Sunday, 19 February 2012

"Peace, through superior firepower"

Admittedly, I’m no adrenaline junkie. I was, once upon a time, and always hankered after doing stuff like skydiving, but Point Break came and went, and it seemed a bit more sensible to get my life in order and leave the craziness to everybody else.

Until now, that is!

Yes, thanks to a terrific bit of foresight by the lovely M, we marked the start of this half term by driving to Milton Keynes (I know …..) in order for me to partake in my first ever indoor skydiving experience.

Yes, that’s right, “indoor” skydiving, all the fun of the fair with pretty much none of the risk. Well, I say that, but my disclaimer did question whether or not I suffer from backache or (get this) have ever suffered from a dislocated shoulder! So the risk was there man, it was real!!!

A friend said that Milton Keynes consisted solely of “dual carriageway, roundabout, dual carriageway, roundabout, dual ….”, well, you get the idea, and frankly, he summed it up rather perfectly. Laid out grid style (like New York without Central Park or Times Square), it’s a drab, monotonous place, created for businesses and …. erm, well, just businesses, as far as I could see. Apologies for anyone with friends or family there but it is a dull place.

Step just outside it however, and you have parts of England at their most beautiful, but I’ll come to that in a minute. Back to the skydive.

I’m not sure I’d pay the full price of £68, but thanks to a special offer, M paid just £15 for two short ‘flights’, photographs and a DVD. A quick tutorial on the do’s and don’ts of the vertical wind tunnel, a change into a jump suit, goggles and helmet and off we went, myself and my group of 10 others.

I positioned myself at the back of the group, cleverly thinking that I’d be able to watch everyone else make fools of themselves before I did but, not for the first time, my carefully thought out plan backfired and it was a case of ‘last in, first out, and so, slightly nervously, I stepped up to the opening to the tunnel, folded my arms across my chest, pointed my chin upwards and fell forwards, being caught half by my instructor and half by the 100mph wind that was being generated somewhere far below our feet, out of sight.

It would be kinda pointless to describe the feeling – you really have to experience it for yourself, but the saying ‘as free as a bird’, albeit one confined to a Perspex tunnel 12 feet in diameter, truly applied here; it was AMAZING!!

Clearly a natural at flying, I adjusted the angle of my legs, ankles, arms and hands to literally fly all around the space available and even, by flattening myself slightly, go higher than I think I was supposed to. Before the end of my second flight, following an agreed signal between myself and my instructor, he grabbed hold of my jumpsuit by one shoulder and one of my ankles, before whizzing us round in a circle and zooming vertically at tremendous speed. Down we came to within inches of the “ground” before up we went again, me yelling and laughing at the same time, before finally turning off the ‘fan’ for good.

And so, I left the Airkix part of the complex talking ten to the dozen, and we ambled around to see what else was on offer. A real snow ski slope was just opposite and is definitely next on our ‘to-do’ list, but for now, our visit was over.

Well, at least the Milton Keynes part was. Next up was our stay on a small farm which we used as a base for our 3 night stay in this neck of the woods. The farmer wasn’t that pleased to see us – we thought he felt that perhaps B&B is a bit “beneath” him, not pure enough for a thoroughbred farmer – but his wife was friendly and their two daughters, who were the same age as mes enfants, were very sweet, helping to serve us breakfast each morning. (Wahey, I love short breaks – licence to eat cooked brekkie EVERY day, guilt free!) As luck would have it, the lambing season started the day after we arrived, much to the delight of Joseph and Annabel, so out we went to meet the new additions to the sheep headcount.

An up-close bird of prey experience was also on my list of treats from M (hadn’t given much thought as to why I was getting all this very nice treatment until now – hope it’s not the equivalent of the husband buying the wife ‘guilt-flowers’! Hmmm …..) and it was wonderful having owls – creatures I have long had a soft spot for – perched on my very own gauntlet covered hand.

Did you know that owls can turn their heads 270 degrees to make up for the fact that their eyes are fixed in their sockets?

‘ course you did, just me then!

Next up was the National Trust’s breath-taking Stowe – I know what you’re thinking. “Your children are going to HATE you!” and normally, I’d worry you were right, but for now, they seem to genuinely enjoy the freedom to run ahead, climb the occasional tree and to discuss their beautiful surroundings. Actually, our trip to Stowe served a dual purpose – Joseph was required to design and plan a ‘wildlife park’ for his homework and many ideas were taken from that day. Stowe is stunning. Strangely though, the estate is not all owned by the NT. Well, the grounds are, the lake is, the boundary walls are, the bridges are, the rivers are … you get the idea. The house itself is actually a very very nice privately owned, private school. It’s the school that first takes your breath away, as you drive along the die-straight, undulating road from the gatehouse up to the highest point of the ‘driveway’, and there, in the early morning mist, off in the distance, is Stowe House – a fantastic building.

I think I’ve said before, that although the National Trust may not be your ‘thing’, there are certain properties around the country that we’ve seen so far, that you’d have to try extremely hard not to be impressed by. I tell you something, I sure as hell wish I’d have been able to visit some as a school-child; I reckon my history and geography essays would’ve got a much better grade than they did!
So, even if you don’t like the idea of the annual membership fee (terrific value btw), and you can’t see yourself ever joining, make at least one trip to see Stowe. It’s little wonder that it is one of the jewels in the National Trust’s glittering crown.

Another jewel, this time in the crown of English Heritage, is Wrest Park, and was our destination of choice the following day – I know what you’re thinking – “your children hate you NOW!” – and the place was opened amid much pomp and hype in about August of last year. And so, M and I thought, well, seven months on, the place will have weathered in a bit, it will be looking pretty tasty.

We were wrong.

Apart from a few stand-out show pieces, the place was a bit of a disappointment to be honest, the grounds in particular. The flower beds were bare, the hedgerows which will eventually serve as natural boundaries had only very recently been planted and several of the large water features were just huge, deep, muddy building sites with diggers and trucks sat driver-less, looking very much out of place. I mean, I know that a place like that takes a lot of work – we were just surprised they opened the place when they did, if this was the work still to be done.

The house itself, while beautiful on the outside, has been made a little too 20th century, a bit too interactive. They know, of course, that you have to hold the interest of the children if you are going to get the fee paying parents through the door, but although the balance is obviously a tricky one, it’s one that we thought they hadn’t got entirely right.

What didn’t help, was the fact that a portion of the house and conservatory usually available to explore, had been cordoned off for a wedding later that afternoon. (It was a blustery day, but as the wedding hour approached – 4pm – the rain started, then it got harder, and then it bucketed down. The grounds were, in parts, flooded, so we hoped the bride had a sturdy pair of wedding shoes!)

The crowning glory of this place, for me at any rate, was the Archer Pavilion, built between 1709 and 1711. It’s basically a large, garden house built exclusively to do two things.

1. To show your chums just how fabulously wealthy and clever you are to be able to design and afford something as cool as it and

2. To look from your house down to the garden ‘shed’ and casually mention that after dinner, you’ll all amble down to it and have swanky a party in it.

There are even two tiny bedrooms in the domed roof, allowing staff to take it in turns to rest, should the partying go on (and on).

I’ve mentioned the work of Lancelot Brown before, and he got his hands on this garden too, his influence far more apparent and easy to understand than at Petworth House, his clever softening of those edges, his blending of corners into rolling lawns, the removal of all that symmetry. Lovely as the garden was however, if you have just one day to visit a beautiful part of this country’s history, take a picnic and a trip to Stowe.

I very much doubt that you’ll regret it.

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