Monday, 13 July 2015

I'm Not Dead! Life Updates

Wow I've not blogged for a long time.

A little while ago, I mentioned I was applying to do a PhD. Well, I had the interview a couple of weeks ago and was unsuccessful. Immediately after, I was upset about it (who likes rejection?) but then I started to feel really set up. The proposal was never going to go through, so why waste everybody's time? I certainly felt the person who encouraged me to pursue doing a PhD should have said, look, the idea's too big, it's unlikely to pass an interview. It was an unpleasant experience all round, but since being unsuccessful I feel relaxed and much happier. I think I'd been carried along by everyone's enthusiasm (this is not to place blame on anyone except the aforementioned who could have stepped in but didn't) that I didn't stop to consider whether I was actually ready to undertake such a big project. That I feel so much better and less stressed makes me think that failing the interview was a blessing.

In that time, I've also finished the PGCert course I was doing and two of my private students took their FCE exam, so my evenings have been free. It's certainly been enjoyable coming home from work and riding / work and the gym and just doing whatever I feel like! I need to think about what I'm going to do next, but instead of feeling uptight about it I actually feel freer. Lots of things haven't worked out how I planned in my academic and work life, but it's not been the end of the world.

Another complete failure has been my fitness. I started the 30 Day Abs challenge and was bored two weeks in, so stopped. However, I had quite a shock two weeks ago when I had my body fat checked. 26.84%. That's nearly a 7% increase in 3 months. Who ate all the pies? I did! Understandably that upset me a lot and could have set me back to bad habits, but after a sulk and a cry I took responsibility for my poor choices. Nearly 27% is definitely not where I want to be, so I've started training using a four-day split: chest and triceps, back and biceps, shoulders and legs. I've also been schooling Ernest more, which is mutually beneficial (more on Mr Biff in the next post). The Smiling Assassin is checking my plumpness again at the end of August, so I'm hoping to have dropped it all off again by then.

It's strange that in the face of these failures I feel lighter - ironic, right?! - than I have for a while. I realise how tiring it is trying to control everything.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Dressage Championships: 07.06.15

As I've mentioned recently, Ernest and I have been having lessons again and changing quite a few things. We were seeing some good results already, such as Ernest rounding better and being more supple, as well as reacting to my aids.

I was looking forward to the Championships to try and put into practice our new riding skills. Our championship class was Prelim 17, but I'd also entered a Grass Roots Badminton qualifier - for people with no British Eventing or British Dressage points and who haven't competed above Novice. The two who came 1st or 2nd in the class would qualify for Badminton in July. I've never entered a class like this before, but I thought why not? If we qualify, it would be amazing, but even so it would be great practice. The test for this class was Prelim 13.

The warm up for Prelim 17 was promising. I tried to ride exactly as I had in our lesson the day before, working on his flexibility, suppleness and listening to my leg. Ernest is still a little resistant in the canter so I knew that would lose us marks, and as he didn't buck I knew perhaps I wasn't being assertive enough! As Nadine said, though, having a fight with him in a competition warm up arena is not the place to do it. 

We came 5th in the Championship (P17) with 64.23%. I was pleased because he was much rounder and I didn't feel like I was fighting to keep him round, either. We lost a little impulsion (which is energy and not speed) and our final centre line was... interesting, but that just gave me something to work on for the next test! He always pulls me down the final centre line, so I was fighting him quite a lot. His head went wonky! 

The judge's comments for P17 were: 'Sweet pony, attentive & regular in pace but needs to be much softer through the neck to an elastic contact'. Judges always comment on how wonderful Ernest is! The comment didn't surprise me, either, as there were times - particularly in the canter - where he braced himself against my hand. 

A serious case of final-centre-line-excitement

There was a four-and-a-half hour wait between my first and second tests. Luckily we came prepared with a big picnic, so we relaxed in the sun (and burnt) while eating sandwiches, cakes and penguin bars. Yum! Ernest had his haynet to keep him content.

When the wait was finally over, I realised I may have made an error in entering the Badminton qualifier: there were a lot of bouncy beasts in the warm up arena! Thankfully most of them weren't in the same class, but a few were left and I realised that this wasn't for people like me, who actually rode at Prelim / Novice level. It was for those taking their dressage horses out for the first time, horses who would move up the ranks to much bigger, affiliated competitions. There were also two judges!

In a way, it took the pressure off, and a couple of us in the warm up had the same feeling. So I went into the test just hoping to improve on my last one.

We came 3rd with 69.58%, missing out on qualifying by 0.42%. I couldn't believe it - there I was, talking myself down when actually we were up there with the big guns! One of the judges gave us a very big smile at the end, which was encouraging. I know that if we carry on training how we have been, we'll be scoring some pretty high marks soon.

The first judge's comments said: 'A super pony and very well presented test. Need to be more supple through the back for more fluency and more acceptance of the contact in the transitions and your marks will go up. Accurately ridden.' She gave us 68.54% and a 7.5 for my riding!

The second judge's comments said: 'Horse has 3 correct paces just needs to be more supple to help outline and bend. Well done.' He gave us 70.63% and a 7 for my riding.

So, I know there's still a way to go in the areas I've already talked about. We've got three weeks until the Festival of Dressage, where I'm hoping to do a Prelim and Novice, so hopefully we'll continue improving in that time. I'm so proud of little Biffy - he worked his beautiful big butt off and was well-behaved all day, even during that long gap between tests.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Lara's Two-Month Anniversary

Lara Bingle

Today is Lara’s two-month anniversary with us. She’s gone from quiet skinny mouse to playful, affectionate, slightly less skinny mouse. She’s gone from Lara, to Lara Bingle, to Bingus, to Stinky Binky.

Lara has charmed everyone she’s met through her snuggly nature and quirky habits. Here are 10 things which really characterise our funny little snout:
  1. She is a man’s dog; her favourite people are my brother and granddad.

  2. But she also really loves my female cousin; Bingle followed her to the toilet the first time they met. It’s been a love affair ever since – and my cousin isn’t normally a dog person due to severe allergies.

  3. She is a hardcore snuggler.

  4. Bingle is a very windy hound. Every time she stretches she parps – loudly.

  5. Her favourite defensive move is ‘the sag of uselessness’. If you want her to get down off the sofa or off my bed, she goes all floppy; I’ve had to pick her up several times.

  6. She’s the messiest eater we’ve ever seen. I honestly think she only eats about 20% of each biscuit she takes from the bowl.

  7. If Bingle wants to play or wants attention, she will poke you with her snout. Usually in the bottom.

  8. When she gets overexcited, she spins in a really tight circle, like a mini Twister.

  9. She loves raiding the toy box, and has taken a shine to my old hedgehog slipper and Claus’ red bird (the squeaker is long gone!).

  10. When the phone rings, she howls! Not just a little, either; the entire time the phone is ringing. Then Claus and Princess join in! It’s a cacophony of noise.
Lara and her daddy

Monday, 1 June 2015

Pony Tales: A Very Horsy Weekend

I've not written a Pony Tales for so long! Which is ridiculous, as Ernest is my life (for lack of a less irritating cliche).

Since moving to my wonderful 'new' yard in February - technically not new anymore, and I used to have a Saturday job there - I've been hacking out round some beautiful places. But the other benefit is that one of my closest horsy friends keeps her horse around the corner, and she's been kicking me up the butt to take Ernest out more.

On Saturday we had a cross country (XC) lesson together. I haven't done an XC competition since 2009, and haven't taken him XC schooling for.... maybe 3 years? I can't really remember. To say I was nervous is an understatement, as I knew he'd be excited and would throw in a few bucks. 

It was surprisingly fun! I rode quite well, handled his wilder moments calmly, and felt very positive about the whole experience at the end. The instructor, Julia, was patient and encouraging, and I liked that she always told us to give our horses a pat after each fence. Ernest loved every second, especially cantering through the water! 

pony rolling
Ernest enjoying a roll after his busy weekend of lessons

There was one drop fence which was very scary. I was halfheartedly nudging Ernest to jump down, but he wouldn't move because he knew I was terrified. Julia didn't force us to do it, but I said I'd like to try it at the end. Jaime led us over it after we'd finished jumping some of the other fences and had done a round of the whole course. It felt like free-falling; I can honestly say I felt sick! Julia asked if I wanted to do it again afterwards, but I thought once was quite enough... until the next time, when I might be a bit braver!

pony On Sunday I had a dressage lesson booked with Nadine, as it's Sparsholt Dressage Championships on the 7th. I was looking forward to my lesson as I have a lot of improvements to make, and knew that Nadine would set me on the right track.

The main issue is when I close my fingers on the reins, there's no reaction. I need to encourage him to round over his back - one of the comments I often get from dressage judges is that he needs to be more supple over his back. There's also no reaction when I use my legs, so we worked on getting him more responsive to my hand and leg aids. We created 'gears' in his paces - walk, trot and canter - and tackled his strops when I ask him for more in his canter (he bucks). This weekend was pretty good for me getting to grips with him when he throws shapes, instead of backing off.

Overall, I think Ernest and I had a fabulous weekend. My head is buzzing with all the information from Julia and Nadine, so I can't wait to get on and practice tomorrow. Jaime and I are also hoping to go out again in a couple of weeks' time to the same XC course. Roll on the weekend!

Monday, 18 May 2015

30 Day Ab Challenge

NEWSFLASH: If you eat crepes and pastries and large chunks of white baguette every day, you gain weight. Fast, and in large quantities. 

After a glorious week in France with the Fantastic Four, I'm the heaviest I've ever been.

No bueno.

Last year there were loads of challenges going round, mostly to do with squats and crunches. So I'm jumping - very late - on to this band wagon, to see if it actually makes any difference to my sad excuse for a waistline. 

The first day was easy as I have good core strength, so I did a couple of extra exercises from Maxx's chest and ab challenge (from a different site). I might do it again later, too, and I think I'm going to get my exercise bike back out for the evenings when I just want to watch TV.

fitness challenge

I've been struggling to eat healthy for the last few weeks, and my exercise regime has been all or nothing, so I need to be more moderate. I find this difficult in everything I do, which leads to being burnt out and not wanting / having the energy to do anything.

There are a few events coming up over summer, so I'm using them as my targets - not necessarily to weigh a certain amount, but to look more toned and fabulous. I'm tired of talking about how I want to look. I now need to actually do something about it.

These are my targets:
18th June - 30 days away - brother's birthday
27th July - 69 days away - friend's birthday
14th August - 87 days away - my 25th birthday!

And these are my current stats:
Weight: ...... I'm actually too embarrassed to admit this right now.
Waist: 26 1/2 inches.
Hips: 37 inches.

As well as not eating like a 'fat pig' - an explanation will follow in my next post - I'll be working out 2-3 times a week, riding 4-5 times a week (especially training for dressage and showjumping competitions), and running (now I have new trainers).

Depending on how this challenge goes, I will post a before and after, then a before and after on /  around 14th August.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Culture: Salisbury Cathedral

Last Thursday, I went to Salisbury Cathedral with two students. I can’t remember if I’ve ever been there before, so I was really looking forward to exploring it, as well as visiting the Magna Carta exhibition (one of the remaining four parts is kept in Salisbury Cathedral).

From the station, it's a 15-minute scenic walk away; along the high street and next to a river. We walked under an ancient bridge, rounded the corner of some trees and there it was – absolutely magnificent. I was immediately struck by how forbidding it looked, towering above us and reaching straight into the sky.

After taking some pictures outside, we went in to collect our exhibition tickets. They were free, but because it can get busy, the website recommends booking a time slot in advance; however, we were able to go in before our time as it was quiet when we arrived.

What struck me as we went to the exhibition entrance was the large cloister with two enormous trees in the middle; I imagined monks wandering around it, studying and praying (it really drew my mind back to Ken Follet’s Pillar’s of the Earth). I love reading gravestones too, and there were plenty of them in the walls and floor; I think the oldest I saw in the cloister was about 300 years old.

The exhibition itself was fascinating – it explained exactly what the Magna Carta was, why it was significant 800 years ago and the effect it’s had on the law today. It also drew attention to the state of the legal system internationally, including the percentage of prisoners currently awaiting trial and the level of corruption in each country’s system.

The document itself is written in minute handwriting; as parchment was so expensive, the barons had to save as much space as possible. Sometimes it's hard to imagine just how signifcant things like the Magna Carta are, but looking at it and reading the translation really highlighted how influential this document was - or should that be is? The translation has emboldened the three clauses that are still in our laws today - most notably, that people cannot be imprisoned without reason and must be tried by their peers.

After lunch, we joined a tour of the Cathedral. Originally built in Sarum in the 12th century, it suffered during the Reformation in the 16th century when a man called James Wyatt took out the stained glass windows, among other things. I won't list everything I learnt, but I loved looking at the tombs and effigies and learning about the people buried in them. I'm fascinated by Lady Jane Grey (the girl who was Queen for 9 days), so was pleased to find her sister has a memorial in the Cathedral, put there by her son. There's also a font near the entrance, which reflects the ceiling and window at the opposite end of the Cathedral, which is stunning; I managed to get a picture of the reflection after multiple attempts to angle myself correctly but getting my sleeve wet instead.

Salisbury Cathedral was wonderful in so many ways - the recommended donation is £4.25 for students, which is definitely worth it, and the exhibition is free! I hope to go back in Summer with Maxx, and relax on the grass outside afterwards.

Pictures will be uploaded when I'm back in England.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Eventer's Challenge: 19.04.15

I can't remember the last showjumping competition I went to. It may have been over 2 years ago, possibly even more - I know I did a clear round in November, but it wasn't an actual competition.

Ernest is 19 this year, and while that's not old, I've been feeling that if I want to get back to our former glory - our highest was 3 ft 3 in 2010 - I really need to get on with it. How many more years can I say, "I really want to start jumping again" before it's too late?

A couple of Tuesdays ago (14th April) I took my adopted little sister (not actually adopted, you know what I mean) to meet Lara Bingle, where we once again got on to the topic of me going competing. I told her to kick me up the butt to get out and do things, and she immediately responded with:

"There's an Eventer's Challenge on Sunday. You should come with us. I'm doing the 2 ft 6 class - 8 show jumps, 8 cross country. Do it."

Well, why not. I'd just bemoaned not competing, so why not throw myself in at the deep end?

I entered the 2 ft 6 class and managed to book a lesson for Thursday 16th. It was such a good decision, as it gave me so much confidence. Having fallen off in February, when I last jumped, and in the warm up arena in November, I was anxious. Ernest gets really excited and leaps about during the warm up for any kind of jumping, which is why I usually fall off, but this lesson taught me what to do when he starts throwing shapes. Instead of backing off, I need to take control so that he listens to me instead of finding everything else more interesting. I also need to show him that he can't get away with being naughty, and that if I give a command he needs to respect it.

Sunday dawned and I felt a mixture of nerves, determination and excitement. The first thing I had to tackle was the warm-up arena; if I could get through that, I would be fine.

Ernest threw a few shapes, to which I responded: "You're not getting me off you little arsehole!". I genuinely felt a rising panic when I went in there, as if my stomach had dropped out and it was just hollow, so I really appreciated Jaime checking on me. After 30 minutes and a couple of warm-up fences, I went out to watch Jaime's round.

She rode well, but Fynn didn't like a couple of fences so they didn't go clear.

There was one rider in between our rounds. My body protector is so tight I can never tell if I can't breathe from nerves or just general constriction, but I certainly felt a bit... breathless.

Then it was my turn.

Coming round to the first fence, Ernest threw his head joyfully into the air. I remember thinking, "Here we go."

There's a saying in showjumping that there are two fences you don't want to knock down: the first and the last. I've knocked down the first fence at a huge championship before, and I still remember the frustration. So, even though I was trying to place, I really didn't want to mess up the first jump. I'd also never live it down as my instructor was there (she was the course designer and so was judging the fences).

We got over the first fence clear. Away we were. 

Ernest was in his element, popping the fences like they were poles on the ground. I was enjoying myself, but also concentrating on all the things I needed to do: sit up after the fences, leg on right up to take-off, straight approach, don't cut corners, slight outside bend, correct leg, sit up between fences... 

We went clear - easily, I might add, thanks to my brilliant steed.

I was completely elated with my round. I corrected him when he was on the wrong leg, was conscious of riding every fence and tried to fold over the fences instead of just sitting there and letting the reins slip out of my hands. Looking at the pictures afterwards, and speaking to my instructor, I think I really rode and wasn't just a passenger. 

We didn't place, as we weren't fast enough, but I don't mind. I'm already dreaming about jumping 3 ft again, maybe even 3 ft 3. I just want to go out again soon to keep building up my confidence.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Gym Story #2

This story is about Grandad Ben. Ever since I posted about Swan Lake, I've been gently reminded  - just kidding, Grandad isn't a 'gentle reminder' kind of man - that Grandma has a blog post about her and he hasn't. And that he paid for me to go too, not just Grandma.

So here's a whole post just for you, Grandad Ben...

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Grandma and Grandad go to the gym for their 'old-timers' circuit class - basically, a class for the old people of Basingstoke to sit on the machines and chat. Some of them really go for it and some of them just go for the gossip. I see you, Grandma and Rita, by the rowing machines. I see you.

I decided to meet them at the gym, where we planned to have a drink after our workouts. Luckily there was a treadmill right behind Grandad, who was on the cross trainer. After spurring him on with encouraging words such as "Come on Grandad, put some effort in!" and "Bloody hell Ben, I think you could go a bit faster!", I thought it would funny to throw my jumper at him.

Unfortunately, there was a well-placed mirror, so Grandad wasn't taken by surprise. But it did land perfectly on his head.

Now, this may seem unkind, but we have a long history of throwing things at each other - mostly tiny bits of rolled up napkin when we're out to dinner. Obviously, I get blamed while Grandad laughs at me if the bits of napkin hit anyone. He also always aims to get them in Grandma's hoodie, bag, etc, and usually succeeds.

Grandad Ben was not going to take this jumper attack lying down. He threw it behind him, clearly aiming for me.

The jumper completely missed. It hit the lady next to me, casually chatting to her friend. She was even nice enough to pass me it, while I loudly chastised Grandad for throwing things at innocent gym-goers.

1-0 to me. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

An Easter Surprise...

On Good Friday, my brother, Maxx and I were playing Texas Hold 'Em at the table when Mum let out a sad sigh.
"Have you seen this?" she said.
"Yeah, don't read it out, I know what you're going to say. It's really sad." Gaz replied.
"What? What is it?" I said.

Mum read out the Facebook post from Wimbledon Greyhound Welfare (quoted from their page):

LONELY LARA...Lara has been returned to us after two years in a home. Sadly, her daddy is no longer able to care for her due to ill-health and her mummy did not have time for her. She has been poorly since she came back earlier this week but is on the mend now and is in our Sanctuary. Lara would love to go home for Easter. If anyone is interested in homing Lara, please come and meet her at the kennels or give us a call.

I mean, come on - anyone with a heart would admit that's a horribly sad story. We all felt touched and wished we could take her in. 
"It's not me you need to convince, it's your dad!" Mum stated.
This was true - but then he is number 1 dog-walker and lawn de-pooper (he works from home so takes them out around 4, when most people are still at work so he doesn't run into too many little dogs and before it gets dark in Winter). When we mentioned how feasible it would be to take Lonely Lara on, he pulled a 'I'm not sure' face, so we said no more.
I walked in on Saturday morning as Mum and Gaz were talking about Lonely Lara again. I joined in and, to our utter, utter shock, Dad said:
"Well give the kennels a call and enquire about her then."
We all stared at him. Mum was the most shocked. I ran off to call Denise at the kennels before he could change his mind.
She didn't pick up, so I left a message and Gaz and I went to the gym (back and biceps, if you're interested. I did 40kg on a close-grip pulldown - don't act like you're not impressed).
After a brief phone call, Denise and I agreed that we'd go up to see Lonely Lara at 2pm that day. Mum, Gaz, Claus, Princess and I piled into the car and drove to Hersham - it was a fun journey, and I think we were quite excited knowing that, really, it was a done deal. We couldn't meet a needy hound and leave her behind.
Well, out Lonely Lara bounced from the kennel. She was clearly excited to go for her walk, and after plenty of sniffing, we took the three of them for a little wander. It really depended on whether Princess could live with another girlhound, so we walked the girls side by side. It went well so we let them out in the paddock together. They had a few sniffs, but still no growly business.
It was settled.
She was coming home.
Wimbledon Greyhound Welfare
From left: Princess, Lara, Claus
Lucky Lara, as she's now known (as well as Lara Bingle - long story), has settled in really well and is particularly attached to my brother. There's only been one growly bear incident when Princess gave Lara an unwelcome sniff, and that's it. We've established she likes wandering about the garden, snuggling on the sofa and standing in the pond.

Our aim now is to get some weight on her - she's very thin. Denise warned me on the phone that Lara was a fussy eater and had had an infection, which was being treated, but that her blood tests had come back fine. She's nearly finished her medicine and has been eating and drinking more - she is fussier than Claus and Princess, but Claus was wary of unfamiliar foods at first, too. She loves meat and star-shaped Winalot biscuits, so over the next few weeks as she settles in more we'll find out other things she likes to eat.

We have no regrets about taking Lara. She's a wonderful hound and we can already see her playful side coming out - she's had quite a tumultuous couple of weeks, going from her home back to the kennels, being poorly, moving in with us and meeting all the family over the Easter weekend, but she seems to have coped very well.
Wimbledon Greyhound Welfare
Gareth and Lara snuggled up on Sunday night

Friday, 3 April 2015

Hurray! Lent is over!

As of yesterday - my Grandad Ben's birthday - Lent is over! My aunt and I have been trying to find the correct date and have both researched on a variety of different websites. The 4 (!) dates that are apparently the end of Lent are: Maundy Thursday (yesterday), Palm Sunday (last Sunday), Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Basically I decided that Lent had been long enough, so I chose Maundy Thursday. And it's what Google said.

Cadbury's TwirlLent 2015 was tough. I missed chocolate from week one. It got easier after a couple of weeks, but last weekend my aunt, mum and I were in Edinburgh, and every time we went into M & S to stock up we would walk soooooo slooooooooowly past the Easter egg displays. Luckily our resolve didn't break (we'd all given up chocolate so were suffering together).

I promised myself the first thing I'd eat on Maundy Thursday would be a Twirl bar, so on Tuesday I bought two of them and kept them by the side of my bed. I nearly opened one just to sniff it but decided that was too risky...

It. was. worth it. Delicious. Smooth. Sweet. All of the good adjectives.

However, I think I overdid it somewhat - or my ability to gorge on chocolate has decreased after my period of sacrifice. In 24 hours, I ate 2 Twirls, 1 creme egg, 1 Hotel Chocolat caramel bunny, 1 mini pack of Mini Eggs and 1 chocolate sponge pudding. I'm lactose intolerant, so yes, I did have a bad stomach. Again, it was worth it.

Luckily I went for a hack with lots of trotting and did a tough workout, so at least some of my gorging was burnt off!

Happy Easter everyone.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

So Help Me I'm Turning Into My Mother...

It started with an innocent visit, and ended with me resolved to do a PhD.
For my Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (PGCLTHE), I needed to observe a member of staff, preferably from a different department to the one I work in. The ELT unit is actually in the Business, Law and Sport faculty, so I decided to pay my old dissertation lecturer – Gary – a visit.

After agreeing to let me observe one of his lessons, we got chatting about Masters’ programmes. I’d been looking but hadn’t found one which matched my interests of eugenics and literature – there were courses on 19th century literature, 19th century studies, etc, but nothing that piqued my interest. So Gary suggested doing a research project (code for PhD).

Had I been thinking about it? Yes. Did Gary think I could do it? Yes.

Then, the deciding factor. Gary offered to be my supervisor. Yessss!

I came away with a renewed focus and sense of purpose. I’d finish teaching on Winter School then see Gary again to discuss the possibility of me doing a PhD.

I sent a text to my mum, saying I was thinking about a PhD and that Gary had said he’d supervise me. I knew she was excited because she replied straightaway with a line of smiley faces. I told her not to get too excited as I needed to think about it. She followed that up with a sad face. Hmmm.

When I got home, Mum ushered my Dad and Maxx into the living room. I was sat on the floor, fussing Claus, when I realised I’d been surrounded. They were like sharks. What followed was 10 minutes of insistence that I do a PhD, and me fretting about the financial side and whether I was capable. Maxx later told me that Mum had instructed them both to convince me to do it.

At the next meeting, Gary asked me if I’d thought anymore about it. I told him I wanted to do it and we discussed the ideas I had.

The following day I saw an interesting post on the University portal: “University offers 10 fully-funded research studentships for 175th anniversary”. Well – fully funded, with a maintenance grant, and £500pa of research expenses.

The downside: the deadline was in 3 weeks.

What followed was an intense period of studying, stressing, writing, rewriting and thinking. There was so much to do. How could I write a literature review of the field with only 3 weeks to research? How could I turn my thoughts and ideas about eugenics and literature into a proposal that could compete with other students’ proposals? Which research method was I going to use? What even is a research method?

I handed it in on Friday 13th March. Unlucky for some, hopefully lucky for me. I won’t find out until May whether I’ve been shortlisted for interview, so until then I’ll just have to sit tight and focus on finishing my PGCLTHE.

So help me I'm turning into my mother. Soon I'll have as many qualifications as she does!

Friday, 27 February 2015

Culture: Hever Castle

Anne Boleyn

Last Saturday, Maxx took me to Hever Castle. Famously known as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, I was really excited to explore the castle and the beautiful, extensive gardens, as well as stay in the luxury guest rooms just next door.

It really was the most relaxing weekend away I've ever had. I felt truly replenished and at harmony during our brief stay. Maxx and I arrived around 3:00pm on Saturday - the castle closes at 4:00 during 'off' season - so we had a quick nosy in our magnificent room in the Astor Wing before wandering around the gardens until they closed. First things first - there were so many ducks. It was heavenly as I love ducks (I know I love almost all animals but the duck is in my top 5). There were also 3 swans, including one just over a year old who was adorable. He made this honking noise which was just so cute - I was feeding him by hand on Sunday.

We chilled in our room - 'Hazel' - for a couple of hours before getting ready to go to dinner. The hotel was beautiful; the walls were lined with landscapes and portraits, and there was a billiards room and music room to relax in if we wanted to. Our room was spacious, with a comfortable double bed, TV, tea and coffee set, armchair, desk, wardrobe, and possibly the most opulent bathroom I've ever seen. There were Molton Brown smellies, with a bathtub from a bath-lover's dreams. It was perfect.

Astor Wing
There isn't a restaurant on the premises, however the hotel had handily compiled a list of nearby pubs. We chose the King Henry VIII, a two-minute drive down the road (we didn't fancy walking along the winding, black road!). The food was delicious, but what I liked most was that the walls were covered in portraits of Henry VIII, his wives and children. 

Sunday morning, we went to the breakfast room for our Full English. There was also yoghurt, cereal, fruit, porridge, toast, pastries and fruit juice available. This room had beams running across the ceiling and was also full of paintings. Maxx and I barely spoke to each other - we were too busy looking around and eating!

Kent swanAfter another short amble around the gardens, we went inside the castle. It's quite a haunting experience, being in someone's childhood bedroom when you know the stark truth of what happens to them. Anne Boleyn's life is overshadowed by her brutal death, and it was hard to forget about that when walking through her old home. There are a few artefacts of Anne's in various rooms, as well as love letters between herself and Henry, original furniture dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and old torture instruments from Europe. Included in those were three German beheading swords - the guide told me they were similar to what would have beheaded Anne in 1536.

The Castle is quite small so it only takes about an hour / 90 minutes to explore. With the rest of our sunny afternoon, Maxx and I walked around the grounds. There's an Italian Garden, showcasing many sculptures and busts, as well as a maze, water maze, Japanese tea house and several water features. The gardens were lovely, with a few flowers starting to blossom - I can't wait to go back in summer and see everything in bloom.

Hever Castle is one of my favourite castles in England. I can't really explain why, but I felt a special connection to Hever - I think I'll go back many more times in my life. It was such a memorable, wonderful weekend in every respect and I hope to return very soon. 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Body Fat Update

Joy to the world, I've lost body fat again. Working my way down...

I'm now 20%

The lowest I've ever gotten was 19%, but that delicious 18% has still evaded me. Maybe I'll stop talking about it when I get there. Probably not.

The last couple of weeks I've been particularly run down and lethargic, and haven't eaten as clean as I could have, so I'm now working on hitting 5 clean days a week as mentioned in my last post. I need to lose 7lbs to hit my target weight, then maintain it for the rest of the year!

I weigh in every Monday, but my next BF update will be end of March. As long as I maintain or lose a little, I'll be happy as a clam.

Friday, 20 February 2015

What I'm Giving Up For Lent 2015

Lent: 18th February - 2nd April
Easter Sunday: 5th April

It's that time again when I challenge myself to give up something I love (eating). By 'that time again', I mean I did it last year and want to do it again. I managed to last the whole 40 days and 40 nights without cheese, but did eat chocolate a little before the end.

My mum's decided to give up chocolate, so I've decided to do that too. I really want some already, but the first week of any diet/abstinence is always the toughest. I can't stop thinking about Twirl bars...

In addition, I'm going to try to have a minimum of 5 days a week of clean eating. At the moment I average 3. I'll also try to work out a minimum of 2 days a week. I’ve really lost my workout mojo – a combination of stress and post-teaching-tiredness – so hopefully this will give me a buttkick back into it.

I ride an average of about 3-5 times a week, dependent on how busy I am work-wise.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Guest Post: Mandy's Jogging Diary - weeks 1 - 4, by Mandy Jones

One Sunday (Dec 2014) I marshalled a five-mile off-road race. At the end I watched the prize giving. For some reason (must have had a brain wobble) I suddenly became overcome with wanting/needing/necessity to try the race the following year (yep def a brain meltdown). 

Opening my big mouth I turned to my daughter and blurted out my thoughts...... Of course she was delighted..... Well I turned to the NHS website and decided to use the couch 'potato' to 5k as my training method. 

Run one arrived, sun shining, iPod blaring some 'get up and go' song - I felt INVINCIBLE woohoo - and off I went. Warm up good, first 60 sec jog ok, next okish, next mmm, next oh my what the hell do I think I'm doing? I finished the training and felt really good about myself. 

However, the next few days, boy I ached everywhere -mshoulders, hip flexors, calf muscles etc etc.. and to be honest didn't want to do any more. Run two arrived and the sun was shining again (thank goodness). I wasn't sure about this, but, teeth gritted, off I jogged. Not so bad as I thought and didn't feel quite as knackered as run one. I so admire anyone who can run more than one minute at a time! Let's see what run three offers. I don't feel quite as worried about the next one.

Well I've struggled through week two, and now entered week three. The first run involves a 90 sec run, then a 3-minute run and then a repeat of this. Oh boy, couldn't quite complete the first three minute run, but managed the second. This is soooo hard, how do people do this? 

So Sunday 1st Feb arrives and I head off for the second run of week 3, not going to give up. I decided to run along a straight piece of quiet road to see how far the 3-min run is. This did help me as I could judge how far I needed to jog for the last run.... I used markers such as: get to the lamp post, next the nice brown gate, then the roundabout. I'm knackered, but I completed it. I did have a tear in my eye and felt so proud of myself - yes I CAN do this. Planning to do the last run of week 3 on Tuesday... Onward and upward (I hope :-) !!!! )

So week four arrived and it was a bit of a shock: run 3 minutes, then 5 minutes, then repeat.... FIVE minutes, is this even possible? Well just about managed the run and felt quite pleased with myself. However, I made a huge mistake in run 2. I came in from work, tired but just wanted to get out there and get it done. I also didn't plan my route properly and got lost. The whole run was a shambles and I struggled to hit the 3 minutes and the five minutes. 

What a debacle, but I did learn a few valuable lessons:
1. plan your route 
2. you have to be mentally prepared, especially if you don't have the fitness to do these runs. 
I mean it, because if you are like me and so far out of your comfort zone, you have to fight to complete EVERY run! 

Morning of the 15th Feb and I have just completed run number three of week 4. Much more prepared, didn't quite manage the first set of 5 minutes, but managed all the rest. I would be lying if I didn't say it knocked my confidence with the other run, but after this morning, I'm feeling better and back on board.

Monday, 9 February 2015

My Fitness Pal - Month One

I've now been on My Fitness Pal for just over a month. I became tired of it pretty easily when I used it a few years ago, but as I really wanted to lose between 10lbs - 1 stone, I thought I'd give it another go. It does work for thousands of people, after all.

Month one has been pretty successful. I'm 4 1/4 lbs down - good for someone who struggles to lose weight (partly because I'm slim so there isn't that much to fall off anyway, just a bit too much squish in a couple of areas).

However, the last couple of weeks, I've struggled to log. It could be because I know I haven't been as good with my eating, or because I've been extremely busy and tired. With the former, My Fitness Pal makes you face up to bad food choices, which is what most people need.

I like that I've been more environmentally friendly by not using paper to record my food intake, and the 'report' tab creates a strangely satisfying chart to show my weight loss. However, I don't want to be recording my food forever. I don't want to be so hyper-conscious of everything I'm eating, either.

This next month, I want to see if I can continue to lose weight without keeping a food and exercise diary. I still have 5lbs to go to reach my goal, but this month I'm going to diet without My Fitness Pal.

Next update: 4th March.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Pony Tales: Showjumping... and Falling Off

This will be somewhat of a mini post for two reasons - one, I am extremely tired. Two, I have an awful headache due to a very... acrobatic fall earlier today.

Since the start of the year, I've managed to get some showjumping practice in nearly every week. I'm a bit rusty, so my focus at the moment is to get into the correct position over some smaller fences and work on my approach to the jump before upping the height.

Last week, we managed to get to around 2 ft 6 / 2 ft 9. It was really enjoyable and gave me a lot of confidence, even if my position still wasn't perfect.

Today was not so great. Ernest was feeling quite fresh, as he's not been out for nearly four weeks due to bad flooding, and it was windy. Something clearly jumped out of the bushes behind him while we were jumping a small cross pole, as he shot off across the school upon landing, bucking furiously. Suffice to say I went somersaulting over his shoulder and landed in a heap. I think I hit my head on him, which explains the bad headache. My knees are also very painful and I have a bruise in a very unusual place when I bashed into the saddle during my rapid exit. Diagnosis: ouch.

However, as all riders know, you have to get back on straightaway if possible. Maxx picked me up (literally), helped me back on, and I jumped the cross pole again before taking Ernest for a hack.

What's frustrating is I also think he became a bit silly because we were jumping with friends, unlike last weekend. He became overexcited in the warm up arena at a clear round showjumping event in November and bucked me off then, too. Perhaps I need to practice with friends more, perhaps on both the aforementioned occasions he was just overjoyed at the thought of jumping again. Either way, I'll try to do a couple of fences this week to make sure I don't lose confidence.

horse riding

Saturday, 24 January 2015

English National Ballet: Swan Lake

As part of our Christmas present, my grandma - the formidable Grandma Val - took mum and I to see English National Ballet's production of Swan Lake at the London Coliseum in Covent Garden. The closest I'd ever come to seeing ballet performed prior to this was watching Black Swan, and I've only ever attended one ballet taster lesson (influenced by watching the aforementioned film. I loved the class but didn't have the time to take it up). So, I was really excited and eager to experience my first ballet production.

Obviously all the dancing looked amazing, but what struck me was the elegance. It really is something you have to see to truly appreciate. The dancers had an ethereal quality to them, and the choreography was perfect. At one point they really resembled a flock of swans in flight - it was seamless how they moved into a V shape. I was in constant amazement, but this was one of the most outstanding moments to me.

The elegance of the dancing was assisted by the beautiful backdrops. The scenery for the first 'act' - I don't know if that's the correct terminology - was a woodland. It looked three-dimensional and just breath-taking; the colours were green and dark and somewhat mystical, with a huge full moon in the middle. The other most commonly used backdrop looked like the inside of a royal court, and was more vibrant. I felt utterly transported.

London Coliseum
Unfortunately I couldn't take a good picture inside the theatre and you're not allowed to take photos during the performance, so I have taken this picture from The Standard's website.

I knew the women would be lithe, but I was amazed at the size of the male ballet dancers' quads (can you tell I workout). That said, given how they could leap though the air, it made sense that they would have such powerful leg muscles. I was also surprised at how, during the dance routines during the court scenes - again, not sure if that's the right term - the other dancers would take the role of courtiers being entertained. For instance, they would sit at the side in groups, and one would offer the other revellers a drink. They would also pretend to chat and react to the dancers. I was amazed at how multi-layered the performance was - in truth, I thought ballet was just dancing, however there also was an element of acting too.

My favourite composer is Tchaikovsky, so listening to his music all evening was also a great pleasure. It has made me enjoy his works even more, having heard them as part of a Swan Lake performance. I still envisage the dancers when listening to them now, and imagine what was happening in the scene at the time.

It really was an unbeatable experience and I'm hoping I can see more English National Ballet performances  in the future!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

My Fitness Pal - Week One

I was sceptical about using My Fitness Pal again, thinking it would make me more obsessed and stressed about what I'm eating. I also wondered whether it would accurately log the calories burnt during exercise - because I'm already quite fit and not overweight, it takes a lot for me to burn hundreds of calories. 
Here's what I found.
MFP is mostly accurate due to the huge database of foods already entered. In fact, tonight is the only night I've not been able to find a meal, and that's because the pub chain doesn't publish its meals'  nutritional information. Instead, I used the 'quick add calories' option, to log an estimation of how many calories I ate - this means I don't get the carb/protein/fat etc breakdown, but it's better than nothing.
However, I found it hard to believe that going for a leisurely hack for 80 mins - in walk - would burn as many calories as it says. The way I tackled this was to lower the amount of minutes I actually did the activity, to get a more accurate number of calories burned. Not ideal, but better than kidding myself that I could burn 150+ calories going for a hack!
I like that I can adjust my aims and immediately have access to how many carbs and how much protein, etc, I've eaten each day. Due to the quick access to this information, I've found I haven't been so obsessive. It's almost like, once logged, I can forget about it until I next need to make a food choice.
This last week has been an anomaly in that I've had a wisdom tooth and molar out, so eating has been somewhat challenging. Most of my food has been easily 'mushable'! Seriously though, one morning it took me 40 minutes to eat a toasted muffin. Ridiculous. My dental extractions have helped me to reduce my calorie intake, but honestly, I haven't felt that hungry at any point this week.
Formerly, I thought I was eating too many carbs and too much fat, but this week has shown me I really should try to lower my sugar intake. No more Heinz tomato soup or Heinz baked beans! Well, maybe once a week as a treat. I do love baked beans. Beans beans the magical fruit and all that.
Although I started using MFP last Saturday, I didn't weigh myself until Monday, so I want to wait a full week before seeing if I've lost anything. Due to this, the goals I wrote on my previous post have changed slightly.
My new goals are:
  • lose 1lb a week
  • eat 1460 calories a day - this allowance goes up if I exercise
  • do 4 workouts a week, 40 mins each - although I record any walking and hacking I do, which all adds up, I only really count schooling sessions and weightlifting/circuits as 'workouts'. The other activities I do, like taking Ernest for a relaxing hack, are a bonus in terms of calories burnt.
So, from Saturday to Saturday, I've done 530 minutes of exercise and burnt 1475 calories. Normally the week runs Monday to Monday, of course, and under the 'exercise' tab you can see whether you're on track to meet your fitness goals. 

For this week, going from Monday 5th to now, I've burnt 1001/690 calories and exercised for 310/160 mins. When setting up my account, I selected that I want to lose 1lb a week, am active, and want to complete 4 workouts a week for 40 mins - MFP has obviously worked out that in order to do this I need to eat a deficit of 500 calories per day and burn 690 calories per week. 

Possibly my favourite thing about MFP is that, if you undereat, a warning message on the dangers of underrating comes up. Most will ignore it, I'm sure, but I think it's quite a responsible thing to do. It also has a message that says, 'if everyday were like today, you'd weigh *** in 5 weeks'. It's a nice reminder, or a shock depending on how you've eaten, on where you're headed.

Overall, I'd recommend MFP as a way to monitor your eating and exercise. I just hope that my surprisingly active week pays off when I weigh in on Monday!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

I've Joined My Fitness Pal... again

A little while ago I joined My Fitness Pal, then deleted my account because I just didn't keep it up. For those who aren't familiar with MFP, it's an online food and exercise tracker. You enter your details - height, weight, measurements - and what you want to lose, as well as how active you are day-to-day. It calculates your daily calorie limit, although you can increase your limit depending on how many calories you burn during exercise. Then, you enter all the food you've eaten that day - there's a huge database of foods, although you can add your own recipes etc.

I've decided to rejoin, to see how effective it is at helping me lose 7lbs (half a stone). I'm hoping that the slight weight loss of 1/2lb each week will be fat from my muffin top dropping off, although I won't know until the end of March (my next scheduled body fat check).

I've kept a food diary on and off for years, but feel that My Fitness Pal is a more environmentally friendly way of keeping track (just call me the paper saver). It's become common knowledge that keeping a food diary can aid weight loss, but I'll be interested to see if it makes me more obsessed about what I eat.

Today has been a good day because I had a wisdom tooth out, so eating anything solid has been impossible past 1.30. That said, I'm slightly over my sugar limit, due to the baked beans I ate before my operation, the tomato soup after, and the ice cream my dad bought me to make me feel better (thanks Daddy Martins). Hopefully I'll be under tomorrow!

Thursday, 1 January 2015

2015: The Year Ahead

Happy New Year everyone! Today has been a relaxing day - I cooked pancakes for the other members of the Fantastic Four and my parents, took Ernest for a ride, had a roast with the aforementioned and my Auntie, and played Trivial Pursuit.

Here are the final 10 questions from Into Mind's post, 'Your Year in Review.' The first 40 questions I answered can be found here.

41. What do you want the overarching theme for your 2015 to be?

42. What do you want to see, discover, explore?
I'm looking forward to going to Montpellier in May with the Fantastic Four, and Hever Castle with Maxxy in February. If we can afford to, Maxx and I would like to visit Ireland as well. And I'm supposed to be going to Ibiza in summer for my Aunt's birthday. Maxx and I have agreed that there's lots of areas of England we haven't explored, so it'll be exciting to get out on his bike. 

43. Who do you want to spend more time with in 2015?
My godchildren and the friends I barely saw last year.

44. What skills do you want to learn, improve or master?
I'd like to continually improve my teaching skills, through my PGCLTHE and by gaining experience teaching academic English. I'd like to master pull ups - at the moment I can do assisted, but I'd love to be able to do a full set unassisted. Or even just one. I also want to learn how to cook amazing Thai food... sweetcorn fritters, pad thai, massaman curry... Mmmmm.

45. Which personal quality do you want to develop or strengthen?
I'm very organised but not so good at flexibility, so I'd like to learn to deal with unexpected situations better.

46. What do you want your everyday life to be like?
Rigidly controlled. Just kidding - busy but not fraught, with time set aside at the end of each day to chill out and switch off. Fulfilling.

47. Which habits do you want to change, cultivate or get rid of?
I have a bad habit of trying to do too much, and trying to please everyone, which then exhausts me. I'd like to become more balanced.

48. What do you want to achieve career-wise?
More private students, and a teaching role at a University.

49. How do you want to remember the year 2015 when you look back on it 10/20/50 years from now?
The year I had a lot of fun, made a lot of memories with those I love, and had exciting experiences.

50. What is your number one goal for 2015?
To be more balanced and make improvements in all areas of my life, even if they're just little ones.