82. Not lost, but shopping
Getting to know some independent retailers, and a trip to the museum.
I travel a lot for work in my role as assistant to my freelance photographer husband, Jim. We can find ourselves in all sorts of wild and/or wonderful places, and the diversity of locations has unlocked doors to parts of the British Isles I might not otherwise get to visit. Often, work and holiday combine in a happy accident of optimal work/life balance.
I wasn’t really needed last week on a job at two offices of an independent company with branches spread across a number of towns in central and southern UK, but Jim invited me to join him on his trip to Tring1 ‘just in case’.
It wasn’t a hard sell: although not sunny, the day was warm and dry, and I was very happy to hang out in the van parked in a town-centre car park where I would entertain myself reading or writing until I heard from Jim that I was needed.
‘Text me if you need me to wield the reflector!’
‘No, the light’s perfect!’ Jim replied. ‘You’re off the hook, unless that cloud burns off in the next five minutes!’
I remained in the van for a while after he’d gone, sipping from my Thermos mug of tea while I considered my options.
(And checked on the clouds.)
With no sign of the sun, I thought I’d treat myself to coffee in a café, somewhere I could do a spot of writing in this unanticipated chunk of free time. I might even grab a cakeaway for Jim as a post-shoot treat. As a stranger to the town, though, I wasn’t going to risk getting lost by wandering too far.
Checking that I had everything I needed in my rucksack – pocket notebook and pen, phone, shopping bag (you never know), paperback book to read – I headed off down the very pretty High Street of the little market town.
I found a couple of cafés, and was just weighing up which of them might have a little corner table for me, an Americano and my story ideas, when – and Reader, I will always be distracted by one of these – I spotted an art and stationery shop across the road.
Cards on the table: I have a penchant – more of a fetish, actually – for both stationery and art materials. Frankly, you could even lose me all day in a branch of the middle-of-the-road but ubiquitous British chain WHSmith, my obsession is so great, but the shop that landed in my life on this day in Tring was streets ahead of anything that school-exercise-book-and-Bic-biro-supplier Smiths could ever hope to provide.
A rainbow of coloured pencils was all that was needed to lure me into the section for art materials, and – secretly donning my invisible artist hat – I imagined for a moment the piece of art I might create if I had access to that many colours all at once. I giggled involuntarily, then hoped that the lady behind the counter hadn’t noticed.
I looked at her, smiling. She was friendly; smiley, too, in fact. ‘Yeah,’ I thought, ‘she understands.’
I’d come away without a spare pen. For my bullet journal I like to use a black Staedtler pigment liner with a 0.3mm tip, and I can’t get them in my own local stationery shop. Would I do any better here, nearly a hundred miles away?
The pen display – a broad, horizontal library shelf filled not with books but with stand after stand of writing implements – had exactly what I needed. I dived on the pigment liners, picking up three of them.
‘I’m so glad to find these!’ I paid, stashing my new pens in my far-too-big-for-them bag, and wondered what might join them later.
Not yet lost, nor craving that café cuppa, I remembered that I’d been on the look-out for a summer skirt, and seeing a quirky charity shop with a blackboard listing its attractions right next to the wide-open door, I needed no further invitation.
(Reader, any shop that offers ‘Weird stuff’ has got my attention.)
I lingered over a gorgeous collection of mid-century crockery on my way to the rails of second-hand skirts. I’m always on the lookout for Portmeirion planters to cheer up my rather tired-looking collection of houseplants, but today wasn’t my day for finding one of those.
A white-spotted navy blue skirt caught my eye. I loved it, and it was from a brand I really like but one on which I find it hard to justify a full-price spend. Ever reckless, I decided to ignore the size label in favour of the price tag, and scuttled into a curtained-off corner of the shop to try it on. The mirrors taking up the entire wall space on two sides rather freaked me out, and thanks to those and the diminutive scale of the changing room I chose to keep my trousers on.
‘Okay, that fits!’ I convinced myself, despite being well aware that I’d half-grown out of that size of clothing a full six months ago. Well, I could fasten the zip, even over my trousers, and it was just about long enough.
The friendly chap at the counter – ‘Lovely purchase – and for such a tall lady!’ – invited me to come back soon.
The skirt – stiff cotton with a satin lining – filled my bag rather more than I had thought it would, but I was confident that it didn’t take up so much room as to make any further shopping impossible. To my delight, when I got home I found there was rather more room in the skirt, too, than I’d anticipated.
At the top of the town – I’d taken care to walk a straight-line route, like a sensible chess piece – I hit the jackpot when I came across independent bookseller Our Bookshop.
Just inside the door I spotted this basket:
Reminded of my absolute steal at the Oxfam shop in Cambridge last month, when my perfect blind date book and I had saddled up to ride off together into the sunset, I wondered if my luck would be in again with the brown-paper-wrapped goodies here2.
I pulled out two volumes: one labelled ‘Modern + Contemporary Fiction’, the other, ‘Thriller’. They were more expensive than the pound I’d paid in Cambridge, but these were new books, not second-hand: an absolute bargain.
Spending some time browsing the shelves, I spotted these beneath a label marked ‘Fiction’:
‘Oooh, are these like your Lucky Dips, too?’ I asked Kim, the lady behind the counter, as I took one of the books down for a closer look. The artwork on the cover was gorgeous.
‘Sort of, but these are commercially-produced ones. Our Lucky Dips are books that we’ve had hanging around for a while, but we bought a few of these on spec, because they were fun. We’ve only got three left.’
I picked this one:
Here’s where How Novel’s story began:
One day, our founders were discussing the age old adage: 'Don't judge a book by its cover'. As we were talking, we realised that is was impossible. That is when the idea for our Mystery Books was born.
Every Mystery Book is wrapped and tied in recycled kraft paper. Four hand drawn illustrations, designed by our lead artist Jess, aim to give you some insight as to what the book is about and pique your interest. You can even opt to upgrade to one of our gorgeous gift boxes, featuring a bookmark and handwritten note. They are perfect as a gift or a special treat for yourself.
Text by How Novel, taken from notonthehighstreet.com
As I settled up for my purchases, I told Kim what a lovely morning I’d been having exploring the beautiful town. She beamed.
‘I’ve lived here over thirty years and I still feel like I’m on holiday most of the time’, she said.
I laughed. I was pleased to remember that my own everyday life is pretty heavily holidayed, too. I enjoy it when we take a day off here, half a day off there, or steal a night away before or after a job that’s more than a step away from home. And sometimes – today, unexpectedly – I’m not at work at all.
But what about discovering new things on our own doorstep? Being a tourist in our own town? Being on holiday ‘most of the time’, like Kim, simply by living and working in a location we love?
Saying goodbye to Kim – ‘See you again, I hope!’ – I walked back down the hill on the other side of the road, because I wanted to check out the ironmonger I’d clocked on the way up.
Outside were old-fashioned dustbins, a shiny galvanised incinerator moonlighting as a display stand for children’s fishing nets, rolled-up rugs, doormats, buckets, garden tools and a single bag of charcoal posing incongruously in a wheelbarrow.
I remembered my favourite wooden spoon at home that had snapped in half the previous week, and, glad to have an excuse to explore this Aladdin’s cave of household treasures, I entered the shop.
Reader, they had everything. Those tiny lightbulbs for the fridge or oven? Check! Citronella candles? Check! Firelighters? Check! Plant labels? Check!
I smiled in delight when I reached the back wall of the shop: what seemed like acres of shelving housed knitting yarn in every colour under the sun. They even had space-dyed sock yarn. Wishing – and not for the first time – that I had the skill to knit anything more than a scarf (it’s a straight-lines thing for me with knitting, I’m afraid), I wandered through to the section containing kitchen utensils to find what I was actually looking for. After a brief chat with – and paying – the young man at the till, I popped my replacement spoon into my bag.
Hang on, what had I just learned from Kim at the bookshop? Impatient with myself for being so distracted by my retail adventures, I stuffed my shopping bag and its contents of pens, skirt, books and spoon into my rucksack, and set about transforming myself from shopper to sightseer.
Near the crossroads I popped into the Tourist Information Centre to pick up a local map. Reader, I’m learning; no, not how to actually navigate, because we both know how that’s (not) going, but to get used to, at least, using some of the tools of the craft.
Kim had pointed me in the direction3 of the Natural History Museum – not the one in London, but its smaller off-shoot, The Natural History Museum at Tring. Together, the two museums hold 80 million specimens collected in the name of science over hundreds of years.
At the time of my last visit to the London site, its cavernous space was still home to ‘Dippy’, the huge diplodocus skeleton so beloved of visitors ever since it had been gifted to the museum in 1905. Would Tring have a similar attraction: maybe a T-Rex standing to attention in the hallway to welcome visitors across the threshold? Or would these dinosaur digs instead just be housing tired taxidermy?
Reader, I didn’t see any dinosaurs. The museum was awesome, though, and not just because admission was free. Its high-ceilinged galleries were jam-packed with specimens in naturalistic poses, the interpretation boards providing an excellent learning resource. And it was busy with people, too, which was impressive for a Thursday morning in school term time.
In an atrium between two galleries I came across a lady sitting on one of the ‘please take one of our folding stools’ seats that were available for visitors to use. Beside her was a large bag on a fold-out frame, its top zipped open to give her access to her paints, pencils and brushes. She hadn’t needed to pack the inspiration for her art, though, for the museum provided it in spades. I watched for a few moments as she spread greyish-white gouache over dramatic black paper, painting the skull in the display case in front of her.
I was running out of time; Jim would be finishing soon. Gabbling ‘thanks so much!’ to a friendly member of museum staff on my way out, I retraced my steps back to the town centre.
The list I’d been carrying in my head when I’d left the van a couple of hours earlier suddenly came back into focus. Now, I hadn’t found a cup of coffee or a quiet spot in a café to read my book or do any writing, but I could still find Jim a cakeaway on my way back to the car park.
Nonna’s Supper Club, a gorgeous little Italian deli, tempted me in with its display of cakes and pastries. I wanted little things, not hulking slices of wanton indulgence, and spotted some small-scale goodies that I thought Jim would like. I chose beautiful barghetta – elegant boats of pastry filled with white chocolate and chopped toasted hazelnuts – and tiny lemon tartlets; two of each.
ENJOYMENT (judged by Jim): ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I arrived back at the van a while after Jim. ‘Were you lost?’ he asked.
‘Not lost4, but shopping!’ I patted my bulging rucksack, then passed him the paper bag from the deli. He peeped inside, and grinned. ‘Good enough reason!’
At that moment the sun came out. ‘If we were starting now, I would need you with the reflector!’
As we left Tring I wondered about the town nearest to my home village. Could I visit that as a tourist? Be on holiday there? Heck, why not? After all, there’s less chance of getting lost in a place I know well.5
Tring – a consistent five-star destination by my own measure – was gorgeous, but on my next shopping trip I’m going to support independent retailers on my own doorstep. And, thanks to Kim, I will feel like I’m on holiday.
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I haven’t opened them yet, because for now I don’t want to cheat on my Cambridge book date. I’m not that kind of girl… 🤣
I wrote down Kim’s directions verbatim. I was taking no chances!
On this occasion, absolutely true. 😁
Good theory, right? I’ll report back… 🙄