Like event specialists everywhere, I have been researching ways to deliver creative and events in a virtual way. Many of us are feeling fearful that things will never go back to normal, fearful that what made us love this industry is gone forever, and fearful that we will no longer be able to bring people together like we used to.
In this little series of blogs I will look at the different facets that make an event work in our 'new normal'. This week I am going to look at what is at the heart of events - the gathering of people, making new connections.
How can we do this in a meaningful way online?
What really brings these people together is the storyteller, and the way it is presented.
"We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
Jonathan Gottschall, Author of The Storytelling Animal
Give something of meaning to your audience by inspiring engaging and educating them with a story. There hasn't been a better time to tell amazing stories and right now we're surrounded by forms of media and technology that enable us to engage in different and closer ways. I have been impressed by the way that various organisations have tackled this.
From the mammoth giant that is Apple, though to how charities are telling their stories.
Apple delivered its first all-virtual presentation to kick off the 2020 WorldWide Developers Conference in June. CEO, Tim Cook, walked onto the stage of an empty Steve Jobs Theatre on the company’s campus in California, and sat on a stool to address the serious issues of race, social justice, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The empty theatre gave a real sense of how everyone is facing the same challenges. After speaking for about five minutes, Cook passed the presentation to Apple’s senior vice president of software, Craig Federighi. He delivered his presentation from an entirely different studio on the Apple campus. It was the first sign that this virtual meeting would be constantly changing to keep people’s attention.
By the end of the presentation which lasted nearly two hours, the audience saw 20 different speakers involved in Apple’s product development. Just have a glimpse at the video below. No one spoke for more than ten minutes, and many of them spoke for just two minutes to keep the action moving. The changes and backdrops were constant.
Their 'story' may have been product led, but the method of delivery was engaging and creative.
The Latino Community Foundation quickly pivoted their 'Coming of Age Gala' online. This must have been one of the first repurposed virtual events that I took part in. Taking place at the end of May, they had time against them to create something really meaningful for their audience, just weeks after Covid 19 restrictions were imposed.
It is testament to how engaging it was in that I had to set my alarm to get up at 2am to view it in 'real time', and it kept me captivated into the small hours.
CEO Jacqueline Martinez Garcel and VP Masha V Chernyak both delivered their welcomes from outdoor settings, breathing a real sense of life into their stories.
The whole event continued against a series of nature inspired or colourful backgrounds, keeping the audience stimulated in a time when they were in lockdown.
Not everyone has Apple's budget, but the Latino Community Foundation demonstrated that doing something as simple as 'taking the audience outside' could bring a different, more engaging feel to their stories. Everything from videos to images paintings and photography falls under the category of visual media. All these things can be used to create dynamic visually engaging sessions and thoughtful content, it's time to start investing in these tools, just like you would invest in a venue.
Or you may want to go one step further and utilise some of the venue hire or production costs you would have had to budget for to utilise local broadcast studios, and the use of green screens and multiple cameras from whatever your setting may be. Because this is how you can support the narrative and the storytelling of the talking heads that's so important in virtual events.
But you don't have to rely on tools like this to craft a compelling story through a virtual event. You might find yourself held to contracts previously made with venues, but instead of losing the deposits, why not repurpose a space you already have in some ingenious ways. You can organise a concert live in the venue and stream it, offering virtual audiences the possibility to be part of a peaceful and hypnotic experience for the comfort of their own homes.
Another great way to give a story some visual life is to employ the services of a scribe. These artists have been bringing events to life over the past few years, creating walls of content at conferences and other large gatherings, and there is even more reason to be using them now. A digital live scribe could be in a separate 'room' at your event, creating artwork during panel discussions to provide a visual representation of the topics covered in the session. They are great to provide to attendees post-event and share on social media.
Look out for some more tips on bringing your virtual event to life in next weeks blog!
As Director of my own business, the past month has been extremely challenging to say the least. I spent the first two weeks in a bit of a frenzy of activity, watching and taking part in every Zoom call and webinar I could in order to try and make sense of it all, and what it would mean for my business.
I have spent years building up my company, and a client base that I am extremely proud of. And now I found myself extremely worried about not only the immediate impact, but what business would be like when we come out the other side of this. As I am considered to be very creative, and a bit of an innovator, I put myself under immense pressure to come up with the 'next best thing' in the world of events, and frankly I ended up feeling quite overwhelmed and drained by it all.
I have now had time to take a breath and reflect on some of the things that I have learned, and what has worked for me. Working, and spending the majority of my time at home on my own, I have found some real strategies which I thought I would share for anyone else out there who finds themselves struggling to see a way out of all of this.
I will start by sharing a quote from one of my closest friends "You can't be a hero every day!"
Limit the noise to good effect
As I discovered when setting up my nnoodl business, we can be overwhelmed by social media at the best of times. Add to that the constant news updates and it is easy to see how your whole day can be overtaken by Covid-19. Then there are the constant 'funnies' on Facebook etc which are shared over and over. Sometimes light relief - sometimes too much.
Time to limit the noise and focus on the information I needed.
I found that at this time LinkedIn was more valuable than ever with people sharing some really useful content. This is where I found a post from the London Growth Hub, an initiative delivered by the LEAP (the local enterprise partnership for London). They have always been there to support small businesses in London, but this is the first I had heard of them and snapped up the chance to have a business consultation call with one of their advisers. Not only did this give me some pointers on the support available to me, but also served as a reminder that this was a good opportunity to take advantage of the down time to reassess my business and make it even stronger. I was also introduced to a network of other similar business owners.
Reflect, recalibrate and remember you are resilient
One of the most valuable things I have done in my first month in lockdown has been to really take the time to reflect on my business. This is time we never normally have, of course none of us would have wished for this to be imposed on us in this way, but there is no avoiding it, so let's embrace it.
For me this has served as a double whammy opportunity. My good friend Cath Kane had in the past 18 months moved to Washington DC. She has extensive experience working in the public and not-for-profit sector to help them meet the challenges of change through creating environments that foster resilience. She has been developing her own 'Unshakeable Ambition' coaching programme, aimed at women who are passionate about making a difference and connecting on a deeper level with their ambitions. Cath offered me a series of coaching sessions and I snapped up the opportunity!
These coaching sessions have been a real game changer. The pre session exercises in themselves have really made me think deeply about my business and my ambitions. Cath has also set up a private Facebook group for her clients called 'Insightful Strong Women' and this has served as a great platform to connect with like-minded individuals across the globe to share ideas and our tips on how to stay resilient.
Learn but don't overload
This is a great time to delve into an area which you might have neglected as business takes over. Maybe it's marketing, developing your social media skills, or getting to grips with your accounts. It's all good, but be careful not to overdo it.
Again, our social media feeds are filled with over achievers, learning a language, a musical instrument etc. In my first two weeks I committed to finally doing Spanish every day, guitar practice, online yoga, cartoon workshops, choir. I also signed up to about 12 webinars and this was all on top of the actual work I had to do, and my pre-scheduled triathlon training (whenever those race events may happen?) It was just too much!
Another lesson learned, and I have now settled into things and found a rhythm.
I have grouped things into areas at the start of each week and allocated an amount of time I will commit to it. I have found some great content through the guys at Fundraising Everywhere who hosted a truly impressive virtual full day conference at the start of April. I have also been collaborating with colleagues and allocating time to researching an events toolkit that I will be able to share with my clients. I am trying to be as diligent about how I split my day. BUT, always making sure that I make time for some 'fun things'. If that is a cartoon drawing tutorial, or language lesson, it will be because I WANT to do it. Then we have to look on the positive side of the skills we have accidentally learned along the way, for me it is home hairdressing and even dentistry (yes, I recently fixed a chipped tooth...let's see how long it lasts!).
Managing your time - embracing the flexibility
As someone who is very much task and goal driven, I love a list or a spreadsheet. It's a great way of breaking up things into headings and I have a 'master plan' that I am using during this time split into headings 'Finance', 'Business Development', 'Personal Growth' and so on. I then can see what I actually need to do, or where I can dump some ideas for actioning later. There is nothing like turning a task green for me! What I have found is coming through though, is that where things that aren't vital sit untouched, I start to reassess if they are really necessary or am I forcing myself to do them because I feel I should? This is something that has become more apparent in my business coaching too. For my business I use an app called Toggl to track how I am spending my time with each client. I find it really focuses my mind too and makes me very productive. Without the same stress, I have been splitting my days into sections and making sure that I only allocate a certain amount of time on certain business tasks, and then make sure I take a break to do something else...whether it's exercise, having a chat with a friend or just listening to a podcast or watching a tv programme. Most of all, I am trying to embrace the fact that now I can be flexible about how I work. If I am feeling more creative and work focussed at 9pm at night, but fancy playing the guitar at 10am in the morning, then so be it!
Recognising where you are on the 'change curve'
Listening to a webinar by the previously mentioned London Growth Hub was really helpful in reassuring me that we are all going through a similar rollercoaster of feelings just now. One of their coaches discussed the 'Change Curve' and explained how we all react to dramatic changes in our situation. Although we all go through this process at different paces, he highlighted the various stages on it from Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining and so on. It really resonated with me as I recognised many of these feelings. Being ever the optimist, I was heartened to see the positive upward curve.
I particularly identified with the 'Acceptance' and 'Problem Solving' areas. In times like this, we start to turn a corner and think "I am ok, does anyone else need help?". I had recently signed up to help my local Covid 19 mutual aid group. I was keen to help in any way I could, having more time on my hands, and recognising there were no doubt people in my neighbourhood whom I didn't know, but may well be struggling. I have to say my days are now even brighter as a chance partnering up with a vulnerable neighbour to support getting her medicines and shopping has now resulted in me giving her guide dog a much needed run around in the park every day. These groups are set up across the whole of the UK and are still looking for volunteers as the lockdown continues. You can find yours here.
Break the monotony
It can start to seem like groundhog day. I laugh when I sign off emails on a Friday with 'Have a lovely weekend' as a force of habit, when in reality it can seem like each day is the same as the last.
It's really important to mark changes in days and weeks.
Whether that is as simple as moving from the room where you have been doing your work emails, or changing your clothes from day to night, it all makes a difference to your mindset. I found at the start of this that I started to dread Zoom calls a bit as I spent so much time on them during the day that the thought of staring at my laptop at night too was a bit much. There was an interesting short article on why this is in Time Out this week. But the upside to this is the amount of people I have managed to connect with who I hadn't 'seen' for a very long time. My mum and dad have only recently adopted Facetime, which makes me very happy given that I had to cancel a trip to see them in Scotland the very week we went into lockdown (I was extra pleased to see that my dad has retained his humour by appearing wearing full protective gear!)
I have been on virtual quiz nights with friends across the world, drinks with friends all over the UK, and we try to continue our virtual choir online, even though it sounds so chaotic that it is hilarious. Just seeing those little 'Brady Bunch' faces makes me smile now. In fact I have just done one of my triathlon bike sessions on my turbo trainer and persuaded a friend in Aberdeen to join me. Apparently I have a side hustle waiting for me as a virtual cycling coach after this in her eyes!
I also find it is important to make a bit of a 'ceremony' of a Saturday night as I get properly dressed up and have 'aperitifs' with my best friend and her family in Aberdeen every week. On the first week of lockdown I went to one of my favourite superstores, Wing Yip to shop for a Chinese banquet. In my mind crispy duck pancakes are one of the ultimate feel good foods!
But most of all....
Remember this is not forever. I can't help thinking that when we come out of this we will somehow all look back on it with a certain amount of nostalgia. The friends and contacts we reacquainted with.....the neighbours we finally met....the time we took for ourselves to slow down and think.....perhaps even the skills we learned along the way.
I can't help but think that in amongst all of the songs that are being inspired by Covid 19, that it is time for Baz Luhrmann to release a follow up to one of my favourites 'Wear Sunscreen'. And with that I leave you with that song, and a very poignant couple of lines...
Understand that friends come and go
But a precious few, who should hold on
Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle
For as the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young
Stay safe everyone!
Many of you will be familiar with my sister company, nnoodl where I create surprise experiential events for groups and individuals. Here we especially focus on the hidden gems of places and activities that London has to offer. We are as deflated as the rest of you that we are being advised against social contact, and moving towards isolation. Human interaction, and trying new experiences together is at the heart of what brings us joy. But, these are indeed unprecedented times, and so in the spirit of staying safe, but also sane, I have gathered together some of my favourite activities that you can do safely, all from the comfort of your own isolation. It also represents a mix of suppliers (some are free), but including some small businesses, who we love to support during these trying times.
Ok, so this is a simple one, it is something many of us probably already do in the privacy of our own home, in the shower, or whilst cooking dinner. But, have you ever experienced the joy of singing with someone else?
I first went to Matt Thompson at ‘Sing the Easy Way’ about 4 years ago. Initially this started as a bit of a dare, as I shy away from public speaking or any public performances. Matt has an amazing way of putting you at ease though, and after my first lesson I felt such a natural high that there was no going back! Matt has always offered online singing lessons, offering the same fun, one-to-one environment as face to face, but without the contact we are trying to currently avoid. Check him out here
Like me, you could become a singing convert and will be joining his beginners choir!
Quelle bonne idée!
Duolingo is something I have been using for a little while now in my attempt to learn Spanish. It is a free platform (with premium upgrade available) that includes a language-learning website and mobile app with 36 languages ranging from Hindi to Scottish Gaelic. They offer a skill tree of lessons that use listening exercises, flashcards, and multiple-choice questions to drill you on new words, phrases, and sentences. Most questions have a comment thread where users can discuss a particular question in detail. The service also has community features that let you connect with other people who are learning the same language you are. Soon you will not only be able to chat online to your current friends, but could be connected to some new international ones too. Get prepared for those 'post covid holidays'!
Gucci Osteria is an Italian restaurant by the famous fashion house which most of us could only aspire to visit in the best of times. However, Massimo Bottura, the Michelin -starred chef heading up the kitchen is giving us a welcome glimpse into this establishment, and just the jolt of optimism we need as millions enter into quarantine to mitigate the spread of the virus. Bottura wants to help with a free cooking series he’s launched via his own Instagram page here
Kitchen Quarantine’s lessons are always taught in English, despite the chef’s Italian provenance, and come to you live via Bottura’s own home where he’s holed up with his family. So far he has taught us how to make a veggie-packed Thai curry, salad, and a tortellini in a thick parmesan sauce to name but a few. He is keen to advocate cooking in a way to limit food waste by using every scrap and byproduct you can.
Bottura wants to be clear that he isn’t just teaching kitchen skills. “It’s just a way to share with people from all over the world… we just want to be part of the world. There’s a beautiful sentence in Italiano from a poet, Franco Arminio [translated roughly to]: yes, we are here, home, but we are talking with the whole world, so we are sharing with the whole world.”
Now this is one that I know is on a lot of people’s hit lists. Learning to sew, either for fun, or in these challenging economic times, to make your own clothes, or upcycle, is a great skill to have. I did my own sewing challenge back in 2015 when I went to the Thrifty Stitcher to learn how to make a dress. (If you really have time on your hands, have a look at my blog here about this great experience).
Owner, Claire-Louise Hardie was the first Sewing Producer for The Great British Sewing Bee, a Professional Costumier with a passion for teaching beginners to sew. She is running a range of online sewing courses, perfect for great tuition in your own home. Check out her online courses here. Also, in the spirit of helping everyone in these challenging times, she is offering some free online sewing tutorials for beginners here.
Thank you for the music...
Having owned a guitar since I was about 12, I am as guilty as the next person of not giving it constant attention and keeping my practice going. Well, what better time to perfect those musical skills than now? Charlotte Barrow is a guitarist whom I have had the pleasure to play alongside at various flamenco gigs. She is a guitar, ukulele, mandolin and recorder tutor with over 12 years' experience of teaching a wide variety of levels and ages, including exam tutoring. She aims to ensure her lessons are fun, friendly and learner-centrered!
Charlotte is happy to offer online lessons and can be contacted via any of the below:
Mobile 07952 231 494
If you are anything like me, the thought of how to keep up a healthy exercise regime will be causing you a bit of anxiety! Jokey social media posts aside of people running a marathon on their balcony, or fashioning a bike turbo trainer with a rolling pin, here are a couple of online resources that I have been using for a while and can highly recommend:
Yoga with Adriene is a fantastic You Tube channel hosted by international yoga teacher Adriene Mishler with an online community of over 6 million viewers. She provides a wealth of online yoga and mindfulness practices that cater for every level of participant. Such a fantastic way to look after your mental and physical wellbeing!
For additional strength and cardio training, I have also been a huge fan of my TRX for about a year. Standing for Total Body Resistance Exercise , these clever suspension straps use body weight exercises to develop strength, balance, flexibility and core stability simultaneously. Initially developed by former U.S. Navy SEAL Andy Hetrick whilst deployed, and trying to find a way of exercising in remote, or confined spaces. Seems like the ideal solution to isolation training to me! I follow TRX UK on Instagram, who post live exercises every day at 4pm. Check them out here
More tips will follow over the coming weeks and months. Stay safe everyone!
As an events professional I am always keen to investigate new venues and restaurants as possible destinations for events and special gatherings. So, every month I am going to share with you my top pick. This month I had the pleasure of discovering a real hidden gem of a restaurant!
I took the research for this one particularly personally as I wanted to treat my partner to a special birthday meal. I wasn't totally restricted on location, but was keen to find somewhere towards the west end of London to tie in with our earlier plans. I am a real fan of tapas/sharing style food, or a tasting menu as I find it gives you a really good opportunity to taste a variety of the key dishes from a restaurant. Looking for 'special tasting menus' I stumbled upon Flat Three in Holland Park. This is a restaurant which sells itself as 'imaginative, seasonal British food inspired by the flavours and culinary traditions of Korea and Japan'.
The brainchild of Juliana Kim Moustakas, the restaurant name comes from the address she and her chef friend first started creating their vision, and hosting some supper clubs from. They take great pride in the time taken to create the ferments which punctuate their special brand of flavour.
We found Flat Three on a small corner in Holland Park and followed the quirky 'Eat here' neon sign down to the basement not sure what to expect. Embracing the eastern feel though, was a calm, clean interior, punctuated by an open kitchen, and we were shown to one of the booths.
Having already given the menu a bit of a once over in advance, I suggested we went for the 5 course tasting option. Unusually for a menu like this, our waitress helpfully advised us that we didn't both need to eat the same dishes, in fact this menu offers at least two choices for each 'course'. So as we pondered our food options, we looked through the extensive Sake and wine list. I have to admit there were some pretty pricey wines on there, but likewise, they offered a very reasonable Romanian 2018 Calusari, Pinot Noir. With a forthcoming trip to Romania planned in spring, we were keen to see what the local red might be like and so opted for this, starting of course with some Sake from their extensive range! This warm carafe of Shusen Three Dots Junmai Ginjo, Kamoizumi hailing from Hiroshima, really set the right tone. We were also delighted to have this brought to us by none other than owner, Juliana, who explained a little about the Sake.
Just as I was considering whether we should order some of the Mochi flatbread with ponzu to accompany our dishes, we were supplied with a complimentary serving, which I have to say is something I could eat all day. In fact we ordered a further helping during our dinner....it is so addictive!
The food that followed was a true delight.
We both opted for the kabu (Japanese turnip) with the most surprisingly tasty broth of dashi. Who knew turnip could taste so good - nothing like Scots' mashed neeps!
My partner, Ian opted for the kabocha (pumpkin) with kombu mole next, whilst I indulged my love of beetroot with a dish infused with omija, and preserved blackcurrants. Again we were both blown away by the flavours given to these otherwise quite humble vegetables.
P.S. as my photos below really don't do justice to the vibrancy of these dishes, I have included some of John Scott Blackwell's images from the Flat Three website at the top and bottom of this blog post.
Next we both opted for the glazed aubergine, followed by pork belly with spring greens for Ian, and wild sea bass with mussels for me. We are both very much meat eaters, but were totally sold on how vegetable dominant our menu was - the care and attention given to the flavours and ferments applied to them by the chefs at Flat Three is very evident.
Our final visit in this wonderful culinary excursion was upon us - the sweet part. I find sometimes we can shy away from dishes when the names of the various ingredients aren't familiar to us, or seem unusual pairings. This had been the case throughout our tasting menu, but I was so glad that we had embraced these amazing new flavours, including in our final foray where I went for the black koji custard and Jerusalem artichoke whilst Ian opted for the almond cake, fermented milk and honey. Both were absolutely delicious, but the literal icing on the cake must have been the lovely 'Happy Birthday' touch which was acknowledged on Ian's almond cake.
This restaurant has something for every occasion - they run special events and also have a great 'Chef's table' for a special group event. To quote this wonderful restaurant's octagonal shape, I would definitely recommend you 'Eat here'!
Photographs below by John Scott Blackwell, courtesy of the Flat Three website:
As the Director of my own company, I rely on word of mouth to ensure I am always bringing in new business. Reputation is everything, and something I work hard at. However, I am aware as anyone else just how busy our lives are - we are overwhelmed by work and fast moving social media feeds and it is easy to slip off the radar. So I know just how important it is to keep in touch with your contacts and stay 'front of mind'. I have my own little ways of doing this , such as sending 'Happy New Year' cards to my contacts (a little different from sending the usual Christmas card), but I was really interested to hear some tips from the former editorial director of Twitter, Karen Wickre on how to nurture these contacts throughout the year:
Take 10 minutes a day to craft casual hellos — it goes a long way.
According to Karen Wickre, tending your network doesn’t take more than 10 minutes a day. The key to making meaningful connections, she argues, isn’t going to a marathon of cocktail hours. It’s staying in “loose touch” — what she defines as “the care and feeding of your networks over time.”
As the former editorial director of Twitter, Wickre is both incredibly well-connected and a self-described introvert. She even wrote a book for her fellow quiet, limelight-avoidant observers. In Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count, Wickre shares a 10-minute trick for maintaining loose touch, and five FYIs you can send keep your relationships thriving.
Here she is in her own words:
No one likes to feel used repeatedly, especially when it’s one-sided. The best connections you can make are those where you have mutuality: sometimes one of you needs something, and sometimes neither of you does, and you continue to give your time and attention either way.
This is my guiding principle for no-pressure networking: Nurture it before you need it.
Start by spending 10 minutes a day building your loose-touch habit. That’s a small amount of effort for what is potentially a lot of payoff, in good feelings if not in immediate outcomes. Whether you’re the giver or the receiver in need, you’ll get a sense of satisfaction either way. Here’s how I fit it into my day:
The nice thing about a “Just FYI” message is that there’s no real obligation involved on either side, and you are top of mind for a moment with the recipient (which helps solidify your ongoing relationship).
Apart from the link or attachment, your message is essentially along these lines: this confirms what we talked about; I wonder what your reaction is; reading this reminds me of you. Here are five types of ‘Just FYI’ notes to add to your rotation:
Subject: Do you know about this conference? (The subject line should tease the information you’re sending instead of being a generic “hi”.)
Hi Jimmie, I hope you’re faring well in these fun times. Just ran across this [link] and thought of you.
Even this short note accomplishes quite a lot:
I am just reflecting on the culmination of a fascinating project I have been working on for WWF.
I initially started working as Project Manager with them back in January 2018 and wanted to share some of the highlights of this amazing fundraising campaign with you.
WWF had previously worked with curators 'Artwise' on two projects called 'Pandamonium' which featured collaborations with contemporary artists to create innovative artworks out of old panda collection boxes which raised significant awareness for the charity through exposure in Selfridges in Oxford Street. This was followed by 'Pandamonium 2' in 2012 where artists were tasked with creating wearable sculpture or performance art.
'Tomorrow's Tigers' was an altogether more ambitious project. Not only was there an expectation of generating a similar level of exposure for WWF, but a fundraising target of raising £1million for tiger conservation work was set. In 2010, the last Chinese Year of the Tiger, WWF made a promise:
WWF, tiger range nations, the World Bank and other partners committed to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Chinese ‘Year of the Tiger’. Since the start of the 20th century we’ve lost over 95% of wild tigers. Today there are only 3,900 individuals left. Due to the concerted efforts of governments, WWF, partner organisations, and communities since the International Tiger Summit in 2010, for the first time in conservation history, wild tiger numbers are increasing.
Artwise had embraced the the concept of increasing the numbers of this majestic animal and took their inspiration for an art led campaign from an exhibition that took place at the Hayward Gallery in 1988 called 'The Tiger Rugs of Tibet'. Curated by Mimi Lipton, this showcased a collection of very rare antique rugs. Like the wild tiger, the original Tibetan Tiger Rugs are very rare. Thought to be owned by the
Tibetan elite and considered a prize possession, when the 1988 exhibition was staged, there were only around 200 samples known about. Traditionally the Tiger Rugs were made as gifts for Lamas in their monasteries and were used with Tantric Meditation. The tiger skin motif was thought to protect the person during meditation. Artwise planned to approach 10 contemporary artists to take their inspiration from these rugs to create their own interpretations which would then be realised by specialist rug makers Christopher Farr. These rugs were to be handmade by craftspeople in India to produce a limited edition of 10 of each design. Starting prices were anticipated to be around £10,000.
Building the Team and the Brand
The first phase was to pull together the project team to support Artwise from WWF. This included PR and Comms, Brand, Digital, and of course key people from the fundraising team, in this case led by Philanthropy/Major Donors and including members of the Corporate fundraising team. The contemporary art world is very specialised, and to crack the PR around this was going to be key.
The exhibition date at Sotheby’s was January 2019 and so working back from this we decided to have a launch event in September 2018 to try and engage with key people in the art world as well as potential philanthropists and influencers. WWF supporter Lily Cole came on board to lend her voice to the project and agreed to attend the launch at Sotheby’s.
The project had initially been referred to internally with a working name of ‘Tiger Rugs’ but we were very aware that this would not work with an external audience as it conjured up images of tiger skin rugs, obviously NOT something WWF wanted! So the title ‘Tomorrow’s Tigers’ was decided as a fitting name as saving this species is intrinsic to securing the future of our planet. It needed to have its own identity which would not only sit within the WWF brand, but speak to a contemporary art audience. Working with designers is something which I have always enjoyed doing, echoing back to my art and design background. WWF’s agency, Clean Canvas were great to work with and ever patient as we considered their various options. It’s never easy when there are so many stakeholders involved, but we were really happy with the clean logo they came up with which had a subtle reference to tiger claw marks.
Whilst this background work was going on, the really exciting stuff was happening. Artwise confirmed that they had secured support from the ten artists. We were highly excited that the first artist to come on board was Anish Kapoor! They had in fact already received the artwork designs from Anish Kapoor, Rose Wylie and Gary Hume. It was fascinating to see how they had all come up with very different interpretations, and we were excited to see how Christopher Farr executed them into the rug production.
The final confirmed artists were:
Francesco Clemente, Bernard Frize, Gary Hume, Reena Saini Kallat, Anish Kapoor, Maya Lin, Harland Miller, Raqib Shaw, Kiki Smith and Rose Wylie.
The original rugs had of course been woven in Tibet, but this was something that was no longer viable, and so Christopher Farr was working with a group of highly skilled craftspeople in North India who would be handweaving these designs. WWF had to of course have sight of all of their documentation on the processes and materials used to know that they were responsible and sustainable in their production methods.
This was a very unique project for many of these artists, as they were very closely involved in the whole process. Christopher Farr would send a small sample of the rug to each artist for sign off before the final one was begun.
The first samples began to arrive from India in late August just in time for our launch breakfast event at Sotheby's on 11th September. Here guests were given unique access to view some of the initial designs, and to touch and feel samples of the samples of the rugs by Gary Hume, Raqib Shaw and Kiki Smith. Heather Sohl, Tiger Trade Leader at WWF explained how tiger numbers had been in rapid decline, and talked through the ambition of the Tx2 project to double the number of tigers in the wild.
Christopher Farr then talked through the incredibly skilled processes used by their craftspeople and how each rug was realised in a different way. The Raqib Shaw rug, pictured in the middle below, would apparently involve around 1 million hand tied knots when completed.
The First Rugs
It was fascinating to work with Artwise and be party to the work that was going on between them, the artists and the production by Christopher Farr in India. It is unusual for artists who are giving their work to a charity project to be so heavily involved in this way. For many of them, though, this was a new medium for them to create their work in and so their was a lot of dialogue and sampling back and forth. In October the first rugs arrived with Artwise and I was excited to be able to see them up close! The Kiki Smith, Rose Wylie and Gary Hume rugs were a great example of how differently they had all been executed. The Smith was incredibly tightly knotted with very fine detail, whereas the Wylie was a lot looser. Gary Hume's rug was a real treat - hand woven in hand dyed wool and silk, it had a different look from each angle it was viewed from.
The Collateral and Promotion
By November we starting to pull together the assets we had to continue to push out stories to the press. This included some great imagery of some of the artists with their rugs including Gary Hume and Raqib Shaw (and his wonderful pet dog!)
At the same time we were collating imagery and editorial content for the catalogue which Sotheby's were kindly producing for us. This was running alongside briefing our web designer as we received imagery back from the photographer of the finished rugs. We were incredibly up against it in terms of deadlines as we approached Christmas, and four of the rugs were still being finished in India. Working on a project which is being fulfilled in another continent comes with it's own challenges. Unusually cold weather meant that the craftspeople were unable to work for certain periods of time, and along with this, we had to factor in the delivery of the rugs into London. As the exhibition preview date of 28th January approached, Christopher Farr photographed the final rugs as soon as they were completed in India before they were shipped so that we could make the catalogue deadline, and ensure we had content for the website.
Finally, in mid January, the website was ready to launch, see the screengrab below, or even better, have a look at the real thing here . It was so exciting to see this come together as we pushed it out to supporters and waited for the first glimmers of interest. At the same time, WWF launched a 'Tiger Edit' of affordable products in their main online shop which included some specially commissioned pieces by illustrator Ollie Terry, including this lovely tote bag below. Thankfully we just made the catalogue deadline with the arrival of the Anish Kapoor rug from India - which was well worth the wait!
Finally as the weekend of 26th January approached we were all set for the exhibition to come together. Artwise delivered the rugs to Sotheby's as we received confirmation that the first rug had actually been sold online - we were so excited!
But more exciting was the big preview day when I first walked into Sotheby's to see these wonderful pieces proudly hanging alongside their original antique counterparts in the St George Street Gallery.
Wow, they looked amazing!
A press call had taken place first thing and we were delighted with the coverage this project was receiving, see some of the highlights below including BBC online, FT How to Spend It, The Times, The Telegraph and even as far afield as the New York Times.
Now was the moment of truth....We had over 200 acceptances for the Preview of the exhibition which included art collectors, gallery owners, WWF supporters and philanthropists. We had initially anticipated the rugs being priced at around £10,000, but in fact the average ones were priced at around £15,000, with some of the more detailed ones including the Raqib Shaw, Anish Kapoor and Harland Miller coming in at £25,000.
The Preview had a real buzz about it and two rugs were sold on the night to add to the now two pieces which had been bought online. This was a very new world to WWF, but we were advised by the experts Artwise, that there had been lots of interest and that naturally people would need to think about a purchase of this size. During the exhibition week we delivered two engagement events - one to some Patrons of the RA, featuring talks from Artwise and Christopher Farr, and another aimed at WWF supporters where tiger expert Heather Sohl spoke passionately about the plight of the tiger.
Our aim during this week was to sell around eight rugs - we thought this would be a decent kick start to the campaign which we hoped would then tour and take us into the Year of the Tiger in 2022 and culmination of the £1million project.
Can you imagine our delight to be able to announce that at the culmination of this week we had raised over £600,000 in rug sales! This bodes really well for the future of the project and plans are already in place to tour the exhibition internationally, so watch this space.
The success of projects like this is what really makes me enjoy the work I do. I love to work on campaigns where we exceed expectations. A nice bonus to this was to be able to work with such a great group of people, and it was a lovely surprise when the team at WWF presented me with my own wee tiger rug and thank you card to show their appreciation, awww. So it is onwards and upwards for Tomorrow's Tigers project and I hope to be able to update you on the next steps as it goes global!
One of the benefits of running a business like nnoodl is that I can use it as an excuse to try out new things myself. Something I have surprisingly never done, but always fancied was horse riding, and so what better way to try it out than to take a group of nnoodlers on my adventure with me! This is obviously where the participant form that everyone fills in when they join comes into it's own. There are restrictions around weight and also health conditions like back problems which could make this activity unsuitable for some people. However, no-one that had signed up to this month's activity had any issues in this area, and I was also relieved to see that nobody had expressed a fear of horses (or equinophobia as it is apparently known!) So, joining instructions were sent to people to wear a long sleeved top and leggings, pretty sure that this wasn't enough to give the activity away in advance.
Where to meet to go to Lee Valley Riding Centre though was a slight challenge. Clapton station seemed like the best option, and I thought might be random enough to put people off the scent! Along the short 15minute walk to the centre, people began their usual guessing as to what the activity might be....kayaking on the River Lea?.......ice skating at the Lee Valley Ice Rink? This is the point where I always worry that people might enjoy these activities more than what I have actually booked! There seemed to be genuine relief as we walked past the ice rink though (probably from myself too having previously broken my arm ice skating), and genuine excitement as we approached the Lee Valley Riding Centre. Phew.
We could only book 10 people on this activity and I was really pleased to learn that only one person in the group had ever tried horse riding before, and that was apparently as a child, and so they were also keen to give it another crack. The closest I had come to getting on a horse was when I was on holiday with a boyfriend about 24 years ago. We had in fact booked and paid for an hour's lesson, but when we got to the stables the guy in question bottled it saying that he "didn't like the look of the horse" he had been allocated. I should have carried on and done it myself (and dumped him sooner than I did, but that's another story!)
The centre lends out hats and boots, and so one we were all kitted out we moved into the space next to the arena and watched as the group before finished up. There was an unusual vibe here as I have never witnessed a group of people being so quiet. I couldn't tell if it was trepidation, or respect for the horses that made everyone act like this. Our instructor soon put us at ease though. Embarrassingly I can't remember her name, as I then became overwhelmed with names of horses. The horses were led in and we were directed to the horse which seemed most appropriate to our size. Our instructor explained that she would refer to us by our horses' names, at which point I immediately felt sorry for the woman who had been allocated a horse called Chunky. In came Buttons, Darcey, Splash, Bill and many more until I was allocated Madison. He was a lovely chestnut horse and I was told he had a very good temperament and was quite nice and steady/not too bouncy. You will notice that there aren't many photos from this event, as I was very aware of anything that might make what we were doing unsafe, and maybe freak the horses out. But that said, I did squirrel my phone away down the front of my leggings, which almost proved to be a mistake on the dismount later...
The group were directed one by one onto a stepped block to mount their horses. As I stepped up I was aware of how high off the ground I seemed as I mounted Madison. Jasmine was the young girl who was looking after us. She told me she had been riding for 7 years, and I asked whether she had her own horse. No, this was quite a luxury she told me as they are very expensive, starting at £3,000 and going up to about a million pounds (I'm not quite sure if that was an exaggeration!) As we lined up next to each other, Madison became a bit edgy, with Jasmine telling him gently not to be grumpy. She explained that horses are like people and have their own horsey friends - it seemed that Madison was next to one of his 'not such good friends'. Ok, stay calm buddy, let's move away....
A slightly comedic moment followed where Darcey, the first horse to move off, seemed to be breaking wind in time with the walking movement, much to the embarrassment of the rider, Emily, who was giggling and saying "It's not me!". We started by just walking around the arena, getting used to the feel, where to hold the reins, and how it was important to stay calm and regulated with your breathing as the horse can sense any tension. Our first skill was to practice changing rein, and so we were directed towards one of the letters on the wall, where we would then turn the horse left by pulling on the reins with the left hand and squeezing the horse with your right leg. The only challenge here was that the horses seemed to want to follow their friends and so Madison was starting to veer off and cut the corner to follow his pack instinct. No, no, stay straight I was trying to say. We did a couple of rounds of this in both directions before it was time to move onto something more challenging, a rising trot. First we were asked to just stand up and sit down on the horse in a smooth action on the spot. Well this seemed ok, but of course the challenge was going to be trying to keep this timed with the horses trotting action, and not crashing down on his back. Our instructor pointed out that this could be very uncomfortable for any male riders. The first couple of riders did really well, so the pressure was on. Madison moved off quite slowly, so I was managing ok and found my rhythm, but then he picked up the pace and I had a bit of a bouncy moment until I settled into it again. I could tell our male riders were being particularly determined to avoid the bouncing motion, and the little horse called Buttons was particularly spritely, giving Tony, his rider, a bit of a challenge to stay in time.
Using our change of rein skills, we then moved onto a mini slalom style course of buckets which we had to weave our horse around. We had to do this manoeuvre one at a time, and so with the eyes of everyone else on you, the pressure was on again to perform. Despite me trying to remember, left hand, right leg and so on, as we weaved around the obstacles, Madison did me proud. I was loving this horse.
To perfect our trotting skills, we were then tasked with moving away from using the short saddle strap to balance, but instead trying to stay upright and move up and down in time either by holding loosely onto the long reins, or with no hands at all. Well you know me by now, I love a challenge, and so went for the 'no hands' option, determined to succeed with everyone else watching on!
All too soon the session came to an end. Our final challenge was to get our horses to all line up next to one another in the middle of the arena. Well I say final challenge, that was actually getting off the horse! I hadn't realised that we would be just dismounting onto the ground rather than back onto the block. This is almost where I came unstuck, or more accurately 'stuck' as I swung my leg over and my phone down my leggings got caught on the saddle, oops. So a slightly ungainly manoeuvre and I was on the ground. Quickly I retrieved my phone and passed it to Jasmine whispering "Could you take a photo of me with Madison please?". He seemed quite non plussed by it all. There is something odd looking at this photo after the event, and one or two people commented that we has a small horse. Trust me, when I was on his back, it seemed like a loooooong way down to the ground!
As everyone gathered to put their boots and hats back outside the arena, it was like a rush of adrenaline - suddenly the centre was filled with chatter as everyone excitedly spoke about their horse riding adventure and how much they had enjoyed it. Hooray, another nnoodl success!
After coming back from Spain to the hottest week this year in London, I was slightly apprehensive about the Prudential Ride 100 the following weekend. It was all over the news, "Don't exercise in the heat", but then I had cycled for hours on end in 33deg heat, hills and wind in South America last year, so that must have set me up? Well I certainly wasn't prepared then for the weather that was forecast by the day before the event....the wind was there, but accompanied by bucketing rain! The temperature was forecast at about 16deg maximum.
The day got off to a bit of a bad start when my 'cycle cab' to take me to Stratford (from a company who will remain nameless as they have made good) arrived at 6am instead of 5.30am. There was a moment of panic then, when bike all packed in the back, the driver then couldn't get the car to start. Was this an omen, should I just go back to bed? This was, it turned out, not the first time that day I was to have this thought.
I needed to get to the start time of my 'wave' or risk not being able to ride. I won't take you through the stressful journey that ensued, as it makes me anxious just thinking about it. Suffice to say, I got to the start with 3mins to spare.
My cycling comrade Giovanna was there, smiling as ever, and excited about the challenge ahead. It's unlike me not to be positive about most things, but even the PA blasting out 'Sweet Caroline' (a guilty pleasure of mine, Neil Diamond), couldn't lift my spirits as the wind and rain whipped around us. I was glad I had put my overshoes on, and of course my rain jacket. The compere at the start was doing his best to create a buzz by asking for song suggestions to be played, and so we set off rather ominously to the sound of "Live and Let Die"....
I tried to get into the spirit of things cycling alongside Giovanna as we said how great it was to have closed roads to ourselves. I had been looking forward to cycling through central London and the various sights along the Embankment, but in truth I enjoyed the tunnels and underpasses more as it was a reprieve from the weather. As was inevitable, we got split up in the ups and downs of the course, and so I remember approaching the Hammersmith flyover thinking to myself how this was going to be a long old day. As we approached Richmond Park I admit to having a more than fleeting thought about how I knew a good way to cycle home from here. The rain was relentless and I was already soaked through. Giovanna pulled up alongside me just at that very point, and I shouted to her "I am bloody hating this!" Still ever cheery though, she shouted back "Oh come on Scotland!" Well that did it, now it was a matter of national pride! Uphill ahead, it was head down and get on with it, just think about those freezing loch swims Denise...
And think of them I did, although at least there you knew you were going to get cold and wet. I promised myself a stop at about halfway/50miles. There, that was something to look forward to. This landed me at Newlands Corner, possibly one of the more exposed locations on the course, at the top of one of the first climbs. I had to admit I was feeling sorry for the volunteers and marshals in this area, where they were buffeted by wind and rain, and trying to hold down bags of crisps and snack bars. I couldn't even bring myself to queue for any of this, so was grateful for the soggy cheese sandwich in my back pocket. I wolfed it down and then ran the gauntlet of the portaloos. These were feeling very precarious as I balanced trying to unpeel my bib shorts. Uh, nothing quite like putting soaking wet clothes back on. With no incentive to hang about much beyond this, I set off again down the hill (wet downhill, eeek).
I knew that Leith Hill was the first big challenge to face us (although I had already seen people walking on some of the 'pre hills' we had encountered). This is a funny one, everyone talks about Box Hill, but it's actually ok. No, it's Leith Hill you have to worry about. This little infographic gives you an idea of what it is like. But never fear, there was a little band at the bottom of the hill bravely playing under a small marquee to lift our spirits. And what was their song choice? 'Forever Young' by Bob Dylan. Don't get me wrong, a great musician, but not known for being uplifting! It was however a moment that really made me and the riders around me laugh at the irony.
The thing that makes Leith Hill extra tricky is when the narrow road is filled with about 8 cyclists across, most of whom are cycling slower than they can walk. As I tried to make my way up the right side of them, squeezing through a very narrow gap, whilst giving the instruction 'on your right' I could see people wavering all over the place as they started to lose their momentum and fall over or come off. I did chuckle slightly smugly to myself though as I heard lots of guys saying "You go girl" as I passed them. Tee hee. This was a challenge and a half, but I still had the equivalent downhill to come. There was a bit of carnage here as I saw an ambulance attending to someone who had crashed, only to witness another guy crash as he went past looking at them. This was doing nothing for my fear of the downhills! I later learned that both Leith Hill and Box Hill got closed off for safety reasons about an hour after I went past them. Shortly after this we were onto Box Hill. Again more worried about the downhill than the up, I coasted to the top and tentatively made my way down. By now I had the slightly cheesy 'Things Can Only Get Better' in my head as I was past half way and had survived some slippery descents. To add to the cheese, the music positioned at the bottom of Box Hill was that exercise classic 'Eye of the Tiger'.
You know you are in a state of delirium when you are looking forward to getting to Leatherhead. I mean what is in Leatherhead? But somehow in my mind it marked a place that was close to London/the end. I have to say the locals turned out in force to support the event, with people huddled under umbrellas and even one woman in her pyjamas and wellies holding a sign saying "I got out of bed to watch this". It raised a smile or two. My malt loaf (sustenance of choice) was by this point soggy beyond belief, but I knew the end was in sight now, just please don't let me get any punctures or I will cry.
Just when I thought I could 'relax' into the ride a bit more as we ventured into the familiar territory of Kingston upon Thames, it seemed that a lot of cyclists had 'relaxed' a bit too much. As we rode past some small gathered groups of supporters, people seemed to be cycling like nutters. I'm not sure if this was in an effort to impress friends and family, but the result was seeing two people skid across the soaking pedestrianised surface into each other, narrowly missing me. Time for a blast of the chorus of 'Chandelier' in my head "I'm holding on for dear life...."
I was pleased to see the short sharp hill into Wimbledon village as a way of getting away from people. One woman shouted "Yeeees, doing it for the girls!" as I overtook groups of people on the short climb, with the song "Sisters are Doing it for Themselves" fittingly blaring out of a PA (even more poignant given the sad news about legend Aretha Franklin). This was more like it, I was starting to get that sense of achievement as we saw more and more supporters in the run along Chelsea Embankment and towards Westminster. There was a tiny bit of deja vu from doing the London Marathon as we passed Big Ben and I thought we would take the turn up Birdcage Walk to the Mall. But we continued along Whitehall where crowds of slightly bemused tourists in disposable rainmacs looked on. Through Admiralty Arch and yes, there it was, the finish line! Now, I thought, now I would have that slightly emotional feeling like at the end of the Marathon. But no, the only emotion I felt was "Thank god that's over!" Dismounting, we all wheeled up towards Buckingham Palace for a dodgy selfie and then beyond and up to Constitution Hill for our well earned medals.
And can you believe it, the rain had now stopped, hooray! So, looking on the bright side, it made the 5mile ride home not seem too bad, more of a little cool down. But as you can see, I was definitely glad to get home for a lie down...
I had been really delighted when I had been awarded my place in this event from my cycling club, Giant Camden Team Liv back in March. I had known how difficult it was to get a ballot place in this event, often described as 'The London Marathon of Cycling'. The thought of cycling on closed roads through London and Surrey was something I was really looking forward to. I had even completed this 100 miler in 6 hours and 30 minutes, which was a time I was to come to realise, that was actually very good, and especially in those conditions.
Now I'm not one to be negative, and have taken part in all sorts of challenges - being pulled out of a 10mile open water swim in Loch Rannoch with hypothermia in a freak hailstone shower being up there with the best/worst of them. Being from Scotland, I've never been overly deterred by weather, and did famously venture out on a club bike run back in December in a snow storm, with no thought that it might be cancelled. So it is not entirely due to the weather that I am saying that I generally didn't enjoy this event from start to finish, but perhaps that combined with the sheer numbers involved. I think I have realised that these 'mass events' just aren't for me anymore. I loved my two London marathon experiences, but weirdly did my best time on the undulating (that's how we sold it anyway) Loch Ness Marathon route where there were clear roads and smaller numbers. Cycling events with over 20,000 people acting erratically just puts me on edge and takes away from the experience. So, as much as we can tend to have that "I'm never doing that again" feeling immediately after an ultra challenge like a marathon, only to sign up to another one the day after. Well in this case, I have mulled it over for three weeks and still think, no thanks. Done it, ticked it off my list, don't need to do it again.
Of course when I say no to mass events, I can see the benefit of a crowd around me if I was doing something like a full ironman....but then I said I would never do one of them, didn't I.....?
Still pining for something which fills the void from my South American cycling adventure at the end of last year, I snapped up the opportunity to go cycling in the Costa Brava area of Spain. A friend from our Giant Camden Team Liv cycling club, Giovanna, goes there often and just last year had tried out her cycling legs in this challenging terrain and highly recommended it. I didn't need much convincing!
I am only familiar with Barcelona in this area, from a (slightly failed) long weekend many years back, so was keen to reclaim this beautiful area. Our base was to be at Pals, a coastal town almost midway between Barcelona and Girona. Although I initially intended to take my lovely Liv Envie road bike with me, a few factors made me reconsider:
1) The expense - by the time I had factored in taxis to and from the airport, the baggage handling fee and the hire of a bike box it was coming to almost £250.
2) The hassle - I was already having flashbacks to the less pleasant part of my South American travels, including breaking down and rebuilding your bike and the anxiety of trying to get the damn thing through the airport.
So I was delighted to see that this part of Spain is very well set up for cyclists and found a bike shop just a few kms from Pals where I could hire a good quality Giant TRC road bike for €99 for the week. I can highly recommend these helpful guys at CiclesJK.
And so, after a fairly relaxing flight to Barcelona, we picked up the bike from Palafrugell and drove to Pals, where we cracked open a beer and plotted our first ride the next day. Giovanna spoke with much fondness of her first rides in this area last year where she met up with some Dutch guys who supported her over some of the challenging hills this area has to offer. The word 'hill' always fills me with mixed emotion. I love the climb, having developed strong quads from my Andes adventure, but still have the fear over the descents.
Anticipating hot weather, we decided to make a start at 7.30am, so that we could have this ride knocked out by lunchtime. The first part of our ride was to take us through some lovely little villages along a deceptively flat piece of road. This was a really pretty area, where we made a stop to have a look at Sant Feliu de Boada and Peratallada. Further along these lovely roads we also stopped to admire the sunflowers, or girasol (literally, 'turn to the sun', why does everything sound so much better in Spanish?).
As we cycled through Cruilles, Giovanna warned me of the upcoming climb, and sure enough, a few kilometres along the road there were markings in the road which said '6km to the top'. This was a nice winding road though, and so the climb didn't seem too arduous. We met up with some other cyclists at the top for a slightly comedic photograph directed by one guy who said "Please let me have a photo taken with you two so that I can tell my wife why she should come cycling with me and not let me go on my own!'. Happy to help :) Then of course came my moment...the downhill! I was overtaken by a Jimmy Saville lookalike, long white hair blowing in the wind, no helmet on. Well, if he crashed then it wouldn't be such a loss would it, I thought...
The sun was now starting to really beat down and so we decided to have a short stop at a cafe in La Bisbal d'Emporda for a quick orange juice. Giovanna told me an intriguing story about this little cafe which, although very unassuming, is actually run by the (alleged) illegitimate son of Catalan King Juan Carlos.
It has become quite an institution amongst locals for the amazing jamon....and of course the curious royal connection. Then it was the final stretch back to Pals, where we stopped in the main village at a lovely little tapas bar for some tortilla and small snacks. Better hold off on the cerveza we decided until we got back home!
Day two started off rather tentatively as a thunderstorm was forecast for around lunchtime. How far should we go? Did we really want to be stuck at the top of a mountain when lightening struck? Let's see how it goes we thought...Well it didn't take too long, maybe about 40 minutes, before we could see the gathering dark clouds and the rumbling of thunder. In fact it seemed like we were cycling towards it. Giovanna suggested we make a call on what to do as we approached the appropriately named town of Torrent just as some ominously large drops of rain started to fall. Apparently there was a quick way home, 5km, or we could turn around and go back the 12km way we had come. The decider was Giovanna saying she had never cycled in a thunderstorm...let's do it! The rain was really starting to come down now as we laughed out loud doing a PB reaching 35-40km an hour on the return journey. We agreed that fun though it was, an hour avoiding being struck by lightening was probably enough for one day!
In true holiday style though, the storm passed by early afternoon and offered us the opportunity to get back outside and soak up the sun.
After a stretch out in the pool, we decided to do a bit of non cycling sight seeing and took a drive along the coast. Giovanna took the smaller coastal route roads, pointing out that this was a ride we would do one day. The downhills here were already alarming me, even in the car! Oh but the views were stunning, and we decided to stop for dinner at Calella de Palafrugell, a beautiful little coastal town. Cerveza and sardines on the seafront, heaven!
Day 3 dawned, and feeling like we hadn’t quite put the miles in on Monday, where better to test ourselves than by going to the top of the climb that we had intended to do on Day 1? So we set off bright and early to find that the track route down from the house had been a casualty of yesterday’s deluge and the rutted parts were full of water. I protectively carried my bike over the huge puddle whilst Giovanna waded through it. (A manoeuvre she was to regret as she realised about 15kms along the route that her rear brake was caked in dried on mud.) The run out to Cruilles was the same as the first day, but with less of the touristy type stops at villages, and only a passing wave and ‘A Deu!’ (as seems to be the casual way of saying ‘hello’ in Catalan) to the sunflowers. There was one moment we felt a stop was in order, though as we saw a hot air balloon flying serenely over the fields we were cycling past. When I say 'serenely' I couldn't help but think of the opening chapter though of one of my favourite books 'Enduring Love' by Ian McEwan. If you've read it you'll know what I mean!
We then took a road to Monells via the lovely village of Madremanya. Some slight hills on the way there, and then there it was, the sign to ‘Els Angels’. It seems that all climbs in this area are 6km in length as Giovanna shouted ‘See you at the top’. This was definitely a more challenging climb than our first day out. The road winded around quite a lot, meaning that there was very little reprieve, and no flat areas – this one definitely called for the small chain ring! I was ever aware of what I was to face on the way back down, and was grateful to note that the sheer drop was on my right hand side going up, so I would be further away from it coming down! I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I passed a ‘serious looking’ cyclist who had pretty much come to a stop about half way up. Well, I say half way, but there didn’t seem to be the encouraging km countdowns painted onto the road here.
As I approached the summit though, I could see a small pathway up to the Els Angels chapel, and the inevitable view point where I bumped into two South African guys who offered to take my photo. When I asked if this was their first time cycling in this area they replied that they came her every year and that it was ‘a religion’. This was a suitably topical reference as Giovanna appeared and told me about the
history of the chapel, whilst we had a refreshing orange juice in the plaza outside.
Brace yourself Denise I thought as it was my turn to say “See you at the bottom” to Giovanna. Yes, it certainly was a steeper descent than our first hills trip, and as I eased off the brakes to then grip them again a bit too dramatically as a bump appeared in the road, I had that moment where I thought I was going to go over the handlebars. Eek. It really is an odd feeling I thought as I happily cycled flat out along a straight part of the route at over 45km/hr without a thought of the crash fear.
After the obligatory relax and stretch out in the pool on our return, we decided we deserved a nice meal out and found a real gem of a place about 5km from the house called Pahissa del Mas Pou. This was a real find, located on the edge of the rice fields of Pals, we took our seats at a table on the terrace as the sun started to go down and had some of the most amazing food. Starting with their take on the Catalan tomato bread, we then shared monkfish with black trumpet funghi and tenderloin beef, which was divine. Although neither of us really wanted a dessert, it had to be done and so we shared a couple of dishes which were equally amazing, and all washed down with a bottle of Albarino wine. Yum!
Was it the Albarino or the big bike ride yesterday, but we both agreed that we needed a more sedate day on Day 4. Unable to resist the empty pool though, I started the day with a few (ok about 100) laps and then lay in the sun where I continued to read my holiday book 'Nomad' by Alan Partridge, whilst chuckling like an idiot to myself. Giovanna asked if I had any issues with boats if we were to go to one of the local beaches and hire one. "I bloody love boats!" was my excited reply. And so we hired a small boat which we were to pick up after a nice lunch in Pals.
We were given a safety overview and demo about how to drive the boat and drop anchor as we picked up our vessel at Aiguafreda beach. I am sure this was really informative, had it not been in Spanish, with me only picking up the odd word here and there. Giovanna volunteered to get the boat out of the bay, shrugging off the advice to go left rather than right due to the strength of the winds. Ah well, we like a challenge! The wind was certainly having an effect on the sea as we bounced our way over the waves. I misinterpreted Giovanna as she shouted 'wave' whilst taking some photographs. She was actually warning me to hold on as a big wave approached, rather than telling me to wave at the camera. Oh well, no harm done, and I was having the time of my life!
This coastline really was stunning, but as we only had 4 hours on the water, we decided it was time to look for a small bay to drop anchor and go for a swim. As Giovanna was back on the controls, it left me in charge of the anchor duty. Did I remember what the guy had said, she asked? Remember? I didn't understand most of it! Never mind, here we go, and nothing like an audience of a few other boats watching to motivate you not to f**k it up! Oh but we did, as I attempted a few anchor throws, wondering how you know when it has taken hold, and in fact, then, how do you reel it back in again? Apparently continuing to pull at it isn't the way to go though, as Giovanna shouted "Stop touching the bloody thing!" which then just made me laugh even more. It was getting embarrassing so we decided to give it a go, and if the boat started to drift I could swim after it and grab it couldn't I?? Oh jumping into that water was amazing! A sea swim is always the highlight of a holiday for me. I had a dive down to look at our anchor, which just seemed to be limply lying there...was that ok? We were both in the water by this time though, so there was no going back. As the sun started to go down, and the boat, to be honest, starting to slightly drift, we decided to head back. My turn at the helm, and the wind hadn't died down. I was loving it thought as we bounced through the waves, shouting 'whoop'! I had forgotten though that part of this duty meant me guiding the boat back safely into the harbour. Uh oh, this became a bit stressful as a group had gathered waiting for the boats, and helpfully shouting guidance (again, in Spanish of course!). I did it though, and covered in salt spray I happily fell out onto the harbour wall. Bliss!
This was a day I had been having anxiety dreams about. Buy why, this is supposed to be a holiday, no?
I think Giovanna's run through of the route on her Strava the night before, over a gin and tonic had stuck in my subconscious. She was reminding herself of the steepness of the climbs, whilst of course I was fixated on the corresponding descents.
The first 'hill' was actually a gradual uphill drag out of Pals, a distance of about, yes, you guessed, around 6km. The only real challenge here was the fast traffic, but at least I had reminded myself to look to my left and not right at roundabouts, which should save Giovanna some alarm.
This took us up to Begur, where Giovanna said we had a choice and could miss out one hill. We both looked at each other, were we shirkers? No siree! The first section of this downhill was on a cycle path that was part of the pavement, with a sign that indicated a 20km speed limit. Optimistic, I thought as it was a speed that was definitely exceeded on the way down, and never met on the way back up again. And yes, we had actually just come down this hill for the challenge of climbing back up it. First one done, tick, not too bad. Then came the hill known as 'The Wall'. This was definitely a taxing one, really having to grind it out in a low gear at the gradient of just under 13%. The thing that was causing me most concern though, was the road surface, it constantly felt like you were riding on a flat tyre. We proudly reached the top though and wow, was it worth it for the beautiful view. I knew what was coming next though, an equally steep descent, not only on rough road, but very narrow, with the threat of unpredictable cars and pedestrians at every turn. Giovanna had warned me about a sudden stop junction which was still on a steep part of the hill, and so I was grateful to be able to give a cursory glance to see nothing was coming and turn onto the main road. There wasn't any way I could stop or actually go any slower at this point!
With white knuckles we rode into Tamariu, a lovely little beach resort where we stopped for an orange juice. I was so tempted to jump into the sea for a swim but I knew we still had 28km of cycling and 2 hills ahead of us. This was no time for a soggy bum!
The final climb of real significance was to Far de Sant Sebatia, where we had driven a few nights previously to take in the amazing views from the lighthouse. Trying to block out the accident that had happened between a motorbike and a car at a junction on the way up to the climb, I confidently started to power up it, passing cyclists as I went. I was slightly lulled into a false sense of security on this one though, as I thought the gradient would then be equally manageable coming down. Ah but no, we were coming down on the other side, and this was not a gentle descent! In fact the first part of the downhill was so steep and sharp that I had an unnatural urge just to keep going straight over the edge!
The remaining 20km back to Pals had some undulations - nothing too taxing. But having done over 53km of hills, we felt a relaxing swim in the pool was in order, followed by some of the local roast chicken from the amazing Can Padres and a beer. Then the only decision that had to be made was what bottle of wine to choose from the amazing Vins i Licors Grau - apparently one of the largest wine and spirit stores in Europe. This really was 'kid in a sweetshop' stuff, set in 1,200sqm of floorspace, it boasts over 9,000 wines and spirits. We had to have a sit down on the trolley to contemplate the section in this photograph which is just the dry sherries! What a way to end off a fantastic trip, a wine tasting and barbecue by the pool. It was difficult to tear myself away the next day. What a fantastic place for cycling, and joie de vivre in general. On a personal note I returned feeling invigorated, suntanned and having lost 5lbs (despite the G & T's and Albarino!) I definitely hope to return to this part of Spain to seek out some further routes and adventures.
In contrast, you will see my next blog post is about my 'Prudential Ride London 100' event the following week. It was definitely a very different experience....
Well, our nnoodl adventurers had tried paddle boarding and stop motion animation in previous months, so what did I have in store for them in June? nnoodl events are booked so that weather won’t affect them, and this month’s activity was taking us on a journey to North India via Shepherds Bush for a class in Thali style cookery. This was one event that was easy to keep secret – no particular equipment required, just cool clothing which was very much in keeping with our sudden very summery spell.
We met at Shepherds Bush station and had the usual murmurs and guesses as we ventured into Westfield Shopping Centre …”a personal shopping experience?” I heard both a male and female member of our group ask with very different tones of enthusiasm.
As we approached the Jamie Oliver Cookery School, everyone seemed audibly excited, but still not 100% on the mark as they guessed the inevitable Italian cookery. But no, the chefs at this school cross various continents offering classes from Italian, to Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, and even a class in knife sharpening skills.
We were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco and an apron as we took in the impressive surroundings of our working kitchen, situated through to the back of the restaurant. We were introduced to our Chef, Francesco who explained that traditional Gujarati cuisine, as it’s known involves lots of different cooking methods and flavour combinations making it a really unique and versatile cuisine. He was going to take us through the steps needed to make a vegetarian Gujarati thali – a selection of small dishes and rice that’s traditionally served on a tray.
Now this is my kind of food, I love any little sharing dishes like tapas or mezze. As we only had limited time, Francesco explained the ingredients and cooking processes for the lentil dahl, which was now reducing down so that it was ready for our little feast later.
Firstly he talked us through the spices we would be using, by passing them around and inviting us to smell them and guess what they were. I wasn’t too bad at this bit, although couldn’t guess the mustard seeds…well, that was until he started frying them right in front of me, and those of us in his sight line had our breath taken away as we started coughing - much to his amusement. This, along with a spice base of cumin, turmeric and chilli powder was to form the base of a sambharo, a warm cabbage salad.
Francesco talked us through our knife skills next for chopping the cabbage and carrots. This is something that despite cooking a lot, I have never been taught. He demonstrated the ‘Chef claw’ and how to curl your fingers in on top of the item you are cutting, keeping the first knuckle of your finger close to the knife blade. He showed us that you use the part of the knife closer to the handle to produce that rocking movement with the knife to create that clean cutting motion. He then talked us through the chickpea masala and crispy spiced okra dishes, and finally the chapati bread.
After this overview we were paired up at our stations and we were off! I was working with Mark, who is actually my PT and a former Marine. Here’s a guy who will know about knife skills and cooking, I thought to myself. He went off to select the spices as I tried out my chopping technique. Francesco was over like a shot to direct me safely through this, in his inimitable, jokey way, all the time referring to me as ‘Chef’ even though clearly I was anything but! Our next challenge was not to move the the vegetables around as they cooked in the oil. As a fan of a stir fry this was really counter-intuitive, but he kept a beady eye on all of us “Don’t stir Chef, don’t stir!” to the point that I thought it was burning and then “..well yes, stir it now!”. All the time we were cooking the team were coming round to see if we wanted more drinks from the bar. I decided that knives and alcohol weren’t the best combination but lots of people were partaking without injury and everyone seemed to be in high spirits.
It was my turn to select the spices (it transpired later that I had possibly been a little heavy handed in my measurement of these little devils!) as Mark perfected his okra slicing. Mindful that time was not on our side, and both of us being of a slightly competitive nature, we decided to try and crack on with the chapati bread whilst cooking the other elements. This turned into something akin to Paddington Bear let loose in a kitchen as we realised there was too much water to flour, and then tried to counteract it…resulting in too much flour, and then too much water and so on. We thought we had it just about right as I rolled my little dough ball out on the small circular wooden base. Great, I thought to myself a little smugly as it looked perfectly round and just as thin as Francesco’s. Until it came to getting it OFF the board and into the pan. Stuck fast - too much liquid still in the mixture! And so back to some more flour. I later found flour in my clothes, and strangely in my handbag which hadn’t even been with me! Ah, but when we got the chapati mixture right, it was so satisfying to see them puff up into lovely little breads that we were proud of.
There was then that ‘Masterchef type call out’ as we had 5 minutes left to plate up our little Thali trays. And here is the result, and I have to say everyone did a really good job, we were suitably chuffed with ourselves!
Time to tuck into the fruits of our labours and the tastes didn’t disappoint either. Although see previous reference to a little too much spice, which did bring us both out in a bit of a sweat, but didn’t stop us loading up our plates. Everyone cheered and congratulated each other around the table in creating a meal that they would never have considered trying before.
nnoodl is taking a month off in August, and then our September and October events are fully booked, but we will be sharing details of the date of our November event shortly, so watch this space….
Denise Yeats is an events professional with over 18 years of creating inspiring events ranging from arts events at Tate to Tower Running races. She set herself a personal challenge over two years called 'The Secret Life' which involved doing a new pursuit every week which is chosen at random by an allocated colour and number. This has led onto the creation of 'nnoodl - discovering your secret london life' where people are led on surprise activities...