I'm well and truly back into the swing of London life after my French escape and so to hand back to fate for this week's Secret Life adventure. Well, I say 'this week' but you will see as this one progresses why it has turned into a 2 week challenge. So, colour red was the category which is all about 'Self Improvement' and challenge number 8 was.....dressmaking skills! Now I will admit to having a sewing machine, but it rarely comes out of its case except for fixing seams and the odd alteration. My technique is certainly not something that my sewing teacher from primary school would have approved of. I found many workshops and classes online, most of which offered a beginners class on how to make a drawstring bag (again flashbacks to primary school and making a peg bag....I've never understood why a 10 year old would want a peg bag!) So, in the true spirit of adventure as always, I chose a 3 hour 1-2-1 session with 'The Thrifty Stitcher'
After booking I received a lovely email from Owner and Tutor, Claire-Louise Hardie to ask what I would like to get out of the class so that she could be prepared. Little did she know how underprepared for it I was! And so the evening came round and with my now honed sense of trepidation/excitement I arrived at The Thrifty Stitcher studio in Stoke Newington. I immediately felt inspired surrounded by the endless array of fabrics, garments and general bits and bobs. Likewise Claire-Louise put me at ease as we spoke through the kind of pieces I would like to make and what my level of skill was. We looked though some patterns and decided on making a nice shift dress. She showed me how to take my measurements accurately and talked me through how sizing has changed throughout the years. It was a real insight to hear how many high street shops, and particularly those aimed at teenagers and young women 'fudge' their sizes slightly to make their customers feel better (when in fact they are getting bigger) and so will want to buy their clothes. I know where I'm shopping from now on...:) What lay ahead in the next couple of hours was a real education. I have never used a pattern as the thought of them always freaks me out slightly (as do the weird 70s illustrations on the packets). However, Claire-Louise was brilliant and talked me through all of the idiocincracies to look out for in this process. It turns out I couldn't have been in better hands as she is the lady who produces the tasks in 'The Great British Sewing Bee' and has recently written a book to accompany the series. I LOVE that programme (and of course Patrick Grant). I learned that the process of pattern cutting was the opportunity to really tailor the fit of the final garment to your individual shape, so not just a case of 'following the lines' ( and there can be a LOT of lines!) Using my measurements we adapted the cut to fit between sizes and then fitted the pattern to my body. This was again revealing to see that it should be narrower in some parts (and sadly wider in others) and that length had to be added. I really had no idea the processes involved in this and again learned that many high street 'fast fashion' stores cut corners which is why we end up with clothes that don't fully fit our shape. Throughout the process Claire-Louise explained everything so clearly, and at the same time I found out more about her background in theatrical costume design which really interested me. And all of this done to a great musical playlist - nice touch! All too soon my 3 hours were up and whilst Claire-Louise started to give me help in how to finish the pattern at home and sew up my dress, I decided however to see the project through to the end in expert hands. So, watch this space for the (hopefully!) finished garment as I continue my sewing challenge next week.......
It’s summer holiday time! For the past 11 years I have been spending a week with my lovely friend Shirley and her family in their holiday home near Limoges, in the Limousin region of France. This week is always a chance to really escape from the craziness of work and city life, an idyllic place where we spend most of our time in and around the the house. My daily routine consists of either running or cycling to a nearby lake where I go for a swim, and then relaxing over a lunch which can take up to 4 hours...and suddenly it is almost aperitif time and onto the next round of wonderful French food. So, how best can I incorporate a Secret Life adventure into this well honed escape? Well the tiny hamlet their house is in is called ‘La Vie’, so we are halfway there already, now to add ‘La secrète’. Shirley suggested the answer, how about taking a random train to another city? My first question was, do trains actually run in this sleepy backwater? I have seen a train station in the tiny nearby town of La Porcherie, fully equipped with scary level crossing which I have often cycled over. But has anyone actually seen a train? The answer was a resounding 'no' from everyone. Ah, but cycling past the station there is a timetable, trains apparently do stop there 3 times a day, well on certain days anyway.
And so the challenge was set - that Friday I went to the tiny station and wait for the mysterious train. First signs were encouraging, there were even 3 people with cases waiting at the station. No sign of how to buy a ticket however, which makes a London citizen immediately edgy and anticipating an impending fine. The three ladies at the station started speaking to me in very fast French, albeit looking very friendly. I had to trawl out the old "Je suis desolee, je parle jusque un petit Francais", however they seemed very happy at this small attempt/apology, and wished me a bonne journee. Bang on time, the smallest train I have ever seen arrived and I excitedly boarded.
The train was bound for Brive (or Brive-La-Gaillarde to give it it's full title), and so that was where I was heading. I would like to have relished in the whole experience, but I couldn't quite relax for wondering who I would pay for a ticket or when I would be arrested for not doing so. I still have flashbacks to an experience on a tram in Amsterdam where I failed to explain to the frightening Inspectors that I couldn't find the 'machine that goes ping!?' and was unceremoniously frog marched off the tram expecting to end up in prison. Ah, but here was a woman who looked quite official waking past me, so I chased after her asking "ou est-ce qu'on peut acheter un billet pour Brive sil vous plait?" I was fairly pleased with that little attempt at French, and remarkably she seemed to understand/not patronise me and spoke back in French...too fast...and patted me in a friendly fashion on the shoulder as she noticed my puzzled face. I picked up the word 'gare' and reckoned I could leave it until I got to the station without fear of arrest. The next stage to that was the utter confusion at the ticket office where I tried in a very honest fashion to buy a return ticket when I had already done one leg of the journey. A very confusing French conversation followed and so I bought the return part of the ticket only and ran away...
And so the adventure really began. I knew nothing about this town, but followed signs to the historic centre and the to the tourist office. Of course in true rural French style, this facility is only open for about 20 minutes per week, and not when I was there. No wifi, so no Google maps...hmmm, time for a beer! Well the cafe had a free map so time to mull over the top sights to see and the fully refreshed to set off again. Brive is a typically charming French town, which is centred around the 12th Century Saint Martin l'Espagnol church. During World War II, Brive-la-Gaillarde was a regional capital of the Resistance, acting as a seat of several clandestine information networks and several of the principal resistance movements, including the Armée secrète (or “Secret Army”) - Ah, it is good to see those recurring 'Secret' references cropping up.
I then walked around the surprisingly stylish shops and found myself at the Musee Labenche which is currently hosting an exhibition around the excavations of the Collegiale St Martin. Inside the museum was an array of artefacts charting the history of Brive including the tapestries of Mortlake, paintings by Renoux and a great collection of accordions. And most of all, fantastic air conditioning whilst it was 38deg outside. After this I headed down to look at the river, harbouring thoughts about a possible paddle boarding adventure. However, the aforementioned heatwave in France meant the river was too low to indulge my new favourite pastime. After a further walk around this charming town I headed back to the train station for a drama free trip back to La Porcherie.
Ah but the fun didn't stop there, as keeping with the spirit of new experiences, my friends had bought tickets to see a French jazz band who were playing in a small town 10miles away. They played for 2 hours in a small church and were fantastic, now that is what I call value for 10 Euros!
Aha - that title got your attention! Well, it is actually all very innocent, but still this experience did not disappoint. In fact, and I know I have said this before, but THIS has been my favourite adventure so far! Really, I think I have found my new favourite sport. 'Yellow 9' was the combination suggested to me (I think people have cottoned onto the fact that yellow = active challenge and are trying to find the parkour card..) I drew out 'paddle boarding', hmmm, this is something which I have seen more and more of recently and half fancied trying, but wondered how good I would be at it. is You might be thinking, but hang on, you went kayaking a little while back, so that must be good preparation, right? Wrong - as you will see below, this is more like mastering surfing, with a paddle. A bit of internet searching and Active 360 seemed to be the company who offered most opportunities around London. I chose the beginners session at Kew Bridge on a Saturday afternoon. Now there are certain times when a woman's hormones can cause strange things like clumsiness, lack of co-ordination etc, and let's just say that this was one of those days. Oh dear, perhaps not the ideal time to do a sporting challenge that relies on good balance, but The Secret Life doesn't make allowances for such things. And so I arrived under Kew Bridge with my now recurring sense of trepidation. As a group of kayak and Canadian canoes prepared to set off someone shouted "Has someone forgotten their picnic, 4 cans of lager and some sandwiches?" Something told me that there would be no opportunity for us paddle boarders to have some food and drink. In fact all cameras, phones, etc were kept safely onshore as we were reminded that we could well fall into the water. So here is a lovely pic below that I feel represents what the afternoon was like, but without losing my camera in the Thames....
Sophie and Ian, the instructors, gave us a brief overview of paddle technique whilst on dry land and before we knew it we were launching ourselves into the water. The group comprised 5 total beginners and about 10 returning paddlers. We gathered near the shore, still on our knees, trying to get to grips with the paddling, when we were told to head for the middle arch of the bridge and paddle down river. A funny thing happened at this point as I thought to myself "how weird, that bridge looks like it is getting much closer VERY quickly!" Which it was as the current was starting to pull a group of us towards one of the columns. Before we knew it, 3 of us were stuck as Ian shouted "keep paddling!". Now I think from my years of swimming that I have good upper body strength, but this was hardcore. I finally broke away from the group and went through the nearest arch, followed by two other girls and the sounds of screams and splashes as they both fell in. Oops. A bit of a shaky start, but off we went. As a few people ahead of me tried to stand up, my competitive side kicked in as I was also determined to get upright. This was the strangest feeling, although I have no fear of water at all and so falling in didn't bother me, why were my legs shaking uncontrollably? This happened for about 10 minutes as I tentatively paddled on, and just as I thought I was getting the hang of it, whoosh, a motor boat went past and the wake started to throw me so I dropped down to my knees. This happened a few more times (I couldn't help but think that the RNLI boat went past deliberately causing a wake to try and spice up their day!). Soon though, as we branched off near the lovely Eel Pie Island, I found I could stand up the whole time and manage a small swell too. This was excellent! A really sociable experience too as you paddle along with different people having a chat and comparing experiences. One girl was telling me about having been to some of the paddle board 'fitness sessions' that the company offer where you are encouraged to jump on the board as you change position to try more ambitious turns etc. As I was considering this I head another scream and a splash as someone else fell in behind me. All I could do was shout "Are you ok?" as turning around has the same effect as looking behind you when you are learning to ride a bike - disaster. By the return paddle I was really loving it - the whole experience, and the pure physicality of it too. I managed to stay upright up until the final turn back under Kew Bridge as the current again made it a real effort to paddle in the right direction. Wow, I arrived back onshore with my fellow paddlers feeling exhilarated with both slightly tired arms and thighs that felt like they had been squatting for 2 hours. I have real respect for sea paddle boarders, now that is something to aspire to. I rushed home on a total high and immediately booked my next session - I am hooked!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.