Fenton House

Back in the Christmas holidays, husband and Anna invented a jam jar system. They wrote down on slips of cardboard (recycled Christmas cards, actually) all the places that we might want to visit for day trips. Then they divided them up into three jam jars – one for local places for when we just have a couple of hours to spare, one for trips of a few hours such as into Central London, and one for whole day trips. The idea was that when we have some free time and fancy an adventure, we just pull a slip out of the relevant jam jar and away we go, saving hours of debate and analysis paralysis and a feeling of being overwhelmed by choice.

It’s been such a busy year so far we haven’t used it much, but Sunday was an invitingly free day in the calendar, so we decided to jam jar it, and as a result set off for Fenton House, a National Trust property in Hampstead.

parkNow, Sophia’s tolerance for meandering round historical properties is slim to non-existent, so we decided to make a day of it by going via Golders Hill Park on the other side of Hampstead Heath.With lots of space to run around and play with a ball, a pond complete with newly hatched ducklingsducklings, well-equipped playground and a miniature zoo, the children were absolutely in their element. Watching their enjoyment, and the profusion of amazingly beautiful flowers everywhere meant that we were too. Is it just me, or are the springtime flowers and blossoms even more spectacular than usual this year?bambi

We had our home-made cheddar mushroom and caramelised onion pizza picnic on a bench in a little woodland glade, and then walked across the Heath to Fenton House. Hampstead is almost ridiculously picturesque. If it wasn’t in London, it would undoubtedly be a tourist attraction in its own right. Like Bath, it flourished as a Regency spa town – then of course it wasn’t within London – and it is every bit as lovely, albeit quite different.

fenton houseFenton House is a beautiful 16th century merchant’s house, and I can tell you that they did themselves alright those merchants. It is beautifully proportioned, and the kind of stately home-lite that I can actually imagine myself living in. Chatsworth et al are stunning, but hardly homely. Shamefully we entirely skipped the culture bit of going round the house itself in favour of hanging out in the stunningly lovely walled garden and orchard. Anna compared it to Mr McGregor’s garden, and it definitely had that feel about it. I alternated between dreamily imagining myself in a period drama and stopping Sophia eating handfuls of gravel and picking the flowers.aliums

Husband and I could easily have spent the rest of the afternoon there, but there’s only so much gravel a girl can eat, so before boredom could set in, we meandered through Hampstead to Burgh House – another miniature stately home which happens to have a delightful garden cafe. We had delicious scones with jam and clotted cream, lemon drizzle cake and homemade pink lemonade whilst listening to the strains of classical music floating out from a concert taking place in the house itself. Whether it was the sugary indulgence, the calming music or her fascination with the little dog with the people at the next table, Sophia behaved utterly angelically and so we all got to enjoy our afternoon tea, rather than gulping it down and departing in a rush to the accompaniment of a screaming baby. Not that that has ever happened to us, of course.



Being a selfish mum

After weeks (months) of agonising, this weekend I took the decision to stop breastfeeding Sophia during the night. I will continue to feed her at bedtime and first thing in the morning for the time being, but I have come to the point where I need my nights back. Or at least the option of having them back. When I am crying with tiredness by 10pm I need to be able to say to my husband that he is on baby duty tonight, rather than him watching helplessly as I reach the end of my tether, unable to do anything because he is totally lacking in the boob department.

As a nervous first-time mum I stopped feeding Anna during the night at about 7 months, when a dietician told me she would become obese if I didn’t. Total nonsense, as I now know, and when I had Sophia I was determined that she would self-wean according to her own body clock, not a text book. Which is a great theory, but seventeen months later I have had enough. I’m not worried that she’s going to become obese, but I am worried that by continually substituting sugar for sleep to get me through the day, I am.

Last night could have been a lot worse. Sophia woke three times, as usual, but instead of a cuddle and a feed she got a stroke on the head, a murmured “I love you, but it’s sleep time now”, and her Baby Einstein lullaby CD switched back on, and each time she settled herself to sleep again within twenty minutes. My mum bought us this lullaby CD when Anna was a tiny sleep refusenik, so it has been the soundtrack to our nights for seven years now. Anna still likes it played at bedtime to help her settle, and we started Sophia on it at birth. We have two hard copies, and it is on the iPad, iPod, and both our iPhones. I’ve no idea if it aids sleep at all, I’m certainly not sure that my children are poster girls for it, but it has become an essential comfort blanket for all of us, perhaps husband and I even more than the children.

Would it be better for Sophia if I continued to feed her at night until she is ready to stop? Very possibly. Advocates of attachment parenting would argue that she will feel more secure if her needs are unquestioningly met, and that human babies evolved to sleep close to their mum, feeding as and when they needed, rather than fitting into the artificial constraints of a modern routine. On the other hand, I also think that Sophia (and Anna) will probably benefit from a mother who isn’t chronically sleep-deprived, and who gets a break occasionally.

And then there is also the selfish little voice whispering to me that,  perhaps, I don’t have to make every single decision based on what would be best for Anna and/or Sophia. That, just occasionally, it might be ok to think about what’s best for me.

I read somewhere that when you have a baby you lose your body and your mind, and that definitely resonates for me, but I’m now feeling ready to start the step-by-step process to regaining them.



Literal sunshine and metaphorical showers

Social media mean that inspirational statements, or cliches, or truisms – I think the terminology depends on how cynical you’re feeling that day – are everywhere. Some of them are more than a little twee. Others I really do think we can learn from. And, of all of them, the one I really feel I need to apply is the one about life not being about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain.dancing in the rain

This weekend, the warmest and sunniest May weekend on record, has involved a lot of dancing in the rain for me.

It started inauspiciously on Friday afternoon. I had just settled Sophia for her nap and was about to work my way through a huge list of jobs which would leave the house organised and gleaming and me free to enjoy the weekend. Then my mobile rang, and I heard the dreaded words “Is that Anna’s mum? I’m calling from the office at school…”

Anna had an infected toe, apparently. I wasn’t massively sympathetic at first, assuming that it would be a blister from her new sandal.Only after she got home and I peeled back the plaster to take a look did I realised that it probably was infected, and I needed to a) be a bit nicer and b) take her to the doctors. By the time of our appointment, two hours later, she couldn’t put her foot on the floor without extreme pain. I ended up wheeling her round to the doctors in Sophia’s buggy, whilst carrying Sophia in the sling. I really appreciated the warm weather that walk.

We were prescribed antibiotics, so I manoeuvred us all to the chemist, and then home. We dosed Anna up, and then made the most of the sunny evening and my husband being home early to have shop-bought pizzas and salad for tea in the garden. And I managed not to fret about the list of undone jobs or Anna’s sore toe, or the fact that I hadn’t made the pizzas myself from scratch, and just enjoy that experience. It helped that I couldn’t see the chaos inside the house.

Poor Anna’s foot got worse and worse, and she had a really horrible night. Of all the plans we’d made for Saturday – husband had work to get done, we wanted to make the most of the weather, I still had all the housework to do – two of the family spending the morning in A&E wasn’t even on the short-list, but that’s what Anna and my husband ended up doing anyway. I tidied up a bit, and worried a bit more, and then realised that there was no point Sophia and I being stuck at home for the sake of it. I had missed breakfast in all the kerfuffle, so I decided that Sophia and I would walk round to our local cafe together. She enjoyed the walk. I enjoyed the freedom of being out without a pram. And we both enjoyed the babycino, apple and rhubarb juice and chocolate muffin. Yes, I know, she shouldn’t have had any chocolate muffin, but it was only a little bit. I was still worried about Anna, and felt sorry for them being stuck in hospital, but I also enjoyed a little window of self-indulgence with Sophia.

That evening my friend was due to babysit while husband and I went out for dinner. I agonised over whether Anna would be alright, but she was so exhausted after her broken night the night before that she was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. We were only going out locally, so decided to risk it, and I left my friend with a cup of tea and lots of admonitions to phone us if she was at all worried.

Husband and I enjoyed a glass of prosecco in the evening sunshine, and had just placed our food orders when my phone rang. Anna was still fast asleep, but it was Sophia who had woken up, inconsolable and seemingly in pain. I raced home to administer Calpol, breast-milk and reassurance, before sprinting back to the restaurant once she’d settled to sleep once more. We managed to finish our dinner and get home before she woke up again a couple of hours later. An unconventional model for a romantic night out and, given that I wore heels for the first time in months, I could have done with a bit less running, but I’m still glad we had that blissful hour sitting together in the sunshine.

By yesterday it was clear that Sophia had an ear infection. Anna’s sore toe had already put paid to tentative plans for a trip to the seaside in any case, and so we settled for a quiet day at home. Husband finally got his work done. Sophia was feeling so poorly she had an epic three hour nap, and Anna and I got to watch an episode of ‘Just Add Magic’ – her new favourite TV programme, and bake a cake together. Then with everyone Calpolled to the max, we put the littlest one in the pram, and the bigger one in the buggy, and wheeled them round to the garden of Vestry House Museum – our favourite local spot, and where we held our wedding reception – for a picnic. It was blissfully peaceful, and Anna lay and soaked up some sunshine, Sophia toddled happily on the grass and tried to eat daisies, even though she’d refused all other food all day, and I ate lots of grilled aubergines stuffed with goats cheese from our fab local Italian deli.

My tendency is to think that I will relax and enjoy myself as soon as. As soon as the house is tidy. As soon as I’ve lost a stone. As soon as Sophia is sleeping through the night. As soon as the weather gets better. As soon as whichever child is poorly at that moment gets better. This weekend I spent Friday afternoon carting a sick child and a grumpy baby to the doctors. Friday evening and night looking after a sick child who was in so much pain it made my heart ache for her, and debating with my husband if/when we should take her to hospital. Saturday looking after baby and tidying house while worrying about sick child. Saturday evening, which I’d been looking forward to for weeks, was interrupted by sick child #2, giving me someone else to worry about. Sunday was at home with two poorly girls whilst everyone else in the whole world (or on my Facebook feed anyway) was at the seaside.

But I actually managed to enjoy the windows of time between crises, and appreciate them all the more for their brevity, rather than writing the whole weekend off and planning to have fun next weekend, as soon as. Learning, in fact, to dance in the rain.

My April Books

Yes, I know I’m a little late with this. My excuse is that given it was snowing on Friday I found it a little hard to believe that we were really going into May Bank Holiday weekend.

April booksRecipe For Love  by Katie Fforde

I had read this this fun and frothy Katie Fforde novel in the past, but was tempted to re-read it because I had been binge-watching  the early series of Great British Bake Off, and this seemed a suitable accompaniment. The main protagonist is a contestant on a TV cookery competition and she falls in love with one of the judges. Fforde was inspired to write it after becoming addicted to Bake Off herself, and it seemed highly appropriate for matching my reading to my viewing. Does anyone else do that?

Death on the Riviera by John Bude

This book is part of the British Library re-prints of Golden Age classic crime novels. It was a birthday present from Anna back in February, but I saved it until April because I knew we were going on holiday to the South of France then, and so it seemed appropriate. I think John Bude’s novels are probably by favourite of the British Library series so far, and this one didn’t disappoint. It was well-written, excellent at creating the atmosphere of the French Riviera in the 1950s, and had a very clever solution. Good present choice, Anna!

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

This was another birthday present, from my parents this time, which I also saved for our holiday in France.  The week before my birthday I’d coincidentally chosen this novel as a present for a friend, so I was very keen to read it and see if I’d made a good choice!

While I was reading it I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, and I’m still not entirely sure. It was an interesting and though-provoking read, quite different from my habitual literary diet of chick lit and detective fiction. The characters were intriguing and sensitively drawn, and the concept – of a man running a ‘literary pharmacy’, able to prescribe books to cure all human emotional ills except his own – really appealed to me, not least because this is often how I tend to treat books myself.

The downside for me was that I found the language and some of the scenarios just a little too far-fetched and verging on self-indulgent. Perhaps some of the language issues are related to translation as this novel was originally written in French. I always worry about translated works as, inevitably, the translator has as much influence on the finished text as the author, and that gives me an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty as to who actually intended what. However, not much to be done about it as there is no way that my nearly two decade old A-level French is up to this!

I don’t think this is something I will re-read as I didn’t absolutely love it, but I am very glad to have come across it.

Murder at Ashgrove House and Murder at Dareswick Hall by Margaret Addison

I felt a little bit low last week for some reason, and Sophia was teething and having a horrible time of it, so I was tired, had even less time than usual to read, and when I did get a chance I wanted something interesting  but undemanding and comforting.

This modern series of detective fiction set in the 1930s which I discovered on my Kindle turned out to be absolutely perfect.The sleuth is a London shop girl, Rose Simpson, who gets almost accidentally mixed up in aristocratic circles with a very high suspicious death rate. The books are an open pastiche, or perhaps tribute, to Agatha Christies’s country house classics, with a strong element of Downton Abbey thrown in.

They follow all the conventions of classic detective fiction, are cleverly plotted and fun to read. You definitely have to be a big Golden Age detective fiction fan to enjoy them, but I am, so that’s alright.