Not much drops through your letterbox anymore - not even bills. The daily post delivery (if you get one) generally consists of unwanted adverts, Domino’s pizza offers (is anything ever full price there?), begging letters from charities and the occasional letter from the tax man. But if you're very lucky, once in a while something very special will drop through your door. 2018 saw our postman deliver two such letters.
Our first, which was a complete surprise was a letter from ERNIE – master of the premium bonds - advising of a £25 win on my bond! As I am the owner of just £2 worth of premium bonds, won in a local newspaper colouring competition over 46 years ago (?!), it was a great surprise when they won a prize! It might not have been the jackpot and it didn’t take long to spend but it was a very enjoyable win!
Secondly, not so much a surprise but even more special to both of us, was the letter which arrived with a Buckingham Palace postmark confirming our attendance at a Royal Garden Party to be hosted by the Queen, after both being nominated through Chris' work for services to business in Manchester.
We RSVP'd and dutifully headed to ‘google’ for help and advice!
Now the beautiful invitations – something we will treasure for ever – came with a plethora of helpful advice and tips for the day but somehow, we needed more!
Our first job was to sort out our transport for the day. We are lucky to live on the West Coast Main Line so getting down to London from Wigan is a relatively smooth job thanks to Virgin trains. Book early enough and you can even manage to get first class travel at a bargain price. Thankfully this time we were lucky and managed to get first class tickets on our train of choice for under £20.
Now the clothes. Dress codes are a nightmare. Not so much for men as it is just a choice of suit style and colour but what do these ‘dress code’ terms really mean? Day dress? My ‘day dress’ usually involved my black or blue trousers with a selection of tops from Fat Face, White Stuff, Wallis and Next. I was quite sure at this point that none of those would be acceptable! Dresses are completely absent from my wardrobe, so my first job was seeking one out. Not being a natural ‘dresser up’ this was actually a really tricky choice coupled with the ‘should I wear tights’ and the eternal ‘will my high heels be comfortable?’. Thankfully there were blogs aplenty showing outfits people had chosen ranging from cocktail dresses to trouser suits and to my relief lots of fellow ‘non dresser ups’ (are these even words!?) wearing lovely ordinary dresses. I have to admit this was my least favourite part of the whole experience; racked by indecision and a total lack of confidence in my ability to choose appropriate clothes (if you know me you will understand..ripped jeans and scarves dominate my wardrobe!) I was finally dragged into Debenhams by my 80 year old Mum who declared we were not leaving until I chose something! Surprisingly of the two dresses I thought might do, I actually liked one of them enough to think I could wear it helped by the fact that there was a lovely blush jacket waiting in my wardrobe to go with it. So navy blue dress with a tropical print, blush jacket, a beautiful blush scarf (which I have loved ever since!) and some nude wedge heels – following the ‘no heels’ advice! Thanks to a good friend Angie I had a lovely feathery fascinator – blush again - and was ready to go. Not sure I was fully confident in my choices but basically, I ran out of time! At this point I’ll just mention that Chris chose his favourite blue suit and a white shirt which I dutifully ironed. So much easier for men….
The day dawned, bright and sunny. An early hair appointment with friend and hairdresser Lisa who transformed my hair then set it like concrete! Half an hour of deciding what to do about shoes – eventually we all decided that comfort should rule so out came some comfy (frumpy) blue wedge sandals (managed to get my ankle chain on though!) and the blush heels remained in their box for another time. The lovely Lisa dropped us at the station and we were ready to go.
In the lead up to the party I had done extensive research on umbrellas and coats and what actually happened if the ‘heavens opened’. I knew (thanks again bloggers) what umbrellas were acceptable and what would happen if it did indeed rain. Now I don’t know if you remember last year but something very extraordinary happened and we had a long period of hot and sunny weather. Coping with the heat I had not researched and not long after our arrival in London we were carrying jackets and searching shops for sunglasses!
You may know we love to walk, so travelled down to the palace on foot – thank goodness for the comfy shoes! It was almost like following the Pied Piper as at every turn someone else joined the walk – knowingly smiling at each other as the outfits gave away our destination.
As we arrived at the entrance to Green Park, we were met by volunteers who pointed us in the direction of the different entrances. There were substantial queues at all of them, so we decided to go around to the rear of the palace and join the queue there. This saved us no time as that was also a substantial queue, but it was extremely well organised, moved along quickly and you were surrounded by thousands of excited people. The sun was shining, it was very hot, and the crowds were friendly. It was at this point that we began to notice groups of tourists photographing us! You almost felt like shouting ‘we’re no one special!’ – what they imagined was taking place I have no idea!
As the line progressed you were greeted by friendly smiling police officers – heavily armed – but there to keep you safe and guide you in. Tickets checked and we were in. Actually, inside Buckingham Palace gardens. That feeling is so hard to describe. I am sure no one imagines that ever happening to them. We certainly didn’t.
Again, thanks to the research (thanks again bloggers!) we had a vague idea of where we needed to be and when, so we took the time to wander around the beautiful gardens. Happily taking photos for other couples and selfies by the bucket load! Being able to take your camera along was a very pleasant surprise. We chose to leave the Fuji’s at home and opted to go ‘mobile’ for the day. Cameras on mobile phones are of exceptional quality now and of course much more portable.
We reached the front of the palace (back entrance) still snapping happily away and met the crowds of people waiting for the arrival of the royal party. As you gaze across the immaculate lawns you realise the sheer number of people who are actually there with you – 8000 people are invited to each event with three parties across the summer months.
We joined the throng but had no real chance of seeing much through the lines of top hats! Bang on time out came the royal party onto the patio and made their way slowly across the garden to their tea tents; talking to what must have been pre-arranged guests. We got very close to Prince Edward at this point standing nonchalantly on the lawn chatting and resembling nothing more than a founding member of the Kingsman society! (geeky film reference sorry!)
We watched the Beefeaters march away, listened to the bands playing and then decided to go and sample the afternoon tea. Again (thanks bloggers!) thanks to the research done beforehand we knew exactly what to expect. Join one of the lines choose your drink and then select whichever sandwiches and cakes you want to fill your small plate. There was a large choice of drinks and we decided to sample one of each from the cakes and sandwiches. The queues looked long but the whole thing is extremely well organised and moves along quickly and efficiently. 27,000 cups of tea are served, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 cakes and every mouthful we tasted was exquisite. Not sure we have ever tasted such delicious sandwiches and cakes and despite your plate looking on the small side (we’re northern remember! Pies, pea and mash up here!) it perfectly fitted ‘one of each’. Now at this point I need to tell you that seating is not readily available. There were a lot of elderly guests and it was a very hot day. There are seats around and about the gardens but we, like many others, stood to eat our tea.
Due to the heat the next stop was the spotless toilet block to freshen up – sticky fingers! It was here that I realised my choice of the frumpy blue sandals was indeed the right choice as there were numerous ladies walking around barefoot carrying their stilettos in their hands (non heel wearers may not realise that once they are off and particularly on a hot day they are not going back on for the rest of that day!)
Not sure if this was a result of the heat or if this is a usual occurrence but there were plentiful bottles of water for you to have and even ice creams! We ate our ice creams leaning on the walls of Buckingham Palace (still can’t believe I am actually saying that!) and tried to take in what was going on around us. We met some very worthy attendees proudly telling their stories and introducing you to their families.
Words cannot describe what a good day we were having but it was at this stage that something quite magical happened. As we wandered around the lawns trying to catch a glimpse of the royal party in their tea tent, we saw the Beefeaters begin their walk back to protect the Queen. As we turned around to watch, a Beefeater stood directly in front of us and we realised they were forming a line for the Queen to walk back to the palace. Accidentally we found ourselves right at the front of this line and together with a lovely young couple from Ireland could not believe our luck! The royal party made their way through the line across the gardens towards the palace right in front of us. Time for some point and click photography hoping to get at least one good pic. Obviously well trained to smile for everyone we got some amazing photos of the party and several where they even appeared to be smiling just for us! Proudest moment when the Queen smiled for my photo – I’m definitely sure it was me she was smiling at!
Despite the retirement of the royal party there remained much to see and do – bands, music, the gardens and even selected areas inside the Palace (no photos allowed there!)
Sadly, as all great days come to an end it was time to leave to catch the train home. The exit was through the palace and the very famous doors you usually only see after weddings and visits of dignitaries. Time for some more snapping and then we went under the gates and out onto the front. Once again paparazzi style photography from hundreds of tourists, which by now I was used to and quite enjoying! I’d never see any of the photos so who cares what I look like!
Despite taxis everywhere we decided to walk back to Euston and once again the frumpy shoes were proven to be the right choice. First class ride home on the train (we were very tired!) and the end of a truly wonderful day. A day we will probably never ever repeat. I can’t imagine you would ever be asked twice, but what a huge honour to go just once.
It was about this time last year when we first received our invitation and began to plan. If you’ve just received yours congratulations and we hope you have a wonderful day! Maybe some of this might help you who knows! We came back from London with so many memories, new sunglasses, tights which didn’t ladder and a fascinator which thanks to Lisa stayed exactly where it should have done all day!
Our big 5 tips:
"Why am I here?
I wanna feel
I wanna see
I want to meet the queen..."
Birmingham has been high on our list of places to visit for some time. We'd had a long planned-for trip to Purnells to take and it is just a hour and a half train journey direct from home. Having a Christmas birthday in the family always means extra thought and planning to ensure Chris' birthday doesn’t disappear into the Christmas festivities. Finding two lots of special presents in one week can be quite a challenge cue this years brainwave – a day trip to Birmingham for lunch at Purnells and a trip round the markets. As with any activity undertaken close to the Christmas season the chance of illness stopping plans is very high and unsurprisingly I came down with a heavy cold and the decision was made to postpone (disappointment after disappointment as I also missed Star Wars Episode 8 The Last Jedi!)
Sometimes disappointment eventually unveils unexpected hidden silver linings. We made the decision to rearrange our trip for February and include a few nights in Birmingham so, and I am sure this is familiar to everyone, it was time for an online accommodation search and to read countless reviews. For no other reason than they looked nice and sounded a bit different we settled on the Staying Cool apartments located in the Rotunda. We booked direct and got what we felt was a really good price for a city centre hotel room.
As is the case (in our house anyway busy lives etc…) we then forgot all about it and only read up the night before what was actually included – small kitchen, small amount of breakfast food, toiletries all included in our mini studio apartment. We hadn’t realised at this point how different a ‘hotel’ room we had booked.
On arrival – pleasant surprise number 1 was the proximity of the station. A very short walk from the front of Birmingham New Street although we managed to end up on the wrong side of the road! Couldn’t actually miss the Rotunda towering over everything else!
Easy check in and our lift up to our 18th floor apartment and surprise number 2 - the view - wow
As soon as you enter the room you have floor to ceiling windows and the most amazing view over the Bullring shopping centre, Birmingham markets and beyond. Bizarrely there in the middle of all the modern buildings is the old Church of St Martins in the Bullring.
And the room was so much more than just another hotel room - as described it was a mini studio with a small kitchen, bedroom, living area and dining section – all separate and feeling perfectly in proportion for the two of us. Interestingly the bed faces away from the windows making it feel very private and allowing you to leave the windows uncovered all night.
Most excitingly we realised that the two middle windows fully opened (like your patio doors at home)! You’re safe behind a rail and there are some strict safety rules but the feeling of being so high and so open is breathtaking (particularly when the wind blows!
Apart from our Purnells lunch, we ate every meal sitting out just looking at the views. Over the three days we were blessed with clouds, sunshine and even a misty morning giving us the opportunity to use our cameras to full capacity! My favourite was the trains travelling through a short piece of the track filled with lights. They glittered as the lights reflected on their carriages – magical!
For us it was so much better than your average hotel room – we loved the freedom of being able to breakfast when we wanted and choose our own food and wine for the evening plus I am sure it was considerably cheaper! Little extras like the milk in the fridge, granola for breakfast and even oranges for you to squeeze your own juice coupled with a departure day check out of 12 noon made it a perfect stay, oh and did I mention the views.
Needless to say we did a few tweets and Instagrams which were picked up and retweeted by Staying Cool and just to cap it all off we got a bottle of Prosecco on checking out as a thank you for the tweets and posts. It's not often we're lost for words but we were with this - what a great gesture - thank you Danny and the team!
Only problem now is we want a view like that all the time! Interestingly we've learnt that they are opening up similar apartments in Manchester. Can’t wait to see how they turn out.
There is something very magical about the story and celebrations for Chinese New Year – unicorns, lions, firecrackers and lanterns, drummers, bell ringers and of course a giant dancing dragon. Red clothing, dragon toys, lucky cats and delicious aromas of Chinese food delicacies.
Manchester City centre always enters wholeheartedly into the New Year season which has no fixed date and stretches on for several weeks. February 2018 saw the city centre transformed with red lanterns hanging around in every tree, a giant golden dragon outside St Ann’s Church (inflatable I think and hope otherwise we’re in trouble!) and on February 18th, a whole day of celebrations for the Chinese community.
It had always been a special treat for us when the kids were small – the thrill of watching the dragons and lion dance almost, but not quite, as exciting as the opportunity to purchase your very own paper dancing dragon complete with the required pearl in its mouth! Imagine our surprise when we realised it was 13 years since we had last joined the celebrations! As your little ones turn into big ones (ours are now 23 and 26) some of your family traditions sadly fall by the wayside. We both feel it is really important to still take part in some of these traditions whilst creating some brand new ones.
What such a colourful celebration does offer us (apart from the fun of being involved in such a joyous and exhilarating celebration) is a major photo opportunity for us two and one of the grown ups @the_instagradam
We arrived earlyish in Albert Square to traditional Chinese toy stalls full of the obligatory dragons and drums and much more, balloon sellers and delicious aromas from stalls cooking traditional Chinese food including burger, chips, Thai curries and giant hot dogs! Still it all smelt really good and there were queues of people buying so presumably it tasted good too. Street vendors peddled their rainbow fur strips on a stick toys – only £1 and hours of fun for the younger members of the family! How I wish I could think of money making ideas like that!
Time to pick a place to stand and hopefully capture the parade with our cameras but what had changed in the past 13 years since our last visit was the sheer number of people who had come along to watch the spectacle . A good hour before anything was due to start the streets were packed with people ensuring they had a good view. At this point we decided to split up in an effort to get different views and perspectives. It was a hard task trying to find the perfect spot – in fact I’m not sure there is a perfect spot- a great photo of the event involves lots of luck – Chinese good luck! The crowds were reminiscent of a Disney parade – several deep at every spot on the pavement with happy families and the occasional screaming toddler in abundance! Adam and I chose our spot close to the tram stops behind the town hall whilst Chris took up his position to the left of Manchester Art Gallery.
Almost 90 minutes later we heard the firecrackers outside the town hall and in the distance saw the dragon’s head appear, moving in time to the beat of the drums. It is truly a magical spectacle of colour and noise and well worth the wait in the midst of crowds of people on what was a really cold day.
Standing near the tram stops was particularly entertaining with Metrolink staff valiantly trying to keep the line free and the pedestrians safe as tram after tram came through. It is remarkable how some people constantly demonstrate their inability to follow safety instructions – we witnessed appalling behaviour from several people including one ‘gentleman’ who felt the need to express his disgust at being unable to go the way he wanted with a string of f words in front of a very young crowd. What I found most upsetting was the photographer loaded with his cameras who decided to pick an argument with the police who had dared to stop him gaining access to the vantage point he felt was his right. Not sure what happened to him he was last seen being escorted away. Apart from these ridiculous people the crowd was big and friendly and mostly full of very excited children. As the dragon’s head appeared in the distance my immediate neighbour (a young boy aged about 8 or 10) joined in with the drummers and kept up a perfect beat on the metal barriers! Trying to hold the camera still whilst your being shaken around by the barrier with a giant rainbow fur toy waving around in your line of sight was challenging but the excitement of the kids reminds you of how it was years ago when ours were tiny and I wouldn’t have swopped my place at all.
Photography wise it really is just a point, press and hope for the best experience. Everything moves so quickly you just have to hope there is one shot in there that you will love. The different lenses we used and the different positions we took proved very worthwhile and all three of us were pleased with at least one of our pictures!
So 'Xin Nian Kuai Le’ in Mandarin and 'San Nin Faai Lok' in Cantonese to you all and here’s to a good Year if the dog for all of us.
A Christmas Eve Eve trip to the Lowry to watch the wonderful production of Elf. We had no idea what to expect of the show but it actually bought tears to my eyes with the most amazing ending - snow, starlight and Santa flying - magical and we're over 50!
Winter family walks, long lunches (afternoon naps!) and catching up with films and box sets all topped off with an almost perfect New Year's Eve spent in and around Manchester with our cameras . From Alan Turing in the morning, reflections in Canal Street, to a coffee stop and lots of photographing in the new amazing building that houses the Mackie Mayor food court (first of two places that day where I wish I had taken my camera into the toilets!) in Manchester's Northern Quarter (the best place for interesting photography in Manchester and one of several places where they filmed Captain America!). A brief stop to spend some Christmas money and then into the glorious Manchester Cathedral beautifully decorated for Christmas. Amazing views from a 10th floor room in the always excellent INNSIDE (most courteous and friendly staff followed by amazing breakfasts - chocolate yule log for breakfast on New Years Day though?!)
All we need now is a break from work to recover!
We started 2017 watching the fireworks from the 19th floor of the Hilton Deansgate in Manchester and ended it 12 months later in Albert Square with thousands of other New Year revellers at the last Manchester Town Hall fireworks for a considerable time. The Town Hall will close to the public from Sunday 14th January for restoration works which will continue until 2024.
The Town Hall provides a magnificent backdrop to the fireworks, all watched over by the world famous Manchester Santa, affectionately known locally as Zippy - make your own mind up!
This year's end of year celebration had an added poignancy and was fittingly marked with a musical tribute to the 22 people who lost their lives in the tragedy of the Manchester Arena bomb and the families who continue to be affected by the events of that night. We were personally touched by the events of May 22nd 2017 and count ourselves very lucky that our son returned home safely that night.
New Year is a strange night full of what if's and what might be's. Sadness when someone you love has been lost to you and great joy for those who have found love whether that be with a new partner, child or even a pet. We've had some difficult New Year's but also some of great joy - most memorably a skating expedition with good friends which involved one member of our party accidentally sitting on someone's tray of lunch! Cue exploding crisps and coffee and great hilarity from one half of the incident!
We celebrate New Year quietly now, which this year included a first time lunch at Wahaca's - lots of lovely Mexican street food and the chance to pay with their brand new app! Paying the waitress would have been much quicker, but maybe next time...
This was followed with a fabulous evening in 'Las Vegas' at the Bridgewater Hall with the always exciting Manchester Camerata, where it would appear Frank Sinatra is alive and well and pretty amazing!
The decision to watch the fireworks in the square was made very last minute as, as is often the case in Manchester, there had been some spectacular rain showers earlier. It turned out to be the best decision of the day - a moving, warm and convivial end to 2017 followed by a spectacular beginning to 2018. We've nothing but praise for the organisers of the event, Manchester City Council and the GM Police. The event was well policed and organised and felt very safe and friendly. It was also very exciting! Nothing like a good countdown.
So here's to 2018 and whatever it may bring us all. In the words of Tony Walsh aka Longfella Poet 'We choose LOVE'.
Thankfully Christmas saw us all in good health and, after our traditional three generational (and dog) baking session we enjoyed a lovely few days all together eating, drinking, playing xylophones and throwing snowballs at silly hats. Oh, and Christmas Eve I bought all our Christmas cards for 2018!
Merry Christmas everyone.
2017 started for us on the 19th floor of the Hilton Hotel in Manchester – lazily watching the fireworks in our PJs drinking champagne and eating sausage rolls. As it reaches its last hours I’m sure we’re not unusual in looking back on a year which has had extremes of sadness, worry, great excitement but above all gratitude that we’re still here and still have each other.
The face you show the world through blogs and Instagram posts probably doesn’t fully reflect the life you are actually living – as photographers we choose to show what we consider our best work and isn’t a blog the same?
Our year has probably been much the same as most other people’s bobbing along in the ‘we’re ok’ middle road of life with occasional rapid descents to extreme happiness and the times when you fall of the cliff and plunge into sadness and despair. The constant negativity from the ‘media’ adds to personal worries and sometimes makes life unbearable for many people – fake news, scare stories - it feels like we are living in a rapidly darkening cloud. Is it possible to find that spark of positivity?
Social media comes in for much criticism, and rightly so at times, but what we have personally experienced in the Instagram community has opened our eyes to the friendship, encouragement and positivity that exists in this world. In amongst our 2000 plus followers we are blessed to have new found digital friends from around the world supporting and encouraging us with our burgeoning photography hobby. Friends who live close, but we have never met- friends in other countries living culturally different lives to us – friends who make us laugh and friends offering positive comments and great support. Fellow Instagrammers who inspire us to try different photography techniques and even experiment with food. Thanks to @grandad1912 we now make the best roast potatoes (the secret's in the polenta - sshhhh!) and Cleveland's @princess_wendyk inspired us to produce our very first calendar! We are anxiously awaiting her thoughts on it - as well as anxiously trusting our postal service...
We don’t choose our photographs to count the likes we receive – our gallery is a record of our photographic journey and something for us to look at on our darker days. We try to show the best parts of our little corner of the world and celebrate the North West of England and beyond.
So, as we say goodbye to 2017, here is a big thank you to everyone in our new little community and here’s to 2018. (And - just for all the people who constantly ask – yes, the photos are definitely ours and not just Chris’)
We fully appreciate how fortunate a family we are having all our parents still with us. September 17 was a milestone birthday for my Mum who has now reached the grand age of 80 although she looks and definitely acts much younger! Despite being (in our daughters words!) a ‘socially awkward’ family, we decided to throw our party- hating Mum not one but two parties (but definitely not surprise ones!). Thanks to our favourite butcher Graham (Taylor’s Butchers, Derby House) we celebrated her actual birthday with Graham’s battered chicken goujons and all the trimmings – if you’re from Wigan that means barm cakes to make your butties! We produced our ‘decade’ boxes which had taken weeks of planning and arguments (and money) and contained presents to reflect the different aspects of her life from childhood to being a Nan. We celebrated in the rain with sparklers – continuing the Northern spirit of carrying on in all measures of torrential rain – and are pleased to report that she had a great time! Phew! It was touch and go particularly when Lucy’s lovely German Shepherd Navi took too much of an interest in the Airedale puppy cuddly toy!
For our second treat we gathered our most special people together and shared picnic tables at the Paddock Restaurant in Wrightington. A delicious version of an afternoon tea containing mugs of soup, buckets of fish and chips (battered courgettes for the veggies) chicken ceasar salads and some yummy cakes. We finished off with a very special birthday cake made by the extremely talented Debbie Binder who is second to none for producing exquisite sugarcraft figures (frighteningly lifelike – the journey home from Debbie’s with Mum’s sugar head peering at me through the box was very unsettling). Candles, two renditions of Happy Birthday, lots of hugs and kisses and photos and Mum had had a lovely time.
Life and other