Summer’s end

img_20170819_115641.jpgHow did we get here already? The remainder of the holidays has just flown past. I can’t believe we’re back to school again on Tuesday. I am somewhat in denial – at the time of writing, new school shirts remain untried on and I know for a fact that the trousers I have in the drawer are currently way too long. But hey, I have three whole days yet to go. In the meantime, here are some of the other things that have filled our summertime since our Pembrokeshire holiday…

 

August… Not the summer weather we’d hoped for hey? The best we can describe it is so-so. One so-so Saturday, we engaged in hide and seek and,ahem, hill rolling on nearby Deacon Hill. I haven’t rolled down a hill for, ooh, at least a quarter of a century. It was steep and persuading myself to complete the first full body rotation was tough but after that I was pretty into it, in fact it’s fair to say my husband, Dom, and I were way more into it than the boys. Here is photographic evidence that we were actually this ridiculous – my gift to you and the internet!

 

That day I was a magical spider monkey. Most days in August we’ve been a new creature. I’ve been a magical woodpecker, dragon, superhero-lizard, ring-tailed lemur and Gastornis (ancient bird featured in a dinosaur magazine) among many (many) others. Today I am a magical glass dolphin. Occasionally I get to choose, but mostly my entity for the day is assigned.

On the day that Lara came to visit we were magical hummingbirds. We were looking after her as part of a childcare swap with some friends. On the Friday my boy had been entertained royally with a visit to Stockwell Park with its great museum displays and play areas. My plans for the return day were a little lower key. We weren’t able to use the car for boring carseat reasons and she is not a scooter fan so instead we started in the garden apple-bobbing and picking up windfalls.

 

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Lara instantly bought into the idea of being a hummingbird and the kids fluttered down to the community garden round the corner, stopping to sup nectar from flowers in front gardens along the way.

 

I’d planned that we would pick elderberries (for wine!) from the forest garden but hardly any were ripe so that only lasted about one minute before the kids went and played on the swings and slides in the park.

After lunch I decided to up my game – we would make paper boats – and sail them down the river. The kids were enthusiastic: we followed a video on YouTube for the origami bit and had fun decorating them before launch.

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I’d anticipated we’d be able to get into the river and float them down to each other quite a few times before they got too soggy. I’d done this last summer on a different local stream. After ice creams on the riverbank we headed to the launch spot but I hadn’t anticipated huge amounts of water weed and silty mud fringing every possible river entrance.

“Not to worry” I said cheerfully “We’ll drop them off the bridge and wave them on their way to the sea!” The kids were excited – they posed for photos before excitedly dropping them off the edge of the bridge and we had at least 10 seconds of delight as we watched them sail on their way.

 

In no time at all they were all stuck in the waterweed a few metres downstream and regrettably well in sight of the bridge. My younger boy burst into tears immediately and demanded I free his boat. We tried in vain for about 5 minutes to enter the water to release the three little stuck boats from their leafy ports. Then my older boy’s boat abruptly sank. I guess it just got too soggy but at this point he also burst into tears.

I tried to persuade them in my cheerful voice that we’d carried out the plan, we’d launched the boats and that was great and now we should just leave the bridge and go and play in the nearby sandpit. This cut no ice at all. I got cross and they cried louder and, well, it wasn’t my finest parenting hour! Lara was very stoic about the whole thing though, bless her, and eventually the draw of the park was enough to distract us all. We had to cross back over the darned bridge with its emotional boat-drama cloud still hanging over it to get home but the promise of Paw Patrol before dinner solves all.

And that last blog about wanting to experience summer rain? Well, the very day after I posted that was wall to wall drear and I had absolutely no desire to go outside. Summer rain or not, I had no energy, no wish to leave the sofa and certainly no desire to get wet. I think we did some kind of painting effort and the telly definitely featured heavily and I had to smile. Maybe next week!

Anyway, enough tapping at the keyboard, these holidays are done! It is now the day before school starts and while enough of the uniform mercifully fits, in no way is it all laid out and ready for school so I’m going to post this at summer’s close and ready us for the start of the autumn term. Deep breath…

My river

What is your favourite place? I think mine must be the little chalk stream in Hampshire that runs through the village where I grew up. It is my river 🙂 It’s one of my favourite places in the world and a couple of weeks ago I shared it with my boys.

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It’s a funny name, looking at it objectively – Me-on, named after the ancient Briton tribe the Meonware apparently. It was where I spent many a summer afternoon after school with my best friend from my village. As soon as we got home from a long hot bus journey, we would rush inside, grab our swimming things and head for a swim in the deep mill pond at the bottom of the mill race. It‘s the only part of the river deep enough to swim and it’s actually on private land but the owner used to put up a notice saying “In this hot weather, any local children can swim in the river”. These days it just says “Private: please keep to the footpath”. I feel a bit sad that the village kids these days can’t do that any more.

After our first cool down, my friend and I used to head downstream to a secret bit of river between two bridges, only accessible from either end and out of sight almost straight away. I remember sunshine, yellow flags and the occasional kingfisher. It was too shallow to swim so we invented “river gliding”, making your body as flat as possible and pushing yourself downstream, which we’d do until we reached the public bridge south of the church.

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It is to this stretch by the bridge that I took my boys – it was too cold even for river gliding but we had fun in a rubber dinghy and pretending to be explorers as we set foot on the new island that has established around what was once just a fallen log in the middle of the channel. I’d anticipated heading there every day for picnics by the river during our five days in Hampshire but this was the second week in August, if you remember it, and it rained a lot. But as you can see from these photos one morning we had just enough sunshine.

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We had a little moonshine too… Somewhat tipsy after (the same as it happens) school friend’s fantastic wedding in the village, I dragged Dom down to the river just before midnight. The moon was so bright and it looked beautiful down there, I even managed a shaky photo.

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The river links my present to my past. Combined with the warm haze of a few drinks and the moonlight, it was a special moment to share at the end of the wedding day of the friend who’d paddled there with me years ago. It is my river and it always will be.

Summer time: and the living is easy?

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Our first summer holidays! Well, since they were last a thing which was… Student days I guess. For so long now they’ve just been a chunk of time to be avoided like the plague in order to enjoy crowd-free, relatively inexpensive holidays. Now we have 6 weeks of school-free time to be filled with fun, or at least survived!

Week one: the Pembrokeshire coast, staying in a picturesque converted barn, the four of us and my parents. It was a great start to the summer – we explored castles, harbour towns, cafes and beaches and generally enjoyed the really-good-considering-it’s-west-Wales weather ,which equated to two days of actual sunshine. These were our beach days. People split don’t they? Into beach people and not beach people. I’m a beach person; my husband is not, although he also enjoyed the couple of days we had, filled with plenty of sand castles (which he insisted in turning into major construction projects – children optional) and rock pools, especially at the gorgeous Broadhaven beach in these pictures.

While my dad and the boys got stuck into some serious “drainage works” (digging channels and diverting small streams across the beach), I persuaded my mum to come with me for a swim.

“Go on, it will be great!”

“But I left my swimming costume in the car”

“Oh that’s OK, I have a bikini and a swimming costume, you can wear mine”

“But I have nothing to change under”

“Here’s a towel”. Ha!

Excitedly we headed down to where the wavelets were breaking gently on the golden sand… Oh. My. Goodness. OK so it’s the Welsh coast but even so. Unbelievably cold. Now I don’t pride myself on much when it comes to physical efforts but I grew up playing in a chalk stream every summer for 18 years: I am good at going in cold water. But this was something else! Eventually after much gasping and squeaking we were in and swimming and out again less than 5 minutes later, giggly and glowing.

It struck me after those two sandy, breezy, paddly, rock-scrambly days, with that truly icy swim, just how little I use my sense of touch in everyday life. Despite my good intentions this year (and the added incentive of this blog), we still haven’t got outside as much as I’d like to. I’d like to feel more on my skin: I’d like to experience the rain and the wind more and actually feel the ground under bare feet (without ending up completely drenched, cold and miserable with sore feet obviously). Often I tell myself that I avoid the elements for the sake of the children, but I guess it comes back to my fair weather tendencies that I wrote about in January. Except in summer there’s certainly less excuse, so something to work on!

Anyway, where was I? Pembrokeshire… Another holiday highlight was a day trip to the wonderful seabird island of Skomer. We started with a fun boat ride out which my youngest loved and my older boy was thrilled to see gannets diving near the cliff edges as we approached our landing spot. We then had most of the day to explore the island and try and spot some puffins and other seabirds.

Skomer is biggish for short legs so we kept the boys entertained with imagination games as we explored. The boys didn’t seem to notice or care that they were each involved in a different game and my husband is perfectly capable of tuning them out if he has something to say (I envy men this capability).

“So in this part of the island they are trying to re-establish heather for the owls to nest in” states my husband, the ecologist.

“Fold your wings back and diiiiiiive” cries my magical gannet boy simultaneously,

“Raaaa, lets hunt for triceratops Mummy T-Rex!” roars my youngest, in synchrony.

And of course I’m expected to interact with all of these. Not quite the mindful, relaxing, island experience I was after but it helped us cover the distance with limited whinge – which these days I’ll take!

By the end of the day we’d seen puffins aplenty floating on the sea and flying back to their cliff top burrows, kittiwakes and fulmars (like tiny albatrosses) nestled into steep cliffs and all-importantly, for my excited two year old, the boat returned to pick us up.

“Mummy when’s the boat coming?”

“We’ve only just arrived sweetheart”

“Mummy can we go and catch the boat?”

“Not yet, let’s explore the island!”

“Are we going to find the boat now?”

“Have you seen this… seagull?”

“Mummy…”

“Look here come’s the [don’t say sodding] boat!”

Luckily he loved the journey back every bit as much.

So Pembrokeshire was great. Which left us with one week down and five to go. What to do now that the main event was over? And are we going to find the creativity, patience and money to get through the rest…? More in the next post!

Spring adventures

Everything changes with spring! For a start we have got our largest room back: our garden. From now we’ll spend many hours and most of our mealtimes outside until we’re forced back indoors by chilly autumn days. Our garden has its own mini wood (OK, 4 small trees!), meadow (little flowery patch of grass with bench) and pond and it’s exciting to find out who we’re sharing our small patch of land with this year.

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A puss moth on the apple tree

Some, like the lizards on the wood pile and the cheeky wood mouse that used to run around the decking while we had our dinner didn’t survive the arrival of next door’s cats. But the birds, bees and butterflies are more resilient. Leaf cutter bees have made their home in a proper little bee house, the awesomely-named hairy-footed flower bees are obsessed with the catmint outside our back door, tawny mining-bees are building miniature soil volcanoes in our lawn, and today I saw a queen bumble scouring for a new property in the long grass at the bottom of the garden.

Meanwhile, a comma butterfly fiercely guards a patch of wallflowers in one corner, a beautiful furry puss moth turned up one morning, and there’s definitely a robin’s nest nearby because the parents are busy feeding chicks we can hear squeaking in the hedge.

Back to the woods…

What I’m loving most about Spring is not having to force myself outside any more. At the beginning of the month, we enthusiastically headed back to the wood elf woods (Hitch Wood) for the first time since Christmas.

We went in search of their homes and found them in the gnarled hornbeam trees on the edge of the woods: a couple of rather splendid palaces, a store stump and some more humble residences. A friend commented on my earlier blog that they also found wood elves in Hitch Wood a few years ago – it’s obviously a good place for them!

We’ve also been bluebelling. On one trip with friends to nearby Wain Wood we found a den that was so well built we reckoned it can only have been constructed by a couple of competitive dads! The four year olds were suitably impressed although they quickly moved on to climbing the trees nearby while the 2 year olds busied themselves finding big and little sticks 🙂

I forget now at what stage the stick thing stops but clearly not yet and I’m glad! We ended up in a pub garden drinking craft beer wondering why we don’t make this a feature of more of our weekends.

DSCN9904Gransden and Waresley Woods last Sunday was spectacular – a stunning carpet of bluebells and we were thrilled to find some early purple orchids by the path edge too. “Early purp-kids is like eagles” announced my two year old obscurely.

We’d also promised the boys some paddling in a little stream that cuts through the wood but when we got there it was completely dry.

“I want to splash in water!” complained our youngest.

“Sorry poppet, the river’s empty. It’s all dried up.”

DSCN9890“There’s water up there” an older boy pointed upstream, as he passed us on the bridge. So we picked our way up the dry streambed and it wasn’t long before we triumphantly found puddles and then larger sections of water. Our four year old was delighted and splashed around enthusiastically. “I want to see the empty river!” declared his younger brother loudly.

My husband and I just looked at each other.

So there you are, a few things to share about our spring so far. It’s still only April and spring is my favourite time of the year so I hope there will be more to come although I have a fifth birthday party to organise in mid-May so goodness knows if I’ll manage to actually carve out time to write! We’re having it in the garden and our house is way too small for twenty kids so if you know any good sun dances let me know…

Slow living, slowly!

Finally back! February was a bit of a non-starter when it came to blogging. To be honest most things didn’t happen that month – we all got ill, proper flu. It’s taken aaaages to feel better and get back on top of things and here we are, mid March already!

I’m glad to finally get a chance to write again. This time it’s to reflect on one of my resolutions from the beginning of the year: to embrace “slow living”. Living more slowly is supposed to be about making time for special things, the things that make you feel like you’re actually living life, not just rushing through it. Easier to write than to do! I’ve definitely learned quite a bit about myself in trying to change this aspect of our lives over the last few weeks.

To start with the good stuff, I know now that we can do it and when we manage it, it’s great. It also helps with my resilience against an otherwise pervasive feeling of powerlessness in the context of Brexit, Trump etc. (Though I have now stopped listening to the news and that helps too!). So, some successes: a three course valentines dinner and bubbles by candlelight was a winner; a walk with an old school friend and our children through the pools, woods and rushes of Fowlmere nature reserve was my favourite day of half term; spending overdue quality time with one of my oldest and closest friends has been awesome; and I’m glad we remembered to light candles at dinner to celebrate Candelmas, the wonderful festival that extends back thousands of years marking the mid-point between the longest night and the arrival of spring.

Carving out time for these things has been great but it’s underlined the extent to which you have to make time to be able to take the time to get the most out of an experience. Basically you have to be pretty organised! Now we come to the nub of it: I’ve never been organised in my life! It’s become clear that I’m going to have to change a couple of pretty ingrained habits to really shift our lifestyle.

The first thing that needs to change is the amount of time we spend clearing up after ourselves. If we’d only put things away properly rather than down in some random location, we’d be in a much better place. You’d think this would be easy to crack: you stop putting the things down and you start putting them away, right? Ha, if only it were that easy! We even started a Down/Away Hall of Shame where we spent a fiercely competitive two days pointing out everything the other person left lying around in a bid to shame ourselves of the habit. We tallied up every error on a piece of paper stuck to the kitchen cupboard. Predictably amazing for marital relations, the energy behind this has subsequently dwindled to a background level of nag and we’re back to our old habits. So work to be done there!

Secondly it’s really highlighted the extent to which I have a pathological failure to look ahead, even to the next hour sometimes, certainly to the next day. Life’s constantly taking me by surprise in an entirely avoidable way. And for that reason even simple things can take ages!

One silly example involved baking chaos on a grey Sunday in February. It was so cold and grim that I decided to stay in and make cookies with the boys. My two year old has recently started cooking carrot porridge in his pretend kitchen so the timing felt right. I loaded up a recipe on the phone and quickly got the boys measuring pouring and mixing the flour and sugar whilst I cubed the butter… Ready for the creaming with the sugar that was now extremely well combined with a large volume of flour. “This is why I don’t do baking!” I railed. But I hadn’t actually read the recipe! What kind of idiot just reads the ingredients list? “It’s OK, we’ll use it to make a crumble” declares my husband optimistically waving his hand at a large pile of apples in the fruit bowl. He even offered to go and get more sugar from the shop down the road. But then it turned out I hadn’t even read to the end of the flipping ingredients list either because the last item on the list was vanilla essence which we were out of. I had to go and get that so the shop guy wouldn’t notice that we like to buy our baking ingredients individually, at ten minute intervals. (At least our neighbour who regularly watches our comings and goings from across the road had not chosen that moment for his fag break.)

None of this was the end of the world – the boys loved making the biscuits, friends and colleagues enjoyed eating them, and we had apple crumble! But it took twice as long as it should have done and was just a bit more fraught than it needed to be.

More significantly, last week I went on a management training course which I’d booked myself onto a good six weeks before. It turned out, at 10pm the night before, we had five exercises we needed to do in advance and when I showed up, somewhat underprepared, I found that my CEO was on the course with me. Amazing. So while that was nothing to do with my slow living efforts, it sure as anything underlined my need to start looking ahead and being more organised!

So, slow living, we’ve made a (slow!) start and I’m determined to keep trying to change these habits of a lifetime. In the meantime, if you have any tips…

In my next post… Spring! So happy it’s finally here.

January

I knew that blogging regularly might be a challenge given an already hectic life (and hence slow living aspirations!). I had, however, reckoned without: no internet for a fortnight, two flat car tyres to sort, a bout of illness and, somewhat dramatically, having to evacuate our house because of a gas leak!

Anyway, I’ve not forgotten my aspirations, so on with the blog…

I’ve a confession to make, one that doesn’t sit well with my love of nature and the outdoors. I’m really a (*whispers*) fair-weather person. In the winter I have to fight a natural urge to hibernate.  So when it comes to getting outdoors and connecting with nature in January, I’m not very good at it and the sofa often looks pretty appealing. Last weekend, though, was a bit of a gift – beautiful white sunshine, clear blue skies. We took the boys to see the wild swans at Welney, Norfolk and sat in a big heated hide with massive windows watching hundreds of swans, ducks and wading birds gather below us.

They had been fed which bought them super-close and the lake had partly frozen meaning we got to see lots of birds ice skating to the delight of my boys. It was frosty, sparkly, sunny, warm, there was tea, there was lemon drizzle cake. Perfect!

Less so the weekend before when it was peeing it down the whole weekend. My husband had suggested that we take the boys to find crayfish in some old watercress beds down the road and then grab a hot chocolate in the pub nearby. I was quite up for this until the rain . Then he said we should go anyway. Urgh. I deferred till the afternoon when it was supposedly brightening up. It didn’t. I honestly think if it hadn’t been for this blog I wouldn’t have gone. My husband offered to take the boys without me and I so nearly said OK great! I pictured myself clearing up a few bits round the house with something fun on the telly in the background. But then he looked at me, “Isn’t this the sort of thing you’re supposed to be doing this year?”

Ha.

I went, grumpily. It was cold and 100% wet. But our clothes were warm(ish) and waterproof (enough) and it was kind of fun.

It was fun because the boys loved it everytime I turned over a big stone and revealed lots of water shrimps and slimy wiggly things, because we found a tiny jumpy frog, because it was a bit daft to be standing in a stream in the rain in our wellies in January and because we had hot chocolates and skinny fries with ketchup in the pub.

OK, so I am not going to pretend that this wouldn’t be a nicer spot in late spring/early summer, paddling bare foot and drying off in the sun with ice creams but I’m glad we got out there. And we’ve pretty much got through January for another year which is certainly to be celebrated.  Though I’ll also be celebrating when the gas men come back and mend all the big holes in our drive and the road outside our house!

Resolutions and the school run

There’s a reason for the cliché “the tyranny of the school run”. I’m dreading having to re-engage with it tomorrow. As a not-a-morning person it always ends up being a last minute rush for us, often involving leaving the house several times and, if I’m lucky, being watched by the guy across the road smoking outside his front door. So if there’s ever something I need to apply my new year’s resolution too, it’s weekday mornings. The uniform, book bag and water bottle are ready this evening (I’m aware this is normal in most households but I managed it about three times last term) but as I suggested in my last post, I’m aiming for something more than being a bit more organised. Since my oldest started school we’ve lost a lot of quality time together. I need a way of connecting rather than disconnecting with him on the school run so tomorrow we’ll leave the house a bit early and I think we’ll invite the wood elves to join us.

Let me tell you about the wood elves. I didn’t see them coming; they just showed up one day. We were walking in Hitch Wood in Hertfordshire, a magical place in bluebell time. Only it was October and there were no bluebells. Instead it was chilly in the shade, the leaves were already falling and our designated snack spot was a way off. So my heart sank when our oldest started complaining he was cold. And he was tired. And he probably had a sore fingernail or something. My husband slowed to walk with him but, ever impatient, I was further up the path. I cast around for things to distract him for a bit. There was a soft mossy bank on the edge of the path so I brushed a bit free of leaf litter and then arranged the most brightly contrasting autumn leaves I could lay my hands on, grabbed a couple of beech nuts and two feathers that happened to be on the ground nearby. “Look!” I called back to him, “The wood elves have left you a present!” It worked much better than I’d expected. “Really?” he ran up looking delighted, or at least now out of the grump zone. He carefully picked up the ‘presents’. “Are there really wood elves here Mummy?” “I think so.” And that was it, we were away. We found wood elf palaces just along the track in some amazing old coppiced hornbeam trees, more gifts of sweet chestnuts and feathers showed up on the path and when he called to them “Hello wood elves!” they showered leaves down on him (it was a gusty day).

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Running ahead to look for more wood elf presents in Hitch Wood

Those were the Hitch Wood wood elves. We said goodbye to them with promises to return with Granny and Grandad a month or so later and he was full of the gifts that he wanted to bring back (mostly puddings, cherry crumble particularly).

But then there were the wood elves of the Ashridge Estate who lived in somewhat grander ancient oak trees and before I knew it we had our own family of wood elves living with us. For the remainder of the autumn term, they frequently joined us on the school run and would be dropped off at their own school in a laurel bush near the classroom. After school they would be picked up again, rarely forgotten although often ignored for the rest of the evening. I noticed they had more holidays and sick days than my boy, but I guess that was their prerogative.

It doesn’t seem to matter that when the wood elves talk they speak in a high pitched squeaky voice and that Mummy or Daddy are facing in the other direction, nor that Mummy’s voice isn’t very high so it often cracks with the effort. They are both real and unreal and that is the magic of the four year old’s world and a bit of the magic that has come back into our lives too. So I’m going to do my best to make time for it tomorrow morning.

I haven’t forgotten the post on the inspiration for this blog, more on that soon.

Resolutions and the school run

New year, new blog

I love new year. I can’t bring myself to be cynical about it. I can’t resist the lure of the fresh start, the idea that I’m finally going to be that person or do that thing. Of course I know it’s arbitrary really but there’s a sense of momentum that I find hard to ignore and each year I start emotionally investing in my remarkable new lifestyle weeks ahead of time. Inevitably I stick with these resolutions for approximately 2 weeks (although one inspirational year a vow to eat more fruit lasted a whole 6 months) but this time…

This time I really want it to work. 2016 was… Well, we all know how that went. And my response to the global turmoil has been a bit of a backlash against the structured chaos of my personal life. This isn’t just some yearning for respite from the tide of mess and clutter that besieges our house, nor merely the desire to be on time (ever), nor even to know what is happening next in my life rather than being consistently taken by surprise. No, what I really want goes beyond that: to slow down the pace of my messy frenetic days and to make space for the things that are really important – sharing amazing times with friends and family, having adventures and reconnecting with nature, living sustainably, embracing the changes in the seasons and celebrating along the way. And definitely, definitely less laundry.

And how to do this for more than a fortnight? Well, I think writing about it might just keep me at it. Over the next weeks (hopefully more than 2) I’ll be trying to incorporate some of the inspiring stuff I’ve read about slow living into my and my family’s life, reflecting on some seasonal celebrations and, I really hope, some of the adventures we have along the way. While parenting a 4 and 2 year old and with a natural disposition to be pretty disorganised. Let’s see how it goes!

In my next post I’ll be sharing where the idea for this blog first began. And if you’re curious as to why “big stick little stick” take a look at the “about” page.