Countdown to summer (holidays)

path to beachIt feels like this summer has lasted forever already, and school hasn’t even broken up yet! I have a feeling that, when they do, the rain won’t be far behind – but maybe that’s just me being miserable and cynical. To be honest I wouldn’t mind a bit of rain to give the garden the good drink it so desperately needs. Maybe we could carry on having warm sunny days but cool wet nights?

It’s the final countdown this week. I’ve just been to Poundland and stocked up on craft stuff so I’ve got something up my sleeve for those inevitable ‘I’m bored’ moments, and of course the freezer is stocked to the gunnels with the essential mini-magnums. Tomorrow is Sophia’s school trip – we’re off to a farm plus soft play extravaganza which she will love – and then the following day is her last ever in preschool as she starts school nursery in September. We distributed presents and cards for the staff there this morning, but I volunteered to be class rep for collecting donations for Anna’s teacher’s present, and so I still have a few people to chase, and then the vouchers to buy. Plus, of course, Anna has also announced that she wants to make brownies for her class teacher and TA, and I can hardly discourage her from showing generosity and gratitude, so we need to factor that in this week as well.

We’re heading straight from pick-up on the final day of school to Euston to get the train to Manchester to stay with my brother and SIL for a couple of days, and then going straight over to Liverpool to see my parents, so I need to pack this week as well. I’ve also realised that I may have made a strategic error in planning to go straight to the station, as on the last day of school Anna normally comes out clutching approximately 703 pieces of work, ranging from lovely poems I want to keep forever through to scraps of ripped paper with a piece of lack-lustre colouring she did one wet play back in November, not to  mention a forlorn assortment of hats, socks, cardies, hoodies, water bottles and lone mittens, most of which I gave up for lost months ago, and a dirty PE kit. I have no desire whatsoever to carry these round the country with us (although the thought of accidentally ‘losing’ most of them in my brother’s house is rather tempting!), so somehow I have to extract these momentoes of the year the day before. Wish me luck with that!

A run of two weeks in which Sophia, then Anna then I, have all had tonsillitis has totally foiled my grand plans to be on top of the housework before the start of summer. I could be catching up now, but this is also my last chance for 7 or 8 weeks to sit alone in a cafe sipping ice cold freshly squeezed orange juice and eating a salted caramel chocolate brownie I don’t have to share, so I’m afraid there’s no way I’m passing that by in favour of hoovering under the sofa, however badly that needs doing!

What I’ll be doing instead is spending a couple of separate weeks in Liverpool with my parents, a week’s family holiday in Cornwall, swimming lessons for both children, and then a mixture of lazy pyjama days doing some craft or cooking, reading or Duplo, or watching one of the dvds I’ve squirrelled away over the year, local trips to Vestry House Museum or Epping Forest or the local park for a picnic and a game or two of hide and seek, and perhaps a couple of slightly bigger trips to museums or out to the coast if I’m feeling brave. Not forgetting the third year of our annual ‘Mummy and Anna Day’ when my husband takes a day off work to spend with Sophia and Anna and I head off on an adventure together. Two years ago we got the train to Birmingham and went to Cadbury World (my mothership!), last year we went to London Zoo and then for ice-cream sundaes, and this year we’re planning on a traditional seaside trip to Broadstairs for paddling, fish and chips on the beach and probably more ice-cream sundaes.

Nine and three are very different ages, and the children require very different things of me. Anna is generally extremely patient and loving with Sophia, who in turn adores her sister, but there are moments, on mornings when they are already screaming with frustration at each other and me by 8.20am that I have dreaded the summer holidays. Weeks and weeks of no break for me, and balancing everyone’s conflicting demands can feel daunting, even though I also love spending time with them both and look forward to long days without the tyranny of the school run. However, I hope I have managed to come up with a good balance of family activities, and of both girls (thanks to help from aunty, uncle and grandparents!) getting windows of 1-1 time with an adult. And if it all goes wrong, then you’ll be able to spot my house – it’ll be the one with CBeebies blaring out 12 hours a day whilst I rock quietly in the corner, chain-eating mini-magnums.


Beside the seaside

Predictably, despite my panics, the summer holidays are absolutely flying by. Only just over two weeks to go, and then we’ll be back in the school-run routine again. I’m taking advantage of a very rare window of peace and quiet when Anna is round at her friend’s building a den to hold the meetings of their secret society (“I think ‘society’ sounds much more grown up and important than ‘club’, doesn’t it, Mummy?), and Sophia is having her nap. Aannnnd breathe…

The lovely thing about this summer is the amount of time we have been lucky enough to spend at the seaside, first of all in Anglesey and then in West Cornwall. I love the sea. Somehow gazing out to sea, breathing the tangy saline air, feeling the sand between my toes manages to calm and energise and inspire me all at the same time.

path to beach

It’s also been brilliant watching how much fun the children can have with a good old bucket and spade – damming streams, digging holes, building sandcastles.

One of my worries about these school holidays was that the disparity in ages between Anna (8) and Sophia (2) would make it really difficult to entertain both of them at the same time, but a beach really is a happy place for all of us.

Of course, it has also helped having lots of family around. We were in Anglesey with my parents and, for half the time, with my brother and SIL, and my MIL was with us in Cornwall. They were around to give me a chance for a solitary walk along the beach of an evening, to teach Anna to play French cricket, to pass a rainy afternoon in reading stories or teaching origami, to take care of Sophia for a few hours and enable us to have a lovely long cliff path walk with Anna. Thank heaven for grandparents and aunts and uncles!

looking at the view

Just looking through my photos as I prepare this post has given me a renewed sense of calm and tranquility. The challenge now is to maintain that in the hustle and bustle of daily life a long way away from the sea. The little cafe just off the beach at Lligwy, where we stayed on Anglesey, had this poster up:

live well sign

Yes, it’s a little bit hippyish, and yes, these things are all easier to achieve on holiday by a beautiful beach than they are on a grey November morning when you have to do three loads of laundry, clean the loo and pay the credit card bill. But despite this, it actually feels like pretty good advice. I suspect that when my life starts to feel overwhelming and out of balance it is because I haven’t been spending enough time doing some of these.

It can’t always be sunset over Penzance Harbour or Lligwy Beach, but I really want to retain some of the magical peace of these beautiful places now I’m back home in East London.

Tenth Day of Advent: Cornwall

Back in my NCT classes when I was pregnant with Anna, the teacher led a relaxation exercise, and asked us to envision our ‘happy place’. I didn’t have to think for a moment. My happy place is Penberth Cove, on the Penwith Peninsula, right down in the far, far west of Cornwall. Without consciously knowing I was doing it, I had already been employing this meditative technique for years. At the dentist having a filling, or struggling to get to sleep because I had a big day at work the next day, I would take myself to Penberth. I would imagine as much detail as I could; the saline tang of the air, the salt spray in my face, the swoosh swoosh (or crash crash, depending on weather) of the waves coming in, the bright yellow gorse, turquoise sea contrasting with uncompromising grey granite cliffs, and (in my dreams at least) azure sky. It still is my happy place, and now all the happier for being able to add the image of a toddler Anna exploring it into my mental picture.Anna penberth

I went to this part of Cornwall for the first time when I was nineteen. My boyfriend (now husband) had been going with his family to the same cottage every year since he was five, so it was incredibly generous of my parents-in-law to include his girlfriend of six months in this special family tradition. To say nothing of brave to commit themselves to a week in a tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere with a girl they barely knew. Probably fairly brave of me to accept the invitation too, given the infamous challenges of the in-law relationship, but I was so dizzily and madly in love that I would probably have taken a holiday in a war zone or a tent in the middle of the desert if my beloved had thought it was a good idea.

Miraculously it all worked out. My parents-in-law’s generosity extended to making me feel incredibly welcome and included, and I still have so many happy memories of that trip. Long, wet, windy walks along the cliff tops, and then back home to light the fire and sit chatting, reading or watching TV. Oh, and drinking gin and tonic. My tastes in alcohol weren’t particularly sophisticated in those days. My drink of choice in the pub with friends had been a steamboat – Southern Comfort, lime and lemonade. It’s main advantage is that it packs quite a punch without actually tasting of alcohol. But my mother-in-law’s G&Ts are good enough to convert a teetotaller. I dread to think what the ratios are – suffice it to say that the first time I ordered a G&T in a pub (a double) I nearly returned it because I thought they must have forgotten the gin!

It was the first of many Cornish holidays with my in-laws. One year we were up to our eyes in college work and couldn’t manage a whole week, so we took the train down to Penzance, spent the night in the cottage, went for a walk and the obligatory pasty the next day before getting the sleeper train back to Paddington. We were away from Oxford for considerably less than 48 hours, yet had travelled half a world away. Sadly my father-in-law died a few years ago. One of the reasons Cornwall is such a happy place for me now is that it is somewhere I have such happy memories of him.

Penberth was also the first place we took Anna on holiday, when she was just three months old. The next year she had recently started walking, and I have some lovely memories (and photos) of her finding her feet in the verdant garden and on the coastal path. t&a

We haven’t been very lucky with the weather in Cornwall the last few years we’ve been but, although it is particularly beautiful and enjoyable in the sunshine, I genuinely love it in all weathers. Wind and rain has a particular violent freedom in Cornwall which sends me straight to a Daphne du Maurier novel. And at any time of year the food is heavenly – Cornish pasties, fresh crab, clotted cream – some of my favourite things ever. Although I love it so much, I can’t possibly spend more than a week a year there or I will end up too fat to fit on the train down.

me, A and trainThe train down is another total joy. On a couple of occasions my MIL has taken Anna down on an early train, and husband has done a day in work and then met me at Paddington to take the 18.00 to Penzance. When that happens we make a real occasion of it. A glass of champagne at Searcy’s in Paddington station, and then the full three-course silver service dinner in the proper old-fashioned restaurant car. Watching the sun set over the Dawlish coast from a luxurious feeling train carriage whilst eating a delicious meal has got to be a lifetime highlight.
I might only get to Cornwall once a year or so, but the memories it has provided and the knowledge that it is there in my mind’s eye whenever I need it make me happy all year round.



Everyone for what (s)he likes

We joined the National Trust this summer. I know, I know, it feels like a hideously middle-aged, middle-class thing to do. But we love the beaches and cliff tops of the Penwith peninsula in Cornwall so much that it seems worth the subscription fee just for their work in maintaing and preserving those, let alone the myriad of other great things they do. Oh yes, and there was a special offer on whereby you got a set of children’s gardening tools when you took out a family membership, and I do love a freebie. I love a freebie when it’s something I have no need of or interest in, but when it’s something I know Anna will absolutely adore then I’m sold.

To be honest I thought that, living in London with no car, we wouldn’t really get much use out of our membership, other than when we’re on holiday in Cornwall. Looking at their handbook of properties, I was wrong! There are quite a few properties around Greater London or a fairly short train journey away, and most of them sound like brilliant family days out, so we’re putting a list together and are determined to make the most of our membership.

An almost six-year age gap between our children can make it tricky to think of activities which would please both of them (let alone that we’d enjoy too!) but a day out at a National Trust property can tick a lot of boxes for all of us. Sophia can watch the world go by from her pushchair or sling, crawl around and eat some grass and gravel or throw modged up banana out of her high chair in the cafe. There’s often an adventure playground or open space for Anna to run round and burn off some energy, and then some kind of child friendly activity we can do to encourage her growing interest in history. And husband and I get to experience a little oasis of tranquility in beautiful surroundings.

Our first trip was to Ham House, near Richmond in West London. Getting there in itself was a pleasure, as after taking the London Overground from Walthamstow to Richmond, we completed the journey with a gentle meander along the river.ham

The River Thames has such a different character here to in Central London. In Central London, swooping past the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Millenium Dome (or whatever it’s called these days) it speaks of excitement and bustle, but out in West London with the over-hanging trees, rushes and geese it can feel as though you’re in the middle of the countryside. I had lines from The Wind in the Willows running through my head on loop as we strolled along, and in fact the experience was so rural that, to Anna’s enormous delight, the path was totally flooded on the way back when the tide had come in, and we had to paddle ankle-deep for a few metres before scrambling over a stone wall into a (relatively) dry field.

We didn’t *ahem*actually make it round the house itself. You see, after we’d missed our connection at Gospel Oak, and then stopped for (delicious) lunch at Petersham Nurseries, we didn’t actually arrive with a lot of time to spare before we knew we’d have to head back for bedtime. But that is the joy of being members. We got to pop in for a stroll round the beautiful gardens, we’d had the fun of getting there, and we know we can go back anytime we like.

An original purpose of this blog was for me to keep a record for myself of all the little things which make life special, and so I’m going to make a serious attempt to blog about all our National Trust explorations this coming year. Apart from anything else, it might give us the little kick we need to actually go out and get visiting.

Rain doesn’t stop play

st michaels in rainI’m writing this in Cornwall, curled on the sofa with a view of the sea in the distance. Being Cornwall, and being summer, you can barely tell sea and sky apart, they are just slightly different shades of rather forbidding grey.  My husband has been coming on holiday to the Penwith peninsula in the far West of Cornwall every year since he was a small child. We got together when we were eighteen, and since then I’ve joined in with the family tradition, and our daughter came down here for the first time when she was just three months old. This is now her sixth Cornish holiday.

One of my favourite travel experiences of all time is arriving at Paddington Station to take the express train to Penzance. Just the list of stations – Lostwithiel, St Austell, Truro, Redruth, St Erth – is intensely romantic. Well, to me anyway. Maybe I over-dosed on Daphne du Maurier at an impressionable age. I love everything about this region – the sea in all its moods, the dramatic cliffs, the uncompromising granite buildings, the plethora of vivid wildflowers. When I did antenatal classes before my daughter was born, our teacher suggested we envision our own ‘happy place’, somewhere we could take ourselves mentally, where we would feel serene and tranquil, and therefore distract ourselves if we were scared or in pain. My happy place was Penberth Cove and, much to my surprise, it worked. As I lay in a strange and sterile operating theatre, being prepped for an emergency c-section, shaking violently all over from a combination of nerves and reaction to the anaesthetic, I took myself to Penberth, listened to the waves crashing onto the shore, saw the million different shades of blue, green and grey in the swirling sea, and felt miraculously calmed.

I say all this to prove my credentials as someone with a genuine love for, and loyalty to, Cornwall. However, I do have a few itsy, bitsy complaints, related entirely to the weather. It is late May. We are in the far West of the West Country. Was it unreasonable to imagine that we might get some sunshine? This is only Day Three of the holiday, but the answer so far is a resounding yes, the evidence I’ve amassed over the past fifteen years should have indicated to me that a week of unbroken sunshine was, at best, improbable. It’s all so resonant of my childhood.

It’s funny – in many ways my husband and I had very different upbringings. He was the only child of bohemian parents living in a fifth floor flat in inner London. My childhood was classic 2.4 children territory in suburban Liverpool. However, one set of reminiscences we share is childhood holidays. The Eighties was when many British families discovered the joy of the cheap package holiday – apartments in Benidorm or Majorca with balconies, pools and, most crucially of all, guaranteed sunshine. Not something we ever experienced. Our childhood holidays were all about cottages in Wales or Devon or Cornwall, about board games and dominos, the dreaded car picnic, about gazing out of the window with desperate optimism saying things like ‘I think it’s brightening a little bit over there’, about beach days where the children wore wellies and sweaters over their swimming costumes and the adults huddled shivering behind windbreaks. (I’m sure only the British have windbreaks. In other countries, if the weather is such that you need a windbreak then you wouldn’t be on the beach). The sun did shine sometimes, of course it did. And at that point, safe sun messages being another decade away, we’d get our shoulders and noses burnt and spend the rest of the holiday being slathered with calamine lotion.

And now here I am, aged thirty-three. On holiday with my daughter. In Cornwall. In the pours of rain. Yesterday, lacking even the car for a car picnic, we ate our lunch on the harbour front at Porthleven. Huddled together, waterproofs on, hoods up, in a race to eat our pasties before the paper bags they were in disintegrated into mush. Anna was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt, a tunic dress over leggings, wellies, a thick woollen cardie and a waterproof coat. ‘Why didn’t we bring my mittens, Mummy?” she wailed. Why indeed? Because it’s May? Every now and then one of the adults would look up and say “I think it might be going off a bit”, and Anna would just raise a sceptical eyebrow.

We’re clearly programmed to recreate our childhood experiences for Anna but, frankly, she could do a lot worse. I’ve now travelled fairly extensively over Europe, although sadly not much further afield, and I still think West Cornwall is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, with those other childhood favourites of North Wales, Pembrokeshire and Devon not coming far behind. There are fantastic walks, an abundance of wildlife, friendly people, quaint harbours, unsurpassable beaches and the gastronomic delights of fresh fish, pasties, cream teas and Cornish ice cream. And, you know, I think it might be brightening a bit over there. I’d better go and find my wellies.