Friday, 30 October 2015

Pastures new

I've been curious about Louth for some time, and found myself strangely drawn towards it ever since I found it whilst I was idly looking through the road atlas looking for new places to explore.

This was some months ago. I started with Wikipedia, where else, then moved on further to find out as much as I possibly could about this town.

Here's a few snippets from Wikipedia that caught my eye:

"Louth has a total resident population of 15,930.[2]"
"The Greenwich Meridian passes through the town and is marked on Eastgate with a plaque on the north side of the street, just east of the junction with Northgate."
"Louth is noted for the wide selection of independent retailers, with around 70% of businesses independently owned.[28] In 2012, it was named 'Britain's Favourite market town' by the BBC's Countryfile.[29]"

"Louth is also known for its specialist grocers,[31] and local butchers, Meridian Meats, have won numerous awards.[33] It is also home toThe Cheese Shop, which has gained nationwide recognition, including in The Daily Telegraph,[34] The Guardian,[35] and on The Hairy Bikers' Food Tour of Britain.[36]"

So where is Louth? Well it's about twelve miles from the East coast, situated roughly half way between Grimsby and Lincoln on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. The more I read about it the more it interested me, but there's no substitute for visiting a place. So on three of the five days we were in Lincolnshire this week, we explored the town.

My first impression driving in were good. I've never seen the autumn trees in more colour - they were an absolutely glorious mix of yellows, reds and oranges on the tree lined route we drove in on.

As for the town itself? Well despite having a population around half that of Bicester, they've an amazing range of shops in the town centre - every unit occupied with a mix of national chains e.g. Millets, Clarks, Boots, Superdrug, Wilko etc etc and local businesses including five butchers, green grocers, several bakeries, cafes, and proper pubs. The chains that weren't present were welcome by their absence - there was not an accursed Costa Coffee or Starbucks in sight. Give me locally run coffee shops any day. The town has worked very hard to keep it's town centre special and it shows. There were also markets in town - three days a week apparently. I had a taste of a pork pie off one of the markets - I'm not joking, it was one of the most gorgeous pies I've ever tasted. Just when I thought things couldn't get any better, I found a cheese shop!

The cakes in the bakery windows were too tempting not to indulge in - but the prices! I would say around half of what you pay in the Bicester bakeries. Great big cream cakes for around 80p and cupcakes and stuff for the kids for about 50p. And absolutely delicious.

As for eating out, there's a good range of restaurants, including a proper steakhouse called "The Ranch". We had a fantastic meal there, made all the better by kids being allowed to eat free between 5pm and 6pm. In addition to the steaks they've got all the ribs, wings etc that you get in such places, and like many of the businesses in Louth, it's independently owned.

We went to visit St. James' Church, the tallest Anglican parish church in the UK. There was a lot going on in there - half term activities for the local kids, a shop, a cafe and local guides. You can also climb the 195 steps to the top of the tower. It's a very tight and very narrow spiral staircase to get up there and very hard work but I made it, and when I got to the top, I took this picture to prove it.

Pass me the oxygen mask, Ollie...

If you add that to my trek up Steep Hill in Lincoln, I've got to have done myself some good on this holiday, even with the indulgence at the steak house and bakery!

Whilst in Louth, I spoke to everyone I possibly could about the town. That wasn't difficult - every person I spoke to was incredibly friendly and welcoming. This included people from Amersham and Birmingham who had relocated there in recent years and hadn't regretted it.

I think you've all guessed where this is leading. It's not a decision we're taking lightly, but we've been thinking about relocating for some time. Initially this was due largely to financial reasons, but the truth is, it's no longer a case of needing to go, we want to go. And that does mean all of us.

The fact is, I've had 25 years in Bicester, most of them good ones, but of late, I've become jaded. I need fresh challenges in my life, always have done, and the adventure of going to live somewhere else is one that appeals. I've never been better placed to do it - the money I earn in royalties from my book sales gives me the freedom to live anywhere, I'm no longer tied to a job. So why not?

There are many things people in Bicester are not happy about, as judged by the endless disgruntled posts on Facebook on various pages dedicated to the cause. I needn't go into details, I agree with most of it. I've never been afraid to jump ship if I'm not happy with something in my life - hence my 10 year transition from working at Nielsen to becoming an author. And the truth is, I don't want to sit around here moaning about the state of the town centre, the evils of BV and all the rest of it. I want to vote with my feet and go. And in the lovely town of Louth, I've finally found somewhere I think I can go to.

Virtually every box I want it to tick, it's ticked. In addtion to all I wrote above;

Great schools with good OFSTED ratings who are good with SENCO kids - tick. I even managed to talk to a teacher while we were there who went to the school that Ollie and Jamie would go to. And we went to have a look at it too.

Low crime rates - tick.

Very affordable housing (half Oxfordshire prices and rents).

Near the seaside, so you can visit any time you want - tick.

And much more...

So, what now? We've talked and we are quite excited about the possibility of moving to this new part of the world. But I want to keep my feet on the ground. It's early days and I don't want to rush into anything just yet, so what we've decided to do is this.

Firstly, take a second trip up to Louth over the next couple of months, but without the children this time. Then we can get out into the local pubs and spend more time meeting people. There's lots of nice looking pubs in the town - none of your Wetherspoons chain shite, but we didn't get a chance to explore them with the children in tow.

Then, give ourselves a cooling off period to think about it. We feel excited about all this now but perhaps we should give ourselves three months to be absolutely certain it's what we want to do. We can spend that time finding out more about the schools, and Claire can try and find work with the NHS in the area. Then we'll look at moving in the spring.

When and if we do decide to take the plunge, then we'll go and rent a place for a year - sort of a 12 month trial. If after that year we want to stay, we'll then look at buying in the area. If not, we can always come back.

I feel this way, we're covering all the bases. We're giving ourselves a year to experience life in a new town and a new community. Life is to be lived and I feel rather as if I am stagnating sitting around in Bicester and Oxfordshire in general. There's just nothing new here to excite and stimulate me. I need a new challenge, a new place, and I believe this is going to be it. I've found the right place, and the time feels right.

So, yes, it's official - if all goes to plan, I'm leaving Bicester. I won't be leaving my friendships behind, though. I hope when we get settled we'll be able to receive visitors - and if any of you ever holiday in the area - we'll be a mere stone's throw from Mablethorpe and Skegness, you'll come and see us in lovely Louth.

Exploring Lincolnshire

This is going to be a two part blog as there's a lot to tell you!

We've just come back from a four night holiday in Saltfleet on the Lincolnshire coast.

Now it might not sound like the first choice of holiday, four nights in a caravan at the wrong end of October on the windswept east coast, but we had a fantastic time. We packed an amazing amount into the time we had available.

I have a theory that you get more out of a short break than a longer one. When you know you've only got three full days, it focuses the mind. There's no time to waste lounging about or taking a day or two to settle in. You've got to be full on from the start. And you've also only got to make your money last four days, so you don't have to eke it out so much as you do on a longer break.

There was an ulterior motive to taking this break. As I've mentioned previously, we have for some time been scouring the country looking for somewhere potentially to relocate to. Why? Well the high cost of living and housing here was the initial reason, but to be honest, in recent months I have begun to feel more and more that I want to move on in any case. I've been here 25 years and I feel ready for a change. I want to find out what it's like to live in another county, in another town.

So far our travels around the country have not yielded any positive results. I have said all along that I wouldn't move unless I found somewhere that really felt right. I knew that when I found the place I would know. Travels around Norfolk and Devon proved fruitless. Nowhere did I find somewhere that I could hand on heart imagine one day calling home.

So it was very much third time lucky this time and after months and months of research on countless towns across the UK and turning them down for various reasons, my sights alighted on Louth in Lincolnshire. This sounds like a bit of a cliché, but as soon as I saw it on the map, I almost felt it calling to me. I knew I had to go and check it out.

Louth is not far from the coast, and as luck would have it, I found us a very cheap caravan by the sea at Saltfleet, about 12 miles away. So it was a perfect opportunity not only to have a nice half-term break, but also to check out Louth at the same time to see if it was everything I hoped it would be. And was it? It certainly was, everything and more. But let's deal with the surrounding area first.

Louth is situated roughly halfway between Lincoln and Grimsby, places I had never been. In fact, Lincolnshire as a whole was a closed book to me before this week. Quite how I had never strayed into the area is surprising really as during my time with Nielsen, I travelled the length and breadth of the country visiting clients. There are very few major towns and cities I haven't been to. I also used to travel a lot around the country meeting friends I'd met on holiday. But none of these trips ever took me to that particular part of the country.

I didn't know much about either city, but had made the assumption that Grimsby, having "grim" in the name was probably just that. The other major place of note in the area is the seaside resort of Skegness which I'm ashamed to say, I'd also assumed was a dump. That famous poster Viz once posted of Skegness had stuck in my head (Google Skegness Viz and you'll see what I mean), and the name Skegness itself doesn't conjure up a picturesque scene in the way that say "Bourton-on-the-Water" does. This does pose a question. It is just me or is it a human trait to make assumptions about a place purely based on its name. It's tantamount to discrimination when you think about it.

Well all I can say is, after visiting both Grimsby and Skegness, I'll be making a conscious effort never to discriminate against a place based on its name again.

Take Grimsby, for example. On the route we drove in, we were on a wide tree lined avenue, with lovely big houses on either side. Seriously, I could have mistaken it for Woodstock Road or Banbury Road going into Oxford. It was exactly like that except you could knock a zero off the end of the house prices. We didn't spend more than a couple of hours in Grimsby, but we didn't see anything grim about it. I've seen a lot rougher in cities further south, put it that way.

As for Skegness, well, I was hugely impressed. I have been to many British seaside resorts in recent years, and Skeggy knocks them all in to touch. It's not dissimilar to Yarmouth, which I quite like, but better. It's one of the few such resorts I have been to where it doesn't feel tired, run-down and in decay. It was lively, fun and with a lot more going on than in Yarmouth. And this is in October, remember, not the height of the summer season.

The children were even more fearless than in the summer when it came to the rides on Skegness sea front. They continually surprise me, particularly Ollie, who despite his reticence in other areas is a complete thrill seeker when it comes to rides.

Riding fast and high.

The other seaside resort worth a mention is Mablethorpe which has a lovely beach. As far as I could see it was perfect golden sand from one end to the other, no seaweed, no stony bits, nothing horrible at all. It's how I imagine a beach should be and quite refreshing after several recent disappointments. The boys had a good run around on it which helped to keep warm - it was a tad chilly to say the least.

Mablethorpe beach. Too cold for my speedos I'm afraid, girls.

The highlight of our tour was undoubtedly Lincoln. We parked in the centre, down by the canal, and immediately on emerging from the car park were greeted by a welcoming scene. There was a large square with old fashioned carousel, next to a canal with a floating cafe on a barge, lined with various period buildings.

Fun on the carousel

As we wandered through the shopping streets, the paths began to turn uphill as we headed towards the castle, eventually leading us to the aptly name "Steep Hill", a beautiful cobbled street lined with all sort of interesting boutique shops - from antique book shops to a specialist Russian doll shop. Ollie has been asking for some Russian dolls for years, and here was the perfect opportunity - we were able to get a traditional hand painted set made in Russia, and he and Jamie have been playing with them ever since.

Jamie and Ollie on Lincoln Castle walls

The whole area is quite stunning, and quite hard work getting up the hill which is almost 1:2 in places, but well worth  it. At the top lies the castle and cathedral, steeped in history. With about an hour of daylight left to us, we just had time to do the walk of the castle walls before we headed back. The views from up there were amazing.

So, Lincoln, what a lovely city to visit, and we will definitely be going back to spend more time there when we get the opportunity.

So, what about Louth? Well that's going to be covered in Part 2 of this blog, which I am going to start writing right now. Give me an hour or so and it'll be up.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Fan Mail

Here's a thing. Back in the dim and distant reaches of the last century, when I was still an impressionable young lad, I wrote a few fan mail letters, mainly to pop stars of the time. This was not unusual activity at the time, and probably no different to the tweeters of today who tweet to their superstar icons in the usually forlorn hope of getting a re-tweet or maybe even a reply.

It's not that likely because such superstars tend to have several million followers and in many cases don't even see the accounts - they are "managed". Presumably this is either because they are too busy or more likely because their carefully controlled public personae can't be allowed to tweet themselves in case they say the wrong thing and get caught up in a media storm. Such is the way of the modern world.

Back in my day...(wow, I sound so old), we wrote our fan mail on good old fashioned pen and paper. Most used to write to ask for a signed photo and such like but I used to prefer the personal touch. This is possibly why I never got any replies. Indeed, my teenage letters might have seemed stalker-esque, assuming the word stalker had enter the lexicon by then, of course.

In hindsight, asking Samantha Fox for a date was realistically never likely to succeed, nauseating 15 year old boys with excessive levels of testosterone not generally being seen on the arms of Page 3 girls. Similarly, my cosy approach to Morrissey, on seeing that The Smiths were playing a gig in Oxford in the spring of 1985 didn't succeed either. In my chatty missive to him, I suggested popping round for tea before the gig. Again in hindsight, this was probably a bad idea as well. I am pretty sure it was a Monday, and Mum normally cooked gammon steaks that night. This was around the time the Meat Is Murder album came out, so it probably wouldn't have gone down well.

Morrissey: Didn't want to come to tea.

Thankfully my three letters to Jim'll Fix It all went unanswered, so not getting replies to my mail wasn't all bad.

Never did I think, thirty years on that I would be getting fan mail of my own.

There's no way to mention this without it sounding egotistical, I suppose, but that's not the intention. When I say fan mail, what I mean is that an increasing number of people who have read and enjoyed my books are contacting me via Facebook and Twitter to express their appreciation and to chat to me.

Now, I'm no big star, far from it, and probably never will be, but the thought that there are people out there all over the world who are enjoying my work enough to want to write to me is quite lovely and I always reply back. I absolutely love engaging with these fans and listening to what they have to say about the books. Although I get lots of reviews on Amazon, that's one way feedback to which I don't reply - but direct contact with readers is amazing and invaluable. It allows me to have a two-way conversation with people who have been genuinely touched by my work, something which both they and I enjoy.

I know I said it sounded egotistical to admit to having "fans" but I've not got my head in the clouds at all and I can't imagine that I ever would, even if I did become successful. It is these people who've enjoyed my work, given good feedback and spread by word of mouth (still the best marketing there is), who have got me as far as I have - and I truly would never have done it without them.

I still remember a couple of years ago joking with a star struck friend (her words, not mine, and I really wasn't any sort of star to be honest) that she was my first "fan". I'm not going to embarrass her by identifying her on here, but we still correspond regularly, and she will know who she is from these three words "Serial Drama Sid". And just for her, I still reckon Lord Grantham is going to kop it before the end of the series.

As for fan #2, you deserve a mention too, so if you are reading, I await your latest news with baited breath. My half price ham depends on it!

To everyone else who has written to me and shown support, I'm really happy that you did, I have really enjoyed our conversations and I will always reply. You just don't get this kind of service with Stephen King and co...