled eyes – all the jokes on here are actually true – his depth perception is terrible;
  • I have a slightly shake as soon as I grip anything and abysmal fine motor skills;
  • Paul is 3ft 4″ in built-up shoes; and
  • we are dreadful communicators and anything that requires us to work under stress always ends up in an argument – you could ask us to sign our names before you had to dash to a waiting train and the pressure would result in us writing ‘Lance and Mary’ and having a wrestle on the floor

However, we had a simplify! Team Crystal had spunked their simplify up the wall earlier on the ball collection challenge and boy oh boy could you tell he regretted it. We immediately simplified which reduced the amount of cylinders needed for the tower to seven. Attempt one we managed six cylinders before it toppled from my grip. Attempt two, despite our best efforts and warm encouragement to each other (‘LEAN THE TOWER FROM AWAY TOWARDS YOU \ MOVE IT A BIT MORE PERPENDICULAR – PERPENDICULAR TO WHAT FOR FUCKS SAKE \ TRY GRIPPING IT STRAIGHT – AS OPPOSED TO WHAT KNOBHEAD, JUGGLING IT’), clattered to the floor just as we swapped grip. Tense! On our third attempt we took it so, so slowly, managed a tower of seven, and I called it. I’ve never known four seconds pass so slowly and just as we were so close to victory, the tower started to fall.

But I’m nothing if not incredibly inventive in my competitiveness, and I angled the tower right at my face. See, by having them fall towards me, they hit me before they hit the floor, and that took an extra second or so – enough time for the floor to flash green before anything hit the floor. We BLOODY WON. Team Crystal, clearly overcome by the sight of two pro athletes acing their final game and/or the realisation we’d totally hustled them, cracked under pressure, and came nowhere close to winning. Victory was ours!

We were incredibly magnanimous in victory, we truly were. Well, we turned around and Team Crystal had already left, but what can you do? But listen, as you may tell by the fact I just used up 1,500 words recounting it, we can’t recommend The Cube Live enough. It was utterly fantastic and a marvellous way to spend a couple of hours, though be prepared for some tense situations. And, because we’re nothing if not kind, a tip for you if you get the same end game we did. Everyone looks at their hands and the tower in front of them when trying to balance – don’t. Keep your eyes level with the top of the tower, and it’s far easier to judge where adjustments need to be made. twochubbycubs: saving the day once again.

Good lord, look at the length. Right – just a couple of things to rattle off and then we’re done. Get yourself an Ovaltine, we’re almost done.

We visited the Science Museum because it was free and we needed a walk, but discovered all the fun bits only opened on a weekend and were ‘for kids only’. So that filled twenty minutes.

Later in the evening we went to a cocktail bar which was recommended to us several times over on Facebook. Because it’s 2022 and nothing is ever easy these days, you had to go to what looked like an unassuming laundrette, pick up the phone inside and explain you wanted to do some washing, upon which a door would swing open and reveal access to the bar. Very cool, and certainly not the first time I’ve been encouraged to get rid of a load amidst piles of white powder. Daz? Yes, but he preferred Darren. Oh, Manchester, really.

How much for eighteen shirts of the same style and shape, heavily soiled? DEAL

The place was absolutely fantastic though, with each cocktail they brought out being more wonderful and whimsical than the last. By way of example: I started with a Bloody Mary, only this one had chorizo fat in it, fried black pudding and was served smoking. Aren’t we all? Paul had something fruity with a massive wedge of aloe vera poking out which he immediately got into his eye, but didn’t care because it was so delicious. One of my cocktails was a pile of the most delicious slush I’ve ever had. I’m really not doing the place many favours with my rubbish descriptions but you must understand: these were phenomenal drinks. And the staff! They kept sitting at our table and explaining the cocktails and making recommendations but not in an irritating, please leave us be way, but rather just showing off their knowledge and friendliness.

The best Bloody Mary since my flatmate who used to hide her clotstoppers behind the radiators in her bedroom, and I wish I was making that up

Skip the next couple of paragraphs if you’re planning a visit and don’t want a surprise ruined!

I think we managed eight cocktails before we were absolutely rat-arsed and realised that if we were to continue with the night, we’d need to stop. The bill came and I was temporarily taken with an urgent need to visit the lavatory, so I left Paul to pay whilst I went upstairs. Here’s the thing: I had my wee and was washing my hands (I know, I’m so cultured!) when I spotted a massive red button on the wall, with a sign saying it must not be pressed. Most of me knew it had to be a gimmick and something like that would be very in keeping with the random nature of the place, but then there’s always the risk it does something vitally important like setting off the fire alarm or calling for assistance because someone had slipped and fell. I was ruminating over whether to push it when another bloke came in for a piss and we agreed it was worth a gamble, although he refused to press it himself. You only live once though, so I went for it!

Don’t do what Donny Don’t does!

Disco lights came on, a glitterball descended from the ceiling and some dance music kicked off – it created a tiny disco in the gents and it was GLORIOUS. The poor bloke couldn’t piss for laughing and I almost fell down the stairs in my haste to tell Paul. I LOVE stuff like that, even if it does further cement the fact that as soon as you instruct me not to do something, I’ll do everything in my power to ignore you. Rather like The Cube, we implore you to give a go.

Utterly tiddlysquiff we decided that more alcohol was what was needed and so we headed back to Canal Street, determined to take a drink in each pub. It was a fun exercise in feeling old, that’s for sure, but it was a nice reminder of how simple we have things in Newcastle. You’ve got one pub for pop music and dancing and one pub for poppers and fisting. There’s a degree of crossover admittedly but you know where you stand. Usually in piss if you’re in the second pub. I was glad to see one of the gay bars upheld the tradition of displaying terrible porn in the background, but not even your usual ‘I’m straight, honestly, I’ve never done this before love (then proceeds to make a penis that you’d mistake for a fire-extinguisher in a smoke-filled room completely disappear without pause)’ porn but rather a random selection of soap stars and Z-list celebrities, all with crudely Photoshopped giant knobs on them. You’ll never look at David Platt in the same way once you’ve seen him nude with what looks like Noo-Noo from the Teletubbies bursting out between his thighs.

Look how fit he’s looking these days though! Even I would, and I know where he’s been!

It was a good night though, and we had a lot of fun – Paul’s an excellent drinking partner, and we’ve been together long enough to know where each other’s flashpoints are in a drunken conversation so there’s rarely an argument or hissyfit. We did have one mis-step – the name of the bar escapes me (actually it doesn’t, but I’m not kicking them when they’re clearly down) but honestly, I thought I’d stumbled back about twenty years. I can only assume the bouncers on the door were to stop the bailiffs coming for the bar-stools. You know when you enter a pub and get an ‘off’ vibe? Well this didn’t so much ring alarm bells as sent for the firemen in advance. We ordered two pints of beer from someone who had seen her arse and didn’t like the colour of it, paid far too much for the opportunity and then took a mouthful. Tasted like someone had literally just farted in the glass. And I hadn’t, I’d been sure to fart at the bar as a tip. We didn’t dare go back because by this point she looked as though she’d probably glass us if we asked for a new one so, with a brief look at the cabaret who were clearly killing times before the meat raffle came on, left. Even the bouncers didn’t look surprised by our swift departure.

Look, don’t let Mr. Anderson’s dancing eyes and bubbly bon vivant personality fool you. He’s actually believe it or not, somewhat taciturn

That was the only rubbish part of the evening though, albeit we were tucked up in bed at only an hour past midnight. The next day we woke, had several strong coffees (forgetting we had paid for breakfast, again) and a good walk along the canal until safe to drive, then made our way back to the car to set off for Shrewsbury, our next destination. There was a final shocker though: £46 for the parking. That’s with the hotel discount, no less. I spluttered indignantly and then went to find our car, which didn’t take long, as I knew exactly where it was. After all, I have a brilliant ultra-short-term memory. Save, apparently, when it comes to breakfasts.

And that’s Manchester! Now I know we didn’t see all the sights and live a day of culture, but we had great fun, and we’re planning on going back for a longer trip to catch all those bits and bobs. Next stop, prison. Not even kidding.


Hope you enjoyed! I’ve given up pretending I’m going to keep these short and punchy, but let me say this – I love having these blog posts to look back on and remember where Paul and I have been and what we did. We’ve got almost ten years of our lives documented to various degrees now and it’s the most wonderful thing. As always, I’d really, really love your feedback. Enjoying the more prosaic writing style? Did I make you laugh? Hope so!

Oh and I know, food recipes. Soon!

James x

travel: our mince around the UK – part three

Howdo!

At this point it is customary for me to apologise for the delay and come up with some faintly engineered reason as to why I’ve been absent. This week I have an excellent reason: I went back to Liverpool for a day out and ended up in Glasgow on an extended break to mince about and eat hotdogs. Literally and euphemistically. So, although a week behind schedule, I hope you will enjoy the next instalment of our little mini-trip, with today’s destination being Liverpool (this time with Paul). Do I promise to get through the next 4,000 words without making a ‘calm down’ reference? No. But do bear with. As for the food and books: recipes will be back soon and if you have any of our books, I implore you to leave a review. It really helps us!

Everyone else, enjoy! And as I’ve said at the bottom, any feedback is always welcome. I adore hearing from you lot!

click here for part one | click here for part two

Perhaps the good news for you as a reader is that this entry will be considerably shorter than the previous Blackpool entry. I visit Liverpool on the regular and have seemingly exhausted the more unusual things to do – plus Dolly Fartin’ gets fussy if he doesn’t rest – so this day and night was to be a quieter one.

Before we get to Liverpool, I must tell you about our brief stop at the services between Blackpool and Liverpool. I know, I know, I always prattle on about our pitstops and say nothing more really than how aghast I am at the price for a can of Monster or that I’m glad of a chance to ogle some truckers. Indeed, both of those happened at Charnock Richard services – and if Charnock Richard doesn’t sound like the haughty villain in a Brontë novel then I ask you who does – but that isn’t why I’m mentioning it here. The reason is perhaps even more juvenile. See, we had stopped for sustenance, with Paul dispatched to KFC to get himself a grain of rice and a photo of some chicken to eat (because, as I have mentioned before, Paul is h-e-a-l-t-h now), whereas I was off to Starbucks to get some coffee you could stand a spoon up in. I was a mite tired from all that walking around Blackpool, after all, and there was little to zero chance I was letting Paul drive. We didn’t have his booster seat anyway, so that point is moot.

No, I mention my walk to Starbucks because I passed a bloke in the corridor – one who I admit I would have climbed into his lorry cab and headed for Gdańsk with if he had so much as made eye contact with me – who, as he went past, did the loudest, most troubling cheek-flapper I believe I have ever heard in my life. It wasn’t so much a fog-slicer as an attempt on my life. He could have nipped into WH Smith, positioned himself on the tannoy and bellowed the alphabet and it still wouldn’t have troubled the decibel-level that his room-clearer did. It could have blown a side parting into a bald head. To make things even funnier, he made zero attempt to hide or even acknowledge the fact he had so loudly clouded the issue. It occurred to me, after my own ears had folded back to their usual position, that he may have been deaf – and little wonder because if he did one of those wrong-way-burps in his lorry cab with the windows up it would be the audible equivalent of a plane crashing through the windscreen – but I rather hoped not. I hoped it was done with intent.

See, to me, a colonic calliope is always hilarious. No matter the situation, no matter the person – we all have to do it unless we want hours of stomach pain and cramps, and they should be celebrated. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should kill the canary at any opportunity, there’s very much a time and a place, but I will never understand for example those couples who refuse to rear-roar in front of one another. I mentioned this anonymous whisper on our Facebook page and someone commented that they’d been with their partner for seven years and never once played the devil’s trombone in front of him. That boggles my mind as well as, presumably, her innards. I’d singed my knickers within about ten minutes of meeting Paul for the first time and we both laughed ourselves hoarse over it, which cemented in my mind that this was a bloke worth keeping. Had he clutched his chest in disgust – rather than clawing at his throat with his hands – I’d have told him I had to go and never spoken to him again. And think: had I done that, then there would be no twochubbycubs and you’d be having sad dinners every night. Gwyneth Paltrow’s life in Sliding Doors pivoted on whether she managed to board a tube train in time: mine all comes down to Paul laughing at my bum trumpets. It really makes you think.

Sustained and gagging, which to be fair is my usual position in a lorry park, we pressed on. We were supposed to be staying at The Arthouse Hotel which, according to the good folks at hotels.com, promised to be Liverpool’s most Instagrammable hotel. You know what that means folks: they’ve had a trolley dash around the tat aisles at The Range and bought some fairy lights from wish.com. High hopes I did not have. That said, I recently had reason to stay at The Adelphi, which is arguably Liverpool’s most condemnable hotel, so a soiled mattress behind a skip would have been an improvement.

Actually no that isn’t fair, I had a great night at The Adelphi. The only thing I knew about the Adelphi prior to my stay was what I remembered from watching Hotel on BBC One back when I could count my pubes with two hands and being in awe of the boss shouting and screaming at her staff in what I assumed then was Russian but now know to be the Scouse accent. She wasn’t quite up there with Jane Boulton from Airline in the ‘just as likely to glass you as help you’ customer-service stakes but she was certainly close. Fun fact for you: Eileen, the woman from Hotel, went on to manage Pontins and famously tussled with Anne Robinson on Watchdog about the clip of their hotels. If you would like to watch a masterclass in deflection and looking like the evil twin of Anne from The Chase, you can watch it right here.

The Adelphi is very much an on-brand Britannia hotel in that all the furniture looks like the kind you’d see loaded into the back of a forensics lorry after a nursing home expose, but it was charming in its ramshackle ways. My friend and I had booked a suite which was about four times the usual hotel room size with half the usual furnishings plus some genuinely mystifying darkened cupboards which you wouldn’t have been surprised to see a taped-up corpse fall out of in the dead of night. The bed creaked when I lay on it, but that’s no surprise: I could take a kip laying down on the A1 and the concrete would protest underfat.

I do feel a touch of sadness when you see these big Britannia hotels falling into disrepair – they’re beautiful old buildings that are usually fabulously ornate inside and true fallen out of time relics, but they’ve become tatty and worn with not enough money flowing backwards to restore them back to former glory. How do you raise enough capital to completely renovate a 402 bedroom hotel and then run it successfully when you can only reasonably charge about £60 a night and even then, have people turn up expecting glory and splendour only to get your bog-standard hotel room with added shouting outside? I mean, I’m not giving it a free pass here, there’s plenty of things that can be done to improve things with minimal cost. I’d start by, and I appreciate this is a level of niminy-piminy above and beyond, getting someone to remove the wads of chewing gum stuck to the mirrors in the hallway. I know, I’m a fusspot. But those people who rush onto tripadvisor and leave a one-star review because they’ve found a speck of paint in the sink or their reflection looked at them funny in the lift? They can bore off. Cut the hospitality service some slack, you self-important arses.

Anyway, I digress. Actually I digressed twice – first to the Adelphi and then onto moaning about tripadvisor. Where did I leave us? Ah yes, approaching Liverpool in our car heading for The Arthouse, only no, they had rang to advise us the hotel was ‘undergoing works’ and so, with our permission, they wanted to move us into their sister hotel The Shankly. The lass on the phone, misjudging my lifestyle a smidge, excitedly told me it was a football themed hotel dedicated to Liverpool’s best football manager, Bill Shankly. Well I could barely mask my excitement, because it was barely there. It will come as a surprise to no-one that football holds very little interest to either of us – it’s true that I can name plenty of footballers from the nineties but that’s only because I used to collect Panini football stickers because I was just too cool for Pogs. That’s bollocks too, I had Pogs coming out of my arse. She reassured us that the hotel was easy to find and parking would be no problem so we took her up on the offer. After a brief but exciting ten minutes of driving around Liverpool city centre with Paul providing counter-navigation to our Sat Nav (“I think the navigation probably knows more, dear”) and me reacting calmly and without fuss (“It’s fine, honestly, I’m fine”), we were there. Had I not spotted the hotel before driving into the car park I’d have assumed I’d driven onto the set of Hostel 4 but luckily, we were OK.

Check in took a wee bit longer than expected as the lady checking us in had just started, but I’d have forgiven her killing my parents frankly because she was so wonderfully cheerful. You know when someone just lights up a room? That was this lady and we were delighted to take our time whilst she fumbled the card machine and misheard my car registration number three times straight. After a fashion we were given our cards and headed up to our room which was up four storeys, through the Mersey tunnel and over the Irish sea. I’m not saying it was a trek but we had to set up base camp by the potted ferns halfway. Of course when we got to the room neither cards worked so we had to head back, but mistakes happen and, as I said, she was so delightful we had no real opportunity to be cross. We laughed gaily and both raised our eyebrows in a mutual ‘what are we like’ gesture and agreed that ‘we really ought to stop meeting like this’ before we said our goodbyes, walked back to the room with our suitcases and realised, again, the cards didn’t work.

I have to confess on our third visit to the counter the eunoia between us had dissipated a little and, slightly concerned it was laughter that was interrupting the tricky business of coding the keys correctly, we kept things a tad more businesslike. Though I will say this – despite blood pooling in my shoes and half of my ankle skin hanging off in blisters – when her supervisor came over to ask if there was a problem, we saved her bacon by saying we’d put the cards next to our phones and wiped them twice over. I’m not suggesting we are heroes, no, but we ought to get a medal. Not least because Paul had shrunk by two inches with all the walking.

Thankfully, the cards worked on the third attempt and we were in our room. It was…interesting. Absolutely nothing wrong with it, very clean, but absolutely massive. It had a full sized lounge, a kitchen, a bedroom that could accommodate a coach tour. My personal favourite was the free-standing shower over the giant bath with bubble jets, which I immediately filled with every bottled unguent in the room and spent a merry twenty minutes sloshing frothy water all over the floor. It sounds mean to say it but the room reminded us both of those videos you see online where a visitor gamely and cheerfully assists with an entire pissed up rugby team, most of whom are standing around looking disinterested and drinking warm lager. I appreciate that’s a niche reference but it really did! I had to hope that was dried PVA glue making the mattress protector crinkle.

A quick stop for Jennifer Beals to freshen up

Now, mindful of the fact that I said this would be a shorter entry and we’ve spent 2,000 words getting to the hotel – coupled with the fact that this stay involved a lot of walking around a city that I’ve written about at length in previous blog entries – I’m going to write about the things we did rather than all the minutiae between.

In the evening we had noodles and kept our heads down.

First on the list of things to do were two escape rooms, both at Breakout Liverpool, one at the start of the day and one at the end. The first was Heist, your standard break into a vault affair which was pleasingly linear. Sometimes that can be a good thing like this, where you see the solutions generally in the order you require them, although I tend to prefer rooms where you can see lots of puzzles and solutions at once and have to spend time marrying them up. After a brief moment at the start where we stumbled over a translation exercise, we motored through without help and claimed the record for the quickest room completion that day. I mean, they’d just opened, but still, it felt good to finish first. Certainly unusual for me in Liverpool I can tell you. Our victory was short-lived though as by the time we had returned for Reclassified, we had been knocked off the top spot.

Naturally Paul and I were devastated and spent the entire time in Reclassified with our fists balled in our mouth trying not to succumb to sobbing, but this is another fun room with plenty to do. Reclassified is a single room experience which is increasingly rare in escape rooms these days as they all feel they have to have hidden rooms and big reveals. Reclassified shows you can do a lot with a small space and a good mix of physical and mental puzzles, even if one of the puzzles made absolutely zero sense at all. The lass in charge of the room came in and explained it afterwards to which Paul and I made appreciative noises, agreed that we could totally see the solution, and then made what-the-fuck faces to each other. All I’m saying is this: if you’re relying on two people with one working set of eyes between them to solve an optical illusion, then you’re in for a long wait.

If you’re thinking of doing an escape room in Liverpool, rather than the big chains, may we point you towards Cluefinders? They’re an independent escape room business and run by the most enthusiastic, cheerful people you could ever hope to meet. I’ve never played a bad room there and for a ‘small’ company, the rooms are always very inventive. You will need to set aside two hours per one hour room because you’ll be chatting so long afterwards with them, but trust me when I say this is no bad thing. Any support you can give them, please do. You can find their website here – and please do mention that you came via twochubbycubs. It won’t give you a discount or anything but it will give you the opportunity to interrogate them as to what the sight of the top half of my arse looks like pressed up to a security camera.

We also spent a merry time looking around the Museum of Liverpool, after waiting twenty or so minutes for them to open. We stood away from the door as it can look a trifle unseemly to be itching underfoot to finally see what a difference the docks made to Liverpool – you don’t want to look too keen. We distracted ourselves by watching a tourist taking endless photos of herself posing in front of the museum. She pulled every single expression you could make with a human face and then went back through the range for another go. Tell you what though, what started off as comical to watch fast became exhausting and then, ultimately, genuinely, quite sad. I’m by no means someone who is afraid of a camera but even my endless selfies are a three-shots-and-done business, whereas I genuinely wouldn’t have been surprised to see her pull a dolly track and a drone from her Hello Kitty rucksack in the pursuit of the ‘perfect photo’. She must have took over a hundred snaps over the course of the time we were sat and not once did she actually look happy. Smiling absolutely but entirely dead behind the eyes. It put me in somewhat of a pensive mood as we went in.

See, one quick pose and you’re done – Paul wearing his Nelly plaster to hide a zit

That pensive mood lifted the moment I caught sight of the older bear wandering around behind the counter, who was all grey beard and sparkling eyes. He was a delight! So too was the museum: local museums can be very hit and miss but given Liverpool’s extensive history in trade, industry, football, music and entertainment, the museum has a lot to draw on. I mean, did you know The Beatles were formed in Liverpool? Well fret not, because fuck me you’ll know within four seconds of arriving, three if you’re coming in via Liverpool John Lennon Airport. A Beatles reference as the name for an airport – Imagine. I confess myself disappointed that there wasn’t a Cilla Black statue, though modelling those lift-door teeth out of brass would probably bankrupt the city.

Oh and I know there used to be a statue of Cilla in the town before you write to tell me. I hope it was made into bottle-tops. My favourite ‘queen of the common folk’ Cilla story comes from Twitter – so probably as made up as Cilla’s pretend accent – where she was sat in seat 1A in first class on British Airways and refused to speak to the air stewardess, demanding her PA spoke for her instead. The stewardess, tired of being looked down upon, leaned in and said ‘Cilla, I knew you couldn’t sing, but I had no idea you couldn’t talk’. I hope to goodness that is true.

We must have spent a good ninety minutes rattling around the museum, pressing buttons and trying to catch the eye of the chap we saw earlier. Among the exciting things we learned was Liverpool comes from ‘Muddy Pool’ – it’s always interesting to learn the histories of why places are called what they are. Hopefully one day I’ll solve the mystery of Newcastle. What could it mean? Liverpool is also the home of the biggest clock in the UK, though I confess I misread that and had started browsing Rightmove for houses to buy before Paul corrected my error. Either way, I’m putting two hands and my face on it, ayooo.

Liverpool also has a stone ruin that is older than Stonehenge – I know him as Martin – and the two liver bird statues on top of the Liver Building are known as Bella and Bertie. Bella faces the sea to protect those on the water whereas Bertie looks over the city to keep those on the land safe from harm. We have the same idea in Newcastle: Denise Welch stands on top of the Monument at night to drunkenly wave her knickers at the trains arriving at the Central Station and Robson Green poses at St Mary’s Lighthouse pretending to visitors that he’s a proper Geordie. For the record, he’s about as Geordie as I am. And lives in a matchbox. With a drawing pin as a dining table.

With the museum completed, we wandered around the Albert Docks, although we would have been substantially drier swimming straight across because the heavens didn’t so much open as flood the Earth. I haven’t seen rain like that for a long time. Not wanting to take the risk of having a flash flood catching Paul’s feet and swirling him down a crack in the pavement, we dived into the Tate Liverpool. You know what’s coming don’t you? Yes! My usual statement about us having no culture and art galleries leaving us cold and my desperate, fervent desire to actually ‘feel’ something other than discomfort and boredom in an art gallery.

Paul practising his gallery face

Well…gasp, it ALMOST happened. I’m not going to pretend I had some epiphany because I didn’t, but there was a genuinely interesting exhibition on all about climate change called Radical Landscapes. Naturally, it was the only exhibition you had to pay for, and I didn’t half wince when Paul handed over the card, but I’m glad we did. It gave us something to focus on whilst we lightly steamed dry under the bright lights of the gallery and I admit right here it was lovely to not feel like an empty husk for once.

My favourite was this photo of me attempting dogging for the first time

Speaking of feeling like an empty husk, Paul advised me as we were leaving that he would need a brief moment to go make a deposit in the porcelain bank. We retrieved our coats from the basement and I sat down to wait in the cloakroom whilst he went off to the loo across the corridor. All very routine. I sat for almost ten minutes before I realised Paul had seemingly vanished. I went into the gents to see if I could spot his size 12 Naff Co 54 trainers poking out the bottom of the cubicles but the doors were full length and plus, I didn’t fancy being arrested for being the world’s fanciest pervert cruising the bogs of the Tate, so went back to my seat for another five minutes. Paul has been known to take his time with his ablutions so I wasn’t too concerned but once almost twenty minutes had passed I threw up my arms and stomped upstairs so I could get a signal in order to text him to hurry up.

That’s where I spotted my dear husband perusing the gift shop without a care in the world save for finding some overpriced tat that I’d need to carry around for the rest of the day. He looked entirely surprised by my curt enquiries as to where the fuck he had been, and explained that he had assumed I’d gone into the toilet after him. That didn’t quite appease me given a) he would have walked straight past me on his way out of the toilets and b) I’m a very efficient shitter, in that I’ll be in and out without any significant delay. I asked how long he would have waited before coming to check on me and he replied thirty minutes. Half an hour! The only time I’ve spent half an hour in a public toilet was when I was a teenager and testing out the knees on my C&A trousers and even then I’d be wrapped up and smoking a cigarette after twenty. Minutes that is, not blokes.

We agreed that it would be best to fit a bell onto his collar and left, thankfully into sunshine, towards our next destination: the Liverpool Wheel. As you might expect from the name, this is a hedge maze in Doncaster. Well obviously not, it’s one of those giant ferris wheels that have sprung up all over the UK that give you the chance to coo over a cityscape from your own pod as it slowly completes a revolution or two. Newcastle is getting its own very soon called The Whey-I. It doesn’t work so well spelled out but if you say it in a Geordie accent (ask Robson for tips) it sort of works. Curiously, they’re planning on putting it so it overlooks Byker on one side and er…a concrete mixing plant on the other. I know they’re stymied a bit about being able to build it somewhere where it doesn’t block the view of something beautiful – and mind, Newcastle is absolutely awash with amazing views – but they definitely need to rethink its placing.

Liverpool’s wheel doesn’t have that issue though – the views were wonderful. Admittedly, it took me a revolution and a half before I plucked up the courage to fully relax and enjoy myself. It’s the most curious thing: heights don’t phase me in the slightest but put me in one of those pods – and mind, it really is only ferris wheels where this happens – and I get a pain in my kidneys and tense right up. I think it’s a combination of knowing you’re trusting your life to a couple of bolts and a chap whose mind is probably still preoccupied with his Tesco meal deal. Either way, I’ll sit bolt upright, clinging onto the seat with my fingers, legs and bumhole, until we’ve done one full pass and I know we’re not going to tear off and tumble into the Mersey like we’re in the world’s shittiest version of that gyrosphere ride in Jurassic World. Once I had relaxed it was marvellous and thoroughly worth the £16 or so fee to board. It’s certainly the highest I’ve been in Liverpool for many months.

See? Relaxed. It’s all fine!

It does baffle me somewhat that they need to put a warning sign on the door expressly telling you you mustn’t wrench the doors open mid-turn and step outside. Who is that for? Who becomes so bored by a trip around a wheel that they think the most sensible thing to do is to add a 196ft free-fall drop into their afternoon? And yet, at Ferris HQ (they never get anything done, they’re just going round in circles) (sorry), they must have considered this a big enough risk that they needed to counter it with a warning sign. The mind boggles and the body splats.

Who is this for?

And that, my lovely readers, is that. We did do other things but we’d be here all day if I was to recount them all and I’m keenly aware of my promise to keep this short. What can I say, I’m a terror. The next stop on our trip was Manchester, where we would drink too much and beat off a bloke with peak meet-me-at-McDonalds hair. I wish I could tell you it’s not what it sounds like, but it absolutely is.


Hope you enjoyed! As ever, really would welcome your feedback. I know we’re a food blog and we’re slightly more absent on recipes than you’d expect but it really has been lovely taking a break. Part four will be next week, assuming I don’t see something shiny and end up driving across two countries like I did last week. I’d apologise, but I’m shameless.

James x

travel: our mince around the UK – part two

Oh hey!

Boiling hot, I know, so I hope you’re reading this somewhere shady and have got plenty of Factor 50 on your bits. No-one wants chapped lips. Whilst we are recovering from our book launch, we’re resting the food recipes for another week or so. I’m thoroughly enjoying having an opportunity to practice my writing hence the longer but less frequent posts, but given we always get such good feedback on our holiday entries, I shall continue with them. A favour though! I really would love your comments and feedback – did it make you laugh? Is the writing style nice and clear? That sort of thing. I know it’s a lengthy blog entry but you know me, when I get going I really go. I really do love hearing from you all, so please don’t be shy. Regular readers of the blog: the food recipes are coming back, I promise. But until then, let’s continue with part two of our recent mince around the UK, with our overnight stay in Blackpool. Enjoy!

click here for part one

When we last spoke, you left Paul and I as we embezzled a free anniversary pudding and settled in for the night, with a plan to rise early and make our way down to Blackpool. The original plan of course was to walk alpacas around the edge of Derwent Water whilst we screamed and slipped – standard – but the inclement weather had put paid to that. Still, Blackpool would surely provide the chance to be spat at by some blonde with badly-spaced teeth, so it was a good plan B. We were just settling down to bed when Paul asked, unusually coyly, whether I had seen the toiletries bag. I confirmed that I had indeed seen the bag and had even left it next to his toothbrush so before we set off on our road trip, he could pop his toothbrush into the bag and then he could put the toiletries bag into our rucksacks. It was an effortlessly simple plan and one I was terribly proud of.

However, it relied on Paul being attentive, and that’s where it fell down. Our toiletries bag, to the surprise of none, was still on our bathroom windowsill at home. We laughed and shook our heads at each other in a way that hopefully conveyed how much I wanted to defenestrate the forgetful sod, then made to go to sleep. Him wondering whether he could go a whole week without his vitamins, me agonising over whether I had enough aftershave to get me through the next few days without reverting to my normal state of smelling like a horse’s arse. Despite our woes we slept well and were on the road by 9am, having decided against breakfast as neither of us wanted to be the only ones sitting there expectantly whilst the chef cursed us for ruining his early finish. I like my toast with Marmite, not ire and spittle.

We managed about five minutes of happy motoring over the hills before we turned a corner to be met with a sea of sheep in the single track road, with a very obvious hole in the wall to the left where they were all merrily spilling out of and a barbed wire fence on the other. Have no fear, I said, telling Paul that I could sharp corral the sheep back into the field with no trouble at all, having read at least three James Herriot books when I was a youngster, but he seemed doubtful. I further explained that sheep can tell the difference between a frown and a smile and so gentle encouragement and a flash of my teeth would be all that was required to put them back where they needed to be.

Almost goes without saying that my approach didn’t work. As I carefully cajoled a few of them back through and turned my attention back to the ones in the road, the rescued sheep decided they needed to see if the stragglers were having a nice time and came back through. I thought I’d cracked it after five minutes or so with a good three quarter of the little buggers returned only to spot that the sheep were now pouring out from an open gate a hundred or so meters down the road. I’d have had more success trying to sieve water. I returned to the car with thin lips – Paul having the good sense to keep quiet – and drove past very gingerly whilst they did everything in their power to try and get under the wheels.

Yeah you better run, you painted whores!

We made progress for about another half a mile when we crested a hill only to be met with another road full of sheep and not a farmer or a sheepdog in sight. This time I simply put the car in reverse and drove, a mite testily, backwards until the previous junction, where I set off in the opposite direction and decided to let Waze sort me out. Happily, after spending a couple of minutes of it deliberating whether we wanted Blackpool in Lancashire or Blackpool in the Yellowstone National Park, it got us back on the right road. When we next return to the Lakes I’ll strap a bottle of Colman’s Mint Sauce on the front of my car to show them I mean business.

With no further ovine calamities befalling us, we made it to Blackpool in good time, with a mere three stops at the services to break up the 100 mile drive. Paul shares the same love of services as I do so never grumbles even if we’ve only been on the road ten minutes before I need to stop for a wee and a snack. Tebay Services is on the way to Blackpool and always worth a stop, if only so you can sit and people-watch for a while.  It always amazes me how busy these places are – which I know sounds like a trite and obvious observation, but where are they all going? All these people with cars and families and children and plans all have a home, somewhere to be, things to do, a job. So many little stories to be mined and discovered and because I’m an inherently nosy person, I want to know all the details. Then you start wondering about how many degrees of separation lie between you and the mother smacking her kids’ legs for wanting sweets or the old couple who have taken seven minutes at the till to figure out the contactless payment or the lorry driver who looks as though he slept once last year and didn’t care for the experience. Of course this is all entirely moot because the answer is I know them all personally from overtaking them doing 35mph on the slip road rejoining the motorway.

So, Blackpool then. It’s a place that divides opinion for sure. If you look online – particularly in threads about the ‘worst places in the UK’, it is often mentioned as being a dying town full of people itching to cause trouble at the slightest provocation. Indeed, Bill Bryson, my favourite author, took a very strong dislike to the place in Notes From A Small Island, although amongst his complaints he did give us the killer line: ‘well, all I can say is that Blackpool’s illuminations are nothing if not splendid, and they are not splendid.’ – I’d kill to be that cutting. I, however, unashamedly and unapologetically love the place.

If you go to Blackpool expecting fanciness and class you’re going to be sorely disappointed, it is true. By way of illustration, as we parked the car at the station car-park there was a woman hunkered down behind the wall having a big steamy piss with little effort made to either hide what she was doing nor where the frankly endless stream was spitting out of. She looked like an old tractor whose engine had overheated in the sun. As welcomes to a town go, it is certainly below a cheery planter full of chrysanthemums and yet somehow above those patronising signs that say ‘thank you for driving carefully’, which I always think is a touch presumptuous – but then I don’t like any welcome that makes me look up from my phone when I’m speeding along: it’s just careless.

And, certainly, there are parts of Blackpool where I keep one hand on my wallet and the other on Paul’s shoulder lest we get mugged and I need to push him in front of me as a sacrifice, but there’s places like that in every single town and to suggest otherwise is a failure of observation. We all know a pub where you go in through the door and leave out the window. Unless, of course, you live somewhere like Chalfont St. Giles, but then you have the permanent trouble of living somewhere that sounds like cockney rhyming slang for haemmorhoids, so it’s take with one hand and give with the other.

No, I love Blackpool. It is unpretentious, welcoming, full of things to do and – perhaps most importantly – full of people there to have fun. If you walk around with a stick up your arse it’ll sharp be taken out whereas if you go for a good time without expecting too much, you’ll thoroughly enjoy yourself. Long time readers will remember that Paul and I had a similar epiphany about Benidorm: snooty as all out when we hadn’t been, but then fell in love with the place upon visiting. One thing I especially like about Blackpool is the people living there: good-natured people who don’t take things too seriously. If you’ll forgive a whorey cliché a hoary cliché, Northerners are indeed more welcoming, and apparently none more so than those who want to flog you a pint for £1.90 or a bag of broken rock to pull your fillings out. This is my third time in Blackpool, having visited twice previous with a mate, but Paul came in with only what he had seen on ‘Bargain Loving Brits in Blackpool’. If you’re using a Channel 5 docusoap as a measure of a place you’d be forgiven for gritting your teeth well in advance, but he was excited. Anything for a Kiss Me Quick hat, that boy.

Doesn’t look like Paris to me

After taking an hour or so to look around the big Tesco to replenish our toiletries – me with toothpaste and deodorant, Paul for some Deep Heat to try and fix the cold shoulder he was getting from me, we went to check in at Hotel 33 on Dickson Road. The owner was a lovely chap who seemed unusually delighted to welcome us to his B&B, though there was no breakfast, so really only a B, but if I said we had joined him in bed you’d get the wrong idea. As it happens I did toy with checking us into one of the more…adult B&Bs in the area but decided against it. We’re too old for that sort of schtick I feel – these days if someone poked their erection through a hole in the bathroom door I’d be liable to hang a towel off it. If the towel stayed put then perhaps I’d schedule him back for later. No, all we need these days is somewhere to get our head down rather than our head up, and this place was fine. Very clean, a good shower and a bed that didn’t have a crust on the mattress. I’d previously stayed at Mardi Gras (amazing) and Boulevard (like someone delivered a hotel meant for St Ives to entirely the wrong town) but a change is as good as a rest. That and Boulevard had recently contacted me to proudly announce they’d just hosted Priti Patel for the evening. As allurements for a return visit go that’s like sending me an email to say every bed has been freshly shat in and the bathroom suites had been replaced with showers that dispense nails at the speed of sound, so I unsubscribed.

We immediately drank the free hot chocolate, scattered some milk on the floor out of those tiny UHT pods and shared the one Lotus Biscoff biscuit that had been given. I don’t know when Lotus Biscoff biscuits replaced those Walkers Shortbread White Chocolate and Raspberry cookies as the biscuit of choice in hotels but I’m not happy. In fact, I blame Alex Polizzi. Too busy looking for pubes on the toilet seat to care for us fatties wanting a more substantial snack.

Paul had booked us to do the Dungeon Escape Room in the – you guessed it – Blackpool Dungeons, under the tower. According to their own email we weren’t due to start until 1.30pm so we set off to have a look around the arcades. You can imagine our surprise then when we received a call at 1.10pm from someone quite aggressively asking where we were and that we were ten minutes late. Forever polite, Paul apologised profusely for their mistake, and we minced (Paul) and waddled (me) to the dungeon. I showed the email to the person on the front desk who looked at it as one might look at a spread of dog shit on a fancy shoe and we agreed as a trio that although their email had specifically said 1.30pm, we were clearly idiots for not understanding this actually meant 1pm. I mentioned that by that metric they could expect a five-star review later and by that I actually meant a one-star review. Actually I didn’t, because I’m British and cowardly, so I just seethed a little.

The escape room wasn’t bad by any stretch – it just wasn’t great. Lots of puzzles and an interesting final dynamic but when your room requires lots of reading on the wall, it might be an idea to provide a torch. I’m of an age where I squint reading things on my phone at full brightness – asking me to ascertain a knight’s lineage by the gentle glow of a fire exit sign isn’t going to happen. That said, we never got stuck for long thanks to the clue system which didn’t so much guide us when we were stuck as walk us through each puzzle before we had a chance to consider our options. I’m not suggesting for a second that the Escape Mistress was trying for an early finish but boy was she keen. At one point I stopped to tie my shoelace and was expecting ‘TIE ONE LOOP AROUND THE OTHER AND PULL, YOU FAT USELESS BASTARD’ to flash up on the screen. We finished with half an hour to spare and were bustled out of the room like they were evacuating due to fire. Thank god for that exit sign.

It turns out we weren’t quite finished. Paul, possibly suffering from a bout of scrapie from our sheep encounter, had also booked us to do the dungeon experience. When I asked why he looked panicked and said it had all happened so fast, but we had no time to make an escape as we were shepherded into a holding pen. Where we were the only people. Can you think of anything worse than being the sole focus of a range of actor’s attentions for an hour whilst they screamed and shrieked and hollered at you? Because frankly I couldn’t. We waited to see if anyone else would turn up and thankfully, at the very last moment, they did, just as someone descended from the ceiling in a Grim Reaper costume and a cloud of Rightguard Xtreme. Even better: it was a family of four with two young children so you know who would be singled out for jokes and ‘hilarious’ skits.

Yep, me. I got asked to pretend I was a grave-digger at one point, which necessitated wailing. Then in the fake courtroom, I got put on trial for bashing the bishop too often, which required a bit of bawdy back and forth. Then, perhaps the most awkward part: I was asked to be the victim whilst a genuinely fit man explained how reprobates were tortured back in the day. Imagine my distress as someone made to trouble my nipples with a set of pliers and threatened me with a red hot poker. Had the family not been there I’d have asked for a safe-word and a rag soaked with poppers but instead we kept it family friendly whilst Paul absolutely pissed himself at my obvious discomfort. He’s lucky: Paul didn’t get selected for anything other than holding the door open for one of the actors to nip out for a cigarette.

You know what though: it was really fun. I mean yes, naff as all outdoors, but rather like Blackpool itself, if you don’t go in all cynical and trying to be clever and ‘too cool for this’, you’ll have a good time. The actors were giving it their all, some of the effects were decent and the tiny drop ride at the end elicited a little scream from one of us. Not me though: I was too busy eyeing up the lad who strapped me in to pay much attention and it was over before it had really begun. They are a bit cheeky calling it a drop ride given it ‘plummets’ about five foot, though I appreciate when you are Paul’s height that must feel like jumping off the Eiffel Tower. The whole experience including the escape room took around two hours – probably only ninety minutes to most but there was a section with mirrors where we obviously lost time as I gazed appreciatively at myself from every conceivable angle – and for £52 all-in it wasn’t bad value at all. Escaped twice over, we went for a wander down the promenade.

A giant dick

Look how happy he is!

 

One of the benefits about visiting Blackpool that they don’t mention in their marketing is that your trousers will never sag with carrying too much change. Everywhere you turn there’s an opportunity to throw your coins into something. In the arcades you can waste a few quid trying to win a teddy so old you wouldn’t be surprised to find a packet of Pall Mall strapped to the other side. Walking down the street you’ll be spoilt for choice for chip, sweet and tat shops (not always all three at once but I’m fairly sure I spotted one business offering it all). You can buy sticks of rock shaped like giant dicks, rock that tastes like weed, ashtrays shaped like a massive pair of tits, and my personal favourite, a gigantic stick of rock that when sucked, revealed the word ‘C*NT’ in giant letters. I’m censoring that purely so this doesn’t post doesn’t get stopped by any over-zealous filters, though I assure you the word wasn’t CENT. There are blokes trying to encourage groups of tiddly-squiff ladies onto horse-drawn carriages as they walked past, although I noted that Paul and I weren’t asked, presumably because we didn’t provide them the opportunity of a growler-flash as we climbed aboard. The injustice never ends. There’s even a few caravans / huts / repurposed electricity substations that promise you the opportunity to have your future read by a ‘Medium to the Stars‘, with photos of those very same stars in black and white on the side of the hut. Now I don’t know about you but whenever I see that half of X-Factor’s Eton Road endorse a product, I know it’s going to be quality. I do wonder though, if I had the gift of clairvoyance, whether I’d be using my gift to rinse tourists out of a tenner a pop on the promenade or picking out the winning lottery numbers and nicking off to Marbella. Still, not for me to reason why.

Amongst all of the rides and attractions we came to my absolute favourite and something that Paul and I have been looking for ever since experiencing it in Scarborough a decade ago: Prize Bingo. You know those old bingo games where you have a pair of boards with little curtains you pull across to hide the numbers as they are called? Here it was, and for only 10p a board. A proper little slice of seaside nostalgia right there. Back when I was a child, my parents would take my sister and me up to Seahouses on a Saturday afternoon. Overcome with the generosity afforded by the happiness of having somewhere sunnier to smoke, they would press a few quid into our hands and tell us to go entertain ourselves whilst they did adult things like fishing and eating winkles. Steady. After we had rinsed the 2p machines by bumping into them and bought ourselves some chips, my sister and I would end up in the prize bingo above the chip shop where we would spend an hour or two excitedly trying to amass enough tokens for a teasmaid or a crystal dolphin or some other tatty ephemera that would delight for moments. We never did manage that – think the sum total of our wins was probably a Wham bar and a lecture off my mam for wasting money – but the memory is a happy one. That prize bingo place is a sea-facing apartment now, because of course it is. When Paul and I played Prize Bingo in Scarborough twenty years later we won a pack of microfibre cloths and we were glad of it – so could we replicate the thrills here?

This was taken on the first trip, before chaos ensued. And look at Paul’s watch!

Absolutely we could. Honestly, of all the good things in Blackpool, this is probably my new favourite. It isn’t the drama of almost getting a line and then having it snatched away from me at the last minute – I’ve become accustomed to that – but rather how unbelievably seriously some of the old guard take it. Bear in mind you’re playing to win a token, and said token might be banked and eventually cashed in to exchange for something that you’d find in one of those Kleeneze catalogue-o-shites that used to be posted through the door, there’s not much to victory. But in the hour or so we saw it all – grumblings about a favourite seat being taken, actual swearing when someone called house, the drama of running out of 10p coins and not having enough chance to catch the old fella with the change machine before the next round started, the lot. There’s an old joke: ‘how do you get forty old ladies to shout fuck – get one to shout house’ which absolutely applied here. Even the bingo calls were old-fashioned – none of this ‘your place or mine, 69’ nonsense.

We somehow managed to keep our composure and ended up winning a token. As we are savvy we banked it into our wallet in case we ever came back – why waste it on a pencil sharpener shaped like an anus when you can put it towards a cup that says ‘I Beat The Millennium Bug’ with a centimetre-thick rim of dust, after all. We actually came back the next day when it was far busier on our way back from the Pleasure Beach and caused a genuine scene: Paul, despite his best concentration face (imagine a squirrel trying to solve a tricky jigsaw), managed to mishear a number and called house incorrectly. Well, octogenarian anger ensued: the ripple of annoyance that someone who hadn’t witnessed the Second Boer Way first-hand had won (“never seen him before”, “he’s not taking it seriously”, “bet he doesn’t struggle for a piss at 3am”) which was accompanied by them clattering their boards to reset them…only to be then told the call was invalid and the game was continuing.

You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, you really could. See you’re told not to reset your board until the call is confirmed so it was entirely their own fault, but fucking hell – you’d have thought he had got up and stuck a bingo ball up his arse the way they were carrying on. Amid a sea of barely-whispered complaining and enough venom in the air to make the hair in my ears crinkle, the game continued.

Paul called house – correctly – on the very next number.

We decided there and then not to stop to cash our tokens in: partly because we thought we ought to let someone else win, partly because I didn’t fancy us getting shived by the sharp end of a walking cane and pushed into the Irish sea.

RISK, REWARD

We spent the rest of the day in the arcades and farting about on the beach, then got changed and headed out for drinks. I’ll say this: Monday night on the Blackpool gay scene doesn’t really do the place justice. That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, we really did, but everywhere seemed to shut down at 10 bar Sapphires and that looked one spilled drink away from a dance-off and someone coming in to hold a meat raffle. Now in their defence I’ve been a couple of times previous and it’s been an adventure then, so perhaps it was just an off night. At Mardi Gras we attracted the town drunk who seemed insistent on staying with us until I mentioned that I work in law. I think he took that as me being a policeman rather than the truth of photocopying deeds in a law firm but either way he buggered off into the night to have a scrap with a postbox. For the record the best bar is The Flying Handbag because it has decent music, lots of space and more importantly for two gay blokes who have started making appreciative noises when afforded a chance to sit down, plenty of seating. Plus it’s called The Flying Handbag for goodness sake, and if that isn’t the best name for a gay venue I don’t know what could be. Until I open my own seedy sweatbox nightclub called ‘Gape’ that is. We finished the night eating terrible takeaway in bed.

Having time of us life xoxox

We checked out early the next day, Paul taking special care to ensure he had left his coat in the wardrobe, and took our bags to the car. Blackpool Pleasure Beach was our next destination. I’m not going to prattle on about theme parks because lord knows I need to save some content for the Thorpe Park entries, but I’ll say this: it was brilliant. We had managed to get a cheap deal on the tickets using our Tesco Clubcard points but even without a discount it would have been excellent value for money. I will confess that for a few days beforehand I was nervous because it has been a long time since I had been on a rollercoaster. I used to be absolutely terrified of them but then, somewhat rashly, booked Paul and I a Florida holiday many, many moons ago. I remember standing in front of The Incredible Hulk – and Paul was standing in front of a rollercoaster –  and trying to decide which would win: my phobia of rollercoasters or my Geordie stinginess of not wanting to waste money. My tight-arsed nature won in the end and I’m so glad it did for I now absolutely adore rollercoasters. I actually gave myself heart arrhythmia from riding Manta too many times. Nothing scares me as long as I’ve got a restraint and a bad attitude. However, as I said, it’s been such a long time since I was on a coaster that I wasn’t sure that bravado would still be there. Plus, getting old aren’t we: I imagined every ride finishing with me stumbling around with the balance in my inner-ear swirling like a draining bath.

Needn’t have worried though: we did them all and they were amazing. We did ease ourselves in entirely accidentally by jumping on the first rollercoaster we saw on the map, the Nickelodeon Blue Flyer. Upon joining the queue and seemingly being between two Year 3 classes out for their summer break we realised it wouldn’t quite be the white-knuckle experience we had anticipated, but it was a good bit of fun. Looking on the Blackpool Pleasure Beach website it is listed as ‘Kid’s First Coaster’ which I think sums it up. I was just glad Paul had remembered his Dora The Explorer rucksack so we didn’t look too out of place. Next was Avalanche where I spent most of the queue asking Paul whether it actually ran on a track or if it was just a free-rolling ride. He confirmed it was the former rather than the latter so you can imagine my delight when I realised this wasn’t the case. I’m fine with rides but, call me old-fashioned, I do like being fixed to the actual track. Paul may have lost weight but we’re still a hefty amount combined and I had visions of the car hitting a banked corner and sending us flying into the Irish Sea. Happily, that didn’t happen. Revolution was a lot of fun – the scariest part of that is waiting in the queue high up in the wind. By this point I was getting fussy because I wanted to ride The Big One – to be fair, it’s been a couple of months and I miss it – so we joined the queue there.

See? It’s big.

The Big One, of course, is the rollercoaster everyone knows at Blackpool – the absolutely massive steel coaster that takes you up around 230ft and then drops you down. I passed the time in the queue rubbing Paul’s sunscreen in (he applies it as though he’s Jackson Pollock then forgets to do all the important bits like his ears or his entire body) and reading facts about the rollercoaster. All very dry facts so I won’t bother you with them here but I did spot a story about the ride breaking down right at the top of the lift hill which necessitated the evacuation of the riders down the absolutely tiny flight of stairs to the side of the track. Fuck. That. I’m alright with heights as long as I’m strapped in / jumping off something but walking down a tiny flight of stairs made from mesh metal? Nee chance. I advised Paul that if this happened we would be living on that rollercoaster until they managed to get it going again, whether we were talking an hour or a year. Looking at the online video I don’t even think you get clipped into a harness – which is probably for the best as getting me into a harness is like wrangling a horse into a t-shirt – and I just couldn’t do it.

The ride didn’t break down and it was well worth the anxiety, although I do think once the big drop has happened the rest of the ride isn’t all that and a bag of chips. The rest of the park was great fun: Icon is an amazing coaster that knocks Rita at Alton Towers into a tin-hat, and Infusion saved me any amount of money on getting a chiropractor as it knocked my spine in and out of alignment. We took in the Tunnel of Love and Paul was delighted when he thought I was trying to hold his hand. Sadly not, I just wanted the Smints from his pocket. Even the Ghost Train was good fun – all proper creaking effects and hissing airbrakes – though we were more excited for Derren Brown’s Ghost Train at Thorpe Park. I’m sure that won’t disappoint, no no.

I’ll leave you with what I consider to be the scariest ride in the park – the bloody Steeplechase. How that is allowed I have no idea. I’m sure it is perfectly safe but when you’re sat on a metal horse and careering around a track at quite the lick with your husband hanging on for dear life, it definitely gives you the fear. I had to have two ice-creams to calm down. ACTUALLY no! This is the most terrifying thing in the park.

This can actually go die in a fire. Except it didn’t burn in the actual fun-house fire, it survived and they kept it. Why? Lord knows. But it is AWFUL.

But all in all, a lovely day and one I can certainly recommend if you like a theme park. It hasn’t got the showmanship of the big parks but unlike Alton Towers you don’t need to walk eight miles between rides. Plus, if you go at the right time, the queues are entirely manageable – we didn’t fastpass a single ride. Didn’t need to. There’s enough variety of rides to keep everyone interested and there’s more than enough to fill a full day out.

We walked back to the car, taking a long detour back to the hotel to pick up Paul’s coat, and then we were off to our next destination: Liverpool. Until then…


Hope you enjoyed! As ever, would love feedback!

James x

travel: our mince around the UK – part one

Hello! Did you miss us? Of course you did. We’ve been away you understand, and it’s hot, and there’s been such a lot of things going on. Dinner Time (our new book) has done very well and thank you all for supporting that. If you could take a moment to leave us a review on Amazon, we’d be very grateful!

Today’s blog entry is the start of a new travel series, and we’re going to do something different on here going forward. See, I love writing (can you tell) and holiday entries are my absolute favourite, but I’m always conscious that we have to accompany a 3500 word entry with a recipe and it starts getting way too complicated. I want to write more but having to also cook and publish a recipe to go with the writing is a ballache and with everything else going on, it means I don’t post so much. So going forward, I’m going to keep the travel entries to their own posts and the recipes/food on other posts. So if you’re a fan of the writing, that’s all the better, and if you’re just here for the food, you don’t need to scroll through my nonsense to get there! Win. Shall we?

Back in December, I somewhat rashly promised Paul a quick break away at Thorpe Park, entirely forgetting it was a solid five hour drive away and likely to contain the one thing that makes my lips crinkle with disapproval: children. Particularly, loud children. Indeed and perhaps even more particularly, your loud children. Now I know your children are lovely and sticky-faced and no bother at all but you must surely agree that most venues and places would be infinitely improved by a secure place to leave a child rather like one does with a precious coat at the theatre. I strain that analogy as if I know what it is to have a coat that cost more than the petrol I used to go to the supermarket to pick it up. Nevertheless, I love a rollercoaster and the accompanying three days of feeling slightly off-balance, so Thorpe Park it was. I booked two days without checking I could save money with a voucher (I could), without checking what the hotel on-site was like (shipping containers) and whether my padded arse would fit into the rollercoaster seats (it did). See Paul doesn’t need to worry about such things now he is skinny and svelte – in a pinch we can fold him up like a love-letter and pop him in a matchbox –  but the fear of them fetching the prying bar lays forever heavy on my heart. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

See, you know me. I can’t tell a story without eighteen diversions, so why would you expect me to be able to cross the country, arrive at one destination, and return home two days later on time without fuss or fanfare? I treat my holidays like I treat a blog entry – lots of rambling, some good food and if you’re lucky, I’ll finish sometime a few weeks later. Hence our trip away became something entirely more convoluted: I advised Paul that:

  • he was to take two weeks off work instead of three days;
  • I’d front-load our trip with a week of mystery destinations and plan everything in advance – all he had to do was turn up, and more critically…
  • we would take my car and I would do all the driving.

The last point was essential to us having a good time away. I simply can not relax when Paul is at the wheel – partly because it normally means we’re in his Smart car and I’ve got my feet in the glove box and my torso hanging out of the boot, but also because he drives as though he’s just broken out of prison. He’s only ever had one accident (not his fault) (was though) but I put that down to sheer luck than talent. No, he’s a wonderful husband in each and every way but I’ve long come to terms that the only way I’ll fall asleep as a passenger in his car is when he’s plunged us into the sea because he saw something shiny whilst trying to park and the bends get me. So we both agreed – or rather I explained at length and Paul accepted graciously – that I would fill his week with fun and frolics and in exchange, all he had to do was sit in the passenger seat and pass exactly zero judgement on my driving. Quite right too.

Plus my car recently came top of a list ‘most likely to be driven by drug dealers’ so I was holding out for some rough trade climbing in and offering me cash for my antihistamines. A boy can dream.

So there it is: our Thorpe Park trip would become a ten day trip around the UK and with our suitcases packed the night before (by me) and the house tidied up (by me) and a cheery goodbye to the tall, married, bearded DILF on our street who I have fallen in love with (bi me, hopefully), we were ready to go.

Oh! Before we start, just a word of caution. Each place we visited was to be a day or two at maximum, and none of those visits were done with the intention of ticking all off the very best things to do in that area. We were aiming for laid back holiday, not feverishly working our way through a checklist. So if you’re reading and thinking ‘why didn’t they do that’ or ‘I can’t believe they went to the Lakes and didn’t spend an entire day walking vertically through the clouds’, I ask, ever so politely, that you keep your lips quiet. I know I know, but every time we posted where we were going we got about 1000 suggestions and then that creates FOMO. And this homo don’t need fomo, I promise you. To the trip report then!

I say we were ready to go, I wasn’t kidding – I bustled Paul out of bed at 4.30am in order to get a jump on the Sunday traffic heading into the Lake District. In my head I had this rose-tinted memory of road trips with my family when I was wee – getting bundled into the back of a Ford Escort to spend nine hours picking at the stitching on the back of my mum’s seat, washing down warm Kia-Ora with the smoke of a thousand tensely-smoked Lambert & Butlers. Not mine, I hasten to add, my parents weren’t that lax. I had a pipe. What I had forgotten in my reminiscence was that we would be heading up to the Scottish Isles and not 70 miles down the road, so when we arrived at our first destination at 7.30am – for a 10.30am breakfast reservation at Bassenthwaite Lake Station no less – we didn’t half laugh. Literally, half of us laughed, me, whilst Paul bravely decided that sitting in the passenger seat looking out of the window had tired him out and so he needed a quick refreshing nap. Leaving him to gently pool drool into my cup-holder, I went for a quick walk around Bassenthwaite Lake.

uk trip

The weather was glorious!

It took less than three minutes from me getting out of the car to me managing to find a naked bloke in the trees in what I had assumed was a very remote spot. That’s a record for me: I barely had time to put my knee-guards on. However, it wasn’t the nifty experience you might expect – he was wild swimming. Very brave I thought – you could tell the water was cold – and I gave him a cheery wave and went on my way. I’d absolutely love to try wild swimming but I just know I’m the hapless sort that will pull my knickers off, enter the water and have a giant heart attack. I could bear that ignominy if I didn’t think I’d then drift out into the lake and have some passing tourist boat purr over thinking a weather balloon had come down in flight overnight. Honestly, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

I wandered along the shore a little more before the heavens opened (and why wouldn’t they – it had been glorious for the week prior to the holiday, it seemed only fitting then that it would tip down the second I backed the car off the drive) and then hastened back to Paul, who through the soaked windows of the car looked like he had actually died in his sleep. I resisted the urge to let the handbrake off and roll him into the lake and instead woke him up gently by leaning on the car horn. He burst back to animation in a fit of swearing and spittle. It’s how we keep things spicy.

We filled the next couple of hours walking around Cockermouth which afforded us the chance to pose Paul in front of various signs so the word ‘Cock’ was next to him. Because we’re childish.

uk trip

Mahaha.

Then we made our way to Bassenthwaite Lake Station, arriving at 10.15am so choosing to sit and wait in the car for a bit before going in. A week previous the wonderful Grace Dent had reviewed this place in the Guardian and absolutely sold it to me (and, judging by the difficulty I had finding a time slot, every other chinstroker within 200 miles) and I knew Paul would love it. It’s a restaurant set in a railway station, with half of the tables actually being on board a replica steam engine that was used in the recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. It’s pot luck whether you’re sat in the train or the waiting room – both lovely by all accounts but let’s be honest, everyone wants the train – and you can’t book where you’re sitting.

10.30am came around and we made to go and check in. Do you check in at a restaurant? Arrive? Whatever. As we crossed the car park we were pushed out of the way by a woman and her child as though she was storming the beaches at Normandy. She could have gone around us but instead thought the best course of action was to plough straight through. Clearly her haste was fuelled by the hope of being sat on the train but, much to her chagrin and our utter and entirely undisguised delight, by pushing in she had actually jumped in front of us and was shown to a table in the waiting room whilst we were taken to the train.

We aren’t petty men at heart but that breakfast tasted all the sweeter for being able to catch her eye as she wandered disconsolately outside of the train looking in, and giving her the biggest, cheeriest, most heart-warming smile we could every single time. I almost guarantee that if you look on tripadvisor there’ll be a new and very cross review on there kvetching about the service by someone who thinks their hair colour is a personality trait. Pity.

Breakfast was superb though. I went for the full English and Paul elected for the vegan option because he’s HELF these days. All wonderful, even if we both agreed that peashoots have no place on a breakfast, and we paid after a short delay whilst our waitress trekked over to Carlisle on foot to collect the card machine. Oh! Returning to people watching for a second, there was a couple behind us who were seemingly having the worst time of their lives. Not because of the location or food, but simply their life. I have never seen someone look so unutterably cross as this lady. I like to let my mind wander (usually whenever Paul is launching into one of his very detailed recollections of a time he saw a sparrow or suchlike) and imagine what people’s deals are. With her I can only assume she’d returned from two years of hard service in some awful war. I genuinely thought I could have sat down in front of her, grasped her hand and told her she only had an hour or two left on the Earth and lightened her day considerably.

uk trip

The full English

Anyhoo, with breakfast done, we made our way back to the car and into Keswick – first to check into our accommodation for the night (the Keswick Youth Hostel) and to do an escape room at the Kong Centre. However, en route, I received an email advising me that POSSIBLY THE MOST ROMANTIC THING EVER had been cancelled due to the bad weather. I’d arranged a boat hire to sail us around the lake with an onboard picnic but due to the wind and rain, this would need to be rescheduled. Like a dagger in my heart that one, and to add insult to injury, the next morning’s activity was cancelled too. I’d arranged for us to walk alpacas at Alpacaly Ever After (best name ever) but due to the mud and the wet, that too was to be rescheduled. This was especially gutting as I’d recently done an alpaca walk with my mate and it was glorious. Tall, demanding, awkward on their legs and prone to spitting without warning, he had booked the alpaca walk and knew I’d enjoy it. And I did! So of course fate demanded I’d never get to repeat the process and Paul wouldn’t enjoy it either. Probably for the best though given Paul’s little Polly Pocket legs: he’d feel like he was trundling alongside an AT-AT walker from Star Wars.

Necessity is the mother of invention though and I’m nothing if not adaptable, so a quick google search revealed we could take in the escape room, visit the Derwent Pencil Museum and perhaps have a quick drive up to Whitehaven if we hurried, so with squelchy shoes and five minutes of rage and indignation at having to pay £10 to park in Keswick for a day, we set off. First, the escape room. At first glance it seemed a load of gash, tucked behind a climbing wall in a kids activity centre, but it was terrific: perhaps it was the fact we hadn’t had the chance to shout at each other for a while, perhaps it was having an escape room with a theme we hadn’t done before (we had to locate and rescue a fallen hiker), who can say, but it was great fun AND the first escape room we have completed in months where we didn’t use a single clue. We almost cracked and asked for help with a puzzle involving a xylophone but perseverance saw us through and, not going to lie, we felt like heroes when we crackled the walkie talkie to life and ‘called in rescue’. In the end, the sound of Tarquina and little Footsie-100 stotting their heads off the wall next to us only added to the atmosphere.

With the rain still absolutely pouring we decided that we needed somewhere nicer to sleep and sacked off going to the Youth Hostel (it’s right in the centre away from the car park, the town was heaving and we had about forty suitcases because it’s us) and so decided we’d find somewhere nearby, switching to the Best Western back at Bassenthwaite because it had a pool and was cheap on hotels.com. All about those reward nights! With the knowledge that we’d be sleeping somewhere a little more salubrious in our minds we made our way down the hill to the Pencil Museum. Clearly it took all we had not to sprint with excitement but one must exercise restraint in all things.

The Pencil Museum is exactly that: a museum dedicated to the story of the pencil. How they are made, what they can be used for, exciting pencils through history, exactly how many you have to ram up your nostrils to get out of going to a pencil museum, that sort of schtick. Aaah no though, my sarcasm actually does them a disservice: it’s a very sweet little museum which, whilst not exactly going to give you reason to sit and fan at your face with the map through over-stimulation, does a very good job of making a very dry subject fairly interesting. That’s helped by the fact you’re given a little quiz to complete as you walk around (a clever way of making you read the exhibitions) with the promise of a prize at the end for a full set of correct answers. But goodness me, you’d think the prize was a cheque for a million pounds handed over by Chris Tarrant judging by how seriously some of the people were taking it. At one point we witnessed a very British, snippily-delivered exchange between two couples who both looked like they’d been dug up that morning where one pair accused the other of copying. Copying! The answers were right in front of us in size 48 Comic Sans. Things looked like they were about to get nasty so we moved on, taking advantage of their quarrel to sneak a peep at their answers and finally discover exactly what the ‘Graphite Scale’ is a measurement of. It’s how hard the lead in the pencil is. As if you need a scale – you can normally tell just by whether you can push straight forward or you have to use your thumb to encourage it home.

We spent a good thirty minutes in the museum, making appreciative noises and waiting for the other to buckle and demand we leave, then reached the end where we handed over our quiz sheets and were informed that we had indeed won a prize. We both made a big joke (which I’m sure they’ll have never heard before) about pretending to be surprised about what we could possibly win from a pencil museum where pencils were made by people who make pencils for a living could be, only for the staff member to hand us a free pen. Well, that shut us up.

uk trip

The size of that pencil!

Remembering that the centre of Keswick was four tourists away from the entire crowd joining together as one giant human mass like bubbles in a lava lamp, we got in the car and drove to Whitehaven and see the sights. Once we arrived in Whitehaven, we got back into the car and drove straight to the hotel. No shade to Whitehaven, I’m sure it is a terrific place indeed, but 5pm on a Sunday does not cast it in the best light. The walk around the harbour was very pleasant but given a Wetherspoons is number five of things to do in Whitehaven, I felt we had seen enough. We did buy a chocolate bar from a newsagents only to discover the lady behind the counter had apparently been sitting on it like a chicken may protect an egg, leading to a melted packet of crumbs, and seeing that level of disappointment on Paul’s face was enough for me. Back to the hotel then.

The Castle Inn Hotel, just a short drive from where we had enjoyed breakfast earlier in that day, was charming. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Best Western Hotels – they’re either superb or look like they’ve fallen through a wormhole from the 1970s. We stayed in one in Peterborough once and would have had a more comfortable night had we dragged our mattress out behind the bins outside. Not so here: it does look a bit dated and rough around the edges but so does my face and your husband never complains. It was eerily quiet though – if there were more than ten guests in there I’d have been surprised. We were checked in by a wonderful lady on reception who seemed glad of the opportunity to have a conversation. She really was a delight and would later catch us passing through reception to hand us a little brownie on a plate with ‘Happy Anniversary’ in chocolate sauce. I absolutely adored this and felt utterly awful that it wasn’t our anniversary and I had just blurted that out at check-in because I panicked when asked why we were visiting and wasn’t sure if replying ‘we’re spending a week together in close proximity to see if our hearts still sing to each other’ would have elicited a laugh or a sad face. Between her going to the extra mile and moving us into a colder room after I mentioned in passing I could have comfortably stewed rhubarb without a hob in the first room and the lovely chap in the bar who rustled us up some food despite closing at 8pm, we were very impressed. I did leave a glowing review on tripadvisor because people only use that to complain and that saddens me.

uk trip

LIES! ALL LIES!

(skip the next couple of paragraphs if you’re a bit squeamish about rude stuff)

We finished the night early by heading down to the pool facilities where, save for a bloke doing lengths in the water with that ‘oh look at me I take it seriously stay out of my way’ gasp and splutter proper swimmers do, we had it to ourselves. We splashed about in the water, did a couple of lengths and then went and sat in the hot-tub thingy. I always enjoy the thought of a hot-tub more than the reality – once you become aware that you’re sitting in a hot bubbling soup of people’s toenails, spunk and backhair, the idea somewhat loses its lustre. Paul and I once went to a sex sauna (they’re SEX PEOPLE, LYNN!) on holiday only to find it entirely deserted bar the chap running the front desk. He did us a favour by explaining that we would be better turning around and not coming in because it was grim. After we explained that we were hardy souls and it couldn’t possibly be that bad, he actually took us to show us the place with the lights on.

Jesus. Aside from the fact it looked like an especially well-used dovecote, it was just…filthy. You expect a certain level of muck but not like this – literal load-bearing walls. However, he saved the worst for last – he walked us over to the hot tub, pulled out the filter, and showed us what it had caught. You know on Countryfile when they visit some bore who keeps bees and they have the moneyshot where they pull the honeycomb out from the hive and it’s dripping? Imagine that, but cooked. I’ve seen some sights in my thirty-seven years on this Earth and smelled even worse but that almost did me in. You know how they say you wouldn’t eat the sausage if you saw how they made the meat? That, but in reverse. We spent a good two minutes gagging in ways we didn’t expect, then left, after a brief moment where he also showed us that he had tattooed his own name on his penis. Wasn’t even something like Mike, think it was Christopher. What a show-off. I’m going to get the same thing done but change my name to J.

(come back!) (no, it was in the filter!)

Refreshed and clean, and given the chance to accidentally stare into this random man’s fleshy asterisk when he bent over to pick up his towel in the changing room after his swim, we went for a short walk around the grounds upon which we were reminded that we had brought the gayness to the Lakes. See?

uk trip

Aww.

I know, we’re sweet. It is here that we shall leave this story and return to it another time, where you will join us in sunny Blackpool, the next stop on our trip to Thorpe Park.


As ever, I hope you enjoyed the read, and feedback is always lovely. Food recipes will resume soon!

James x

recipe: corned beef bake, hash, slop, whatever

I’m going to call this a corned beef bake – it’s absolutely the least photogenic of all of our most recent recipes but I tell you what, if you’re looking for a bowl of stodge to keep you warm, this is the potato dish for you. I don’t know if it is a bake, a hash, some slop in a tray, but it really doesn’t matter. But before we get to the corned beef bake, some EXCITING ADMIN.

OK, so not exciting admin, but I do love writing in this little pink box. Just a reminder that Dinner Time, our third magnificent cookbook, is coming out in May. It’s over 100 recipes of wonderful dinner ideas with the usual smattering of us all over the pages. You can order it here – thank you!

Finally, this is a holiday entry so it’s probably going to be a long one – if you’re in a rush, just scroll straight to the food photos! Right. Back to London.

Because I’m going to talk at length about the next two things, I’ve decided to split London into three parts. I know, I’m a slut. But if you haven’t read part one, you can do so by clicking here. Otherwise, you left us as we’d just finished a marvellous escape room, and so we return.

Monopoly Live

Paul reminded me that we had Monopoly Live booked and we had not one single moment to spare for me to go and make myself look pretty, so we were straight into an Uber. Now here’s the thing with Uber: I remember when you could barely move for them in London – you’d open the app and there would be an Uber at your feet within moments. Nowadays you have to wait five to ten minutes. What happened there? Either way, Paul’s impeccable 5* Uber rating took a hit the other week after we bundled a drunk friend in to take him home and he did something – we don’t know what – which made Paul’s rating drop by .02. Paul is still incredibly sore about that. Coming back to London though, our driver was chatty and lovely, even if neither Paul or I needed to open our mouths for the conversation as it was just a long, long monologue. What does that feel like, readers? We arrived at the venue and he was still chattering merrily to himself as he pulled his Octavia away. We loitered for a moment to see if we could hear him on the wind, failed, and so went inside.

I will say this now: we both audibly gasped when we went in at the sight of the doorman: he was quite genuinely one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen in my life. Tall enough to be continued, dark beard as majestic as Aphrodite’s pubes, arms like sleeping bags full of bowling balls. I’ve never, ever been more tempted to kick off and cause trouble in my life and frankly if he had offered there and then to take me up the Old Kent Road I’d have beaten my own shadow to the back room by a solid ten seconds. I looked at Paul (partly to make sure he was seeing what I was seeing but also to ground myself) and he was similarly slack-jawed, though with him it’s pure muscle memory. It was all I could do not to curtsy but somehow I managed to blurt out our booking reference without being lost in his eyes forever. We had arrived forty minutes early and he assured us this would be no problem but honestly he could have spent those forty minutes calling my mother all the names under the sun and we’d have stood there smiling beatifically and nodding politely.

We were shepherded/slid into the bar to wait for our team to be called and we took the opportunity to have a glance around to see who we might be paired up with. Paul and I are both terrible for making assumptions of people (I bet you’re the same) and we immediately decided we wanted to be with the group of four who appeared to be on a double date. The fact that one of them looked like a chubby version of Aaron from Emmerdale (though you could tell it wasn’t actually him, as he wasn’t crying) had absolutely no bearing on our decision, I can assure you. There was another table of four comprised of people more Tipping Point than Mastermind and we were fretting the whole while that we would be paired up with them. Thankfully, the bar had an extensive range of Monopoly-themed cocktails and after three of those, we were too pissed to care. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had a strong old-fashioned in a bar in London, and I doubt it’ll be the last. Paul did make the mistake of taking the tiny decorative £50 note affixed to the cocktail jar and slipping it into his shirt pocket as a memento, failing to realise that it was made from sugar paper and as soon as he started sweating (and Paul starts sweating as soon as he blinks) it melted across his boob and looked like he’d started lactating.

Mascless

At half eight we were all corralled into the next room and given our teams – we were, thankfully, with the handsome team. They finally explained how the whole thing worked and I am going to try and give you the gist here – it sounds way more complicated than it actually is, I promise. You were grouped into teams of six, with a maximum of four teams per board. There were only eighteen of us waiting so it became three groups. A man dressed as Mr Moneybags (and a very enthusiastic actor!) comes out and welcomes you all and sets out the rules. No drinking, no smoking, no-no Nanette, that sort of thing. You’re playing on a giant version of the Monopoly board (there’s four to choose from, and we chose the luxury board because we’re classy) and you roll giant dice and move around accordingly. At each property is a little room which contains a puzzle – very much like The Crystal Maze – and you solve the room within a time limit to win that property. To win the game, you need to build properties on your spaces just like Monopoly, and there’s all the usual buying and selling and stuff going on. It is incredibly fast-paced, easy to follow and very, very fun.

What made the whole experience even better was the fact each team is given a real-life token – that is, rather than playing as the top-hat, you’ll have an actor with you wearing a massive top-hat explaining the rules as you go. Our token was a camp, bearded bloke called Timothy Thimble (I have no idea why he appealed to Paul and I) and he was utterly, utterly brilliant. You know when someone knows they are playing a nonsense role but leans totally into it and makes the whole experience so much better? This was Timothy. He made us laugh the entire way around and he was just what you need to get everyone’s inhibitions down. We went in full of British reserve and came out with aching ribs from laughing.

In terms of the games themselves, you all get a go at doing something. Paul and I won our round by correctly hooking forty keys from a bowl onto the right keyhooks which revealed a code – I confess it felt unusual to be taking keys out of a bowl rather than putting them in, but nevertheless we persisted. There was another room which was dark and involved creeping up behind a bloke to rummage in his pocket – I put myself forward for that but I think the fact I’d already taken my trousers off and started passing poppers around might have put them off, and someone else took charge. Paul spun a lucky wheel of fortune three times and lost, which I feel is very Paul, and then as a team we had to build hotels and houses together against a clock using building blocks. Well goodness me, we were appalling at this part: a combination of alcohol, wandering eyes, distraction and an inability to literally think outside of the box saw us needing Timothy Thimble to step in and ‘help’ more than once. We came second – story of my life – but it was absolutely bloody marvellous. If you’re in London and looking for something unusual to do, we can’t recommend this enough. We paid £98 for two tickets so it certainly isn’t a cheap couple of hours but the theming, fun and sheer inventiveness of the game was worth every quid. You can book it online here.

Us in Mayfair? Not exactly the Reader’s Husbands bit is it

The Crystal Maze Experience

The other ‘big’ experience we had booked was a go on The Crystal Maze Experience near Piccadilly, which promised a perfect replica of what was my favourite TV show growing up, Fun House. RELLOW RELLOW RELLOW. No, The Crystal Maze obviously. I used to have a crystal in my bedroom that I had been told came from The Crystal Maze and I was super damn proud of that. However, in retrospect, it seems obvious that my ‘Auntie’ Elsie – already pushing 95 at the time the show was on – hadn’t hurtled around the maze herself. I mean she couldn’t get out of her chair without a hoist so again, seems unlikely. Turns out the crystals were just paperweights you could buy in tonnes of shops too. It’s always been the lies I can’t handle.

I was never one of those purists who stopped watching when Richard O’Brian left, although I’ll die on the hill that the Industrial zone was far superior to the Ocean zone. I’m all for that derelict factory aesthetic. Paul and I did chuckle watching a re-run a few months ago when we realised one of the games involved sliding a perfect illustration of Paul’s ‘fancy a takeaway’ face around. See?

Also, if you’ll forgive me a moment of nerdiness, it’s the fourth best TV theme of that era after (in reverse order and all opening in new tabs):

  • the BUGS theme tune (though the way the wire moved in the opening credits always – and still does – creeped me out);
  • the Going for Gold theme tune (done by the same chap who scored Interstellar, no less) (and that link takes you to the full theme tune if you are wanting some extra cheese on your day); and
  • the 999 theme tune (brrrrrr)

Actually sticking that 999 theme tune on when I was finding the link gives me the shivers. When I was young I used to be terrified of the house burning down at night so naturally my parents thought the best way to calm me down was to let me watch a 50 minute programme, upstairs and alone, full of things bursting into flame and people getting javelins thrown through their neck. Funny how simple bits of music can take you back, isn’t it? Mind saying that I blame Gladiators for awakening my love of dick after seeing Rhino prancing about in his leotard. Also, possibly why I have a thing for authoritarian men too thanks to referee John Anderson – even now when it’s ‘taking a while’ Paul just needs to shout ‘YOU’LL GO ON MY SECOND WHISTLE’ in a strong Scottish lilt and we can get to sleep early.

Anyway, shock horror, I digress, but you learned something new about me there didn’t you? So, to very briefly explain how it works – it’s essentially the TV show but slightly smaller, but all rules are the same. Team of six (they’ll pair you up with strangers if there’s just two of you, like us) running around four giant zones, each player playing 3-4 games to try and win a crystal whilst your teammates look through the windows and shout advice / naked hostility. Games are split into mental (using your brain), skill (using your agility), physical (using your strength) and mystery (fuck knows). A team captain is nominated at the start who chooses who gets which game. You get between two to three minutes per game and if you don’t get out in time you get locked in. Each crystal is worth five seconds in the Crystal Dome at the end where they turn on giant fans and tonnes of gold and silver tokens blow about. You need to get 100 gold tokens after deduction of silver to win. There see, I could be the Maze Master – lord knows I’ve got the haircut.

With us starting at 3pm, Paul got us to the venue at 2.15pm, because heaven forfend we would turn up to an adventure and not have to spend fifty minutes glancing at our phones and me inwardly seething at him. We were shown to the bar (hooray) and told we couldn’t drink (boo) and immediately spotted another couple of lads who were on our team, literally and (so we thought) euphemistically. There was something about one of them – 6ft 2″, chubby, snappy shaped beard, green coat, hectoring his partner – that just appealed to me, so I decided to spend my time making cow-eyes at him. Eventually, after my hamfisted attempts at flirting left my ham entirely unfisted, we were ushered in to meet the other couples and to meet our Maze Master, Ty Tanic. I’ll say this now – in much the same vein as Timothy Thimble, this man was an absolute legend – so full of vim and enthusiasm that you couldn’t help but enjoy yourself. We gave the captain role to a lovely lady whose name I forgot immediately and in we went.

Cubs, I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it was. The games are exactly like the ones on the TV in terms of attention to detail, size and scope and you really do feel like you’re on the game show itself. Paul did two games (winning one, losing the other – and how: he had to shoot arrows to knock apples off perches and he quite honestly would have had more luck if he had stayed back at the hotel, bless him). I did three games and, somewhat inexplicably, won all three. My mystery game was essentially a tiny escape room which was easy enough, then I had a physical room where I had to crank a generator and then hoist myself across the room on a trolley quick enough to snatch the crystal before it disappeared out of sight. I say with no exaggeration that it was probably the fastest I’ve ever shifted my 20-stone frame in my entire life: I exited our burning house in a more leisurely fashion. My last challenge involved building a set of giant keys to slip into holes into the wall and well, it can’t be a surprise to you to know I did well there. Between the six of us we played sixteen games before heading to the dome with ten crystals.

Find someone who looks at your arse like Paul looks at mine and you’re set for life

Before we get to that, a couple of things I learned:

  • turns out when you don’t know the people you’re playing with, you can’t really shout ‘helpful’ instruction like you might with your partner – whenever we lost a game, it was all very aaah bad luck and IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE – one of the games we lost was a giant form of Operation where you had to pick up scattered bones and put them into a giant alien corpse. Our teammate seemingly didn’t understand how to use tweezers and took two minutes to figure it out. I almost bit through my tongue holding back my yelling but she was so nice I didn’t dare say anything;
  • you move between zones in the same way as you did on the TV show – crawling through tunnels, sliding down giant slides and for what must have been a terrifying moment for the person below me, climbing down a very tall ladder. I was preoccupied with Paul climbing down above me however as he had spent a good ten minutes saying he didn’t think his knee was going to hold – that and me wearing oversized Dr Martens made for a very scary descent;
  • one of the rooms apparently has an actress playing Mumsie in it – we didn’t get her and that’s probably for the best – had I opened a door and been met with an aged crone wearing tattered rags looming from a veil of smoke, I’d have just assumed Paul’s mother had come along on the Megabus

The dome itself was exactly like it was on the TV – lots of screaming and shouting and things getting blown all over, then we were ushered in to have a go ourselves. We managed 188 gold tokens and only one minor concussion. A quick stop for photos (the magic ruined slightly by someone coming in with a leaf-blower to sweep up all the errant tokens) which I won’t be posting here because I look like three little men wearing a giant shirt and then we were on our way, promising to leave Tripadvisor reports and to bitch about the other contestants.

Rather like the Monopoly Live experience, we can not recommend this enough: it was a solid two hours and superb from start to finish. As there are more games than there are opportunity to play them, Paul and I will be going back to try the others. I’d say only one thing: it is probably better with people you know purely so you don’t feel bad calling them a stupid cow when they can’t do the games, but even if not it was still amazing. Expensive though: two tickets cost £158, but there’s always deals to be found if you look around on those voucher sites. You can have a look here!

OK, let’s leave it there. 3,000 words. I’m not even sorry. To the corned beef bake!

corned beef bake

This is what the corned beef bake looks like cooked

corned beef bake

Again, the corned beef bake doesn’t look much, but it tastes so good!

corned beef bake

Get a spoon and start to shovel this corned beef bake as soon as it is done! 

corned beef bake

Prep

Cook

Total

Yield 4 giant servings

This recipe comes via the author of the Emotional Support Potatoes. I've tinkered with it to add our own spin on it, which will doubtless result in four days of asthmatic, indignant wheezing and a face like a slapped arse - six days if he realises I've changed the recipe - and it's lovely. I have however added his gran's recipe under our own so if you're a purist, you can try that too. Either way works!

Also, this is one of those recipes where it is hard to give an exact amount on things because it depends what ratio of corned beef to potato you like. See also cheese.

On the calories: this comes in at 605 calories but those are HUGE portions, including the cheese and the crisps - you can reduce both to save some calories but listen, this is a bowl of stodge and you don't need to skimp. Calorie counts are approximate as ever.

Ingredients

  • 700g of potatoes - we use Maris Piper
  • one egg and a splash of milk
  • plenty of salt and pepper
  • one large tin of reduced fat corned beef 
  • two large onions
  • 250g of extra mature cheddar
  • chilli sauce, as much as your arse can handle
  • optional: one bag of Walkers Max Flame Grilled Steak Crisps

Instructions

  • make the mash by boiling chunks of potato (don't peel them) until soft and mashing it up with an egg and some milk, plus salt and pepper to taste
  • whilst the mash is cooking, finely dice your onion and fry gently until golden and soft
  • in a big bowl, mix the mash, corned beef, half of the cheese and more salt and pepper together, seasoning to taste
  • slop into a baking dish and cover with the rest of the cheese and, if using, the crisps - but crunch the crisps up first so they go into wee tiny bits

Pop in the oven on about 170 degrees for 30 minutes, covering the top with tin foil for the first twenty minutes so the crisps don't burn. Feel free to finish off under the grill to make it super crispy. Serve with beans if you like but we prefer just good old fashioned chilli sauce.

Notes

The original recipe by Ann Nethercot, living legend

Make your mash with a load of butter and milk until creamy. Mash in a tin of full-fat corned beef, top with cheese and grill until crispy. Serve with beans and disappointing looks at your grandson.

Recipe

  • customise this to your heart's content - add some peppers in there, chilli sauce running throughout, try sliced tomatoes on the top - but we think either the pure way above or our way works best
  • don't stop reading at this point, we've given you a second recipe for how to use leftovers

Books

  • this might not look like the most sexy recipe ever, but that's because we're saving those for book three which is awash with recipes that'll make you pop a towel down - you can pre-order here!
  • what's bright, colourful and satisfies you in the kitchen? Neither of us, but the second book can: order yours here! 
  • considering it was our first, the original cookbook is still something to treasure: click here to order
  • looking for twenty six extra recipes and a kick up the arse with your diet - then try our planner: here

Disclosure: the links above are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, we will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and make a purchase. Which is handy, as we're going on a cruise in September and just learned that J-Lo is our entertainment and I need to bone up on diamonds so I'm not fooled by the rocks that she's got

Courses comfort food

Cuisine twochubbycubs

Now, if you have leftovers – and you likely will because lordy does this make a lot – let it cool in the fridge and then shape it into fish-cake sized patties. When time to cook, dip them into egg and then seasoned panko crumbs, then gently fry them until the crumb is golden. Serve with beans and a fried egg on top, like so!

Look at that ooze though!

Right, that’ll do. Until next time.

Tick tock goes the clock, and what then shall we see?

Jx

recipe: winter minestrone

Winter minestrone awaits you – a cheery bowl of absolutely lovely soup, but before we get there, two things!

I know, I know – but we must remind you that our new cookbook DINNER TIME is coming out soon! May 26 – and it is glorious. You can order it here – thank you!

Secondly, this is a holiday blog, so please forgive the length – not often I can say that. If you’re hungry, just scroll as quick as you can straight to the food photos. I won’t hate you for long, promise. Get to wheel out a fancy banner though! Oh it’s been so long.

I’m going to make you a promise on this one: I shall post part one today and part two next week in a break of tradition of me posting the later parts of a holiday trip two years after I’ve been. It’s a bad job when you go to revisit your past frolics only to find the country has a new name and redrawn borders. Still, twochubbycubs go to Formosa does have a lovely ring, doesn’t it? On that note, the rest of the NC500 posts are back in the queue to appearing soon, only ten months late. I know, I’m utter scum.

We’re cheating a bit calling this a holiday entry really because:

  • it was a work trip to see our lovely publishers which we somehow managed to spin into a four day adventure;
  • it’s London – we were only there but two weeks ago; and
  • I’m not writing it chronologically this time, only the highlights, otherwise we’re going to get stuck on me telling you about the crisp selection on LNER for 2,000 words and nobody needs that in their life. (edit: yeah don’t listen to that last one)

Though that said, turns out no crisps on the LNER journey because our publishers had put us in standard and sat us apart for good measure. We aren’t fussy bitches though – we only travel in first class if we can get a cheap upgrade and purely so we can rinse them out of sandwiches and coffee – but sitting apart on what we thought was going to be a packed train wasn’t going to be fun. We nipped to the ticket desk to enquire how much it would be to upgrade our tickets only for the lady to laugh (in a nice Geordie way) and inform us that it would be £180 extra, each. At that price I’d expect to not only drive the train but take the driver back to our hotel to test my own shunt limit.

We sloped back to wait on the platform and to chance our arm in coach C, where we were told there may be some unbooked seats together. Luckily, after pushing a few old folks out of the way there were indeed two seats together however they were opposite the most ‘Hi, I Study Philosophy at Durham University’ person you could ever wish to meet. The type whose volume is always set to vociferous and for good measure, doesn’t so much elongate their vowels as take them to a country road and strangle them until the light leaves their Is. It would have been quicker and quieter for her to get on the train intercom and share her ‘faaaaaabulous dining experience‘ with the rest of the passengers all at once. I don’t think we had made it over the Tyne before I switched to an individual seat a few rows back, leaving my poor husband to die inside on his own. You must understand: it was either that or I took the tiny emergency hammer from the window, clawed out my eardrums and deposited them both in her oaaaaaat-maaaaaaaaaaalk laaaaaaaaaaatte.

winter minestrone

Taken four minutes after leaving Newcastle

The rest of the journey passed almost without incident save for a drunken bloke who appeared from the toilet after Newcastle and started bellowing about needing to be let off at Durham, despite the train not stopping there. He had seemingly taken the view that the best way to remedy this vexing situation was to wander down the aisles shouting ‘DURRUM’, ‘NEED DURRUM’, ‘GOT TO GET TO DURRUM’ before a kindly train guard took him by the elbow and, if there is any justice in this world, hopefully pitched him out of the train door onto the tracks post Darlington.

I’ve never longed for a cup of tepid, over-brewed coffee and an adjustable headrest more, honestly.

For the first two nights of our four night adventure we were staying back in the Premier Inn Hub by Kings Cross, where we had stayed only a couple of weeks prior. I had hoped the staff would have been waiting for us by the door to slap us on the back and welcome us home but instead we were given a room in the basement without windows and a bed you’d struggle to scratch your arse in without turning on the shower. Despite Paul’s weight loss we remain a significantly heavy coupling but actually, after some minor grumping and generous lubrication, we settled in just fine. We did try once more to order a drink from the bar (after a previous experience defeated us) but they had somehow managed to outdo themselves with the bartender who looked utterly mystified when we asked for a gin and tonic.

After some gentle persuasion and once another member of staff had nipped over to change his batteries, he managed to pour a single shot of gin into a glass followed by eight litres of tonic. Given how proud he looked I didn’t like to mention I’d ordered a double and so we left it at that, though we won’t be troubling the bar again any time soon lest smoke started pouring from his ears. That’s my job!

We woke bright and breezy enough on the Saturday and rushed straight to our first bit of fun, which Paul had rashly booked the night before: Otherworld in Hackney. I say rashly because the concept of Otherworld revolves around virtual reality and with barely a set of working eyes between us, it was always going to be a risk. I can’t see without my glasses and Paul doesn’t so much focus on a subject as take in the view around it at all times, but gamely we pressed on, me ever thankful for the fact my rucksack contains at any given point about eighty-seven pairs of contact lenses which I always immediately forget about. Quick stop to model.

Turns out if you stick me in a jumper and hat from Don’t Feed The Bears and make me smile, I look like a 19 year old again

After a quick coffee at an arty little coffee-shop (honey, spelt and imagination muffin served with a mist of coffee) we were ushered in to what looked like somewhere you’d go for a colonic irrigation, all smooth glacial pods and people dressed in sterile white. A short health and safety briefing and an explanation of how it all worked (all of which I paid no attention to because there were shiny lights to look at) we signed our waivers and entered our individual pods. A very expensive headset awaits you and once the pod is sealed, you’re away to a virtual world.

To be clear: you are by yourself in your pod and the pod is shut to everyone else. By writing that I make it sound like a wankatorium and it isn’t, but it did alleviate my anxiety about having a headset on and feeling vulnerable with people around me. If that is a concern you share, fret not, it’s all very safe. The schtick is that you’re transported to a virtual island to walk around on – you can see a digital avatar of other players and you can hear members of your own party chuntering away too. That’s the theory – in reality they forgot to close our mics so some poor quartet of girls ended up sharing our sound channels and were treated to Paul and I screaming and shouting (unaware) for a good ten minutes before we overheard one of the girls shakily asking a member of staff for help. Nevermind, we were having fun.

The island is populated by various VR games which you can play together and, after five minutes of watching Paul swat at a wall instead of killing zombies and then turning on the spot for five minutes like a lazy Susan clad in too much denim, we agreed over the microphones to go our separate ways. I spent the next forty minutes chopping fruit, dancing like a loon and playing with a radio I found in the virtual world and had a great time. Paul indicated afterwards that his experience was equally as fun though I remain fairly certain his consciousness is still in the cloud trying to figure out how to open a virtual door. We reconvened for two cocktails afterwards which were included as part of the package and agreed it was all excellent fun. Would cheerfully recommend, even if you have funny eyes like Paul. That’s mean I know, but if I had a pound for every time he looked angrily at me for making those jokes, I’d have 50p. Anyway, for £66 for about 90 minutes of entertainment and four excellent cocktails between us, it was really bloody good value. You can investigate it for yourself here, though obviously finish the blog article first.

winter minestrone

Only photo we got of the place, which also includes the wrinkles caused by the headset

We had planned on heading to the National History Museum so I could have somewhere new to look bored and disinterested but realised our fatal error when we arrived to find queues upon queues of harried looking parents shouting at their children. Half-term and worse still, there were so many posh children milling about having a break from the nanny that we just couldn’t entertain joining the queue. You know it’s going to be torture when you can’t tell if the parents are shouting for their children or their dog: come along Rex, come along Rover, has anyone seen Marcus’ poo-bags, that sort of thing. I’d have thrown myself under a bus had Paul dug his heels in but luckily he saw sense so we elected to just go for a wander instead. That’s one of our favourite things to do on holiday: ramble about with no sense of direction and see where we end up. Rather like writing this blog, as it happens.

Not bad for fifteen years together I guess

We had lunch in The Magazine near the Serpentine (I had baked beans on toast, though it was actually stewed chickpeas on sourdough bread because of course it was) and then had a stroll around Hyde Park. There was a giant relay race taking place which we only realised when someone blew a whistle at us to get out of the way. We apologised for being Northern and moved on. This did mean that for the next half hour we had a sea of folks running towards us with expressions as though they’d shat themselves which provided some comedy and we chortled and tittered until we finally made it down to Soho and into the Duke of Wellington. For those unfamiliar, it’s like a virtual reality Jacamo showroom but with added beard oil. We love it.

Though you’d struggle to gauge Paul’s enjoyment as he was sitting with a face full of woe – turns out his knee was playing up, presumably with the shock of walking further than the distance to his car of a morning. Being a loving and warm husband I immediately offered to go to the nearest Boots to get him a knee support (and to have a gander around Dignitas’ website given he’s clearly on the way out) and ten minutes later, with that helpful and caring smile of mine, I handed over an ankle support. Buy at haste, repent at leisure. How we giggled as I left my pint for the second time and schlepped back to Boots, taking a moment to really chuckle to myself at the fact I’d hurled the receipt for the ankle rest into the bin the first time around. You can understand my confusion, I usually just rest my ankles on a workman’s shoulders. Proper support acquired and handed over, Paul gave the occupants of the pub a cheap thrill by rolling up his trousers and slipping his brace on. I was all for the show, but the sound of people spitting their Carling onto the floor was a damning indictment. Despite several of my emergency paracetamol and ibuprofen, the headache caused by Paul going on about his knee didn’t shift and so we Ubered back to the hotel to let him rest.

winter minestrone

Eater von Teese

Twenty minutes later I was terribly bored of sitting in the hotel (plus we had a further engagement) so it was a quick kick to his patella and we were off to the next activity, the Revenge of the Sheep escape room at ClueQuest, just off from Kings Cross. To write about an escape room is a tricky business as you don’t want to give away spoilers, so I promise to keep my fingers on my lips here. Before going in we were discussing how difficult it must be to summon up the enthusiasm to be a room host – it’s usually the same schtick each time (with some excellent exceptions) and I confess to becoming a little jaundiced about the whole thing. I would love to be able to sign a disclaimer before a room to mutually agrees we:

  • will not take the ceiling apart (because we’re not idiots);
  • we won’t move the heavy furniture around (because we’re fat and lazy and it’s all we can do not to take a breather the second we enter the room); and
  • we know that if there is a fire we can actually leave instead of being entombed in the room to turn into smoking pools of fat (see rejoinder to point one, above).

But, no, the dance must be danced every time. However, presumably to shut our big fat mouths, our host was brilliant – very energetic and fully into his role to the point where we were smiling and joking with him, which is entirely unheard of with Paul. The room itself (remember no spoilers) revolves around stopping a machine that turns people into sheep. You can imagine the vein on my forehead pulsing as I tried desperately to get my sheep pun in before the host, but I failed. We didn’t fail the room though, escaping with a few minutes to spare. It was a brilliant bloody room too: full of clever, unusual puzzles and some excellent props.

Escape rooms have really upped their game of late and it shows: gone are the days of reading a clock on the wall to get a combination code and acting surprised when the UV lights come on (though UV always gives me a moment of terror anyway, lest the host looks through the camera and assumes I’ve been messily eating a Fruit Corner). I’d show you our winning team photo but I look fat as butter so you can do one. The room cost £60 and you can book online here.

Buoyed with the sense of accomplishment that can only come from shouting at one another amidst the threat of ovine armageddon (and I can’t begin to tell you how tired I am of writing that sentence in my recaps) we jumped into another Uber towards our next activity. But would you look at the time? Let’s pick up part two next week. Spoilers: Paul got taken up the Old Kent Road, I spent an hour with a pipe-smoking genius and we watched silently and bereft as a lady tried to replace an alien’s heart. Those old chestnuts, eh.

winter minestrone

The star of the show: winter minestrone, delicious, quick and tasty

winter minestrone

The real beauty of winter minestrone is that you can chuck anything into it and it’ll still be good

winter minestrone

Oh hello sexy bowl of winter minestrone!

To the winter minestrone then.

winter minestrone with garlic bread

Prep

Cook

Total

Yield 8 servings

We have been trying to find a halfway decent minestrone for bloody ages and whilst it may not be the most exciting recipe ever, it is one of our favourite soups. Luckily, Ina Garten of all people came through with the goods and whilst we have changed a few bits to make it a little lighter in terms of calories, I can confirm it's delicious. It also freezes really well. Give it a go!

Calories are worked out via the NHS app and are approximate, so make sure you double check if you're not sure.

Ingredients

  • 100g bacon medallions, diced
  • 2 brown onions, finely diced
  • 3 carrots, peeled and finely diced
  • 3 stalks of celery (you guessed it, finely diced)
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 2 tins chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tin cannellini beans, drained
  • 1 tin of butter beans
  • 200g dried macaroni
  • 250g baby spinach
  • 250ml white wine
  • 2 tbsp green pesto
  • 1.5L chicken stock
  • 1 bay leaf

Instructions

  • spray a large pan with a little oil and place over a medium heat
  • add the bacon and cook for 6-8 minutes until lightly browned
  • add the onions, carrots, celery, sweet potato, garlic and thyme, stir and cook for 8-10 minutes until the veg is starting to soften
  • add the tomatoes, stock, bay leaf and a pinch of salt and pepper to the pan, bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes
  • remove the bay leaf, then add the beans and pasta and cook for another 10 minutes or so
  • add the spinach to the pan and stir, and cook until wilted
  • add the wine and pesto, stir and serve with garlic bread

Yeah we aren't going to give you the recipe for garlic bread, it's bread rubbed with garlic topped with cheese. Ah bum.

Notes

Recipe

  • we sped up this recipe by using the pre-chopped bags of vegetables from the supermarket - not necessary, we're just bone idle
  • add some chilli flakes to make this more of a winter warmer, and then die inside for saying winter warmer

Books

  • our new cookbook - Dinner Time - is simply amazing - we've seen the first drafts and it's just incredible - you can pre-order here!
  • our second cookbook Fast & Filling is all about fast recipes that fill you right up: order yours here! 
  • our original cookbook is still a stunner and has another 100 recipes to help you out: click here to order
  • even our planner is awash with recipes - 26 recipes plus all your planning needs: here

Tools

  • we have finally found halfway decent freezable soup containers - rejoice - find them here

Disclosure: the links above are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, we will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and make a purchase. Which is handy, as thanks to Paul's love of an Uber and my love of sitting, we're in debt to the tune of £16,000,000 to every bugger with a Prius or Skoda Octavia in London

Courses soup

Cuisine minestrone

Looking for another soup recipe to keep you warm of an evening? Try our chicken soup for the soul! Click the picture to go straight there!

It’s going to be a long, long way down…

Jx

driving the NC500: John O’Groats to Durness

I’m so terribly sorry: as usual, life has managed to get in the way of my travel posts, and I know there’s a few people asking for the next bit of my NC500 story. Now, in the small hours of the morning with a snoring dog on my feet and a grumpy husband hopefully choking on his neck-wattle in his sleep, I can at least get a new entry out to you. As usual I will caveat this travel story by saying you know exactly what you’re getting with my writing style, so actually, no caveat at all. Enjoy!

New to this? The previous entries are here:

You rejoin me at John O’Groats, where I woke in my caravan overlooking the sea, forever searching for Benny. Having expected an uncomfortable sleep given the small bed and the fact that I am equally wide as I am tall, I was very pleasantly surprised to wake up utterly refreshed and full of vim. I shook the worst of the pillow-crinkles out of my face, took a shower in the surprisingly roomy bathroom, making sure to use all of the hot water and toiletries to really get the cost benefit from my stay, and then set about tidying up. We’ve discussed at length my insecurities about people thinking I’m an untidy guest and this was no different, though luckily it only takes moments to clean a caravan. I genuinely don’t know why Paul’s mother complains: it must make a nice change from running the hook-a-duck stall.

Having exhausted all that John O’Groats had to offer (I considered paying 10p for a go on the public toilet ride but it was closed for maintenance), I pointed the car west for the next part of my journey, the ninety or so miles along the top of Scotland to Durness, where I had booked a cabin to myself for the next two days. I had no real plans for this trip other than to drive and stop wherever I fancied on the way, and, knowing Durness was a very small village with limited things to do, to stop at Thurso on the way and stock up on some bits to eat. First, however, I wanted to get to the actual highest point of Scotland, Dunnet Head, so on I went.

The roads were like this all the way. Glorious!

Now I’m going to be honest with you here, and you’ll doubtless think I’m a philistine, but I seem to be missing the gene that makes me gasp with wonder when visiting the ‘highest’ or ‘lowest’ of any places. The display boards will breathlessly (makes sense, given the thinner air) advise you that you’re standing at the most Northern tip, but…am I missing something? The sea and the cliffs were majestic, but they were four miles down the road too. I have the same feeling in art galleries: whilst everyone is stroking their beards and making cum-noises, you’ll find me itching to get downstairs and in the gift shop where I can buy a rainbow rubber and look at the dollies. I did have the place to myself which was pleasant: I can imagine it all feels terribly different once the coaches full of shufflers turn up. If it is busy season, I recommend following the tip in my last blog entry and head to Duncansby Head just outside John O’Groats. Speaking of busy, I did spot a cavalcade of motorhomes coming over the horizon and knew then I had to get on the road and in front of them. It seems my early-start-to-beat-the-traffic scheme didn’t have room to accomomdate a quick hand-shandy in the shower of a morning.

Ah yes, the dreaded motorhome. If you read reviews or tales online, you will see the topic crop up over and over. They’re clearly a fun way to do the NC500 but boy are they a bone of contention. See, the majority of the NC500 takes place on twisty, narrow roads with very little opportunity for overtaking if you get stuck behind somewhere slow. Indeed, on the single-track portions of the road (which are bountiful and will, in places, lead to your bumhole chewing open the seat cushion underneath) you may be required to reverse back to a passing place in order to allow oncoming traffic to pass. It’s not an easy drive in a Golf, let alone a set of axles with a Barratt home attached, so you can imagine it just takes one stressy bit of driving, a motorhome to get stuck, and then the roads are blocked. That, coupled with the fact that some motorhomers decide the best way to appreciate the beautiful scenery is to scatter litter and set forth a mini-flood of turds from their septic tank – well, there’s a reputation.

All I will say: if you’re looking to hire a motorhome and never more so than when it’s your first time driving one, be sure to do your research. Take it for a spin around the car park when you pick it up, have a crack at reversing into a bay, make sure the chip pan isn’t going when you swerve around the corner. Far easier to hone your skills on a flat piece of asphalt than it is 1000ft up in the hills with some manic Geordie shouting and bawling behind you because he’s got a box of Magnums melting on the passenger. At some places you will need to deviate off the main route to take a motorhome-friendly route: don’t be a dick and think you know better than the locals. Oh, remember I said that, a little later down the line…

Although I opted to take the car this time, I can see the allure of a motorhome. Back in 2018 when Paul and I did our tour of Canada, we hired a motorhome (more of a converted van to be fair) to drive around Vancouver Island, and it was absolutely brilliant. There’s something super about being able to pull over and make a bacon sandwich at a moment’s notice. It took a good couple of hours to get used to given neither of us had driven anything bigger than a Micra at that point, and Paul had left his powered-by-pixie-dust bumper stickers at home, but we soon got the hang of it and were tootling along at a steady 60mph whilst all our belongings rattled around in the back. I remember driving to one campsite down in Bamberton, parking up, making dinner and sitting outside and just being in absolute awe at the freedom of the whole experience. That was, until two ladies who looked as though they organised dogfights on the sly pitched up in a motorhome the size of a housing estate and told us we were in their spot. We remonstrated that if we were in their spot, could they not just park in our spot which was immediately adjacent, but they were having none of it. We had to pack everything up and drive 10ft down the lane whilst they set about setting up their pitch. All sorts of different compartments popped out the side of their motorhome – little bed on the top, pop-out kitchen, walk-in wardrobe, air traffic control tower, the usual. At one point we caught the eye of one of them whilst she lifted the back of the motorhome up with one arm and realised we were right not to argue.

Of course, us being us, our motorhome experience was never going to be without incident. My favourite involves my husband’s cooking. We had arrived at Crystal Cove campground just outside of Tofino, absolutely knackered from a very long, very slow and very rainy drive. That’s the problem with a driving holiday of course: you never get anywhere because you pull over to gasp at the scenery (you) or to stock up at every fudge shop, grocery store or tat-emporium you pass (us). We had checked in with a friendly chap (it’s Canada, everyone is friendly – it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had been mugged in the street and then driven to the hospital by the attacker in a cloud of polite apology) on the front desk who explained where everything was, cheerily wished us a pleasant stay and then reminded us that we mustn’t leave food out in the evening because they had bears in the woods nearby. Us, as confirmed homosexuals, made a raunchy joke at this (forever in the hope that just one of these bearded lumberjack blokes that are everywhere in Canada would join us in the van) and drove off to our pitch to get some sleep. I woke in the early evening to find Paul outside washing up in the tiny sink round the back of the van. I remember praising him for his proactive stance on keeping the place tidy before I realised he was washing out the little soup pan. Yet, there was no soup to be seen. We’d bought a tin of beef soup a little way down the road and I assumed he’d kept me some aside, but no. No, not Paul: he had been cooking the soup when a giant bug had dropped into the pan from above and, in a fit of Paul-level hysteria, had thrown the soup into the forest beyond.

And yet, despite me explaining that bears seek food out from a great distance and that the rich, meaty smell of shop-bought beef soup may not be the best thing to have immediately behind our bed for the night, he remained entirely non-plussed and unapologetic and indeed, somehow it was my fault for not being awake enough to assist with cooking. You can imagine how such an exchange went down so no further elaboration is needed, save to say had a bear attacked us in the night, he would have needed to wait for us to defrost, given the bed was full of cold shoulder that evening. That, and the noise of me hyperventilating every time I heard a noise outside, such as I was that I was about to have my head clawed entirely away from my neck. Paul slept like a log.

Apology face

Redemption face

Aside from that, and the night where Paul opened the side-door to have a long luxurious midnight wee straight into the woods and then neglected to shut the door properly so we woke up ever-so-slightly more underwater than any reasonable person would like, it was a fantastic experience. We only had one moment of abject terror when it came to driving, and frankly I can’t be held responsible for forgetting to apply the handbrake and having the van roll onto the beach behind us like a mechanical creeper. It could happen to anyone.

Apologies, that was a sidetrack and a half. Where were we? Motorhomes. If you’re doing the NC500, you’ll spend a lot of time staring furiously at the back of them as they meander along the country roads and even more time peering anxiously at the top of blind summits as a Stannah Luxe or a Speedking Aneurysm or a Comet Male-Pattern-Baldness (and for one particularly brilliant moment, a large RIMOR – presumably because he was so close behind me he could stick his tongue up my hoop) trundles over, the owners seemingly blinded to your presence on the road. That’s understandable, the chandeliers probably get in the way. You’ll come to spot that for a good 95% of the time, you’ll see the same three types of occupants:

  • a tiny elderly couple who look like a box of Sun Maid raisins squashed into miniature linen slacks (these are the hard ones to spot, as you can normally only see the fluffs of white hair poking out above the dash) – they’re determined to get where they need to be before Dignitas call and won’t let the fact that their other form of transport is a never-out-of-third-gear Honda Jazz get in the way;
  • a newly married couple, flushed with the smug look of people who only interrupt their lovemaking schedule to post pictures of them doing the finger-claw heart-shape pose in front of every conceivable landmark; and
  • the experienced travellers – they’ve got sun-hats, they’ve got stickers, they’ve got eighteen different ways of telling you you’re going the wrong way at the wrong time with the wrong people, they’ve got a sunny disposition and boy, have they got stories.

Naturally as a bitterly anti-social person who wanted time to himself I avoided them all. If you’re worried that you haven’t spotted one of those three examples on your trip, fret not: simply pull into a layby and wait a few moments for the dust to settle, and a horde of motorhomes will turn up to slough some dumps out onto the grass and thoughtfully adorn the hedges with beskiddered tissues. Actually – a good time to mention this. The only rude person, indeed negative encounter at all, on this trip came via a motorhome. I had parked up in the middle of Arse-End, Nowhere and was thoroughly enjoying the crisp mountain air by filling my lungs with Marlboro smoke. I know, it’s a disgusting habit, but it stops me picking my bum. Naturally, no sooner had my car locked when some tatty old motorhome turns up behind me. This will happen an awful lot, you know: I think it’s nothing more than fear of missing out – people see someone pulled over in a layby and they assume they must be there to look at something interesting, so in they follow. This happened enough times when I stopped for a wee that I considered having some postcards of my cock printed.

As I enjoyed the moment, a young lady stepped out from the motorhome on a cloud of patchouli oil and smugness, and immediately fixed me with a stare. I gave her my most winning smile and she looked at me as though I’d offered up a quick shag and a critique of her shoes. Then, somewhat aggressively, she hooted to her husband that ‘oh it’s laaahveley out here, if only we could enjoy unpolluted air’ and again gave me a look that could have stopped a clock. Realising that she was taking umbrage that I was having a cigarette in a place you’d need to drive for miles to see another person, I nevertheless stubbed it out, but still she persisted staring daggers. I had to have another three cigarettes to calm my nerves whilst they left in a cloud of blue smoke. The fact that she was driving a diesel-belching motorhome which looked as though its last service was by Peter Sutcliffe and was therefore far more deleterious to the surroundings seemed entirely not to register with her. Poor delicate flower. I do hope their tyres didn’t blow out and send them plunging over the cliffs.

Crikey: that was actually a side-track within a side-track, wasn’t it? Let us get back on the road. When I arrived in Thurso I did indeed stop briefly to get groceries, before realising that it was a Saturday and therefore the supermarket was awash with angry looking sorts smacking their children. I bought an entirely sensible eight pack of Monster Ultra and a bunch of bananas. I’ll let you guess which of those got tucked into a side pocket on the door and promptly forgotten about. I can see from TripAdvisor that there’s some terrific things to do around Thurso, but as we were just emerging out of hard lockdown, most were closed. There was North Coast Watersports but I figured that if I turn up there in my bright yellow Fred Perry, they’d think I was taking the piss. I drove on.

What a drive, though. I’m running out of superlatives to describe the NC500 and for that I apologise, but the road hugs the coast for most of the drive, and where it doesn’t, it’s running alongside a loch, and quite honestly every turn and dip of the road reveals a glory anew. For all that I ridiculed the frequent stoppers, this is exactly what you will and ought to do. Greater writers than me will wax lyrical about the beauty and indeed, if you’re bored, have a look on google maps and follow the A838 along. It’s a wonder. I was lucky to have the road largely to myself and, with my music playing and the sea air on my face, I felt brilliant. There’s something unique about the remoteness of Scotland that sings to my soul: I don’t doubt for a second that if twochubbycubs goes tits-up and Paul shuffles off the mortal coil, I’ll end up living up there, eking out a Hannah Hauxwell existence and shouting at motorhomes. Hey, as long as I’ve got my Billie Eilish tapes and 4,000,000 fags, I’ll be grand.

I stopped at a little coffee van called Coast just outside of Thurso, it having been recommended to me the night before. The owner was one of those locals who you just want to stay and chat with for hours: super friendly and immediately picked up on the tiniest sliver of Geordie accent I have. I asked for a beach recommendation and she pointed me down the road to Farr, which worked for me because I could send Paul so many WhatsApp messages about how Farr away I was, so near so Farr, I’ve come so Farr (maybe not the last one, there were sheep about and I don’t need that reputation). We gabbled on at each other and she managed to upsell me a doughnut, which took me all of four seconds to demolish. The coffee, conversation and sugar were all delicious and I said I’d mention her here, though she refused to be in the photo with my giant moon face, so make do.

Luckily, my head not only blocked out the owner, but also a passing coach.

Farr Beach was lovely, as you can see

The fields nearby were full of lambs gambolling about (how do they hold the cards?) and I was joined briefly by a dog-walker with a giant poodle, which, given I didn’t have my glasses on, I mistook for a giant ewe rushing towards me. Gave me quite a fright, I can tell you – must have seen my sheep-shagging joke a bit earlier. Other than that, I had the place to myself, so it was the usual beach-routine: write a mean joke about my husband in the sand, do a Madge Bishop style HAAAAAAROLD into the sea, and then on I went. Passing through the village of Tongue and resisting the urge to buy a fridge magnet, I was hit with overwhelming déjà vu as I passed over the causeway. I texted Ole Vera Stanhope to find out why only to discover that we’d taken the exact same road when I was wee. To be fair, it was hard to see the headrest in front of us when travelling in our parents’ car, given both parents took any moment where they weren’t lighting, smoking or extinguishing a cigarette as a personal affront.

Mother also reminded me that it was nearby where my dad chose to almost kill us rather than give in to someone who wasn’t using the passing places correctly. It transpires that, after a few hours of driving us about, he was short on nerves and patience. I don’t know why: I’m forever a wonderful passenger at the best of times, providing helpful navigation hints and reminders of what the brake is for. Paul loves it: his thin lips convey all I need to know. I can’t imagine that was different back in the day. Anyway, on a single track road no less, we were travelling along at a reasonable lick when another car appeared on the horizon and neglected to pull into the appropriate passing place. As a quick primer, the correct etiquette with a passing place is whoever is closest to a passing place as they approach should duck in. If it is easier to reverse a couple of yards and park, you absolutely should, but never park on the wrong side of the road. My dad, absolutely fuming at this overwhelming injustice, decided the very best thing to do was to drive straight at the other car at great speed. Apparently it was a matter of centimetres before both cars swerved into their respective verges and disaster was averted and his family wasn’t wiped out. I wish I could remember this as vividly as my mother describes it, but I was too busy being hotboxed in the back. Luckily, I haven’t inherited my parents tendencies towards driving recklessly and smoke-choking people in my car.

A little outside of Tongue was Moine House, a derelict house that sits on the outskirts of a giant peat bog. Over the years it has been covered in all sorts of fruity graffiti and is absolutely worth a look if you’re passing by. Top tip: don’t do what I did – I hoisted myself up and through the open window, splitting my jeans in the process, before realising I could have just as easily let myself in through the open door immediately opposite.

She’s been all around the world, but still can’t find her baby. Poor cow.

Then, the road loops around the edge of Loch Eriboll for what was the absolute best drive I’ve ever done. It’s a good twenty-five miles of windy, open road that takes in bits of mountain, loch-side views and forests. The glorious part: you could see well ahead of you and I had it to myself for the most part. At the start of the year I traded in my little shitbucket Citreon for a Golf R and this was the first time I’ve ever been able to drive it like it’s supposed to be driven. Of course, exercise caution: keep an eye on the road and don’t speed, but yep. About ten miles in I became aware of a line of supercars roaring up behind me – apparently you can rent them from Inverness for this exact drive – and I pulled over to let them past. All of the drivers looked exactly like you’d expect – beetroot red faces that you know voted Leave so hard they broke the pencil when they left their cross – but they were having fun. More importantly, I was able to sneak in behind them and drive knowing the road was clear in front.

Amazing.

I won’t lie: I had the best time, but I don’t encourage you to do the same. Remember, the point of the NC500 is to take in the sights and take your time. For this brief but arresting hour, I didn’t do that, but then I was too busy texting Paul to focus on the views in front of me. I’m kidding, of course, we were on a Skype call.

I knew I was arriving at Durness when I started seeing signs for ‘COCOA MOUNTAIN’ and thought it was awfully kind of them to put out a welcome banner. I know I made a similar joke a couple of entries ago, but suck it up. I’d heard tremendous things about Cocoa Mountain and was very much looking forward to the ‘best hot chocolate you’ll ever have hun bab xoxox’ and so, as I was an hour or two early to check in at my accommodation, the lovely Aiden House B&B, I parked up and walked the mile or so to the factory. They make chocolates by the way – I perhaps should have explained earlier. After forgetting to get groceries in Thurso I thought I’d be able to at least stock up on fudge and sweet things to see me through. However, I was met with a sign saying they were shut. I think, had you been within a five mile radius, you could actually hear my heart break. And listen, you think that’s disappointing? I only learned as I was leaving Durness a couple of days later that a gay German porn-star lived there. Probably for the best though, I’m not svelte enough to get away with being a peeping tom.

And that heartbreak is as good a place as any to leave this. I feel I ought to apologise – I’m conscious that my tale of Scotland featured two sidetracks into unnecessary territory, but if you think of my writing style as a metaphor for the NC500 itself, then it all makes perfect sense, no? And plus, leaving it here will rile up the owners of Aiden House something chronic because they’ll be itching to see what I write about them. Spoiler: it’s wonderful, of course.

I promise not to leave it so long.

Jx

driving the NC500: Inverness to John O’Groats

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Welcome back, everyone. With apologies for the slight delay, but with an agreeable tone that we can still be friends and also appreciate the fact you’re not reading this eight years after the event like my usual holiday entries, I present to you part three of my solo trip around the NC500. If you’re new to this, that’s fine, just relax and I’ll be gentle, and of course you could take a moment to avail yourself of the previous entries:

They’re both hilarious, blistering accounts that will make you laugh, cry and evaluate your life choices (according to my mum) and, in much the same vein as this entry, I would love to know your thoughts. Comments, messages, knickers sent in the mail, whatever you like. Is it too detailed? Not detailed enough? You want to see more photos? Let me know! But for now, get a coffee, shut your gob and enjoy. I’ll caveat this one as usual by saying that this isn’t your usual travel blog where someone waxes lyrical about stormy seas and windswept vistas, but rather concentrates on the minutiae for altogether too many words and with too much personal detail.

On that note, the morning began with me doing exactly that – concentrating on the minutiae in bed, having pre-empted my eighty-seven alarms and managed to wake at the crack of dawn. In the absence of the usual twenty stone of farting gristle I have lying next to me, who will gamely offer to lend an orifice as long as I make him breakfast after, I had to sort myself out. And readers, I did, and once I had scattered a half billion little versions of me all over the place (imagine being one of those for a second: you burst into being ready to go find an egg, and instead you’re left gasping for air amongst a forest of chest hair and Lotus Biscoff crumbs – it’s no life, this) I squelched to the shower, ready to wash off my sin and face the day.

Except, no. As previously referenced, showering in Scotland seems to be an abstract possibility: every single shower (bar one) I ended up with would have struggled to extinguish a lit match. This one was by far the worst – I turned it on, fiddled with the knob and received nothing but a splutter for my trouble. THEN I HAD A SHOWER AYOOOOOOO. No, shush, don’t be silly, but I would have been wetter had I stuck the bit where Mufasa dies in the Lion King on Youtube and used my tears to work up a lather. A far from ideal situation when you’ve got body hair like me – my stomach looked as though someone had drowned a cat in PVA glue. I dabbed the best I could with the towel they provided (I say towel, I assume it was an off-cut from the master towel they kept locked away), got dressed, sat on the edge of the bed to listen to my stomach crinkle under my t-shirt, then went to breakfast.

In keeping with yesterday’s theme of there being no-one in the hotel, I breakfasted entirely alone, save for the very attentive and slightly frazzled waiter. I was confused as to why he seemed so harried given I was the only one in the breakfast room, but an answer revealed itself moments later. Having politely and warmly taken my breakfast order, fussed about with the coffee and presented an entirely charming image at 7am in the morning, he went into the kitchen and seemingly started a ferocious argument with half of Scotland about the fact the boiler was broken. I’m not one to listen to other’s drama: it was all I could do to gum my toast lest the crunch I made from chewing it drowned out an important detail. Still, explains the crap shower. Breakfast was delicious – I’ve seen some snotty comments about the fact they use those ‘terrible pink cylinder’ sausages but I’m all for it. If I’m having a fried breakfast I want mush and fat and grease on my chin, not a lecture about how they source the bacon from pigs that have a fortnightly bus-trip out to National Trust properties to discuss culture. Not enough toast, but then there’s never enough toast. Until the day I’m gazing at my beloved across a table upon which a rotary toaster and at least four different loaves of bread has been placed, I’ll never be truly happy.

I went back to the room, picked up my things, emptied their ‘welcome tray’ into my bags and made for the car. As with previous drives, getting on the road early and putting some miles in would give me the chance to stop wherever I wanted, and I thoroughly recommend you do the same thing. It frees up your evening too, which in my case was very important because would they even air The Chase if I wasn’t there bellowing the answers at home? The road is 120 miles along the A9 and A99 and will give you the first opportunity to see what the NC500 is about, given it hugs the coastline for most of the drive and gives you several chances to test the clutch in your car and the swearing in your vocabulary. It’s terrific. I had accommodation booked at John O’Groats with a check-in available at 5pm so I had all the time in the world. But first, some progress please.

I managed 5.4 miles. Spot the recurring joke in these travelogues yet? In my defence, I was being told – nay, instructed – that I must stop at a Harry Gow bakery and try a dream ring. Spotting a turn-off for a takeaway Harry Gow, I bustled in and got myself one. Now here’s the curious thing: despite having tried one, despite having a photo in front of me eating it, I still can’t quite remember exactly what it is. My best guess is a sweet bun cut in half, filled with cream and glazed. Either way, it was delicious and once the sharp pains in my right shoulder had subsided, I was glad to have tried one. Now, I know what you must be thinking – where’s the obvious joke? Well, readers, if you think I’m that predictable, you’re absolutely right: it certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve smashed a cream ring in whilst parked up in a layby, and nor was it the first time I’ve ever driven away from a bank of lorries with my lips glazed. Sigh. Sometimes I feel trapped by my own reputation.

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You wish you were this classy: me smashing a Dream Ring on the NC500

Leaving Inverness exposed the first issue with this trip and one that you must bear in mind: mobile reception. It’s absolutely gash. I’m with Three and for most of the trip going forward until I got back to Inverness, the signal was patchy at best and more often than not, non-existent. This came to light when my friend called for a catch-up and I had to sensitively ask if he had developed a stutter in my absence. So if I may offer up a tip: download the relevant Google Maps section for your trip whilst you have Wifi so you don’t get lost, make sure you have a few Spotify lists downloaded to your phone, and then chuck it in the back and forget about it. It’s actually a nice feeling, being cut off, but if you’re dependent on your phone for work, you will absolutely struggle. You can check the strength of your signal right here, so you can.

First pit-stop, after about thirty miles of driving, was the charming little seaside town of Dornoch (and just up the road, the village of Embo). My boss, once she had recovered from the shock of me asking for yet more time off to gallivant, had earnestly told me that I must visit. For once, I did what I was told, and was very glad to have done so. The beach was utterly magnificent – miles upon miles of pristine sands and blue water and, even better, I had it mostly to myself. There’s that setting off early point again, and it’s one I am going to keep repeating because it made such a difference. There’s a little car park right by the beach and good clear paths (part of a golf course) along the sands if you aren’t up to walking on the beach. I took some photos that I’d never look at again, wrote my name and number in the sand with a shell in case I did a Harold Bishop and set off walking. I’m a terrible walker – very much the type of muttonhead who will cast out in one direction, forget to check the tides and wonder why I’m suddenly cut off from the shore and in dire need of rescue – but I was confident the tide was heading out, so cracked on.

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The beach at Dornoch on the NC500

I had the faint memory of Embo being nearby so decided to walk there – forgetting because of course I did that I would need to walk back – and although my feet were aching at the end of it (just over 6 miles) it was a lovely morning out. More sensible folk would elect to take a coat and a bottle of water but not me, I bravely ploughed on with two cans of Monster in case of emergency. But honestly, there’s something quite terrific about an early morning beach walk, especially when the beach isn’t full of shitting dogs and parents smacking their beetroot-faced children. Even better when you can caterwaul along to Cher and nobody but the odd passing dog-walker can pass judgement. I think I may have took a wrong turn at Embo – it seemed as though it was just a caravan park so I didn’t explore – but the round trip is one I recommend.

As I returned to the car alongside the golf course I reminded once more that there is no sport more responsible for questionable fashion choices than golf. I mean, I genuinely don’t understand it. I’m not one to judge anyone’s sartorial choices – I look as though I wandered into the ASOS warehouse with my arms open and eyes shut – but I’ve never seen so many awful pastel trousers, ill-fitting Ben Sherman shirts and smugly self-satisfied smiles. We recently had cause to stay in an actual golf resort and the only good thing I can say about all the men walking around was that it must be nice to be so confident that you can match the volume of your trousers to the volume of the voice you use to rah-rah to your business colleagues. We had a balcony room which overlooked the golf course and could hear every word of their oneupmanship and gasconade and it was a genuine fucking torture. No wonder their wives were off shagging their personal trainers.

Please, if you’re a golf player, remember the rule of twochubbycubs: if we’re slagging something off, we aren’t talking about you. Mind, if you are a golf player, you’ll probably be talking about yourself anyway, so swings and roundabouts.

Once back in Dornoch I took the opportunity to look around the town and buy a keepsake to stick in our games room. Again, Facebook came through with suggestions and peer pressure sent me to the welcoming arms of Tartan Creations. I’m starting to become aware that if people on Facebook had suggested taking up heroin I’d have had a belt around my arm quicker than you could say ‘least it’s not round my neck’. Nevertheless, it was a good suggestion and Yvonne and James entertained my nonsense for a good ten minutes before I bought a pillbox to keep my multivitamins in and admonished the Anderson tartan. If I may be serious for a moment: one of the best parts of this holiday was chatting to the various little businesses around the NC500 who were all gearing up to welcome people back after what must have been a bloody shite year thanks to COVID. If you do visit, make sure you visit these businesses: buy a trinket, or a coffee, or something. Businesses need it.

I pointed the car North and decided, for once, to keep driving – I had planned to stop at Whaligoe Steps but read online that it was shut whilst they strengthen the stones – apparently they were sick of people walking all over them. Boom! You can imagine how distraught I was at having to skip a 360-step climb, can’t you? I did stop for a moment in a little nearby harbour town to catch my breath and managed to clatter my head off a harbour wall – my first and only injury of the trip.

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That’s really quite something for me, mind you, I’m tremendously accident prone. I once misjudged my own doorstep leaving the house and pitched myself head-first into the front lawn. My masculine scream of terror would have given the neighbours something to laugh at, though, which saved them looking for another source of comedy for a couple of years. I tittered when I drove through a town called Occumster – I presumed they had put out a welcome sign for me – and I spent an hour or two looking around Wick for something to do. There wasn’t anything I fancied aside from taking in the world’s shortest street, Ebenezer Place. It’s just over 2m long, you know, and I can’t in all good conscience neglect to tell you that it took a matter of moments to see everything it had to offer. To give you a sense of perspective as to my struggles to find something to do, the shortest street experience is rated #9 on ‘best things to do in Wick’ on Tripadvisor, with second place being a distillery. Stuck, I asked people for ideas of things to do and the unanimous verdict was ‘leave‘. Harsh, Scotland.

But leave I did, after a quick stop at the local Lidl to pick up some groceries for my overnight stay. John O’Groats is another fifteen miles or so up the road and it is a curious approach – the landscape gets more remote as you drive, save for the occasional coach of tourists passing you in a spray of rainwater. John O’Groats is known as the most Northerly point of the mainland United Kingdom – it isn’t, that belongs to Dunnet Head just up the road – but it has a gift shop and an easily accessible road, so make do. For the record, Land’s End gets touted as the bottom of England, which it isn’t. It is, however, awful. At least the Visitor Centre is – I’m still bitter.

I pulled into the car park at around 4pm and cognisant of the fact I was meeting my host at 5pm, I decided to mooch about and see what is on offer. Not a lot is the honest appraisal: if you’re heading here expecting thrills and spills, you’ll be sadly disappointed. There’s a few shops, a small harbour and a couple of coffee places. But, that’s the charm of somewhere like this – there’s no need to make it flashy or have crappy arcades everywhere, and it’s all the better for it. I did take a picture of the famous sign, of course, and had a walk along the front to look at the brightly coloured houses which looked over the water to Orkney. Realising that I was running out of footpaths and not fancying slipping around on the rocks, I wandered back to the car park and into Stacks, a lovely little coffee shop selling proper coffee and all sorts of terribly deliciously gooey pieces. I told myself it was just going to be a coffee but I walked out of there with a brownie the size of a paving slab. It was scrumptious and although I planned to save some for later, I scoffed the lot sat in my car. What can I say? I’m a greedygobblegannet! Yesss.

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Having time of my life on the NC500 (I really was)

One thing John O’Groats does have is one of those gift shops which is rammed full of things you wonder could ever sell. I’m not taking the piss here – I promise – but has anyone ever wandered into a shop and felt they needed to buy a shortbread tin decorated with a picture of the Queen, a CD collection of Beatles B-Sides but imagined by a bag-and-pan-pipes duo, or a three foot cow made of coir, or any other number of genuinely baffling keepsakes? I say it all with love: I adore a good mooch around, and was thankful for all the distraction. Here’s the thing though: it’s all for naught, because you can no longer buy those giant pencils with the rubber on the end that every kid in school used to get when they went away on holiday. Maybe just our family, actually, we were told it was a good gift. But then I was also told if I picked at my bellybutton my arse would fall off, so who can say?

I bought a postcard, was told I couldn’t use contactless unless I paid a small fee, so immediately bought myself a tin of Queen-branded shortbread to take me over the limit. That’s how they get you! Another NC500 tip though: carry coins in your car. I use my phone for everything and there was a couple of occasions when it came to parking and needed coins and it was a ballache, so think on. If you’re proactive like me, you’ll schedule a weekly trip to the shops in your partner’s car so you can take all of their changes instead. Think on.

I could see my accommodation – a caravan on the beachfront – from the car, and the owner who I had agreed to meet bustling around outside, so went over to meet her. I’m always really quite nervous meeting new people – especially those that are going to be hosting me – but after a few moments of conversation with Caroline I was completely at ease. I promised not to set fire to the caravan and we mutually agreed that I would get rid of the tougher skidders I’d invariably leave in the toilet, and she was on her way, leaving me to explore the caravan all to myself. It was lovely! Booking a caravan to myself was always going to be a gamble: our previous adventures to a caravan park had left me a little jaundiced – but this was smashing. Very clean, tonnes of hot water, several beds to choose from. I made myself a coffee, ate all of the biscuits that Caroline had thoughtfully left out for me, and got to work checking all the cupboards and switches to see what they did. I can confidently say that if I had the money and inclination, I’d cheerfully live in a caravan, and I know Paul would be on board because to him and his shortarse build, it must be like living in a normal sized house. If you were looking for somewhere to stay for an evening, you’ll find no better than Caroline’s caravan, and you can book it for yourself right here. Hell, you can even read my little review for more details.

It stands to reason that I would enjoy a caravan holiday, thinking about it. Back when I a child we used to take caravan and camping holidays all the time and indeed, it was in a caravan that I took my first steps. There’s a photo floating around at my parents of me standing at a caravan door with a face like a smacked arse – my parents had ducked out for a few minutes leaving me with my nana and as they left, I toddled to the door to see where they were going. Knowing my childhood I was probably experiencing nicotine withdrawal from not being around the fug of smoke that accompanied my parents at all times, but even so. Flash forward a good many years and I spent a couple of weeks a year holidaying with my mate at his family caravan in Montreuil-sur-Mer. I can’t remember much of that save for the fact I once got absolutely mashed on French weed, freaked out and was calmed down by my friend asking me to tell him all the recent Bad Girls storylines. That was a great holiday mind – the same holiday where I finally cropped my long hair off (after setting it on fire a few weeks previous) and walked straight past my mother in the airport who didn’t recognise me without my happening and fresh Severus Snape locks. To be fair, I didn’t recognise her either: she’d decided to get rid of her moustache for the summer.

Anyway, back to the present. I sat and typed up my stories, had a cold tin of soup (I was too scared to figure out how the gas hob worked: I didn’t want to accidentally torch the place or suffocate in my sleep, so I thought it best to leave it) and watched Coronation Street. Well, tried to, but as wank as it sounds, my eyes kept being drawn to the beach outside and I realised I wanted to be back outside. I’d spotted a road up to a viewpoint as I was driving into town so I hopped in the car and made my way – slowly, lots of sheep – up to Duncansby Head. I can’t recommend this enough. From the car park is a lovely walk across the fields to some of the most dramatic cliffs I have ever seen and with dusk coming in, it was just beautiful.

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The view to the cliffs – possibly one of my favourite points on the NC500

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Dusk over Orkney

I sat and watched the sea for a bit, gave Paul a call to make sure he hadn’t died, then watched the sun go down. It was magical, and it only got better as the stars started blinking in. There’s absolutely zero light pollution up there and a blanket of stars was my reward for sitting on the grass for a couple of hours. I didn’t want to go back to the caravan, but even my arse gets numb in the end. After a final mooch around the harbour in the dark, and conscious of the fact I had another early start in the morning, I went ‘home’ and prepared for bed.

Now, I don’t scare easily, but even I was a little nervous about being out in the middle of nowhere (sort of) in a caravan with patchy mobile signal. A friend of mine had encouraged me to watch Under the Skin that night – naturally I didn’t but I had read the Wiki synopsis about how she kills people in Scottish caravans – so I was a smidge on edge. But good news – since the house fire, I’ve been given sleeping tablets for the very rare occasion I can’t sleep and thankfully, I’d remembered to bring one. I’m a total blurt when it comes to swallowing pills so I had to go and fetch a glass of water to chase it down but in doing so, I managed to drop the pill on the floor where it bounced, rolled and promptly disappeared into those little floor vents. Super. I did swear an awful amount and then realised that such anger would serve no real purpose, so slunk back to bed.

I was just dozing off when I heard a woman’s voice shouting ‘BENNY’ right outside the window. Over and over and over, in various pitches. It was surreal and didn’t abate for a good ten minutes (mind nor did I, she had wrecked the moment) and I was just on the cusp of flinging open the window, probably to certain doom, and shouting ‘Agnetha, Björn and Anni-Frid, any other bloody questions’ when I heard the scratch of tiny paws and her Benny came back to her. Drama solved, I drifted off to sleep, and can honestly say it was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time. All that fresh Scottish air, it really gets to you.

And that, readers, is where I shall leave it for now. If you’ve enjoyed it, please do let me know. Otherwise, see you soon!

J

driving the NC500: Edinburgh to Inverness

Hello! I promise food recipes will be starting soon. Promise. But until then, here’s part two of my NC500 trip! Enjoy all.

If you’re so inclined, you can click here to read the first part of this story of my trip around the NC500. There’s glitz, there’s glamour, there’s a shot of me carrying some milk in a lift that’ll leave you questioning your life choices when you look over at the drab state of your partner. What more could you possibly want? As in the previous entry, I would absolutely love feedback in the form of comments or Facebook messages. This is a ‘new’ thing for me, writing so exhaustively, and I love it – but let me know if I’m going in the wrong direction!

Welcome back. You left me, like I always knew you would deep down, in Edinburgh, tucked up in bed reading my Stephen King novel and missing my husband terribly. Not even kidding: having to bring my own tea, scratch my own feet, shout at myself for brushing my teeth in the wrong key, it was honestly exhausting. I slept like a log, conscious of the fact I had to rise early to beat the traffic warden to my parking space. The night before I had set my usual raft of alarms, spaced out at four minute intervals (purely so I feel like Madonna first thing), and knew that as long as I was up by 7.40am, I could throw my belongings into my suitcase, have a shower and be on my way to slide out of the street with a ‘what-am-I-like’ wave to the traffic warden. Easy.

Not so easy – with the leisurely air of someone who never has to normally get up early unless he’s going on holiday or the house is on fire, I snoozed all of the alarms, choosing to gamble on the old ‘I’ll shut my eyes, I’m awake, it’s just a bit too bright’ routine. I woke with a start at 7.55am, screaming even more so than usual, hurtled out of bed, packed my things and then spent a good five minutes clawing at the door lock like I was a heroine in a Scream movie. ‘They should put some fucking instructions on this stupid fucking lock‘ I bellowed, ignoring the fact that they had indeed put some fucking instructions on the fucking lock and I was just being too hysterical to read them. After a fashion and police intervention I was released and despite arriving at my car mere moments after 8am, red-faced and panting as though I’d shot my bolt in the lift coming down, I was too late – the traffic warden was just popping the ticket under my windscreen wiper. He pointed to the ticket and said ‘parking fine’, to which I replied ‘oh thank you, I try my best’.

I didn’t, and that joke is as old as Paul’s mother and twice as creaky, but I love it. I wasn’t going to argue with the chap: he was doing his job and I had broken the rules, so all is fair. I can’t be done with those who think spitting and swearing at someone for enforcing the rules is good behaviour. I gave him a tinkly laugh, promised to pay it just as quick as I could, then as soon as his back was turned gave him the finger, wished ill upon all he loved and tried to telekinetically push his silly little bicycle into the canal. However, I’m not Carrie, regardless of how often Paul tells me he can see my dirty pillows, so he went away unscathed.

Now, because I do so hate being told off, this whole exchange put me in a bad mood. Knowing that driving when I’m angry is always a bad idea (not because I speed or get aggressive, but simply because I spend so long coming up with the perfect comeback in any fight or argument that I get distracted and stray from my destination) I decided to quickly nip into Edinburgh again to do a bit of shopping and to find something relatively healthy. The shopping part was easy – Edinburgh has an amazing pipe shop and it’s been closed for so long that it was a joy to go scatter money around their counter again. I’m a collector and they had some terrific pieces that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into. I spotted that most of Leith Walk was being dug up to either put a tramline in or take a tramline out (honestly, Edinburgh, it’s been that bloody long since it started that frankly I’ve given up trying to follow what’s going on with your trams, though it seems as though they’re on the right lines) and as a result, the whole street was utterly awash with very handsome men in hi-vis gear swearing at each other and doing terribly impressive things with tools.

Love me, love me, say that you love me

I opted for a coffee from Artisan Coffee Leith, knowing that I could continue my quest to find a decent alternative to milk in there on this trip around the NC500. I’m experimenting purely because I want to see if I can find a non-dairy version that works for me. You must understand that I’ve tried all sorts: rice milk, coconut milk, double cream, hemp milk, pea milk (how, someone tell me, do you get milk from a bloody pea – I mean I have some idea given past experiences with partners on the small side, but I’d love to know), quinoa milk and almond milk. They’re utterly awful, each and all, but you can’t accuse me of not trying. I think I would get more taste and satisfaction from tipping a sample of Wilko White Emulsion into my coffee. Anyway, I digress: I ordered an oat milk something which was actually really good once I’d blown off the froth off and revealed the teaspoon of coffee lurking at the bottom (my fault for ordering what I did, I’m casting no aspersions) and settled down to pay close attention to the workers in front of me.

A merry half hour was spent there, playing on my phone, drinking my coffee and people watching. Indeed, I was only broken from my ‘how do I become a seat-cushion in a mini-digger’ searching by the appearance of a pug jumping up at my leg. I remember looking down into its face, its eye bulging and nose whistling and leering grin full of love, and realised that I was nothing if not this pug in human form. Take a look for yourself – compare the picture of me above with this lovely photo of the pug that was pawing at me.

Fool me, fool me, go on and fool me

It was perhaps time to move on. Before I do though, may I just take a moment to make a plea to dog-owners. Well, two. I bloody love dogs, would love one of my own – a well-trained Springador to fetch my (new) pipe and (old) slippers, for example – but I do wish owners wouldn’t let their dogs run up to people and start scrabbling at their legs. There’s always the fear that the dog might not be as friendly as expected, not least when it gets a whiff of my gooch and senses a rival, and I always have to do that fruity little half-dance until I’m sure it won’t take my fingers off or leave shitty paw-prints all over my jeans. Even the most placid dogs can turn on a sixpence: we used to have a massive Old English Sheepdog growing up called Shannon. She was terrific, the perfect family dog, tremendous with young kids. That was fortunate in and of itself, given my mum and dad used to leave us with Shannon whilst they went out for the day – it was truly a momentous occasion when she figured out how to put the chip-pan on – and it was all very homely and just-so.

However. We once allowed a cousin of mine to come up from Darlington to stay at our house for a week. Upon alighting from the bus and appearing at the bottom of our drive, Shannon went hurtling down, leapt up and bit her on the arm. As welcomes go, it wasn’t the warmest. It wasn’t a terrible bite, no-one was put down, but my cousin was sent back to Darlington on the next bus home with a bandage on her arm and more fleas in her ear. I like to think Shannon was protecting us from the bewilderingly awful Darlington accent if nothing else. But let that be a lesson to all owners out there: it just takes one moment of panic, or a visitor from Darlington, to ruin your day.

The other plea? You own a dog. You own a puppy. You do not own a pupper or a doggo. As inexplicable bends of the English Language go, these two cutesy-poo slang terms deserve to be cast into the fire, along with those insufferable people who insist on saying they’re going on their holibobs. I’m by no means a language snob, but this absolutely needs to stop before I do time.

And don’t get me started on the bloody Rainbow Bridge.

Anyway! Once I’d returned the pug to its rightful owner, and tried to clean the slug-trails that its little lipstick had left on my trousers, I wandered back to the car, took another moment to fully appreciate my parking fine, smoked furiously for another fifteen minutes and then, finally, I was on the road to Inverness. Travel and adventure was in front of me, nothing but road until my destination.

I managed exactly 9.8 miles towards the NC500 before I was gripped by the panic of leaving a service station unattended (what if the next chance to spend £9.60 on a Jamie Oliver toastie and a Yorkie Duo was days away?!) and had pulled into South Queensferry Services to fill up on petrol. I’m doing myself a disservice here, actually. I hadn’t just pulled in to fill up on snacks but rather I was trying to get into the habit of stopping at a petrol station whenever my car was halfway to empty on fuel. The NC500 gets fairly isolated for large stretches and so it’s never a good idea to let your tank run dry. You’re never that far from somewhere to fill up – you can find a very handy map here showing all the petrol stations along the route – but you don’t want to risk it. This is entirely contra to how I normally approach my driving – I like to coast along on fumes and see how economically I can run the car (unless I’m in a huff, in which case I drive the car like I’ve stolen it – but you don’t want to do that on the NC500 either).

As it happens, the fuel pumps were all taken and I couldn’t face waiting, so I pulled up in front of the shop instead and went inside, a decision absolutely not influenced by the fact there was a total DILF serving behind the counter. I selected some potato salad from the Marks and Spencer’s ‘How much?!’ range, decided against buying any more Monster at this point, and made my way to the till. Those who have been reading my nonsense for a while will know that I am a terrible flirt in both senses of the word – in that I am utterly shameless but also, dreadful at it. However, it seemed to be going so well, with me managing to shoehorn in a reference to my husband and ‘of course he’s letting me do my own thing this week’ with a wink so severe you’d forgive the cashier for leaping over the counter and assuming I was having a stroke. Of course, holiday romances are fleeting things indeed and in no time at all it was time to say goodbye, not least because some lady behind me started shrieking that she had kids in the car. I apologised profusely – for the fact she had children – and we all went our separate ways.

As I made to leave, which involves decanting all of the things from my coat pockets onto the passenger seat and then driving just enough to make sure everything falls down the side into some unreachable void, I happened to look up to spot my petrol-dispensing inamorato waving at me with longing in his eyes. Knowing we would always be what could have been, I showed him my wedding ring (I wear it on a chain around my neck, it’s easier to whip off if things are getting steamy), gave him a confident smile and backed the car out of the space. Thankfully, the good people at VW had fitted my car with a clever emergency automatic brake function, because that’s all that stopped me from reversing straight into a Transit van which had filled the space behind me whilst I fussed about putting my seatbelt on. Turns out he was simply warning me of the hazard rather than seeing me off like a wife saying goodbye to her sailor at sea.

I’m not one to feel shame or embarrassment easily, but you could have honestly lit a cigarette off my flaming cheeks. I pulled my hoodie up and made for the relative safety of the Queensferry Crossing, which, after resisting the urge to dash the car against the barriers, carried me over the Firth of Forth in no time at all. Actually, let’s talk about bridges for a second. All humans have varying degrees of what the French call l’appel du vide, which translates as ‘call of the void’. Put simply, it’s that feeling you have when have an irresistible urge to do something entirely stupid and dangerous to see what happens. For a lot of people, it takes the form of wanting to throw themselves over the edge if they’re standing on a cliff, and in my case, whenever I drive over a bridge I am gripped with the sudden need to turn my car suddenly and career over the side. I mean, I’m never going to do it, not least because I would hate the ignominy of being winched from the river in my own personal sea of empty cigarette packets and ‘solo travelling companions’ that would burst from every conceivable compartment in my car, but the call is always there. I have it to other degrees too. For example, when I’m driving along the motorway, I’m always taken with the thought of picking up my phone, lowering the windows on the driver side and posting it smartly through the gap created, sending it to a clattering shatter on the tarmac. If I pass a drain and I have my car keys in my hand, I have to actively step back from hurling them into the sewers. Every day is an adventure in my swirly-whirly mind.

The drive to Inverness from Edinburgh is quite something, though. You take the M90 for an easy drive up to Perth, then join the A9 which takes you up to Inverness (and you’ll stay on the A9 when you start the NC500 proper) and for the most part, it’s a delight to drive, taking in all manner of little towns and places to stop. Google puts it at around three hours (160 miles) if you absolutely hoof it, but there’s no sport to be had in doing it as quickly as you can. Certainly, when you get up amongst the Cairngorns you’ll be stopping to take pictures as you go. I was spectacularly lucky with this drive (and indeed, for the whole trip) in that I seemed to always be ahead of the other tourists and when I did stop, I had places all to myself. If you’re considering your own NC500 trip, give some very serious thought as to the time you’ll be doing it – early in the season, before the midges and the campervans and the tourists and the shrill people in rustling activewear, may be a more attractive prospect.

Anyway. You may have already gathered that my driving style is never A to B. Rather, imagine you popped a hamster on a table and put a delicious carrot at the other end. You might expect it to make a beeline for the carrot, and that’s most people when they drive. To get the measure of me, imagine you threw a handful of sunflower seeds all over the table. Then set the table on fire, and gave the hamster a line of sugar. Now the hamster is me: I’ll get to the carrot eventually but there’s so many distractions along the way. That’s how you should treat the NC500: have a final destination in mind absolutely, but do stop to take in all of the side sights as you go. I’ll touch on that in another entry.

This is why you shouldn’t rush the NC500 – views like this at every turn

Knowing that I was going to be coming back down the A9 at the end of the holiday, I made a deliberate decision not to stop at every single opportunity and instead, to save some sights for the way back. My first stop – suggested by everyone and their mother on Facebook – was Dalwhinnie, a charming little village about halfway up the journey. There’s not an awful lot to see, but they have a distillery, and like I need any reason to buy booze. I parked up in the empty car park (empty save for a woman who had parked her oversized Mercedes across three bays, which I thought a remarkable feat of driving, and made sure to snidely compliment her on such as I left).  The tour wasn’t open as most businesses were just starting back up, but I spent a happy twenty or so minutes looking around the gift shop and availing myself of their lovely clean toilets before I was accosted by a very friendly lady who asked if I needed help choosing a whisky. I hadn’t planned on buying any, but she was ever so persuasive. My experience with whisky extends to enjoying a happy night or two drinking with a good friend a few weeks previous (having never enjoyed it before) but I styled it out before panicking and selecting the first bottle I could reach. Clearly my knowledge and experienced impressed her ever so and I was out of the door, fifty quid lighter, with a bottle of something golden which will sit in our bookcase until time immemorial.

Maybe the real gift were the friendships I made along the way on the NC500

As I returned to the car I noticed it had started snowing. Super! Messages on Facebook were veritable portents of doom, with people claiming I’d get no further than the snow gates and have to turn back. Naturally, as a born fretter, I had to spend another twenty minutes checking the roads ahead were clear, but this worked in my favour as just as I was rejoining the road I spotted, quite possibly, the most handsome man I’ve ever seen filling up his car with petrol. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I daintily and calmly spun the car a full 180 degrees just so I could go back and gawp. This blog may do me the disservice of painting me as a permanently frisky, leering pest but I assure you that I’m not normally so coltish: perhaps it was the mountain air? But he was stunning, he truly was. Imagine a Viking, but not one of these modern sorts who grow a beard and think they’re sailing the Gokstad via a penny-farthing-repair-shop. He looked as though he’d dropped straight through a wormhole in time and I was utterly smitten. As he drove away I knew that my life would never again feel complete. But still we press on. Turns out the snow was a load of nothing, incidentally – the road was clear all the way to Inverness, with the sun shining bright for most of the journey.

A couple of other notable stops – I stopped at the Ralia Cafe a little further up for a break and the best spiced dahl I’ve ever had in my life, before buying some trinkets from their gift shop. Then, conscious of the fact I hadn’t managed to fill the car since leaving Edinburgh, I pulled into a petrol station a little further up. I stood at the petrol pump, nozzle in the car, and waited for them to turn the pump on. And waited. And waited. I’m not sure if they thought I was standing there simply to soak in the sights of their Londis shop, but despite making eye contact across the forecourt, nothing was forthcoming. I had to replace the nozzle and drive off, a trifle bemused, but let that be another reminder: fill up when you can, lest you find yourself short in a petrol station where the flow of fuel is treated as an optional extra. I pressed on, spotted a sign for the Highland Wildlife Centre, and decided on a whim to go and visit.

Forgive the food shot, but honestly, this was delicious. If you need a stop on your way to the NC500, give Ralia Cafe a go!

I was pulling in when a good friend of mine decided to call for a catch-up. Reception in the Highlands is very spotty and he had been trying to catch me all day, so when he finally got through to tell me his stories, he was full of vim. So full of vim indeed that he decided that, as I was pulling over to talk to the parking attendant, he would start yelling across my car speakers that he was trapped in my boot and could someone please send help as a matter of urgency. I tried to style it out by muting him, but instead managed to switch the audio to my Spotify which immediately started blaring Abba at the poor bemused bloke who was trying to direct me to the ticket office. Given I was possibly the first customer of the year I’m sure he’ll remember me.

As for the Highland Wildlife Centre – it was certainly interesting, but had I known it was a zoo (not sure what I was expecting to be fair) I wouldn’t have gone. The animals are clearly well-looked after and the staff were endlessly cheerful, but there’s something awfully depressing about seeing a polar bear scratching around on a Scottish hillside. Not for me, though I know that they do some incredible conservation work – that’s one for you to square.

They did have gorgeous Scottish wildcats though, which they are breeding ahead of releasing them back into the wildcat. Sola could still chin them though.

View of the Cairngorns

Mountains everywhere, and we aren’t even on the NC500 yet!

The rest of the afternoon was spent making my way to my accommodation for the night and after many stops to get out of my car, put my hands on my hips and say ‘oooh but isn’t it lovely’, I arrived at the Macdonald Drumossie Hotel, which you can take a look at here. It’s perched up on a hill above Inverness and looked really quite something on the photos. Knowing I would be back in Inverness in so many days, the plan was to eat dinner there and get my head down early. I was checked in by a very breezy and efficient receptionist and given a room on the third floor, which is always fun when you’re carrying eight years worth of luggage with you. The hotel itself was perfectly fine, even if it did have a touch of the Overlook about it. I was pressed to make a dinner reservation as it was ‘very busy’. I deferred this invitation, thinking I could pop down a little later (and then promptly fell asleep, missing dinner entirely) – but here’s the thing. From the end of that conversation to me departing the next morning, I didn’t see a single soul. It’s like she checked me in and then went home for the day. Despite wandering around the grounds, popping out to Inverness to pick up supplies, nipping out for smoke breaks, there was no-one else there. It was genuinely unsettling – walking through a seemingly abandoned hotel at midnight isn’t good for the nerves. The room was very ‘old school hotel’ – very comfortable, but nothing which would indicate it was 2021. I didn’t mind: I enjoyed a tiny bath, threw my clothes everywhere and spent a happy minute or two dismantling the kettle.

Before I finish, can we take a moment to agree that hotels who use the room key to keep the lights on need a telling off? Every time I left the room I was required to take my key, a proper old fashioned key with a heavy tag so you didn’t lose it, which immediately plunged the room into darkness. This wouldn’t have been so bad had the corridors outside been lit up, but seemingly they had forgotten to pay the electricity bill because I left the room into more pitch black mystery. It was very much an adventure trying to make my way to the lift with only the tiniest of emergency lighting strips to guide the way, I can tell you. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a fumble in a dark corridor on holiday, but I’ve normally on my knees through choice in that situation. After a final adventure outside, I returned to my room, popped Question Time on, realised our local Conservative MP was on there flapping her bewhiskered jowls about, realised I didn’t need more anguish in my life, and went to sleep.

That’s a good place to leave it, I feel. The NC500 starts properly in the next entry! I’m terribly conscious of the fact I’ve prattled on ever so, but I love having a story to tell, and this is a great outlet for my writing. Again, would love to hear your thoughts! Regular readers, food recipes are coming back this week, I promise!

Stay safe, all.

J

driving the NC500: prelude

This is a very special episode of twochubbycubs. 

In a break from the regular blogging (when did that start?) I am going to walk you through my recent adventures around the North Coast 500. Honestly, a man gets tired of finding new and exciting ways to make a kilo of mince interesting, and sometimes it is all you can do to strike out on your own. So, settle back in your comfy chair, slip your Compeed pads off your trotters and listen to me gab in your ear about my travels. Recipes are due to restart this week, but you know, I just want to write.

First, what is the North Coast 500? Ah that’s easy, it’s 288 miles of road going around Cornwall. Can you imagine? We went to Cornwall once – even visited Lands End, don’t you remember – and it was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t Scotland. That’s what drew me to the North Coast 500 (NC500 going forward) – it’s a 500 mile or so circular trip around the top of Scotland, starting and ending in Inverness. It takes you around some utterly breath-taking places and is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the world. You can do it as quick as you like – some people spread it over three to five days, some take a fortnight – you do you. There’s a whole bank of B&Bs, campsites, hotels, yurts, shepherd huts, caravans and wild camping opportunities to make the most of. It’s beautifully romantic and perfect for couples.

So, naturally, I left Paul behind. Which sounds awful until I explain the timeline of this whole trip. I read an article about the NC500 on Monday. By Thursday, I was on the road. I am lucky enough to have a job which allows me to work flexible hours and a boss who is an absolute delight. Paul on the other hand needs to be around at certain times so alas, couldn’t join me. I did think about postponing it but he was very keen for me to go away. Presumably so he can piss on the toilet seat himself, I don’t know. Either way, we agreed that I could go off gallivanting by myself (he stressed that bit unusually loudly, not sure why) and he would stay and make sure the cats didn’t torch the house. He’s a good egg.

Actually, let me expand on that. He really is, and I am uniformly rotten to him on here and our social media, but how many husbands cheerfully go into work every single day to allow their partner to go carousing around the NC500 on a moment’s notice? He jokes that he’s glad of the peace and I’m sure he is, but I do know his day doesn’t sparkle without me around to moan about him not making my tea quick enough. He would do anything for me and expects nothing back. So, to Paul: thank you. I’m sorry I call you names on here, but you really mustn’t make it so easy. But thank you, I love you really, there’s a reason why we’re approaching fifteen years together and it isn’t just because I’m excited for a crystal anniversary gift.

Bleurgh, enough schmaltz. So there I am, with a week or so ahead of me with nothing planned. No accommodation booked, no trip route mapped out, no places to visit. If you research NC500 you are told in no uncertain terms that you must book your accommodation well in advance because everything is always snaffled up super quick. However, I don’t like being told what to do: if a fireman shouted at me to jump out of a burning building, I’d stay in and burn rather than respond to his curt tone. You might call that being contrary, but if you did I’d tell you to fuck off.

Two things in my favour though: Scotland had just opened up from its latest lockdown AND I have flexibility, no kids, pink pound and a sassy sense of doing as I please on my side. So planning was easy – choose a few places to stay, drive no more than 100 miles a day – and stop whenever I fancied on the way. Piece of piss.

However – I do not encourage this. This, unless you’re very lucky, will not work with you on the NC500. Places do get booked up very quickly and no more so than ever than these days when people are reluctant to travel abroad. I used hotels.com, AirBnB and the North Coast 500 website to decide where to go. Do your research!

Hark at me getting the red pen of death out. At some point, I’ll circle back onto these blog posts and add a fancy banner and a map, but now, all you need to know is that come Thursday, I was anxiously wondering how I could terminate a work phone call without it looking terrifically obvious I had somewhere to be, had thrown two suitcases full of garish clothes into my car and emptied Paul’s testicles before he set out for work. You must understand that he walks funny if you don’t: he’s like the boiler from The Shining, and not just because he leaks rusty water after you tinker with his valve. I had originally planned to drive up to Inverness that day (the NC500 both begins and ends in Inverness, as you would perhaps expect a circular drive to do so) but it was kicking into the afternoon before I was likely to get away, so I went onto AirBnB and selected a reasonably central apartment (their words, not mine) in Edinburgh which boasted floor to ceiling views of the city. Well, who could resist the opportunity to introduce oneself to Scotland that bending down naked to pick up my socks and showing off my bumhole to Edinburgh would afford? Not I. £89 for one night and the promise of chocolates left all over the place to snaffle. Deal. You can take a look here.

With one last kiss for the cats and eighty-seven checks of the house to make sure I hadn’t accidentally left a chip pan smouldering in a drawer or set the bathroom tiles on fire, I was ready to go – after a twenty minute goodbye conversation with one of three good sets of neighbours we have, of course. The others didn’t say a word, merely stared owlishly from their windows, lost in their internal angst over who may get my parking space. I gave them a cheery two-fingered wave as I clattered out of the street, and was on the road.

Well, in theory. The drive from where I live up into Edinburgh is an easy 115 miles straight up the A1 and, taking into account my need to stop and empty the crisp packets from the passenger seat once and a while, I was hopeful to arrive for about 5pm, which would give me more than enough time to fuss all the cushions, decant their toiletries into my suitcase and stare wistfully over to Arthur’s Seat. However, I managed to get four miles up the road before realising that I’d left my work laptop at home. As I said, work were being incredibly supportive of my whim – they always are – but even they would probably suck their teeth at me going off-grid for a fortnight without so much as a promise that I’d bring back some shortbread. Work essentials reacquired, and a few moments of pause where I double-checked I hadn’t absent-mindedly plugged the Instant Pot in and filled it with fireworks, I really was off.

NC500

 Destination: somewhere North of here

The original plan was simply to shoot straight up the A1, but here’s the thing – it’s a terribly boring drive for the most part and one that I do almost every month. I considered taking the A68 up through Jedburgh which offers far better views and a chance to pose by the England/Scotland border rocks. One of our most treasured photos of each other is us standing there, Paul with chocolate on his face and me with a full-on erection that I’m trying desperately to hide under my hoodie. We were young, in love and full of the giddy spontaneity that being together for fifteen years knocks straight out of you. Deciding that I couldn’t re-enact that picture on my own without ending up on a register, I instead chose to drive up to Wooler and cut over to the A1. Besides, the road would take me near a bookshop that I’d been meaning to visit for a while, and frankly, after twenty minutes of driving, I needed to rest.

Mindful of the fact I didn’t want to deviate without good cause, I rang ahead to the bookshop to enquire whether or not they had the particular book I wanted in stock. After enough time passed to make me wonder whether he had gone to print a fresh copy for me, the chap came back and excitingly told me that they did indeed have the book and I could pop along at my earliest opportunity to pick it up. Excellent! The only books I had bought for this trip was a Stephen King novella, a book about how to deal with psychopathic behaviour and a book all about how to survive in prison, none of which exactly lent themselves to reading comfortably in a restaurant by myself without the chef locking away the knives ‘just in case’. After twenty minutes or so of staring at the back of a logging lorry and twenty minutes of swearing at the driver, I pulled into the bookshop to pick up my book. It would be a matter of moments, surely?

No. Having introduced myself as the bloke who had called twenty minutes ago, the chap behind the counter denied having put the book aside, or indeed, having the book at all. I explained that we had talked on the phone only minutes earlier, an act which he also seemed incredibly surprised by. So surprised in fact that he doubled down on his denial and instead chose to tell me we hadn’t talked on the phone at all. I can’t deny I wasn’t hurt: I have a voice that lights up a room, albeit because most people rise to their feet and start looking for the exit, and I thought our telephone tête-à-tête had been full of gay laughter and memorable exchange. I was insistent that I hadn’t had a mild psychotic break and that I had absolutely spoken to him – I recognised the way his nose whistled when he was thinking – but his pained face told me not to explore the topic any further and I left, book-less and almost an hour behind schedule. I may have accidentally knocked a plant-pot off his windowsill as I departed. I was off to an excellent start with my mission to charm all I came across.

Speaking of those I’ve come across previously, heading into Edinburgh was a veritable storm of salacious offers, filthy messages and photos that aren’t nice to talk about. See, the last time I was in Edinburgh properly was for Bearscots, which is a fabulous event where every gay man who has a credit account with Jacamo goes to gawp at others just like him. This was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID which I think we can all agree was the cruellest consequence of the pandemic. Paul and I had a merry old time there when we went, not least because I got to wear a leather kilt and have people coo at my back hair. That’s understandable, it is magnificent: I look like a wet ham joint that rolled behind the cooker. I’ve kept in touch with lots of people I met there and when I mentioned I was going up, my phone went off like a widow’s marital aid. However: this was to be a holiday all to my own, and I mostly keep my hand on my ha’penny these days, so I politely declined the lot. Mind, I hadn’t realised at that point exactly how long I’d be away from Paul’s church-bell-ringing touch, so perhaps I’d been a little hasty. Live and learn.

That point about the ‘on my own’, though. I confess something to you now – for the days before I left I was incredibly anxious about striking out on my own. I’ve been with Paul for almost fifteen years now and haven’t spent much time away from his heaving busom, and for those rare occasions I do, I usually have something else to distract me, like work. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my own company, though: I’ve always been a fairly independent person and, growing up in the country, used to making my own fun. But regular readers also know I suffer with two tendencies which would play on my mind: health anxiety and endless catastrophising. Unless I keep on top of both, I can find myself lost in lurid scenarios where my heart bursts from mild exercise or I knock my head getting out of the car and Judy Mallett my way off the face of the Earth. Anchored to my usual safety measures – Paul, the cats, even twochubbycubs to some extent – I’m fine, because they serve as distractions. But me, alone, with just my thoughts and all the Billie Eilish songs I could muster? Could be a different story. That said, a couple of years ago I made the decision to do anything I was scared of should the opportunity arise because frankly, the alternative is never living. Far better to try something and fail than sit at home and wonder what if. Which, in my case, usually goes ‘what if that fluttering eyelid is actually a brain stem tumour, James – what if?’ More on that later.

Finding the apartment was no trouble at all, but finding somewhere to bloody park was. The listing had reassured me that parking would be a doddle with plenty of free parking space outside, but this simply wasn’t the case, with yellow lines everywhere. I drove up and down that cobbled street so many times that I almost brought myself to orgasm. I did sit and wait whilst an elderly couple fussed and struggled into their car in the vain hope that they were about to free up a parking space, but they were clearly one of those pairings who drive somewhere, take out their egg sandwiches and sit enjoying the view over their dashboard until the sweet caress of death takes them away. There was one other space – a tight little parallel park job between cars whose owners had clearly parked up with blindfolds on – and I thanked the good people at VW for installing park assist on my new car. However, I was so delayed trying to figure out how it worked that by the time I had started backing into the space, an Uber Eats driver had shot into the space before me and missed my back bumper by a whisker.

Words were exchanged, and fiery ones at that. He pointed out my lack of indicating, I enquired whether he thought I was sitting in the middle of the road to rest my clutch. Luckily, in his haste to criticise my driving skills, he forgot to monitor his own and ever so gently, but oh so delightfully, reversed into the car behind. I bade him a cheery goodbye at that point, and you must understand that my smirk at his misfortune was entirely accidental, and drove off a little further down the street, noticing that I could park on the single yellow lines as long as I was out of the apartment by 8am. As I planned to get on the road first thing this wasn’t an insurmountable problem so I left my car, waited for the angry Uber driver to disappear over the horizon, cursed the fact I had packed so much, and made my way to the apartment.

Can’t complain about anything – I even managed to take the best photo I’ve taken of myself in years in the lift on the way up too. It’s the little things.

NC500

Unapologetically slutty.

The apartment was spotlessly clean, was equipped with everything you could need and they had indeed left Lindt chocolate everywhere, though this did give me a moment of panic that I wouldn’t spot one in the bed, sleep on it and leave it looking like I’d performed a dirty protest in the night. Which was silly in retrospect, because I’d always just use the towels for that. I have to say, I love staying in an AirBNB – for the most part, they’re so much more homely than a hotel and full of nods and winks to the owners’ personalities. For example, this one was full of charming little tchotchkes that even I liked, which is quite something as I’d happily live in the white room that Betina and Max created in Absolutely Fabulous if I could. However, due to the fact you are rated as a guest, there is a pressure to leave the place looking absolutely spotless lest your AirBNB profile is ruined by ‘left a skidder like a landslide on the toilet pan’ or something equally distasteful. I like to try and leave it exactly how I found it so it almost looks like no guest has been it at all, though the fetid combination of my shoes and flatus always give the game away.

NC500

There was the small matter of the creepy haunted doll that would slash my throat if I blinked.

I decided to try and have an early night given I had a long drive to Inverness to start the NC500 in the morning (not actually that long, but there’s so many places to stop on the way) but stepped out for an evening walk in the hope I’d tip my calories back into a deficit. Edinburgh in the early evening just reminds me how much I want to live there (well, no, I want to live in Glasgow, it’s like Edinburgh but you do seem less likely to be accosted by chinless gap-yah students trying to pull you to see their two-person eight-hour comedy act on the Richmond Bread Riots). I did a little bit of shopping, then decided to head back for the night, keen to get away in the morning before everyone else and, most importantly, before the traffic warden had a chance to do his worst. I had the first of many disappointing showers on this holiday then retired to a bed that felt slightly unusual, not least because I wasn’t being gently tipped to a snoring, farting hippo by the cruel force of gravity.

NC500

Adventure beyond.

That seems like an excellent place to leave it. I hope this gives you an idea as to how these trip reports are going to be – you’ll get about 300 words of useful content and the remainder will be me waffling on about absolutely nothing. But: I’ve got some tales to tell, and we’re off! Part two soon. Would always love your feedback!

J