In praise of: the festive baguette

Some things are greater than the sum of their parts. You only need to look at the Leeds United team that finally got promoted in 2019/20 – some decent individuals, but probably not the collective you’d imagine would eventually run away with the title.

Battered pigs in blankets? Oh yes!

The same is true of food. In fact, there is no better example than the festive baguette.

When you think about it, it shouldn’t really work. There are better meats for a sandwich than turkey, pigs in blankets don’t necessarily fit (physically and aesthetically), gravy and cranberry sauce make for a messy and wet eat.

And yet it does, as the recent surge in popularity demonstrates. Not only do most sandwich shops, chippies and cafes now offer their own take on the festive baguette, but their arrival is as eagerly awaited as the John Lewis advert.

This feels like a fairly recent phenomenon to me. Yes, you’ve been able to get a Christmas sandwich for sometime, and many sandwich shops offered a hot baguette option, but they weren’t as big a thing. In fact, I think it’s probably only in the last couple of years that they’ve moved from being a menu choice to a ‘thing’.

This year’s launch has coincided with the start of the second national lockdown. That’s probably a deliberate choice by caterers quick to spot a trend, recognising we need some cheer in our lives.

They’re proving popular. Egremont’s Noah’s Plaice sold out of its full festive menu mere hours after launch, and Whitehaven’s Sandwich Man sold 250 of his baguettes in a week.

The pimping of the baguettes was inevitable. Options available this year include a side of roast potatoes and gravy (the Park Head, Thornhill), battered pigs in blankets (Noah’s Plaice) and brussel sprouts bringing some welcome colour (Number 11, Whitehaven).

So what, and who makes a good festive baguette?

While they’re a simple product, there are a few key things that help make a good one:

  • Moist meat – turkey can be famously dry. The trick to keeping the meat moist is to heat it in the gravy.
  • Structural integrity – the baguette has to do a lot of leg work on your baguette. While warm and soft might seem like the right answer, you need it to be crisp so it stays in tact as you tear through it.
  • The additions – pigs in blankets (or ‘best-thing-about-Christmasses’ as I know them) are key, but they need to be right. Overcooking them makes them too crisp and too hard to eat. You also need the right amount of stuffing – enough to bring a softer, herby flavour; but not so much to overwhelm.
  • Temperature – this is a hot sandwich. Anything else is an imposter, and frankly isn’t worth bothering with. 

The increase in popularity, means that it’s easier than ever to get a good baguette. I’d suggest avoiding the chains. Their efforts will be mass produced, and that probably means an inferior product, lacking in filling. I’m looking at you, Greggs. Your pigs under blankets aren’t doing it!

Noah’s Plaice in Egremont does a mean baguette and the fact they serve it with some very decent chippy-chips is no bad thing. They batter and deep fry their pigs in blankets and stuffing balls, and that enhances things. This ensures the pigs in blankets stay moist. The batter is light and crisp too.

Taste in the Market Place in Whitehaven has done a great baguette since they opened. They’re all about moist turkey and a crispy baguette. You can understand why they have a queue each year.

I’m told the Park Head ones are great – certainly the roast potatoes would be an incentive. 

Given he’s sold 250 in a week, Sandwich Man’s baguettes look worth a try too. The pictures on Instagram show a fresh, well presented sandwich, packed with tasty fillings.

Give them a go and let me know what you think. 

Six months in, six more to go?

I’ve been working at home for a little over six months now. I can split that period into two three-month chunks – before Teddy and after.

One of those periods felt less stressful than the other. And despite the convenience of a three-month old baby to blame, I don’t think that gives the full picture.

Teddy and Oscar looking innocent

Last night, when reading messages in a group chat of communications colleagues from across the country and in different sectors, I noticed that lots of us are struggling. Most of that group don’t have new babies, either.

So, what is going on? I think it’s a few things.

Six months ago, coronavirus and lockdown hit us suddenly. While we could all see the situation in Wuhan and the far east developing, when it reached the UK, we moved quickly into lockdown.

For many communicators, this meant dusting off emergency and business continuity plans at the same time. As anyone who has managed a crisis will tell you, when that happens, the adrenaline starts pumping.

And it keeps pumping. For longer than you might realise. As we talked of a new normal, the reality was getting some sleep and then responding to the next challenge – as my old manager used to say, “I’ll crash into that bridge when I come to it.”

But that can’t continue indefinitely. In the group discussion lots of us talked about the meetings we have: the meetings that bookend the working day, and the ones that are sandwiched next to others. The ones that mean we have little time for actions – the actions that inevitably flow from them.

We’re all now preparing for a second wave, when truthfully, we’ve not really dusted ourselves off from the first. We might have taken some leave, but it’s rarely been totally free of work – either because we stay connected or because we can’t miss the news and the opportunity to ponder how an announcement will impact on our organisations.

So, the second wave means the opportunity, or necessity, of reflecting on what did and didn’t go well six months ago, and how we can improve things now. That probably requires more work. At the very least, it requires more thinking time. I’m not sure many of us have that.

The truth is, it’s harder to go again.

We’re six months in and have just heard that new measures might last another six months. Not only do we have to try and come to terms with this, we have to do so while helping colleagues to do the same.

And we must do this while trying to avoid overcommunicating. If we’re tired, so are other people. If we struggle to take everything in and understand what it means for us, then so do others.

As someone said to me today, it feels like we’re trying to get people to take a drink out of a fire hose.

The reality of Covid-19 is that there isn’t much we can do to change this. What we can do is remind people of the value of communications. We can ask our leaders to consider the prioritisation of the messages they wish to communicate. We can remind them that everyone is exhausted and overwhelmed, and it’s our job to help them navigate this.

The final thing we can all do, is remember that others are in the same boat. It was a relief to read the messages from people I admire and respect saying the same thing about being overwhelmed. Check in with those people. Hearing their challenges can help put your own into perspective, and it can also help us find common solutions.

If you’re reading this and don’t feel in the same boat, take a quick look around your colleagues. Are any of them showing warning signs that you’ve not noticed? If so, help them. In any way you can.

Take care.

Oscar taking in Thirlmere, during a period of escapism!

Review: The Parkers Arms

Social media can be blamed for lots of the problems in the world today. But last Saturday night, I was thankful for it, as I sat in a fantastic pub in the Trough of Bowland.

I’ve followed the Parkers Arms on social media for quite some time. Their witty and honest posts on Twitter coupled with some stunning food photography there and on Instagram ensured that it was there we headed when we had both a free Saturday evening and a babysitter.

As we arrived in the village of Newton-in-Bowland and pulled into the car park, we were worried we’d made a big mistake – the lights were off and it looked like no one was home. In reality, this was just one of the signs that the hospitality industry is changing beyond recognition. The pub now opens at 7pm, ready for it’s first diners.

Thankfully the doors were quickly opened, and we were greeted by a warm welcome and a roaring fire.

Very decent beer from the Bowland Brewery six miles down the road

Covid really does make everything different, but thankfully my memories are of the stunning food, not the WhatsApp bar system and writing our own orders. Both of these innovations worked well, and clearly demonstrated that the pub is taking its responsibilities of preventing the spread of coronavirus seriously.

The menu is concise and gives an immediate indication of how seriously they take their food. It changes daily, so you’ll struggle to find a copy online. But some things are always available, including an interesting (and photogenic, if Instagram is to be believed) pie and some fresh fish (more of that later).

Our drinks, ordered as requested, via WhatsApp, arrived very quickly, and our food order was swiftly taken.

The starters arrived just as quickly and were a lovely introduction to what was to follow. I picked garden vegetable fritters and discovered a decidedly more local take on the Indian bhaji. Charlotte ordered the Middle Eastern lamb manouche (stuffed flatbread), which was rich and fragrant.

A Lancashire take on the bhaji

As nice as the starters were, it was the main courses which blew us away. A number of the items are cooked over charcoal, and we both took advantage of this.

Charlotte’s thick, charred chop was an example of why pork really is an underrated meat. The flavours from the charring and caramelisation of the fat, coupled with the moist, brined meat was a sensation. The meat was the star of the show, with the sides of garden mint ‘slaw and triple cooked chips served separately. All that accompanied the meat on the plate was a tangy apple ketchup, which complemented the meat perfectly.

While in awe at the plate of meat opposite me, I was just as impressed with the whole turbot which was served to me. This huge fish had also been cooked over coals and was served with a tangy lemon butter and wild seaweed. The flavour of the fish was front and centre, and it had been cooked perfectly. I also chose the triple cooked chips, and these were crispy, gnarly chunks of potato with perfectly fluffy innards.

One whole fish

We both chose the set menu, which meant we both had desserts, when we might not, strictly, have needed them. My Portuguese egg custard tart with tart damsons and cream was as good an example as I’ve found in this country. Charlotte’s frangipani flan was just as decadent a treat.

The dining room was socially distant, but as it was full, it was still filled with atmosphere. This is helped by AJ’s warm and somewhat eccentric style of hosting. He makes you feel incredibly welcome.

Times are tough for the hospitality industry. It was clear at the Parkers Arms that they’re having to work even harder to make things a success. Thankfully for them, the meal, service and drinks were all exceptional, and the price was brilliant. All the food was locally sourced, and you really could taste the quality.

Lancashire heads into local lockdown today, and we’re now digesting the announcement from the prime minister on new measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The simple menu of delicious, locally sourced food. Three courses for £35 is a snip.

These will only make things harder for places like the Parkers Arms. So, my plea is if it’s somewhere you’ve considered visiting, and you are able, now would be a good time to do it. And if this review has whetted your appetite, get booking.

If the government want to see how they can stop the spread, they could do a lot worse than look in the direction of Newton-in-Bowland – if they can find it.

Take time to unplug

This time last year, I dug out my sleeping bag and headed, via Leamington Spa, to an event called Comms Unplugged.

A striking image captured with my good, good friend Leri Salter.

I knew little of what I was in for. But what I did know was that the event came highly recommended by my good friend, trusted advisor and former mentor, Darren Caveney.

Darren is a bit of a communications ‘god’ and his advice and guidance has been invaluable throughout my career.

Darren is one of the organisers of Unplugged, and he felt confident in recommending the event to me. He was right to do so.

Comms Unplugged is an event for communications professionals to gather together for some informal learning, relaxed networking and escapism from the always-on, digital-first world we live in.

Phones and laptops are left outside the field, and participants instead focus on the tried and tested communications methods of speaking and listening.

Across the three days in a beautiful field in Dorset, I learned new skills, made new friends and developed a connection to a more simplistic way of working – without thinking of likes, kudos, shares and other digital popularity contests.

Darren is one of the three event organisers, along with Georgia Turner and Sally Northeast. Together they make a truly formidable trio, who are committed to the wellbeing and development of their communications family.

A year later and lots had changed. Sadly, Comms Unplugged isn’t taking place. Covid put paid to that. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t take the time to unplug in their own way.

In fact, I’d encourage it.

Every communications professional I know is working tirelessly at the moment. I regularly receive emails and messages from friends and colleagues who are working long into the night.

This isn’t sustainable. We all need downtime. The irony of today being not only the planned start of Unplugged but also World Suicide Prevention Day isn’t lost on me.

Comms Unplugged will be back next year, but in the meantime, please do take some time off this weekend. Take some time away from your work emails, your communications plans, and monitoring social media. Even if you can only do this for an hour, use this time to reflect. Use it to do something that gives you peace. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Fell walking has proved a great act of escapism for me.

I end this blog with a special thank you to the good friends I made last year, the Comms Unplugged community and our special WhatsApp network. They are a group of people who will offer advice and support for any and all situations. With the year we’re having, this has never been more important.

You can find out more about Comms Unplugged on their website. Alternatively, a lot of the great discussion and creativity takes place on Twitter. But probably not this weekend!

Staycation selections

Lots of people have been unwilling or unable to take foreign summer holidays this year. If you’re wondering where everyone has gone instead, you need to look very far to find out.

A quick scan of accommodation booking sites shows that people have headed to the honeypots of the Lake District, Devon and Cornwall, as well as once-famous seaside resort towns.

This provides a much-needed economic lifeline to these places.

However, the coronavirus world we live in means things are very different to normal, as businesses try to balance serving the crowds and making a profit, while ensuring their operations are safe.

Some places manage this better than others.

Chesters

One place that is doing a great job is the Lakeland favourite, Chesters by the River. Located by the Brathay at Skelwith Bridge, it’s only a few minutes’ drive from Ambleside. It’s been a favourite for years and has only grown in popularity since it embraces a fully vegetarian menu a few years’ back.

Chesters has always been busy, even in winter, even when it’s raining, even when you’d rather be anywhere than the Lake District.
Summer sees queues, and this summer means they’re even bigger than normal.

But a reworking of their operations has meant that this works well. There are now entirely separate entrances (and queues) for the café, shop and takeaway. This means people can quickly and easily be channelled, depending on what they’re looking for.

The takeaway was expanded a couple of years back, and it’s clear that this was a brilliant move. Even though the café is large, it is never going to be without queues at this time of year.

The takeaway gives people a speedier option, with a fab, streamlined range of options. When we visited, there were a couple of homemade savoury pastry options, four fresh homemade salads (though this really is doing a disservice to the creative choices available), a dozen cakes, breads, scones and hot and cold drinks.

Everything has been designed for quick service, and to be eaten on the move.

We chose a couple of pasties (curried veg and leek and cheese), a salad (biriyani rice with roasted aubergine and coriander) and a cake (a wedge of Victoria sponge fit for a queen) along with a competitive flat white.

If you’re going to head somewhere busy, you could do a lot worse than Chesters. The food is always a cut above, and the safety measures they’ve put in place mean you’ll feel as safe as possible too.

The Swan and Tweedies, Grasmere

Having driven through the Lakes a few times recently, we’ve been able to spot the places to visit and those to avoid.

While businesses are having to adapt, new outdoor seating areas in car parks or in alleyways are not going to be a draw, if we can find something better.

The Swan has just that – with a beautiful, socially distanced beer garden. It has views in all directions and has lots of green space.

The picturesque Swan beer garden and real ale looking resplendent in the late summer sun.

Real ale and a strong selection of soft and alcoholic drinks are available.

They’re running a simple one-way system, with track and trace taking place as part of your welcome.

Food is available – inside the pub, which has recently changed hands, is a full bar menu. If you’re dining outside, you’re restricted to pizzas.

These are fresh, light and clearly homemade, so it’s a good option.
The real ale was a touch pricey but was worth it for a couple of hours in a relaxing, spot with such outstanding views.

On our last visit, we also walked to Tweedies in the centre of Grasmere. It’s a busy pub at the best of times, but is even more so now.

The good news is that they have a huge garden and a brilliant system for getting served. This means you’ll not be waiting long at all for your food or drink.

If you’re organised and book a table inside you’ll find that it’s a safe, spacious place in which to spend a pleasant few hours.

If you are not, expect to sit outside. But fear not, the marquee will protect you from the worst of the weather. And the full range of amazing cask and key craft beer is available outside.

Tweedies doesn’t really do quiet, so even though the summer is about beyond us, it’s still worth booking – or donning your big coat if you want to sit outside!

The spacious garden at Tweedies. Including the marquee for wet moments and track and trace.

Where else?

Have you got any recommendations for good places in the Lakes that you’re prepared to share? Let us all know!

Review: The Black Bull, Sedbergh

Dining in lockdown can be a stressful affair. Dining in lockdown in the staycation-packed Lake District is even more so.

Which is why Charlotte and I drove the of the iconic A591 through the Lake District to head for a magical Sunday lunch in the Yorkshire Dales instead.

As we passed abandoned cars, queues outside average eateries, and crowds taking every square foot of pavement, we knew we’d made the right decision.

Our destination was the Black Bull in Sedbergh, and as we entered the town and then the pub, we knew we’d made the right decision.

Sedbergh is small enough and remote enough to still have a bit of an undiscovered gem vibe, and this is especially the case on a Sunday, when most of the town is closed.

Thankfully, the Black Bull was open and expecting us, and it put on a bit of a show too.

It was clear as soon as we entered that we were going to have an enjoyable and relaxed meal.

The whole hotel was laid out spaciously, so that people could come and go without interrupting others.

We’d informed them we’d be bringing Teddy in a pram, so we could be given a suitable space, but in reality they could have sat us at any of the tables, such was the spacious layout.

As we were presented with the menus, we knew we were in for a treat. After all, not nearly enough places have a pre-starter course (crispy guinea fowl croquettes, at £3.50 for two. How could we not?).

The menu was as good a Sunday lunch offering as I’ve seen in sometime. Some places chop their menu right down to offering you a roast or something simple as an alternative. This isn’t the case as the Bull. The menu included a few roast options, along with their trademark pie, fish and other inventive options.

I plumped for the wild rabbit starter, while Charlotte chose the slow cooked beef brisket. Both starters were an ideal size – especially after a croquette – of beautifully presented food. My rabbit was served with middle eastern accompaniments, all of which were perfectly balanced.

Delicate, maybe; but full flavour.

After two light starters, we were presented with hearty mains. I couldn’t resist the pie, and my good decision making continued. Tender chunks of beef were served in a tasty gravy. The pie came with silky mash and the richest of red wine gravies and seasonal greens. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Not just any pie

Charlotte chose the roast lamb and she was rewarded with a plate full of tasty treats. The local lamb belly was moist and tender. The crispy roast potato boulders and intense, decadent cauliflower cheese were highlights.

I swerved the desserts, having filled myself up. But I can confirm the choices were as interesting as the rest of the menu. The egg custard with gooseberries was good as you’d want it to be.

The service throughout was impeccable, and the staff were welcoming. They accommodated us and our young child perfectly.

Following lunch, we explored the town further, before heading in the sun through beautiful Dentdale, for a pint in the cobbled village of Dent.

Again, social distancing was strong and the service and the pint were perfect.

As we drove back through the Lakes and saw the chaos of crowds, we knew we’d made the right decision.

My tip for anyone looking for a good food experience during these uncharted times is to find somewhere off the beaten track. There are some amazing places out there, and if they’re not as busy with crowds, your experience is likely to be better.

If you are in the Lakes, then book well in advance. If you can’t, then turn up early and expect to wait.

Hello from your dad

Inspired by an idea that was once on a TV advert, I’ve set up an email account for Teddy and will occasionally send him thoughts and pictures.

Here’s my first message, sent earlier today.

Teddy after a bath

Hello Teddy

This is your first email from your dad.

We’ve set up this account so that we can send you little updates on life for you to look at when you get older. I set up your bank account earlier today and we registered your birth yesterday.

Right now I am working from home – in our little terraced house in Egremont. It’s quite small for me to work, with you sleeping or crying for food or cuddles. But we’re renovating our new house, so hopefully we’ll be there soon, and it’ll be the first place you remember living.

I am working at home because of coronavirus. That has been really weird. Earlier this year, I’d not have imagined working from home all the time and not going into the office. Lots of people have caught the virus because it’s really contagious. Sadly lots of people have died from it too. So we still need to keep safe. That means not that many people have been to see you yet, but they’re all looking forward to doing so soon!

In fact, you’ve been sent so many lovely presents from our friends and your family. People are really pleased you made it here safely, after a bit of scary start. You’ve been a lucky boy.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say for now.

Dad x

Supporting the hospitality industry – AKA dining out

You won’t be surprised to learn that I love dining out. I wouldn’t write this blog if I didn’t.

I think it’s one of life’s simple, great pleasures. One that starts from the moment you contemplate going out – where you consider your options, from the location, to the type of dining experience, cuisine and even the time you want to eat.

Each of these options, leads you to a different set of possible venues and menus to consult. That’s before you arrive at the destination and welcome the warm welcome, delight at the drink selection, marvel at the menu and salivate over your selection.

Lockdown has been tough. I’ve missed dining out.

A selection of lockdown food choices.

But if I think it has been tough, I can only imagine what it’s like for those who work in the sector and who own hospitality businesses. Since lockdown hit, we’ve seen plenty of announcements of chains closing sites or completely.

What we don’t hear so much of is the independents, and their struggles. Where they haven’t unlocked the doors post-lockdown, this hasn’t made the broadcast news. However, that’s the reality.

The hospitality industry has always operated with razor-thin profit margins. This means that so many places need to be full or have a high turnover of customers to stay afloat. Where they have managed to survive a period of low to no income, it’s by being innovative – offering takeaways or selling gift vouchers or future experiences like tasting and theme nights.

Even then, reopening with a fraction of the space you previously had and with fewer people willing to risk going out, it’s still going to be hard.

How can we help?

Dine out

The best option of all is to go out and have a meal. I understand there are reasons why you might not want or be able to do this, but if you can, please do.

The Eat Out to Help Out scheme will encourage people, but restaurants will still need support on weekend nights and Sunday lunches.

If you do dine out, think about where you want to go. If there is a little restaurant local to you that you love and would hate to see disappear, then go there. If you can’t imagine the village without the pub, you need to get there and get spending.

And if you can, try and make the meal a good one. With fewer covers, it is going to be hard for places to survive if you only have a main course and tap water.

I appreciate this option is essentially asking you to spend money, and this might be money you don’t have. It’s likely I’ll be going out less than I used to, but I’ll probably spend more on a meal than in the past.

As I was lucky enough to continue working through lockdown, I can also justify spending a little of the money I didn’t spend when I couldn’t go out.

Invisible chips

Ordering sides always helps a hospitality business. But if you see them on the menu, invisible chips are a particularly helpful thing to order.

Ordering this side means that you are directly helping people in the hospitality industry, through a light-hearted gesture with a serious impact.

You can find out more, here.

If it’s not an option on the menu, you could always leave a more generous tip (especially if your meal is discounted through the government promotion), or offer to buy the chef/waiter/barman a drink.

Turn up

Imagine you run a small bistro. You’ve been closed for months, and finally, you’re allowed to reopen.

You spend all your time making your business safe – removing tables and adding in additional safety measures.

All the time you’re doing this, you’re taking pre-bookings. You quickly become full.

But when the night comes, 6 of your 20 covers don’t show up. You previously served 40 people, but tonight you’ve only had 14 people in.

Frustrating wouldn’t be the word. It is the reality for so many restaurants. In the past, this might have been off-set by walk-in customers, but not now.

If you book a table, turn up. If you can’t make it, cancel. As early as possible.

Some places might be taking deposits now. That makes some people irrationally angry. I can’t help thinking that if you’re the type of person who books and does turn up, it won’t be a problem.

Tell people

Have you been somewhere amazing? Then tell people!

People are venturing out, and they want to know where to go. Recommendations are always well received, so why not inspire other people.

Here in West Cumbria, there are a few places on social media where you can share, or you could do it on Trip Advisor or other review sites. But please try to be fair.

Why not follow some local food bloggers and follow and share their recommendations? I’ll be sharing more reviews of places I’ve loved.

Say it with ice cream – from the Milking Parlour at Kirkby Lonsdale.

Be reasonable

If you’ve not had a great experience, why not speak to your server or the owner, to give feedback. A negative review right now can really damage a place that might already be struggling. Times truly are hard.

On the same note, try to be reasonable. Kindness is appreciated and means a better experience for everyone.

Prices

Despite having fewer tables, a restaurant’s costs won’t be reduced by anywhere near the same amount – the rent or mortgage won’t be halved, nor will heating or staffing costs.

On top of that, wholesale prices have also increased, as suppliers look to ensure they’re covering their costs.

That means that the prices in your favourite establishment might have increased. I think that’s fair enough, you might not. If that’s the case, then make a note and move on to somewhere else.

But you probably don’t need to share it with the whole world.

Try other things

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the pandemic has proved that. Businesses near and far have launched delivery services, restaurants have launched cook at home options, and new businesses have sprung up to address gaps in the market.

Here in West Cumbria, the takeaway options available have never been better. We’ve feasted on ramen and sushi, dumplings; grazed on boxes of cheeses, charcuterie and other delights; and gorged on pizza from more locations than I care to count.

Amazing sushi from Wabi Sabi in Ambleside.

Any ideas?

Have you got any other suggestions on how you could support the industry? Or any places you’d like to recommend. Let me know in the comments or on social media.

Paternity leave – a brother for Tilly

A little over two years after my daughter Tilly was born prematurely and didn’t survive, I am about to start paternity leave.

When Tilly was born, it was hard to imagine I’d ever reach this point. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to, and I wasn’t sure we’d even want to.

Precious Tilly

But as time has moved on, so have Charlotte and I, and we now can’t wait to bring our son into the world.

As I write this, I still have a couple of days to go until Charlotte is booked in for her caesarean section which will introduce us to him, and him to us. I’m still nervous. Things could still go wrong. But I’m hopeful they won’t.

Having a baby during lockdown feels weird, and it has its advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, we’ve spent more of this pregnancy ‘going it alone’ than we might have imagined. We’ve had to manage with online antenatal classes and text message tips from friends.

At every point where Charlotte has had to visit hospital, we’ve been a bit scared of the coronavirus risk.

However, Charlotte has been able to work from home, which has made life much easier. We’ve also had plenty of time to prepare for the birth – to do things like make our small home baby-proof and to create a welcoming nursery.

The lockdown is being eased at exactly the right time for us. We’re pleased, but not half as pleased as the grandparents.

As I now work from home, I also know that when I return to work following a few weeks off, I won’t miss our child growing up (though that also means I won’t be able to escape his needs at any point!).

Despite having plenty of time to prepare, the relentless nature of our current working environment, busy jobs, and getting used to strange, not-quite-normal lives means that I am not sure it’s hit me fully yet.

I am sure it quickly will, and like everyone tells me, life will then never be the same again.

So, if you see me anytime soon and I look dazed and confused, you know why. Do feel free to say hello – I might just need it.

For now, I will finish clearing out my inbox and making sure the work I’ve been doing is not neglected. And then?

Well, I’ll see you on the other side. As a father. Bringing up a son.

Information overload

For the most part I have enjoyed working from home. It’s great to be able to get up a little later each day, and to have the full kitchen’s worth of food to consider whenever you fancy a snack. I can have the radio on to give me some background noise and can immediately dive out of the door for a walk once work is done.

I have even been around for all my parcel deliveries – funnily enough.

But some parts are hard. I miss my colleagues. I miss wandering down to the coffee bar or catching up with a colleague who happens to be in the building or passing my desk. I miss our Friday ritual of a fish and chip lunch and the occasional pint in the fab local (Gin and Beer It) after work.

The other thing that’s really challenging is information overload. I am friendly, chatty guy (well I do work in communications) and I am also an early adopter when it comes to new tech. This is usually a positive, but has led to a situation, in lockdown, where I am utterly bombarded by notifications.

This week, while writing some content for Mental Health Awareness Week, I stepped away from my phone, and logged out of the network on my laptop. The first thing I noticed was just how peaceful I found being unplugged. I was more productive and I am sure the quality of my work was improved.

The second thing was that when I logged back on, I had countless emails and a number of other notifications.

When I picked up my phone, my heart sank. I had a hundred WhatsApp messages from a dozen chats, I had ten new notifications from our work planning app, and I had work messages in our Teams app.

I realised that had I been connected to my phone the whole time, I’d have been distracted by these messages throughout. It’s no wonder I thought my work had improved!

The trouble is, I think it is part of a communications professional’s job to be connected. If someone needs us, then they expect to be able to get us. And I want to stay connected to my colleagues and friends, whenever I can. After all, they’re not passing my desk anymore.

So where does this leave me?

I actually think the solution is quite simple. In fact, a word I used above sums it up.

I unplug.

This means:

  • I move my phone away when I am working on a specific task or piece of writing
  • I turn off notifications from applications I don’t need to see (the Strava kudos and Instagram likes are the worst culprits here)
  • I choose a time to respond to emails and messages
  • I ignore work notifications when I am not at work (turning Trello and Teams notifications off)
  • I accept I won’t see every message or read every notification (after all, I don’t try and read all of Twitter, do I?)

On top of this, I make sure to get my daily exercise. I have found that a long walk after work, with Craig Charles in the background, really does help me unwind.

I don’t think any of these things is rocket science. But it took me nine weeks of lockdown to realise and implement them. So, if you’re struggling, why not have a think about whether you’ve got information overload?

Another picture of Oscar, but his walks are the key to my wellbeing.

If you have, you could do worse than follow these tips and even connect with the Comms Unplugged community. Their annual festival promotes mental health and wellbeing by encouraging us all to unplug. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a network of like-minded, friendly and caring people who are keen to support each other.

The community has more than proven its worth over the last few weeks – with discussions, podcasts, and webinars covering every aspect of wellbeing and mindfulness.

Take a look at www.commsunplugged.co.uk or find them at @commsunplugged on Twitter.