Recipes: Easy Vegan Wedding Food For 75 Guests

All the recipes I did for my wedding are below.  We got Lebanese, Caribbean and some store bought cakes.

vegan caterers wedding food picnic raw gluten free

As I said in my previous Wedding Wednesday post, we really struggled to find any single caterer in York who would cater to a vegan wedding.  I phoned some places, and I didn’t even get quotes because they just didn’t do vegan food.  I was suggested the supermarket sandwich platters, but not one single vegan option, let alone a whole platter.  They all did “the vegetarian option” which meant cheese sandwiches with that miserable commercial grated flavourless cheese.  Obviously this service cost close to £100.  I was convinced that I could find tastier, more nutritional and more satisfying food for less money.

I wasn’t really sure what to go with for food – as long as it was vegan and tasty – but as the day drew closer I decided I was definitely going to do everything myself.  I’d seen lots of doom and gloom posts warning about the potential for disaster here, especially because people labour under this bizarre idea that you either can cook or can’t cook, and that “being able to cook” is do do with being able to make very specific, Western-Centric dishes that are generally nutritionally void and full of dead animal, and if you’re putting people in those camps, then no, I can’t cook, but if you try to remember that the basic purpose of cooking is supposed to be to get nutrients, and then give me an Indian, Asian, Caribbean, South American or African recipe (you know, two thirds of the world) and I am in my element.  I was so confident that I could do better cheaper food than the sandwich platters, that I set myself a challenge: to cater my own wedding for under £50.  Then I started looking at what to feed people.

I chose a few Lebanese dishes and some Caribbean.  I spent a whole day in the kitchen cooking, the day before the wedding, and refridgerated everything.  For drinks, and a nice visible centrepiece, we did up a cheap big rocking horse (that we found on Ebay for £5) to make him look like Vash the Stampede (links to Youtube) and we added two bags for life to make saddlebags, which we filled with drinks. There was bottled water, and cans of lemonade, cream soda and mini juice boxes of fresh orange juice. We were a little worried about how an alcohol free and animal free banquet would go down, but in the end we decided we wouldn’t do it any other way.

Here is the full list of food I whipped up or bought for the wedding, including the details for all the recipes I made, grouping foods by location:

Caribbean:

Plantain Chips GF

Cassava Chips GF

Fruit Ginger Cake (store bought, not GF)

Cucumber Chow (Trinidad and Tobago): 2 peeled diced cucumbers; 3 cloves of chopped garlic; 6 coriander leaves (finely chopped); pinch salt. Put in bowl and mix. RAW VEGAN FRIENDLY, GF Add hot sauce for more authentic Caribbean taste – I chose not to as the day was already forecast to be roasting.

Lebanese:
Batata Kizbra: 4 lg potatoes (cubed); 1 bunch coriander (chopped finely); 5-8 crushed garlic cloves; 1 juiced lemon; 3 tbsps olive oil. Cook potatoes then fry the lot. GF
Malfouf: (cabbage rolls): 1 whole cabbage; 3/4 cup vegimince; 1 cup raw rice; 4 squeezed lemons; 1-2 tsp of Lebanese 7 spice; 3 tbsp olive oil. Cook the rice, prepare the mince, mix the two. Boil the cabbage leaves until they are supple and rolly. Roll the rice mix in the cabbage leaves. Put in pan. Pour lemon, spice, oil and garlic mix over. Simmer/marinade until tasty (or 40 mins if you’re unsure). Check your vegimince, the rest is GF.

Mujardara (rice lentils): 2 tins of green lentils, 1.25 cups of uncooked rice; 4 medium onions; olive oil. Cook rice and lentils together until the rice is done. Chop and fry onions in the oil, mix about half of the onions in with the rice and lentils and garnish top with rest. Serve with plain yoghurt as a side dish (I served with Alpro plain soya yoghurt). GF

Loubieh bi Zait (beans in olive oil): 3lbs green beans; 3 medium onions; 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil; 2 tsp of Lebanese 7 Spice; 1/2 tsp salt. Chop the beans and onions, saute onions until they start going pinkish. Add the beans, salt and 1/2 the spices. Mix well to ensure the beans are covered in stuff. Cover and simmer for 45-55 mins. Stir every 5 mins. Once beans have turned a dark olive colour, add rest of spice, mix well and serve. We served cold with pita, julienned bell peppers, and spring onions, but can also be served hot if you’re not feeding 75 in a public park miles from home. GF

Extra Nibbles:

I bought some tiffin (dairy free vegan), in chocolate and chocolate orange flavours, available from the Free From section of Sainsbury’s or many other supermarkets.  I went for 4 packets as there was a 4 for the price of 3 offer on at the time, and I cut each slice into 4 little slices (so we got 80 little slices from 4 packs of tiffin), and we had about half of the tiffin left over after the wedding).

There were also store bought apple and strawberry pastries (£2 for 18-20 from Brompton House bakery brand who make cheap pastries for ASDA and Home Bargains), a few packets of cassava chips (crisps made from Cassava, found in the Caribbean aisle of ASDA), a few packets of plantain chips (crisps made from plantain, found in the Caribbean aisle of ASDA), and a lot of packs of pitta bread to eat the Loubieh bi Zait.

bunny bowls wedding bowls easter

We got these cute bowls for 10p for a pack of 10 from ASDA and okay, they say Happy Easter on them, but they are bowls, you put food in them, and they have bunnies on them. If the words were in Chinese, nobody would even know what they said so I figured, meh, letters, people can get over it. Anyway, it’s never too late to wish people a Happy Easter. When I’m faced with a choice between something expensive with no bunnies on it, and something cheap which has bunnies on it, I am always going to choose the bunnies, it’s a complete no brainer. Since the wedding was filled with little touches of randomness, everyone thought we were being ironic and found it funny.

My main worry was whether this would feed enough people, since we had about 75 guests who actually turned up from 100 invited, but I needn’t have worried.  The actual problem was that there weren’t enough drinks for everyone.  On one of the hottest days of the year, we ran out of drinks which was very stressful.  I could’ve done without that.  It was fine though, because we moved the cake-cutting forward (apparently there’s a social cue that cutting the cake means the wedding party is over.  I accidentally cut the cake too soon, wanting to share it with my friends, and didn’t know why everyone left so suddenly) and we went home to where we had a stockpile of more drinks and a cupboard full of cups, and sat around with the last 20 guests playing video games.  The 3lbs of beans and the extensive amount of cucumber chow (I doubled the recipe) meant that everyone who wanted to eat something had something to eat.

I will do a separate post for my wedding cake, which was made inside the £50 wedding food budget.  Spoiler alert: It was made of cornflakes.

vegan wedding picnic food

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How I converted a Citroen Xsara Picasso into a Campervan

Travel Tuesday:  How I Converted A Citroen Xsara Picasso into A People Carrier Campervan Conversion

Today I want to talk about ROADHOUSE (my car camper)

Have you ever dreamed of owning a car that fits comfortably into a parking bay and STILL lets you sleep in it, stretched out, comfy and flat? That was the plan when I sold my £7500 Golf to buy a £600 Citroen Xsara Picasso (it was a category C write off, and had just been repaired when I bought it).

I reviewed the Citroen Xsara Picasso in a previous article, to tell you all of its good and bad points. In a future article, I’ll talk about WHY I swapped my VW Golf for a Picasso. Here I wanted to talk about how I converted the Picasso, and what we actually do when we’re on the road and we want to use our car as a camper.

There were some big problems I needed to overcome in order to “convert” my car. Here are the things I did, in order (click to go straight to that section or scroll to read the lot):

Took back seats out – NOTE this gets you an MoT advisory because it stops them checking rear seat belts, so put seats back in for your MoT.

Made window blocking panels.

Bought a memory foam mattress and stuffed it in.

Added a ceiling luggage storage.

Removed it again after Europe.

Scrapped window panels after Europe.

Put curtains in.

Added a shoe holder for storage.

Fitted the memory foam mattress.

Draped a blanket over the two front headrests.

Here we go then:

 

Took back seats out

 

– NOTE this gets you an MoT advisory because it stops them checking rear seat belts, so put seats back in for your MoT.

They were pretty easy to take out. They have a lever at the back, then you tilt the seat forward, and jiggle it with brute force and ignorance until it comes out. Swearing at it is optional. Why did I say easy? They were VERY easy when compared to a lot of other cars I’ve looked at, and they are designed to be removable so it wasn’t anything like trying to get the seat pad of the VW Golf out. My husband custom-built a storage unit in one of our spare bedrooms to keep the seats when we don’t want them in the car. This also makes the car more fuel efficient because they’re slightly heavy at around 15kg (which is the same weight as a cardboard fry box full of frozen McDonald’s fries).

 

Made window blocking panels.

I bought some silver coated insulating bubble wrap, at £7.99 a roll from Homebase. One window at a time, I held the insulation up against the car window and drew the shape of each window on separate areas of the bubble wrap, cutting each out before moving on to the next window. I was going to attach it with stickyback velcro, but when we set off for Europe I realised I’d left it behind, so I ended up using gaffer tape (duct tape, duck tape, same diff) and that was an okay fix although the condensation in the car caused the tape on the back window to unstick a lot and the stickiness of the tape damaged the panels so we couldn’t use the same ones again.

 

Bought a memory foam mattress and stuffed it in.

I bought mine off Ebay, I literally went for a 3 inch thick “memory foam” mattress. I had investigated a lot of options including cot mattresses, inflatables and roll mats, and decided this £17.99 memory foam mattress would be the cheapest. They had a two inch option at £14.99 as well but we thought that was sacrificing comfort. We just folded the lower end so that it would fit in the car, and after we got back from Europe we took it out of the car and put it on our bed to make it warm and cosy over winter. Update: We had to chuck it out after 15 months because it started to stink. It was still pretty cheap but I’m looking into other ways to do the same thing. To be honest you don’t really need it in summer even in the Highlands, but in the Alps, or in winter, something like this is essential.

 

Added a ceiling luggage storage.

I got some of that fabric that net curtains are made out of, and sewed it over some elastic at either end, then tied the elastic together and attached this to the handles above the rear doors. If there had been somewhere to attach it front centre this would have been a great storage idea, but as it happens it was mostly in the way and didn’t fit an awful lot in because it didn’t stay on the ceiling at all.

 

Removed it again after Europe.

I scrapped that idea for now, so storage is still an issue.

 

Scrapped window panels after Europe.

I decided that storing them in the car when you’re on a long journey is far too much hassle (you can’t legally have them in the windows when you’re driving which means you need to put them somewhere), so I looked at other options.

 

Put curtains in.

Basically I was SO squeamish about permanently damaging the car, because there were NO tutorials for how to put curtains into your car, so I used the thinnest drill bit available and drilled very thin holes into the plastic either side of the back windows, then screwed some eye hooks into the holes. I tied string to the eye hooks and sewed some curtains out of cheapass satin material that I had hanging around after I made a dress. I also used some nice ribbons as curtain ties to keep them out of the way as they tend to blow around the car if either of the front windows are open and you’re driving. I keep the bottoms of the curtains attached to the windows during sleep times by using the sticky back velcro that we forgot to take to Europe. It doesn’t stand up to a lot of force but if you open and close the velcro pieces carefully they’re a great solution to this problem.

how to put curtains into camper conversion

how to put curtains into camper conversion

 

Added a shoe holder for storing smaller items:

I dangled it down the back of the driver seat. It’s basically a fabric thing with loads of pockets, so we keep gloves, deodorant, binoculars etc in the little pockets, helping us to stay organised in a small space.

storage car campervan

(the Citroen Xsara Picasso car campervan tragically died due to a gearbox failure on a busy set of traffic lights – I was very ill at the time and had to force the car through the traffic lights so the damn engine seized up.  We are currently driving the hilariously inappropriate Rover 75, where I have installed the behind-the-seat storage just as it was in the Picasso, and the picture above is a photo of the back of the driver seat in the Rover 75).

Fitted the memory foam mattress

 

.

For Scotland, I had to change the shape of the mattress because we had to fit a kayak in there as well as our usual luggage. So I cut some of the length and width off the mattress so it also didn’t need to be folded at the foot end, giving us more foot room and making it more manoeuvrable if we needed it out of the way for any reason.

How to make a bed to convert a people carrier into a campervan camper car

How to make a bed to convert a people carrier into a campervan camper car

 

Draped a blanket over the two front headrests.

When we went to Europe we used one of those silver reflective panels in the front windscreen but it kept falling down and then people could see into the back of the car where I often needed to get dressed (I’m a chick. Sleeping in underwire gets uncomfortable after a couple of days. I also physically cannot sleep in socks). On our Scotland trip I realised that a fleece blanket or a microfibre towel does the job just fine. They can be easily removed when we want to pass through to the front of the vehicle or for when I’m driving so I still have full visibility.

This was when we were sleeping in it in Scotland.  That's an extra large microfibre towel from a camping shop.
This was when we were sleeping in it in Scotland. That’s an extra large microfibre towel from a camping shop.

Future plans for our camper:

1. Proper ceiling storage. I’m still not sure what to go for here, having exhausted every search term to try and find some inspiration, but once I work it out I’ll do an article on it.

2. Ventilation. I want to drill wall vents into the side of the car (on the non-petrol side) but since I drove the car through a wall on the petrol side a couple of months ago, I’m not sure if it still has the structural integrity to withstand more damage to the body.

3. Other storage. I need more storage solutions, although we fitted all our luggage and a kayak in with us when we went to Scotland a few weeks ago, it could still be better organized.

4. Rear window curtain – I was most recently using that silver sunshield gaffer taped to the back window because I haven’t made curtains for the rear yet.

Inside car camper van conversion roadhouse sleeping in vehicle wild camping campervan

You might also like:
International Window Tinting Laws for Cars Driving Around the World
Driving in Europe: The basics

Meat Free Monday: The King Of “Cheese” Sauces

Okay guys.  We’ve been building up to this for three weeks.  Today I share with you the ultimate vegan cheese sauce recipe, the one that you’ll want to make every time you do cheese sauce.  This is advanced sauce making.  It’s the one you can feed your parents and they’ll have no clue that there was no dairy in it.  The one you can use for vegan macaroni cheese, vegan cauliflower cheese or to do the top sauce for a vegan lasagna (leave out the “cheese” if you prefer a white sauce lasagna).

cheese sauce1

It requires the full arsenal of ingredients, but I make it a one-pan meal by cooking my broccoli or pasta in the pan, draining that then using the same pan to do the sauce.

You can measure the ingredients, but I don’t bother because it’s far more important to get a feel for how the ingredients interact with one another, and anyway, it utterly depends on how much sauce you want to make.  As long as there’s a good dollop of each ingredient in its packaging, you’ll be fine.

Here’s what you’ll need:

Equipment: Saucepan, butter or table knife, fine meshed sieve, fork, spoon (also: cheese grater if you’re not using cheese slices and wide meshed sieve as well if you need to get rid of lumps and don’t have a hand blender).

Ingredients:

1. Vegan butter.  I am currently preferring the Pure Soya spread.

2. Flour.  Recipe books always say to use plain flour for sauces, but I use self raising because I don’t “cook” (as in, make recipes that are nutritionally void and generally require some sort of flour) enough to have two types of flour in the house, and usually what I cook is cake, so self raising is just more useful to me and it’s never made a difference to my cheese sauces.  If it matters so much use plain flour.

3. Soy milk.  I haven’t tried it with other dairy free milk but I can’t see why it wouldn’t work, although rice milk is very watery.  I use unsweetened soy milk.

4. Either grated vegan cheese (e.g. Tesco soya medium, Cheezly, Scheeze block cheese or Violife block cheese) or slices of Violife, torn into small pieces (don’t kill yourself, it’s still gonna melt if it’s big pieces).

5. Something you want to cover in cheese sauce.  I go for pasta, cauliflower or broccoli, but it’s entirely up to you.

Method:

1. With a knife, get a dollop of butter and put it in the pan.  I use a small non-stick pan so there’s nowhere for lumps to hide later on.

2. Put the heat on a high medium (electric 4, or gas 20 past, with highest being half past if your cooker knob was a clock).

3. As the butter turns to a puddle but BEFORE it bubbles, grab a fine meshed sieve and pour a bit of flour in there.  You want a 1:1 ratio of flour to butter,

4. Stir continuously with a fork until you’ve got little balls of flour stuck together with butter, in a slightly orangey colour (not brown, that’s burnt, if it went brown, start again).

The flour and butter should look like this.
The flour and butter should look like this.

5. VERY gradually add the milk:  Add a dollop, mix it together until it’s starting to form a thick liquid then add more milk, never stop stirring and never add loads of milk all at once.  If your sauce goes lumpy, it’s because you added the milk too quickly or didn’t stir out all the lumps.  Squash any solid lumps with a fork as you’re doing this.

This is lumpy and watery.  Keep stirring out the lumps and don't add any more milk until this has started to thicken.
This is lumpy and watery. Keep stirring out the lumps and don’t add any more milk until this has started to thicken.

6. Stop adding milk once your sauce is a nice thick sauce-like consistency.  Remember you want it to cling to the pasta or broccoli, not slide off.

7. Add the cheese and stir it in until it’s all melted.

This has thickened and has had the cheese added and is ready to serve.  Or add more cheese if you prefer.
This has thickened and has had the cheese added and is ready to serve. Or add more cheese if you prefer.  Or get rid of any lumps (see below).

8. If your sauce is super lumpy, as mine was (usually when I used dairy free Vitalite to do this), you have two options. Either use a wider meshed sieve (if you have one, the sort that you couldn’t drain quinoa through, but you could drain rice through) or a hand blender.

Lump Removal Method 1: With the sieve, get the bowl ready, put the sieve over it (bowl must be wider than sieve, unless you tilt the sieve so all the sauce falls from one place, or you will have cheese sauce everywhere), pour the cheese sauce into the sieve, and wait for the sauce to drain out, then throw away the lumps that are left.

Lump Removal Method 2: With a hand blender, leave the sauce in the pan and just blend out the lumps.  It usually thickens when you do this (because the lumps are the flour and butter that is also the thickener that gives the sauce its consistency).  If it’s too thick, stir in more milk, a little at a time, until it reaches the right consistency.

9. Use the spoon to get all the sauce out of the pan and enjoy that sauce!  If you’ve made too much, put the rest in a separate bowl in the fridge and enjoy it again tomorrow.

A note on cleaning: Get that pan straight under water if you’re not washing up before you eat.  That stuff can set really quickly.

A note on nutrition: Add a handful of peanuts for protein, and boiled kale for 5 a day if you’re putting this with pasta.

A note on gluten: This DOES work with GF flour, although it tends to require the usual liquid adjustments – but this is another reason why I didn’t give measurements, so just add liquid until it reaches the right consistency.  The chemistry of this recipe is exactly the same.

So there you have it.  The ultimate cheese sauce recipe.  If you were into your cooking before you became vegan, you may notice this is the standard white sauce + cheese recipe, and I’ve fully explained it so you can avoid all the pitfalls I have made with this recipe over the ten years I’ve been making it.

What will you eat yours with?  Do you have any better cheese sauce recipes?  Let me know in the comments!

Help! Rabbits Ate My Grass! How to Fix Your Lawn

Rabbit Care: How to Fix the Lawn

When the wooden bit was the entire run, we didn't have any problems moving it every three weeks to keep the lawn growing.
When the wooden bit was the entire run, we didn’t have any problems moving it every three weeks to keep the lawn growing.

So you got yourself a little pair of flufflets and you’ve put them outside during the day in a safe rabbit run or bunnyproofed garden so they can play and explore a new environment. The only thing is, they’ve ruined your lawn.

Why it matters:

Even if you don’t care about having a prize lawn, you need to care about fixing your lawn before it all dies because your rabbits will have nothing to nibble in their run if they’ve overgrazed all the grass. It takes surprisingly few rabbits to kill a lawn, as I’ve found out over winter. Even if they’re swimming in hay and straw, they still have a strong urge to graze outdoors.

What to do about it:

In the first instance, constantly moving the rabbit run around the lawn to stop overgrazing. Do it before the rabbits are playing in a patch of barren mud, so the grass has a chance of growing back.

If it’s happened over a longer period of time, or your rabbits don’t have enough grass to avoid it, or if your run is particularly large, or if it’s winter and all the grass couldn’t keep up with what the rabbits were eating (they don’t hibernate), you will probably need to look at replacing your lawn.

Having five rabbits, I like to ensure that the three outdoor ones have 24/7 access to their play area because they don’t keep the same circadian rhythms as humans (the thing that makes animals and people wake up or go to sleep), so they like to play out at odd times of the day. This means all of our lawn (which is half of our garden) has been a bunny village since August last year, when we used the panels of modular rabbit run to divide up the lawn for our bunnies. The two biggest outdoor bunnies have over winter had two thirds of the garden because the house rabbits haven’t wanted to go out at all. This means that Katie, who is above average size (but not giant) has overgrazed those two thirds of the lawn and the grass is all dead.

If this happens, you have two options:

1. Buy pre-made turf

Generally this option is only available in late spring/summer. Garden centres sell little patches of turf that you can unroll onto your lawn, stamp down, and water until it takes root and it should just keep growing. A good choice if it’s the right time of year and you need grass fast. The cons are that it’s fairly expensive to cover a garden, and it takes some time to get it to establish, and there’s no guarantee of quality; usually it’s better if you can get it first thing in the morning because by evening the rolls of turf tend to look like hay.

2. Buy grass seed

This is the hardest option, takes ages to work, but sometimes it’s your only choice. There’s no turf for sale anywhere near my house at the moment so I had to buy grass seed. I scarified the lawn by getting a garden fork and digging it into the soil, and turning it over to aerate the soil (which has become quite compacted). It’s always funny to me that grass seems content to grow in places with no soil where you don’t want it, but seems to have a hard time growing in its ideal conditions. I planted my seeds 6 weeks ago now. They were supposed to be a lawn by now because I bought fast growing seed. After 2 weeks, I got three metres by three metres of nothing. Not only that, but my rabbits are peeved that they can’t go into half of their rabbit run at the moment because I closed it off to ensure the seed had the best chance of growth. After 4 weeks, we got some sparse stubble – I would say about 40% of the seeds I planted actually sprouted. After 5 weeks, we’ve got some longer sparse stubble. But no more of the seeds have sprouted, and I still can’t let the bunnies on it because it’s not looking edible yet. I did make the mistake of trying to get them out there between week 3 and week 4, as some grass grew in, although I think it was just the original lawn reanimating itself into patchy zombie grass, but when they went out there was nothing edible. There’s still a lot of ungerminated grass seed sitting around in the soil.

Things I’ve learned about grass seed:

1. It makes your hands green.

2. It just sits there. It doesn’t even try to grow. How it’s survived as a dominant, hardy species I don’t know.

3. You need to rake it into the soil, and you need to stamp it down, and your garden looks awful while its growing.

4. You need to water it regularly while its growing. I am literally using about 5 buckets of water (2 gallon buckets) on that lawn every second day (you can’t water it in the sun so you have to wait until it’s shady, and I tend to forget) and I HATE wasting so much water but it’s the only way to get the stupid stuff to grow.

5. It doesn’t remotely grow at the density that you planted it at. I would say only 40% of the seeds I covered the lawn with have grown through as grass.

6. The rabbits will not stop chewing it at a reasonable point, they will eat it down to the soil, so to enable it to grow back, you have to stop them going near it until it’s growing in and ready to eat.

Whatever you do, it’s going to be expensive and time consuming, so as I’ve learned the hard way, the best thing to do is get the rabbits off the grass over winter so it stands a chance of growing back in time for spring. If you have little runs, moving them around the lawn is a good answer. Unfortunately, if like me you gave the bunnies the entire lawn to play on, you will need to monitor the situation carefully to make sure they don’t bite off more than they can chew.  But hey, look on the plus side – now you have rabbits, you will probably never need to mow the lawn again!

Why I Risked My Job To See Lynyrd Skynyrd in Concert

I went to see Lynyrd Skynyrd on Wednesday in Manchester.

The day after I received news that my mother had died, in December, I saved Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” to my bookmarks bar – so I could reach it from anywhere on the internet. My anchor. Hotel California was next to it – that had been there a little while longer. I may have contributed two to three hundred views to both videos over the last four months.

Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert Manchester April 22nd 2015

I knew that The Eagles’ Hotel California had always (to me) represented the death of the ideals of the sixties, the death of “the revolution” and all the rest of it. To my mind, it’s a song about how some people came to the party bringing innocence and were changed by the process they got intertwined with, then one day they wake up and realise the party’s over, and what’s left? What are they without the thing they thought they wanted? I’ve always felt this song very poignantly describes the loss of idealism and the crashing down of reality that eventually (in the UK) birthed both the punk movement and the reactionary new wave music. And before that, the angry young men genre of popular culture (you know, A Clockwork Orange, etc etc).

I digress. My point is that I understood why Hotel California was a present and perpetual influence over my emotional landscape. My mum had introduced it to me. Although she’d explained it as “a bunch of people who wake up one day and realise they’re addicted to drugs then they die.” I guess that interpretation was influenced by the way she lived her life.

But what about Free Bird? I only heard it for the first time last year, around January/February time. I was re-watching Dharma and Greg and realised that I couldn’t call to mind how the song [Free Bird] went. So I Youtubed it. And in the biggest oversight of my life, I realised I’d never actually heard it before.

When my mum died, then, I wasn’t too familiar with the song. I didn’t even know all the words. So why did those mournful chords reach into my heart and resonate so deeply?

Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert Manchester April 22nd 2015

I couldn’t work it out. I just kept listening over and over again, through the pain and sadness, through the regret and wishful thinking, the “if only’s” and the “why didn’t I’s” and it seemed to calm me, to bring me into the present, to centre me. I can’t explain it. It made me feel profoundly sad and utterly calm at the same time, like it was a dance I knew well. It remained a mystery, even as Lynyrd Skynyrd made it onto my Bands Bucket List, and even as I debated whether £90 for two tickets was affordable. I just knew I had to go and see them. Something was drawing me towards them.

This is how, on a school night, I dragged my husband out on the motorway to Manchester and back again, forsaking tea, the night before I had a work trial for a new job, because nothing else was as important as this. I didn’t know why.

Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert Manchester April 22nd 2015

I was enraptured by the whole set. Rickey Medlocke played the guitar with his teeth. Mark Martejka seemed to be playing his guitar with his charm. I stopped counting after Johnny Colt changed into his third hat of the set; a goggled top hat of the Steampunk variety, superceding some sort of furry animal. Gary Rossington’s black hat was far more rock-n-roll.  They did all their big ones – Simple Man, Tuesday’s Gone, That Smell… Someone a little closer to the front than me passed forward an adorable bear who was holding a card. Rather than discard it like any other band would have, Johnny Van Zant personally took it from her, thanked her, and showed everyone what it was before carefully putting it somewhere safe.  The level of interaction between the band and the crowd made you feel like this was all just a musical conversation, like you were catching up with old friends who you’d known for your whole life.  People you’d want to grab a beer with.

Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert Manchester April 22nd 2015 Johnny Van Zant

I noticed the confederate flag finally made an appearance at some point but I couldn’t tell you when, it wasn’t out for long, and it sat along side the stars and stripes which was out for the whole show. They’re really into their flags – they had the Union Jack out at one point as well, for Simple Man, which was dedicated to the American and British troops. I’ve heard (in the past) a lot of mumblings about associating the Confederate Flag with racism. Well, I’ve only ever associated it with the South and with the Dukes of Hazzard and with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Without getting into historiography, by taking the symbol and using it in this way, they are making it symbolize wholesomeness – the comparative freedom of the South, it’s values and distinctly different culture than that of the North. Perhaps I feel parallels between the American South and the English North. Anyways, we got to Sweet Home Alabama and the band all left. I started to wonder if they were going to play it. The suspense was tense. But the energy of the crowd buoyed me along – they seemed to be in on the joke.

Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert Manchester April 22nd 2015 confederate flag

Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert Manchester April 22nd 2015 Sweet Home Alabama Confederate Flag

I didn’t know at the time that they always play Free Bird for the encore.

Anyway, they came back out, and Peter Keys started a little something on the keyboard, and I didn’t really recognize it. Perhaps they were going to play something else instead.

Then the tune he was playing somehow morphed into the opening bars, and before I knew it, Free Bird was starting. If I could have saved one moment of my life to relive again and again, I’d choose the next twelve or so minutes. Johnny Van Zant nailed the lyrics (of course), it was just as perfect, no, it was more perfect than I had imagined. During the first chorus I started to cry a little, and I must have imagined it, but it seemed like Johnny had caught my eye, then got misty-eyed himself. I had to pull myself together. The rest of the verses went by too fast, I was hanging onto his every word, to every note, every drum beat. Then the extended instrumental solo started to rise up like a wave. Now, I’m not a surfer, but I think I got a good feel for what it’s like to surf just then. I started to feel buoyed up by the music, I marvelled that there were actual living people in front of me playing a song I’d only heard through my speakers. Michael Cartellone’s drums underscored the guitars that were weaving waves; I got higher and higher… then right at the crest of the wave, there was a light show. I got a little bit mesmerised with the lights on the ceiling (like a cat with a laser pointer) and I was just waving my hands above me and staring at the ceiling feeling like I was on some kind of acid (but I wasn’t).

Then it ended. I don’t know how it ended, it just washed away again and I was treading water in a sea of people. Then I managed to get a t-shirt. Having people selling merchandise out in the car park was pure genius to stop a bottleneck.

lynyrd skynyrd empty stage

I went home. I let the feelings settle. I was awestruck that those guys do that EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Just… wow. When they were playing, you genuinely believe that you are the only person in the audience and that they are playing just for you, that you are special and somehow, the world has been a brighter place since then. As I said before, it’s like going for a beer with some longtime friends.

If I never get to see another band off my bands bucket list (the bands I need to see before they kick the bucket), I don’t think I’ll feel like I’ve missed out. I don’t think any band I ever see after this could blow me away more than Lynyrd Skynyrd did on Wednesday.  I know that lots of bands were being referred to in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music, but for me, Lynyrd Skynyrd are officially The Band With Rocks In.

I was listening to Free Bird again on Friday via my mobile phone, stuffed into the car ashtray for volume, as my car has no sound system, and on the second replay, I suddenly understood why I’d stuck to it. It wasn’t that it felt like a message from my mum to me. It was from me to her. I was the Free Bird.

Back in 2005, I told her I wanted to go to university, she took it very badly and tried to kill me (she was in complete denial of some very big mental health problems and, despite the fact she’s always had a personality disorder, she literally wasn’t the same person or people who I’d grown up with – or taken care of since she ended up in a wheelchair when I was 9 years old), and when she failed to kill me, she called the police on me. They arrested me for breach of the peace even though she was the one who was shouting and screaming. When they let me out (no charges pressed, not even a caution, because the desk sergeant knew what she was like), they advised me not to go back. So I had left, I went away, I had to move on because otherwise I was going to die inside like a caged bird. So I spread my wings, I went on my own way, made a life for myself, it was hard having nobody in the world, and I felt awful for leaving, and worried about who was looking after my mother, especially after my sister ended up in a children’s home, and then ten years later, after struggling with anxiety for a year and paying for counselling, the very DAY after my last counselling session when I’d made my peace with what had happened, out of the blue I got a call from my sister who said she’d died of cancer. I went manic for a couple of weeks. Then when I came back down I just felt so bad that I had ever left.

I think the line that really made me realise why I’d fixated on this song is “If I stay here with you, girl, things just wouldn’t be the same.  ‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change.” I was always conflicted over leaving but there was no possible way I could stay any longer than I did because I couldn’t keep looking after her. I’d tried to stay, and things hadn’t been like they were before. I hated myself but I couldn’t stay. I had to go out and see everything and do everything and climb mountains and fall off high things and fall in love and protest against fascism and finish school and get a degree and work for minimum wage at 4am and get married and be down and out in a capital city and work as a professional ice skater and learn the ukulele and drive across Europe and go on a train across Europe and eat weird stuff and publish books and lose religion and find it again and lose it again and find it again and go to festivals and be in a film and…………..

so many things.

And I’m crying as I write this. Because I know that my mum – the persona who was motherly and caring and who occasionally tucked me in bed at night and would tell me a story or pre-set my keyboard with a lullaby, that mum would want me to go and do all those things. And all the other things I’ve done and am doing and am going to do. She would never have wanted to know she was causing me so much pain and anguish by making me stay and physically and mentally abusing me. That wasn’t the same person. And if I’d stayed, I wouldn’t have been able to look after my mum who read to me, I would have been hiding in a box from the mum who I ended up on three categories of the child protection register because of.

All through my childhood she was two different people, and one of them I cared so much about and didn’t want to leave behind, not ever. But the other one was nasty, and was just filled to the brim with vitriol and hatred and cruelty. And one day the nice one went away and never came back, and the nasty one got worse than she’d ever been before.

And that song is how I would explain it to her if I could. I know she can’t hear me. I always hoped she’d live to 80 and that the nice part would come back one day and that she could be part of my life again and I could make her proud.

And instead of feeling so full like it’s going to overflow with the lava of loss and pain and confusion, my heart feels quieter when I hear Free Bird. It’s like someone’s found out how my soul resonates and they’re playing it out loud.

I know they’ll never read this, and I know that there are probably millions of people who feel the same way about this song, but it just means so much to me, like no other song I know. Thank you, Lynyrd Skynyrd, for keeping your music alive, and for keeping the band going again after that first tribute in the 1980s. You guys are just so much bigger than the rest of us. I’m so glad I got a chance to see you perform and that I was only four from the front.  If anyone else is debating whether to see them or not, just go for it, they’re well worth the time and effort.

Oh and the next morning? I got to work on time and at the end of the day the manager didn’t even ask if I wanted the job, they just asked me for my bank details and gave me shifts for next week.  And I reckon that if I can get through a housekeeping shift after getting to bed at 2am and getting up at 6am and walking there, then I can probably keep doing this job for at least a little while.  Which is all I can ever commit to anything, except my dear husband who I have promised to always come home to, wherever I go to in the meantime.

See what’s on the rest of my Bands Bucket list
Other concerts I’ve reviewed.

Wedding Wednesday: The Venue

The venue (aka: WHAT IF IT RAINS?????? WRING YOUR HANDS AND GRAB A SAUSAGE!!!)

Note: I am going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert this evening and have a trial shift at a new job tomorrow all day, so I have pre-scheduled this post and tomorrow’s.  Comments might take a while to get an approval/reply.

I looked at a lot of venues. One thing no-one mentioned about planning a wedding is the sheer amount of time you’ll spend looking at crap you’ll never have. I felt like I’d had several weddings by the time mine rolled around. Reading other people’s weddings, particularly on Offbeat Bride, was a big thing I spent my time on. They have some of the most beautiful and unique weddings on there, and I don’t regret the time I spent looking; it didn’t mean I was going to change my plan, but I felt it was definitely important to look into alternatives and second guess myself just to be sure that I was getting the wedding I wanted rather than the wedding that was easy, cheap, least stressful, or any other independent factors.

The nicest venues I looked at were Gray’s Court Hotel and The Hospitium, in St Mary’s Abbey. We actually wanted to hire the gardens, but you can’t do that, apparently, and because the whole place is classed as a public park, the gates would get locked at 5pm which would have been a serious party killer.

I didn’t want the package on offer, however, because I didn’t really want a “bespoke wedding service” where someone else selected caterers, entertainment, etc and let me choose who sat where. There were no vegan friendly caterers in my city, and my future-husband-to-be had vetoed El Piano because he hates their food.  A package wedding wasn’t remotely appealing, so the need to have control of my own wedding (and to not feel pressured into expensive extras) took me elsewhere, although the pictures of the inside were beautiful. Also I wanted it to all happen outdoors, and I got the feeling they were geared more towards indoor weddings.

The stress on finding a venue was compounded by a LOT of relatives at Christmas (like, two weeks after we set a date, six months before the wedding) who kept asking question after question after question. We ended up divulging the vaguely held plans we didn’t really want to discuss and the structure of the conversation went something like this:

“Laura’s wedding was in a really nice place. Where are you having yours?”

“Well, we’re going to have the legal bit in a registry office because we’ve already booked it. Then we’re having a big party somewhere, but we haven’t quite decided yet.”

“What about hiring a hotel? There’s some really nice ones in your area!”

“We didn’t really want a hotel, they’re so corporate and impersonal.”

“They’re not all expensive! You can get packages starting from £3000.”

“Our budget is £500. But that’s not the point…”

Dead silence.

Crickets chirp.

Forced laughter.

“We always said we would help pay for your wedding. We have £3000 saved for your wedding so you don’t have to settle for something you might regret.”

“Thanks, but we want to do it ourselves. But that’s not the point, we really don’t want a hotel.”

“But you won’t be able to have a wedding for that amount. Sometimes it looks like things are cheap but in reality when you add the costs up it’s quite expensive.”

“We were thinking of taking a LOT of the cost out of it by having it outside.”

“OUTSIDE???????”

Dead silence.

More crickets chirping.

“But… but what if it rains?”

“Um… We haven’t really looked into it yet.”

These conversations went on and on, round and round in circles. I will dish about how I dealt with this constant erosion of my confidence in my vision of our wedding day in a later article, because it deserves an article of its own.

Anyway, I really didn’t care if it rained. But I recognised that some guests might care. Namely the ones raising the most objections during the planning phase. So I started to research solutions.

First was the suggestion by a well meaning relative to hire a bus and have the party on the bus.  I was so desperate to stop the constant questioning on and on and on with the underlying implied judgement, that I ignored the fact that I get profoundly bus sick on the best of days and emailed two bus companies for quotes.  I’m really glad that one was trippin’ on their pricing structure (who in their right mind pays £5,000 for a day’s bus hire????  Oh that’s right, I mentioned the word wedding) and the other never got back to me.  I didn’t follow it up.  Instead I stopped answering my phone and I moved on with my research.

I saw a lot of suggestions online for gazebos, so I looked into them. The ones you buy from places all cost over £100 and it’s not like we would ever use a gazebo again. We’re not really gazebo people. So I looked into hiring one. They also cost over £100 to hire. And during the research, I realised that if we’re not gazebo people in our everyday life, then why would we want to change to being pro-gazebo for our wedding?? This might sound trivial, but when you’re spending one fifth of your budget on something, it’s got to be right.

So I was back to “what if it rains?” It echoed round and round in my head and haunted me for weeks.  I’d been thinking a beach wedding but the rain conundrum really threw me.

My next thought was that we could maybe get a tent of some description. We might not be gazebo people, but we have occasionally been known to stay in a tent. Since we’d dismissed the beach as being too far away at this point, we settled on Rowntree Park as it had good opening hours and was near a lot of non-park public open space, so even if it closed there was a plan B.

We went to Go Outdoors and looked for tents. There were some nice ones that were a good size, and we nearly spent a couple of hundred on a big party sized tent that we could do some serious camping in at a later date. The problems were that you’re not allowed to pitch tents in public parks, and the tents were ridiculously heavy (like, 40lb). In the end, we changed our mind and didn’t bother.

I have to say a big thank you to Vince and Ali for sharing their amazing story on the internet, about how they got married in the rain and had an awesome time, which gave me the confidence to go ahead with our wedding outdoors regardless of whether it rained or shone.  I wish I’d found this amazing article before all the months of drama (although there’s a bit of the “it’s in the last place you look” going on here), because once I’d found it, I knew exactly what to do if it rained – and it was what had been in my heart all along and had the confidence to press on.

So I went to the Pound Shop and bought all their zebra print umbrellas. They only had seven, I figured the people who gave a damn could share or bring their own. Total cost: £7. I also added a note on the wedding invites telling people this was an outdoor wedding, and that if they were the type of people to get upset by rain, to bring a coat or something just in case.

And THAT’s what to do if it rains on your outdoor wedding.

I think the real problem here was that people were throwing their selfish problems at me and I was taking them on board and trying to ensure everybody was looked after and catered for and not feeling left out, because I knew that, even though my wedding was going to be under £500 and minimalist and vegan, it was also going to be well-mannered and polite.  That would have been fine except the same people then found something else and something else and something else to criticize.  When I realised this was MY wedding day not theirs, it took a lot of the stress out of wedding planning and I started to find my own opinions and listen to them regardless of what other people were saying.

Also: It didn’t rain. I was slightly disappointed after I got totally psyched about rain wedding pics.

Travel Tuesday: Nice Pair of Tits, and a Dog Cafe

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Have you ever wondered what a dog cafe would be like?

People often wonder how I can be a dog person and a rabbit person.  It’s like my nationality: I’m eligible for dual British and Irish nationality and could have two passports if I wanted.  I just stick to British for now because it’s convenient and why spend money on 2 passports when I can only leave the country once at a time (there aren’t two of me, although if I ever went to Israel then took it into my head to go to Libya, I’d need to apply for my second passport because you can’t go to Libya if you’ve got an Israel stamp anywhere in your passport.  I think there are other countries where this happens as well, but I don’t know).  Being British doesn’t make me any less Irish.  If UKIP get voted in as the majority party at the next election, I would apply for my Irish citizenship and take my tax money to Eire and continue enjoying all the benefits of being a member of the EU and I would be proud to be part of such an awesome country.

It’s the same with dogs and rabbits.  I love rabbits when I have them, and I love dogs when I have them.  Very, VERY rarely, I meet a cat that I like; so far I’ve only met three, including the Maine Coon my mum found in a bin shortly before I was born, and that used to sleep in my cot and watch me when my mum was out.  Apparently this is not normal.  I’ve heard horror stories about this happening to other people’s siblings and they didn’t go well.  Any cat that has that level of responsibility over a newborn and doesn’t take the opportunity to kill the baby has to be a very special cat.

Sidenote: Cats are not babysitters.

So how good was the Loch Lomond area for dogs?  In the words of the Scottish Weather Forecasting Service, it was phenomenal!  First there was the National Park which would have been an awesome walk for dogs (we went up Ben Lomond in hailstones and 70 miles-per-hour wind).  Then there was the Loch itself, where you could clean the mud off your dog’s paws in the water.

The most surprising part was in the Loch Lomond Shopping Centre in Alexandria.  At the far end, up a flight of stairs was this:

Dug is the Scottish colloquialism for dog.
Dug is the Scottish colloquialism for dog.

It’s a cafe and boutique for dogs.  Owners are welcome too.

I didn’t have a dog (obviously) but I was wearing a dalmatian print fleece so they let me in.  Unlike the cat and rabbit cafes in Japan, they don’t have staff dogs to pet, but a nice couple let me pet their dog instead, which was a rare treat since we don’t know anyone with a dog back home.  There was this lovely photo booth where you could take a photo of your dog hiding amongst these cuddlies, too:

Can you spot the real one?
Can you spot the real one?
Spottydug!
Spottydug!

I enjoyed the decor, the feeling of being around people who were pro-dog, and the delightful lack of screaming children – there was a creche over the way.  The food was nice too – jacket potato, sandwich toastie type stuff that’s just what you need after climbing a mountain.  And a good pot of tea.

“But you said it was a cafe and boutique for dogs.”  Yes I did.  There was a dog menu on the chalkboard behind the dalmatian in the photo above, and at his paws there was a selection of dog collars and other nice doggy things.  In a little basket behind me, there was also a load of communal dog toys for visiting dogs to play with so they could stay occupied.  I would love to take a bouncy dog here and know they would be able to be themselves and run around and play instead of having to sit and stay.

There was also an awareness stand for the SSPCA.  Lots of English and Welsh people think that because the RSPCA covers their countries, that it’s a UK-wide charity.  This is not true, and as a result the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gets woefully underfunded, with people sometimes even leaving legacies to the RSPCA by mistake because they didn’t know there was a difference!  Unfortunately, the RSPCA believes it needs every penny that it gets and seems to think its cause is more important than that of other animal charities (bear in mind a lot of their work is with farms despite what the adverts show you).  Know which one you want to give your money to because you can’t get it back once you’ve paid them.

Overall I had a great time at this cafe and it really made my day better and brighter to be able to come and eat and drink here and be in such a dog environment.

There were even more doggy accents to the cafe, but I’ll leave them for you to discover when you go there. 😉

Downstairs there was an RSPB shop (that’s the bird charity. They cover the whole UK).  I had been disappointed to not get to see puffins on this trip, because the road to Skye was closed with the snow, so I was delighted when I found this puffin which I was able to keep and take home:

Huffin and Puffin, my new puffin.
Huffin and Puffin, my new puffin.

And this lovely pair of tits:

Ooh er!
Ooh er!

When you squeeze the Bluetits or puffin, they make the same noise they would make in the wild.  They’re an excellent educational tool for children.  We have a trio of bluetits that frequent our garden at home, along with a robin and a couple of other birds.  Sometimes they even fly into the rabbit village to say hello to the bunnies. I couldn’t resist these two though because now I have a great pair of Blue Tits (as opposed to a blue pair of Great Tits, another species of bird, but not actually blue).

I don’t think there are enough people in the UK who can recognise birds either when looking at or listening to them.  It’s one of those skills like plant and tree recognition that seems to be more lost with every generation.  Maybe I’m just being curmudgeonly but when I have children it will be a high priority for them to recognise wildlife and have a good level of awareness of nature and our interactions with the environment, even if we live in a city.

We went onwards to Doune Castle after this.