Postcards from Sydney

[throwback: 2010]

Sydney Opera House

Blue skies, blue seas, the iconic white gleam of the Opera House, the soaring span of the Harbour Bridge... This is an image we can all recognise from travel brochures selling us the dream of antipodean life.

But there's more to the city than just the harbour. When I visited Sydney in 2010 (once with a friend, once with my parents), yes, I spent time wandering along the waterfront in Sydney Harbour, but I had other favourites, too.

These favourites included: the Botanic Gardens, where bats dangle from the trees and flap their wings against deep blue skies; Luna Park, all bright colours and old-school fun; and the Rocks, full of social history, waiting to be explored.

Possibly the best part of all of this was that it was possible to see it all on a budget, too - though as I've talked about this before, I won't go into it here.

The other best bit? That it was beautiful, of course!

I'm British: let's talk about the weather

A while ago, I posted this photo on Instagram:

The caption? 'Cumbrian summer.'

It was supposed to be a humorous, throwaway remark. A 'look it even rains in summer' comment. After all, if there's one thing we British love, it's talking about the weather. I mean, we're famous for it!

But it isn't just talking about the weather that we love. Oh no. If at all possible, we like to be able to complain.

It's hot? It's too hot.

It's snowing? It's ridiculously cold - not to mention inconvenient.

It's raining? Well, what else can you expect? This is Cumbria, after all!

It's a guaranteed way of making conversation with strangers - something designed to bridge the gap, break the ice, so to speak. It's also something on which you're also pretty much guaranteed to agree (as in, you'll both be complaining it's too hot/cold/wet/whatever) - and if you disagree, it's no great shakes. Not to mention that it's a subject where one of you is likely to be able to give the other some new information ('It's going to be warmer tomorrow, had you heard?').

So much for the background: now for this particular rainy day. 

Hidden Gem: Shap Abbey

Shap Abbey, Cumbria

You know those places that you take for granted? The ones right on your doorstep, which you've always known about and therefore never really think about too much? 

For me, Shap Abbey is one of those. I grew up just a short walk away from it - just a couple of fields away, in fact. (Yes, I do live in the sort of place where distances are measured in fields.) A couple of weeks ago, I used what might be the last of this summer's sun to wander over there with my mum and my camera, with the intention of looking around. And I mean really looking around, the way it's easy not to look when a place becomes familiar. 

It's a fascinating piece of history to have on your doorstep - definitely somewhere I should visit more often, especially given the distance (or lack of it). 

But for me, the historic ruin is not the abbey's only attraction. There's also the stunning natural surroundings (pretty much a given in this part of the world, on the border of the Lake District National Park - although by no means less significant because of their expectedness). There's the fact that the nearby bridges and the next-door farm are impressively built using reclaimed stolen stones from the Abbey, which makes for a beautiful grandeur in the stonework. But my favourite part has to be the sheep dip. 

Yes, you read that right: sheep dip. 

A Quick Peek at Carlisle's Guildhall: 700 years of history

Carlisle Guildhall Museum

I love old half-timbered buildings. I love the way they smell, of wood and a faint mustiness. I love their top-heavy feeling of branching out, as the upper floors jut over the street below. I love their sounds: the way they're never fully silent, even when they're empty. 

Carlisle's Guildhall Museum is one of these. 

You enter via a small door leading out on to the pedestrianised city centre, then climb a steep and narrow staircase to the first floor. (The ground floor is occupied by an Italian restaurant.)

On emerging, the first impression is one of dark wooden floors, worn smooth and polished by years of treading feet. The second is of light and windows - unusual for a building of this period, which would have been subject to the infamous window tax. (Simple equation: the more windows and the bigger they were, the more tax you paid. Hence the term, 'daylight robbery'.)

As the very helpful person on the desk informed me, it is in fact the city's third oldest building (after the castle and the cathedral), and dates from the fourteenth century. That makes it between 600 and 700 years old. Not bad going!

Monday Wisdom: Be Not Afraid

Carlisle Motto: outside Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery

'Be just and fear not.'

Google this phrase, and your results are likely to be largely inspirational quotes on tumblrs and other blogs (like this one, I guess)! Originally, however, it comes from one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays: Henry VIII. It's said by Cardinal Wolsey, if you must know. 

But that isn't where I first came across it. The above mosaic is outside Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery in Carlisle, right opposite where I work. It's the official motto of the city of Carlisle. 

Well, I guess it's all very well as a motto to live by. But if I were to edit Shakespeare (heaven forbid!) to create a motto which I would want to live by, I would make it this: 'Be creative and fear not.'

Maybe that's just because my whole life and chosen career centre around creativity - but for me it's about taking risks. 

I don't mean stupid risks, like running off with suspicious-looking strangers, or climbing a hundred-foot rock-face without a harness (though if that's your bag, well, I guess it's up to you). I just mean the everyday risks. Most often for me, these come in the form of trying something new, whether that's taking an unusual medicine in Singapore, or jumping out of a plane, or moving to a new country. In terms of creativity, it's a case of trying something new: either in a big way (I mentioned recently that I'm currently collaborating on a musical, which is definitely a way of branching out and challenging myself), or in a much smaller way (such as having the courage to use a surprising verb or adjective in my poetry). 

True, the risks don't always pay off. Not everything turns out well, and it would be foolish to pretend that it did. But most of the time, I've been glad of the risks I've taken. Most of the time, overcoming that fear has paid off. 

Do you have a motto that you live by? I'd love to hear it - please share below :-)