As well as creating surprise experiences for individuals, nnoodl also organises activities for groups of people. Like me, I am sure you have all been involved in one of 'those sort of team building days'. Often the phrase makes you wince, and brings back memories of building a raft with Jeff from accounts, whilst half wishing you might all actually sink in the thing so that the day could end!
Or perhaps you have been on the other end of this where you have been given the job of being the organiser and it can be a thankless task. Everyone putting their great suggestions to you and badgering you with questions and 'special requirements'. Well this is where nnoodl can really help out. We take on the search for the perfect activity, and remove the responsibility from one individual in a company. It is up to you in fact as the main point of contact if you actually want to know what the activity will be in advance, or whether you would prefer to also have it as a surprise along with your colleagues.
This month we were tasked with coming up with a special day for a group of property developers. The brief was that this was to be a half day activity which served as a celebration for all of their hard work over the past 12 months, as well as having a little team building and fun competitive edge to it. We got the sense that this was a group of people who by the nature of their work did a bit of travelling, and had a sense of style about them. nnoodl specialises in events in and around London, and we were advised that this activity could take place within a two hour travelling radius of the capital. As with all of our events, we asked every individual to fill out one of our 'About You' short questionnaires so that we were aware of any real likes or dislikes, along with any special dietary requirements. This activity was going to be particularly food and drink focussed so this was an important factor!
As the group were coming from London, we met at Victoria for a train journey of just over an hour into the heart of Kent. The inevitable guesses were happening on the train of where they might be going and what they might be doing, but this journey soon turned into an 'I spy' game where people pointed out towns they knew, or properties they had worked on. It was a fascinating insight for me into how the team work with their clients to produce the full interior package and work on some really interesting properties.
We disembarked at the small station of Headcorn where a few people carriers awaited to whisk us 20 minutes away to......Chapel Down!
This is an award-winning vineyard that produces a world-class range of sparkling and still wines, along with a range of Curious beers and cider. Their sparkling wines are produced using the intricate Traditional Method, the same method as Champagne, where the bubbles occur naturally within the bottle. Interestingly only two of the group of 14 had heard of this little gem of a place, and neither of them had actually been there.
Our first part of the day was for lunch at the onsite restaurant. The Swan has been awarded two AA Rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand, and has such a lovely, welcoming feel to it. We were ushered into a lovely lounge area where we sat on quirky little cork stools as we sipped our glasses of Kit's Coty Blanc de Blancs. It's true what they say about this being exactly like Champagne in everything but name (more on that later...) I was particularly drawn to this venue for it's lovely decor - the outside of this building totally belies what is within and I could see the design conscious group also appreciated it.
We were then seated for lunch which was a three course set menu, and we were in for a treat! The starter was beetroot bavarois, smoked & pickled, hazelnut and mint, served with homemade bread made with their very own Curious IPA. I went for the Union Red Chapel Down wine to accompany my lunch which is a blend of Rondo, Pinot Noir, Regent and Early Pinot Noir. Food and drink both delicious!
Next up was some slow cooked lamb served with seasonal vegetables, which was a sheer delight, the meat really falling apart. Dessert was a poached pear served with cardamon ice cream and a ginger biscuit.
The group were feeling well and truly relaxed by this point, as we were then introduced to our tour guide for the afternoon.
Hazel led us down to the main reception area where we had to don a rather fetching high-vis waistcoat. Apparently this is to ensure that the groups are easily seen by farm vehicles which are usually on the go on this working vineyard. Hazel started by showing us some of the oldest vines in the vineyard and talked us through the background of Chapel Down winery. They make around 1million bottles of wine a year, and are the largest vineyard in England. With the same chalk rock under the soil as the Champagne region, Kent has the perfect conditions for making white and sparkling wine, which is leading French Champagne houses to invest in vineyards in this area.
Apparently it takes about 16 bunches of grapes to make one bottle of wine, and each vine needs about 100 days of growth. Harvest happens around October, and one of our group asked how many people are recruited to pick the grapes. Imagining the answer to be about 100 we were gobsmacked to learn that it is a small, skilled team of only about 8 people!
We then made our way to see where the next stage of the process happens. Once the grapes are picked they go through two pressings to extract the juice. The first press or 'free run' is used for the single variety and sparkling wine. The second pressing gets all the remaining juices out and is used in the blended wine.
Red wine is treated slightly differently – the stems are taken out and the grapes lightly crushed, they go into a tray and are pumped into a huge metal vat with the skins. These skins provide the colour for red wine, not the actual flesh of the grape.
Sulphites are then added to the wine, which kills off the natural yeast and allows the winemakers to add their own, and so control the flavour. White wine has three weeks of fermentation in temperature controlled vats, and the red wine has one week.
As the yeast works it's magic and eats the sugar, it dies off and creates ‘lees’ at the bottom of the bottle. The flavour and bubbles are kept in the bottle using a cap at this point. The traditional way to get rid of the lees was to store the bottles at an angle neck down and turn every day, gradually getting straighter until the lees are down in the top of the neck. Hazel showed us the racks which were used to do this, and then indicated the huge automated cages which are programmed to gradually turn and do this process for them. To get rid of the lees, they freeze just the neck of the bottle and the ice cap comes out when the bottles are uncapped. They are then corked using the traditional corks after being ‘dosed’ with grape concentrate containing natural sugars, which finalises how sweet or dry the wine is. The bottles are then corked and capped with the traditional wire cage and the ribbon, sticker and label added on top.
We then made it back to the centre for our wine tasting, the highly anticipated element of the day!
Grouped around tables, Hazel pointed out the wine tasting chart and talked us through the four stages of tasting. Firstly, check the colour by holding the glass at a 45 degree angle against a white background. White wine gets darker with age, whilst red wine loses it’s colour as it ages. Next to check is the aroma –swirl the wine around the glass and get your nose in for a big sniff. Then it was time for a taste –Hazel highlighted the various areas in your mouth and how they detected different elements to the taste, from the tingling in your cheeks indicating tartness, the front or your tongue for sweetness and the warm feeling in your throat being the alcohol. It is then important to see what lingers in your mouth after swallowing the wine (or spitting it out, which funnily enough no-one seemed to be doing!). This is called the finish.
The first wine we tried was a white Lamberhurst Bacchus from 2017. This was very pale in colour, confirming it's age. It was highly aromatic, crisp and dry with flavours of gooseberry, pineapple and guava, with a hint of elderflower. I quite like a white wine, but tend to usually veer towards a fuller bodied one. The next one we tried was Kit's Coty Bacchus from 2016. Apparently this was a very warm, sunny and dry season and so the fruit produced was a very high quality. Hazel explained that the Bacchus grapes were whole-bunch pressed before wild fermentation in 3rd and 4th fill barrels where the wine stayed for 9 months. This wine had an even more intense flavour of tropical fruits, with an oaky background. The third white was a Chardonnay from 2014, and here we could really start to see the depth of colour reflecting it's age. This was a classic style of unoaked Chardonnay, grown on chalk of the North Kent Downs, with aromas of apple, white peach and kiwi fruit. This was much more my style of white wine!
Next we were onto some sparkling wine and the group were definitely in celebratory mode. They had been testing each other to see if they could guess the wines from the list in front of us and spirits were high. This one was slightly easier to guess as it was a sparkling rose, only one of two which Chapel Down produce. We were treated to the Rose Brut Pinot Noir, a lovely crisp and fresh wine with aromas of strawberries and redcurrants with background notes of toasty shortbread. It is particularly special as it was poured at William and Kate's wedding in 2011 and was also the first English wine to be served at Ascot Racecourse. There was time for one more white sparkling wine, the Kit's Coty Blanc de Blancs 2014, a lovely sparkling chardonnay, before we moved onto the red wines.
By this point the chatter and laughter was lifting by the minute and poor Hazel was having to project her voice big time to be heard. It was great to see everyone having such a great time though!
I was particularly keen to hear more about their red wines, as the climate in the UK doesn't typically lend itself to producing this style. The first we tried was a 2015 Pinot Noir, which had the typical aromas of blackberry and plum and a hint of leather. It was a very smooth, easy to drink wine. We then finished off with the red which I had tasted over lunch, the Union Red from 2017. Again the summer of 2016 had contributed to perfect conditions to produce high quality fruit. This wine was a blend of Rondo, Pinot Noir and early Pinot Noir with aromas of cherries, blackcurrants and black pepper. This was definitely the wine for me!
As we left Chapel Down the group were delighted to be given a goody bag containing a bottle of classic non vintage brut sparkling wine and a box of sparkling wine truffles. I won't say how many didn't make it to the end of the train journey home...
There was wonderful feedback all round from this little celebratory adventure which I was delighted to organise for such a lovely group of people.
So remember, if you are looking for a group activity with a difference and would like someone else to take the organising on board, do get in touch and we would be delighted to have a chat with you to come up with something suitably surprising and special! Just drop us a line at email@example.com
One of the benefits of running a business like nnoodl is that I can use it as an excuse to try out new things myself. Something I have surprisingly never done, but always fancied was horse riding, and so what better way to try it out than to take a group of nnoodlers on my adventure with me! This is obviously where the participant form that everyone fills in when they join comes into it's own. There are restrictions around weight and also health conditions like back problems which could make this activity unsuitable for some people. However, no-one that had signed up to this month's activity had any issues in this area, and I was also relieved to see that nobody had expressed a fear of horses (or equinophobia as it is apparently known!) So, joining instructions were sent to people to wear a long sleeved top and leggings, pretty sure that this wasn't enough to give the activity away in advance.
Where to meet to go to Lee Valley Riding Centre though was a slight challenge. Clapton station seemed like the best option, and I thought might be random enough to put people off the scent! Along the short 15minute walk to the centre, people began their usual guessing as to what the activity might be....kayaking on the River Lea?.......ice skating at the Lee Valley Ice Rink? This is the point where I always worry that people might enjoy these activities more than what I have actually booked! There seemed to be genuine relief as we walked past the ice rink though (probably from myself too having previously broken my arm ice skating), and genuine excitement as we approached the Lee Valley Riding Centre. Phew.
We could only book 10 people on this activity and I was really pleased to learn that only one person in the group had ever tried horse riding before, and that was apparently as a child, and so they were also keen to give it another crack. The closest I had come to getting on a horse was when I was on holiday with a boyfriend about 24 years ago. We had in fact booked and paid for an hour's lesson, but when we got to the stables the guy in question bottled it saying that he "didn't like the look of the horse" he had been allocated. I should have carried on and done it myself (and dumped him sooner than I did, but that's another story!)
The centre lends out hats and boots, and so one we were all kitted out we moved into the space next to the arena and watched as the group before finished up. There was an unusual vibe here as I have never witnessed a group of people being so quiet. I couldn't tell if it was trepidation, or respect for the horses that made everyone act like this. Our instructor soon put us at ease though. Embarrassingly I can't remember her name, as I then became overwhelmed with names of horses. The horses were led in and we were directed to the horse which seemed most appropriate to our size. Our instructor explained that she would refer to us by our horses' names, at which point I immediately felt sorry for the woman who had been allocated a horse called Chunky. In came Buttons, Darcey, Splash, Bill and many more until I was allocated Madison. He was a lovely chestnut horse and I was told he had a very good temperament and was quite nice and steady/not too bouncy. You will notice that there aren't many photos from this event, as I was very aware of anything that might make what we were doing unsafe, and maybe freak the horses out. But that said, I did squirrel my phone away down the front of my leggings, which almost proved to be a mistake on the dismount later...
The group were directed one by one onto a stepped block to mount their horses. As I stepped up I was aware of how high off the ground I seemed as I mounted Madison. Jasmine was the young girl who was looking after us. She told me she had been riding for 7 years, and I asked whether she had her own horse. No, this was quite a luxury she told me as they are very expensive, starting at £3,000 and going up to about a million pounds (I'm not quite sure if that was an exaggeration!) As we lined up next to each other, Madison became a bit edgy, with Jasmine telling him gently not to be grumpy. She explained that horses are like people and have their own horsey friends - it seemed that Madison was next to one of his 'not such good friends'. Ok, stay calm buddy, let's move away....
A slightly comedic moment followed where Darcey, the first horse to move off, seemed to be breaking wind in time with the walking movement, much to the embarrassment of the rider, Emily, who was giggling and saying "It's not me!". We started by just walking around the arena, getting used to the feel, where to hold the reins, and how it was important to stay calm and regulated with your breathing as the horse can sense any tension. Our first skill was to practice changing rein, and so we were directed towards one of the letters on the wall, where we would then turn the horse left by pulling on the reins with the left hand and squeezing the horse with your right leg. The only challenge here was that the horses seemed to want to follow their friends and so Madison was starting to veer off and cut the corner to follow his pack instinct. No, no, stay straight I was trying to say. We did a couple of rounds of this in both directions before it was time to move onto something more challenging, a rising trot. First we were asked to just stand up and sit down on the horse in a smooth action on the spot. Well this seemed ok, but of course the challenge was going to be trying to keep this timed with the horses trotting action, and not crashing down on his back. Our instructor pointed out that this could be very uncomfortable for any male riders. The first couple of riders did really well, so the pressure was on. Madison moved off quite slowly, so I was managing ok and found my rhythm, but then he picked up the pace and I had a bit of a bouncy moment until I settled into it again. I could tell our male riders were being particularly determined to avoid the bouncing motion, and the little horse called Buttons was particularly spritely, giving Tony, his rider, a bit of a challenge to stay in time.
Using our change of rein skills, we then moved onto a mini slalom style course of buckets which we had to weave our horse around. We had to do this manoeuvre one at a time, and so with the eyes of everyone else on you, the pressure was on again to perform. Despite me trying to remember, left hand, right leg and so on, as we weaved around the obstacles, Madison did me proud. I was loving this horse.
To perfect our trotting skills, we were then tasked with moving away from using the short saddle strap to balance, but instead trying to stay upright and move up and down in time either by holding loosely onto the long reins, or with no hands at all. Well you know me by now, I love a challenge, and so went for the 'no hands' option, determined to succeed with everyone else watching on!
All too soon the session came to an end. Our final challenge was to get our horses to all line up next to one another in the middle of the arena. Well I say final challenge, that was actually getting off the horse! I hadn't realised that we would be just dismounting onto the ground rather than back onto the block. This is almost where I came unstuck, or more accurately 'stuck' as I swung my leg over and my phone down my leggings got caught on the saddle, oops. So a slightly ungainly manoeuvre and I was on the ground. Quickly I retrieved my phone and passed it to Jasmine whispering "Could you take a photo of me with Madison please?". He seemed quite non plussed by it all. There is something odd looking at this photo after the event, and one or two people commented that we has a small horse. Trust me, when I was on his back, it seemed like a loooooong way down to the ground!
As everyone gathered to put their boots and hats back outside the arena, it was like a rush of adrenaline - suddenly the centre was filled with chatter as everyone excitedly spoke about their horse riding adventure and how much they had enjoyed it. Hooray, another nnoodl success!
Well, our nnoodl adventurers had tried paddle boarding and stop motion animation in previous months, so what did I have in store for them in June? nnoodl events are booked so that weather won’t affect them, and this month’s activity was taking us on a journey to North India via Shepherds Bush for a class in Thali style cookery. This was one event that was easy to keep secret – no particular equipment required, just cool clothing which was very much in keeping with our sudden very summery spell.
We met at Shepherds Bush station and had the usual murmurs and guesses as we ventured into Westfield Shopping Centre …”a personal shopping experience?” I heard both a male and female member of our group ask with very different tones of enthusiasm.
As we approached the Jamie Oliver Cookery School, everyone seemed audibly excited, but still not 100% on the mark as they guessed the inevitable Italian cookery. But no, the chefs at this school cross various continents offering classes from Italian, to Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, and even a class in knife sharpening skills.
We were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco and an apron as we took in the impressive surroundings of our working kitchen, situated through to the back of the restaurant. We were introduced to our Chef, Francesco who explained that traditional Gujarati cuisine, as it’s known involves lots of different cooking methods and flavour combinations making it a really unique and versatile cuisine. He was going to take us through the steps needed to make a vegetarian Gujarati thali – a selection of small dishes and rice that’s traditionally served on a tray.
Now this is my kind of food, I love any little sharing dishes like tapas or mezze. As we only had limited time, Francesco explained the ingredients and cooking processes for the lentil dahl, which was now reducing down so that it was ready for our little feast later.
Firstly he talked us through the spices we would be using, by passing them around and inviting us to smell them and guess what they were. I wasn’t too bad at this bit, although couldn’t guess the mustard seeds…well, that was until he started frying them right in front of me, and those of us in his sight line had our breath taken away as we started coughing - much to his amusement. This, along with a spice base of cumin, turmeric and chilli powder was to form the base of a sambharo, a warm cabbage salad.
Francesco talked us through our knife skills next for chopping the cabbage and carrots. This is something that despite cooking a lot, I have never been taught. He demonstrated the ‘Chef claw’ and how to curl your fingers in on top of the item you are cutting, keeping the first knuckle of your finger close to the knife blade. He showed us that you use the part of the knife closer to the handle to produce that rocking movement with the knife to create that clean cutting motion. He then talked us through the chickpea masala and crispy spiced okra dishes, and finally the chapati bread.
After this overview we were paired up at our stations and we were off! I was working with Mark, who is actually my PT and a former Marine. Here’s a guy who will know about knife skills and cooking, I thought to myself. He went off to select the spices as I tried out my chopping technique. Francesco was over like a shot to direct me safely through this, in his inimitable, jokey way, all the time referring to me as ‘Chef’ even though clearly I was anything but! Our next challenge was not to move the the vegetables around as they cooked in the oil. As a fan of a stir fry this was really counter-intuitive, but he kept a beady eye on all of us “Don’t stir Chef, don’t stir!” to the point that I thought it was burning and then “..well yes, stir it now!”. All the time we were cooking the team were coming round to see if we wanted more drinks from the bar. I decided that knives and alcohol weren’t the best combination but lots of people were partaking without injury and everyone seemed to be in high spirits.
It was my turn to select the spices (it transpired later that I had possibly been a little heavy handed in my measurement of these little devils!) as Mark perfected his okra slicing. Mindful that time was not on our side, and both of us being of a slightly competitive nature, we decided to try and crack on with the chapati bread whilst cooking the other elements. This turned into something akin to Paddington Bear let loose in a kitchen as we realised there was too much water to flour, and then tried to counteract it…resulting in too much flour, and then too much water and so on. We thought we had it just about right as I rolled my little dough ball out on the small circular wooden base. Great, I thought to myself a little smugly as it looked perfectly round and just as thin as Francesco’s. Until it came to getting it OFF the board and into the pan. Stuck fast - too much liquid still in the mixture! And so back to some more flour. I later found flour in my clothes, and strangely in my handbag which hadn’t even been with me! Ah, but when we got the chapati mixture right, it was so satisfying to see them puff up into lovely little breads that we were proud of.
There was then that ‘Masterchef type call out’ as we had 5 minutes left to plate up our little Thali trays. And here is the result, and I have to say everyone did a really good job, we were suitably chuffed with ourselves!
Time to tuck into the fruits of our labours and the tastes didn’t disappoint either. Although see previous reference to a little too much spice, which did bring us both out in a bit of a sweat, but didn’t stop us loading up our plates. Everyone cheered and congratulated each other around the table in creating a meal that they would never have considered trying before.
nnoodl is taking a month off in August, and then our September and October events are fully booked, but we will be sharing details of the date of our November event shortly, so watch this space….
If you have read my previous blogs on www.deniseyeats.co.uk (I’m assuming you are all avid fans, and why wouldn’t you be?) you will know that paddle boarding has proved to be one of the things I enjoyed most when I did my own year of surprise experiences. I had been desperate to introduce my nnoodl adventurers to this fantastic pastime for a while, but of course it is quite weather dependent. As summer seemed to be finally showing itself a bit more consistently, I decided that June was the time for it. Now I know that this could be a tricky call as water isn’t everyone’s friend, but I reviewed the ‘what scares me’ section of everyone’s forms and was happy to see that amongst the fears of things like spiders and being in an underground in a confined space, this experience wasn’t going to freak anyone out. Next came the instruction that I had to give people in terms of meeting place and what to expect. I chose the beginners’ session at Kew Bridge and so instructed people to meet at Gunnersbury station. Yes, this was a 15 min walk to the location rather than 5mins from Kew Bridge, but I like to throw people off the scent a bit!
So what should they bring? Well the good thing about paddle boarding is that no specific equipment is required to do this in warm weather. You can wear shorts, leggings, or any sort of outdoors sports kit, and either some old trainers, or the company lend out neoprene shoes. So people would hopefully not have any idea of what they were about to do….
Of course the element of surprise is always a bit of a risky moment and the ‘reveal’ on the day is the part that makes me almost as nervous as the participants. Although I could have chosen the slightly easier version of paddle boarding along the Grand Union canal from Paddington, I don’t think anything beats the Thames, and especially this trip from Kew to lovely Richmond. As we gathered at Gunnersbury you could tell that people wondered what they might need their summer/sports kit for in this slightly industrial looking area.
As soon as we approached the bridge and headed towards the arches, murmers started amongst the group as they saw a sign for kayaking. One or two people had done this, but still seemed keen, but when our instructors came out with a paddle board, I could hear some gasps of excitement. Phew, so no-one wanted to cash in their ‘pass card’. There were, inevitably some people who felt a bit apprehensive, but our instructors quickly put everyone at ease, explaining that you didn’t necessarily even need to be able to swim to do this sport – just let them know if you can’t so they know to keep an extra eye out!
Our instructors gave us a brief overview of paddle technique whilst on dry land and before we knew it we were launching ourselves into the water. The group gathered near the shore, still on their knees, trying to get to grips with the paddling, and watching apprehensively as speed boats and pleasure cruisers went by, causing some small waves.
Although I am now quite a competent paddler, I decided to stay on my knees too until everyone got their confidence up. Once we were through the arch of the bridge, we took a little inlet down the side of the main part of the Thames, where the water was quite calm, and within 10 minutes, everyone was having a go at standing up. There were a couple of people in the group who, like me, are confident swimmers, and so they couldn’t understand why they were afraid of falling in the water. I told them how I had felt exactly the same and that I got over it by falling in, slightly deliberately on a nice hot day.
With that, I heard a splash behind me, as someone fell in the water. You have to try to resist the urge to turn around quickly as a beginner or else you will unbalance yourself and also be in the Thames. But as we checked our fellow paddler was ok, she surfaced giggling. This little incident seemed to put everyone at ease, as she assured us it was ‘lovely in here’. Our instructors reminded her to wash her hands before she ate anything, and to maybe have a Coke when she got out of the water. Yes, Coke kills all the possible bugs in your stomach. Well you have seen what it does to a penny if you drop it into a glass of the stuff...just saying..
We were out on the main part of the Thames now, and on such a sunny day, people were out in force enjoying the water. Suddenly, whoosh, a motor boat went past and the wake started to throw the group as small shrieks went up. But I was so impressed, as no one dropped to their knees. This happened a few more times (I couldn't help but think that the RNLI boat went past deliberately causing a wake to try and spice up their day!).
Everyone seemed to be really embracing the sightseeing side of this activity too. As we paddled past Syon Park, it really was idyllic. It’s a very sociable experience too as you paddle along with different people having a chat and comparing experiences. We were quickly approaching Richmond, and had to navigate our way to pull into a small inlet by the White Cross pub for a refreshment stop. I could feel the apprehension as people were out drinking by the river, obviously intrigued by these visitors, and watching us, and I’m always sure, waiting to see someone fall in. We had some snacks and drinks for the group as we enjoyed a 30min stop whilst we waited for the tide to turn. We heard about some new paddles that the company were offering, including some environmental events to clear plastic from the river, which I liked the sound of. By the return paddle the group were even more confident and really loving it. There was a short section where the wind picked up and it became a bit of a struggle to paddle against it. I could see a few people getting a bit competitive at this point, and then I think were quite relieved when they were advised to slow down to keep the group to together for safety. The group safely navigated their way back under Kew Bridge and managed to avoid cranky geese to get safely back to shore. Everyone seemed to be on a total high, comparing how shaky their legs felt, but how exhilarating this experience had been. Even the most apprehensive were already asking about other sessions they could join. Hooray, another nnoodl success!
Our events are booking up quickly this summer, so remember to register your interest here so that we can tell you about our next event, or maybe you would like to buy a gift for a friend?
Come and discover some of the amazing activities London has to offer, we hope to see you soon!
I like to offer a nice mix of activities with my nnoodl adventures. Having previously done axe throwing, singing, beekeeping and fencing to name a few, I thought it was time for a creative challenge.
Something I'd been looking into for a while was stop motion animation. This is a technique that physically manipulates an object so that it appears to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a fast sequence. Think of things like Morph, or 'The Trap Door'. One thing I have noticed, however, is that art and craft type activities can often make people feel more anxious than physical ones. The idea often brings up memories for some of being told they 'just weren't artistic' at school. So when I found Jennifer Kidd,from Ctrl+Art+Del and had a chat to her,she seemed exactly the type of person who could lead our group of unsuspecting participants in this activity.
I instructed our adventurers to meet at Canning Town station,which I know had already caused a few murmurs of what exactly might await us in this outlying area of east London? I had to manage expectations as we gathered on a grey Saturday morning that we weren't going to get a flight from London City Airport (sorry!) A short walk and we were at the London City Island Gallery. Now this on itself is a little hidden gem,a collection of eclectic art all sourced from the locals in the area. The perfect backdrop to this creative pursuit.
Jenny explained to the group what we would be doing, which is always the moment I personally feel most nervous. Will anyone say they don't want to do it, or have they done it before, and want to take up their 'pass card'? Thankfully there was a ripple of excited noises as everyone seemed up for it. The first part of the day would involve us splitting into small teams and creating characters from plasticine. The brief was pretty wide here, but Jenny advised us to consider maybe having a villain and a victim. Considering I was the only one of us who knew what we were doing in advance, you might have thought that I'd come prepared with some idea...but no. I decided to see what my fellow teammates, Lee and Andy were producing, and then see what I could add to it. Lee started modelling an octopus, whilst Andy was hard at work with a scary villain. The idea of water always appeals to me, so I thought 'a starfish!'
Talk then turned to the recent story of starfish being washed up on the beaches at Ramsgate, and so immediately my little character became the victim in our yet to be developed storyline. It was heartwarming to see how engrossed everyone was in this childhood modelling fabric for almost 2 hours. It made me wonder if I should invest in some plasticine to use at the end of a busy day! I could also hear random snippets of conversations about the different groups character names and personalities. We were then encouraged to develop this further and think about what the characters fears might be, and how they would interact with each other.
Our group found ourselves developing a story with a conservation message about the villain being a litter lout and the sea creatures being caught up in this, leading eventually to the death of the starfish by ingesting plastic. It's quite poignant that this storyline wasn't actually my idea, despite my current work with WWF. In fact each of the teams ended up creating a moral tale - with one story about protests and fur during fashion week, and another about a child using her imagination to play creatively.
Time for a short lunch break to have some tapas type food (all included in the price don't you know!). Interestingly though, everyone seemed keen to crack on and continue their storyboarding ready for the camera work that afternoon. Sign of everyone having a good time!
Jenny explained some things we should think about when we did our storylines, such as should we communicate certain messages with speech bubbles, or would the story be self-explanatory? There is also the option to add sounds and music in of course, but we realised we were up against time.....
You soon realise the work that goes into these animations as Jenny explained that we had 900 shots available to us! You have to think about continuity if you are trying to replicate a scene with a moving character in it (so try to avoid kicking the camera tripod Denise). Yet she also advised us not to get too precious when the characters inevitably got a bit 'remodelled' or discoloured during the process of moving them. Yes, we spent many minutes readjusting eyes and mouths which had fallen off our characters. As we set up our scenes I was amused by the dialogue coming from the other teams "Let's get more blood there when she gets hit!" for example. All a bit dark....
The time just disappears when you are acting director for these animations. Trying to frame the shot just right, and get the perspective and continuity. I can see why in the credits of Pixar films there is always a long list of 'Pixar babies' who have been born during filming. Apparently a frame in one of these films can take 24 hours to render, and a 90 minute film will have on average about 130,000 frames!
Once we were happy with our shots, we joined Jenny to talk through the final editing of them. This is when you spot any inconsistencies, or wonder if you should have worn your glasses after all? However, we were actually pretty pleased with the results, especially from character creation to completion, this was all done in one day. We all agreed we felt pretty tired! So it was time for a glass of celebratory cava to toast our creativity. Have a look at the final animations below and see what you think....
Oh and if you are now inspired to come along to a future nnoodl adventure, the April one is sold out, but our next one on 9th June is now booking up, go to the 'Packages' page here to snap up your place before it sells out!
As bookings have just opened for the next nnoodl event on 10th March, I thought it was about time I re-embraced my inner adventurer and undertook a little challenge myself. It’s been a while since I did this, but as I looked for activities that I could do on the only free afternoon I had, I already felt excited, and of course a bit apprehensive. I stumbled upon a Trapeze School called ‘Circus Glory’ who are based in Primrose Hill and had a Friday afternoon trapeze training workshop. Static trapeze is described as 'a fun blend of sport and art, where regular training will improve your strength, flexibility, and agility as you learn to manoeuvre and create beautiful shapes in the air. Trapeze training is recognised as a great stress-reliever, energy-booster, and a wonderful reminder of the importance of play and creation'. Flexibility and heights are not great areas of strength for me, and so I was slightly apprehensive, about committing to this, but when I emailed the head of the school, Genevieve Monastesse, I immediately felt reassured by her response as to how welcoming the school was to people of all levels. Genevieve has taught circus arts for over 30 years, is respected as one of the best aerial teachers in Europe and currently teaches the Degree Programme at the National Centre of Circus Arts, one of Europe's leading providers of circus education. She worked in Cirque du Soleil for two years on their very first show, and has had a successful career as an aerialist performing films, theatre, and even doubled for Kate Moss as her stuntwoman! I knew I would be in safe hands.
Turning up to events on your own, I realise can be one of the hardest things to overcome for many of my nnoodl adventurers. I still feel the same myself as you wonder what the people will be like. Will everyone know each other? Will they all be really experienced? Without exception these fears are unfounded, and my trapeze afternoon was to be no exception. We were a small group of six, ranging from people who had been training for eight years, to others who were relative beginners. They immediately put me at ease - all of them super-friendly and encouraging. Genevieve started us off with a warm up on the mats, which involved a lot of abdominal work such as planking etc. This set the tone for what was to come, as I realised how a strong core will really benefit you on the trapeze. We then did a small circuit of equipment-based warm up exercises. Genevieve came round with me as I tackled the first one – a tuck. Now this looks really easy, as she demonstrated, hold the bar above your head and then tuck your knees up above your head to meet the bar. I could only get them about halfway – what?? I was encouraged that apparently that was really good and can take a while to achieve. Next I was to attempt a straddle with the rope. Again, hands above your head on the rope, but this time, taking your legs above your head in a V-shape over your head. I think the last time I was on a rope like this I was about 8 years old wearing navy blue gym knickers, getting rope burns on my legs. Well leg strength to climb the rope was not applicable for this element – it was all about arms and core strength. Again, this is a lot trickier than it looks and so Genevieve demonstrated a version from the mat, arms over head on the rope, and pulling your legs over from there. The wobble board on one leg was a station here I felt I could do, and I was to find out how strong, not wobbly legs were to help me later that afternoon…
Then we were onto more focussed work on the trapeze. Genevieve was brilliant at making an assessment on what level people were at as she demonstrated the exercise she wanted them to try. It was wonderful to see the more accomplished students demonstrating some lovely shapes. My manoeuvre was to be the candlestick which involved standing at one side of the bar and pulling your legs up onto it, then with one knee over the bar, and one leg up the rope, dropping your upper body underneath the bar. I found this one slightly easier to pull myself into and felt an immediate rush from my first hanging move. Genevieve reminded us to all remember to keep our eyes open and focussed on what your legs or arms were doing, as the tendency can be to close them. Hmm, I wonder why, is it so that you can’t see the ground rushing towards you? Next was a sideways move on the bar. The first challenge on this one for me was actually getting my legs up onto the bar. I realise that muscly cyclist’s legs are no advantage in this form of training, they are just more weight to pull up! Once up and sitting on the bar though, Genevieve talked me through how to move yourself to one side, on one buttock, and how to balance there whilst tying to point your feet and stretch out to the side and down with one arm. I have a feeling should look a lot more graceful than this, but it’s a start (yes, that's me on the right below obviously)! One thing that I thought I would feel a lot more self conscious about throughout the afternoon was the fact that everyone else watched as we practiced our moves. But everyone was so encouraging that this really wasn’t an issue. It was also a great opportunity to watch some of the more advanced students demonstrate some more difficult shapes, which was really inspirational.
My final move of the day was one that got my heart racing just watching the demonstration as it involved climbing up to standing on the bar – I immediately was thinking about how much higher I would be from the ground! One of my fellow students was also fairly new to this training though and said that ‘fear is your friend’. She explained that the concentration involved to go though the moves meant that you actually achieved more than you expected to, as you were distracted from everything else. I could totally relate to this. As Genevieve talked me through each step, I found myself standing on the bar (toes only, use them like fingers she explained) and then stepping off with one foot to wrap the rope around one leg and then the other. (I could now understand why there is a ‘leggings, not shorts’ rule for this class as the movement of your legs along the bar and rope could cause some of those primary school type rope marks I am sure). Then it was a case of lowering yourself down the ropes into a suspended seated position and then finally dropping underneath the bar, supported by your feet on the bar and ropes around your lower legs, arms outstretched. This felt amazing! Of course after that it was down to the abs to pull myself back up to seated, but adrenaline was my friend by this point!
I was on an absolute high as I finished the class – this was supposed to be a ‘recovery day’ from my triathlon training, but my heart rate was right up there. In fact as I skipped out of the class to get to my singing/guitar rehearsal, my friend who was picking me up asked me “Have you had a drink of Irn Bru or something?” And so, with abdominal muscles that hurt every time I laugh (which is quite a lot), I find myself totally hooked on this new activity. What started off as a one off experience I know will be added to the ever-growing list of hobbies I am collecting via my nnoodl research which includes paddle boarding and singing. I would totally recommend Genevieve at Circus Glory if you would like to try this wonderful activity. I will be incorporating it into my training regime for sure.
If hanging upside down isn’t your thing though, rest assured it won’t be the activity at the next nnoodl activity, though I feel it may be included in the future….
So, if you are inspired to take part in the next nnoodl adventure, there are still some places available on our early bird offer for the event on Saturday 10th March. Sign up here using the code SECRETS30 for a whopping 30% off this adventure, which will have a little creative, rather than physical twist.
Although nnoodl is all about getting people slightly out of their comfort zones, it's never my intention to have people terrified or fearful of ever coming back to any of my adventures. With this in mind I ask people to fill out a short form to let me know of any fears, phobias or allergies they may have, and to let me know anything they absolutely would not do. There is usually a bit of a common theme amongst people I find: snakes, heights or very enclosed spaces, like caves. So although my next venture hadn't come up in any of my nnoodl members' forms, I was aware that it may border on the slightly uncomfortable. This particular experience, however, is one that truly is a bit of an exclusive, so much so that numbers were strictly limited to 8 people. Our successful group were advised to meet at Victoria station, where tickets were handed out for the train to Sutton. Hmmm, not to offend any of my friends who live in Sutton, but this did have people puzzled. What special thing could be happening in Sutton?? This coupled with their 'pre event instructions' where they were advised to wear or bring long trousers and covered over shoes or boots and I know they were envisaging some big yomp in the country. As we arrived at Sutton to meet our taxis, however, I advised them we were on our way to Mayfield Lavender, a family run Certified Organic Lavender Farm, situated just outside Banstead in Surrey. I find it hard to believe that so many Londoners have not yet discovered this gem - as the visitor numbers every weekend are testament to it's popularity with tourists.
I am lucky to be good friends with the Head Beekeeper at Mayfield Lavender, Tracey Carter, who is a real authority on all things bee related, so much so that she runs her own podcast, the Beehive Jive.
As the group would need to be split into two smaller groups, I had also taken the opportunity to enrol photographer Vanessa Lees to run a short photography skills course in this beautiful location.
There were gasps of awe and stops for photographs as we made our way to the top of the 25 acre lavender farm, where we were met by Tracey and Vanessa. This really is an assault on the senses in the best possible way, as you are overwhelmed by the never-ending carpet of purple and the amazing smell of lavender. Tracey began by giving us an overview of the lavender field, which was a real labour of love by husband and wife team Brendan and Lorna. Read their fascinating story here.
Then it was decision time, who was ready to step into the lions den, ahem, I mean bee hive area first? There was slight apprehension as the first group got suited up, but everyone was suitably put at ease by Tracey who explained how people might feel with so many bees in front of their face, and highlighted the importance of staying calm. Before they entered the area where the hives were, Tracey talked briefly about the products which come from a beehive: not only honey but also beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and venom which is used in medical treatment for arthritis. Honey is also used in medicine because of its antibacterial properties. Pollen and propolis are favourite health supplements. And royal jelly, which is what the bees feed the Queen (produced from a gland in their head/jaw) is famous for cosmetics and is also very widely used as a food supplement for racehorses! On the day that we visited the bees were busily collecting nectar from the lavender and also from blackberries.
Tracey has 10 production colonies and 11 baby colonies which she is growing on for next year (they are called a nucleus colony or a nuc for short). There are around 75000 to 80,000 bees in each of her large colonies and about 40,000 in each of the nucs. When opening the hive, first we assessed the hive from the outside, looking at the different components and explaining their function. We then observed the activity at the hive entrance, looking for pollen going in (this means there are babies to be fed), volume of bees coming and going (indicating the size and vigour of the colony) and also looking at general behaviour e.g. scuffles that happen when bees from neighbouring colonies are trying to get in and rob the honey at this time of year. We then gave the colony a few gentle puffs of cool smoke at the entrance and, after waiting for a couple of minutes for this to disperse through the colony, we quietly lifted the roof off. On top is the crown board which is a flat piece of wood that is like the ceiling of the colony. And we took that off and, lo and behold, the wonders of a beehive are revealed!
A few people asked why we use smoke on the beehives. Smoke simply masks the natural alarm pheromone that bees release when the colony is being invaded. It helps to keep them calm so that you can inspect the colony with a minimum of disruption to the bees. It does not burn them! We make sure the smoke is cool and if it isn't we put green leaves of grass in the top of the smoker to cool it down. Beekeepers consider that smoking is like knocking before you walk through the door of someone's house.
We gently went through the frames, lifting them out to check amounts of stored honey and brood (babies) and also to search for the Queen. The queen is vital to the colony as without her, there are no new bees to sustain the colony. She looks different to the other bees, she is longer and larger with a higher thorax and can run quite quickly so she often catches your eye. Although she is the egg laying machine in the colony, and people think she's really important, she is actually completely helpless and can't feed or groom herself. The worker bees have to do this for her and they push her around, often head-butting her or jumping on her to get her to move where they want! Because she is so important we mark her on the thorax with a special coloured marking pen so that we can identify her easily and protect her while we are inspecting the colony. Sufficient honey to feed the colony is also vital especially at this time of year when they are storing honey to feed themselves through the winter. There is always enough honey left to feed each hive through the winter. The alternative is to feed them sugary syrups or pastes which lack the natural vitamins and minerals that are present in nectar.
We looked at the worker bees, the female bees who comprise most of the colony there are around 70,000 of them during summer. There are also male bees in the colony during the summer breeding months. They are known as drones and are there only to breed and do not contribute to the colony in anyway. There are only a few thousand rounds in a colony even at the height of summer. At the end of summer the worker bees throw them out, chewing their wings as they evict them from the hive to ensure that they can't fly back in and gorge themselves on the precious honey which the colony needs to survive the winter. It's a pretty ruthless world! Worker bees rule and run the colony and each bee carries out a series of roles and jobs during her lifetime, from cleaning up, to feeding the baby bees and the Queen, to building works, to storing honey, to guarding the hive and then to foraging for nectar water and pollen. They are completely amazing.
Bee communication is an absolute wonder. They are able to communicate in amazing and fascinating ways ranging from pheromones, to vibrations and buzzes, and to what we describe as dances in which worker bees tell each other where to go for good nectar. The most famous of these is the waggle dance which is where a worker dances in a figure eight shape on the face of the claim, shaking her abdomen. The different parts of the dance represent different pieces of information including how good the forage is, where it is and how far, even taking into consideration its angle in relation to the sun at that time of day. They do this in the darkness of the hive and when you lift out a comb while you are inspecting the hive and see the bees dancing, they are surrounded by their sisters, who face them in a ring and sense what they are doing and then follow the instructions.
Pheromones are like chemical signals, the closest word we would use is smells. The Queen gives off a very special pheromone called queen substance which is transmitted through the colony and let's all bees know that she is there, keeping them together. It also suppresses the ovaries of the worker bees and stops them from developing so that the queen is the only bee that lays eggs. There are also alarm pheromones and a pheromone from the sting which alerts are the bees to staying at the same place! There is also a "come here "pheromone which they release to let each other know where they are.
The other thing people were interested in was how bees regulate the internal environment of the hive. This is called homoeostasis. By shivering their wing muscles they are able to heat the hive and keep it at a constant 35° throughout the year, even in the depths of winter. It needs to be this temperature so that the Queen can continue to lay eggs and they can raise babies. They also collect water drops and hang them around the hive when the weather is hot. The water evaporates and cools the hive. The bees also stand at the entrance and fan hot air out of the hive with their wings to cool it down.
Whilst our beekeepers were ensconced in their activity, our second group gathered in the gazebo with Vanessa to talk through some tips and tricks for good photography. Vanessa explained composition and framing of photographs as well as lighting, by showing some examples. She also told the group about the Mayfield Lavender photography competition which served as a good incentive to go out and put their theory into practice. And so off they went into the purple haze to capture their prize winning images. I was really impressed by how they managed to capture some great shots of our friends the bees at work gathering the pollen. As the groups swapped over it was great to hear them enthusing about their experiences, and in particular from those who had been slightly apprehensive about being so close to so many bees.
As with all nnoodl activities, we round off the experience with some food and drink - always a great way to bring people together. Carrying on the theme of the day, we settled down to some lavender infused goodies including lemonade, cakes and sandwiches, all served up in the sweetest little hamper.
Our adventurers shared their experiences and bought some lavender souvenirs before our taxis picked us up to take us back to the station and onwards to London. Well, via a little Sutton establishment for a celebratory drink! Look out for the next nnoodl experience on Saturday 16th September!