One of the upsides of this job is being invited to judge competitions.
I'll quickly add, I'm not power crazed; it's more about the nature of the contests that have made me a competition judge wannabe.
Last Sunday, I spent a very enjoyable day at a workshop with some of this year's entrants to The Independent on Sunday/Bradt Travel Writing Competition. Each year, following the contest, our co-sponsors, Bradt Guides and Travellers' Tales, organise a special event where aspiring travel writers come to pick the brains of the competition judges. (If you've never entered our competition but have ambitions about travel writing, don't miss out; the competition launches around April each year.)
Like the judging of the competition itself, this is pleasurable work. The seminar always seems to attract the most interesting folk from quite different walks of life, who never fail to put the experience of us judges to the test. And, of course, it's rewarding to know that, over the years, some "students" have gone on to experience success with their travel writing.
But my role as an occasional competition judge hasn't been confined to assessing writing skills. In fact, it began when I shadowed the chief inspector of hotels and restaurants for the AA back in 2005 for an article for these pages. He taught me how to assess whether a tea tray was overloaded and if a breakfast buffet was up to scratch.
As a consequence, I was asked to judge the AA Landlady of the Year Award. This was a splendid task, which involved travelling around the country checking out the quality of service at B&Bs.
In the end, it was a toss-up. There was the landlady who taped Coronation Street for my mum (a companion on one of my covert trips) while we were at dinner, prompted only by an earlier conversation of mum's liking for the soap. And there was the landlady who insisted that I must still come on my holiday despite the fact that her husband had had to be rushed to hospital having severed his finger. The latter won it – though not just because of her selfless act; she was the consummate landlady. (You can still read the story here: independent.co.uk/ travel/news-and-advice/my-life-as-an-undercover-bampb-inspector-490950.html.)
I'm looking forward to my next judging job, for this year's awards for travel articles about France hosted by the Association of British Travel Operators to France (Abtof). But I must admit, I also have my sights set on getting a place on the panel of a quite different contest, which has just announced this year's results – England's Motorway Services Awards.
Visit England has launched the country's first Motorway Services Accreditation Scheme, which it has developed with the Highways Agency. And the commendations reveal that there are some pretty special service stations out there. For example, Tebay South, on the M6 at Junction 38, clinched it in the Families category for its homemade burgers in the farm shop and the opportunity for kids to feed the ducks on the lake. Beaconsfield Extra, at Junction 2 on the M40, wowed the judges with its green spaces to take the award for Picnics and Dog-walking.
Travelling the country's service stations, like judging Britain's landladies, has a curious appeal to me – I'd even bring my own Yorkie bar.
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