Off to uni? Here’s what to buy, according to last year’s freshers

What to buy ahead of university

University essentials

It’s that time of year when stores send out marketing emails full of smart ‘back to uni’ merchandise, and parents splash out to get their teens set up for life away from home. But before you fill your trolley with things that may never be used, check out these do’s and don’ts from students themselves.

Clever marketers know how to pull parental heart- and purse-strings as A-level, BTEC and other results come to fruition. But before mums and dads give free rein to thoughts of tidier bedrooms and a fully stocked fridge, and students relish the release from the ‘what time will you be back?’ question, there’s a big hurdle to jump first – the transition from home to halls. And with university freshers’ week looming large, it’s easy, in the excitement and apprehension of this next phase of life, to be sucked into buying ‘stuff’.

Lots of what’s needed may already be available from within family – ask grandparents who have downsized, or just accumulated a lifetime of crockery and cookware, what they can spare, for instance. And bear in mind that items parents feel are essential, or just want to buy as a treat and reward for getting to uni, may never be used. So what did students make the most of once they’d settled in? Ahead of a pre-university shopping spree, I asked a few of last year’s freshers and freshly graduated adults what every parent preparing to buy up the store should know.

Don’t get too much crockery and cutlery

Within weeks of purchase that 24-piece set of blue-handled cutlery you thought was a distinctive (and identifiable) must-have could well have been absorbed into a mass of shared kitchenalia. Worse, its destination could be under another student’s bed, festering with unwashed plates and other ‘borrowings’. There always seems to be one housemate whose room is a black hole pulling other people’s belongings into its orbit. And mounting a retrieval raid can be difficult. It’s easier, in the first few days and weeks, to keep track of a set of one or two knives, forks, dessertspoons and teaspoons, and bowls, tea-plates and dinner-plates. Your teen could keep a spare of each in their room to cover losses and breakages until they’re sure they won’t go missing. That said, less crockery may not be altogether better.

“I wish I’d had more plates, bowls and cutlery so I didn’t have to wash up ALL the time,” says Victoria, adding that these would have been ideal when new friends came around.

Other kitchen essentials mentioned by more than one student include a lidded pan for pasta and a cheap frying pan.

“A frying pan and fairy lights were the best things I was bought for uni,” says Lydia, who graduated last year. She also made use of a far-from-essential food mixer and baking equipment simply because she loves cooking, but she turned down a fellow fresher’s offer of cash in exchange for a share of her regular meals on the grounds it was too much responsibility (and he was lazy and should try harder). Meanwhile Amy found a toastie maker an invaluable addition to her kitchen. “We used that loads!” she says.

A frying pan and fairy lights were the best things

A multi-purpose oven- and microwave-proof dish with lid may prove an important addition as it can be used for baking, roasting, reheating and serving. One small and sharp knife, an easy peeler, plus a chopping knife and board are enough for all preparation. No student really needs an array of Sabatier or sushi standard blades. Besides, if anything does go astray or your teen discovers their culinary genius ahead of impressing a new partner, most big supermarkets sell cheap and cheerful ranges and the charity shops close to halls will have items donated by last year’s graduates who couldn’t find room for them in the car they left in.

Tone down the bed linen

Your fresher may not be ready to relinquish their Harry Potter bedset, while you want to upgrade them to matching bedding complete with toning cushions, to show you care and ensure they’re not teased. There’s nothing wrong with buying new for uni and ditching the young teen look, but check whether your ‘baby’ will be sleeping in a single or double bed (many student rooms cater for cuddling up at night) so you buy the right sizes. Unless your teen can style out a loud pattern, opt for plain-dyed bedlinen (at least two sets of everything) and don’t forget to add in a couple of mattress covers. The chances are, student bedsheets won’t see a washing machine above once a term and will come back at Christmas, or even at the end of the academic year, looking like a shroud (especially if fake tan has been involved).

Printers and stationery

Your student son or daughter probably owns a laptop, but may have been using the family printer. If you buy new, make sure the ink refills are cheap as some cost more than the printer to replace. Getting wifi access set up (the uni welcome pack issued when they collect their keys covers this) and creating a study scene on their desk area will encourage a continued work ethic and cut procrastination time once the hard work starts.

Few students will turn down a supply of paper, a couple of notebooks and pens, so put these in the trolley along with a small pot of coloured drawing pins to make it easy to decorate. Many student rooms have a ban on sticky tape and tack for posters, favouring corkboards instead.

“It’s a small thing, but I didn’t bring any pins and I wished I had,” says Polly. “I wanted to put up timetables and photos but didn’t want to go searching for them in Aberystwyth in my first week or so!”

It’s a small thing, but I didn’t bring any pins and I wished I had…

A personal supply of sticky tape (now you’re no longer going to be on hand as official tape finder and dispenser) and a glue stick may also prove useful. Tuck a family and pre-prom photo among the ‘congratulations’ and ‘good luck’ cards they received from friends and family ready for them to put up or look through once you’ve left the building. These will also serve as a reminder that they’ve been working towards, and looking forward to, this day and that many of their schoolmates are also heading for pastures new.

Other essentials

Shower gel, shampoo, toothpaste, sanitary products and that all-important must-buy special antiperspirant can add significant expense to a grocery bill. Maybe you want your teen to realise the harsh realities of semi-independence and the cost of branded buys, but initially, it’s nice to stock them up with a small supply of their preferred toiletries to remind them of home and help keep their finances in order. If they don’t already know that supermarket own-label will do the job just as well when their little stash runs out, expect to be enlightened about this (and several other things they’ve ‘discovered’) when they come home at Christmas. A pot plant (succulents are the in-thing) can also add a home-from-home feeling to an otherwise impersonal room.

Another recent graduate, Clare, recommends buying a coin purse just big enough to cram in ID, campus card and £10 for a night out. But speaking of non-essentials though, Clare reveals one much-loved treasure that never left her room. “I had a really nice Emma Bridgewater teapot that I wouldn’t let near any of our kitchens over the three years.”

On the money front, encourage your student to download a budgeting app, or sign up for their bank account’s spending monitor to help them stay on track in this first term. That way they won’t be coming back for handouts before the Christmas holidays (fingers crossed), when the empty fridge and full washing basket for a month will be reinstated back home.

Best buys according to students

  • Airing rack
  • Fairylights
  • Frying pan
  • Mattress topper
  • Mini fridge, if you can wangle one
  • Pins for the pinboard
  • Quadruple plug extension and power breaker
  • Wok (for cooking large quantities in one go, then storing).

Less useful

  • First aid kit
  • Beanbag
  • Fancy teapot.

Five stores selling back to uni items that won’t break the bank

Argos

Debenhams

Ikea

John Lewis

Next homewares

With thanks to Frank B, James C, Clare E, Hector F, Amy J, Lydia K, Polly K and Victoria P for their input.

© Copyright Sandra Kessell

This article is unsponsored. Contact me to work with me.

Light years away

…—… SOS © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

 

Fittingly, I’ve book-ended the Bruce Munro installations at Waddesdon Manor, visiting only the first and last years of his exhibitions, since a ‘proper job’ meant I was unable to get to the intervening open evenings. And so it was a pleasure to accept this latest invitation to see the paths his dreams in light have taken.
Not for Bruce – not here – the comfort of ‘pretty’. In any case, illuminated alliums now hang in their thousands in municipal Christmas decorations across countless towns and cities and his installations represent so much more than lights in a shopping precinct. This year, 2015, Bruce seeks to capture the zeitgeist by questioning our consciences and the extent of our charity. *

“The effect is stunning… it halts you in haunted tracks”

If that seems an austere approach at Christmas, it isn’t – visually at least. Bruce’s ethereal, elegiac and engaging installation glows through the shrubbery and his sounds echo across the gardens like mythical sirens calling passers-by. But as you make your journey towards the sounds, the giant tree ferns lining the path loom through the darkness, their white winter fleeces looking for all the world like bandages wrapped around dreadful wounds. Once you’re standing alongside the site it is apparent the music is a series of segue-ways from pop to rock to opera, transmitting simultaneously from over 100 single-person tents, paying homage to the charity Shelterbox. The sound and light show lends the tents a disco feel, until without warning, the nylon canvasses shot through with the purple, blue and red are punctured alarmingly by white light accompanied by the ditditdit, dahdahdah, ditditdit of more than 100 SOS messages.

“The …–––… of more than 100 SOS messages”

This voyage of son et lumière, Bruce explains, has been inspired by the desire to couple his work with a specific charity and the teen memory of twiddling the dials on the radio to find a favourite station (he had to replicate some of the sounds with actors, since the BBC wouldn’t grant him a licence to use any original recordings). It’s all manufactured, of course. Anyone hovering around the same age as Bruce will remember not only the distant Morse code messages but the buzz of white noise and the seemingly meaningless repetitions of a five-note tune transmitting mournfully across the airwaves. But for all that the tents don’t house refugees, the effect is stunning nonetheless. It halts you in haunted tracks.
Get away from the crowds for a moment if you can, and take in the installation alone. For it is only when you stop that the sound of your own humanity cuts through life’s hubbub and Bruce’s brightly lit tents encourage your empathy for fellow humans.

SOS © Bruce Munro 2015
…—… SOS images © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

NB: Bruce Munro’s light installation is part of the Winter Light at Waddesdon Manor Christmas season running from Wednesday 11 November to Sunday 3 January (closed 24–26 December).
The seasonal decorations have been created in 20 rooms, including the Bachelors’ Wing, and around the manor’s exterior. Feature table settings, Christmas trees and room tableaux continue the theme of Lights & Legends, all with a backdrop of the matchless Rothschild Collection and the manor itself.

©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear
©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear

*If anyone cares to delve further into the history of the manor, during the Second World War, the Rothschilds moved into the Bachelors’ Wing, leaving the main house to children evacuated from London.

To find out more visit the Waddesdon Manor website.

More on Moore

Henry Moore Foundation. Miners at the Coalface
Henry Moore, Four Studies of Miners at the Coalface, 1942. Photo: The Henry Moore Foundation archive. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation.
Tunnel shelterers Henry Moore Foundation
Henry Moore, Study for ‘Tube Shelter Perspective: The Liverpool Street Extension’, 1941. Inv. HMF 1649. Photo: The Henry Moore Foundation archive. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation
Hill Arches. Henry Moore sculpture at Waddesdon
Hill Arches 1973, reproduced by kind permission of the Henry Moore Foundation Photo: Mike Fear

The last of summer beckoned us over to Waddesdon Manor – a quick enough and largely traffic-free cycle ride from here even if it does involve a hill or two. It was the exhibition of 100 of Henry Moore’s drawings at the Coach House that attracted us (though there’s much more to Waddesdon Manor, if you have the time to go regularly). We’ve been trying to get over to see From Paper to Bronze all summer and felt it was this weekend or never, before the doors close on October 25.

As so many of Moore’s monumental sculptures feature prominently in urban and accessible spaces, his name is associated with a recognisable style. What may be less well-known to those of us used to seeing his statues in parks, precincts and on university campuses was his ability as a draughtsman. On entering the exhibition you’re immediately struck by the serenity of the double sculpture King and Queen as they oversee the space with a quiet but imposing presence. Originally intended for an outdoor landscape, they also work well close-to – Moore paid meticulous attention to the delicate detail of the couple’s hands and feet and the view of their backs. For my part, I was particularly pleased to see an industrious spider had set up home in the King’s crown, lending him a benevolent air.

The evolution of the man from youth to twilight years is expressed through his artistic eye.

But for all the statues’ authority, it was the depth in the drawings on display that struck me most. Moore was an inveterate sketcher who produced thousands of such works, his output varying in quantity and quality according to his age and purpose. The evolution of the man, from directed youth to influenced young scholar, to innovative master, before he settled into the unchallenging sketches of his twilight years, is expressed through his artistic eye. The exhibition’s set-up along a timeline gave it a palpable wistfulness, I felt. Through the drawings I could trace the vigour of youth, the confidence of middle years and the decline into decrepitude (Moore suffered arthritis in old age). His work reflected his moods, from love and admiration through despair and anguish to hope and on to acceptance. Most striking for me were the designs commissioned for textiles and the drawings he made during his period as a war artist, recording the extraordinary nightly scenes in the London Underground and in the coal mining pits of Yorkshire.
Maybe the autumn winds and angle of the sunlight lent the gallery a melancholic mood that day, but I was left with an impression of a way of life lost and wondered what today’s artists, viewed in 30 years’ time, will have left the next generation, either in the way of monumental art, teaching foundations or pure visual pleasure.

If you can’t get along to Waddesdon it’s worth a trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park which Moore helped to found or a visit to the Henry Moore Studios in Hertfordshire.

NB: Exhibition details

From Paper to Bronze runs until October 25, after which the manor adopts its Halloween programme over the half-term holiday. It dons its annual winter festival lights and looking forward to Christmas and this year’s Bruce Munro installation.

*After checking in at the new visitors’ car park cyclists can pedal all the way to the top of the hill and use the cycle racks in the staff car park. It’s well worth the extra effort for the views across Aylesbury Vale and beyond and the thrill of the return journey down the other side of the hill.

An afternoon at Windmill Hill

SP_A0140James finally found a free Friday afternoon this month to visit the artworks and architecture at Windmill Hill, so I’ve retrieved this blogpost from the archive, written on a windswept and wet opening day.

Sandra Kessell

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a sneaky preview of the latest attraction at Waddesdon Manor. Not, as you might think, a new piece of art bought by the renowned collector Jacob Rothschild, whose family built the manor – but instead a glorious new building. Designed by Stephen Marshall Architects, the cynical might suggest that such a breathtaking location and, presumably, budget, ought to bring out the best in any architect worth his salt, but whatever your viewpoint – inside, outside, aesthetic, architectural, structural – it is a triumph of the kind only a love of the English landscape, combined with skill and vision, can create.

Add to its already charmed pedigree items from Lord Rothschild’s modern art collection and the fact it will be open to the public and available for hire and you can see why the art world, architectural…

View original post 123 more words

The Mummies Return

In celebration of Rick Mather’s architecture and his visionary work on The Ashmolean, I’m reblogging this: The Mummies Return

Sandra Kessell

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up…

View original post 1,149 more words

In praise of the annual round robin family newsletter

It may be unfashionable to say so, but I like round robin Christmas letters. Not that I write one, you understand, but I do so love to receive them.

Lynne Truss’s six-part radio sketch, aired on Radio 4 in the run-up to the festive season, was a poke at proud parents who write gazettes detailing every last cough of their offspring’s year. She suggested replies ranging from the ironic sneer to the openly deranged communiqué to counter their authors’ enthusiasm and discourage unwanted repeat missives next year.

I’d feel cheated if I didn’t get half-a-dozen or so such letters before Christmas Day.

If you move house several times following a career you make new circles of friends around the country, or even the world, but that doesn’t mean the old friends should be forgotten. There are too few hours in the day, days in the year, to see them all, so an annual round-up of a year’s events helps me follow the friends I made at NCT classes; the friends I made when our children (now grown-up) went to nursery together whom I no longer see.

“We had tickets to Super Saturday – how lucky were we?”

I like to hear that Catherine has just been on tour with her University of Cambridge jazz group and Ashley is riding for Paul Schockemöhle. That Matt and Helen (an old schoolfriend) have bought a tandem and are cycling the 38 miles return into central London on a regular basis. I want to know that the family I once lift-shared the school run with, who have had a bumpy year, are getting over cancer (her) and a period of redundancy (him). There’s the odd boast, it’s true “We had tickets to Super Saturday – how lucky were we?” – but I don’t feel put out or envious, any more than I need to retaliate by penning a barbed reply.

Some friends are so aware that the round robin is now frowned upon that they open their letter with an apology and an invitation to let them know if it’s too boring and I wish to ‘opt out’ of future years’ missives.

I don’t. Facebook isn’t the same, Twitter can only reveal so much in Tweet and the telephone is too limiting. Send me a printed out (or even e-mailed) annual update and make me smile. Who knows, I might even compose one myself next year.

You can listen to Lynne Truss’s radio programmes here.

The Story Museum in Oxford takes on a new lease of life.

ImageLast week I took my un-literary medic daughter and her friend for a tour of the Story Museum in Oxford. We arrived in true la-la fashion – in the maze of Oxford I couldn’t actually remember where Pembroke Street was, though I knew what it looked like – and after admiring the doorbells (see above), the work of resident artist Ted Dewan, we entered the magic kingdom of fiction, make-believe and all things creative.

It’s not that my daughter doesn’t read, she reads a lot, but her taste runs mostly to medical text books – she also has a medics’ anatomy colouring-in book, but that’s another story. She looks at me as if I’m a little odd when I rhapsodise about fiction. I suppose we need doctors as well as writers.

The Story Museum has found a home in Rochester House, supposedly built on the site of an inn frequented by Samuel Johnson when he was at Pembroke College (you can tell the stories here are going to run and run). It has served as Master’s lodgings and a Royal Mail, for which read GPO if you’re as old or older than I am, sorting office. Behind the main front door is another front door, with a sliding hatch and a circular counter, ideal for popping a head out of, if anyone felt so inclined. Everything about the house is “Just right” as Golidlocks might have said. There are stairs winding endlessly up to proper untouched writers’ garrets in the top of the house, creaky floorboards, wacky blackboards and odd signs on doors – which writer in residence Michael Rosen is keen to keep.

“Only dragons are allowed to smoke in the courtyard” proclaims one notice as we step into the world beyond the main Victorian building to a series of 1930s warehouse-like offices and rooms which flank all sides. One can feel (if one’s not a medic) oneself being pulled into the world of make-believe as posters and card-board cut-outs from the city’s last Alice Day stare out of windows.

“Who or what made the huge holes in the walls?” I ask Cath Nightingale, the museum’s press officer, imagining giant masonry-eating rodents still living in the corridors and roof spaces. The answer is much less poetic. Before taking on the lease, the Story Museum had to be sure the building wasn’t about to fall down and it’s structural engineers’ tests of the steel within the walls that have rendered the plaster and brickwork somewhat patchy here and there.

A very generous anonymous donor put up the £2.5 million necessary to buy a 130-year lease from Merton College and suddenly, along with a vast quantity of pigeon guano, a set of keys that would have impressed a Victorian chatelaine was handed over. Other effects have been found in the building and put to good use by avid collector, inventor and artist Ted Dewan, who has set up a workshop full of the kind of things you’d forgotten existed.

A programme of clean-ups and running repairs has been started to restore the buildings to some kind of new life after the years of neglect and decay. Some parts remain appropriately spooky, others, cosy, warm and inviting. Some have an airy spaciousness, others have a dark intimacy. The Bodleian Library’s presses have found a home here, and print workshops are already being run on site. The Creation Theatre is using the space for rehearsals, prior to its next season.

With little twists of creativity and running commentaries from visiting writers present at every turn, the building is not only a receptacle of fiction but a giver of stories and ideas to its visitors. If it inspires a new generation of authors to rival Philip Pullman, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll the money spent on the building will be an investment. If it offers children a run of imagination and riot of fancy in a world populated by exams, hoops to jump through and prescribed teaching, who cares whether they go on to be writers or doctors? As long as they let their parents accompany them, everyone will gain.

The Story Museum is scheduled to open fully in 2014. You can find more about it and the building programme here http://www.storymuseum.org.uk/the-story-museum/aboutus/ourbuilding/Rochester-House

The Mummies Return

Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up the existing galleries, ousted the shop from the former Ruskin Gallery, repositioned cabinets (rather counter-inuitively) into the walls – and gives visitors more floor space and circulation room, making the whole welcoming and airy and – as architect Rick Mather puts it – an exhibition without dead ends.

As someone who visits the Ashmolean regularly I confess, I used to skip past these galleries and so had no idea they were home to the Shrine of Taharqa – the only pharaonic building in Britain. A gift to the University of Oxford from the rulers of Sudan as thanks for the work done preserving the country’s decaying sites and treasures, it arrived in 1936 like something from an Indiana Jones film, in 150 packing cases. Since it had to be assembled on metres-deep foundations it couldn’t be moved during the renovations and the exhibition is centred around it. But I’d never noticed this sandstone edifice before. Stripping black paint off glass bricks in the vaulted ceiling above it has allowed what looks like natural daylight to flood through to highlight its shape and throw its carvings into relief. In fact, it’s a trick of the eye – fluorescent lights have been installed over the glass because the courtyard beyond will be the subject of revamp Phase Three.

Shrine (detail) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Patrick Berning of Rick Mather Architects explained that choosing the lighting had been another key element of ensuring the galleries evoke the exhibits’ homelands in the Nile Valley – bathed in sunlight and dappled by moonlight.

Coffin lid of Djeddjehutyiuefankh ‘Jed’ © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Think Ancient Egypt and you can’t help but think mummies – and, possibly dry, dusty sarcophagi with ghoulish contents. I used to be scared by the exposed mummy in my home city’s museum at Norwich Castle and I was unimpressed as a small child when my school entered the Ancient Egypt frenzy and friends queued around the British Museum to see the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition (though I’ve never forgotten how to spell the name).
These are things that become etched into the memory, but as the Ashmolean’s Assistant Keeper Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Liam McNamara, emphasises with schoolboy-like zeal, far from being obsessed with death the ancient Egyptians wanted to celebrate life and much of what is on show does just that. Liam has the kind of earnest enthusiasm for his subject that causes journalists to throng around him as he explains each display case’s contents and he’s touchingly concerned that another of the key exhibits, the mummy of ‘Jed’ has been found to be missing his heart – vital for weighing in the balance on reckoning day.

Bringing these mummies back into the museum’s centre and treating them with the reverence they would have been afforded at death has been a labour of love by the museum’s world-renowned conservators. Using innovative and inventive methods, they have prepared both the familiar pieces and some that have never before been seen by the public. New cases featuring micro-climates within allow coffins, portraits and artefacts to be displayed in fascinating detail, while modern scans have helped unravel the stories of the people beneath the wraps.

Life After Death gallery © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

Head of Conservation Mark Norman – who still can’t believe he and his staff were granted such a wonderful space to work in – the top-floor overlooking-the-city state-of-the-art north-facing studios housed in the newly built part of the Ashmolean – later explains the museum’s policy of respect and honour for any human remains in its possession. Taking us on a tour of those conservation studios (an oasis of calm now all the exhibits are back in position) he considers that the museum would never put an exposed body – for example a crouched burial – on show – and would be highly sensitive even to acquiring such a item for the museum’s collection.

The new galleries are an opportunity to exhibit world-renowned artefacts in a world-class place – but what’s on show still represents only 4 per cent of what the Ashmolean has, although Mark Norman is at pains to explain that much of what is behind the scenes would only be of interest to scholars and experts – shards and fragments – a bead, a tile, a shred of fabric, for example. Nevertheless, it’s such vast reserves that make the Ashmolean’s collections of early Egyptian material one of the most significant in the world outside Cairo.

That said, the museum as a whole is now Britain’s most visited outside London and Dr Brown (speaking candidly at lunch) said that if you think education should be free – and he does – ensuring that entry remains free is paramount to encouraging people’s knowledge. Wooed from the National Gallery, where he was Chief Curator, he is backed by a team of like-minded experts and visionaries – people like Project Director Henry Kim and Keeper of Antiquities Dr Susan Walker. Dr Brown thinks big and thinks the museum and the University, of which it is part, were lucky that the remodelling process started when financial confidence was high and funds could be secured. The current economic gloom may account for museum’s ongoing appeal – somewhere to visit on a wet Saturday rather than a trawl around the shops, perhaps.

Dr Brown always liked the way people popped into the National between train journeys or to see one or two things on their way to somewhere else and that’s something he’s been successful in translating into the cosmopolitan, but small, city of Oxford.

The Ashmolean’s newest galleries won’t appeal to everyone – there will always be naysayers who will dislike the smart-phone-like information guides and headsets and will gripe about the price of a coffee in the basement café (the top-floor dining room is invariably packed at lunchtime, so clearly no-one minds the prices there). But as my son – then aged 12 – remarked when the Ashmolean re-opened in 2009, entry is free and they do have to make their money somewhere. The profit from these ventures last year was £3 million and a large amount of that was creamed off and put back into running the museum, Dr Brown revealed while eating a sandwich. You can always take your own sarnies with you and sit on a bench somewhere quiet to save cash. Visiting the Ashmolean needn’t cost more than the price of a bus ticket – and that can’t be bad in these times of austerity.

Favourite things:

Min statue (3300BC)
Carved silkstone figure 3600-3500BC
Clay lion (2686-2175BC)
Protective amulets (on loan from Queen’s College)
Painted wood portraits
Artist Angela Palmer’s re-creation of a young child on 111 glass slides

Ashmolean Mummy Boy by Angela Palmer © Richard Holttum

Don’t miss

The Master Drawings exhibition 25th May-18th August 2013

For more information about the Ashmolean Museum and all its exhibits visit www.ashmolean.org or tel: 01865 278000.
Admission is free, donations are welcome.

*Please note images here have been used with the permission of The Ashmolean Museum Press Office & The University of Oxford.

December update – Lights, Strictly Christmas and action

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ve been busy interviewing, writing and bringing up my (not very small) babies… and I’ve got the lurgy. Here’s a taster of what my diary has been filled with recently.

My daughter celebrated her 18th birthday last week. It’s true to say I have no idea where the time’s gone since she was born. It barely seems two years since I was asking myself how my son had reached 18. I can’t say I don’t feel my age since bits of me are creaking and, with the lurgy, croaking, but 18 years? Really? I’d better get used to the idea my baby is all grown up, however, she’s interviewing for a place to study medicine at various universities around the country – another pull on my time as well as hers.

The night before her interview at Liverpool University I whizzed along to Waddesdon to see the Christmas lights at the Manor. This is one of my favourite invitations of the year. Waddesdon Manor ‘s current series of Christmas themes is the great European cities settled in by the Rothschilds’ banking sons – last year was Frankfurt, this year, Paris. Waddesdon Manor really is magical any time, but with the bachelor’s wing specially decorated for Christmas (the planning takes months) and the trees outside spectacularly lit it’s well worth a visit. I went on the guided tour with an acquaintance who also happens to be the marketing director at another of the nation’s grand houses. I’m sure she won’t mind me mentioning she was more than a little wistful when she saw how beautiful the Manor’s Christmas decorations were, and she had to have two buns at the press tea to make up for it.

Galloping through to December I found myself interviewing Fern Britton (that’s the Ready Steady Cook Fern, not the other one, in case you’re one of those people who get Fearne Cotton and Fern Britton muddled). It required a quick turnaround with only a day’s notice. I was busy all morning and into the afternoon, but Fern and I arranged to meet at the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home office at 5pm – it’s a charity she’s supporting with her renewed enthusiasm for cycling. I sat in the car park waiting for a while, then knocked on the door and met up with the IRHH’s PR officer, Gemma.

As we made a cup of tea, Fern arrived and what struck me was her poise and elegance and down-to-earth entrance. She parked her little run around in the car park and skipped in from the rain. Everybody complimented her on her looks – she was glammed up thanks to the make-up artists at the BBC, where she’d spent the afternoon recording the trailer for Strictly Christmas. There was no mistaking the subtext in the comments – she’s lost stones in weight and every woman in the office noticed. Fern was candid enough to tell me about her battle with the bulge in the interview. I’ll post it here just as soon as it’s published.

Within days of interviewing Fern an e-mail inviting me to interview House of Commons Speaker John Bercow turned up in my in-box. I’ve been chasing this interview for several months, but with the election and his busy schedule there’s been no space in his diary for me. I always approach my interviewees with an open mind. That’s not to say I don’t read up on them before I meet them or I give them an easy time, but there’s also no point standing on the sidelines with an agenda and if you want a fair interview you have to be an impartial observer. I did ask John Bercow for his views about the HS2 Link (which will affect many of his constituents adversely) and question why there was such a furore over the omission of LibDem and Labour candidates from the Buckingham ballot paper last May. I hope my interviews give you the feeling you were in the room with us and that the questions I asked were those you wanted answered. You can let me know what you think of the interview when I’ve posted it, but in meantime it’s on hold for a couple of months until the magazine that is paying me for it can fit it in.

In the run-up to Christmas I’m writing an article for The English Home which has been fun, though with my lurgy flattening my senses, I’m feeling slightly worried about when I’m going to chase up all the loose ends. The deadline is next week.

It’s been a busy month, so I’ve had little time for fiction writing – I know there are people out there who say you should make time if you want to be a writer of fiction. I assume these people don’t have five children at home and have a living to earn and a household to run at the same time. Or maybe they have a wife. I have been working on Fallen, since my other fiction has taken a bit of a back seat at the moment. I have taken to reading a couple of light (if there is such a thing) crime novels while I get over my ‘flu-like lurgy. They’re not my usual thing, but I thought I ought to get a bit more of a handle on the genre if I’m writing what seems to be shaping up into a crime mystery sci-fi thriller. I’ll post the next instalment of Fallen soon, I promise.

In the meantime I wish you a Happy & Healthy Christmas. Now where’s my box of tissues?

Mad Men hits the mark


Me, Mum, Dad and my older brother

Recently, I’ve found myself looking out for Mad Men, the hit television series about a New York advertising agency in the 1960s. Alerted to the show by the likes of India Knight and Liberty London Girl on Twitter, I’ve become an intermittent fan (though I’m useless at remembering when it’s on). I’m fascinated – not only by the storylines, but with the sets and the social mores. This morning, reading an e-mail from my 80-something uncle, the reason suddenly dawned on me. It’s like stepping back into my early childhood. The fabric, the figures, the hairstyles and the shoes are all visible in the snapshots my uncle is archiving for “the cousins.”

Mum and her sisters were gorgeous as well as glamorous – their brother, my father and my uncle as handsome as Don Draper. With their exotic background and innate stylishness they set an impossibly high standard for their offspring to aspire to – although maybe it’s just we live in a different era. We can’t be bothered with the lipstick and heels for a trip to the park, but we’d never match up to their standards anyway. Sitting at my desk, make-up-less and and in jeans, with my hair scraped back off my face, I can’t help feeling a little sorry at the passing of those days. Still, thanks to my uncle* we can be whizzed back in time.

*These pictures remain my uncle’s intellectual property and copyright.

Great curtains!

My aunt and uncle
Aunty Madge and cousin Mel in the park
Aunty Madge and cousin Mel in the park
Mum, Dad and my brother, 1962
Mum and me on my first birthday