My kinda spa day

So last week I wrote a post that mentioned my Reading Spa experience. What is that, you ask? Well, it was back when I was living in Bath, it was utterly divine and it completely deserves a blog post of its own.

Bath is a particularly lucky town, for many reasons, but the one that struck me the most is that it has more than one beautiful independent bookshop. Alongside Waterstones and WHSmith, there’s also Toppings (which I waxed lyrical about a couple of years ago in a blog post of its own) and Mr B’s Emporium. While Toppings is airy and bright, Mr B’s is a rabbit-warren of a place, with tiny rooms over three floors, all packed to the gunnels with books, cosy armchairs and even private reading rooms. Seriously, they’re about the size of a phone booth, with a chair and a lamp so you can have a read before you buy in peace – genius! They also have a bath in the window that’s filled with books. I’m assuming this is a play on words with the town’s name, but I have no idea.

I first found out about Reading Spas when a colleague was gifted one. She told us all about it and I was smitten with the idea instantly. I dropped not-so-subtle hints around my next birthday, et voila! Mum and Dad prevailed with the most wonderful gift.

And it really was the most wonderful gift. I cannot thank Mum and Dad enough for it!

I took half a day off work and spent it in my dream world. Nestled by a fire (I know, a fireplace inside a bookshop!) in what they call their Bibliotherapy room (genius) with a slice of cake and cup of tea, Danielle and I chatted books. When I’d booked, they asked about my reading preferences and paired me with the most appropriate member of staff. They chose so well, about five minutes in I wanted Danielle to be my friend, IRL. We were so like-minded and got on so well, we’d read a lot of the same books and she was expertly equipped to suggest new-to-me titles and authors.

After an hour or so of book chat, Danielle left me to peruse Letters of Note by Shaun Usher while she gathered suggestions and piled books around me. Letters of Note is a lovely coffee table book, full of interesting letters of all kinds – ranging from a cute note from the Queen to President Reagan in which she gives him a recipe for scones, all the way to a really eye-opening missive from an ex-slave to his previous master, explaining why he won’t go back to work for him – it’s a fascinating book and great for flicking through with a cuppa.

Eventually, Danielle came up with 40+ possibilities, ranging from popular fiction to memoirs and historical non-fiction. She did such a good job that I wanted to buy every last one of them. When she’d talked me through them all, she left me to leaf the pages and make my selection. As part of the Spa voucher you get £45-worth of books so I (somehow) had to whittle it down. I would have bought them all, but, you know, rent and whatnot.

In the end I went away with The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton), Burial Rites (Hannah Kent – which I’ve already raved about), Alone in Berlin (Hans Fallada) and The Portable Dorthy Parker (so not portable, it’s brick-sized, but beautiful). I also got a free mug and a book mark because Mr B’s know how to do things right. I’ve read The Miniaturist and Burial Rites in full, dipped in and out of Dorothy Parker’s poems and short stories and have yet to finish Alone in Berlin. Obviously, I’ve enjoyed them to varying degrees (as with any book purchase) but more importantly, I’ve been pushed outside of my usual reading zone, been introduced to new authors and got to spend an afternoon indulging in my favourite pastime.

It really was such an incredible afternoon. The staff at Mr B’s are all so knowledgeable and friendly, they make this experience what it is. Without them, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as genuine and warm. I honestly felt like I could stay there forever. As it was, I was there for around five hours so I definitely made the most of it.

If you know any bibliophiles, or are one yourself, I can definitely recommend a Reading Spa. Plus, a jaunt to Bath is never a bad thing, right? They also do book subscriptions, for a year’s worth of books sent direct to your door, which you don’t have to be in Bath for and I now really want. Damn you pesky blog research! You’re teasing me!

What are you guys reading at the moment? Any gems you can’t stop recommending? Do you have a favourite independent book shop I should check out?

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Will flirt for gin

I have this really vivid memory of Steven’s 18th birthday. We had a meal at the pub with his family and he was desperate to get ID’ed, just because he could, but no one felt the need. After his parents had gone home, we went to another pub, where he pleaded with the girl behind the bar to ID him for buying gin.

We drank that gin like it was a shot and it burned. I remember thinking that it was vile and vowing never to drink it again. I certainly wouldn’t have thought that eight years later it would be my tipple of choice. I also probably wouldn’t have guessed that we would have been married for three years by now but that’s completely unrelated.

Three gin bottles

Not my full gin collection.

Since I’ve seen the light (that part I don’t remember so vividly), I’ve been a fan of a G&T but it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve properly come to appreciate gin. As a spirit it’s varied, it’s complex and it is brimming with opportunities for creativity. As a drink it’s classy and refined, yet I can still get a decent cheap one from Wetherspoons.

My love was properly kindled in Bath at the Canary Gin Bar. It’s a tiny little place, down one of Bath’s more beautiful cobbled streets (and let’s face it, they’re all pretty beautiful) kitted out in plush red velvet, with moody lighting and the mandatory hipster bar tenders. You tell them your general preference (fruity, herbal, etc) give a few a sniff and enjoy the resulting G&T. It may be a pricey choice but it’s an elegant one for sure.

Unfortunately we have nothing of that ilk in Milton Keynes (where is the gin love?) and I’ve missed the option of the Gin Bar for a Saturday night bevvy. So earlier this year I went to the Gin Festival in London with a friend.

It was fantastic.

Imagine an industrial-chic venue (Tobacco Dock, to be specific), rammed with gin vendors, punctuated by awesome bands and all topped off with pie. Incredible, right?

My eyes were opened to so much about gin. Which tonic to pair with your gin, what garnishes you should use, the size of the glass and the proportion of ice. It really is an art. I’d always known that you’re meant to have cucumber with Hendricks (everyone grows up knowing that, right?) but I had no idea how far the garnish culture went.

I tried umpteen gins for free, marked them in my gin guide (I know, right? Heaven!) and was let loose on the hall of gin, with my free glass in hand (I told you it was good). Aside from having a wonderful evening with my bestie, I now feel so enlightened and informed when I’m buying and drinking gin. Pretentious that may be, but I absolutely love it.

So let’s knock the awful stereotypes, shall we? Gin won’t necessarily make you cry, it isn’t mother’s ruin anymore and it can be damn delightful. Shall I pour?

A Slice of Heaven

I’d like to take a moment to get geeky, if I may. There are a few things I get geeky about. Books, knitting, language, books. Mostly books. I love books. But if there’s anything I love anywhere near as much as books, it’s bookshops.

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(Toppings and Company, Bath, my favourite bookshop in the sunshine. Photo by me.)

Quiet, peaceful and musty, a good bookshop is an oasis to me. There are hundreds of stories held in those shelves, so many voices that have something to say – the possibilities are endless and the atmosphere zings. But still you can hear every foot shuffle, every throat clear and every page flip. Each tale is held quiet, like a child waiting to surprise you, in a silence so close to speaking. It’s soothing.

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(All on my own in Toppings. Photo by me.)

After the quiet, the smell is my favourite thing. Book pages all generally smell the same, that rich scent of time and paper mulch. But each one has its own quirks, a kind of signature. Older books smell stronger, while newer ones have a slight vinegar tang from modern inks and printing technology. Put them all together in a bookshop and the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. You can flick through the pages of as many tomes as you like and in between breathe deep this great, rich aroma.

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(Books, beautiful books, in Toppings. Photo by me.)

No matter how many people are in a bookshop, it’s still a personal experience. Whether you are looking for advice on your next holiday destination or to get lost in a ripping adventure you can make that decision all by yourself even with a stranger standing by your side. I can have the most stressful day at work, but five minutes in a book shop can make it all melt away, just by standing in the place. For some people solitude can be found in museums, for others it’s galleries. But for me, nothing is better than a bookshop.

A Spot of Gift Knitting

Once I had finished my honeymoon shawl, I had a sudden urge to cast on another one, straight away. I had some yarn waiting, a beautiful selection of Louisa Harding Orielle, in earthy oranges and reds. They were the perfect tones for my mum, and a shawl was just the gift project I needed for her birthday – big enough to show how much I care, but small enough to be manageable and finish-able.

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(Would you believe that’s two skeins of red, and only one of yellow and orange? It’s true!)

Hunting for a pattern proved a bit tricky. If you search for shawls in sock weight yarn on Ravelry, you get almost 6,000 patterns. That’s a lot of surfing to do. I knew my mum wouldn’t want anything over the top or finickity, so I went for a plain stocking stitch body, with a lace trim, Out of Gas by Zhora Designs, to be exact!

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(The lace is apparently inspired by catalytic converters…I don’t know what those are so I can’t really comment.)

The pattern is inspired by a particular episode of Firefly, a series mum and I both love and have watched together many times. It was just the perfect choice. A few weeks of intensive knitting, and a serious case of the knitting claw (I blame wooden needles and alpaca yarn) culminated in this:

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(Shawl on wall, it’s obligatory, and again, say it…you’re welcome. Yes I did take this photo in public, and yes, people did stare.)

I love this yarn. After initial worries that the yellow didn’t work I really like the colour blocking. It was a joy to work with; beautifully soft but with just the right amount of crimp for unusual and pretty stitches. The shawl isn’t actually as deep as it should be, because I ran out of yarn, but it’s plenty big enough; I blocked it on a bath-sheet sized towel and it covered the entire length…that’s a big ol’ shawl! Needless to say, I’m pretty sure it will keep mum cosy and warm. There’s a hint of sparkle in the yarn too, so it has a sophisticated touch. Dressed up or down, this shawl will take mum anywhere.

Oh! And in case you were wondering, mum loved the shawl – totally worth enduring the knitting claw for the look on her face.