Legoland – 11/06/16

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Reuben is almost 7 – I know, I can barely believe it either. And he’s not having a party this year. We started Project No Party early on in the year, sowing seeds in his mind about going to Legoland instead and he seems to have swallowed the bait. Turns out that a big family day out doesn’t cost much more than hiring a hall, buying party food, emptying the 99p Store of superhero-related tat etc etc. So he’s got a friend coming for hotdogs on the day itself and a room full of sweaty, screaming boys was replaced by a day of fun. Of course, I wasn’t expecting it to be very much fun. I expected the kids to be over-excited, over-tired and melty-downy. So, I took some steps to try and deflect the worst of the tantrums. Starting with a huge breakfast, to fuel up.

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We were off-site at this point. We’d left home super early and by 8:45 we were breakfasting at the Windsor Lad, a Harvester just off the M4. For £1.99 each, the kids could have a 5-piece cooked breakfast, and Nathan and I splashed out on the all-in breakfasts – unlimited cooked and continental, plus unlimited tea, coffee and juice. Oh yes, this was serious fuelling up. We weren’t planning to eat again for a long, long time. So, red meat quotient filled, we set off in search of the mystical Land of Lego. The website had warned us that SatNavs often had problems finding the right place and they were not joking. One hasty U-turn in  a housing estate later and we were on the right track, thanks to Google Maps.  The kids were squealing with excitement as they saw lego men hauling giant letters around, which spelt out “Welcome”. We’d spent longer on breakfast than we meant to so got to the gates a little after they’d opened – around 10:15ish. We had to queue for about ten minutes or so, but nothing horrendous. It did mean that the lockers on the other side of the gate were already full though, and finding a locker was sort of a priority. You see, I was nothing if not prepared for the day but the result was we had a lot of stuff to carry round. We had wet weather gear, snacks, sandwiches and swimwear – all things we might need but not things we wanted to be stuffing under our seats on the rapids ride. Luckily, there was a further set of lockers next to the Hill Train station and we could jump on the brightly-coloured train with a much lighter load. Remember kids, load up on £1 coins – the lockers use one every time you unlock it, and the family-sized driers next to the wet rides use 2 of them. Top tip, I know.

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So, we descended the hill and arrived at…the Land of the Vikings. Reuben had spotted the Loki Labyrinth on the map and yknow how much that kid loves a Marvel connection – so that was our first stop.

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Loki, as we all know, is a mischievous sort and it’s no wonder that his maze was full of dead ends and trickery. But we did find some interesting things along the way:

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Eventually, we found our way to the centre, which gave us a vantage point from which to see the way out. And a dragon!

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Next up was the Vikings’ River Splash. I was only mildly perturbed by the sight of a giant Viking, who appeared to be taking a leak in the river:

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Now, rookie theme-park-parents that we were, we neglected to check our the height restrictions before joining the queue. It was only after we’d been waiting for 20 minutes or so that an announcement told us the minimum height was a metre. Now, I knew that Roo was 1m 20ish last time we’d measured him, but what the heck was Eva? She was 60cm at her one year check but I thought she might have grown since then. Well, the lady with the measuring pole would tell us before we could get anywhere near the ride. We waited nervously as the queue snaked round the barriers and…phew! she passed the test! We had to make her stand up really straight and then the top of her head just touched the bottom of the pole. Really only just. But we were on. Of course, what they actually need on these rides is a minimum bravery threshold as the scared-of-it-all girl shrieked all the way round. Not so Reuben, who whooped and laughed with every bump and splash. As he got off, he yelled “that was AWESOME!”. I think we had a winner.

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Eva may have disliked being sprayed with water while on the ride (she grows ever more kitteny all the time) but she didn’t mind dishing it out and soon, she and Reuben were fighting over who got to operate these water guns and soak passing boats:

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We managed to drag them off those after a while and we strolled over to Pirate Shores, where a huge playground awaited.

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The sign said it was for 5-12s, so it was a little on the big side for Eva, especially as some of the in-between bits involved balancing on a thin plank and hanging onto a rope. It all made me a little nervous, but she wasn’t bothered. I forget she’s actually quite strong and competent when I’m not watching. It’s only when she thinks we’re looking that she suddenly loses all structural integrity and becomes scared of her own shadow. Hmm, wolfcrier much?   Anyway, we played there for ageees – long enough to have a snack break, to lose Eva several times, for a quick jaunt round the Enchanted Forest and back again and to get a drink. It was coming up to lunchtime but we were still riding the bacon wave so we were not ready to stop for long. Reuben had his eye on something called the Jolly Rocker, which was one of those pirate ship rides that swings at a nauseating angle. I wasn’t keen, and I guessed Eva wasn’t either so we left the boys to queue and headed off to the pinkest, most girly part of the whole of Legoland – Heartlake City. Now I’ll warn you that Eva wanted photos of her with every single girly Lego model/ice cream/puppy in there. So, I’m going to share some of them  with you. Feel free to skim down to something more interesting:

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Then we went to the mall, again at her request, and the cupcake cafe. She’s ticking all those cliche boxes, huh?

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Sadly, the cafe only had pictures of cupcakes and not real ones but we had a very passable brownie and took shortbread and cookie back for the boys. They’d been on the Jolly Rocker and their assessment was “terrifying”. Yes, both of them were scared pantless by a pirate ship that kinda swung around a bit. Nearly a week on and Reuben is still going on about how scary the Jolly Rocker was. As is Nathan, to be honest.

At that point, the inevitable happened. It tipped it down. That’s where some of this stuff we’d been lugging around came in handy. We had waterproofs for the kids, although Roo’s only come up to his chest and his coat was in the car. Nathan’s coat was in the locker, which wasn’t much more helpful but we were all a bit soggy from the river ride anyway so honestly, it made little difference. We had three bits of waterproofing and one umbrella between us…but we coped. Besides, Eva had a masterplan. “I know somewhere we can go!” she started, after an abortive trip to the Nexo Knight’s Castle (it looked undercover but they are only walls…no ceiling) “It’s a ride and there’s a roof and there’s a cover on the queue”. Well, we didn’t have any better options so we went with it. The ride was the Aero Nomad, in Kingdom of the Pharoahs and the queue wasn’t undercover as far as I remembered. Turns out, there was a small amount of tree cover on some of the corners of the queue but believe me, we were not dry in that queue. Once we got onto the ride, there was a roof over our hot-air-balloon but the seats were a little soggy to sit on. For all Eva’s positivity, her plan wasn’t exactly keeping us dry.

DSC04719 But it was a good long ride. The wheel rotates bit by bit to allow people to get on, which takes ages. Then there’s the ride itself and then the disembarking process, which takes just as long. So it meant we had a decent sit-down with a roof over our heads, a small amount of icy water in my back jeans pocket and 20 foot of fresh air between our little pod and the ground.  Yeah, Roo didn’t exactly look sure either: DSC04717

It was time to do something more gentle. And what’s more gentle than the delights of Miniland, Legoland’s 20-year-old centrepiece? It’s certainly impressive both in scale and detail – it covers several countries from Europe, as well as sights around Great Britain (not sure why Ireland doesn’t get a look in). We enjoyed spotting familiar London buildings, as well as making the boats and trains move. Here are a few of our favourite models. First up, Caerphilly Castle…not exactly Land of My Fathers but certainly Land of My Nephron:

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Waterloo, gateway to London for all our Hampshire teens:

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Vue Leicester Square, where I did my manager training the first week I moved to London:

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A ducky boat, that cheerful yellow Vauxhall icon:

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Mini Holland (this one’s going out to all you E17ers):

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And the London Eye…cause Roo went on a school trip there:

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Ahh, calmness restored. It was nigh on 3PM by now and we weren’t planning a proper meal break any time soon. So I went to the locker to retrieve our swim stuff and some lukewarm sandwiches and the kids sat down for a few moments to eat by these slide-steps:

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Swimwear, you say? Wasn’t it raining a moment ago? Why yes, but this is the British Summer and though it was grey, it was still warm enough to try out the splash park at Duplo Valley. Plus, I’d packed the swimwear so we might as well use it.

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Look, there’s a hint of blue sky in that photo. Or at least a paler grey.

Duplo Valley is fab. Designed for the more Eva-age kids, there’s a huge water play area called Splash Safari, with friendly duplo animals squirting water at you. There are changing rooms and more lockers there, so the kids and I got into swimwear and I held the nervous girl’s hand as we ran through the fountains. She’d gone in on her own initially but spent so much of the time creeping around the edge with her hands over her ears that I thought I’d better help her. Reuben needed no help and he was having a great time. I’m not entirely sure he was meant to climb the animals but still..

Just up the hill from Splash Safari was Drench Towers and this was why I’d packed my own swimwear. It’s a massive structure of steps, waterslides, water shooters and showers, which children over 6 can freely roam. The under 6s however need to be accompanied by a suitably-clad adult, and that’s how I found myself being soaked in buckets of freezing cold water (thanks Roo!), clutching Eva’s hand to stop her running away while Nathan looked after the stuff and watched. I think he had the sweeter deal.

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In case you’re wondering, yes – we did all spend most of the day in soggy clothes. That’s the combination of water play, river rides and rain for you. Lucky it was warm with it. Post Drench Towers though, I felt the need to put the kids in the change of clothes I’d brought and attempt to keep them semi-dry for our remaining 90 minutes or so. I had a beach dress to change into to, so bits of me were dry. I hadn’t brought an all-over change though. I’ll leave that thought there and strongly advise you do differently.

While I was changing, the kids were enjoying the Duplo Valley play area. I was most surprised to look for Eva and not find her in here:

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Apparently she had a fire engine to be driving…well, who knew? She’s breaking out of her mould.

Time was running out but thankfully that meant the queues were getting shorter. We managed to squeeze in another three rides before the park closed  - the helicopters in Duplo Valley, the Fairytale Brook and the Atlantis Submarine Voyage. All three were good, but it was the Atlantis ride that stood out as being really special. It’s all indoors, and you step down into a submarine-shaped pod with glass panels at the bottom of the sides. As you move round, it becomes apparent that your bottom half is suspended in a water tank, filled with the ruins of Atlantis but also real live fish and…OMGoodness, was that a shark? Yes, it was. And some pretty impressive manta rays too. I can’t really do it justice and it was a no photos ride, thanks to the sensitivity of the fish, so I can’t prove to you how cool it was. Just believe me.

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All of which brings us to the  very tame but very sweet Fairytale Brook, which seemed like a nice way to finish the day. All of Eva’s favourite characters appeared, although she thought this Cinderella looked more like Belle:

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She has a point.

It wasn’t a very challenging ride but it was soothing after a long day and when we asked Eva about her highlights, she said “The DisneyTales ride”. I think Roo enjoyed it too, as he was laughing aloud at the antics of the seven dwarves.

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We made it to the shop just before it closed and well, the first meltdown of the day happened. Not bad going at 6PM. The effects of  brunch had finally worn off, so we decided to find some dinner nearby before driving home. And where better than back to the Windsor Lad?

Look, I was very tired by this point…my brain had failed to come up with anything more original. They still welcome kids after 7PM, they have activity packs and unlimited bread rolls. Haters, hate away. But first have a look at what Eva drew while she waited for her meal:

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So, Legoland then…exhausting, exhiliarating and definitely worth it. Don’t be afraid to spend the whole day there, from opening to closing, prepare for all eventualities, use the lockers and …enjoy yourselves!

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Posted in Creating precious childhood memories or something (days out) | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Millfields Park – 27/05/16

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I almost forgot to blog about this day, which would have been a pity because it was one of those rare days when Eva was in a good mood pretty much all the time. Except one breakdown, but that was reasonable…we’ll get to it in a bit.

Eva and I spend every Friday together – or at least we will until she starts school in September (#denial). But this Friday, we had a special guest – Nathan had sprung a surprise day off on us, and so two became three. Not four, as Reuben gloomily pointed out as we packed him off to school. Just the three of us.

I’d already asked Eva what she wanted to do for the day and she had a plan – she wanted to go “somewhere we not gone for a yong time” – Tumble in the Jungle. Imagine then, the disappointment on her yittle face when we got to Tumble and it was already closed for the Bank Holiday weekend. Yes, the breakdown is coming early on in this story…but to be fair to her, she didn’t shout and scream like she would do over an inappropriately opened yoghurt. She just crumpled and wept a little.

We needed a Plan B. We were near Wood St station so my mind zipped along the soft-play possibilities of the Chingford branch. It quickly alighted on Kidzmania, a soft play near Clapton that I’d been to twice on a Sunday afternoon, when it was heaving with small children. Turns out it’s much more pleasant on a Friday during term time, and we spent our full two hours there watching Eva play and lunching on cheesey chips and panini. This 2parents;1 child ratio is pretty sweet, isn’t it?

Afterwards, it was sunny and we had time to kill so we headed for a park we’d driven past a few times on the way back from church. Yes, along the miles-long bus jam of Lea Bridge Road is a surprisingly lovely green space: Millfields Park.

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It’s huge – big enough for a lawnmower thing to be doing a decent speed across the grass. The play area is towards the back, handily located for Clapton station. It’s been recently revamped, though there’s an older part still and we can definitely see the join. The new part is all tree trunks and sand, including this novel entrance way:

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As you can see, it’s not a super-accessible way of getting into the park but there is a normal gate on the other side of the playground. The sand area is pretty big, with a little hut in and a swing:

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Plus this ingenious tree-climbing frame:

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But there was plenty of fun to be had on the older, more metal-and-plastic bit too, like this curly slide:

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And a bench shaped liked a train:

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Which was a constant reminder that we needed to go and get the actual train so that we didn’t miss school pick up and leave Reuben there for the weekend. Hard to remember when the weather’s sunny and the girl is sunny and the parents outnumber the kids…it was a happy day.

But don’t worry, we got him back, we took him to a far crappier park near school and then Nathan went to the pub. So, all good.

More information here (official website)

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All-New Vauxhall City Farm – 03/06/16

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You know that feeling when you’re trying to condense an entire half term into one day? Well, that was today. The kids have been away at the grandparents’ all week while Nathan and I worked, and I had this one day with them to show ‘em a good time. So we had to fit a lot in. You’ll be surprised to learn that we did, indeed, fit a lot in.

Join us as we fuel up for the day at Highams Lounge, right opposite Highams Park station. It’s a recently refurbished cafe that the kids like because it has novelty “bookshelf” wallpaper that they can pretend to take books from:

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It also does huge milkshakes that are totally wasted on Eva because she drinks a few sips and then is done. But Reuben drained his as I drained my coffee and, having had a swift catch up with some friends, we were off to the City for a visit to a City Farm.

For complex reasons, we ended up catching the bus from Liverpool St to Oval and the children enjoyed it because we got to see London Landmarks such as the Gherkin, the Monument and Daddy’s Office. As we stopped at traffic lights on King William Street, near Bank, Roo and Eva had a discussion about what the “stripy building” beside us might be.

“There’s a cafe at the bottom, which is something I like” announced Reuben. I didn’t tell him that it was a Tossed, as Nathan has now taught the kids that you don’t win friends with salad.

“I think the rest of it is a soft play” decided Eva, somewhat optimistically.

Of course, who am I to tell her she’s wrong? For all I know there could indeed be a 3-storey soft play above a salad cafe in the City. If anyone could confirm one way or the other, the children and I would be most grateful.

Soon though, we were off the bus and wandering down our old ‘hood of Kennington Park Road, which has edged towards hipsterism since last I saw it. There was a new art supplies shop and a trendy coffee place –  hopefully there are still some families who can afford to live in the area in order to enjoy these things.

And the same thought applies to Vauxhall City Farm, which has had a spruce up and a brand new bit since last I saw it. We were there with Auntie Savage, on her lunch break, and she’d told us about the big new cafe they have there now. Given I spent two mat leaves trudging around VCF in the rain, I would have gladly welcomed a cafe back then…so I was curious to see what it was like.

Yes, it was big. I think I counted 11 tables plus a small play/reading area and a bit at the back where they were doing crafts. I have only the fuzziest of photos to show you but hey, at least I got my phone camera to work today (goodbye Guitar Tuna app…it’s been emotional):

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Reuben settled into the corner to read a book, which was only slightly awkward as the bookshelf was behind the crawling babies…but he didn’t trample any of them:

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In fact he outstayed most of the babies and claimed the area as his own:

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Eva was sitting at the table, chatting to Auntie Savage. It was all going well…and then it wasn’t going quite so well.

It was 12:30 by this point but the place was packed out. Obviously others had had the same half-term idea. And so the lunch options were limited. There were a few sandwiches left, but nothing my kids would eat because they were all a bit on the fancy side (ham – tick for Reuben, cider chutney – not so much). There was a sign saying “Kids’ sandwiches” and a space on the blackboard for “Kids’ Hot Special of the Day” but both were empty. So I asked at the till, but there wasn’t much they could offer me. Eventually, after some negotiation, they agreed to provide a slice of rye toast along with my meal (the hot special – chicken and lentil stew).

I wasn’t sure this would go well and I was right to be unsure. Luckily I had packed an emergency stash of chorizo slices and mini sausages but the kids weren’t impressed by the rye bread and fussed about their chorizo touching the fancy butter. Eva pulled out her full repetoire of annoying table tricks – the nibbling without actually consuming, the putting food in and out of her mouth without touching the sides, the “I don’t yiiiiiiikkkkkkke it”. There were scenes.

Fortunately, all went better after lunch. We went to see the animals and they at least were not reluctant to feed. Defying the influence of both my father and Auntie Savage, I paid for some animal feed and we waved it in front of this chap here:

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At which point, I turned round to see an old friend and suddenly the alpaca was half over the fence headbutting me to get his food. I was too surprised to get a photo, but luckily he re-enacted the moment later with Reuben:

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Duck and cover, boy. Talking of which, the ducks have a new home:

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So cute, with the bunting and the heart-shaped duck windows. This is one of the new bits, opposite the cafe and the flats on top of it. The rest of the farm looks much as it ever did, but the kids were very excited to run around and look at the guinea pigs, goats, bunnies and chickens.

Then we had a go at magic wand-making, back in the cafe:

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Roo got bored of that long before Eva did, so he went back to his corner to read and then we went to the playground next to the Tea House:vx1

Naturally, I was very tempted by the idea of a cuppa and a sit down in the Tea House itself but time was moving on and we had a long journey home ahead of us. Little did I realise that the bit from Vauxhall to Walthamstow (43 minutes including a toilet break) would be shorter than the bit from Walthamstow to Highams Park (50 minutes, including a fallen tree on the line).  My phone was dead, the children were getting restless and we were all a little jaded by the time we got off a very slow-moving bus. The remedy? A glass of wine, a cup of coffee and a brownie at Pantry & Co. Yes, in that order and yes, it was an unusual combination but yes, it helped me get through the remainder of the day. You should try it.

So, a busy day and mostly fun with the exception of lunchtime tension. The cafe and renovations have hugely improved Vauxhall City Farm but they probably need to rethink their lunch offerings over busy periods if there’s going to be nothing left by half twelve. Still, I realise it’s only just opened and all new ventures have their teething problems. I’m sure it’ll find its way soon enough. Oh yes, and never forget you’re in Sarf London:

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Posted in Food in cages! Walking around! Or maybe some alpacas! (Farms and zoos) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

May Half Term Preview 2016

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Do you have a stressed out 7-year-old, who’s been stretched by SATS? Or a 4-year-old who says she has to “work hard but only when I’m writing in my book”? Well, don’t worry about busting them out of school for some mindless fun – they get kicked out for a week in a couple of days anyway. And, as ever, there is a plethora of Londony activities to keep them busy. Settle in, I’ll talk you through it.

First up, Chickenshed are hosting a party this Saturday, 28th May. It combines child-friendly performance with interactive workshops and a giant celebration in their ampitheatre. Find out more information here. Chickenshed are also performing at the Old Vic tomorrow morning but, let’s face it, I’ve left this a little late to plug given it’s almost bedtime.

More ongoing is the Roald Dahl event at the Southbank Centre – the Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl. It’s an exhibition on the life and work of the author but – massive disclaimer here – it is more for the Reuben end of the spectrum than the Eva. It’s not recommended for small children, as some content may be disturbing (like, yknow, all of Dahl’s works) and you can’t take buggies in.  It’s on till July, so hopefully Roo and I can go without the small and easily spooked one some time. For the older kids, it is said to be excellent so if you have one of those, definitely take a look.

On the other end of the age scale, the preschool delights of In the Night Garden are on tour. And over half term, the giant white dome lands in Blackheath. Have a look here for dates but they are selling out fast so get tickets quickly if your toddler needs their Upsy Daisy fix.

Also selling out quickly are the Big Fish Little Fish half term events. As far as I know, the National Gallery rave is sold out already but there are still a few tickets left for Stratford Circus on May 29th. BFLF events are always huge fun, so it’d make a great start to your half term. Plus, the kids are always really knackered afterwards so you might get a Bank Holiday lie in.

A couple more theatre shows to flag up before I finally give in and go to bed – the roving show by the Discover Centre continues to rove, with “The Librarian” hitting Woolwich Library on Tuesday 31st May til 4th June. More information here and my review is here. The Arts Depot in Finchley have some family shows on too – I like the sound of the ukulele-strumming “Boy and a Bear in a Boat“.  If that’s not enough, there’s a version of ursine classic “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington and “Meadow” at Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, featuring some handcrafted insect puppets.

Still not inspired? Well, you can take advantage of the “Kids Go Free” offer at the Orbit in the Olympic Park, then relax in the sandpit afterwards. Or go to the half term workshops at the Museum of Childhood. Or try out my Tabby McTat trail around London. Or…just stay home and play XBox. That’s probably what Roo will want to do…

 

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“Tales From the Shed” – 13/05/16

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All images kindly supplied by the Chickenshed

Last Friday, the sun was shining and we were off adventuring. Eva’s friend J and his Mum J were taking us to the theatre! In the hitherto unexplored land of Southgate, the almost-furthest end of the Piccadilly Line. Sadly we never made it to the amusingly named station just one stop on. But on the way, we passed through another hitherto unexplored land of the bit of the North Circular that goes underneath the Crooked Billet roundabout. Some would call it a unnecessary diversion but hey, it was all part of the adventure.

Our destination was the Chickenshed Theatre, and a kids’ show called “Tales from the Shed”. I knew next to nothing about it or the theatre but I knew brunch was involved. So we sat down at the Brothers Grill and had a bacon sandwich and curly fries before we went in. Service was quick, the food was nice and the kids’ meals were enormous. Eva had a sausage sandwich and most of my fries, although she seemed to acquire some chicken nuggets from somewhere as well…I’m guessing she and her friends had a little swap shop going.

The show was upstairs in the Studio Theatre, which is quite an intimate space. Children were encouraged to sit on the floor/performance area rather than the tiered seating and throughout the show they were free to wander about and get involved in the action. One toddler was absolutely determined to get through the curtain at the back and darn near made it a few times. Eva’s quite good at sitting quietly but it would have been perfect for a Reuben at about 3 when he just wanted to move around all the time.

I had picked up some clues along the way that the Chickenshed was a big supporter of diversity (an actor with Downs Syndrome, for example) but it’s only now I’m home and reading through the website that I realise just how pioneering they are. Since the early 80s, they’ve been open to anyone, “disabled” or not. That’s some radical thinking for the time and it remains pretty radical today. They are doing valuable work in the field of inclusivity – have a look here for the full story.

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All images kindly supplied by the Chickenshed

 

So, onto the actual show. It had something of a “Show Me Show Me” vibe to it – puppets, wacky costumes, make believe and spontaneous dance numbers. The puppets were having a sports day but the plot was kind of incidental – it was more a device for getting the kids up and having fun, whether that was meeting a giant Dutch rabbit (Franz Von Hoppenheimer) or practising their egg and spoon racing. Sometimes they sat, sometimes the smaller ones ran in between the legs of the performers…but all the performers were very good and patient with them and just gently redirected them so they wouldn’t get trodden on. It was very fast-paced, colourful and energetic. The songs and dances were lively, the characters were engaging and Eva enjoyed the stories.

There were a few technical issues – the sound difference between those using a mic and those not was quite noticeable and it took a bit of adjusting listening to both volumes at once. Occasionally you’d see a puppet that wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but these were minor things. Certainly nothing that the kids would notice. They were too busy twirling and giggling. I believe it’s running every Friday and Saturday morning until 9th July, plus some half term dates (see more info here) and I would definitely recommend you go along. It’s great for toddlers but I think Reuben would enjoy it too, and he’s nearly 7 (though, as ever I’m in denial about that).

On the way back to the North Circular, we saw something which would have finished the day off perfectly – an offer for 30% off curry! Pity the poster said it finished in September 2007…Ah, well…

Posted in Reviewing the Situation | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Librarian – 06/05/16

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I must admit I was a little surprised by this latest offering from the Discover Centre on Tour. Whenever we’ve encountered Discover before – whether on home turf or up in the sky - their storytelling has been engaging, funny and interactive. So I was a bit disappointed that this event was an extremely boring seminar on the History of Cheese. So boring, in fact, that I and several other adults fell asleep for the duration.

Of course, it wasn’t actually boring and we didn’t actually fall asleep. But that’s the line we’re feeding the kids and it’s important to keep it up. I’ll cycle back to the “why” later on.

First, though, the “what” and this is a little difficult to define. The Discover Centre itself is closed for a refurb, so the team are holding events at libraries around East London – you can see all the relevant info here. It’s an interactive storytelling session, which is facilitated through headphones – every child was issued with a pair as they came in, and every adult too. I’d later realise that the audio feed for the adults was different to that for the kids. We also each got a booklet, on the aforementioned History of Cheese.

As the event started, the narrative split – what started as a droning recital of the origins of rennet quickly was hijacked by a voice from a space station, instructing the kids to complete a secret mission, and instructing the adults to act as if they’d fallen asleep listening to the cheese book. Still with me?

The story developed, with visual clues in the booklet as well as the narration and then the Spybrarian – a real-life person – appeared. I won’t tell you what happened after that because…well, spoilers. But it was very funny and Reuben is still laughing at the concept of a gorgeous handbag that recycles books into toilet paper. He also genuinely thinks that the adults all dozed off, so completely missed the bit where the kids were all stomping around trying to find the Unputdownable Book. Though how we could actually sleep through the noise of them doing that, I don’t know. Even with headphones on!

I think it’s ideally aimed at school-age kids, as it’s useful to be able to read the booklet. Eva got freaked out by the voices coming through her headphones and came to sit on my knee for most of the performance. Even without the narrative though, she could enjoy the wacky Spybrarian mime. Also, she’s incredibly sensitive – I think most 4-year-olds would be fine…she’s just a delicate flower and she’s only been 4 for a few days. There were younger kids there who were mainly romping around at the back but all the Reception age plus kids were thoroughly engaged and listening. There was also a chance to do some drawing at the end, to make their own mark on The Book, which Roo thoroughly enjoyed. Eva was still holding back a little.

The events are FREE! and going on through the whole of May, though I suspect a lot of the tickets will have gone by now…but go if you can, it’s totally worth it. You also get a free voucher to visit Discover once it reopens so win-win-win.

Also, you learn a lot about cheese. Win-win-win-win.

 

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Fairy and Elf Walk – 02/03/16

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I am dedicating this post to my good friend Mrs Rabitt, who’ll soon be moving to M11Land so I imagine she’ll be on the Audley End Mini Railway pretty much every weekend. We’d never been there before but we were looking for a day out pre Eva’s birthday and their Fairy and Elf Walk sounded suitably fluffy and girly for my ethereal little girl.

We booked train tickets online the night before and cut it pretty fine for getting our designated train. They advise you arrive a while before your departure, but I’m not sure 4 minutes really gives you enough time. Still, we got there just as the train was boarding and managed to all sit together, though it was a bit of a squeeze with 4 of us in one mini carriage:

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The train ride was about 40 minutes in all and takes you on a winding route through the woodlands and over the River Cam (which I swear was much bigger last time I saw it. I’m not sure we could have punted on the one we saw today). Reuben had an I-Spy sheet to complete on the way, and there was lots to see. Shelters fulls of teddies, bedecked with flowers, little huts with gingham curtains and even some pandas:

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Roo enjoyed ticking all the things off his list, although we didn’t spot all the wildlife (what is a muntjac anyway??) I suspect the noise of the train and children may have scared the rabbits off. We saw a pheasant, but other than that we were a bit light on actual living things.

But we did spot fairies! About halfway through, we pulled into what can only be described as a bower:

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There we were greeted by three fairies and one elf (it was Eva who knowledgably told me that he was an elf because she knew “a yot about fairies”. They performed a little frolicky dance for us and then walked along the train, presenting each child with a little bottle of fairy dust, which they would need to scatter over their wishes in the forest to make them come true. It was very sweet and I think Eva enjoyed the magic of it all.

On the train went., back to the station:

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On the way, we passed another train and waved. It’s a strange British thing that while we go out of our way to not talk to strangers, we also feel obliged to wave at those same strangers if they’re passing us in a train. I blame Edith Nesbit.

Back at the station, Roo only had one agenda in mind and it was far from flowery and fairylike:

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Roo loves a bouncy castle. As Nathan observed, it’s the ideal environment for a boy who can’t stop bouncing and often hurts himself on walls. At £2 per child for unlimited time on the bouncy castle and swingboats, it was good value too. The sun was out so we sat back and had a snack while they played. It was like the Ladybird Book of Bank Holidays.

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But we still hadn’t done what we came for, which was the Fairy and Elf Walk. Again, we had an I-Spy list for this, which kept the boy amused, and a word to find as well, which we never completed (if anyone who works there reads this, please let me know what the word was. I have 5 letters and can’t work it out at all). First though, we had to make wands and wishes with one of the craft fairies:

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There was another craft station too, which sadly we didn’t get to…but everything was so pretty and well thought out. There were flowers and ribbons wrapped around everything, which the flowery, ribbony girl loved.

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I only wish I’d put her in a fairy outfit, like so many of the small girls were – but there was rain forecast, and a tutu isn’t practical soggy forest wear. Clearly a brand-new, lilac bunny dress is, though…

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I wasn’t expecting too much of the Fairy Walk – this whole day was reminding me of the kind of days out we’d have as kids, which were almost inevitably disappointing. In the 80s, a fairy walk would have consisted of a pile of acorns with a Christmas tree decoration sitting atop and we’d have been grateful for that much. Today’s kids, though, are a tad more discerning and this Fairy Walk was packed with tiny works of art, all rendered in superb detail:

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I particularly liked the Cleaning Fairy:

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At the start of the walk, the kids had written their wishes down on bits of paper and when we reached Christabelle the Wishing Fairy, we tied them to the wishing fence and sprinkled them with the fairy dust from the train. You can’t read Eva’s any more, thanks to the sheer quantity of dust she poured on it, but  she’d painstakingly written “flying” on it:
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Reuben’s was more specific and I’m pleased to say it’s come true already. At bathtime, I showed him the old pile-of-10ps-in-the-ring trick and now he can, indeed, do magic:

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Other wishes ranged from the whimsical to the practical:

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We wandered through the forest for an hour or so, ticking all the fairies, goblins and gnomes off Reuben’s list and playing in the wigwams along the day. It was the perfect springlike weather for it – I can’t guarantee you’ll get the same if you go and honestly, it might not be so magical in the rain.

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Then it was back to the play area for more bouncing and having a go on the swingboats:

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Nathan and Eva also went off to the playground, where they found a wooden train and a cart and horse:

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We were starting to rush, but the skies were darkening and the forecast rain wasn’t going to hold off much longer. Another day we’d have enjoyed a picnic and a ride on the even-smaller-than-miniature railway that ran around the play area. Instead, we decamped to the Station Box Cafe for a kind of linner, just as the wind and the rain started.

For those not familiar with the concept of linner,  it’s the meal you have around 3PM when you’ve had an 10:30 brunch. In this case, it was kids’ hot boxes of nuggets and chips, that came with water, fruit, a chocolate biscuit and a colouring sheet. Plus “Station Burgers” for the adults. It being 3PM, supplies were starting to run out so the kids had an extra biscuit instead of fruit in their boxes and we had onion-free burgers. But it was all good, and the burgers surprisingly tasty.

It was a lovely day out, definitely helped by a bit of sunshine. Eva and Roo were both enchanted by real-life and model fairies and it was a pretty easy drive out of London as well. I’m not sure if the real life fairies are there all the time, but I think the Fairy Walk is there for the summer. More information here anyway…

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Shakespeare 400

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It’s taken me a week to write this, not because it wasn’t a nice afternoon out but because a tiny girl I know is turning 4 imminently and it seems to have distracted me from most things this week, including blogging. So belatedly, Happy 400th Deathday Shakespeare!

Midsummer Night’s Dream has always had a special place in my heart, ever since I was in a school production in 1994. You can take a guess at which part I had but be assured, it was less ethereal fairy and more rough mechanical. So when I heard that London Contemporary Theatre were staging free performancesof MSND just outside Liverpool St, I had to go. I didn’t check the weather forecast or the likelihood of rain or whether it would be a good plan to make the children walk miles around Chingford before we made the trip into town. So, it’s an unlikely miracle that not only did we get there on time but also managed to sit through the whole thing without the kids complaining even though they were tired and it was a little on the chilly side.

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It’s all about the Magic Stars, and wrapping up warm. Also, it helped that it was only 40 minutes long, which is an ideal length for a “My First Shakespeare” kinda performance. Roo said afterwards that he didn’t understand what was going on, but that’s not suprising given the complexity of Shakespeare’s language and plots. I tried to explain the story to him on the train home and he still looked confused, but he said he enjoyed the fighting and the men in the silly hats and wigs.

I was wondering how they’d possibly do the whole of MSND in 40 minutes and with a cast of 4, and the aforementioned silly hats and wigs may help to explain it. The four of them rapidly switched characters, with Helena bedecked in pink ribbons but changing to a hat to play some kind of mix of Snout and Starveling. At one point, I think Hermia may just have been a wig, or was it Hippolyta? I’m not quite sure.

The play was obviously heavily abridged, with page-long speeches reduced to a line, and all the supporting fairy characters cut out. If you weren’t familiar with the play, it might have been difficult to grasp some of the finer details but the best scenes were left mostly intact – like the girl-on-girl fight (gotta love a “minimus of hindering knot-grass-made”) and the most tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisby. However, for personnel reasons, the court interjections had been cut, which is a shame because a nice bit of mockery never goes astray.

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It’s never going to be a super-serious production in the middle of a public space (Broadgate Circle, if anyone’s interested) with all the rapid character changes, but the cast played it pretty straight for the most part. Of course, MSND isn’t the most serious play anyway, but you want a bit of drama to make the comedy more comedic. So, it was a good balance of traditional Shakespeare with a dollop of mayhem. Bottom was suitably arrogant, Titania a drunken lush ready to brawl with Oberon…and Puck was a puppet. Obviously. For those attempting to explain the plot to small children, the “magic flower” plot device can also be found in Julia Donaldson’s Superworm. Explaining the concept of a play-within-a-play might be trickier.

Having said that, it seems that CBeebies have done their own take on MSND, which might help clear things up. I’ll check that out with the kids and compare and contrast…

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A Voter’s Guide to the London Mayoral Elections

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Random underlinings, ill-advised hashtags, activists posing as voters – this booklet has it all.

The booklet to which I’m referring is, of course, the Mayor of London’s official guide to his potential successors – a booklet where all the candidates who could be bothered to cough up £10K set out their manifestos. From the boring to the barking, it’s all in there…and I’m here to talk you through it. If you want to read along in real-time, you can download it here.

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In the interests of non-partiality, we’ll go through the candidates in booklet order, which means we means we start with Sophie Walker of the Women’s Equality Party. She has some admirable ideas about ending violence against women and closing the pay gap and other things which seem the tiniest bit out of the mayoral jurisidiction. I’d love to see the pay gap closed but it might be a tad unrealistic to unpick centuries of inequality in one mayoral term. Still, good on her. I hope she does well.

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Next up is Lee Harris of CISTA – the Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol party. It probably is, but as London mayoral agendas go, this one’s a bit one-note. He seems like a nice old geezer and could certainly sort you out with a Che Guevara shopping bag but I need Mayor to say a bit more on housing than just “he has some views and some people will agree with them”.

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Onto our first big name – Zac Goldsmith. There’s not much I could say about the Tory poster boy that hasn’t already been said. If he gets in, we’re pretty much guaranteed Boris the Second and I’m not sure we have much use for Boris the First. But one thing that strikes me about the prose in the booklet – the paragraph that boasts about his massive majority in the last General Election and how “he successfully stood up and delivered for his constituents”. Now, I know we all interpret these situations differently but to me, the last General Election doesn’t prove that “When Zac makes a promise he will stand up for you and deliver it” (yes, they did use the same hackneyed phrase twice in a paragraph) – it proves that he’ll stand for a job, get it and then straight away start looking for a better job. He was elected as MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston on 7th May 2015 and by 9th June 2015, he was confirming that he was hoping to trigger a by-election way before the five-year term was up. That’s the kind of commitment we’d love to see here from our mayor.

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Now to the BNP. And this is where it gets interesting. Almost half of their manifesto is taken up with explaining that they’re not Islamaphobic, because “Islamaphobia is..an irrational fear” and they’re totally like justified in being scared of all Muslims. Nice technicality, folks. Then there’s a twisting of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words that I suspect would make even the holy man himself cuss. Their words are “the Archbishop of Canterbury publicly labelled it outrageous to describe people who are worried about the impact of migration as racist” If you made it to the end of the sentence, congratulate yourself, given it was more complex than a sample question in a KS1 SATS test. But let’s unpick it a little. Yes, I’m giving them more than a paragraph. Because they’re worth it.

For a far more balanced view of that Archbishop quote, have a look at this BBC article which gives the context and actual words of the quote. These were:
“There is a tendency to say ‘those people are racist’, which is just outrageous, absolutely outrageous.
Fear is a valid emotion at a time of such colossal crisis. This is one of the greatest movements of people in human history. Just enormous. And to be anxious about that is very reasonable.”

Which I think is a pretty balanced thing to say, especially as he was calling for the UK to take in more migrants, not less. Obviously, the BNP are most concerned with labelling themselves not-racist (or Islamaphobic) and have neglected to edit out the bits of their manifesto which betray them as really being quite bigoted at heart. Like putting “refugees” in inverted commas. I’ll just let that speak for itself.

That’s not the best bit though. The best bit is the claim that “People like you voting BNP”. I didn’t realise that people liked or disliked my voting choices but there you go, they like it when I vote BNP. Just like these other random voters that they’ve picked off the street to telling us why they, the ordinary voters of Britain, will be voting BNP in this mayoral election. Thank you Christine Freeman, Rvd Robert West and Mike Jones.

Hang on, though. Something’s not right here. Could it be that these “people like you” are actually all BNP activists and not random voters at all? It couldn’t be. It certainly wouldn’t be so transparent that a simple Google search would reveal all…but I am nothing if not a Googler and here goes. Say a big congrats to Christine Freeman, winner of the “BNP Activist” Award:

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Of course, “BNP Activist of the Year” is a hotly contested award and Christine must have wrestled it out of the grip of the former title-holder, Mike Jones. Yes, the man featured in the booklet as “London Cabbie” is the BNP’s Activist of the Year 2014 and the London Regional Organiser for the party. In so many ways though, he’s just a regular man on the street.

What of that Reverend though, who joins the Archbishop in implying that the BNP has the blessing of God? Well, he’s never, to my knowledge, won Activist of the Year but he is described as a BNP activist on his Wikipedia Page, and also as someone not affiliated with any recognised church other than the one he started. He also holds the post of Religious Adviser to the BNP. That’s three out of three BNP voters “like you” that are actually BNP activists. Next!

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After all that excitement, it’s quite soothing to read Caroline Pidgeon’s pitch for the Liberal Democrat vote. I have no problems with anything she’s saying – her policies seem sensible and her credentials are sound, given she’s actually served on the London Assembly for the last two mayoral terms. But who came up with the hashtag #CarolineCan? It’s just begging to be abused. Caroline can….do what? Juggle? Eat three Weetabix for breakfast? Stop eating Pringles once she’s popped? Those are just the polite ones I’ve thought of but I’m sure I’m not the only one tempted into mischief by such an ambiguous hashtag.

And then we’re right back on the right, with Britain First’s attempt to break off Facebook and into the real world of politics. I mentioned the KS1 SATS earlier and here’s a man who clearly failed the SPaG test:

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No Paul, underline the adverbs. “Increase” is a verb, isn’t it? We went through this. It does make me wonder if he always talks like this, emphasizing random parts of speech all the time: “No mother I won’t HAVE a cup of tea. I just had one IN Starbucks.” Although replace Starbucks with some kind of British coffee chain that sells British coffee to British people, creating British jobs.

The random underlinings quite detract from the rest of the content, which sees Paul boasting about how he’s personally tackled hate preachers and forced the authorities to clamp down on Islamic extremism. Sure you have, love. I kinda suspect that Islamic extremism would have been on the Met’s agenda even without your involvement, but that’s OK. You have your moment. Also, Paul pledges to get Britain out of the EU, so if the June referendum goes his way, you can be sure he’ll be taking personal credit.

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Let’s move on to George Galloway. Not much to pick apart when it comes to his views because he doesn’t really view this booklet as a place to share them. He’s already done that and spends four lines listing the places he’s shared his views – “on television, on the radio, in parliament, on the streets – even the US Senate”. He later tells us the topics he’s shared his views on – Britain leaving the EU, women’s rights, war and peace – but again fails to tell us what his opinions on those topics might be. Thanks George, that’s 10K well spent.

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It would be unfair of me to rip into UKIP just for being UKIP…after all, we’ve had a lot of right-wing bashing already and there’s nothing much that’ll surprise you on their page. I did note one peculiar policy though – scrapping council translation services. Obviously, it’s a blatant way to get at the immigrants who have already entered the country but it does smack of just trying to spite them for no good reason. If, as UKIP maintain, we are being flooded by immigrants surely we need more translation services, not less? Setting aside the fact that it’s a legal requirement in some situations and not really the Mayor of London’s decision in most situations, it just seems really impractical. So, UKIP, do you suggest we just ignore these immigrants when they come to the Job Centre or a hospital, talking in a language we don’t understand? Just by sticking our fingers in our ears and saying “I can’t hear you”? Or are you suggesting that we only hire public sector employees that are already multilingual so that they can easily communicate with a number of immigrant communities in their mother tongue? Now, that’s a good idea. I’d back that one, Peter Whittle!

(And just for Paul Golding’s info, if we do vote to leave the EU, Whittle will be fighting you for the credit. After all “A vote for UKIP is a vote to leave the EU”. So, express your EU-feelings in the mayoral elections and then you don’t need to bother with that big referendum in June)

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So….Sadiq Khan. This is another one that I want to back but the manifesto is making it hard for me to do so. What are your actual plans, Sadiq? Your page is just full of vague statements like “Keeping Londoners safe”, “Bringing back real community policing” and “Taking real action” without saying how you’re going to do anything of those things. You have soundbites aplenty and so many mayoral profiles that you could rival David Bowie for reinvention. In thirty years’ time, I’m sure we’ll look back at Sadiq Khan’s phases as “Family Man”, “Council Estate Boy”, “British Muslim” and “Bus Driver’s Son”, as well as being his “own man” but what is he actually planning to do if he gets in? It’s looking increasingly likely that he will, but this voter would sure like to know exactly what we’re signing up to. The only solid policies I can see are the transport ones, and those I agree with…so what else have you got?

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All of which leads slightly anticlimatically to Sian Berry of the Green Party. Even I am struggling to find anything wrong with her policies – they are disappointingly sane and her credentials, like Caroline Pidgeon’s, are pretty solid. So I have nothing bad to say about her page. Maybe I’ve just made my decision then…

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Q Pootle 5 – Pootle the Explorer

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It’s been a while since the kids last sat down to a Q Pootle 5 DVD but when I mentioned the possibility to them, they responded with their usual enthusiasm for anythingBeebies (unless it’s Justin-related, obviously). I don’t think the 7 episodes on the disc were totally new to them, but they enjoyed them anyway.  We’ve always been fond of Q Pootle 5, with its gentle humour and amiable characters and plotlines with a little jeopardy but not too much.

I particularly liked the first episode – The Cosmic Whipple – as it had some really nice swirly graphics as Pootle and Oopsie rode their way through a comet. The kids liked the swirliness of it too –  it was Eva’s favourite colour – and it was very visually pleasing. Reuben had some nitpicks, as he always does, but they were mainly to do with how “the guy with the two heads should get two lunar sticks, not one”. He has a fair point.

We watched two episodes on Saturday night and then they had to go to bed, but they were keen to watch more. Eva asked “About the third one tomorrow morning? And the fourth one?” As it was, they got the rest of the DVD on Sunday. Aren’t they lucky? They had some questions about what a major bird was (I’m guessing it’s a play on myna bird?) but otherwise enjoyed it.  They learnt to do some beatboxing a few weeks back, so were happily singing along with the version of “Welcome to the Shack” in “Beat Box Bud-D”.  Eva also liked the glitterball.

Overall, Roo said the DVD was good, Eva said she “yuved it”. It’s a good quality programme, with great voice talent (Stacey!) and the cinematography is impressive too. If you’d like to know more, why not read the Q&A I did with creator Nick Butterworth back in 2014?

Pootle The Explorer is out now, priced at £7.99 and including a free poster. Full list of episodes below:

The Cosmic Whipple

Pootle The Explorer

The Groobie Woogie

A Friend For Ray

Rocking Not Rolling

Beat Box Bud-D

Planet Dave In A Spin

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