The true story of the inspirational canal couple.

I’m really lucky to have several local walks I go on which, whatever season, are beautiful. My favourite walk is up on the top of the beacon, which means an uphill path through farmland, a stroll through the woods, a hike across flat grass with a panoramic view of the whole county and finally a vista that, whatever the weather, is breathtaking.

          The most local walk to my home takes me through fields and woodlands – it’s a three-mile stroll crammed with the most beautiful plants and creatures, and often my cat Murphy comes with me.

          However, the canal walk is very easy, and it can be a long or short stroll: it’s a four-to-twelve-mile walk that is completely flat, historic waterways on one side, with barges, ducks, swans and herons. In the late summer and autumn, it’s a great place to pick blackberries. In the spring, it’s alive with colour. Always, I meet dog walkers, strollers, ramblers, runners, cyclists and, over a period of time, we become acquainted with each other. A year ago, last January, I was sauntering down the canal path in scarf and boots and, as I often do, I was thinking about a novel, planning a character and a scene, working out details.

I saw a runner coming towards me and as I stepped back to let him pass, he grunted thanks. He was a heavy man, probably in his forties, panting loudly. He was wearing a thick vest and a pair of shorts despite the cold weather and his skin was red with exertion. I was about to walk on, but I decided to wait as, in the distance, a woman with a pony tail was approaching, jogging at a sluggish pace. She was clearly tired from her effort. I assumed she was following the man and, I had to admit, I was very impressed. They were both overweight and working hard to put one foot in front of the other, but it was clear that they were determined to complete the run. As I turned to retrace my steps an hour later, I saw them again coming back, flagging and exhausted, but still going.

I recall walking along the canal, blackberrying, in September and the couple ran past me again. I had to look twice to check they were the same people. I thought at first that the man must be a marine; he was muscular, strong and very fit, but I recognised his face, although it was leaner. One step behind him was the woman, who was jogging at a fair lick, her pony tail swishing. She was slimmer, stronger and comfortable in her stride, as if she’d always been that way.

My admiration for the couple was boundless. They had set themselves fitness goals and they had achieved them. The two lumbering, tired runners who had staggered past me nine months before had become two athletes. What must have originally been a desire to become healthier and a hope to improve, a New Year’s resolution even, had become a reality and a life-style change. The man and woman I saw in January looked like they’d never become an Adonis; as they struggled along, red and sweating, they appeared unlikely to make it to the end of the run, let alone go out again. But their resilience and determination won through.

It’s January now and apparently the most depressing time of the year, especially compounded by the current Covid restrictions and anxieties. I’m thinking of the many people who want to change something this year, who are taking up a fitness challenge like the canal couple, or who are learning a new language, searching for a new career or hobby, battling an illness. At times the going looks tough, almost impossible, but I will take the example of the man and woman running along the canal path with me for ever now. If they can do it, and they did, (and I imagine they are still regularly running along the path,) then there’s hope out there for the rest of us. Aspiration, intention and following through with determination are everything. It’s not easy, but if we try, we might even just get there. And if we don’t, we can always try again.

If you’re on the path to something new and exciting, or just something new and better, I wish you a safe and successful journey. Happy New Year.

The glorious outdoors

I’ve always been thankful for blessings. Family, friends, good health, food on the table, shelter and warmth are things I’m grateful for every day. There are other areas of my life that I’ll be ever-grateful for; my work has always made me happy: learning, researching, teaching drama, writing novels. It is an incredible feeling, being able to make others happy, to offer something creative that embellishes others’ lives in some way.

But over the last nine months, something has shifted. Simple things I took for granted have disappeared: sharing a drink in a cafe with a friend, dropping round to someone’s house for lunch and a chat. The old normality has changed and things I thought of as ordinary are real blessings that I can’t wait to have back again. First on my list is to hug my son again, and then his girlfriend. They live in a first floor flat in London and not a day passes when I don’t miss them and hope they’ll be all right. And I’m not alone in these strange times: we are all together in this experience of separation and anxiety, no one more than many many front line workers who deserve so much more than just our applause for their brave and vital contribution.

One thing I have come to value more than anything now my normality has been stripped away is the beauty of nature. Once, I could jump in my camper van and go to the beach, drive to a different county, to another country. Travelling makes me happy, and now I can only travel down the road on foot to the local woodlands. It must have been that way for people centuries ago, and how fascinating it is now to be in the position where our horizons have changed suddenly. It makes me feel a different kind of gratitude, both for what I once had and for what I am limited to now.

My walk takes me from my house, along the muddy roads, across a field, along a bridle path, over a style and through a kissing gate, then around a wavering woodland track. Whatever the weather, whatever the season, nature keeps on giving. My walk has been framed by bluebells, blackberries, holly berries, nuts, falling leaves, horses, pheasants, squirrels, foxes and the occasional badger or deer. I am privileged to be able to go outside and walk: if it’s cold, I wrap up; if it’s raining, I wear wellies. Whatever the weather, I know I am lucky to be outside, to breathe fresh air and to feel the sun, a breeze or rain on my face and the hard soil or squelching of mud underfoot. It’s a walk that takes me an hour and a half: during my walks, I have solved simple daily problems, devised novel plots, developed characters; I have sung, danced and climbed trees. Sometimes, my cat comes with me; Murphy loves the woods and if he feels tired, I pop him inside my coat to rest for a while. He’s seldom too tired to run the last downhill stretch with me.

I’m learning to be happy with small pleasures. A walk in the woods, a log fire when I get home, a simple bowl of steaming hot soup, these things will never replace hugging my child and my brother, or talking politics and philosophy and sharing a curry with dear friends but, in their own right, these small things are special and I am blessed.

Hopefully, before long, some sort of normality will return for us all. We can meet people, break bread together, share wine, embrace, have parties again and dance on tables. It will be wonderful and we will have so much to celebrate when we get our lives back again. And there will be so much to repair in our society: the effects of illness, loneliness, changed fortunes, new and systemic poverty and inequality: I hope we will all move forward, caring for and supporting each other.

But I won’t forget the small things I have now; how the simple gifts of nature will still be there, how I once took them for granted and how at this moment in time, although I have little else that remains from the old normality, their importance is huge. And I hope that by valuing the small things, I’ll value the larger things even more, and emerge from the current situation feeling totllay grateful for the many blessings life offers.

Sharing my New Year’s Eve buffet with friends, in the only way currently possible…

Apparently, the entire month of January is celebrated by many as Veganuary, a time when people eat vegan food for a month. Perhaps it is a fresh dietary choice for some, perhaps it is an antidote to the Christmas excesses for others, or even just curiosity, but I thought I’d share my New Year’s buffet on a blog post as a way of celebrating plant-based food. After all, I can’t invite you round at the moment.

The triumph of the buffet table was the deliciously savoury and sweet focaccia bread, topped with apple and onions. The loaf was straightforward focaccia or pizza dough, rolled out and topped with thinly sliced apples, onions, parsley and thyme, gently fried first in olive oil. The bread was cooked in a medium oven for 20 minutes until golden brown and risen. Loved by all who try it, it’s a winner.

I also defrosted some filo pastry and then I sauteed onions, garlic, mushrooms, adding chopped chestnuts and a handful of spinach, then a handful of plant-based cheese, and seasoning the lot. This was the filling for several sheets of pastry, rolled over to make a long sausage shape, then cut into chunks and baked for 20 minutes in a hot oven.

Along with a mixed bean salad with peppers and tomatoes, a green salad, a rice salad with peas, and a few dips such a hummus and some garlicky aioli, I also served a few more savoury dishes. I fried some onion bhajis in a gram flour and water paste, spiced with turmeric, cumin and coriander, and some samosas stuffed with potatoes, mushrooms, onions, garlic, peas and spices. These were served up with chunky mango chutney.

Finally, I made some dim sum buns, stuffed with mushrooms, peppers and onions cooked with garlic and ginger, wrapped in a coconut milk and flour dough and steamed for fifteen minutes. These were served up with a tangy sweet and sour chilli sauce.

I made a pan of glühwein, warmed spiced red wine with fruit chunks, and after the buffet I brought a plant-based tiramisu to the table. It was a spiced sponge, with cinnamon and ginger, covered with a whipped mixture of coconut milk, plant-based cream cheese, coffee and kalua coffee liqueur, topped with chocolate.

I’m looking forward to my next book launch in April, for Chasing the Sun, or maybe the one after that later in the year, when I’m able to invite people round, and we can share a good buffet together. It’s a great feeling, to spend time planning and making a buffet for others, then to offer a variety of finger food and watch people pile up plates with their choices and enjoy nibbles.

Next time, I may add some little curried pies or mini quiches, some mini pizzas or a sliced vegetable tofu frittata. I might also add an interesting plate of no-pigs in blankets with my own home made ‘ba-con’, an eggless scotch ‘egg’ and some salmon-free canapés with herby cream ‘cheeze’ made from cashews. Watch this space, as I’m bound to blog anything that works well enough for me to want to share it with guests at some point in 2021.

As I see it, if I can’t invite you round and offer you a plate of food, the next best thing is to share it on a blog.

With warmest wishes to you all for a Happy New Year.

(Apple and onion focaccia bread.)