Summer 2022: Five (or fewer) go adventuring again.

We’ve spent a lifetime going on picnics, exploring National Trust properties and English Heritage sites, dressing up as Romans or Vikings or knights and completing treasure trails. Many of these adventures are documented over the years in this blog. Summer holidays were usually trips to grandparents – Pembrokeshire to do beachy stuff or London to do sightseeing and museumy stuff. It wasn’t a bad life and now that stage is passed I’m naturally nostalgic about it. Times change. In a few weeks we five will become two when the youngest heads off to University with her brothers. Grandparents pass away; children grow up and become more independent; priorities change. Disaster could strike when the National Trust family membership no longer applies and reenactment is deemed to be only for the truly dedicated.

For a few years now we’ve booked a summer holiday in the UK – smugly ahead of the game in sustainability and avoiding the potential for airport calamity. We’ve invited the children to join us but not necessarily expected them to be there for the whole week or, indeed at all. And yet the adventuring continues. What university student is going to turn down free pub grub and coffee shop visits for a week, I hear you cry. Quite often all five of us still do something together but it is more likely to be an ever-changing combination of two, three or four these days. There are even rare solitary moments of the type you can only dream of when you are the mother of toddlers. Who knows? In future it may be six, seven, eight or more. I hope so.

We’ve been to Devon, Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and Guernsey in recent summers. Last year we stayed at this National Trust Cottage in the grounds of Upton Park in Warwickshire – a real gem, decked out in an authentic thirties style with plenty of country walks from the doorstep. On our TV detective location tour we also visited Oxford ( Morse, Lewis), Stratford on Avon (Shakespeare and Hathaway) and Blockley (Father Brown) during the week. This year we braved the probability of rain every day in North Wales, staying in a lodge just outside Llangollen and visiting Chester, climbing up to Castell Dinas Bran, swimming in Lake Bala, checking out the ambience and vistas at the Horseshoe Falls and Pontcysyllte and exploring Chirk Castle and Erddig.

We’ve made more memories and established new family rituals. Lord knows, parenting is a dark art for which few of us are very well-prepared but one of the keys to successfully parenting adults seems to be a form of ‘build it and they (sic) will come’ and, in the words of Jim Burns, whose book I picked up in a charity shop recently “Keep your mouth shut and the welcome mat out.”

Happy parenting and happy holidays, people. I’d love to know your tips for negotiating the next stage of parenthood.

Summer 2022: Making memories

A flying visit to London recently to celebrate the end of A Levels led to a walk around one of my old student stomping grounds – Bloomsbury on a very sunny day in the capital.

It was thirty-two years ago that I used to spend early mornings in the Italian coffee shop next to Russell Square tube station and lunchbreaks in the park, eating cheese and chutney sandwiches and putting the world of education to rights with fellow students. Now the park has a fountain and a swanky coffee shop of its own, there’s still plenty to fix in education and my own daughter is on the brink of university life.

I’m excited for her and perhaps a little envious but this is her time. She’ll be making memories of her own. Today we’re touring charity shops in search crockery and glasses for her student digs.

Christmas 2021: In the City

We used to live in London.

From time to time I miss the buzz of Christmas in the city……ice skating at Somerset House, a wander through the Christmas market in Trafalgar Square, authentic pizza and gelato in a busy eatery in Covent Garden, the fair on the South bank, shopping (for books, smart boots and the odd sparkly party dress) and lights.

Lots of lights.

A few years ago we all took a trip on the London Eye between Christmas and New Year on a crisp, sunny day. This year the weather was grey but the lights were just as bright.

Looking backwards and forwards

We managed to book a trip to Stourhead on a glorious Easter Sunday. It has been a regular haunt of ours ever since the children were tiny. In latter years we’ve rocked up in an impromptu fashion, ambled around the lake, visited the thatched cottage and treated ourselves to coffee and cake in the cafe.

This year because of COVID restrictions and two of our three returning from Uni with testing and isolation involved we had to plan ahead, take our chances on the weather and pack a picnic. It felt like old times -and none the worse for that.

From time to time I reflect on how quickly my brood have grown and lament all the things I said we’d do and didn’t but on glorious days like these none of that matters. We have shared experiences and happy memories of times gone by and plenty of new and different ones to come.

Surely this mingling of old and new, of experience and potential, of what’s been and what’s to come is Easter in a nutshell?

A Sunday stroll around the Stones

We dodged the showers and headed to Avebury for some much-needed fresh air and vitamin D today. One of the few National Trust properties that you can still just turn up to without booking, it’s long been a family favourite.

In Summer there’s usually a cricket match happening on the pitch near the car park; but I love it best in Autumn and Winter when there are fewer folk around and the tramp around the stones is either bracing or an altogether more meditative affair, accompanied by a dank atmospheric mist. Occasionally you’ll find someone playing a recorder leaning against the gnarled trunk of an ancient tree, as if guarding the entrance to a wormhole, making a spot of time travel seem almost possible.

Today’s excursion, like the weather was bitter sweet as it was our first ever family trip without the boys, who are both away at Uni. I have so many happy memories of time spent at Avebury – climbing trees, Winter picnics, summer hikes, visits to the second hand bookshop, treasure trails with friends and the time the middle son was stung by a wasp and the cafe kitchen produced a bottle of honey vinaigrette dressing in lieu of vinegar to treat it.

Doubtless we’ll return in December when all the family is back together.

Pembrokeshire promise

This week we took the teens whose summer plans had crumbled back to the scene of many of their childhood holidays. A last-minute booking of a comfortable cottage adjoining farmland in Lamphey, Pembrokeshire led to a few sunny days of coastal walks, beach cricket, reading, picnics, clifftop  ice creams, garden boules, sunset chip suppers, beer and a late-night box set of Foyle’s War.

More of a mini-break than the promised holiday but it did us all a lot of good to be together by the sea. Not that we’ve been short of time together since the end of March. It might be the only beach time we get this summer. I’m glad we made the most of it.

We’re planning a Winter version at the end of the year.

The joy of coffee and cake

I’ve written about taking afternoon tea before and it’s still ‘a thing’ in this house. Yesterday, between the showers we popped over for a stroll around the stones at Avebury and the Manor garden followed by high tea. (More march than stroll to allow for calorific cake consumption).The table was laid with mix and match china, 1930s tunes played quietly in the background, there was proper tea and coffee in pots and the cake was deliciously naughty . My cheese scone was beautifully moist and came with a dish of spicy homemade tomato chutney and there wasn’t a mobile phone in sight. (Every mother’s dream.) As a family we had a proper natter of the kind that is difficult when there are five busy people in a house with competing sporting, school and work commitments, making sitting down together more of a rarity than it used to be.

A glance around the tearoom revealed plenty of smiling faces engaged in relaxed conversations. I guess it’s what the Swedes create when they indulge in the art of fika- meeting up for coffee and cake, even if it’s for 15 minutes. School staff rooms up and down the country would do well to encourage some fika, even if it’s only once a week. If I was a Head I’d be baking on Thursday evenings in preparation for our Friday fika. In fact, it might not be a bad idea for the new term.

And at home with the eldest about to make his way in the world at University a spot of fika once a week is precious time well-spent.

A quick trip through history – roundhouses, marshland frontiers and a Palladian villa.

My children love finding out about the past and for that I am grateful, especially as this means they are more than happy to accompany me on numerous fact finding missions to a variety of heritage sites to see what’s on offer for ‘explorer families’ or school parties.

In the latter part of the summer holidays we stopped by three heritage sites for a brief reccy, packing the picnic hamper and the cricket bat along with a desire to follow the odd trail around house or garden. Doubtless we’ll return in the future to continue our exploration.

All three are  worth a visit which we didn’t have time to do full justice to this summer.  

a whistlestop tour through historical Welsh buildings
a whistlestop tour through historical Welsh buildings

 St Fagan’s National History Museum of Wales is currently undergoing a major revamp funded by the  Heritage Lottery Fund and the Welsh Assembly. Entry is free with the exception of the £4 parking charge and there is enough to keep explorer families like ours happy for a whole day. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, the historic buildings (rescued and reconstructed on site or built from scratch according to traditional methods) fascinating and the grounds extensive. Definitely one to visit again and again. There’s also an extensive programme for schools.

a stroll around the Essex marshes
a stroll around the Essex marshes

Wat Tyler Country Park (also free to visit) has been developed since last I visited. It too has some traditional Essex buildings, extensive grounds,  rich in biodiversity and history.

A forest school holiday club meets there during the school holidays and there are some organised wildlife based activities on a regular basis too (pond dipping, bug hunting…) On the day we visited it was teeming with young families playing in the playground and on the bouncy castles and enjoying picnics. And these are the ‘bread and butter’ customers who will return again and again to enjoy a few hours in the open air, letting their children run and play.

On the downside, for explorer families with older children the opportunities to engage with the site are few and far between. The advertised exhibition had been dismantled and the Explosives Trail and World War II trail, wherein lies the heritage of the park were little more than a badly photocopied sheet guiding you around an area with little or no interpretation.

We enjoyed the walk nevertheless, talked about Great Expectations and the marshland landscape haunted by Magwitch and stopped off in the reasonably priced cafe for coffee and cake.

 

Roman architectural inspiration and a restored garden
Roman architectural inspiration and extensive grounds

Chiswick House is the perfect stop off point for lunch on our journey from East London to Wiltshire and a favourite haunt of the joggers and dog walkers of West London. The architecture and art of the house itself is well-served by a 45 minute audio tour but the restored gardens have their very own audio tour which is the real gem. 

Not a bad way to spend a few hours during the summer holidays.

Windmills and gardens in the sky

Views in and from the Sky Garden, London
Views in and from the Sky Garden, London

We usually manage to find something free to do with the children when we’re in and around London and last weekend was no exception. A chance remark from someone on Twitter led me to discover the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Streetopen to the public for free, if you book in advance and surrounded by some very swanky eateries.

It was the perfect day for exploring the Square Mile as it coincided with a family cycling event, which meant that most of the roads were closed to motor vehicles and there was a real party atmosphere, with jazz bands playing on street corners whilst we munched our picnic lunch. We combined our visit to the garden with a couple of free trails on the themes of architecture and Dickens (search online), a stroll through the foodie delights of Borough Market and a visit to the Museum of London, stopping off nearby to relax in a peaceful ‘art’ garden where the brave deeds of ordinary people are recorded on simple tile plaques. We shared the space with a group of mums who were enjoying wine and cake under a bunting-festooned tree.

Rather delightfully the building next door to the one housing the sky garden was graced with a living green wall and the Sky Garden itself, topped with a glass dome, not dissimilar in look to a small scale Eden project biodome. Native  Mediterranean and South African planting dominated over the several terraces of the garden (agapanthus, santolina, rosemary…) but it was easy for the children to spot which was the north facing side of the building from the predominance of shade loving ferns on one side of the garden.

The panoramic views over London were spectacular, superior even to those afforded from the London Eye –  and easier to cope with for those who have an anxiety about heights. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Upminster Smock Mill
Upminster Smock Mill

On the following day we headed out into semi rural Essex to visit the Upminster Smock Mill prior to its closure for an exciting Heritage Lottery-funded restoration project, which will take two years and see the mill restored to its former working glory with the added benefit of a purpose-built education centre on the site. Set in a field in the middle of a residential area of Upminter, it has story which deserves to be told to a much wider audience.

Mr Country Gate had last visited the windmill as a young cub scout and knew that it would fire the imagination of a wife who has spent the last two years telling the story of another heritage site with a rich history and bringing it to the eyes and ears of a young local audience.  Little had changed in the intervening years internally, although the Friends of the Windmill have continued to spread the word about it and fundraise to carry out essential repairs. We were guided around the interior by a friendly and knowledgeable volunteer, spending an enjoyable hour exploring the space, understanding how the machinery worked, discovering the story of the millers who worked it and realising what a truly green, local industry looked like.

It truly is a gem. I shall be following their progress with great interest as they move towards becoming a working mill again. You can follow their progress on Twitter.

Get me out of here – learning in the open air

Explorers – then and now

My children have been outdoor explorers for years.

Teenagers now, one of them is halfway up a small mountain in the Lake District with a small band of Explorer Scouts on a quest to secure a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. His mobile phone has been unused, but I’m sure we’d have been contacted if he wasn’t safe.

The other two have occupied the first few days of the summer holiday alternating between sorting out their wardrobes, recycling an accumulation of bits of paper and string, pre-season rugby training, playing badminton in the garden and emailing their friends about swimming dates, shopping trips and holiday plans. It’s hard to stay away from screens entirely but my three are not completely bereft without laptop or phone. (We don’t have tablets or games consoles)

It seems parents who want their children to spend time having outdoor adventures in the school holidays have a champion in Chief Scout Bear Grylls. Recently he launched a summer manifesto of suggestions to get young people out and about enjoying the great outdoors. For those of us who work with children in this context it is nothing new, but Bear Grylls gets noticed so why should I complain that he’s taken up the flag that others have been waving for years? 

Not so many weeks ago,  school children were stuck in classrooms for days on end tackling examinations – SATs, GCSEs, A levels,school’s own. For weeks beforehand many pupils were undergoing booster sessions or completing practice papers on a daily basis in an effort to improve their chances of obtaining a higher level and the school’s chances of creeping up a few places in the performance league tables. PE was on the back burner for some. Yet in enlightened schools, headteachers prescribed time spent outdoors as relaxation for stressed out pupils.

Being outdoors is good for children. There have been numerous studies citing the positive mental and physical benefits of being outside looking at nature. Nature has a rejuvenating effect on the brain, boosting levels of attention and improving performance in cognitive tests. As well as outdoor PE, some schools run Forest School sessions and horticultural programmes as an alternative to traditional classroom based lessons.

Children are genetically predisposed to move, to explore the space around them, and to discover its contents. All green spaces offer physical activity and free-range learning. The richer the  environment, the richer the learning will be. Schools with extensive grounds have an advantage but for those who don’,t local parks are a great alternative.

For some time now I have been working with Eco Kids in Northampton on a lottery funded project to explore Abington Park,an urban green space with a rich history, as an outdoor classroom.

aplogo

Many outdoor learning programmes already exist which cater for children’s emotional and social needs and provide practical, problem solving opportunities in an outdoor environment and an antidote to the sedentary, screen-based activities which fill the days of a number of youngsters.

Heritage sites provide rich hands on activities for studying history and the natural environment is well catered for in environmental education centres up and down the country.

Many children do not learn effectively, exclusively within a classroom. They need alternative, hands-on learning environments to match their varied learning styles.

The packs I’ve written for Eco Kids, in addition to learning about the flora, fauna and history of Abington Park itself provide teachers, parents and youth leaders with the tools to encourage them to take learning outside and reap the rewards of this approach.

Learning in the open air builds resilience, encourages creativity, develops resourcefulness, sparks discussion, fosters team building and inventiveness.

What’s not to love?

Abington Park in its heyday
Abington Park in its heyday

 

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