Meeting Carolyn

While driving to Carolyn’s house, I was chatting to my youngest daughter about how travelling out of London makes me feel as though we are going on holiday. After approximately 45 minutes we leave the busy – quite congested – M1 behind and take a country lane to Milton Keynes instead. Quaint little cottages, green meadows and yellow rapeseed fields meet our eyes. Somewhere along the line we seem to have crossed an invisible border and are now driving through a different country.

Driving into the new housing estate in Bletchley, Milton Keynes had the feeling of being abroad dissipating as quickly as it had appeared. I thought it looked identical to some of the new estates in the capital.

When Carolyn opened the door and greeted us in her all too recognisable North London accent, we may just as well have driven a mere five minutes up the road from Enfield.

Yet, by this point I am very curious to hear from Carolyn of how she has come to live in Milton Keynes, away from the place she grew up and lived most of her life. So, I ask Carolyn:

How have you come to live in Milton Keynes?

As an [Ofsted] inspector I did a couple of inspector jobs up here. My patch was fairly big and when I was covering someone, I visited Milton Keynes and around it. I noticed how lovely and green it is. I thought to myself, I could live here. I might decide to live here when I retire. As you do, you have those little dreams. That was the end of that really.

Photo by Pixabay on

And then I had a spell of not being very well. I said to myself you need to slow down, Carolyn. Think about your health a bit more. I decided not to work in the school holidays. To go term-time only. George was still fairly young. I am going to miss out on him growing up. So, I decided to work less and then I thought…. Uhm…how am I going to pay the mortgage!

So, at that point I thought, ‘’it’s time to think about moving home and downsizing.’’

I started to look around where I lived. In Waltham Cross, Enfield, Edmonton, all of those areas. Everything I looked at I thought: ‘’What am I doing? This is really silly.’’

There was nothing that was even as nice as the place I was living in! And the place I was living in was pretty…you know… needed some work…having been a single mum for so many years, there were things that needed doing.

I lived in a nice house in a nice area, and I couldn’t find anything, even smaller than I had that was as nice and would do for me.

It had been in my head that I really liked MK, so I had a chat with my mum. I asked:  ‘’What do you think mum? You know, it is leaving all my family and friends behind.’’

She went: ‘’Oh no, if you want to do it, go and do it.’’

That gave me the oomph to do it.

But also, that year was the year of the riots. [August 2011] And George had been away at the time. I remember thinking how glad I was that George was staying with his Dad. It made me realise I don’t really want to bring him up here, in a place like this.

So, there were loads of reasons behind it and eventually I kind of looked around MK and found this place!

I liked this place straightaway.

I wasn’t going for a new house. I told them [Estate Agents] no new houses as they are flimsy and no 1930s as I have lived in one for so many years. I wanted something different. But they insisted on me seeing this house and as I walked in, I loved it. I fell in love with the space. This is the one!

That was it. It was all emotion after that. I was panicking a bit. What am I doing? I am moving away from my family, my friends. Carolyn, you are moving to a completely new city where you don’t know anybody. You are working in a job where you are very isolated. How are you going to do this? But I did.

You stepped out of your comfort zone.

Yes, it was. Completely. And I have to say, to this day I do not regret the decision.

It was a brave thing to do and I have to say I admire Carolyn for taking such a big step and not looking back, so I ask her:

How different is Milton Keynes to Waltham Cross, Enfield?

There have been some good points and some bad points that I have discovered over the years. Or mainly in the first year as I got used to it after that.

But what I really liked about it was…. Uhm…I think I felt I was just going through the motions in London. The city…my job took me into the centre of London and the city was built up and grey and urban…overwhelming and almost took you to being into a depressed state. When I moved out here – just driving through even the city – it is green. I think the colour green is a powerful thing because it lightens your spirit. It relaxes you and you don’t feel so stressed and anxious. And I felt that straightaway when I moved out here. So that was a really positive experience for me.

When I went out on inspections – I was still doing the same job then – I was driving through villages. You know really pretty country villages and I thought why did I not do this years ago! Because this is just beautiful. The journeys there and back were just lovely.

It’s slightly slower…the pace of life. Now it’s really slowed down as I am doing something completely different and I am not on a schedule. Even then when I was still doing the same job, it was a different pace altogether.

And what was nice about this house was that I finally had a room where I could shut my work away come evening. I could go in there on a Monday morning – that was my office – and on a Friday night I could close the door and that was it. I wouldn’t be thinking work all the time.

One of the negative things was…One of the things I decided to do to make friends was to join a community and I joined a church and I found there…because the city is not as diverse as London maybe…I don’t know…I found their views were still quite narrow on some subjects and I got quite angry about that. I thought, these are people … I don’t want to associate myself with.

I got George into a youth club and some of their teachings in this youth club I thought: Actually, you are so out of date! I was saying to him, you come from this family and you know how this family thinks.

I did build a really good friendship group quite quickly, with people who do not have these views, and that helped me over that first hurdle and I kind of blossomed ever since.

And then I knew I had to make another big break but found powerless to do that until George went to university. I needed to know that he was secure. Once he was at university, I made my next big break, which was to leave my solid, reliable job to something less predictable which again has changed my life completely.

So, from living in London feeling stuck to the situation I am living now, I am feeling like a completely different person. 

It feels as though Carolyn is confident in the decisions she has made so I ask her:

Do you feel you are more in control now?

Yes, completely. Things like finding time in the day to walk the dog, you know I can do that. When you are working for an organisation like Ofsted or Tribal you are dancing to their tune all the time. You are working over your hours and you never quite get the time to do the things to stay healthy and well and balanced and all the rest of it. That’s lovely knowing that I can take my well-being into account and look after myself in whatever way I do now.

There are things that I miss! I miss my family, but it is also good to have that little bit of a distance from my family.

My priorities have changed now my children are grown up and moved on and there is more of a focus on meeting up with them on the weekend rather than my brothers and sisters. So, everything has changed to the way it was a few years ago.

photo by HdG. Towpath Bletchley, Milton Keynes

I am wondering whether she finds any similarities between living in Milton Keynes and North London. Can a place really be so different that you become a different person?

In what way is Milton Keynes the same as where you lived before?

I would say there are very few things the same as where I lived before.

It is a very different city as to how it is laid out. I can get from one side of the city to the other side in 15 minutes. You can’t in London. You can barely drive 5 miles in that time- if you are lucky, because you are sitting in traffic.  Everything is within grabbing distance here. I don’t spend a whole day going to IKEA. I was there last night and it took me half an hour to go and come back. You can’t do that in London.

It is set out on a grid system, with lots of roundabouts everywhere which means if there is traffic on one side I can avoid it by taken the next exit.  You never get stuck in traffic for very long.

We have a very good bus system and they [MK council] are very modern in their thinking, so they encourage Electric cars. They have lots of EV points to plug in. and they are into driverless cars. We also have robots that deliver pizza in this city. Little white things with a flag sticking out.

They have a redway – which goes under the roads- for bicycles and pedestrians. There are lots of parkland and the redway connects the green spaces.

The city is cleverly designed and when you drive around you may not see a single person as it is designed with all these paths underneath the roads. It doesn’t reach as far out as Bletchley. Bletchley is older, pre-1940 and doesn’t have the same feel as the centre of MK.

This two-tier road system is almost a red flag for me. As a true Londoner I am thinking: ‘’this can’t be very safe’’. 

Is there anything in particular about the planning of Milton Keynes that makes things difficult?

On the whole I think it is all positive. I have heard that those red roads can be quite isolated and people are being mugged. But that happens in every city, isn’t it?

We do have a huge homeless problem in MK. It has gone up all over the country, so it isn’t just MK. But MK is one of these places between North and South and you kind of end up here.

I am probably more conscious about the homeless as I have volunteered for the first five years that I lived in MK for a homeless charity. They [the homeless] do use the kind of tunnels and isolated routes under the main roads to find shelter and put up their tents, because it’s dry.

Do you think it is more of a symptom of what is going on in wider society than a particular problem to Milton Keynes?

Yes, there is that. MK has been mentioned on the news as one of the cities with the biggest problem. I think MK had to wake up to the problem and identify it, because there is so much green parkland and bridges where the homeless are living.

I know that Carolyn has changed her job since she moved to Milton Keynes and I am wondering whether the city has an influence on what she is doing now.

Does living in MIlton Keynes have an influence on the work you do?

I always knew I would end up fostering children. That was a life plan I had made years ago. I didn’t actually think I would do it. As the years went on, I thought it would be nice if I could, but I’ll never get to the point that I will be able to do it and then I did. The house itself lends itself to the job, but had I stayed in London I don’t think I would have done it.  

My life principles and beliefs and views are very much the same as before. I don’t think any of that has changed. I am still the same person, but I guess a more relaxed version of myself. It has allowed me to show a more compassionate site of myself than I was able to be in London. I had more of an armour in London. I have been able to be more myself in Milton Keynes. I can show my tolerance.

When I go out with the dog everyone says hello to you. You meet lots of different people. It is a completely different environment. It resembles when I go to Ireland and everyone is kind to everyone.

My favourite thing is my morning walk, looking at the ducks and going to the park. When I was growing up my ideal place to live was a version of Ireland; the fields and the greenery and I feel I have found a bit of that in Milton Keynes.

And with that I leave Carolyn. I had a distinct feeling that here was someone who found life in North-London not quite working for her. When she made the brave decision to look further afield she had no idea how it would pan out. A change of environment gave her the courage to change her job, her lifestyle and ultimately take control of her life and her wellbeing. She hasn’t looked back.

Are you ready for your dream body?

As we are approaching the second quarter of 2019 the diet industry is preparing their second launch of the year: get ready for your bikini body! Incidentally, my body is as ready as it will ever be for a bikini as it wobbles and blobs along, doing its thing that a 46-years-old female body does.

Nevertheless, the diet industry has good reason to launch their beach body campaign: it is expected that this year in Western Europe alone we will spend €140 billion keeping the weight loss industry afloat. (

Wow! That’s is a lot of money!

A quick look online and I could compile a list of 33 diets that promises you a beach ready body; from the Atkins diet to the ominous cotton ball diet. My personal craziest diet I have ever done was a juicing plan. I juiced myself to an irritable human being in two to three weeks, then launched straight into any kebab, cake and ice cream place while being on holiday. I cannot recommend you’d do the same, but I’d love to hear about any crazy diet you have attempted in the past or are on now, so feel free to leave a comment.

From the 1970s onward, we have become heavier, lazier and sicker. The WHO reckons that the global obesity rate has nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016.

The 1970s is also the decade that the supermarket made real inroads in our lives and while we were trying out those canned soups, sachets of mashed potatoes and ready available ice creams, those independent high street shops – that we long for nowadays – declined steadily and have overtime been replaced by take away /fast-food outlets and off licences for our alcohol consumption. We bought into the belief that a tin of tomato soup was the same thing as what we could make at home ourselves, but within a fraction of the time and price.

On top of that, women started working outside the house while men did not decrease their working hours, resulting in all of us working longer hours with less time to spend at home to look after ourselves. This has led to a booming convenience food industry of ready meals, ‘prepare it yourself meal kits’ and take-ways.

We have had a naive trust in food producing companies supplying us’ healthy’ produce. After all, they take the fat out for us and put the vitamins in, while making it super easy to dish up dinner after a hard day at work. Isn’t it? The label even promises us that it is now healthier than ever! Regrettably, an unforeseen side effect for many of us is significant weight gain.

So now we are spending billions of pounds, euros and dollars trying to get thin again and to be told what we can and cannot eat.

We are buying cookery books, but are cooking less. We are attending local weight loss groups, buy low fat margarine, skimmed milk and artificial sweeteners for in our coffee, but are heavier than a decade ago. We starve ourselves on juicing diets, water fasting diets and calorie counting apps and to top it all some of us eat indigestible cotton balls in order to loose some pounds.

Do you realise that when we are talking about diet, we usually talk about what we should not eat? Let’s look at two popular diet trends of today: the ketogenic diet and the wholefood plant-based diet (WFPB).

The ketogenic diet is one of the most popular diets doing the rounds. On a keto diet plan you get 70-75% of your calories from fat, 20-25% of your calories from protein and 5-10% from carbohydrates. In other words, you should eat a lot of fat (butter, olive oil, nuts, coconut oil), a lot of meat for protein (but not milk), propped up with vegetables and hardly any carbohydrates (pasta, rice, bread, fruit, legumes, refined sugars).

The WFPB diet is perpendicular to the keto diet. You should not eat any animal protein (no meat/eggs/diary) and processed fats (including vegetable oil) and you should eat lots of unrefined carbohydrates (brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, millet) and lots of vegetables, legumes and fruit. Refined sugars like white flour and sugar are frowned upon.

At first glance the two diets seem to be polar opposites of each other,
but they have more in common than initially meets the eye.

At first glance the two diets seem to be polar opposites of each other, but funny enough they have more in common than initially meets the eye: they send you back into the kitchen to prepare your own food from scratch.

Out goes anything processed, in comes home prepared and cooked meals. Does it come in a packet with more than five ingredients than you cannot eat it. Do you have to forest it, clean it, cut it and cook it than it will be fine. Fruit juice, sugar, additives and fast food are shunned and banned. In comes the container for your home-made lunch and out goes your bought BLT sandwich or the ‘healthy’ fajitas meal kit you make for dinner and the ‘super’ noodles you prepare as a snack for your kids after school. Any snack you wish to have is going to be either fruit, nuts or crunchy vegetables washed, cut and shelled by yourself at home.

Et voilá, we may just have found the solution to our woes. Ditch the processed food and choose to prepare your meals from scratch. EVERY SINGLE MEAL! Yes, breakfast too. Opening a packet of cornflakes, pouring it in a bowl and drowning it in milk, is not preparing your meal from scratch.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t really know what is healthy anymore and instead of using our common sense we get taken away by marketing tactics and diet trends. Although I do hope not many of us will take the cotton ball diet seriously.

Yet, should we learn to slow down, prepare nutritious food, take time to eat together to enjoy our home cooked food and generally take care of our time and ourselves, weight loss might just be the positive by-product that we are looking for. It is for me.

And what should you do when you fancy a biscuit? You’d better get the flour, butter and sugar out of the cupboard and start baking.

Neighbours at no 17

My lovely neighbours have moved away. In fact, they moved away two years ago, but nobody has moved in and somehow this has enabled me to imagine that they are still living at number 17.

When we moved into this 1930s terraced house, the first thing my two toddlers did was knocking next door. When the door opened, they shouted excitedly: ‘’Hi! We live there!’’ pointing to our house and looking daringly into their eyes.  Thankfully, the neighbours met our children with open arms albeit slightly amused by their fearless enthusiasm and I am proud to say it was the start of a successful neighbourly relationship. They became my children’s British grandparents. Robert hid Easter eggs for us, while my children found them with lightening speed. When their grandchildren came to visit, Robert and Mary would take my children along to the zoo, the cinema or the park. Occasionally, they had our children over for sleepovers, often they told them stories of the olden days and sporadically they reminded our children to stay on the straight and narrow. Nothing was too much, and we felt always welcome.

My children’s first job was looking after the neighbours’ cats when they went away. They got paid handsomely for sitting in their house, watching TV, eating chocolate and stroking the cats. If you can give this job to your neighbours’ kids, I think it is your duty to allow them to experience this: it is a gentle introduction to the world of responsibilities, work and earning some money at an early age while secretly eating sweets in quantities they would not be allowed at home.

Mary taught my kids how to sew on a button and how to knit. She made Yasemin’s school kilt shorter if she promised never to roll up her skirt. Surprisingly, most days Yasemin obliged happily and we had fewer arguments about the length of her school skirt than many other parents. One of my best presents was a birthday cake made by the children in Mary’s kitchen. And so, over the many years we lived next to them they became a huge part of our life. Although we knew that sooner or later, they would move nearer to their daughter, it still came as a shock when they told us the house was on the market ready to be sold. When such good neighbours move away a bit of yourself moves with them and a block of fear sits in your stomach: fear of the unknown.

When such good neighbours move away a bit of yourself moves with them and a block of fear sits in your stomach: fear of the unknown.

It is more than two years later now and their house is still empty, so a little bit of that fear is still sitting in a silent corner of my stomach ready to jump out when needed.

Suddenly, there will be a flurry of activity next door: walls are being knocked down, floors and ceilings are being lifted and one day the staircase collapsed with a thundering noise. The latest activity has been cutting down all trees and bushes from the lovely overgrown garden. Birds, cats and foxes are all equally confused about what is happening to their little garden of Eden. On such days that little bundle of fear is stirring itself in my stomach and with genuine curiosity as well as dread I peep through the window to see whether I can make any sense of what is going on. Nevertheless, after a few days it will always return to a silent house again and I can keep on pretending that my neighbours might still be living there.

A lot of us in our terrace are speculating what is happening at number 17. People are whispering that the new owners are property developers or that they surely will be renting it out to students or even worse to foreigners! Foreigners in this part of town are anyone who speak with a different accent, so if you’d move down from Scotland or move up from Kent, you’d still be an alien in our road. Fear of the unknown is a debilitating illness.

And so, we hobble along dreading of what may come yet at the same time looking for any sign that new life may establish itself in ‘the house at number 17’. It feels like we have lost two valuable years to guessing what is going on and alienation is kicking in. A nagging feeling that we are starting to care a little bit less and becoming a little bit more insolate because of it. Nonetheless, one day someone will move in again and I hope it will be someone as fearless as my two children were fifteen years ago, because whichever alien decides to make it their home, they are always welcome to knock on the door to tell us with much anticipation that they have moved in.