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…?

Easter ‘break’

Anna breaks up for the Easter holidays today, and I am feeling slightly trepidatious! Usually I really look forward to the school holidays – lazy mornings free from the tyranny of the school run, the chance to travel or spend more time with family and friends, a more relaxing pace of life. But for some reason this Easter break is feeling a little bit ominous.

Possibly because this last half-term I’ve been well into the routine of Sophia going to pre-school three mornings a week, and I have really, really, really appreciated the difference that has made to my energy levels and sanity. This week I’ve missed out on two of those precious mornings, the first because there was an end-of-term pre-school trip to our local city farm which I helped out at, and then pre-school broke up yesterday, so there will be no Friday session this week. I really enjoyed going to the farm, and seeing Sophia’s face as she saw real live bunnies and pigs and even a genuine Baa Baa Black Sheep, but I have missed the me-time and the headspace I get when she is at pre-school, and it has made me slightly wary of the next few weeks, as the next time I have a period of child-free time is when she returns to pre-school on April 21st. Which feels a very long time indeed!

We do have some nice plans for the holidays. Tomorrow is an INSET day for Anna’s school, so husband is also taking a day off work, and we’re going to head to the Science Museum, which is normally unbearably crowded at weekends and school holidays, but we’re hoping will be less so tomorrow when many schools haven’t broken up. Then we’ll have lunch out somewhere, maybe al fresco if the weather continues to be so beautiful, and then spend the afternoon letting the children run free in Hyde Park. I imagine ice-cream will probably be involved as well.

On Sunday I am taking the girls up to Liverpool for a few days to stay with my parents. It will be lovely to see them, have a change of scene, and have another two pairs of adult hands. After that we don’t have any real plans, not even for Easter weekend itself. It looks likely that my husband will be working a lot of the time, and so I need to have a little think about what I do with the children. I’d like to make use of our National Trust membership and visit our most local property, Sutton House in Hackney, and perhaps Osterley Park in the far West of London if I’m feeling more adventurous. Heading to our local playground or park is also guaranteed to please both children.mini eggs

Then of course there will be plenty of down-time at home – making the inevitable Easter nest cakes, messing around in the garden if it’s nice weather, snuggling up to watch a film if it’s less so. And more mundane tasks like getting Anna’s passport photos taken and counter-signed and taking her glasses to an optician to be mended!

What there won’t be any time for, I don’t think, is sitting in a cafe writing, so there will probably be a quite few weeks on the blog! Happy Easter, everyone.

Staycation

We didn’t plan a ‘proper’ family holiday this year for lots of reasons, but we did decide to have a staycation. My mother-in-law very kindly lent us her flat while she was on holiday herself, so that we had the chance to have a change of scene and to escape from all those niggling little domestic tasks which can oppress you at home. She only lives on the other side of London, and we’re all obviously very familiar with her flat, but nonetheless we were amazed at just how much of a holiday it felt.

For a start, London is a big old place, so when you’re starting from North West rather than North East there are all sorts of places which suddenly seem like a viable day-trip which we wouldn’t normally tackle (especially with a super-active toddler who is allergic to sitting still!). We also decided that there would be No Cooking. That meant the children probably didn’t eat quite as healthily as usual – for breakfast for instance, instead of porridge with fresh berries we bought one of those Kellogg’s variety packs and let them choose one each day. Blissfully, we were a short walk away from a huge Waitrose, and so picnic lunches were sorted by stocking up on dips, falafel, baguettes, cherry tomatoes and so on, and dinners were things like filled pasta parcels with a handful of frozen veg  thrown in and some grated cheese over the top for the children, and delicious ready meals for us. And, of course, there was the obligatory daily ice-cream which seemed to happen whatever we were doing. But it was only for five days, so hopefully won’t do too much harm in the long-term, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed a proper break from the seemingly endless rounds of food preparation which constitute my normal days at home. And actually, I do really love cooking, so after a bit of a rest I’m now full of renewed enthusiasm for getting back into the kitchen and trying some new recipes as well as some old favourites.

London never ceases to surprise me, and it did so again on the first day of our staycation when we headed to Ruislip Lido. Just a short journey up the Metropolitan Line, but this artificial lake, beach, children’s splash park, playground, woodlands and miniature railway felt like another world. It was created by the local council in the 1940s as a sort of post-war  public morale boost. Hard to imagine public funds being spent on anything so frivolous today, and yet, actually, creating opportunities for families to have fun together and get active in the fresh air without having to spend any money is every bit as important today as it was then. Needless to say, our children absolutely adored it, and we had huge fun too. Just one of those relaxed, carefree days when everyone is in a good mood and everything goes right.

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The next day we headed off to Kew Gardens. I’ve been before, but the last time was when Anna was a baby. It’s wonderful, but it takes nearly two hours from our house, and isn’t the cheapest day out in the world (although it is incredibly good value), so it isn’t a natural choice for an ordinary weekend day trip. We did the treetop walk first as that was what we’d all been looking forward to the most, but I didn’t actually love it as much as I thought I would. It was impressive, but I didn’t quite get the Enid Blyton Magic Faraway Tree sense I had been hoping for. What do you mean, I’m too idealistic? It wasn’t helped by Sophia’s grumpy and clingy mood, which just seemed to get worse, until we realised that she was in some sort of pain, clutching at the side of her face and head, and refusing her food. We couldn’t decide if it was teething or an ear infection, but administered good old Calpol anyway. It was like a miracle. Twenty minutes later she was transformed into the happiest little baby you could hope for, playing and running around with her sister. And that was actually the best bit about Kew for me. The wonderful sense of space and peace. Even on a sunny day in the school holidays it didn’t feel remotely over-crowded, and sitting on a tree-shaded bench watching the children play, and breathing the scent of sun-warmed roses as Sophia toddled up and down a tiny slope ‘whee-ing’ each time was wonderful.

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The next day it was another National Trust day as we headed to Fenton House in Hampstead, another favourite place of ours. We only ventured into the house to use the toilets (ahem) but spent hours in the glorious gardens and orchards.

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Sophia was entranced by the discovery that apples grow on trees, and spent ages painstakingly collecting windfalls and moving them from one part of the orchard to another.

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We followed it with a walk on Hampstead Heath and another playground trip, before having ‘grown-up’ afternoon tea in Burgh House, another Hampstead gem. We have often had tea and cake in the cafe there, and last time we were in, Anna’s imagination was caught by the lovely cake-stands on the tables of people having afternoon tea. It’s only available if you book in advance, and we hadn’t that day, but we promised her that at some point we would have afternoon tea there, and last Saturday was that day. It really didn’t disappoint. The staff were wonderfully friendly and helpful, and our tea of cheese scones, fruit scones with jam and clotted cream, chocolate cake, lemon and blueberry polenta cake, macaroons and home-made pink lemonade was spectacularly delicious. Even though Sophia, appetite fully restored after feeling poorly the day before, kept snaffling half the food off my plate, much to Anna’s amusement.

We finished off  our staycation with a day walking along the river from Twickenham to Richmond, via Eel Pie Island, a gorgeous riverside pub for lunch, a rowing boat ferry, Ham House (yep, National Trust again!) and Petersham Nurseries. I can never believe that this area is in the middle of London. It feels so incredibly tranquil and rural, and the Thames has far more in common with its Oxford self than its Westminster or Docklands incarnations.

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Lots of quality time with my lovely little family, lots of ice-cream, lots of peace and quiet and greenery all felt like just what I needed. Husband is back at work today, and Anna is playing at a friend’s house, and Sophia is having a long nap in her cot. It’s been nice to have a bit of time to myself, and a chance to blog, but I’m starting to miss them all now!

National Trust: Speke Hall

The lovely thing about National Trust membership is that you don’t have to commit to a whole day out if you don’t want to, there are so many lovely places to just dip in and out of.

One of these is Speke Hall in Liverpool, ten minutes or so drive from where my parents live.

A couple of weeks ago Anna was staying with Nanna and Grandad by herself and they went for a full day out to Speke. Anna is fascinated by history, and she loved looking round Speke Hall itself, a beautiful Tudor Manor house, and spotting the priest’s hole and spy holes which tell of the owning family’s Catholic faith at a time when that was persecuted. She also loved the new Childe of Hale trail which celebrates a local hero – the Childe of Hale, John Myddelton, was an astounding nine foot three inches tall. And, being seven she also thoroughly enjoyed the woodland adventure playground complete with zip wire, and the millionaire’s shortbread in the tearoom afterwards! I wasn’t there, but I may as well have been because I’ve heard all about it!

This week, Anna is off in Cornwall with Daddy and Granny, and Sophia and I have come to stay with my parents for a few days. Apart from some very welcome cosseting following Sophia’s frightening experience we didn’t have many plans. It was such a lovely day today, though, that we decided to pop into Speke Hall this morning.

Sophia’s interest in historic houses and historic figures is perhaps understandably at a pre-embryonic stage, so today we headed straight for the playground for smaller children. Sophia busied herself clambering up the ladder and whee-ing down the slide, and then we went and played ball on one of the open grassy spaces with beautiful views across the Mersey estuary.IMG_4590

After a stroll through the pretty orchards and walled kitchen garden, an increasing grumpiness and sleepiness (from Sophia, rather than my parents) indicated it was probably lunchtime and nap time, so we headed for home. We’d only been there for an hour, but to my mind little excursions like that are what add up to making family membership of the NT so worthwhile, and there’s no sense of guilt that you haven’t ‘made the most’ of your admission fee.IMG_4589

Incidentally, down in Cornwall my husband has taken Anna to St Michael’s Mount (National Trust), and they’ve been walking on the coastal path (National Trust) and are off to the beach this afternoon (National Trust!), so we’re definitely getting good value for money.

And now it’s a lazy sunny afternoon, and I’m gazing out at my dad’s beautiful garden, having a chance to blog whilst my parents entertain Sophia. Earlier we had lunch in the garden, with tomatoes plucked from the vine literally seconds before eating, and the obligatory Magnum to follow and possibly, just possibly, I am allowing myself to relax fractionally.

 

Wake up and smell the roses

Things have been pretty quiet on the blog lately. Like many people, I have been in something of a state of shock following the result of last month’s referendum. I’m not exaggerating to say that it feels something like a bereavement, and at the moment I am caught somewhere between anger and denial in the stages of grief.

In my more optimistic moments I can’t believe that we will do something as cataclysmic, as momentous, as disastrous, as leaving the EU on the basis of a very close result following such a horribly untruthful and misleading campaign. Leaders of the Leave campaign have already reneged on their promise – a promise they knew they could never keep – of an extra 350 million a week for the NHS.

I am so angry that the Remain campaign didn’t challenge the entire premise of this referendum. EU citizens living in Britain could not vote in it. Ex-pat Brits living in EU countries could not vote in it. 16 and 17 year olds could not vote in it, despite their futures being very materially at stake. We had no idea what we were voting for, because no-one (still) has the vaguest, remotest idea what Brexit will look like. Such a flawed plebiscite surely cannot justify such an enormous step, and one which the majority of the MPs we elect to make such decisions, do not support.

In a country that suddenly seems motivated by hate and fear, with an economic, political and social future which looks uncertain at best, bleak at worst, my blog which is deliberately small-scale and domestic feels trivial, inconsequential, even pointless.

And yet…When under pressure to cut funding for the arts in order to support the war effort, Winston Churchill riposted “But then what, exactly, are we fighting for?”. There are many reasons for believing that Britain’s future is brighter in Europe, but my own reasons for desiring it so strongly are very personal, relating to peace and security and opportunity for my children, and the delight I feel in living in a city, a country, which welcomes the world. The kind of things, in other words, that I often blog about.rose close up

My other reason for continuing to blog about the little things, is that these are what keep me sane. When the bubble of anger and panic gets too big to contain and my head and chest feel like they are going to explode, then kissing my babies, or baking a cake or smelling a rose helps me regain a little perspective.

We went to Polesden Lacey yesterday as a birthday day-out treat for my husband. It’s a gorgeous National Trust property in Surrey, a Regency period house which was bought by a Mrs Greville and transformed into the ultimate location for delightful and decadent Edwardian house-parties. Edward VII himself was at Mrs Greville’s first house-party in 1909, a few years later the Duke of York (subsequently George VI) honeymooned there. If you ever wondered what life was like inside Downton Abbey, this is the place to go. rose garden

There are also utterly beautiful and spectacular gardens, including the most lovely rose garden I think I have ever seen.

We braved the rain for a 90 minute walk from the local station (lack of car ownership can be a bit of a drawback when visiting National Trust properties!). Anna found an Enid Blyton book she hadn’t read before in the second hand bookshop. The rain cleared enough for us to enjoy our picnic (complete with four different types of cheese, houmous, Cava and strawberries), and to explore the gardens. Then the children went off to the play area, and I got to immerse myself in period drama land inside the house itself. By this time we were all pretty shattered, and very relieved to discover a mini-bus back to the station!

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I am still angry. I have never been more angry. And I think we have to be angry. We have to keep fighting. We have to make the positive case for Europe and inclusion and openness. We have to fight hatred and racism and xenophobia. But I think, probably, we also have to carry on living our lives and smelling the roses.