Beside the seaside

It’s an appropriately grey, rainy and blustery day for the first day back at school, preschool and work after a (mainly!) sunshiny half term at the seaside.

We rented a cottage in Hastings for the week, and had the most idyllic time imaginable. I’m surprised Hastings isn’t better known as a holiday destination, because it is perfect in every way, from the narrow, higgledy-piggledy streets of the Old Town lined with independent cafes and delightful antique shops, to the dramatic cliffs rising up straight from the town, their tops a lush carpet of wildflowers leading to the South Downs beyond, to the waves crashing on the beach and the fishermen pulling in their catch, to the traditional family holiday amusements of fairground and crazy golf it has everything you could want.

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We spent hours on the beach, paddling, wave jumping, hunting in rock pools, searching for pretty pebbles and shells, burying each other’s legs and damming streams. The children were both in their element. The miraculous thing about a seaside holiday is that, even though we took practically no toys (Anna had her Kindle and her favourite soft toy, Sophia had a handful of picture books as well as Mouse and Bunny, who are indispensable sleep aids), and we bought a couple buckets and spades, and they were both totally content with these for the whole week.

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We had a morning at the fair, and an afternoon playing crazy golf (which by some fluke I won, managing no less than two holes in one!), and then a couple of day trips out to National Trust properties in Sussex. Bodiam Castle is the ultimate child’s storybook medieval castle, complete with moat, and we got there by steam train! Bateman’s is  Rudyard Kipling’s old home, and dreamily beautiful. June must be one of the best months to see an English country garden, and this one was spectacular.

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I was feeling totally fed up with cooking and housework at the beginning of the holiday, and really needed a break. I was a bit worried that self-catering meant that I wouldn’t get one, but I needn’t have worried. We had fresh sourdough bread and pastries from the local organic bakery for breakfast each day, picnics for lunch – either humous and oatcakes or sausage rolls from the same bakery and a bit of cucumber and some cherry tomatoes to keep scurvy at bay, and then dinner was either fish and chips, a Waitrose ready meal courtesy of the Ocado delivery I booked for the first day, or something really simple like locally smoked mackerel and salad which was well within husband’s limited culinary capability. All delicious, no-one starved, and I have come home with a renewed enthusiasm for cooking. As for housework, well, we were out pretty much all day every day, so things didn’t really have a chance to get messed up.

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I find being by the sea so therapeutic that I have come home refreshed, calmed and energised. Oh, and determined to start a fund to buy a second home in Hastings Old Town. Maybe if I start saving £2 coins…?

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Spring is in the air

It’s back to school for us today, but with a definite hint of spring in the air to soften the blow. Actually, I don’t mind too much, and am hoping that this term my offspring might be a bit healthier and we can actually settle into our new routine, which involves me being able to write while Sophia is at pre-school. Watch this space!

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We had a lovely half term. For the first part of it I took the children up to Liverpool to see my parents. The first morning we were there, they whisked the children off to the Storybarn in Calderstones Park, leaving me curled up in my pyjamas with a good book and a warm pain au chocolat. I then managed to stir myself to have a long, luxurious, uninterrupted shower – even more of a treat because our shower at home has been broken for three weeks and so I’ve been having baths and rinsing my hair under the taps with a tupperware tub!

The children had an amazing time at the Storybarn, and their enthusiasm definitely makes me think it’s something we’ll want to do again on a future visit to Liverpool. Anna especially absolutely loves books, reading, stories and the world of make-believe. She’s currently two and a half chapters into writing her own first novel – an adventure story which shows a strong Blytonesque influence, as well as a vivid imagination of her own, and she is rarely seen without her head in a book. Definitely like mother like daughter! Sophia loves stories too, but she also likes to be on the move, and Storybarn gave her lots of chances for active play as well. She was particularly taken with the giant bubble machine.

We had a lovely family time when my brother and sister-in-law came over for the day. The children had the time of their lives playing with Uncle Matt and Auntie Esther. They went for a walk in the woods and climbed on log bridges (Uncle Matt soaking his feet in a ditch to rescue Anna when she got stuck!), played a long game of Scrabble, which I had been teaching Anna the day before, read endless stories, had cuddles and generally gave them lots of the patient, loving, one-on-one attention which aunties and uncles are really good at.

We also went to the World Museum in Liverpool, where Anna enjoyed the dinosaur trail and Sophia marvelled at the enormous dinosaur skeleton and the tanks of tropical fish. And of course, no trip to Liverpool would be complete for us without a visit to the Waterstones in Liverpool One – one of my favourite bookshops in the country, and with such an incredible children’s area.

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Back in London we had some lazy time at home, and I was self-sacrificially devoted enough to let Anna do painting and crafts. I know. It had better be a good Mother’s Day present. In the meantime I have two beaded, sequinned, beribboned octopus/jellyfish type creations to find homes for. We also headed to St Albans for the day to visit the Roman museum and remains because Anna is ‘doing’ Romans at school this term.

And this weekend the slightly lighter nights and warmer weather inspired me to start spring-cleaning. Anna and I cleared out her desk (bio-hazard suits would probably have been a good idea), and her art cupboard, and threw away bags of lidless felt-tips, broken crayons, screwed up coloured tissue paper etc etc. We spring-cleaned her playhouse as well, and then when she started to get bored and her sister woke up from her nap,husband took them both off to the park for a muddy game of football and I blitzed the rest of the house – surfaces dusted, floors hoovered and mopped, bathroom cleaned, beds changed – and then pottered off the the florists to buy a bunch of tulips and one of daffodils to let the spring inside.

February Blues

I said I was superstitious, and didn’t want to tempt fate by proclaiming how great 35 was. Hmm. Fate was tempted anyway.

Since my last blog post I have been quite poorly with tonsillitis, Anna has had conjunctivitis which was really horrible for her, Sophia had a teething-plus-cold-plus random-temperature thing which meant she was breastfeeding every 2 hours all night, and she has also had another head bump where she lost consciousness and we ended up in A&E again. Arrgghh!

valentineI spent the morning of Valentine’s Day mooching around in my pyjamas, still feeling pretty washed-out, and the afternoon in paediatric A&E. I definitely wasn’t in the mood for a romantic evening, so settled for putting my pyjamas back on again (I had got dressed to go to the hospital), and having a takeaway curry on the sofa. My lovely husband made up for it the next day, though, by bringing me a card, a dozen red roses, some chocolate truffles and a super-cute mini Cath Kidston rucksack. The man knows me well!

I’m still feeling that I quite fancy making like a middle-class Edwardian lady and retreating to the seaside for a few weeks convalescence. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be an option anyone is offering me. I did have a fairly quiet week – half term, so thankfully free of school-runs, and my parents came down for a day or two on a mercy mission to entertain the children and stock up my fridge, freezer and cake tins with some home-made goodies, which was lovely Am now having an equally quiet weekend before hopefully  getting back into the swing of things properly next week.

Curiouser and curiouser

Well, the three weeks since I last blogged has flown by in a blur. In fact the whole of February passed in a flash. One minute it was the end of January, next thing it’s practically mid-March, the trees are covered with blossom, daffodils are in the flower beds and it feels like Spring is very definitely here.

I had a lovely relaxing half term week staying in Liverpool with my parents – including dinner with two school friends, and a whole day of catch up with another, courtesy of Nanna and Grandad’s babysitting service.

When we got home again it was time to turn my attention to Anna’s 5th birthday. Her present was the first dilemma. We’d had a previously junk-filled space at the back of our garden completely cleared, and we really wanted Anna’s present to be something she could enjoy in the garden. A trampoline seemed the obvious choice, and my guesstimate measurements suggested we could fit one in. Luckily my husband, possibly with the wisdom which comes from 14 years experience of my guesstimates on anything related to spatial awareness, insisted we measured properly, and we discovered that there wasn’t room after all. Suddenly it was only 10 days to go, and we had no present and no ideas.

Then in a flash of inspiration I decided that I would turn the shed at the bottom of the garden into a playhouse for her. It’s a fairly large shed, and has nice big windows, light, electricity and even a heater, so it had always seemed a shame we only used it for random bits of storage, but we’d never got round to doing anything else. There’s nothing like an immutable deadline to encourage productivity. First I had to remove the built in desk and shelves which were already there. I got quite proficient with a screwdriver during that process, and my hands are covered in scabs from where I go impatient and just yanked. Then a very thorough clean to get rid of all traces of the spiders and snails who had clearly been making it their home. I painted the walls a pretty primrose yellow, and the window frames white for contrast, discovering as I did so that painting wooden panels is really irritating. I got a local carpet shop to fit a cheap and hopefully hardwearing carpet for half nothing, and then indulged (myself more than Anna) in the purchase of a child-sized armchair in a Cath Kidstonesque print. I sprayed one of the panels with blackboard paint so that there’s a permanent large chalkboard, and a kind friend-with-car took me to Ikea where I picked up a rug, some cushions and various other bits. Finally I was ready for the really fun bit – setting up Anna’s toy cooker, kettle, toaster and so on to make a home corner, arranging soft toys and books on the shelves, framing some Flower Fairies postcards I’d tracked down on Ebay, ransacking the house and loft for any undiscovered bits and bobs which could be called into service and generally creating my concept of the ideal space for a little girl to play, read, draw, pretend. I really enjoyed doing it, and Anna loves it, so it was worth all the effort, but it was incredibly time consuming and demanding. 

Toadstool cakeAnd that’s not including the party plans. Somehow a temporary insanity in January, when I let Anna choose her own guest list, had led to us expecting 24 children in addition to the birthday girl for a two hour party. This insanity also caused me to let her choose her own birthday cake, so I had a fairy toadstool to construct as well. I’d booked an entertainer for an hour, then the night before we were seized by overwhelming panic and booked her for another half hour. Best decision we ever made. The entertainer was fabulous, but the second she’d finished the children decimated their carefully packed ‘party picnic boxes’, mainly inhaling the hula hoops and chocolate mini muffins and ignoring the cheese sandwiches and raisins, and then they were on the rampage. A friend arriving to collect her son described my husband and me as looking shellshocked. That’s how it felt. None of them were naughty really, it’s just that there were so many of them. And they moved so fast. And our house suddenly felt so small. My husband had queried the cost of the entertainer originally; afterwards he said he felt she deserved every penny and more besides. I’ve always felt that primary school teachers should be canonised, and Sunday afternoon has totally re-enforced that. It’s fair to say that the bottle of wine we opened later that night was very much appreciated.

All these excitements meant that nothing else got done for ten days, and I’ve spent the last few days playing catch up. Oh yes, and a few manic moments this morning constructing an Alice in Wonderland costume for World Book Day. I’d originally told Anna she could go as a fairy or a cat (costumes we already have) and she’d opted to be Socks from Julia Donaldson’s ‘Tabby McTat’. However, over the past few weeks my mother-in-law has been reading Alice in Wonderland to Anna, and she loves it. Over half term my parents took her to an exhibition on magic and fantasy at Liverpool Museum, which included some Alice-related exhibits, and that made her even keener. Over breakfast this morning she was chatting nineteen to the dozen about Alice, all excited because Granny was picking her up today and so she’d get the latest instalment. It suddenly occurred to me that, of course, she should go as Alice. 7.55am on World Book Day is perhaps not the ideal time to change costume from cat to Alice in Wonderland, but Anna and I were undaunted. First I managed to cram her into an old summer dress (age 3-4!) which happens to have a sticky out net petticoat and a sash. Then I sacrificed a large white cotton napkin and cut it into something which vaguely approximated an apron shape. Obviously there was no time for hemming (what a shame), but I cut a small hole in either side and threaded the dress sash through to hold it on. I wrapped a ribbon around her red velvet Christmas Alice band, and then wrote ‘Drink Me’ on a luggage label and tied it round the neck of a small plastic bottle. The crowning glory as far as Anna was concerned was that she was allowed to take her favourite soft toy, Rosie the white rabbit, to school with her. It was a very long way from being the best costume at school today, not even in the top half probably, but I felt it was pretty good going for a 2o minute quick fix.

And I now feel that, having spent the past fortnight doing my best impression of a perfect mummy, I’m now granted a considerable period of putting Cbeebies on and my feet up. Aren’t I?

Best laid plans

Last week’s post was full of my recent social whirl and my plans for half term. With the benefit of hindsight it reminds me of an old Spanish proverb – “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”. Pretty much as I was writing last week’s post, Anna was busy cultivating an ear infection which segued seamlessly into a tummy bug, so we haven’t been anywhere or done anything all week.

My husband was away last weekend, and my parents were coming to keep me and Anna company. I had all sorts of plans (you see, that word again). We were going to go on a lovely autumn walk through Epping Forest; I’d even bought a little wildlife spotting book so to keep one step ahead of my daughter’s insatiable thirst for information. This would be followed by a visit to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, as my mum is fascinated by Tudor history, and then a lovely lazy lunch in a nice cafe I’d discovered. I’d also wondered if I could talk my dad into giving me a little help sorting the garden for autumn – I’m no expert, but have a vague idea there’s something you’re meant to do with bulbs at this time of year?

I’d planned that on Saturday night I’d cook a delicious risotto for the grown-ups to enjoy with a bottle of wine after Anna had gone to bed, whereas on Sunday we’d all enjoy a traditional roast dinner together. On Monday my parents were leaving just after Anna’s bedtime, so I’d decided to make a big cottage pie which they could have with Anna for an early evening meal before their 5 hour journey home, with the leftovers for my husband and I to have when he got home later.

Where to start? I hadn’t known Anna was going to be poorly, and therefore hadn’t taken into account how clingy she would be. Normally she is more than happy for Nanna and Grandad to put her to bed (I suspect she has far more fun with them than with me), so at around 7pm on Saturday evening I despatched the three of them upstairs and began preparing a risotto. Just when it had reached that crucial needs-constant-stirring-stage the anguished wails filtered down from upstairs. “Where’s Mummy? I want my mummy”. La la la. Stir stir stir. I’ve never been any good at ignoring Anna crying, though, so I sprinted upstairs, yelling at my dad to get downstairs and stir, dammit, stir.

I cuddled, soothed and read the bedtime story with most of my mind on risotto, and (luckily she was very tired) got her settled in record time. My dad had saved the risotto, and it was delicious, although my image of a relaxed evening of leisurely eating, sipping our wine, was replaced by me glugging desperately from the bottle on the worktop I’d opened for cooking and spooning risotto down double-quick before the inevitable call from upstairs for water, or a cuddle, or to rescue whichever soft toy had escaped down the side of the bed.

On Sunday Anna did seem a little brighter, so we decided to risk the trip to Epping Forest. What I hadn’t bargained on when I made my original plans were the hurricane strength winds which were starting to sweep the British Isles, making a walk in the woods seem somewhat less appealing. Especially for a child with ear-ache. We did explore the lovely Visitors Centre, and my mum got to see Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, but Anna clearly wasn’t very well, and low-level whinging was the constant background music. The leisurely lunch was more like cramming food into our mouths as fast as we could so that we could get home before the whinging escalated to a full-scale meltdown. Fact no-one ever tells you about parenthood Number 3722 – you eat more meals more quickly than you would ever have dreamed possible.

The roast chicken dinner went wrong when I opened the packaging on said chicken only to be overwhelmed by the sickly sweet stench of rotting meat. Cue a mad dash to the supermarket before they closed, both to get my money back and purchase something else for dinner. Chicken pieces seemed like a good idea; after all, there was no time to cook an entire chicken now before Anna’s bedtime, but with chicken pieces I could at least still serve the roast potatoes, gravy, stuffing (made into balls and cooked separately) and veg which I’d planned. Unfortunately what I didn’t take into account was that I don’t normally cook with chicken pieces like that, and I had no idea at all how long they would take. Longer than I expected, is the inevitable answer. I  always used to get very stressed making roast dinners – my husband still loves to tell the story of when, driven to despair by my gravy, I threw an entire tray of roast potatoes across the kitchen. I wouldn’t advise it as a stress relief strategy to be honest. Anyway, recently I feel like I have nailed a roast chicken dinner, but the lack of a chicken had thrown me off a bit. There weren’t enough pan juices to make proper gravy, so I turned to the Bisto, only to find that there was a scant teaspoon left in the tub. Nevermind, in the back of the cupboard I spotted a sample packet which had come with a magazine at some point. Only after making the gravy did I notice the word ‘Beef’ on the front of the packet. When I took the chicken pieces out of the oven to serve and started cutting one up for Anna I noticed a distinctly bloody tinge to the meat. Panicked now, as everything else was ready, I shoved them back in the oven, turned it up to Gas Nine, and basically roasted hell out of them. Fifteen minutes later (and forty-five minutes later than I’d originally planned) we sat down to a delicious meal of dried up chicken with beef gravy, overly-crispy stuffing and over-cooked veg. Yummy.

I ran out of time the next morning to make soup for lunch, and so popped out to the local shop for a couple of cans of trusty Heinz Tomato. My dad asked me to pick a newspaper up for him while I was out. I forgot completely. Blaming my memory lapse on lack of sleep, I served soup and then realised with horror that the mince to make cottage pie was still in the depths of the freezer. There was no way I had time to defrost it in time to make a 5.30pm meal. A quick rifle through the store cupboard and I decided that cottage pie would now be tuna  and sweetcorn pasta bake. On the bright side, the pasta was tasty, and a spare pack of mince meant that we could have chilli for dinner the next night.

Needless to say, the weather meant that my plans of giving the garden a good autumn sort out were confined to dodging torrential rain showers to try and clear fallen leaves off the path and out of the drains, so my bulbs are still unplanted.

My parents went home, and the next day Anna’s ear infection turned into an upset tummy. So, this half term we haven’t seen friends, made Hallow’een cakes, been to the Museum of Childhood or gone pumpkin carving. We’ve watched Cbeebies. Pretty much nonstop actually. Anna’s TV viewing has always been quite restricted, and limited to select programmes viewed on i-Player at a carefully specified time of day, so she has, of course,  been overwhelmed by the pleasure of totally indiscriminate viewing, and keeps on repeating in tones of delighted wonderment “Cbeebies is on all day. ALL day! It doesn’t ever stop.”

“Only when you’re poorly, darling.” I keep on repeating.

“Am I still poorly today?” she asks anxiously each morning. So far the answer, unfortunately, has been “yes”, but I dread to think how we’re going to cope with the withdrawal symptoms when she is well enough to get dressed and resume normal life.

It’s been horrible seeing Anna so unwell, and I’m really disappointed that she’s missed out on all the treats we’d planned. “I don’t like this, Mummy, I really don’t,” she’s kept saying imploringly, and it is so hard not to be able to make her better. My heart goes out to parents of children who are seriously sick.

I’ve also got a major case of cabin fever myself. I had a hospital appointment on Wednesday afternoon, and my husband came home early to look after Anna. I felt positively excited, it literally was the social highlight of the week – even being turned into a human pincushion as the nurse tried, and failed, to find a suitable vein to take a blood sample didn’t feel as bad as it might have done compared to yet another episode of Zingzillas. And if I managed a sneaky half hour afterwards, in a cafe near the station, with my kindle and a hot chocolate, well, I think that was justified, don’t  you?