Hello me. Remember me?

I’ve just had a chance encounter with myself from 8 months ago.

Today being 1st January, I woke up once again resolving to keep a diary.

I’ve been here before. In 1989 my granny gave me a pretty notebook for Christmas and I immediately started using it as a diary ‘dedicated to my first grandchild’. It was supposed to be a bit of social history, documenting the life of a 12 year old girl growing up in Ipswich in the 1990s. Unfortunately for my first-born grandchild, the life of that 12 year old growing up in Ipswich in the 1990s was mind-numbingly dull. Even I knew it. By 3rd January, I had ‘decided to write shorter accounts of the days, as I think it is boring and I don’t have enough time’. Didn’t stop me going on to describe in riveting detail how the whole family (except for dad) decided to go to Norwich for the day and I got a shirt and a belt, both from Next.

As I’ve got older, I’ve turned to diary writing as a way to capture my thoughts and feelings rather than describing day-to-day events. The wretchedness of unrequited teenage love (fills a whole book). My gap year (fills about 2 pages). The wonder of pregnancy. The ups and downs of motherhood. So why not do the same for the world we’re living in right now? We keep being told we’re living in unprecedented times, so it might be useful to record my personal response to all this strangeness.

Yes, I thought, I shall do this. And I shall start today. So I picked up a small black notebook I found in my bedside table and opened it, ready to pen my first profound words of 2021. 

What I found was evidence of my startling lack of originality. Because it turns out I had this bright idea already, back in April…


Thursday 30th April 2020

Today I shed my first tears of lockdown. In some ways I’m pleased it’s taken this long. 6, 7 weeks I think it’s been now. For the most part we’ve coped really well. The odd flared temper, girls having some emotional ups and downs, days when we feel more cross and snappy than others, sure, but basically doing alright. The girls are OK. Work is OK. The house is OK. Our health is OK. Our whole life is OK – better than OK in so many ways. But today I was not OK.

It started yesterday when I felt the panic rising. I’d spent too much of Monday and Tuesday nipping away from my desk to help the girls with their school work. I loved overseeing what they were doing and making sure they had plenty of structure and direction. We made 3D hand drawings together. I gave them detailed lesson plans and timings to work through. I broke off to explain an assignment or let them explain their work to me. All the things I want to be doing. But the price of that is falling behind on my own work. And so, as today’s deadlines loomed, I ran out of energy to do another 2 hours of lesson planning late into the evening. Another day would go by with the girls not completing their daily Powerpoint – not in itself so important, except they feel lost and aimless and confused on days when they’re left to fend for themselves. And so I worried and didn’t get enough sleep. When I woke up this morning I felt sluggish and low. Knowing I should get up and go for a run, but barely able to drag myself out of bed. 

By 8.30am it had become apparent that my phone had got into the washing machine with the bedsheets. I didn’t know how to drain the machine to open it. Isla and Rory came to help and ask questions I couldn’t answer. Irritation rising. The washing machine wouldn’t turn back on at all. Phone stuck inside. Washing machine dead. Fretfulness rising. I barked at Isla and told her I didn’t want her there. Not cruelly, but bluntly. It will have hurt her. I did eventually get the phone out, but that was dead too. Without any grace, I stomped about trying to find out how to fix it. An earring stem bent and broke when I tried using it to open the phone’s battery part. The children squabbled while I tried to research answers online. Fury rising. “I’m going to scream, I’m going to scream!” I had a strong impulse to get up, go out and take an enormously long walk. But no, I had deadlines to meet. I went to my desk, took a deep breath and plunged in. The girls were left to work out what to do that day, and within minutes I could hear them scrapping again.

Two hours later I’d had enough. I needed fresh air and a change of scene, so Isla and I cycled to the village to post a birthday card. That was lovely actually. An easy ride on quiet roads, the earth and trees pungent with rain on parched leaves. But before long we were back and working.

By 3.30 my articles were written and submitted and I’d had a good meeting about some website copy and wireframes. That should have given me a sense of relief and unburdening, but a work email from earlier that day was weighing on me. Advance warning of tough times ahead. An acknowledgement that it would be tough for staff with families. But there won’t be any specific news until Monday. Will they furlough me? Make me redundant? Cut my hours or my pay? In lots of ways I would happily take furlough. Released from this constant juggle between being a worker, a parent and a teacher. I’d have time to devote to the girls, the garden and the house. And to myself. But faced with the possibility of being so dispensible, I felt pretty devastated. So the anxiety hovered. When Rory came in to check on me he found me searching for a new phone online and getting nowhere. He put his hands on my sagging shoulders and rested his head on top of mine. That was it. The floodgates opened. All my strength and pride and resilience collapsed and poured out. I was not OK. 

Half an hour later, the girls were at supper, a plate of chicken goujons, waffles and baked beans unceremoniously plonked in front of them, and I was on a Zoom call with J and B, large glass of wine in hand. I’m not good at admitting weakness or failure, and I don’t like oversharing my negative feelings, but it was so good to chat it all out with those wonderful women, never feeling judged, only supported, understood and encouraged.

Tomorrow will be a better day. Being Friday, I will be entirely at the beck and call of the girls. We will do school work together. I will not attempt to do that while also cleaning the kitchen or checking work emails. I will play with them, go outside with them, do their piano practice with them. I will cuddle them, watch them, laugh with them, listen to them, admire and adore them. And I will be very much OK again.

The funny thing is, I had completely forgotten about that episode until I read about it. There could be several reasons for it not standing out in the memory. One being that it turned out not to be an isolated event. As we’ve stumbled through this pandemic, I’ve had other, much more spectacular crashes, collapses and crises of confidence than this wobble. 

But I also like to think I forgot about it because I had written it down.

At the outset, I was clearly giving myself a fairly hard time, having set myself some unattainable standards and berating myself for malfunctions outside my control. But look – even in the space of 6½ scrawled pages, which must have taken no more than 15 minutes to write, I progressed from morose self-flagellation to Annie-esque optimism. 

I can’t remember if the sun did indeed come out tomorrow. The fact is, I didn’t write an entry for Friday 1stMay, or any day after that. My entire CORONAVIRUS DIARY consists of that one entry. But I take solace from that. The diary had served its first purpose.

I say first purpose because lots of people will tell you that the writing of the diary is the therapeutic bit – offloading it, purging the bad stuff, letting confused thoughts coalesce, giving shape to muddled ideas. 

But I’m starting to think that the real therapy – a diary’s second purpose – is in discovering it later down the line. Reading your own thoughts back to yourself. Reacquainting yourself with the struggles and the triumphs as you experienced them in those moments. Observing yourself from a distance. And in doing so, getting to know yourself just a little better. 

I reckon (having considered this for at least half an hour) that there are two rules to making this work. 

Rule 1: Never write for anyone but yourself. Not future grandchildren, not readers of a blog. To be able to read an old diary without cringing to death, you need to write completely unselfconsciously. This is especially good news for anyone reading this. I’ll continue with my intermittent curative diary writing, but I won’t be publishing any more entries on here. 

Rule two: Write as infrequently and irregularly as possible, adding an entry only when you’re moved to and not because it’s a daily discipline. It’s so much more fun to chance upon a journal you had forgotten all about. And occasionally, something you wrote a long time ago might just surprise you. 

5th January 1990 

In the afternoon something sad hung over me like a big black cloud. I don’t know why it was. But there’s only one way to get it out of your system. Write down exactly how you’re feeling, read it, take 3 deep breaths, smile and go and have a chat with someone, even if it’s only with your reflection.

31 years later, it looks like I might be about to take my own advice.

Featured post

The day I became a writer, maybe

My A-level English teacher died recently.

We weren’t close. I don’t think I’d spoken to him once since leaving school 25 years ago, but he was one of those teachers who I can say had a definite and direct impact on the course of my life. So when I heard that he’d gone, I felt strangely bereft. Bereft of the opportunity to say thank you I suppose.

As well as teaching me how to appreciate Shakespeare’s metaphors and Andrew Marvell’s metaphysics, he also gave me confidence in my ability to write. It was Mr B who awarded me the Lower Sixth English prize for a ‘Pinteresque play script’ I wrote. Which was probably the moment I believed I might have a bit of talent in that department.

So the other day I dug out the script. Luckily it was printed in the school magazine that year, otherwise it would have disappeared along with my dad’s old IBM word processor, the vessel for all my ‘early works’. I suspect the literary world didn’t lose much the day that machine died.

Now don’t laugh, but I cried when I read my script. Was that down to the quality of the writing? Or just me feeling the emotion of spending time with my younger self?

It brought back memories of how I had struggled with that piece of homework, not knowing what on earth to write about. But then I had experienced a proper bolt-of-lightning moment of inspiration – the first time that had ever happened to me.

One evening my big sister and I had been having a conversation at our bedroom windows, while the rain was coming down in that kind of hard, determined way that it does at the end of summer. I don’t recall what we were talking about (neither of us was praying or grieving at the death of a child) but later that night I woke up knowing what I wanted to say, and how I was going to set it. So I got up there and then, sneaked into dad’s study and let the whole thing pour out. I remember knowing that the words felt good; they felt right.

The words aren’t all good of course, and it’s been hard resisting the urge to nip and tuck as I typed them up. But resist I did, so here they are, unabridged and punctuated exactly as the 16-year-old me wrote them.

As the late, great Mr B would say as he sent us off with our set texts at the end of every English lesson: enjoy!


One Act

Two bedroom windows looking out over a garden and a park.  The rooms are on an angle so that a conversation can be held between two people – one at each window. It is late evening and it is raining softly.

Enter Jane at left window. She throws up the sash, puts her head out and takes in a deep breath. She looks around her and stretches out her hands to catch the rain. Looking up to the sky, she tentatively clasps her hands.


A light is turned on in the room on the right.

Jane      (Whispering) Anna!
She clicks her fingers and almost immediately the sash in the other room is thrown up and Anna leans out.

Jane       Isn’t it a beautiful night?
Anna     It’s wet and freezing.
Jane       It isn’t.
Anna     Yes it is.
Jane       Well it may be wet, but it isn’t freezing.
Jane       It smells lovely – all damp and refreshing.
Anna     It does smell nice, I’ll give you that.
Jane       Why is the sky orange?
Anna     Street lamps.
Jane       What?
Anna     From the town.
Jane       But it isn’t usually orange. Mostly it’s blue.
Anna     Well the clouds are low and the light’s shining on them isn’t it?
Jane       Oh – of course. Did you work that out for yourself?
Anna     Yes.
Jane       I’d never have worked that out.

Jane       I love the rain, don’t you? It smells so nice.
Anna     Yes, so you said.
Jane       It helps me to think.
Anna     About what?
Jane       This and that.
Anna     Like what?
Jane       Anything. Whatever comes into my head.
Anna     What were you thinking about when you called me then?
Jane       I can’t tell you.
Anna     Why not?
Jane       You wouldn’t understand.
Anna     I would.
Jane       You wouldn’t.
Anna     Try me.

Jane       You’ll laugh.
Anna     I won’t.
Jane       You might.
Anna     Go on. Tell me.
Jane       No.

Jane       I was… it’s personal.
Anna     Forget it then. It doesn’t bother me.
Jane       I was saying a prayer, that’s all.
Anna     A prayer? Since when were you religious?
Jane       I’m not. I was trying it out.
Anna     What for?
Jane       I felt like it.
Anna     Did you get a reply?
Jane       No.
Anna     I knew you wouldn’t. It’s all a load of rubbish. You don’t want to waste time being religious do you?

Anna     Do you?
Jane       No.
Anna     What did you pray for then?
Jane       I didn’t. I was asking.
Anna     What for?
Jane       Not for anything.
Anna     Not for anything?
Jane       No. I was asking Him to do something.
Anna     And you thought He’d do it? That’s a laugh. As if he’s got time for you. Look out there. The whole world stretches out in front of you, full of people and animals and creatures, and up there is the whole massive universe with millions of stars, and then there’s you – tiny little Jane – kneeling at your bedroom window, and you reckon that God or whatever is going to hear you and do whatever you tell him to do?
Jane       I didn’t tell Him, I asked Him.
Anna     Same thing.
Jane       It isn’t the same thing.
Anna     What did you ask him to do then?
Jane       To look after Jessica.

Anna     Why are you crying?
Jane       I’m not crying.
Anna     You are. Why?
Jane       I’m tired.
Anna     Why? You hardly did anything today. And you slept most of the afternoon.
Jane       It was a tiring day.
Anna     You didn’t do much.
Jane       The funeral made me tired.
Anna     It wasn’t very long. You were back in a couple of hours.
Jane       I was tired.
Anna     That’s what you keep saying.
Jane       Well I was and I am now.
Anna     Go to bed then.
Jane       No.
Anna     Why not?
Jane       I’m not sleepy.
Anna     I don’t understand you.
Jane       Don’t bother trying. I’m too mixed up.
Anna     Are you alright?
Jane       Yes, I’m fine.

Anna     Did you enjoy the funeral?

Jane       Enjoy it? Of course I didn’t enjoy it. It was a funeral. And a girl’s funeral too, not some old person. She should have had a long life ahead of her. And that was the last time I’ll ever see her. And I couldn’t see her anyway because she was inside her coffin. And I watched them throw her in the ground where hopefully she’ll be forgotten about because she’s dead and she doesn’t matter any more. I can’t believe you asked that.

Anna     Sorry. You knew what I meant.
Jane       I didn’t know what you meant.
Anna     Sorry.
Jane       It’s alright.
Anna     Will you miss her?

Anna     Sorry.
Jane       Yes I will. Let me show you something.
Jane disappears into her room


She returns with a glass bowl

Jane       Jessica’s mum gave me this. I always loved it. She said she thought Jessica would have liked me to have it.
Anna     That’s nice. It’s a nice bowl.
Jane       It’s got flowers carved in the side and Jessica’s name engraved here.
Anna     That’ll be nice to remember her by.
Jane       (Softly) Yes.

Anna     Dad’s back tomorrow.
Jane       Yes.
Anna     I think mum’s looking forward to seeing him. It’s been a long time.
Jane       Yes.
Anna     He’ll have a tan.

Anna     He might bring us presents.
Jane       Perhaps.
Anna     It would be nice if he did. To show us he thought of us.
Jane       Yes.
Anna     Of course that’s not the most important thing. It’ll just be nice to see him again.
Jane       It’s been a long time.
Anna     Too long, mum says.
Jane       Yes.
Anna     It’ll be nice to see him again.

Anna     I missed him.
Anna     It’s getting late.
Jane       Yes, I’m going to bed.
As she stands she knocks her head on the window and drops the glass bowl. It smashes on the stone terrace below


Jane kneels down again, staring at the bowl. Anna looks at Jane and then the bowl, unsure of what to do

Jane       (Without moving) Goodnight.
Anna     Yes. See you tomorrow.
Anna closes her window and draws the curtains


The rain falls harder. Eventually Anna’s light goes out. Jane stretches out her hands again to collect the rain, then she washes her face with it. She remains where she is, but raises her head to look at the sky. She allows the rain to fall freely onto her face.


She ducks under her window and closes it. A few seconds later her light is turned off.

Olivia Jones (L6)

Featured post

The best four words I’ve ever written?

I’ve written a few words in my time. Some have flowed from my pen like silk; ribbons of mellifluous prose. Some I’ve frogmarched into columns with military precision. Others I’ve frankly vomited onto the page and not had the wherewithal to wipe up properly. (For those I apologise.)

Recently I found myself wondering if the best of all these words, over all these years, might be the four that I strung together on behalf of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland.

I’m not saying they’re the best four words ever written. I don’t think they’ll ever reside in the pantheon of 4 word greatness, alongside “those blue remembered hills”, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” and “Talk to me, Goose”.

But they might just carry the power to do some real and lasting good. And for the lowly copywriter, that’s a thrilling prospect.

It all starts with the brief

It was just a regular Monday briefing. Creative team sauntered in clutching mugs of tea and coffee. Account managers dealt out wads of A4 paper and talked us through the task at hand.

Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland had asked us to come up with a UEP. (UEP = Unifying Emotional Proposition – the set of words that sums up what an organisation stands for beyond its functional purpose.)

The account team had already had in-depth discussions with the client. Q&As, interviews and workshops – the usual process of fact-finding, exploration and interrogation that informs the creative brief. But there was something palpably different about this one.

It was the clarity of ambition. The client’s commitment to being brave and taking a bold stance. We were in no doubt about the direction that the new Chief Executive, Jane-Claire Judson, wanted to take this organisation. And excitingly for us, she understood the power of the brand to get her there.

Her passion overflowed to her own marketing team, spilled into our agency brief and permeated our creative thinking. We knew what they wanted, and were inspired to find it.

Thank you, Baz Luhrmann

I was on the bus home when I thought of it. Top deck, left hand side, staring out of the window. Not so much a lightbulb moment as a dimmer switch, undimming. The trouble with the old lightbulb analogy is that it suggests there is darkness and then, ping! there is light. That the answer comes out of nothing.

In my experience, the creative process isn’t actually like that very often. First there’s reading and learning. Then there’s sifting and sorting. Thinking and incubating. Floundering around in murky waters trying to catch a fish. But eventually, with a bit of luck and a lot of persistence, the fish does land in your hand.

So back to the bus (where there is no fish, bar the old trout driving it).

I was still musing and mulling over the brief.

Earlier that day I’d been reading stories of people living with chest, heart and stroke conditions in Scotland. About the man who had to learn to eat with a knife and fork again, aged 62. About the woman with COPD who didn’t go out for weeks at a time until she found a local singing group for people with breathing difficulties. About the young dad paralysed by a stroke whose dream was to read to his daughter at bedtime like he used to.

All these stories carried a common refrain: there was life before the diagnosis and life after it.

Life divided into two halves – before and after. ‘Before’ was remembered as happy, healthy, care-free. ‘After’ was characterised by isolation, struggle and depression.

The whole point of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland is to be there for the ‘after’ bit. The condition might be life changing, but it shouldn’t be life ending. They are there to make each precious life the very best it can be.

We swung off Crewe Road roundabout onto Crewe Road North and under the cycle path bridge that feels too low for the double decker, so I always duck a little bit in my seat. Out the other side.

This UEP had to be about life, I thought – about making the most of life even when you’ve got a debilitating health condition – about not missing out on doing the things you always loved doing before – or giving up on dreams you had before this thing happened – about not just existing but really living – about living the fullest life you can – because the alternative is something partial, a life you’ve only half lived.

Suddenly Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom was in my head.

Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias!” explodes Fran when she can’t contain her frustration with Scott. Later, as he walks her home to the rundown outskirts of town, she translates it. “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”

A life half lived. If Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland had their way, there’d be no life half lived.

No life half lived.

Fighting talk.

Four words.

But they seemed to say it all.

I’d only gone and landed an 80lb salmon.

Tears before teatime

A few months later, on 29th May 2018, a gaggle of folk from Story (the creative agency where I work) attended the launch of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland’s new vision.

NLHL words

We walked into the Caledonian Hotel and saw the line everywhere. On lanyards, screens, presentations, leaflets, balloons, mugs, name badges.

It was obvious that these four words were going to be more than just a strapline. For Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland they were a platform. A promise. The foundation for the organisation’s entire strategy.

That was pleasing to see. But the thing that really made me well up was hearing the service users saying the words. A young woman who’d suffered a stroke spoke them with powerful conviction. When a man with heart failure uttered them, we saw hope in his eyes. As a lad with chronic asthma was saying them on the big screen, I turned and saw the same boy standing right beside me, a broad smile across his face.

Then Jane-Claire got the whole room to say the line in a rousing show of support – volunteers, fellow charities, donors, medical partners, survivors, staff.

That was a first for me. And a bit of tear-jerker.

I just stuck four words together, borrowed from a favourite film. The line is a good one, but it will be meaningless unless people get behind it, believe in it and commit to it.

But if they do… If Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland can use it to reach the quarter of a million people they want to… If they can make hearts work better, and lungs breathe better, and bodies recover better after stroke… If they can lift spirits that have been sunk, and persuade the rest of us that this work is worthy of our time, money and support…

Then yes, these will be the best four words I’ve ever written.


You can find out more and donate to Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland here >
Featured post

After the Arctic, the Beast from the East

The following statement will do absolutely nothing for my street credibility, but here it comes: I like going to church.

Not any old church of course. I like going to aesthetically pleasing church with soaring Gothic vaults, stained glass windows and lots of candles. Where the clergy wear glittering robes and move from A to B in a procession, ideally featuring incense. I like going to church when its choir sings soul-stirring anthems with scrunchy chords and old-fashioned hymns with descants. I like church with coffee in the hall afterwards where nice people talk to other nice people wearing a similar ensemble of corduroy trousers and beige knitwear.

It must be my Anglo-Catholic upbringing. (You can take the vicar’s daughter out of church, etc.)

I suppose the same goes for the Church itself. It can easily get complacent. Turn inwards not outwards. Settle into a pattern that’s all very cosy and familiar.

But then a few weeks ago, the Beast from the East came along and kicked the church I go to into a far less comfortable zone.

Out of the cold…

There’s nothing like a distinctly challenging night in the Arctic to change the way you look at people sleeping rough. (I say ‘sleeping rough’ deliberately, rather than ‘sleeping on the street’ or ‘homeless’. Sleeping rough doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s horrible. It might equally be called sleeping cold, or sleeping scared. If you can get to sleep at all.)

Like most people, I don’t relish the thought of anyone suffering a night on the streets in any circumstances, never mind sub-zero temperatures. But now the horror is a little more vivid. It was bad enough for me when I was wrapped in the security of being amongst friends and trained guides, and the comfort of knowing that I only had to get through that one night and the ordeal would be over. So when the Beast loomed, I couldn’t help thinking of all those rough sleepers I see in Edinburgh’s west end and wondering what would become of them.

I wondered, but I did nothing.

But St John’s Church on Princes St very did something.

In response to the extreme weather, the clergy decided to open the doors round the clock for anyone – homeless, hungry or stranded – to come in, help themselves to a simple meal and a warm brew, and find a place to sleep.

The call went out and volunteers came from charities, social enterprises and the church congregation itself. Local businesses donated food. Bundles of warm clothes appeared at the church door.

One evening I dropped by for a meeting and saw what was going on. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since.

… and into the warm

I was greeted at the door by one of the volunteers from a nearby kirk. Dressed in bright colours and a broad smile, she joked about her “various mental health problems” in a way only someone with various mental health problems can, before peeling off down the south aisle singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, thank your meds…”

I wandered on up the nave. In the low light of the church there was a hum of activity. It was warm. It was calm. A lady was serving food and drinks from a table in the back corner. There was a rail of jackets and jumpers that anyone could help themselves to. Small groups huddled in pews all around the church, clutching cups of warm soup. Church pews aren’t very well suited to sitting and conversing, so people sat in contorted positions to talk to each other over the wooden barriers.

Most of them were men under 40. There was a handful of women.

Sleeping bags had been laid out on the carpets at the front of the church, in the children’s corner and in the chapel. The long cushions from the communion rail were being used as mattresses in whatever space people could find.

I stepped into the sanctuary. One man was sitting on the steps to the pulpit, head bowed. Another was sitting in the choir stalls, staring up at the vast organ pipes, lost in his own world. I don’t know if he was having a moment of spiritual enlightenment or in a drunken stupor. The thing is, it didn’t matter. This was his home for the night and nobody was judging.

A man staggered down from the high altar shouting something incoherent. He wasn’t angry, he was just shouting. Everyone ignored him.

No part of the church was out of bounds. There was no sense that anyone could come in as long as they tucked themselves away in a corner. It was as much their church as anyone’s, and they were asked to make themselves at home. So they did.

When it was time for a church service, nothing changed. During choral evensong on Sunday night, the congregation doubled as the usual church-goers joined the homeless community. Prayers were intoned. The congregation mumbled along. Some of the guests joined in, others moseyed around with cups of chicken broth. The choir sang the regular canticles, responses and anthem to a harmony of snores and random yelps. They sang the Magnificat: “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

The uncomfortable truth

I had wondered, but I had done nothing – paralysed by indecision and other excuses. So now all I can do is tell the story of what I saw that week, and hope it reminds people that churches can do very real, courageous and important things.

I was humbled and awed by the speed with which the church responded to that crisis. No creeping decision by committee, no bureaucratic implementation process. Just a human response to need.

They could, so they did.

The life of St John’s looked very big that week. I’ve never been prouder of the place I go to church – however uncool that makes me sound.


Featured post

The crushing disappointment of being right

I always said I didn’t like camping. Not for a summer holiday. Not at a music festival. Not even in my back garden. The mere thought of that small, enclosed space was enough to make me shudder. So when I did finally go camping, on a frozen lake in -34°C, it should have come as no surprise that things didn’t go too well.

Here’s what happened.


Day 1 of our Arctic trek could not have been more glorious. At 9am, rigged up with harnesses, pulks and walking poles, hand warmers in our mitts and a spring in our step, we walked from our hotel down to the frozen Ounasjoki river. The sun was coming up and the sky was blue and clear. Not a breath of wind. It was bloody cold, but as we were marching at a decent pace I soon started to feel the warmth in my core working its way out to my extremities.

Everything was covered in snow. As the sun lifted, the landscape glistened as though laced with tiny crystals. The wide river was lined on both sides with delicate snow-covered birch trees, the minimalism punctuated by the occasional wooden summer house; daubs of falu red, ochre and turquoise on the otherwise white canvas.

We strode along this river for 13km, walking side by side and chatting amiably. Dry snow underfoot made the going quite easy. The pulks slid along behind us and we quickly forgot they were even there. Every hour or so we stopped to rehydrate and grab a handful of snacks. The men peed at the side of the track. The women looked away, but enviously. That was a hurdle we too would have to face before too long…

Just as the river setting might have started to get a little predictable, we turned off to join a steep path into the woods. The pulks were suddenly weighty behind us, but the scenery was so picturesque that we didn’t care. We passed through a silent village where the roofs were iced a metre thick, then on up through a forest of fir trees laden and drooping with heavy clumps of snow. At the crest of each incline, we were rewarded with the sight of the low sun slanting across unspoilt quilts of white, making the trees and even the air itself sparkle.


On we ploughed, delighting in the dazzling views. The going became trickier as we descended the wooded hillside, the track only as wide as our pulks with deep, soft drifts on either side – about thigh deep, as I found out pretty quickly when I stepped off the path. No matter, the snow was dry and brushed straight off. Here the trail undulated through the sapling firs, so we held the fronts of our pulks to navigate the steep drops while pushing through low branches poised to pour their snowy load on the unsuspecting trekker.

Eventually we emerged onto lake Sinettäjärvi – the home straight, just 8km to go. We had walked so well as a group that we’d made it to this point in record time. Legs were tired, but spirits were high. I know mine were.

As the setting sun turned the sky purple and pink before dipping to indigo, we pressed on until we saw the light of a campfire flickering within a clearing on the wooded shore. On the frozen lake itself, a row of tiny tents.


“Dump your pulk, grab your down jacket, spork and mug and get yourself warm by the fire!” came the instruction, and who were we to argue. Soup and stew were served. We sat around the roaring flames recounting our favourite parts of the day, with much patting on backs for such a well-walked trek.

By about 9.30pm we were ready to turn in. And this must be where something went awry for me. We had already inflated our roll mats and shaken out our sleeping bags. Nobody had more extreme-rated kit than me – thanks to Fi who had lent me her top dollar RAB expedition sleeping bag and down jacket. So, as bitterly cold as it was on the lake, all I had to do was get into the sleeping bag as quickly as possible and all would be fine.

tents on the frozen lake

The trick with bedtime, when you’re camping in severely low temperatures, is to get into your sleeping bag while your body is warm. It’s a total faff, especially when you have little experience of getting in and out of tents. And it’s dark. And your headtorch has suddenly decided to die.

You have to half climb into the tent, then, with your feet still outside, take off your walking boots, clean the snow off them, put them into a dry bag, and bring them into your sleeping bag with you so they don’t freeze overnight. Oh, and you’ll also need your gloves, clothes you might want to put on during the night or the following morning, and extra foot and hand warmers tucked into socks and pockets. Quickly zip up the tent. Then shuggle yourself into the sleeping bag, bring the hood up over your head (with hat), and tighten the cords until there’s just a tiny hole round your face. Then go to sleep.

Except I didn’t go to sleep.

Whether I spent too long dealing with my boots while the tent was open, or I wasn’t warm enough to start with, or I just have terrible circulation, I don’t know. But after three hours of wriggling my fingers and toes, with uncontrollable shivers spreading through my body, I began to feel sick. I realised I needed to get myself warm again, which meant climbing out of this icy cocoon, fumbling in the dark to find my boots and jacket, then stumbling back up to camp to try and rekindle the fire.

This I did at 1.30am, along with another trekker who was suffering from the cold. Thankfully Les, Rick, Jo and Neil (our brilliant trekking guides) came to our aid. They soon had a roaring blaze going and were enquiring into my exact symptoms. They plied me with tepid sweet tea – possibly the most disgusting yet welcome drink to ever pass my lips.

At 3.30am they checked my feet for frost nip and gave me the all-clear.

At 4am they layered me up with extra insulation and took me down to the tent. Now I was wearing base layers top and bottom, a fleece, a trekking jacket, a second pair of thick leggings, insulated slippers, a hat and my RAB expedition down jacket, with hand warmers tucked in every pocket. Jo bundled me into the sleeping bag with my boots, then zipped up the tent.

I had never felt so comfortable, warm and cosy. I shut my eyes and waited for sleep.

But instead of sleep, I got heart palpitations. My pulse was racing, like the beginning of a panic attack. Then the shivers began again. Numbness spread from my right hip to my foot. I bashed at the leg to get the blood moving. I bashed so hard I found a whopping bruise there the following day, but I hadn’t felt a thing at the time.

Sleep never came.

I resisted as long as I could, then reluctantly heaved myself once again from the tent and returned to the camp fire. The worst of it was having to wake the guides only a couple of hours since I’d last left them. They too had to rise and dress carefully, forcing themselves quickly out of sleep and into warmth. I felt so guilty.

I saw them conferring in a huddle and knew what was coming. With no sleep and even a mild risk that I could develop hypothermia, I would have to be taken off trail. “Extricated” they call it.

I was devastated.

I gave Sarah a hug, failing to fight the tears as I thought of her continuing this adventure without me. Then I left.


Extrication didn’t come without some positives. The crazed snowmobile ride up a steep wooded hillside, ducking under branches and clinging on for dear life was actually a highlight of the whole trip. As was the warm shower that followed. And the relief of knowing I wouldn’t have to face another night in a tent.

But mostly I felt such a failure.

I thought of all those people at home wishing me luck, willing me on and longing to hear how it went. What will I say?

I thought of all that training and planning and prepping. For what? I always thought this challenge would be tough, but I didn’t think I’d ever fail to complete it. And suddenly there I was back in the hotel in Rovaniemi without so much as a blister or a twinged muscle.

I thought of all the others soldiering on out there, completing the trek. How will I face them? The next day, those of us who had left the trek early (I was not alone) would take a taxi up to the Arctic Snow Hotel, stride out across the lake to meet our intrepid friends and walk the last half mile with them to the finish line. For that, I would have to summon a very different kind of courage, to bury my humiliation and enjoy everyone’s elation – graciously celebrating the achievement I had so desperately wanted for myself.

That experience was actually far more joyous than I had anticipated. Seeing Sarah staggering towards me through the snow was an amazing moment, and I felt genuine pride, delight and awe in seeing her cross the line. But I can’t say it wasn’t tinged with envy.

CHAS finnish line.JPG

I knew I should console myself that it wasn’t my fault; that no amount of training could have prepared my body for that cold; that I could not have brought better kit (other than that ruddy headtorch); that this challenge was always about taking myself outside my comfort zone, whether or not I completed it, and that I had done. But in the immediate aftermath, none of that felt like any consolation at all.

The only consolation is that I was right all along: I do not do camping.

Featured post

Rovaniemi, here we come…

Tomorrow, bright and early, we fly. First to Heathrow, then Helsinki, then the town of Rovaniemi, from where our trek begins. Rovaniemi (population 62,000) is the capital of Finnish Lapland. It’s located just south of the Arctic Circle at the confluence of the Kemijoki and Ounasjoki rivers. Blah blah blah. What really matters here is that Rovaniemi is the Official Home of Santa Claus.

Poor old Father Christmas. A man who receives thousands if not millions of begging letters every year, but I’m guessing not quite as many thank you letters. So on Friday, in between acclimatisation, last-minute kit shopping and a spot of dog sledding, I shall deliver two notes written by my girls to thank the big bearded fella for his unceasing generosity.

Speaking of which, there are a few people I also need to thank. Because there is no way I would be ready to take on this challenge if it wasn’t for them.

So here are my own short but heartfelt thank you letters…

To Kayleigh McCallum

For the beautiful illustrations dotted throughout this blog. (www.kayleighmccallum.com)

To Pies, Nina, Sam, Cliff and Susan

For the various bits of essential kit including clothes, bags, headbands, glove liners, skin cream and hand warmers.

To Vikki

For the loo brush and the homemade, vacuum-packed, high performance energy balls.

To Christine

For the Percy Piglets and Colin the Caterpillars.

To Gordon at Helly Hansen

For donating the merino base layers.

To Gail Littlejohn

For all the massages – even the ones I needed gas and air for. If anyone is after health or fitness advice or some seriously good muscle ‘TLC’, Gail’s your woman. Ask me and I’ll give you her details.

To my lovely GP

Who didn’t bat an eyelid when I broke down in tears last week because I had a cold.

To Boots Opticians

For rising splendidly to the challenge when I phoned up to ask about wearing contact lenses in the Arctic. The receptionist asked the optometrist and the optometrist asked the contact lens specialist, and they all dropped what they were doing to look up the latest research. They got me an appointment that very afternoon, fitted me with 7-day-wear lenses (that’s the answer), and sent me away with all the tips, advice and spare lens solution they could muster. I was impressed.

To Fi

For lending me her amazing, top-of-the-range expedition kit. Also, for starting sentences with phrases like “when I did the Everest Marathon…”, but still managing to make me feel like I’m in her league – which I am most definitely not. For reminding me that everyone’s comfort zone is different; belatedly taking her English GCSE is apparently as daunting for her as this trek is for me. And for the nuggets of advice only a properly intrepid polar explorer can give you. If it wasn’t for Fi, I wouldn’t be taking superglue for cuts, dental floss as emergency string, or butter for slipping into hot drinks round the campfire.

To Story

For being a brilliant place to work, putting up with my tedious daily training updates, and supporting CHAS so generously.

To Rory

For not minding when I accidentally signed up to do this trek in the first place. For not complaining when I disappeared for long weekend walks. For the early morning planking sessions. For all the words of encouragement. For giving the girls extra cuddles while I’m away. For being you.

To Sarah (AKA Aussie in the Arctic)

While I have doubted the wisdom of taking on this challenge quite a few times, I have never once regretted my choice of trekking buddy. It’s fair to say Sarah and I have covered a lot of ground over the last 22 months – both geographically and conversationally. We’ve debated politics, shared secrets, discussed snacks, scoffed picnics, mapped our futures, got lost, crossed rivers on fallen tree trunks… yet never once come close to falling out. That may all change in the next 6 days, but something tells me she’s way too awesome for that.

To everyone who has sponsored us

When the going gets tough up there, with nothing much to look at except blankets of snow, we will picture each of your magnificent, munificent selves, recall your motivational messages, and imagine all the wonderful things that CHAS will be able to do with the money you have given. If that doesn’t keep us plodding onwards, nothing will.

My most conscientious readers may remember that in blog post 3 I set myself a target:  that by the time I stepped on the plane to Finland I would (1) have raised between £500 and £1,000 for CHAS, and (2) be able to do one full press up.

I’m happy to say that as of this moment our fundraising total stands at £1,968.24. So THANK YOU. (It’s not too late to add via JustGiving if you wish.)

As for the other thing…


Love, Olivia xxx

Featured post

Can’t walk now, I’ve got a list to write

If you’ve ever dipped into the pages of Who’s Who, you may know that each eminent person featured gets to state their recreations alongside their professional or social importance. My grandfather (a diplomat) put ‘mending things’ amongst his hobbies. My dad (cathedral dean) has ‘playing the piano and looking out of the window’. Barry Humphries (no relation, but it’s my favourite one) says: ‘kissing, inventing Australia, painting beautifully.’

Should my life ever be big enough to warrant an entry in Who’s Who, I think my recreations might have to include ‘writing lists’.

Because I do love a list.

Crossing off
A tent is not all we share: spotted in the downstairs loo of my fellow trekker Sarah (aussieinthearctic.com)

There are, of course, different types of list. There are the ones that read like collections, inventories or compilations. I keep a few like that. You know, my top ten favourite films, books worth reading, all the boys I’ve ever kissed.

The lists I really like, though, are the type where you can tick items off. Planning lists. Lists of intentions. To-do lists.

One of the best things about preparing for this trek is that I’m surrounded by lists. Checklists, kit lists, shopping lists. Lists of things I need to do, stuff I need to buy, questions I need to ask.

So many lists, in fact, that I’ve had to employ my very best list management techniques to keep me right. In case you’re not versed in superior list writing, I’ll quickly share some of my personal expertise in this area. It’s pretty useful.

The What’s What of list writing
Idealists: lists that begin with one item that’s easy to complete. There’s nothing more discouraging than a great long list with nothing ticked off. On a really busy day, start your list with ‘have a shower’ or ‘write a list’. Getting that first task ticked off will give you a disproportionate sense of achievement.
(Also, there’s nothing wrong with retro-listing: adding an item to your list after you’ve actually done it, then ticking it straight off. In my book, this is another excellent morale-boosting technique.)
Cyclists: also known as rolling lists. This method involves starting a new list every day and rolling over any uncompleted tasks (of which there are usually several) onto the new list. Some of these tasks may be rolled over for weeks or even months. I have a to-do list that has featured ‘get leaky shower head fixed’ since July.
Environmentalists: Tasks and reminders scrawled on recycled scraps of paper / old envelopes / the backs of boring bank letters. Positively encouraged if you’re employing the cyclist method above.
Realists: proper handwritten lists, as opposed to digital ones. I have tried keeping a few lists on my phone, but as soon as I’ve done something it gets deleted. And then I can’t see the thing I’ve done. This is deeply unsatisfactory. The true joy of list-making is seeing what you’ve crossed off, not all the stuff you’ve still got to do.
Vocalists: memos made with the help of an Echo or similar. Doomed to failure, as exemplified by this attempt made earlier today:
Me: Alexa, make a to-do list.
Alexa: What’s the to-do?
Me: Phone the plumber.
Alexa: I’ve added bread to your shopping list.
Me: Add phone plumber to my to-do list.
Alexa: The time is 2.03pm.
Pointillists: lists that feature bullet points rather than numbers. I prefer bullets as they don’t denote priority, so I can write down and tick off my tasks in any old order. They also look prettier.
Mentalists: memorised lists. Completely useless. What were you thinking?


But I have digressed. Let’s look at the most pressing lists I have on the go right now and see how I’m getting on. (Bearing in mind that I leave for Finland in 26 days.)

Today’s to-do list
  • Eat breakfast
  • Buy Arctic kit (see separate kit list below)
  • Phone opticians: can I wear contact lenses in the Arctic without them freezing to my eyeballs?
  • Phone plumber
  • Prune buddleia
  • Iron school uniforms
  • Go on long walk
  • Promote justgiving page (only £117 needed to hit fundraising target)
  • Publish blog post about lists
The kit list
  • Sleeping bag rated to -40°C (extreme)
  • Roll mat
  • Down jacket
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Trekking jacket
  • Micro-fleece
  • Merino base layers – upper and lower body
  • Trail trousers
  • Boots
  • Outer socks
  • Sock liners
  • Thermal gloves
  • Glove liners
  • Hat
  • Buff/neck scarf
  • 120L pulk bag
  • Goggles
  • Sunglasses
  • External charger
  • Headtorch
  • Spare batteries
  • Dry bags (multiple)
  • Walking poles (buy in Rovaniemi)
  • Drinking bottle
  • Nalgene bottle for night
  • Spork/spoon
  • First aid kit
  • Wash bag/towel/toothpaste/baby wipes
  • Hot packs (heat activated hand warmers)
  • Mug
  • Dental floss (acts as string for emergency repairs, spare boot laces etc)
  • Loo brush (for scraping snow off boots before taking them into tent)
  • Snacks (nuts, dried fruit, Haribo)
The bucket list

I suppose the ultimate to-do list is a bucket list.

I’ve never had a bucket list. I wonder why not. Do I think I’ve done everything I ever wanted to? (Spawned two perfect children, swum with dolphins, met the Queen; what else is there?) Is it a lack of curiosity about the world and all the experiences it has to offer? Have I got so stuck in my own little rut I’ve forgotten to dream? Or do I have dreams, but am confidently assuming I will get round to fulfilling them one day, just not now?

Some people write a bucket list when they lose someone close, too young, too suddenly, and they are filled with an urgent desire to make the most of their time on this earth. And they’re right. Why wait? Why assume I’ll be here to enjoy a long, adventure-filled retirement?

I’m going to stop being so complacent. I’m going to start a bucket list. And, according to the rules of good list making, I’ll start it off with a couple of items I have high hopes of ticking off before too long.

It’s by no means finished, but here’s how it’s shaping up so far:

  • Trek across the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland.
  • Camp under the Northern Lights.
  • Drive a train.
  • Go to Jerusalem.
  • Write a novel. (Only the writing of it – no need to get it published.)
  • Dance a tango in Buenos Aires.
  • Keep an orchid alive for more than 3 weeks.

Funnily enough, I’m not tempted to add ‘make a million’, ‘become an establishment figure’ or ‘Get into Who’s Who’ to that list.

I have a feeling my life will be perfectly big enough if I just fill it with small but wonderful things. (Here’s looking at you, kids.)

If you’d like to, you can support me by donating to CHAS via my justgiving page 

Featured post

The point of the exercise

The phone alarm pierced the silence while it was still pitch black in our bedroom. Rory and I groaned and blinked ourselves awake, then without a word tiptoed down to the sittingroom, deftly avoiding the creaky stairs, like naughty children in search of midnight snacks. Except, this was less about the midnight snacks, more about the early morning squats.

This is what happens when you have no time in the day to train: you’re forced to squeeze it into what I generally consider the night, i.e. before 7am. But perhaps this is no bad thing. No child should have to witness their parents in the act of bird-dogging. Imagine if they told everyone at school that they’d caught mummy and daddy planking together on the sittingroom floor? They wouldn’t understand. Truth be told, I don’t understand.

The thing I don’t understand the most is how anyone could ever enjoy this sort of thing.

On day 1 of the ‘Arctic Trek Training Plan’ we started with the plank. Propped up on forearms and toes, we each held our bodyweight for as long as possible. I managed 37 seconds, Rory 1 minute 28 seconds, before we both collapsed in an exhausted sweaty heap.

Moving on: the bird dog. This involves getting onto your hands and knees, then raising one arm horizontally in front of you (à la superman), while lifting the opposite leg straight out behind you. (I have to assume this is the dog bit. If only we had a lamppost in the sittingroom I could fulfil two early morning functions in one go.)

Oddly, I could do this no problem with my left hand and my right leg, but not at all the other way around. I spent a not-so-good ten minutes wobbling about on all fours, faltering, repositioning, trying to get my balance. I’d like to say this provoked a fit of giggles. It didn’t: it made me remarkably cross. So I gave up.

What’s next? Glute bridges. Modified bicycles. Leg lifts. Side planks. All miserable.

Shoulder alphabets: lying face down on the ground and making the shapes of letters with your arms. That sounded more promising, except they only wanted me to work with the letters I Y T and W. So I went a bit Countdown with it and added two more vowels and a couple of consonants. Now I can spell out SWEATYBITS. This might not be doing much for my training, but it keeps me amused at least.

Why am I doing all this?

Because of the pulk. For those unacquainted with Arctic trekking, the pulk is the sledge that carries the kit, which will be attached to a harness around my waist so I can drag it across the snow. For three days. Have you seen pictures of people dragging tyres across a beach? I’ve got a horrible feeling I should be doing that. For now I’m just concentrating on finding my core, and seeing if it will forgive me for ignoring it for 40 years.

Since our initial training attempt I have to admit some of the exercises have got easier. I can now manage over a minute of planking and perform a glute bridge without my leg going into spasm, so I guess I’m getting stronger. But none of it gives me a buzz. It’s still mind-numbingly boring. And I still can’t manage a single push up.

So that’s my goal. Something to keep me motivated when the 6am alarm goes off. By 1st February, when I hop on a plane bound for the Arctic, I will be able to do a full press up.

I have another ambition. I would also like to have raised between £500 and £1,000 for CHAS.

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of visiting Robin House, one of the two children’s hospices run by CHAS. What struck me on this visit – and I know I’m not the only person to find this – is that even against a backdrop of immense sadness and pain, the hospice is so full of warmth and laughter and creativity. Of life and hope and joy.

And yet, the heartbreaking truth is that CHAS can’t be there for everyone who needs them. They want to be, but they simply don’t have the funds.

Each week, three children in Scotland die from an incurable condition. Three children a week. Right now, CHAS can only reach one of these families.

To reach them all, CHAS need to double their fundraising income over the next five years. Some of it will come through hefty corporate donations. Some from big fundraisers like the CHAS ball. But lots of it will have to come from the generosity of people sponsoring fools who sign up for things like Arctic treks.

So: 1 push up and £1,000 raised for CHAS. If I can achieve both of those things, I’ll consider that this whole exercise will have been worthwhile.

If you’d like to help me with the fundraising bit, here’s my JustGiving page


Featured post

Change is afoot

“How’s the training going?”
If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that, I’d have raised a fairly hefty sum for CHAS by now. (Justgiving page here if you’re interested.)
Well… I’ve managed a total of three 10+ mile walks since January. I’ve also printed off and thumbed through the 39 page training schedule provided by Breaking Strain Events. Clearly I am not remotely ready for this Arctic trek. But with just over four months to go, I’m sensing a shift in momentum.

The other week, for example, I bit the bullet and went to buy a pair of high performance trekking boots. This turned out to be an unexpectedly emotional experience.

I should probably point out that I am not and never have been a shoe fanatic. I’m just not that into them. From the last 40 years, I can count on one foot the shoes that have lingered in the memory.

There were the sky blue Clarks with a single bar across the ankle. They were the first pair I had without a T-bar, and were so pretty they required me to stare at my feet as I walked.

And the burgundy patent party shoes with cut away sides. I was no 7 year old fashionista, but even I knew that shoes with no sides was completely brilliant.

And that was it really for the next 24 years, until the day Rory and I got engaged. (Exactly 10 years ago today as it happens.)

We were holidaying in Australia and had had a rare tiff about nothing much, so I’d hopped huffily onto the boat from Manley to downtown Sydney to make myself feel better with some retail therapy. I spotted a pair of totally impractical, off-white, suede high heels with diamante-encrusted bows, tried them on, asked the price, calculated the exchange rate the wrong way and discovered too late that I’d spent £250 on them instead of £75. Ouch.

Later, after Rory had proposed to me by the opera house, overlooking the glittering harbour (the romantic devil), those ridiculously expensive shoes took on an extra significance. I still have them somewhere, battered, scuffed and unwearable. They are the only shoes I have ever been remotely sentimental about.

Until now.

What happened in Go Outdoors

Go Outdoors in Edinburgh has an entire wall of serious hiking shoes, boots and trainers. There must be about 50 of them, all pointing northwards like an indomitable right-footed army. To someone like me, this wall is as alien and forbidding as the Eiger, but as my eyes trailed wildly across it I found myself thinking: somewhere in this crowded ballroom is the chosen pair; the boots that will accompany me to the Arctic.

It occurred to me that I was going to form a bond with one (or presumably two) of these sturdy, graceless boots. They would be my future training buddies. My companions on this trek of a lifetime. My sole mates. (Oh come on, you have to allow me one corny pun per post.)

After several fittings and with the advice of the very helpful man in Go Outdoors, I eventually settled on a pair of Mammut Ayako High GTX®. Whatever that means. The product literature tells me that I have opted for supreme functionality, with Base Fit®, Goretex membrane, Feetmap climate regulation, motion control, heel support, 3-zone lacing, Vibram Mulaz outsole and integrated Nespresso machine with milk frother.

They’re going to keep my feet comfy and dry, basically. They’re also a rather fetching shade of aquamarine with magenta detailing. Ooooh.

These boots were made for walking

For the first week, the Mammuts stayed in their box. I’d pop open the lid occasionally and peek at them. Unworn, unsullied, they looked so nice. But deep down I knew these boots had a greater purpose than looking pristine in their packaging. So out they came: time for us to get to know each other.

Unworn, unsullied, they look so nice.

For our first outing I took my boots to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy. (While I admired saintly faces bathed in divine light, my boots preferred the grimy, bulbous toes of dying martyrs.)

Then my boots took me for a muddy walk along the Rocheid Path beside the Water of Leith. Better, thought the Mammuts. But hardly arduous.

Our next excursion will be this weekend’s 30K training walk in Glen Tress with an overnight camp. I’m actually looking forward to it. In fact, I’m hoping for awful weather and punishing terrain so I can put these bad boys to the test. And that’s not something I ever expected to say.

So yes, my friends, change is afoot. Just look at my feet.


I am taking on this Arctic challenge in aid of Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS). If you’d like to donate to this amazing charity, you can do so on my justgiving page. Thank you!

Featured post

Call me foolhardy. Call me impulsive. Just don’t call me generous.

Since signing up for the CHAS Arctic Trek 2018, I’ve been called generous and brave on numerous occasions. But on the night of the CHAS Rocking Horse Ball 2016, I can safely say I was neither of these things. Impulsive perhaps. Naïve maybe. In truth, I was mostly a bit sozzled and highly emotional. But generous and brave? Not a bit of it.

So how did I accidentally sign up to trek across the freezing Arctic wilderness? I will tell you.


24 June 2016, Prestonfield House Hotel, Edinburgh. A steady stream of taxis delivers guests to a gin and champagne reception. Summer sun glows across the lawns. The hotel’s resident peacocks, so accustomed to the chirrup and chatter of excited ball-goers, sit in the branches of stately trees and don’t give us a second look.

I partake of a glass of fizz. Somebody tops it up. I suspect this happens quite a few times. I’m too busy air-kissing and giving small whoops of delight as I greet friends and we slowly make our way into the big, circular, twinkling room that is Prestonfield’s Stables. We gather around our table. Another glass of bubbles? Don’t mind if I do. Well, isn’t this splendid.

After a while, a mum walks onto the stage and tells us the tender, funny, devastating, uplifting, gut-wrenching, heartwarming story about her involvement with Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS). I’m helpless in the face of her heroism. And while I’m at my most awe-struck and vulnerable, they get the auction underway. Before long I hear, “Item 3: a once-in-a-lifetime trek across the Arctic Circle. Who will start me at £1,500?”

I glance at the auction catalogue. This is what I see:

  • A blanket of untouched snow stretching out beneath a vast glimmering Arctic sky
  • A pleasant amble across said snowy paradise
  • The glittery green spangles of the northern lights
  • A 5* snow hotel

This is what I don’t see:

  • 70km of packed ice, frozen rivers and freezing wilderness
  • -30°
  • Tents. (I don’t camp. It’s a thing of mine. Four solid walls, a floor, a roof: that’s where I’m at accommodation-wise.)
  • Pulks. (I don’t know what a pulk is.)

I am sitting next to my friend Sarah. Sarah keeps sticking up her hand as the bidding goes to and fro. But the prize is for two people, and her husband isn’t there. She isn’t sure if he’d be up for it. The auctioneer points at Sarah – are you in? She hesitates. So I mutter into her ear, “I’ll go with you.”

“You sure?” she says, and I nod. Before I can further consider that answer, her hand is back up. And just like that, we ‘win’ the prize.

So you see, that’s not brave. That’s rash. The mum who stood up to share her story and bare her soul – she gets the medal for bravery.

And the medal for generosity? At a charity auction, that surely has to go to the donor of the prize, not the bidder. It’s the donors who are really giving something away. The bidders, after all, get something for their money. Consider the artist who donates a painting. That could be two months’ work, handed away right there. I bet it’s pretty rare for the bidder to spend two months’ salary buying it.

In my case, I casually blasted my auction budget on this trek. In front of all those people I looked like I was splashing lots of cash for a brilliant cause. Which I was in a way – but look at what I got for it. Six days in a part of the world I would probably never get to see, doing something I would never get to do otherwise. The chance to challenge my comfortable, cosy, middle-of-the-road existence with a once-in-a-lifetime experience (unless I love it so much I go back, but I currently doubt that). As the brochure says, I’ll always be able to bore people at dinner parties with my stories of “when I was in the Arctic…”

Put it like that, I got a bargain.

A company called Breaking Strain Events donated this trek. They won’t make a profit from my ticket. So let’s raise a glass to them, because they deserve the generous accolade, not me. And they deserve a little promotion off the back of it too. So now that you’ve finished reading this, go and check out Breaking Strain Events. You never know, you might accidentally get yourself signed up for a chilly stroll across the Arctic.

If you’d like to, you can donate to CHAS via my justgiving page 

I’m going on an Arctic trek. Sorry, what?

You heard me. An Arctic trek.

I don’t, as a rule, do the camping thing.

I don’t take much exercise.

I don’t particularly like the cold.

So what could possibly go wrong on a 3 day, 50 mile trek into the Arctic Circle, dragging a pulk through snow and ice and sleeping under canvas in -30°?

I’ve decided the only way to confront this impending disaster is to blog my way through it. Because if I’m actually going to make this crazy journey, you (dear reader) can jolly well come with me.


P.S. The lovely illustrations you will see on this blog are by Kayleigh McCallum 

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑