Just back from a fantastic weekend away having adventures in the woods with some of my favourite people on the planet. I’ve been full of nostalgia this week for all the right reasons.
This week I went back to school. A seriously high proportion of my friends are teachers so as a favour to my wife Sarah’s best mate Ciara, I taught a baking lesson at Ciara’s school: The Wren Academy. I get lots of requests for this sort of thing but sadly I have to turn most of them down unless I have a personal connection to the school otherwise I’d never get any work done! But on Wednesday as part of their end of term Activities Week, I taught a class of Year 9 and 10 students for the day. In the morning, I taught them how to make the challah recipe from my book (pictured above), B.I.Y. Bake It Yourself. Challah is a staple in bakeries round my neck of the woods. When I first told people I was writing a recipe book I was given challah family recipes from loads of my Jewish mates, which I used to create my own perfect recipe. It’s a fantastic one for demos and masterclasses and it’s my favourite bread for making with kids too, as the dough is so malleable.
In the afternoon, the students were split into teams to make gingerbread houses, using the recipe and templates in my book. I also raided my baking cupboard at home and took along dozens of different cookie cutters for them to add to their biscuit scenes so we ended up with quite a few houses for gingerbread ninjas and giant dragonflies. It was a great challenge to test their problem-solving skills and teamwork, and I was so pleased to see how much enthusiasm they had. My own kids are 18 months to 8 years old so I haven’t really spent much time with teenagers since I was one! They were all so interesting, and interested, and it was such a good reminder of that, as teenagers get a pretty raw deal in the media. I thought of that while reading about 15 year old Eddie’s work experience with Southern Rail this week too – it was so refreshing to read something so positive about a teenager.
When I was younger, I was lucky enough to have a great bunch of friends where I was brought up (and still live). We were pretty typical teenagers I guess – lots of summer evenings would be spent at house parties or in the park or the woods having a few drinks and then a few guys would get their guitars out for a singalong. We’d be outdoors a lot, camping, building BBQs, playing rounders down the park. This weekend I’ve been lucky enough to celebrate my friend Michael’s 40th birthday surrounded by so many of our oldest friends. I’ve known Mike (pictured above) for about 35 years, but that’s pretty standard for the 18 adults who were there this weekend. Sarah’s one of the newer members of the group, as she and I only met 16 years ago, though she’s known my sisters (who were also there this weekend) longer than that.
For Michael’s birthday his amazing wife Michelle booked Ringsfield Hall for a surprise party this weekend. On the one hand, I can’t express enough how incredible this venue was. On the other hand though, I want to keep it a secret so it’s available for us to book and go back again next year! Between the 18 of us who went, we’ve managed to have 18 kids between us over a pretty short space of time, ranging in age from 18 months to 9 years old. So with all the kids too, 36 of us took over the magnificent house and grounds with a ton of food and drink (and washing-up as a result!) We spent yesterday in the forest going wild. We learnt to make fire, how to make string from palm leaves, the kids made mud pies, we built a den from logs and sticks, we made crowns from vines, leaves and flowers, painted our faces with charcoal. It was amazing. We’ve been asking our kids what their favourite parts were. Making fire (above) was their top moment, but they also said how much they loved that all the grown ups got mucky and played with them all weekend.
My mates put on a huge BBQ last night and while the kids had a sleepover with all their friends and cousins in the bunk bed rooms, we stayed up downstairs til the early hours drinking and singing while my mates got their guitars out, just like we used to do 25 years ago. The same songs too – a proper 90s medley – REM, James, Guns’n’Roses, Carter, Oasis, Greenday, Radiohead. It was hard not to get emotional about how much all these people mean to me and how incredibly lucky I am to have friends I’ve known for so long, who I’ve grown up with, who’ve helped me through good and bad times and who are so awesome to spend time with. To see these friendships now develop among our kids is really special. The venue gave the kids so much freedom to explore: a tree house and an obstacle course deep in the woods, a straw house with loads of Lego and a big dressing up box inside, another outhouse full of art and craft supplies, a pirate island. It was a very special weekend that we’ll never forget.
The past few years since Bake Off have been a lot of fun and life’s been pretty non-stop. But I need to say no to a few more things to make the time to do more with my mates and my family as well, like we did at Ringsfield Hall. A few people this weekend said it reminded them of the video for Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill” and in a week where I’ve thought a lot about my teenage years, I’m so glad to have this very special group of people to call my friends.
Next weekend I’ll be back up in Suffolk for the Jimmy’s Farm Festival so if you’re coming along, come and see me do my baking demo on the Sunday afternoon. Until then, Happy Baking!