We started with the title and went from there. The title prompted the idea of bookend roundtable debates on ‘Freedom’ and ‘Work’. Speakers were contacted and they loved the idea and were delighted to attend.

Next we put out the call for the papers, we had lots of really great entries, covering a wide scope of themes in line with the overall idea. We had to shortlist, which is a hard job and we were sorry we could not include everyone. As it was we had to have panels running side by side over the three days.

While this was happening, we were looking for a suitable venue that could hold our anticipated numbers. The Southgate could cover all the days, so that was a tick off the list.

Although we started planning last year, the last few months and weeks have flown by, and suddenly it was here, it was actually going to happen. We had speakers with their travel booked and the online sales had increased our numbers; we were good to go.

Then, when everything was paid for, Covid-19 started to create waves. The Premier Inn were brilliant at responding to our drop in numbers for the group booking, so much so, that I dropped off some freshly picked Sweet Peas for the receptionist, she was a star.

Then as the week of the conference starts, we get a message to say Jane Whittle and her family have caught Covid! The timing could not have been worse. We had an emergency meeting and did a quick reshuffle of duties. In Jane’s words ‘the show must go on’.

Then the morning of the first day Taylor hears that his wife has tested positive for Covid! Since he has been in close contact we agree it would not be safe for him to attend. We have another look at the programme and see what we can do. That is when James says he put his back out but hoped the Ibuprofen would kick in soon. Followed by news that Mark’s cat is poorly and he needed to get to the Vets, he would meet us as soon as he could.

Hannah, James and I meet and get everything set up, people start to arrive and it all becomes a reality. Lunch is set up and people are chatting and enjoying the sunshine on the patio. Then we hear enquiries for coffee, the word coffee starts to get said more often and we can hear it loud and clear. I put in a request and soon the coffee saviour is here.

Some people are late because the trains are delayed or cancelled. I give them their bag with the programme, let them grab a quick bite to eat and they join the main conference room. The introduction and first roundtable are underway.

The conference begins!

The roundtable goes well, with some great discussion. Another shout for coffee and cake, then it is time for the first two panels to get underway.

I am waiting in the corridor for the late arrivals when a couple of ladies with yoga mats start prowling the corridor. I hear them saying ‘they better be finished by 6, but these things usually overrun don’t they’. A quick whisper in the chair’s ear and Carolina has the situation under control; the room is vacated in time.

Dinner is at The Cosy Club and soon people are gathering. They enjoy a glass of Prosecco and catching up, making the most of being able to gather again after the pandemic.

Day two, I arrive bright and early to set up the laptops for the presentations in each room. People start to arrive and help themselves to coffee/tea and pastries.

We have a practice zoom with Taylor so he can present his paper from his hotel room. The Southgate have lent us some speakers so he can be heard and his picture is on the big screen.

Some participants presented via zoom.

We receive an email from Mark to say he has to take his cat for a 24 hour stay at the vets. So we regroup and reassign duties as needed. Everyone we speak to is telling us how well things are going, which is reassuring even though we feel like Swans – appearing graceful but paddling like hell on the quiet.

While the panels are going on I see someone looking lost in the corridor. It appears there is a conference happening at the other Mercure in Queens Street. A quick conversation giving directions and the delegate is running off to their actual destination.

All too quickly we are through the panels, lunch and the final panels are underway. That is our cue for Hannah and I to get in the car and pick up the food we have ordered. We get into a baking hot car and set off. The venue ring, they hadn’t realised we wanted a bar at 6pm but they would find someone.

We collected the trays of food and then noticed the amount of flying ants in the air. It is fascinating to watch, then we see that they are coming into the car, so the windows go up and the aircon goes on. The ants get caught up in the spiders web that seems to be permanently coming out from the wing mirrors.

We park and carry the trays up Stepcote Hill, a lovely old cobbled street, with steps on the sides and a gully down the middle. The Hall is locked, so the doorbell is used, which has video, so the person on the other end gives us the code to get in. Technology is wonderful at times.

We start lifting the chairs and setting up the long tables. We decide a Beer Keller style of long tables would be good. The performers arrive and start to set up and rehearse. One of them suggests we put the tables at a jaunty angle, so we start to rearrange the furniture. Then another suggests tables in rows maybe better! We stick with the jaunty angle and finish setting up the food table. Luckily, the bar was open, so we grabbed a drink and had a well-deserved rest.

James appears and the hall quickly fills up with everyone who has followed him down from the conference venue. Drinks and nibbles are collected and people settle down to listen to Mark talk about ballads and introduce the performers – early music ensemble Passamezzo. They are brilliant. They have chosen pieces that fit with the theme of the conference and people are hearing the text that they normally read in a different light.

Attendees enjoy some drinks and early modern ballads.

Day three and Mark’s cat is still poorly; the vet doesn’t know what is wrong. The high temperature is not getting any worse but it is off to the hospital for tests, to try to get to the bottom of things (Ed – reader, the cat made a full recovery!).

I set up the laptops in the two rooms, one of them has the Zoom app installed, so I make sure we get the right one, in the right room. Margo is going to present via Zoom today, another Covid precaution due to close contact with someone who tested positive.

The laptops needed reminding of the wifi code and that they were set to not sleep. One of the machines is obviously feeling the pressure and decides to close, so there is a shout for me to input the password.

Then after the first panel, the mouse decides to hide! We can see it on the big screen but not on the laptop. Eventually, with a bit of persuasion it decides to work and the show can go on.

We have caught some people out because we have started half an hour earlier today, so we can finish earlier and let people get a reasonable start on travel home. I point them to the coffee and people mainly choose to sneak into the larger room, where they will be less noticed. When I opened the Southgate room door to take a picture earlier in the conference I noticed everyone turns to look!

Our earlier start has also caught the catering staff on the hop. I did send through the timetable and it was checked and double checked with the contact I had. This meant we were in a line waiting for a buffet that wasn’t yet ready to be served. Eventually, all was good and we were fed in time for the final roundtable session.

Everyone who had stayed was gathered in the main conference room. James had collected the laptop from the smaller room for me, so I had nothing else to think about. I joined the group to hear the discussion.

Mark thanked everyone for coming and then things are a bit of a blur for me. He asks me to come up and thanks me for my help. I hear everyone clapping, Mark is giving me flowers, chocolate and Prosecco! I can feel myself welling up, the culmination of the hard work, adrenaline and tiredness is overwhelming me. I am also protesting that it wasn’t all me, at which point Mark gives James and Hannah Prosecco. I go back to my seat trying to take it all in; I’m shaking, pleased and embarrassed all at the same time.

Gifts to the organisers for all their hard work.

We finish with an afternoon tea of scones, jam and clotted cream. Something that I take for granted and has been a part of my life for always, is being introduced as a new experience for some. The scones are perfect; we sit outside in the sunshine with a seagull squawking at us because it wants afternoon tea.

There are lots of smiles and people are discussing the new things they have picked up. New ideas and contacts have been made. What a blast! It takes me a couple of weeks to settle back to normal life; there was a low after the high but it didn’t last long. There were travel claims to sort and blogs to chase (and write).