SWALK - Walking For Women With Cancer

So, earlier this month I wrote about why I was walking 12km to raise money for Look Good Feel Better, and the walk itself finally took place last Sunday. Cue me dragging myself out of bed at 6 AM (yes I know, ouch) and setting off into the wilds of Surrey.

The walk took place at Denbies, a vineyard about 10 minutes away from Dorking train station. I did initially get a bit lost - not ideal in the rain! - but once I worked out where the subway was the walk was relatively straightforward and followed a short winding road through the vines and up to the main house.

After registering I set off towards the start line. I actually ended up walking behind Anna from Vivianna Does Makeup and Lily Pebbles for the first section but was too shy to say hi! (Curse my awkwardness...)

The first bit of the walk takes you off up a slight hill and then turns off into the woodlands which was absolutely amazing - it felt like I'd stepped straight into a Lord of the Rings film as the light through the leaves was so beautiful.

Then the route opened out so you were walking along the hillside and could see out over the vineyard and down into the town. Doesn't it look like something from a chocolate box?!

The rest of the walk was a mixture of walking through the woods and along the side of the hills - unfortunately as the weather was so changeable I was more focused on staying dry and keeping myself hydrated (walking is thirsty work even in the wet) that I completely forgot to take more photos! That said, it was lovely in the woods; they were all misty and atmospheric and as I was walking through them the first line of Luke Bryan's 'Huntin', Fishin' And Lovin' Every Day' ('If I could make a living from walking through the woods / You could bet I'd be sitting pretty good') going round in my head on a loop.

The walk did take longer than I thought it would (the estimate was about two and a half hours and I came in bang on three), but suspect if the weather had been better it would have been shorter. That said, although there were slippery sections and a particularly steep bit of the hill just before the 4km mark, it was actually a pretty easy walk in terms of the terrain so I think would be suited to most age ranges and abilities - I saw people of all ages from little kids to grandparents.

Once I got to the end I received a lovely goody bag (more on that later!) and headed to the cafe for some lunch. It says how hungry I was that I ate the lot in a matter of minutes!

I then had a quick wander through the Beauty Hall that was just off the cafe. As I had to dash off for my train home fairly rapidly I didn't manage to have a proper look around but there were loads of really interesting-looking stands offering manicures, beauty treatments and selling things like mugs and picture frames, as well as some great competitions.

Here is my lovely goody bag - I've donated the popcorn to Nick as I'm not a big Worcestershire sauce fan, but am very excited to try the Bio-Oil and the Karl Lagerfeld perfume. The thing at the bottom under the Bio-Oil box is a Roger & Gallet pomegranate shower gel which will do nicely for future travels. There is more in there too so expect lots of blog posts on the contents soon :)

I'm also delighted to say that I've raised a grand total of £95.18! That might not seem like a massive amount, but it will make a huge difference to women and girls who are suffering the visible side effects of cancer - huge thank you to everyone who's donated.

Overall I really enjoyed SWALK and feel hugely inspired to both try it again next year (and beat my total!) and to do more walking generally. If you get the chance to do this or anything similar you definitely should - it's a fantastic cause and a really lovely day out to boot!

Nashville in Concert

I think I always loved country music (the seeds were probably sown with the early 90s line dance craze), but the catalyst was the TV series 'Nashville'. When it first aired in the UK a couple of years ago, I got completely hooked on the gorgeous music as well as the on-screen drama, and the soundtrack albums are pretty much on repeat in my house constantly. So when I found out that some of my favourite cast members were going to come over to the UK, I snapped up tickets as fast I could! The show finally rolled around on Saturday night and so I headed off to Hammersmith brimming with excitement.

After waiting around for about half an hour, eventually we were let in so I grabbed a drink, bought myself a Highway 65 T-shirt and settled in for the show. Unfortunately as it had been so popular (I think they sold out pretty much every night and had to add extra dates), I was only able to get a ticket for the standing section at the back, but the view was surprisingly OK:

(Also, isn't the Apollo just the most gorgeous building? I couldn't resist a few snaps of the beautiful Art Deco interior!)

The show gave each member a chance to shine early on, rotating through the four of them doing solo performances and then doing a duet as they switched over. There was a real celebratory mood throughout as the tour came just after the announcement that, following the show's cancellation by ABC in the US, it has been picked up for CMT and Hulu for season five, and all the cast took time during their sets to thank the crowd for their support in keeping the show on the air.

Chris Carmack (AKA Will Lexington) kicked things off with 'What If I Was Willing', which got everyone in the audience singing along and showcased the strength of his voice. He also got the chance to show off his talents beyond vocals, including breaking out a variety of instruments - including electric guitar as well as saxophone to accompany Clare Bowen (Scarlett O'Connor) on the spine-tingling 'Premonition'. My favourite performance of his though was his duet with Sam Palladio (Gunnar Scott) on 'If It's Love', one of my favourite Will songs. Their voices sound great together and I really hope we're going to have more from the two of them in seasons four and five.

Gunnar is my favourite 'Nashville' character and Sam was the person I'd been most excited to see live - and he definitely didn't disappoint. His performance of 'Can't Get It Right' was brilliant, and he gave us a sneak peek of season four with his emotional rendition of 'Count On Me', a song Gunnar writes for Scarlett. Sam and Clare also gave a beautiful performance of 'Fade Into You'; that being their only duet of the night was the one slight disappointment I had with the whole show, mainly as I wished there was more! However Clare's gorgeous solo version of 'When The Right One Comes Along' more than made up for it.

The big surprise of the evening for me was Charles Esten (Deacon Claybourne). I'd enjoyed his acoustic set at C2C earlier this year, and he built on that with his passionate and heartfelt performances of 'I Know How To Love You Now' and 'So I Cry', both of which got a great reception from the audience. The highlight of his set for me though was him snarling his way through 'He Ain't Me', a stomping piano-driven number that included bits of Chuck Berry's classic 'Johnny B. Goode' and ended with Charles and his cherry-red guitar leaping off the drum kit. The definition of 'a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll'.

I really liked the mixture of songs from the show as well as the cast members' original music; it showed a different side to them but also gave the fans what they wanted. Particular highlights for me were Sam sharing the story of his granddad missing the train stop to see his American girlfriend for the last time before he went back to the UK to fight in World War II, which inspired his song 'Wake Me Up In Nashville', and Clare speaking so movingly about her brother's battle with cancer before she sang 'Love Steps In' (not ashamed to admit that I cried in that one). Both Sam and Clare also announced they'll have solo albums coming out later this year which I am very excited about!

The show wrapped up with all four cast members coming together to sing 'One More Song (And Then We're Gone)' and 'A Life That's Good', the latter of which included an audience singalong. It was an absolutely spine-tingling moment and, at the risk of sounding cheesy, you could really feel the love in the room - both from the fans and the cast members. It was an absolutely magical moment and one that will say with me for a long time.

Overall I loved, loved, loved Nashville in Concert. All the cast members got to showcase their (many) talents together and separately, leaving me in awe of their vocal chops, musicianship and stage presence. It was great to see them perform their own songs alongside the hits too; 'Nashville' has always cast people who are just as good singers as they are actors, and on Saturday night it showed. I left the theatre absolutely buzzing and crossing everything they come back soon. Now bring on season four!

Are you a 'Nashville' fan? Did you go to the tour last week? And what's your favourite song from the show?

Friday Five #2: Football Songs

Euro 2016 kicks off tonight (with England's first game against Russia tomorrow), so it only felt fitting to make this Friday Five a football one. I have to admit it was quite hard going as unfortunately an awful lot of football songs are frankly woeful, but these are the ones I'd pick out, mainly because several of them are oddly meaningful to me or bring back particular memories. So without further ado, here's the list...

1. 'Three Lions' - Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds

It might be 20 years since this came out, but every word is still accurate. A bittersweet Britpop number, 'Three Lions' sums up what it is to watch England at a major tournament - the knowledge that we'll be lucky to get to a quarter-final, but yet the hope that maybe, just maybe, this is our year to win. For me, watching Euro 96 as an eight-year-old, it brings back memories of Gazza's wonder goal against Scotland (sorry Scottish readers) and a summer where it felt like anything could happen. It's held up really well too; provided you change the words to 'fifty years of hurt', it still rings true today.

2. 'World In Motion' - New Order

If 'Three Lions' could be described as occasionally going in dirge territory, then 'World In Motion' is its musical opposite. With its pulsing dance rhythms, jazzy keyboards and samples of the famous 'they think it's all over' commentary, it's easily the most uptempo track on the list. It's also quite unusual in that it works well as a song outside of a sporting context - yes there are some things that jar but if you take out John Barnes' legendary rap and the 'En-ger-land' chant at the end, it still holds up as a quality pop song.

3. 'Vindaloo' - Fat Les

Keith Allen gets everywhere. As well as 'World in Motion', he also co-wrote 'Vindaloo', which emerged as a rival to the 1998 version of 'Three Lions'. Initially intended to parody football chants with a video referencing the Verve's iconic 'Bittersweet Symphony', it's much more aggressive than 'Three Lions', laced with bravado and swagger and exulting the charms of British culture like tea solving everything and an excellent knitting pun. But what makes it work is the 'na-na-na' chorus, which is instantly catchy and demands to be sung along to. This is one for when we narrowly get through the round of 16 (and then dramatically crash out in the quarter-finals) when we're still full of 'we can do this!' bravado.

4. 'All Together Now' - The Farm

Why do all the good football songs originate in the 90s? Did we just hit on some formula then and decide to stick with it? Either way, 'All Together Now' brilliantly marries electronic beats with slightly melancholy lyrics; the song is apparently inspired by the 1914 Christmas truce, yet feels much more authentic than other attempts to bring it into popular culture. I also like that it has a slightly choral feel to it, which has weird parallels with the idea of football as a modern day religion but also works in terms of encouraging everyone to sing along. Plus its message of getting behind the team applies regardless of who you support, especially if it's an underdog.

5. 'You'll Never Walk Alone' - Gerry and the Pacemakers

Well I had to have this didn't I? As a Liverpool fan, 'You'll Never Walk Alone' will always be special to me (to the extent I wanted it at our wedding but Nick said no). Originally recorded for the musical 'Carousel', it's been covered by loads of different artists - I particularly love the Elvis version - but the Gerry and the Pacemakers rendition is the classic, so that's going on the list. The message of keeping going is one I think we can all relate to and, even if you're not a football fan it still carries huge emotional clout, as anyone who saw the Hillsborough families singing it after the inquest will know. (Is it bad that even typing that makes me well up?) It is the only football song that makes me cry, and for that reason it will always be my favourite.

Why I'm Walking 12K For Look Good Feel Better

Trusty hiking boots which will be helping me on the walk!
I was a very late starter with make-up. For most of my teens my make-up bag was limited to one tube of Boots Natural Collection green concealer to cover up redness from spots (it didn't work that well) and a black eyeliner pencil which I would apply liberally before going out. Everything else was like another world, and I'd subconsciously labelled it as 'not for me', because I didn't have the confidence to wear it and wouldn't have had the foggiest what to do with it.

However, once I got to sixth form and a classmate suggested I should use mascara to make the most of my long eyelashes, I was hooked. I spent the next few years branching out (although for me that mostly consisted of skin-toned concealer and the occasional dabble in eyeshadow) and now, with the help of the occasional YouTube video, feel pretty confident using a range of different products and techniques to create the look I want or to make myself feel a little better about facing the world.

Now imagine having to learn it all again from scratch, because having treatment for cancer has caused you to lose your hair - including eyelashes and eyebrows - or left you looking and feeling exhausted. For many women, this can be massively demoralising and leave them lacking in confidence or not feeling like themselves, which I can imagine is a truly horrible feeling. (I'm probably making this point very cack-handedly, so apologies in advance as I'm really trying not to trivialise this.)

Thankfully, help is out there in the shape of Look Good Feel Better, a charity which provides support to women and teenage girls who are experiencing the visible side effects of cancer treatment through free skincare and make-up workshops. There is more about the work they do here including a great video with women who've been on a workshop talking about how much difference it's made to them. They explain it better than I ever could, but to see the effect it can have on people's confidence and helping them feel like they can fight their illness is absolutely amazing.

So, this Sunday (12th June), I will be walking 12km in the Surrey hills to raise money for Look Good Feel Better as part of their SWALK event. I am a little nervous about it as it's a while since I've walked that far in one go and I am ridiculously unfit (I ran 5k in just over 35 minutes at parkrun yesterday - admittedly my first parkrun in over a month but that's still pretty bad), but the fact that it's for a good cause is definitely going to get me out of bed at 7AM on a Sunday morning - especially as the forecast is currently for rain! - and keep me putting one foot in front of the other.

If you'd like to donate to my walk and give me some further motivation to get myself round then my JustGiving page is here. Please do give what you can - all the money goes to Look Good Feel Better and will make a real difference to women and girls battling cancer. Thank you and look out for a post soon to see how I got on!

Why I'm Voting In The EU Referendum

I wouldn't normally write about politics on the blog (although I am trying to get away from being too 'fluffy'. But I digress), but frankly the EU referendum is too big of an issue not to talk about. So today I wanted to talk about the importance of voting in the referendum and why, even if you're not normally that interested in politics, you should go out and vote on the 23rd June.

I'm trying to keep this as neutral as possible so I'm not going to tell you how you should vote, although I apologise in advance if my own views come through too strongly. (I personally have voted to remain - I have a postal vote which I sent off last week - but I'm not going to criticise people voting to leave and would appreciate it if any comments could do the same.) Rather, I wanted to set out why I'm voting the way I am and to try and encourage people to go out and vote even if you wildly disagree with me!

What has the EU ever done for us?

To put it bluntly, membership of the EU determines an awful lot of things that go on in the UK. For example, selling to other EU countries makes up 44% of all UK trade due to the single market, which allows EU countries to buy and sell each others' goods without restrictions. If we were to leave, it's likely we'd have to renegotiate those trade agreements with each country, which would be expensive and could cause delays to trading between the UK and other countries. Leaving the EU could also impact on employment here; three million jobs in the UK rely on trade with the EU, and being an EU member also impacts things like regulated working hours, paid maternity leave and anti-discrimination laws.

Also, unlike many other EU countries, we are not in the Schengen Agreement, which means we still have control of our borders. Everyone coming into the UK, EU passport or not, has to be checked when they enter the country, and the European Arrest Warrant means we can easily share police intelligence with other EU countries to bring wrongdoers to justice. Again, if we leave the EU, we might have to negotiate the sharing of this information on an individual basis, which could be time-consuming and potentially limit our effectiveness in catching criminals.

Finally, there are all the things going on in the background that the EU does. Did you know, for example, that the EU recently passed legislation which has cut the price of mobile charges when using your phone abroad? In fact, being a member of the EU could make your summer holidays this year much easier - UK citizens are able to travel freely to other EU countries and if you have a EHIC card you can get free healthcare in EU countries (although you should still have travel insurance!).

There are those who say that we spend too much money on membership of the EU, which could be put to better use funding the NHS or schools here, and that there are too many people coming here from Europe, taking jobs away from British workers or claiming benefits. Personally, I think the financial benefits we get from EU membership outweigh any drawbacks, and there is also the risk that were we to leave the EU and suddenly close our borders, people from the UK living in EU countries may no longer be allowed to stay in those countries either.

I hope that's helped to explain some of my reasons for voting to stay in and to encourage you to cast your ballot in the referendum. This is likely the biggest vote many of us will ever have to undertake, and as such I believe strongly that if we're going to exercise our democratic rights, this is the time to do. So whichever way you choose to go, please do vote on 23rd June.

If you'd like more information, the BBC News website is a great source, and there are also some excellent blog posts out there which help to explain the arguments for staying or going much better than I can - such as Kellie's, Sarah's and Becky's.

Also a reminder that you need to register to vote by 7th June (that's this Tuesday) to take part in the referendum if you're not already. All the information on how to register is at aboutmyvote.co.uk

As I said, if you'd like to comment on this post, please do share your opinion but don't be rude or disrespectful of others' views.