Love and Loss in Reading’s Ruins

Love and Loss in Reading’s Ruins

“What’s here? A cup closed in my true love’s hand?” The audience looks on in silent sorrow as Romeo drinks the poison and Juliet stabs herself with a knife. I know this is coming of course, but that doesn’t stop me crying. I’m watching the most romantic of Shakespeare’s tragedies, misty-eyed, sitting on a fold-up chair within the ruins of Reading Abbey, in an outdoor theatre encircled by walls that are 900 years old. Spotlights illuminate the stage and bats…

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Theatre on the Rocks

Theatre on the Rocks

My train hurtles through miles of open countryside, past fields of stubble and leafy green crops in straight lines. There’s long grass dotted with white blooms and yellow tufts and clouds of summer wildflowers float across the landscape like purple smoke. We whizz past sun-scorched farms, pigeons peck at corduroy soil and hay bales lie on the earth like massive half-corks. I close my eyes and a sun-shadow-sun-show flashes on my eyelids like lightning. I can hear the gentle pulsing…

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This is the Sea

This is the Sea

When you’re born, you’re given a boat to live in and arms and legs to swim with. You can do what you like with them. “But stay in the backwaters,” people warn, “and moor up every night, somewhere safe. Don’t work too hard. Don’t take chances and don’t leave shore when it’s raining. And whatever you do, don’t float downriver and be swept out to sea because you’ll get lost and you’ll drown. And there are sharks.” Okay fine. But…

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Chamomile, Candles, and a Very Naughty Bunny

Chamomile, Candles, and a Very Naughty Bunny

At the end of The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, the mischievous bunny’s mother, Old Mrs Rabbit, puts him to bed with some chamomile tea. In this timeless children’s story, Peter is forbidden to go into Mr McGregor’s garden – because his father was caught there and put in a pie – but he does it anyway and feasts on radishes, lettuce and beans. Mr McGregor spots Peter and chases him all around the garden. He’s terrified and…

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Botanical Healing at Chelsea Physic Garden

Botanical Healing at Chelsea Physic Garden

Sunflowers helped clean the soil in Chernobyl by soaking up and storing radioactive particles in their roots, I discovered, as I pottered about reading the labels and smelling the lavender in London’s oldest botanical garden. During August’s respite from lockdown, I longed to go somewhere green and beautiful, to connect with the natural world for a few hours. Chelsea Physic Garden, home to over 5,000 medicinal, useful and endangered plants from around the world, has its historical roots in plant-based…

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Stealing a Piece of the Past

Stealing a Piece of the Past

I pulled up the last inch of zip on my hood and looked all around me, peering deep into the wet night to make sure nobody was watching. I had to move fast. In the dark, I snuck behind the metal fence and picked a path through the puddles and debris on the broken driveway. I looked up and saw the last few remaining walls of my childhood home, battered and empty as if derelict or bombed, looming over the…

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Diana’s Memory Lives on in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

Diana’s Memory Lives on in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

The wide path that stretches down the western edge of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens is usually buzzing with tourists and crowds of young Londoners, but this summer it is quiet. Just a distant hum of traffic and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, cyclists whirring quietly by and a trickle of runners and walkers. This is the snazzy side of the park because of its over 300-year-old Royal residence, Kensington Palace, the London home of the Duke…

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Along the Brook to Hambleden Village

Along the Brook to Hambleden Village

The old church smelled like old church – a slight whiff of damp and ancient stone that the fresh air can’t reach because the doors stay closed to keep the jackdaws out. I sat alone in one of the few pews that weren’t blocked off by stacks of kneeling prayer cushions, made of tightly tapestried wool in an assortment of colourful designs. Saint Mary the Virgin Church is huge in comparison to the tiny but charmingly old village of Hambleden,…

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You Can Call Me AL

You Can Call Me AL

What’s in a name? A quick search tells me that my name Alison has been around since Medieval days. It was French probably, or maybe Scottish or English, and it is spelt with two Ls in America. Long ago, it was given to an Alice’s offspring – meaning ‘little Alice’ – and in Brazil it’s given to a boy. Does any of that matter? Not really. What matters is that my Mum and Dad liked the name Alison back in…

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Waiting Patiently to Swim Across the Channel

Waiting Patiently to Swim Across the Channel

I am on the riverbank at Aston, a tiny village near Henley, on a sunny Saturday morning. Surrounded by the green of wild hedgerows and overhanging trees, river reeds and fields on all sides. The Thames flows quietly by, glinting in the still air. Six women in swimsuits have just waded in, waist-deep, talking all at once about the size of their boobs and laughing at each other’s quick-fire tales of bra fails and breastfeeding. Caps and goggles on, they…

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The Lonely Life of Nina Simone

The Lonely Life of Nina Simone

I step carefully into the deep water and lie down. There’s just the right amount of bubble bath, the lights are off and a red candle flickers in the steamy haze, lighting up the walls. The hot water embraces every bit of me, I’m hugged, my eyes close and I start to relax. I’m listening to I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free by Nina Simone and I decide that this is my lockdown song —…

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Sleepy Heads and Other Stories

Sleepy Heads and Other Stories

I’ve been putting together a scrapbook of some of the things I wrote about during my first 10 years of motherhood. Maybe one day my kids will read it and get a glimpse of what it was like for me when they were little? Some of these memoirs were published in my magazine, a few were just scribbled in journals, and others were posted on a blog that I was obsessively devoted to and besotted with for a couple of…

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The Laundry in Three Men in a Boat

The Laundry in Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome, first published in 1889, is a classic Victorian novel originally intended to be a Thames travel guide. The author found his comic voice while he was writing, however, and the book evolved into a funny tale of three friends and their dog, Montmorency, on a journey up the river from London to Oxford. One day – having already passed through Henley and Reading, before going for drinks in Wallingford – the…

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Former Lodge of George Harrison’s Neo-Gothic Mansion

Former Lodge of George Harrison’s Neo-Gothic Mansion

It is not uncommon to see Henley’s visitors standing on Gravel Hill at the iron gates of Friar Park, the grand country estate that George Harrison once called home. They dutifully take their selfies before gazing up the winding drive, wondering what lies over the hill, dreaming of The Beatles and the golden age of sixties pop. Friar Park House is a huge and elaborate neo-Gothic mansion surrounded by wooded parkland, originally built in the 1890s as a weekend retreat…

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Bradley For Sale at £2 Million

Bradley For Sale at £2 Million

Lambridge Wood Road is a racehorse amongst ponies. A professional in a crowd of amateurs. A Harrods Café coffee next to a mug of Instant. Discreet and exclusive, this residential road is hidden from view, just off the Fairmile, and curves smoothly towards a large area of woodland bordering the National Trust land of Greys Court. Lambridge Wood Road is broadly exempt from Henley’s burgeoning traffic issues, because it is a quiet no-through road ending abruptly at the edge of…

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My Earliest Years

My Earliest Years

Of course I don’t remember anything about the start of my life, so I went around to my parents’ house to ask them about it. We sat on the green sofa in the living room of their bungalow and looked through some of my old baby photos, chuckling at my chubby round face and thick dark hair, and how I was dressed from head to toe in hand-knitted baby clothes. I was born on a cold winter’s night in Hitchin,…

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General Eisenhower’s Secret WW2 Hideaway

General Eisenhower’s Secret WW2 Hideaway

It is 1944 and mainland Europe is on its knees, ravaged by years of Nazi occupation and desperately waiting for liberation. Large numbers of American military personnel are over here, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our British soldiers ready for battle, holed up in the woods as they await the orders that will send them to fight on the beaches of Normandy. Living and working unnoticed in a top-secret location – an Edwardian townhouse in a small Berkshire village – is the…

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A Well-Heeled But Unflashy Neighbourhood

A Well-Heeled But Unflashy Neighbourhood

“It is the place to live,” I hear. “It is the most desirable road in Henley,” they say. Well I don’t know about that, but Rotherfield Road definitely has a lot going for it. It is a no-through road for starters – so there are no passing cars and it is as quiet as falling snow – and yet all the hubbub and happenings in the centre of Henley are still within walking distance. Woodside is a six-bedroom house that…

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Review: Foo Fighters

Review: Foo Fighters

We arrived late for Sunday’s Reading Festival because we were only there to see Foo Fighters. It’s a mainly young crowd here — a grubby throng of demob-happy teenagers, although I hear the average age went up on the Sunday — so, heads down and sunglasses on, we grabbed a quick cider and headed straight for the main stage. The mighty Foo Fighters. One of the last remaining bastions of rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s not old school, it’s better…

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Shakespeare at the Globe

Shakespeare at the Globe

We all stop talking and turn to watch the cast of Twelfth Night sashay out on to the stage. I am visiting Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s South Bank – a replica of the Elizabethan playhouse where William Shakespeare was playwright, actor and co-owner between 1599 and 1613. A circular thatched roof covers the stage and three tiers of seats, but my £5 ticket has me standing in the open-air yard, thrillingly close to the action. Patches of blue peep through the…

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