Sabbatical in full swing of lying in, coffee dates, protests and trip planning

Stirchley Lidl protest at the Council House. Pic: Neil Elkes?

I am finally relaxing into this screen break, sabbatical, time-out thing. Work decisions have been made (will be picking up freelance work again from April) and I’m not beating myself up about having lie-ins until lunchtime occasionally. Although there are a lot of things listed below, I’ve generally been living a bit more slowly and less stressfully after realising the main point of having a break is to actually have a break.

Ironically, planning a future holiday – a big overland train trip to Eastern Europe taking in eight countries – has seen me back on the computer for hours and days, trying to sort out the route options, pricing and accommodations. (I have shared some travel tips at the end of this post.) But I’m very excited to have finally sorted out the bulk of it and I’m looking forward to staring out of a train window for hours come spring. If anyone wants help  or advice with this kind of trip, I am now a semi-pro and free to be taken for coffee in February.

So here’s what happened in January:

  • Practical – starting to realise the admin never ends but my head is feeling calmer as the financial situation clears.
  • Learning – complete weeks 5-7 of OU Introduction to Cybersecurity course (cryptography basics, protecting your data on the network, what’s the worst that can happen?); still plugging slowly away at Indonesian vocab (up to 280 words out of 2000).
  • Helping – helped a young couple understand mortgages (randomly); waved a banner at a protest outside the council house against Stirchley/Lidl planning application; lent an ear a few times (being there for friends and family is a lot easier now); babysat for six hours for my super-cute five-month-old great nephew (changed my first nappy, made my first milk bottle up, dealt with my first tantrum).
  • Writing – finished processing a big three-year diary book and started a beat-style extract around London life in the early 1990s.
  • Books – ‘Love and Rockets X’ graphic novel, and made a list of some classic ones I haven’t yet read.
  • Health – weekly Scottish country dance class, weekly tai chi in the park, Millisons Wood to Meriden walk with big bro, yoga training from big sis, one gym session.
  • Events – Scottish Dance New Year Social, Stirchley Baths 1st Birthday, Roger Hiorns Ikon show, Justin Wiggins’ BOM show, Exploring Photomontage ‘Made at Mac’ show, birthday lunch for niece at the Mailbox, another school reunion wineathon, Pete’s talk on Cityscapes at the Kings Norton Photo Club.
  • People – many coffee shops have been visited this month. I finally booked in travel chats with Ruth, coffee with former work colleague Jo, catchups with the Kings Heath coffee crew, B30 brunch massive and London-Brummies curry meet-up.
  • Something new – mixed media textiles taster at the Mac made me realise it’s not for me; conversely, I found Pete’s new Art Show & Tell at the P-Cafe very inspiring and full of interesting artists/creatives talking about their work – and work barriers. Next one is on 16 Feb at 3pm (info here).
  • Somewhere new – Pitstop Cafe, Cotteridge (a gem, best mugs of tea); Gorilla Coffee Cafe, Kings Heath (nice enough).
  • Holiday – spent the best part of a week, researching and booking an overland train trip across Europe and trying to arrange a bodyboard holiday (postponed).

Some tips from my hours of travel research:

– You can get return flights to Bali in March/April for just £340 return on Qatar/Emirates. I’ve never seen them so cheap and on such good airlines. Check out latest prices on Skyscanner.

– Follow for overlanding by train; it really is a fantastic resource for telling you how to get there (cheap, express, scenic) and how exactly to book your tickets.

Bodyboard Holidays, run by UK bodyboard senior champ Rob Barber, offers bodyboard tuition in some very sexy winter sun places, from Morocco’s southern beaches to Costa Rica/Nicaragua to Indonesia. (They also do Newquay, Wales and Ireland.) Bodyboarding is a low-impact fun sport although all-round fitness is required for swimming out I discovered last summer at their Cornwall Bodyboard Camp. Check out the calendar.

And, yes, I’m ignoring the whole despicable Donald Trump thing.

Day 24: Florence, Fat Fluffs and a farewell

I think I fell a little bit in love with Italy last week despite its October chills. Florence, the Cinque Terre and Pisa photos are to be uploaded but here are three of them, starting with the classic shot of Vernazza, which only those walking the steep trails from Monterosso get to take. (My calves still hurt five days on.)

One of my favourite snaps from Florence – amid the Renaissance sculptures and statues – was this golden man casually riding a giant golden sea turtle. Well played Flo! Perfectly positioned amusing incongruity.

Finally, there’s only one shot you need to take in Pisa, and we just about made it after a storm stuffed up our train back from Monterosso to Pisa Airport. It’s not the greatest shot but it’s a shot. Conclusion: it’s very leany.

It’s good to be back and get on with life though. Today was part work and part checking up on our bunnies who are going through a bonding with other rabbits at Fat Fluffs rescue and sanctuary. There was a quad, now down to a trio after Bert at the back there started pushing his weight around. Hopefully we can pick them up on Wednesday. Bunminster and Joy grooming each other is a massive breakthrough; new bun Hayley is obviously providing the right balance for harmony. (That or Bert stress-bonded them all together.)

A carvery lunch with the family was next as we wished bon voyage to my niece Hannah who is jetting off to Australia in a couple of weeks to start her working holiday visa year. This is something that I did back in 1999 and I have to say it changed my life. It’s great to see her stepping out into her own big adventure.

Finally I had an hour-long feed and cuddle with my new great nephew Matthew, who we are still counting in weeks-old. Yes, he chucked milk down me and yes it was great.

There are always many things in the world to worry about, particularly right now, but these are the lovely things and I have many reasons to feel blessed today.

Day 15: Trip prep

Get diazepam repeat prescription and load up hypnotherapy help on phone for fear of flying, borrow map and phrasebook from neighbours, double-check cheap airlines small print on bag policies, print maps from airport to hotels, and train times for onward travel, pack accordingly to list made in 1994, write note to self for the early morning to bring chargers, quick brag on social media, and I’m off.


Day 8: First panic and a trip to Barmouth

Last night I felt homesick and just wanted to go home to our bunnies and get back to work. Which is kind of unexpected as I don’t think I have ever come to the end of a holiday eager to get back to the daily grind. Maybe it’s because I have no structure to go back to? Now that my free time is here, maybe I’m rueing the annoying 9-5.30 framework that made sense of my day and gave me things like school nights and weekends and the Christmas break to look forward to.

I also had the anxious realisation that I may finally have to more than just talk about my own ideas and dreams down the pub. Rejection and failure is not something I’m used to in my job of 30 years but I can surely expect a fair bit of that when building stuff of my own.

So there was a sleepless night and I’m sure there will be many more as things start, change, and bring both new horizons and new risks.

It rained through the night and all the way to lunchtime so I finished my book. (I wonder if I subconsciously took The Snowden Files because of our Snowdonia trip.) Given assumed NSA/CGHQ surveillance of Jo Public’s comms, it’s definitely given me an appetite to look more into cyber security if only to regain some sense of self-control and to brush up on information/data literacy.

This afternoon we drove down the valley to Barmouth. I remember vividly going on the waltzers there as a child of nine or 10. I remember thinking: “Wow! A funfair and it’s at the seaside. Best thing ever!” Amazingly the waltzers ride is still there. These days I’d rather jump in a quarry lake than go on a sick-making centrifugal fun ride, but walking along the Barmouth Bridge viaduct was cool. That’s your 40s for you.

Day 7: A wild swim and a very long walk


A tunnel to the Blue Lake
Dripping wet tunnel to the Blue Lake

Switchover day as we shifted to Dolgellau, taking in a wild swim in the Blue Lake (aka Golwern Slate Quarry). I’ve never done a wild swim in the UK but I have read some of Roger Deakin’s inspiring Waterlog and the idea of navigating through an old mining tunnel to get to the lake was too Indiana Jones to resist. So in I jumped. Pete, of course, had the camera…

Fi swims!

A post shared by Pete Ashton (@peteashton) on

The water temperature was as breathtaking as the vivid blue lake with vertical walls all around but I managed to swim across, trying not to think of the rumoured 90ft depth. Once out, my skin started to burn, not unpleasantly. I’m adding this to my #microadventures list. A challenge for me but nothing compared with those people who jump from high ledges 50ft down into the deep.

On a different kind of high, I set out to walk part of the 10-mile Mawddach Trail, along the wide estuary from Dolgellau down to Barmouth. The legs gave up around 6.5 miles in but I’m quite chuffed I made it that far and really enjoyed the changing estuary scenery, which was almost lunar in the sunshine.

Mawddach Estuary

Mawddach Trail at Arthog
The trail was converted from an old railway track that was closed down after nationalisation

Now chilling with a sauvignon and a pie. Stay classy Dolgellau.

Day 6: A lake, a pitch and a ponder

The main thing I want to do on this sabbatical break is get fit. I’ve tried to deal with my sedentary ills by variously using a stand-up desk, a stepper at my stand-up desk and a rebounder on screen breaks but, in short (and excuse my French), I’m f*^ked if I spend the next 10 years sitting and typing for eight hours a day. As the physio said about my tech neck: “You need to look at lifestyle change.” Which is a real bummer when you love what you do.

So today was a bit of a fitness test. We walked six miles on a round trip to the Bearded Lake, near Aberdovey, but it was a hard six miles of ranging Welsh hills. The views kept me going but today was a 22,500-step day according to my Fitbit surveillance. I’m always amazed that our hills and mountains are full of superfit oldies by the way. I hope to become one of them some day. In the meantime, here was the end prize…

The Bearded Lake
The Bearded Lake (is a long way away)

Accompanied by a slightly pained expression…

Me at Bearded Lake
So happy to be sitting down

In other sab-news, I applied for author Jojo Moyes writer’s retreat, using her Suffolk cottage for a week to kick-start a writing project. I’m 99% sure I won’t get an offer as she’ll be swamped but here was my application, subject line “A pitch from a procrastinator”:

Hi Jojo

I’m sure you’ll be inundated with entries so to get straight to the point, I’m a journalist-turned-blogger with 50+ travel diaries that I would like to see if I can turn into ‘something’.

I started doing this in January and produced a single chapter before RSI got the better of me – it’s impossible to edit all day and write all night when you have physical limitations and sore arms. Last week, however, I was let go from a long contract and I’m now free to write for myself.

I can do this at home, of course, but the big advantage for me personally in getting away is that I’m answerable to someone (you)! All my creative writing has been done when I am producing a piece of work for a reason – a course, a teacher, a deadline. Otherwise life, DIY, our two bunnies, and other procrastination opportunities get in the way.

I’d also love to talk to you about how to go from a 1000-word feature journalist or 600-word blogger to 80,000 words. I’m not sure I have the mentality. And how do you switch off the editing instinct to rewrite before you’ve barely started?

So those are my weaknesses and my hopes.

Thank you for offering your cottage.

So that happened today. We’ll see. Those travel diaries aren’t going to transform themselves.

In other news – oh the irony of sabbatical leave – I received another work offer involving online sub-editing training. This is based on a course I ran a few years ago. Thanks SEO from 2012. Now what to do? I’m supposed to be on a break.

looking ahead
Thinking, thinking…

Day 5: Edward Snowden and crab racing

A heavy mist enveloped Aberdovey until lunchtime (or was it cloud? – we are currently located up a very steep hill) – so the morning was spent doing something I’ve been looking forward to for ages: reading books. Editing words on a computer screen all day means the last thing I want to do at night is read more words. But now…

The Snowden Files
I spy… Edward Snowden

The Snowden Files by Luke Harding was a birthday gift a year ago. As a former journalist, I was fascinated as much by how the scoop played out as much as the content of the story. The Citizenfour documentary delivered Snowden’s story in real-time, with the actual source and the actual journalists up there on screen. It offered an unprecendented insight into the state of the world’s cybersecurity and surveillance, but also what it’s like to be the journalists given the biggest story of their career. You should see it if you haven’t already. The book is filling out some of the gaps and has me equally gripped. (I also have a cybersecurity course lined up.)

“Help me!”

A world away from espionage, we found ourselves caught up in crab racing this afternoon. I had no idea this was a thing.

A father and twenty-something daughter team had crammed their bucket full of crabs caught using a raw bacon lure. About 30 crabs were then dumped on the sand where they were to race at high speed into the sea. The middle-aged father seemed hugely disappointed that the near-suffocated beasties were barely moving and we were soon involved in a rescue mission to help the crabs return to the Dyfi estuary. Why do humans do what they do?

aberdovey beach
Just us and the seaweed

Aberdovey developed as a seaside resort in Victorian times but, heading into October, it is pleasantly deserted. Apart from mad crabbers and a few dog walkers we had the long, wide, dune-rimmed beach to ourselves. Hot walkers feet cooled in the incoming tide and then escaped to the hinterlands, across the dunes, over a golf course and train tracks, and finally to the pub.

mini dune
World of sand

Microadventure #3: Bodyboarding weekend in Cornwall

Tl;dr: unfit middle-aged Brummie woman with lifelong surfing obsession fulfils dream by not standing up on board.
fiona cullinan bodyboarding

The challenge has always been to surf. It’s been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember fuelled by seeing early skateboarding films in the ’70s. Then came movies such as Big Wednesday, The Endless Summer, Blue Crush, Lords of Dogtown and the oh-so-quotable Point Break. I even read books: Andrew Martin’s cult classic Walking on Water was particularly inspiring as (like Keanu in PB) a fellow journalist gets the ultimate assignment – he’ll be paid to go surfing, in Hawaii, for The Times. ‘Awesome.’

Continue reading “Microadventure #3: Bodyboarding weekend in Cornwall”