London Loves

London has been in the news way too much recently, for all the wrong reasons. So I wanted to make a space where we celebrate the London we know- not the one that’s full of tragedy and police tape. Every … Continue reading

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Salzburg Without a Toddler Part 2 – 20/10/19

 

I realise that my last post about our Salzburg  trip launched straight into my epic Sound of Music fangirling without explaining quite how obsessive I am. Long-term readers will be familiar with my love of the Sound of Music but there are other reasons to visit Salzburg – the beautiful mountainous scenery, the architecture and, of course, all the Mozart sights. It’s just that, for me, the town is inextricably linked with SoM as are the surrounding mountains. So that might explain why we spent Sunday morning walking around in circles.

First off though, we had breakfast at our hotel. I’m normally a bit tight-fisted when it comes to hotel breakfasts but it’s much more affordable with two people than it is for four and when we woke up at 9, the idea of stumbling a few metres and having coffee on tap was very appealing. The pickled herrings and onions were less appealing – I like to sample the local cuisine but it was a bit early even for me to start on the pickles. Watched over by the portrait of a Salzburgian David Cameron doppelganger, we fuelled up on coffee and pastries and I outlined my plan for the morning – “just quickly before we go up in the cliff lift”.

Basically, I’d had a lot of confusion over bits of the Do Re Mi montage. I’d read something on Trip Advisor that made my brain think that the scene with the Fiaker (horse and cart) took place outside the Museum of Modern Art. When I realised that the museum was on top of the cliff, I spent a long time wondering how they’d got the horse up there. Late on Saturday night, it had become apparent that the bit outside the museum was the bit I’d thought took place on the bridge – the first time Maria teaches them the “when you know the notes to sing” part of the song. So the horse and cart must be somewhere around the Old Town. It would take us mere minutes to pin it down.

Or walk round and round every single street looking for a grey building that fitted this screenshot:

And experiencing a shedload of disappointment. But whenever God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window, right?

So we gave up. Went to the Billa supermarket to get a packed lunch and actually get on with the main plan of the day – to go up the MönchsbergAufzug and walk round the top of the Mönchsberg to Nonnberg Abbey. We weren’t exactly climbing a mountain but it felt a bit like we were. The lift was a few Euros each and we chose the “there and back again” option even though that would involve walking all the way to Nonnberg and back.

It was slightly disconcerting to get into the lift and hear “Space Oddity” playing – were we about to visit der Mond rather than der Mönchsberg? It turned out to be gaslighting us because for all the lift noises and Bowie countdown we actually didn’t move at all. The doors opened and we were still at ground level. Apparently we had to press a button once we were in the lift, something I’m not used to because the work lifts don’t have those kind of buttons. The second attempt was far more successful and we emerged to the kind of glorious Salzburg-view that you would normally find with curly golden writing over it:

And yes, it was the setting for that Do Re Mi segment and no, not the bit with the horses:

(Number 28 on the map if you’re still following these)

There was an exhibition on the moon landings at the museum, which explained the Bowie in the lifts. There were also a couple of modern art pieces outside, including Sky Space – an installation by artist James Turrell, which consisted of a hole in a roof over a tower. I don’t really get modern art…I think I’ve made that clear already.

I also don’t normally get the appeal of walking around in the countryside but it was a beautiful day and there were gorgeous views along the way. Everywhere you looked, there were mountains and castles and sunshine. Glorious:

After a bit of a steep climb, we stopped at the Bürgerwehr viewing point to have a breather and take in yet more cinematic views:

This mountain climbing thing wasn’t as hard as I’d thought…the lift definitely helped. And also it wasn’t a mountain. But still, we could definitely see some mountains from here.

Worryingly, the path started to dip down while we still a long way from Nonnberg. We could see it on the horizon so knew we would have to climb back up. Before we did that though, we had a chance to get a picture of us together thanks to a nice Syrian:

At this point, we could have visited the fortress, which would have involved a realllly steep climb but we had SoM sights to find and couldn’t afford to be distracted. So we pressed on to Nonnberg and it was totally worth it:

There’s the gate that Sister Berthe very slowly unlocks for the Nazis before sabotaging their cars and the same gate is used by the Von Trapp children when they come to look for Maria. There’s the church interior seen right at the start of the film and the garden that Maria walks through at the start of “I Have Confidence”. It’s been pointed out elsewhere that this shot does not reflect the view from Nonnberg:

I totally agree – Nonnberg isn’t in front of the Dom. But the same post suggested it was in the same location as the Do Re Mi bit outside the museum, which I disagree with. This shot seems roof level and the cliff lift goes way higher than that. I am kicking myself for not getting the exact location but I happened to take this shot of Nathan later on in the day, which almost matches:

And I think that was around the top of the Clemens-Holzmeister-Stiege, which are around 800m from Nonnberg and am impressive distance to travel between the lines “My heart should be wildly rejoicing” and “Oh, what’s the matter with me?”. Still, it’s even more impressive when, thirty seconds later, she seemingly abseils down the cliff face between the words “Oh I” and “must stop these doubts” because she’s walking through the arches at Residenzplatz by that point. And she’s not even out of breath. What a lady!!

While we were at Nonnberg, I had a small inspiration about that whole horse and cart thing and checked the Trip Advisor thread again – the one that had confused me earlier. Turns out that further down the thread someone had given the exact address for that sequence – Nonntaler Hauptstrasse, numbers 12-20. It was only a few minutes away from where we were, so we scurried down these steps:

And behold! A greyish building that could just be *the one*:

It was! John L on Trip Advisor had been absolutely right and all the signs were there – the funny shaped arch, the formal steps and this grey building. We were so happy that we sat down to have a sandwich right there and then. Or at least Nathan did. I was still full from breakfast:

(It’s where I’ve marked the little musical notes on the map)

Our next target was the Rock Riding School, backdrop for the Salzburg Folk Festival scenes towards the end. They have guided tours every day at 2 so we had an hour to get back to the Altstadt and and buy our tickets. Google Maps said it was 18 minutes. How hard could this be?

Google Maps didn’t mention that it involved climbing back over the Mönchsberg so the answer was “pretty darn hard”. It was a long way up and the little steps cut into the slope didn’t do much to relieve the gradient. If we’d taken the less scenic route via the roads, we would have scooped an extra location as well – the market where Gretl drops a tomato. Bah and grumble. It also seemed that Google had no real plan for how to get us down again because a dotted line to our final destination siggested a Maria-style abseil into the riding school. We weren’t up for that, so backtracked and took the aforementioned Clemens-Holzmeister-Stiege, which Nathan thinks are like the Escher steps. Fortunately, they weren’t and we managed to get down.

Tickets for the tour are described somewhat vaguely on the website but essentially – go to Max-Reinhardt-Platz at 1:45 and there’s a large building that takes up most of one side of the square. Look for a pillar with a large mask-like sculpture on it and the gates next to it will open when it’s time for ticket sales to start. We got there a few minutes early so had to go and use the loos (luckily I had a 50 Cent piece from an earlier trip) and then wait for the exact time. This is where the ticket office is:

It’s a 50 minute tour in German and English and it takes in not just the Felsenreitschule (riding school) but also the Haus für Mozart and the largest venue – the Großes Festspielhaus. It was a really interesting tour and we got to see the backstage area for the Großes Festspielhaus, which was massive and impressive. The acoustics in the auditorium are said to be amazing so the guide asked if anyone would step forward and sing in order to demonstrate. You don’t need to know what happened next, dear reader.

The Felsenreitschule doesn’t have such good acoustics because it’s carved out of the cliff face but it is an incredible space and obviously the most significant to us because we were racking up those SoM points (number 24 on the map)

But definitely worth paying attention on the rest of the tour as there are some great frescoes to look at and lots of good facts about the building. We even felt like we’d finally paid poor Wolfgang a bit of attention.

Afterwards, we sat down for a snack by these giant gherkins. We didn’t snack on the gherkins – I had a sandwich and Nathan had some milka biscuits  – so it really felt like I was consciously rejecting pickles all day. Most un-Katelike.

However, the gherkins were made of metal (more modern art) and I think the moment in the Festival Hall had been as much Kate as Salzburg could possibly handle anyway.

Suitably revitalised, we decided to make one more sightseeing push. So far, we hadn’t scored any aspect of the Von Trapp house – I knew that the patio belonged to Schloss Leopoldskron and was out of bounds to the general public. I didn’t feel much like getting the bus all the way out there just to squint at it across a lake. But Schloss Frohnburg seemed much more promising – it was the front of the house and only ten minutes away on the bus. We had  to get 24 hour tickets to get us back to the airport on Monday morning, so it made perfect sense to start them on Sunday afternoon and go and see if we could score one more sight.

And we did. The O-8 took us as far as the main road (stop: Poliziedirektion) and then it was an easy walk down the helpfully-named Frohnburgweg. You come out at the back of the house, which looks almost right (yellow house, big gates) but not quite. It isn’t until you go round past the goats that you find the front gates and drive, plus the road that Maria skips down at the end of “I Have Confidence” (No really, she covers a heck of a lot of ground in that song):

It almost completed the set of locations for that song, except I never bothered to find out where the shot of her crossing the square to get to the bus took place. Darny darn darn. Anyone know?

It’s fair to say that we were both a bit tired by this point. We went back to the hotel and although I attempted to go to church twice that evening, neither was successful and all we actually did was go for a pizza at O Poppo, which was very nice and not too pricey.

There were loads of interesting things we found around the city that I’ve kind of skimmed over in my rush to tell you about obscure SoM locations. So let’s whizz through them now:

Eva’s ideal dress – half sequins, half candy canes:

Signs that looked like pictures of Nathan and Eva walking together (man in hat, girl arsing about):

The world’s poshest McDonalds (move over Winchester):

Horse motifs everywhere and the occasional unicorn goat:

The very glittersome “Christmas in Salzburg” shop:

A padlock bridge:

Loads of Austrian traditional dress that I reckon Nathan would look pretty cool in (this is the women’s jacket but you get the idea):

Heart-shaped bushes:

And a strong push to differentiate Austria from similar-sounding countries:

As we sat at the O-10 bus stop this morning waiting to go back to the airport, Salzburg gave us one last parting gift – a beautiful sunrise by the Horse Pond. I really did hate to go and leave this pretty sight:

Auf Wiedersehen Salzburg!

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Salzburg Without a Toddler Part 1 – 19/10/19

Let’s start at the very beginning..

Although it may not be a very good place to start if the beginning is 5am in rural Essex. We were already behind schedule thanks to a diversion to Chingford’s only 24 hour petrol station and as I was sitting in the forecourt, loading the destination into Google Maps,  I had a bit of a shock. 48 minutes to Stansted? I may have boasted previously of our 28 minute drive to the airport…even on this blog… but this was the first time I’d relied on it because it had allowed us to set a 4am alarm rather than an unthinkably early 3-something alarm.

I looked in a bit more detail. The M11 was closed for emergency roadworks. Yup, that would do the trick. The M11 is somewhat central to the whole half-hour drive thing. I hadn’t budgeted time for petrol and now this? It was gonna bit a touch tight. The only thing I wanted to be a touch tight were my jeans because I had gorged on so much strudel. But this was how it was gonna be. And it could be worse – the roads were quiet, we had Longpigs and Madness on the stereo and the back seat was entirely free of younglings. Although it was early, I was more or less cognitive to remember that I’d dropped them off in Winchester some 11 hours previously and we weren’t just sneaking out while they slept. It felt a bit like that tho.

We made it to the roundabout outside Stansted around the time we were meant to be at the check in desk. A tad late but well redeemable. Just no room for errr….errr, did we just take the wrong exit and go into the “paid for” drop off section? Oh marzipan. We tried asking some blokes in high vis how to get through to the car park and they said to just keep driving straight through. No mention of the barriers that would charge us £4 for doing that. Given that we were late, trapped and with people on our tail, we just paid. Most expensive 100m of our lives.

But you’ll be pleased to know that everything went remarkably smoothly after that. A bit of a queue for check in and security, obviously, but very little hanging around once we were on the other side. Just time to grab a soy latte and a sausage sandwich from Starbucks before boarding the plane to read a book that slagged off people who grabbed soy lattes from Starbucks. I think I was OK with the sausage sandwich though because it wasn’t like it was vegan sausage on gluten free bread. Like the drive up, I too was redeemable.


In just 1 hour 30, we were coming in to land over the mountains of Salzburg. I don’t mind admitting that I had a weeny tear in my eye as I hummed a little song to myself about going to the hills when my heart was lonely. I had another weeny tear in my eye as we stood under the “EU Citizens” sign at arrivals for possibly the last time. But, as Nathan pointed out, we’d already had two farewell trips to the EU – to France and Portugal– and he was looking forward to seeing where we’d go in January.

Somehow we were the very last to get through passport control and by the time we got to baggage reclaim the belt had stopped and our suitcase was nowhere to be seen.  Time to deploy my first proper interaction auf Deutsch and in what I hoped were not-too-panicked tones. The attendant told us to look in between the two reclaim belts, which was fruitless (fruchtenlos?) as there was nothing at all there. We really were starting to panic and she’d gone off to look for someone else’s luggage when we saw her  from a distance hauling our battered red suitcase out through the flaps. Never have I moved faster while also thinking and shouting rapidly in German. Happily, we got it back and walked out through the terminal to catch the trolleybus 0-10 into town.

Getting public transport in a foreign country is always slightly tricky but we figured it out. There was a ticket machine at the bus stop, which was right across the car park from the terminal. You could pay by card and, as long as you’re not a student or a senior citizen, there is only one viable option – the 24-hr vollpreis. You can use this for any 24 hour period starting when you validate it on one of the ticket punching machines on the bus itself. We were there for 48 hours so 2 lots of tickets suited us nicely, including the trip back to the airport at the end.

The O-10 runs every ten minutes or so and it’s only 15 minutes into the Altstadt (Old Town) from the airport. As we drove through the city, it looked very modern and not quite the Salzburg I knew so well from the Sound of Music. Then we went through a rocky tunnel and emerged into the Altstadt, just as I thought it would be.  The very first thing we saw was the Pferdeschwemmen – the Horse Pond – which is a distinctive Salzburg feature (no 25 on the map) and one I thought I recognised from the film but couldn’t exactly place where. A lot of googling later revealed that it was a snippet of the “My Favourite Things” instrumental montage (see top photo below) but also that there was a deleted scene featuring Liesl and Rolf that was shot there. At the time I didn’t want to have my head stuck in my phone to research – we’d only been in Salzburg for 30 seconds – so we just took some photos and walked on to see what else there was to see.

Round the next corner was the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art, with the Monschberg lift, which seemed to me to be an easy shortcut for climbing at least one mountain. I really wanted to go in but we had all our luggage with us and check in at the Hotel Elefant was four hours away. So we kept walking.

Although it turned out that walking with a large suitcase on narrow cobbled pavements wasn’t the easiest thing. After a few more minutes, we decided to go and throw ourselves at the mercy of the hotel and see if they could take it off our hands.

And they could! My awkward German was obviously compelling enough for them to take pity on us. So now that we were unburdened, we could wander free around the Altstadt and it was not long after that that we found our first confirmed SoM sight – Residenzplatz. It was where Maria has her revelation that she does, in fact, have confidence in herself after leaving the abbey. She walks through the archways still full of doubt but by the time she’s at the fountain made of what seems like merhorses, she’s perked up a bit. It’s a must see and we went back there several times, just to soak up the atmosphere. It’s also where they filmed the Anschluss scene, but that wasn’t the kind of atmosphere we were soaking up…more the confident epiphany vibes. It’s number 10 on the map:

You may have picked up already that there’s a running horse-theme to Salzburg. Not a theme of running horses but a running theme that is equestrian in nature. We’d already posed by two horse fountains. Would there be more? Spoiler – yes.

Next to Residenzplatz is the Dom – the Cathedral – which was chiming as we walked past it and I felt the urge to run through the square, splashing water on my face. I didn’t but I should have done – it was remarkably hot and sunny for an October afternoon. Especially after weeks or constant rain in London. The Dom was another location that features only briefly in the “My Favourite Things” instrumental montage  but by the time we’d figured that out it was the following night. Hence the picture below (top one is from the film, bottom one is me watching the film on my phone to work out where I should be standing. Number 8 on the map, partly obscured by the musical notes I’ve added on….)

Oh, and there’s also some modern art near the Dom. A giant Goldene Kugel. There was lots of modern art around the town but I’ll admit, I wasn’t as interested in it as I was in the SoM sites. Call me uncultured if you will:

Our next uncultured steps took us across the Mozartsteg, a bridge across the river, which also featured in that same “My Favourite Things” instrumental montage. I was a little confused at the time as I thought it was where they first put words to “Do Re Mi” but, contrary to what I’d always thought, that wasn’t on a bridge at all. Don’t worry readers, we found it later. Were you worried?

It was still gloriously sunny at this point, so we decided to flop down on the river bank, eat a large bag of crisps and read for a while. And yes, that same river bank did feature just after the bridge shot but again, I didn’t realise it at the time. I just wanted a sit down in the sun with a view:

Nathan was way happier than he looks in this photo, honestly:

Why wouldn’t he be happy? It’s not like I tricked him into spending his 40th birthday treat doing stuff that I was obsessed about. Noooo….

As soon as Nathan had smug-posted on fbook about how sunny it was, it clouded over. So we got up and decided to walk to Mirabelle Palace, home of the last bit of the Do Re Mi montage. Did we find all the relevant shots? You betcha:

The gates with the outstretched arms are the ones closest to the street, just by the marionette theatre. The fountain that the children walk on the edge of is yet another horse fountain, the hedge tunnel is pretty easy to find and the steps at the end are the ones with all the tourists jumping up and down them. The statue is off to the side – you cross over a little bridge by a playground (ah, shame we didn’t have the children) and there’s a sculpture park with the specific fellow sitting on his own by the trees – not in the main circle. Just in case he was feeling lonely, we gave him a Von Trapp-style pat on the head and a cuddle:

The weather was feeling not chilly but autumnal by now and we were flagging. We hadn’t had lunch, so we went back to Getriedegasse and bought some warmed-up bagels from the Spar, which we ate by the river under the watchful and hungry eye of a local doggie. He remained hungry, poor boy. Then it was 3PM and time to check into our hotel. Good intentions about going up in the cliff list melted away as the 4am start caught up with us and the lure of a nap proved overpowering. Our hotel room was like a cocoon – not much natural daylight and very warm – so we stopped for just a moment and woke up again at 6pm. I think we needed it.

For dinner, I really wanted some traditional Austrian fare so we went to a restaurant by the name of the Goldene Kugel – much like the sculpture outside the Dom – and ordered schnitzel, bier and strudel, which ticked all the boxes of being hearty, filling and very Austrian. It didn’t hurt that two of those things were among Maria’s favourites as well. We were going to struggle to get any wild geese or indeed snowflakes, but deep fried meat in breadcrumbs and pastry we could do. Nathan had the Apfelstrudel and I had a cheesecake version and I have to say that his was tastier. Which of course didn’t stop me from finishing mine as well as having some of his:

After dinner, we went for another walk round the Altstadt to work off some of the stodginess. Residenzplatz was deserted so I could skip about and sing “I Have Confidence” to my heart’s content. We hadn’t achieved everything we’d set out to do on Day 1, thanks to the massive nap, but we’d had a good try. And tomorrow is another day….whoops, wrong film….

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“The Dong With a Luminous Nose” at Little Angel Theatre – 22/09/19

We’ve been to the Little Angel Theatre quite a few times now – more than I can count anyway. It always feels like a bit of a hidden gem, down the leafy passageway from Cross Street, and it’s an intimate performing space which means that the audience can feel very close to the action. Most of the shows we’ve seen there have been aimed at the 3-7 market and have been charming but fairly straightforward stories. This was our first foray into Little Angel’s more grown up productions (aged 7-adult) and it was an abstract, wordless piece based loosely on an Edward Lear poem.

It certainly was darker than the shows for younger kids – quite literally at times, as the whole stage was plunged into total darkness near the beginning and then a single light shone out, marking the first appearance of the eponymous Dong. The themes of the show were fairly dark as well though – abandonment, loss, loneliness – and it was a bit much for my very sensitive girl, who said she felt sad as soon as Edward’s parents sailed away, leaving him alone on a chair overlooking the sea. She perked up a bit at the first mention of “The Jumblies” because she’d read a poem about them at school but Edward’s sadness never completely left him and I think Eva was having a bit of an empathy overflow with him.

Which is a shame because there’s much to enjoy about the show – the way that the score and the movement of the puppets blended together perfectly and the way that the abstract shapes looked almost human-like in their movement but still fantastical. The much younger child behind us seemed to be taking all the bright colours and shapes at face value and so was filled with nothing but happiness whereas I think Eva was still wondering when Edward’s parents were going to come back. She is 7, so just on the cusp of the recommended age, but it’s probably worth noting that a super-sensitive seven year old might not cope that way with the strength of emotion in the piece.

The fantasy sequences are interwoven with the more real setting of Chankly Bore where a phone rings but no-one answers and the people are featureless, murmuring shadows with the exception of Edward. It’s telling that he is set apart from the rest of them by the depth of detail on his puppet and the expressions that he’s capable of compared with the townsfolk. They carry out their lives around him – shopping for bread and throwing birthday parties – but he sits alone, his parents’ house growing derelict behind him until he finds some purpose in the shape of the Jumbly Girl. Then he is transformed from the dull palette of his usual clothes to bright colours, a clown face and even a mermaid-like tail at one point. By the end, he has adorned himself with the homemade luminous nose and although he is still imbued with sadness, he is completely different from the Edward of the start.

The show is slickly staged, with puppeteers moving as one to propel Edward across the stage and singing in complex harmonies as they do so. It is sombre and with only a few points of comic relief but it is moving, thought-provoking and innovative – certainly not your average puppet show! It’s running till 10th Nov and is a good show for children who are mature enough to deal with the big issues it raises, especially the idea of growing up and changing. For tickets and more information, take a look here.

Disclaimer: I received free press tickets in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own.

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Christmas in September – 14/09/19

For the past few autumns, I’ve been at odds with the rest of my family about when the appropriate time to start singing Christmas songs is. Nathan traditionally had a 1st Dec embargo in place but that’s gone out of the window with the advent (pun intended) of my choir. We now start Christmas gigging at the end of November so that means starting rehearsal in September or, this year, in October. Working back from that logically means that I tend to spend August choosing and arranging the new Christmas songs. Which, according to my family, is TOO EARLY. This year though, the kids are doing a proper Christmas-themed show in Perform as opposed to an arbitrary Perform show with a song about snow tacked on the end. So they too are busy singing Christmas songs, even before I am. All of which means it’s definitely not too early to start batting that particular C-word about.

Sony Movies think so too, which is why they’ve launched their Christmas movie channel already – a full-day schedule of festive treats on Freeview 50, Sky 319, Virgin 424 and Freesat 303. And to celebrate, they teamed up with innovative Chin Chin Ice Cream to give away 100 Christmas Turkey Dinner Sundaes. Eva and I were in town today to teach English, so we jumped on the 38 afterwards to check it out for ourselves. Well, first we had lunch at My Favourite Cafe in Essex Road and then we jumped on a remarkably slow, hot and overcrowded 38 that terminated at Holborn instead of Piccadilly Circus and then had to walk. We earned that ice cream.

I had warned Eva that it might be slightly unusual ice cream but wasn’t sure myself just unusual it would be. The answer was…really quite. It was meant to be a turkey dinner in one bowl and certainly had that meaty-gravy taste alongside the caramel of the ice cream. I couldn’t help feel that it would be really nice ice cream without that meatiness and as it was, it was more interesting than delicious. Eva certainly wasn’t sure:

She eventually dug some of the cranberries out from the bottom, carefully wiped the ice cream off and then spun a fantasy tale about a giant cranberry that looked like a turkey. I finished her ice cream but more because I dislike wasting food than because I was finding it a super enjoyable experience. It wasn’t nasty, it was just…odd. The people at the next table described it as “remarkable” but I’m not sure whether they meant that in a positive or a negative way. Remarkable is a safe word for it. What it definitely was was Christmassy. I mean, you could taste all the elements of the turkey dinner in there and it did feel festive. But also odd.

On the way back across Soho Square, we spotted something which made Eva remarkably happy. She told me the other day that there were two famous nurses in the Crimean War and where did we end up today but in front of Mary Seacole’s house? It made a nice ending to a surreal Soho trip:

If this review has convinvced you to try the Turkey Dinner Sundae then hurry – they’re only available till Tuesday. But I’d probably recommend just sticking to the Christmas movies…

More information on Chin Chin here

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A Very Pottery Day – 07/09/19

The children have an obsession. Well, they have several and I am indulging at least one of them on a regular basis – it’s so easy to go to parks and let them look at dogs – but the specific one I was indulging on Saturday was Harry Potter. Roo read Philosopher’s Stone last year and Nathan is now manfully ploughing through Order of the Phoenix for bedtime stories….I don’t quite know what happened in between for us to get to this point but safe to say, Harry Potter has been a constant theme this summer.

So when I heard that Hamleys were holding a “Back to Hogwarts” event, it was time to visit. The activities started at 12 so naturally we arrived at 11 with an hour to spare before anything happened. There’s a whole “Wizarding World” in the basement of Hamleys tho, so we managed to entertain ourselves. In fact, Eva declared it “the most wonderful place I ever seen in my yife”. Although that was before she visited the World of Pink on Floor 2. She might have changed her mind.

There is a lot of HP stuff down there. A whole wand shop with a diadem of Ravenclaw sparkling in the window. An invisibility cloak video. A real live Golden Snitch whizzing about. A giant Lego Hagrid. And lots of other photo opportunities:

I don’t know whether the lego was only there for the event or if it’s permanent but Roo was very taken with the giant Harry Potter minifig made out of lego. You can tell it’s a minifig by the claw hands:

We were starting to tire of the basement – even if the kids weren’t – so I took Roo uo to the toilets on Floor 5, stopping off at Floor 4 to learn how to fly a drone. And not buy one. Sorry, charismatic drone salesman guy.

We’d just got back to the basement when two wizards declared that the Sorting Ceremony was about to begin:

Children sat on the lego sorting hat chair and the hat sorted them mainly into Gryffindor because a high proportion of children described themselves as brave and very few used words like “evil”, “badgerlike” or “inconsequential”. Both my kids told the wizards that they were Gryffindor, though *someone* bagged himself a Ravenclaw sticker.

It was another half hour until the Quidditch practice  – I don’t think it was really necessary to have already spent an hour in the basement – so Eva and I wandered up to the pink and sparkly floor while Roo and Nathan mooched around the Star Wars section. Eva gasped as we got to the top of the escalator and she saw how yuvyee everything was. She really could have bought the entire floor. So she says.

We got back down in time for Quidditch practice, which mainly involved sitting on a Nimbus 2000 identical to the one Eva has at home:

Thank goodness she didn’t bring it out with her like she did for Free Comic Book Day – it would have looked like she was shoplifting. It was bad enough that she was carrying her Harry and Ginny dolls everywhere when they were being sold in the shop:

The activities concluded with a Harry Potter lucky dip and both kids were indeed lucky, scoring a HP pencil case each. It was at that point that I realised we’d had two hours entertainment and a pencil case without spending any money. I felt a twinge of guilt but hey, money is tight at the end of the summer…you need to find thrills where you can.

We had just about enough to buy some lattice fries at Leon though. I was in desperate need of some food and Leon on Carnaby Street is bigger than it looks from the outside (sorry, wrong fandom). I had a healthy chicken aioli box and some not so healthy fries. Perfick.

Just one more stop to make then and I still haven’t decided whether this was worth it or not. We were passing through Kings Cross on the way back and it made logical sense to go and have our photo taken at Platform 9 3/4. The kids were knackered though and I was full of cold so we were getting a little grouchy by then. It’s changed a lot since last time we did this – back then, Reuben was a toddler and the photo opportunity was still into an exterior wall of the station:

Now that the station is all shiny and new, it’s an integral part of the Kings Cross experience. And it was a proper experience, with a professional photographer on hand, Hogwarts scarves and even a man to make your scarf look like it’s fluttering in the breeze. It makes it worth the 40 minute queue. We didn’t buy the professional shots though. I tell you, times is hard.

There was some altercation over a swing after that so let’s leave it there. It was a great day out and really tapped into the current obsession. The Hamleys activities have now sadly finished but go visit the shop anyway. It’s cheaper than the HP Studios experience!

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Hyde Park – 26/08/19

Sometime last week, Eva was jumping up and down in the bathroom as she waited for her bath to fill. “I’m so excited!” she kept saying “But I don’t know why!” Eventually she realised that it was because “Natayee” was coming to stay. Yes, it’s that time of year when we get a temporary teenage child wrangler for a week or so and the children have a wonderful time with her. Well, that was this week and they did have a wonderful time but first there was the small matter of picking her up from Victoria Coach Station. That was all the way back on Bank Holiday Monday, which defied the bank holiday odds by being gloriously sunny, and so we decided to go to Hyde Park en route to pick her up.

Instinctively, I’d go to Hyde Park Corner for a visit to Hyde Park but Google Maps suggested Knightsbridge and it’s actually way better if you’re aiming for the Diana fountain end. You get out at the north entrance and then there’s a short stroll down Serpentine Walk before you get to the park. Look out for these very fancy gates on the way:

It was middayish by the time we got there, so we picked a shady tree to sit under and eat our sandwiches. Not a willow, because the kids were convinced they were all Whomping Willows and therefore out to get us. I’m happy to report that we didn’t get whomped.

And we did find a new playground we’d never been to before! I’m not sure how we’ve missed it all these years – we’ve been to the Diana playground on the other side but not this one. I think it’s called the South Carriage Drive Playground and it looks quite newly refurbished. There’s lots of greenery, which is lovely for adventuring but not so good for sightlines. We set up a base, perched on a wooden fence in the shade and told the kids where to find us – luckily they are of an age where we can do that. I’m not sure how the experience would be with younger kids or a less than 1:1 ratio.

There’s a small kiosk for ice creams, drinks etc but surprisingly no toilets nearby. Still, a fun enough place to spend half an hour or so:

But this was all sweaty work for a 30c day, so it was time to head to the Diana Memorial Fountain, stopping off to changes in the loos by the Serpentine Lido. We’d been there on an unseasonably warm day in February but had got a little chilly by the time we were traipsing round H&M in soggy clothes. This was more the kind of day to visit. Nothing but blue skies as far as the eye could see.

There was a small problem though. The water wasn’t working on half the fountain. The bottom half was fine and, in fact, spurted out more furiously than I’d ever seen it on one corner. But the majority of the top section was just dry, hot granite to walk on. Not overly refreshing. So I suggested we stay in the cool water in the bottom half but no, the kids had to complete a loop every time. Luckily, the water came back on after 2 or 3 circuits and we could finally enjoy the fountain in its fullness.

Around this time, I’d got a call from Nat saying she’d be a couple of hours later than planned. So we stretched out our paddling as long as we could until our heads were aching from too much sun. Then we wandered back to the playground, without even bothering to change the kids out of their swimmers. The aim was the ice cream stand we’d seen earlier and it was most definitely needed by that point. I had the berries and cream ice cream pot,which was insanely expensive but very tasty and I got to finish Eva’s too as she ran off to play again.

She was enjoying it more than she looks here, honest..

The next step was to decide how we got to Victoria Coach Station. It was about a mile’s walk which would have been more than manageable on a cooler day. So instead we took the unwise decision to wait at the bus stop opposite Harrods for the C1, which seemed to take hours to come into view, even longer to make its way through the traffic towards us and more hours still to propel us the short distance to Sloane Square where we were unceremoniously turfed out. We were not yet at Victoria. An overly concerned man told us that another C1 was right behind but I was done with bus stops, so we started to walk the last half mile, spotting what looked like the Batmobile on the way:

It is always nice to have a wander around posh parts of London, like Eaton Square which didn’t seem in the least bit square but did contain some private tennis courts. We’d found some interesting passageways between Hyde Park and Harrods as well, like this one which looked like Diagon Alley until you spotted the branch of William Hill:

But the best street, weirdly enough, was the one that the coach station itself was on, Elizabeth Street. We’d never approached from the north before so had never realised it’s full of shops and cafes which are completely decorated in flowers. You can guess which one of my kids yuvved it:

Pity the coach station itself is nowhere near as beautiful. I noticed for the first time though that there is a library next door so maybe next time we’ll go and read a book while we’re waiting!

We eventually scored ourselves a Nat and made our way home via Victoria not-coach station. Which is all the excuse I need to tell you about the beautiful new toilets there. They’re free! And have been made over with shiny brass doors, white tiles and plants. There’s even a friendly women showing you which cubicle is available. If I had an award to hand out for “Most Improved Bog” they would definitely win it. Definitely worth skipping the coach station loos and heading to these. Just look at them:

Some would say that’s a bum note to end the summer holiday posts on but I think it’s just about perfect. Happy September!

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West Bay and Windsor – 15-16/08/19

 

Yes, I know those places aren’t anywhere near each other but they alliterate and we’ve been to both this week. Well kinda. It was actually the next bay over from West Bay. But again, see the alliteration! We’ve spent hours in the car this week playing Harry Potter alphabet games, so you really start to appreciate a bit of alliteration after a while. What would Godric Gryffindor do?

So, not-quite-West Bay. I think it was actually called Hive Beach and we chose there because it had a cafe and toilets and a National Trust car park that we could use for free because Holly and Chris are NT members. It had that same, orange-cliff Broadchurchy look as West Bay, which feels a bit sinister if you’ve watched the show. But what could be sinister on a day when the sky is a deep blue, the sun is shining and there are an abundance of adorable doggies on the beach? Nothing, that’s what.

The waves were a little terrifying though. I’ve been a bit wary of the sea and kids ever since Eva nearly drowned herself at Frinton two years ago, so she and I just stayed at the very edge of the surf and let our toes, ankles and occasionally knees get wet. It’s hard to describe what exactly it was about the sea that made me think it wasn’t a safe day, but the point at which the waves were most swollen was just past the shore edge and it looked like it got very deep very suddenly. There were quite a few young teenage kids in there, who seemed to be enjoying it, but one especially kept making me worried when he seemed to go further and further out to sea and not get himself back. I definitely wasn’t going to chuck my little non-swimmer in there when even swimmers were struggling.

(He was fine last I saw him by the way. I probably didn’t need to panic)

Apart from the paranoia-inducing waves, it was idyllic. There were rocks for the kids to climb on, a grassy area to sit on by the ice cream hut and the smell of fish’n’chips in the air. Obviously Eva dropped her ice cream on the path cause she was arsing about, but we picked it back up again and it was mostly OK. I had the salted caramel flavour and it was pretty amazing. She had the Strawberry and Path Grit and didn’t complain too much. We were sad to leave but we had a long way to go before bed so had to get on the road.

Because bed was, as you might have discerned by now, in Windsor. Which is 3 hours’ drive from the Dorset coast but not as far as driving all the way home. We had family to meet in Windsor the next day so it did all make sense, promise. It just seemed a little illogical at the time.

We got there just before bedtime, after a stop at a services somewhere near Southampton for a McDonalds and a raid of the shop for breakfast items. I was pretty successful and emerged with a variety pack of cereals for only £2.79 – given that a packet of digestives cost about the same, I think I did pretty well. Eva had ordered milk with her Happy Meal so that would do for breakfast too. Sorted.

We even managed to follow Google Maps’ insanely complicated instructions, which involved joining the M25 at J12, coming straight back off it at J13, doing a U-turn around a roundabout, driving back the way we’d come alongside the M25 and then doing a mad loop-de-loop before being spat out into the middle of the most immensely confusing roundabout this side of Slough. Luckily, we got it all right first time and there were no other cars trying to do anything that might have got in our way so I had enough time on the long straight road that followed to take some photos of the glorious sunset:

I’d impulse-bought the hotel stay at the De Vere Beaumont Estate on Booking.com and the reviews had been mixed. The photos looked amazing but the bargain price suggested the only amazing thing would be the level of disappointment we experienced. As it was, both were kinda true. It was a beautiful house from the front, with equally beautiful grounds. We would be staying in the not-so-beautiful part at the back, which was partway through being renovated. But we’re very used to that kind of set up through our years of church weekends away at Ashburnham Place and we’re not at all fussy.

The room was clean and fairly simply decorated and the beds were big and comfortable. That’s all we ask for at the end of a long drive. We’d booked a family room, which meant two beds – one double bed and one double sofa bed. Reuben was not at all keen to share the sofa bed with Eva, so we used the big square sofa cushions to make him a bed on the floor and he was perfectly comfortable. Reception also provided kids’ activity packs when we checked in, so that helped to sweeten the general mood. We also had extremely detailed instructions on how to use a bathmat, which was most educational:

The kids were up early the next morning, so I cracked out the service station cereal, along with the McDonalds milk that had been chilling on the windowsill next to the open window. Served in hotel mugs, with a side of Tunnocks caramel wafers and grapes, all procured from WHSmith in Rownhams Services. Yes, I am too tight to pay for hotel breakfast.  Once we’d all got up and been fed, we went for a swim at the hotel leisure club which was a total luxury. They even provided towels, which was lucky because I hadn’t packed any. Well, it had all been a bit impulsive. There was a box of swim noodles at the side of the pool, which meant that Eva could swim all by herself and even Nathan could float a bit better than usual with one. It was a lovely way to start what was sure to be a fun-packed day in Windsor.

We weren’t meeting the family till 3ish, so had some time to kill. The swim had made me starving and a cup of cereal-tinged tea and another wafer in the hotel room didn’t really take the edge off. Lucky that we had a table booked for brunch at the local Harvester, which was about 3 minutes’ drive away. It wasn’t our usual pre-Legoland stop off (the Windsor Lad), although we would later drive past that one around five times. It was called the Bells of Ouzeley and had a riverside view, including the exciting spotting of a paddle steamer, which I’d never seen in real life before. And no, of course I didn’t get a picture. Do you think I’m made of foresight?

Of course, before any brunching could be done, we needed to extract the kids from the hotel and the climbing frame they’d found out the back, just next to the giant war memorial and the Wicker Man-esque Parliament of Hares.

Yes, we were late for our booking. We made it by 10:45 and breakfast officially finishes at 11:30 so I can’t say we got the absolute best out of the unlimited cooked breakfast options but we made plenty of trips to the breakfast bar before it was swapped out for salad, and Eva made a bowl of cereal last so long that we were still sitting there well past midday. No one chucked us out tho, and we paid the bill via the app so didn’t have anyone hovering anxiously over us waiting to see if we were able to pay for that mountain of meat that Reuben had consumed. Although we did have the source of the meat looking at us with extreme judgement in his eyes:

Eventually, we did leave and went off to see what Windsor had to offer. We parked in the car park at the Riverside station, purely on the basis that it used the kind of parking app that Nathan already had downloaded onto his phone and neither of us could be bothered to download a new one. It was a fiver for the day, which seems pretty minimal by London standards but I understand some people might balk at that.

I recognised the Cote brasserie across the river as one we’d been to for a wedding reception around nine years ago. So with a misguided sense of purpose we set off across the bridge to see what that bit of the town was like. On the way, we spotted several ceramic lions who formed a “Lions of Windsor” trail. I tried to access the trail map on my phone but the rain was playing havoc with it so I couldn’t but isn’t it more fun just to discover them as you go? Even in the rain?

Possibly, possibly not. The road we were wandering down seemed a bit short on lions and generally a bit short on anything that the kids might find entertaining. There were gentlemen’s outfitters, flower shops, one antique bookshop, a few restaurants…but nothing we could hang around in for long. I was longing to find a WHSmith or similar, where they could at least shelter from the rain and browse the latest David Walliams book. But no. A barber with a giant sparkly Bowie portrait in it provided a few seconds’ entertainment but in general, this summed up the mood:

Then we found Eton College. Lots of bits of it. A Natural History Museum that would have been open to the public on a different day. A library that wouldn’t be open for another hour. A gold painted phone box lined with bookshelves that I, for a mad moment, considered sheltering inside and reading for a bit. Would all four of us fit in and have space to move our elbows? It seemed unlikely.

I thought again. It was probably time to check the map and see where all the shops of Windsor had got to. I swore I’d seen something about a play cafe somewhere. And a Lush. It didn’t look like they were on this road.  My phone still wasn’t responding well to the rain, so we huddled under a tree, restarted it and checked the map.

Ahhhh, we were in Eton. No wonder we hadn’t found the rest of Windsor yet. We’d gone wrong as soon as we set foot on that bridge over the river. If we just turned back the way we came, there would be all manner of delights awaiting us. Of course, we first tried to keep going the way we were walking but that led us down a single track road with no pavement, so turning back eventually seemed the best course of action.

Almost as soon as we got back across the river, things looked brighter. Here were some public loos, with pictures of women in beautiful dresses that Eva yuvved! And a Warhammer shop! More lions! And, hallelujah, a WHSmith.

I’m aware that this post seems to have been sponsored by WHSmith. I assure you that it isn’t. I just like to practise extreme expectation management and it was everything I was hoping for. An “Eva section”, filled with sparkly and fluffy stationery, the world’s biggest Sharpie collection and an illustrated copy of “Prisoner of Azkaban”. It was the point at which we felt like we were showing the children a good time. See, expectation management.

From there on in, it was all good. We browsed a sweet shop that had a whole Harry Potter section and then found a department store called Daniel that had a whole Harry Potter section. As you might be able to tell, HP is quite the flavour of the month round here. Eva declared that she wanted to buy everything in the whole of the shop and I felt mildly embarrassed that I was carrying her Hermione wand around, which made it look like we’d just shoplifted it. I promise we didn’t. I just didn’t expect to be somewhere that stocked Harry Potter wands that day.

When my sister messaged to say they were ready to meet us, we had to drag the kids away. We never did find that play cafe but it’s obvious that Windsor offered more than you’d think at first glance. They even have a Smiggle! That’s like a whole shop of “Eva section”.  The central area was all based around the Windsor and Eton Central station (nb NOT the station we were parked at), so once you find that you’re sorted. And the station itself even has a few things to look at. Like the royal train:

A lion that Eva can camouflage herself against:

And a lifesize portrait of Harry and Meghan, made out of Lego. How VERY Windsor.

So, if you’re ever in the same situation as we were just remember to keep an eye on the map. Eton might be full of history but it’s not the best for keeping kids amused. Head for Daniel and the delights of Windsor Central… Oh, and if you’d like to see all the lions we collected…here you go:

If you’d like to do the same and have a phone that functions in all weathers, find the map here. Enjoy!

 

 

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“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Hatfield House – 11/08/19

Now, I might have mentioned before that I’m a bit precious about Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was in a school production at the age of 13 and got a *little* bit obsessed about it. Think Reuben-and-Infinity-War-level obsession. So the two productions I’ve seen recently – both featuring aforementioned child – didn’t quite tick my purist boxes. I wanted to take the kids to a production that was more or less as Shakespeare intended and this open-air show at Hatfield House seemed to tick a lot of the boxes. Original text, Elizabethan costume, 30 mins drive from home and a 4PM start so the kids wouldn’t be too late for bed.

The only downside was it was a Sunday afternoon, when we all tend to be a bit tired after church..but I was hoping we’d get a second wind. And how challenging could it be to sit down and watch something for two hours? I’ll say at this point that preparation is key, and ideally more preparation that I did. You’re encouraged to bring a picnic but I hadn’t really planned for that, so just grabbed some leftover snacks that the babysitter on Saturday night hadn’t eaten (oh yes, Disco 2000 might be another reason that we were a *little* bit tired) and some cushions to sit on.

The journey was fairly easy apart from the very last bit. The Hatfield House estate is vast and the entrance they were using for the event parking is normally a pedestrian one, so Google Maps was not enjoying the route planning and keep telling us to do U-turns on the estate roads. Basically, if you go to an event there and the access is “via Station Lodge”, then you’re looking out for a big pair of ornate gates, directly across the road from Hatfield station. Hope that helps!

Actually parking and getting to the stage was very easy – the parking was on a field and there was a path leading down to the Elephant Dell. Two portaloos were perched on top of the opposite slope but Nathan tells me there is a toilet block if you walk a bit further away. There was an ice cream van too but no other catering so definitely BYO snacks. I was very envious of the people who were set up with a picnic table full of Prosecco and M&S food..it made my Minstrels look a bit sad.

It’s definitely worth bringing a camping chair as well, seeing as most people had. We don’t own such things because of a long term aversion to camping but I’d consider buying one just to get a better view. The cushions didn’t really help with elevation much and Eva had to perch on my lap for most of it to be able to see.

The show was probably the more challenging end of kid-suitable theatre. It was abridged only very lightly – just a line here or there really (does anyone NOT abridge that “forgeries of jealousy” speech??) so a full-on Shakespearean experience. It’s probably worth going through the story with your kids before going, so that they have an idea of what’s going on. Eva has read the “Shakespeare Stories” version and Reuben has just done the (very different) Perform version, so I didn’t bother…but I probably should have. Still, they managed to engage reasonably well, especially once I’d given in for Eva’s demands for food and opened the Minstrels (about half an hour in). After that, she focussed pretty well even though she didn’t understand everything that was going on.

It’s also performed by an all-male cast but the gender swapping is played fairly straight rather than for laughs or to make any kind of statement about gender roles in the 21st century. The obvious exception to this is Flute dressed as Thisbe, which always is a comedy moment (in our production at school, Flute was played by a girl so Thisbe was a girl dressed as a man dressed as a girl) but mainly a man in a dress is just meant o be a female character. We saw an all-male “Scottish play” in 2006ish that made some very arty statements about why they’d made Lady Macbeth a topless man but I get the impression that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men are more interested in authenticity than modernising – so the male cast is just because that’s how it would have been originally.  They also performed some very intricate Tudor-style harmonies in 4 or 5 parts, which added to the authenticity. In fact, being a daytime performance with no stage lighting and no amplification the whole thing could have been transported straight from the 16th Century. Until they used a squeegee mop at the start of the second half. More on that later.

As I said earlier, most of the play was only slightly abridged but there were a few changes – most notably the lifting of Puck’s speech about Oberon and the changeling boy from the beginning of Act 2 to the very start, before the Theseus and Hippolayta bit. This did away with the character of “random fairy” and set up the fairy part of the story before anything else. It worked fine and you’d only notice if you knew the play well. When I said to Nathan that there was one bit out of sequence, he thought it was Bottom saying that their play had been chosen before Theseus actually chose it. No, that’s always been there. Along with the fact that Theseus starts the whole thing by saying it’s 4 days until his wedding, when he really means it’s tomorrow. And that Hermia had to make her choice by the next new moon without mentioning that he again means tomorrow. Even though Titania and Oberon are “ill met by moonlight”, which there wouldn’t be much of just before a new moon.

If in doubt, fairies did it.

There were a few other small tweaks to accommodate the compact cast – the characters of Snug, Snout and Starveling were all pretty much assimilated into one character and Moth was missing from the fairies – but in most ways it was the purest version of MSND I’ve ever seen. So many productions try to force a political agenda onto Shakespeare – so making Hippolayta into Theresa May and Theseus into Trump – or to set it in a particular era for no apparent reason but this was just Shakespeare for the love of Shakespeare. The words were given plenty of space and although there were some modern inflections, it was never in a smart-ass annoying way. The characters were well cast and convincing so that the gender issue never really jarred.

The kids enjoyed it once they’d settled into the language. There was plenty of physical comedy, especially during the fight in Act 3 and the scenes with Bottom in the ass’ head. I was confident they’d enjoy the play within a play at the end and it didn’t disappoint, especially with the giant wall costume that made them both laugh out loud. It might be hard going for kids younger than mine – Eva is 7 and she was just about following it. But the whole experience and the beautiful surroundings make it a great day out even if they don’t fully appreciate the play.

Only one thing needed drastic improvement and that was the weather. It looked pretty perfect on the forecast, so I’d brought coats but hadn’t bothered with any heavy rainproofing. That was something of a rookie error as the sunshine of the first half gave way to heavy clouds around Act 3ish and tipped it down during the interval.

Eva and I sheltered under a Tesco bag and Nathan and Roo spent the second half standing to avoid sitting on the wet grass. And the stage needed to be squeegee-mopped before the cast came back. It was a short second half – the first half was around 1 hr 5 and the second around 45 mins – and the rain eased off in time for the “everything’s resolved itself” bit at the end of Act 4. In fact, look what turned up just at that point:

Fairies DEFINITELY did it.

So, we went home soggy and tired and feeling like we’d seen a top-class performance. Eva said it was “rather nice” and can’t decide whether it was better than Mr Gum at the National Theatre but it certainly is on a level in her estimation. Reuben said it was “really good”, which is high praise from him. It’s touring all over the country and is on till the end of August (I think). More information here

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National Archives – 03/08/19

Shhhh…this is a very secret post. Although I’ve been told recently that I’m terrible at stealth, yesterday was my chance to acquire some spying skills. We were meeting my brother and his family at the National Archive in Kew and booked on to their free summer holiday activity – “My Grandad: The Spy”. If you fancy doing the same after reading this post, it’s booking now till 14th Aug and the link is here. The start time isn’t exact – you can start as soon as you get there – but it’s best to book before you turn up.

But yes, first there’s the getting there bit. Kew isn’t exactly near to us and we considered driving because it’s on our frequently driven route to Hampshire…but the tube is straightforward enough if the kids have plenty of books and snacks. In this case, Eva had packed “The Restless Girls”, her sunglasses and a parrot called Sita wrapped up in bits of neon coloured wool. Standard.

Plus I always like to try out new bits of the tube I haven’t been on before. There are lots of envy-inducing houses on that bit of the District Line and look how pretty Kew Gardens station is!

It’s an easy walk from Kew Gardens station to the National Archives. It’s a left as you come out of the station and then another left at this big, helpful sign:

And from the end of that road, it’s pretty easy to spot. It’s a massive brutalist building, surrounded by lakes, ponds, swans and palm trees:

Perfect for a picnic before we started spying.Even if we were ourselves being spied upon by these geese:

Are they geese? Or some kind of big duck? I’m still no good at wildlife.

The kids – Reuben, Eva and CousinZ – also took the opportunity to practise their stealth skills:

Once we’d had some lunch, we were ready to start the adventure. It’s self-led, with just a few trips to the bookshop for clues so it’s very much start when you’re ready. The instructions had told us to have a charged smart phone and they weren’t wrong – my phone is fairly new still but the adventure took the charge down from 65% to 35%. There are texts to send, incoming calls, videos to watch and clues to input….all through the phone. So definitely have it ready-charged and take advantage of the free WiFi because the reception inside the building can be a bit patchy.

Anyway, all of that is included in the instruction e-mail. The first thing we had to do was to go to the bookshop and ask for the first clue, which sent us back outside. I’m not going to tell you any more of the steps because that would be cheating…but we went in and out of the building about three times and all around the Cold War exhibition. We found a little quiet place near the cafe to listen to the videos because we got slightly disapproving looks from other exhibition visitors for being gathered around a phone instead of looking at all the exhibits. I swear they thought we were watching YouTube or something.

At some point it’d be nice to go round the exhibition a bit more slowly because it looked really interesting. There was a Cold War bunker and a Cold War-era house, complete with mini-bunker under the stairs. As it was, we rushed round finding answers to questions that would unlock the next video for us.  We did learn a few things though, like how we live outside the zone of “Total Destruction” in the event of a nuclear strike on London..but not far outside. Romford, where the kids and Nathan had been the previous day, was helpfully marked out on the map, in the “Severe Damage” zone:

 

We also had enough time to write out our own ID stickers and make our own travel passes. Reuben wrote his name on one before binning it and choosing the more secretive name “Not S. Pie”. Nathan, in search of spires to visit, chose “Ivan Sparkov”:

I’m pleased to say that we did get to the end and unravel the mystery of Tanya’s Grandad and his career in espionage…only one mystery remained, which is where the teabag and silver spoon came from. The ending to the story suggested they might have been related somehow but it was probably just a coincidence.  We also lost Nathan a few times, which makes him the sneakiest of us all. At one point,I thought this was him:

Super-stealth!

We celebrated the end of the spy adventure with drinks and cakes in the cafe before we had to rush back to HP because Eva had a party to get to. There was a nice little play area for smaller children in the cafe so it seems like it would be a nice place to hang out and have a coffee with a view if you’re ever killing time in South-West London.

On the way out, Eva insisted we stop and watch the swans perform their ballet. They seemed more interested in trying to eat the small girls instead so CousinZ provided the ballet moves and we headed back to the tube.

So a definite recommendation if you’re looking for something to fill up these long summer holidays. It’s free to take part and we brought our own lunch so a very cheap day out even with buying coffee at the end. It takes 90 minutes and the 6-. 7- and 10-year-olds were all absorbed for the whole time. For more information, have a look here. Happy spying!

 

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“Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear – The Musical” – 31/07/19

Mr Gum & The Dancing Bear
©The Other Richard

 

Now this was a show the kids were excited about. They are both Mr Gum devotees, with thr books in pride of place on Reuben’s book shelf and the audiobooks on permanent rotation in the car. They were sure this was going to be amazing. I was more cautious – it’s a daring decision to adapt the fifth book in a series into a stand alone piece and “Dancing Bear” is the most ambitious book of the lot too….while most of the series takes place in and around Lamonic Bibber, this one traverses the world in search of the Kingdom of the Beasts. So big ambitions but I was curious to see how it would be done.

Of course the first challenge was to find the Dorfman Theatre. I knew it was part of the National Theatre and roughly somewhere near the Royal Festival Hall but I don’t think I’ve been to the National Theatre since my sister took me to see Midsummer Night’s Dream there in 1995. Still, we successfully navigated the tunnels under Waterloo roundabout and popped out on the west side of the NT near the Reuben Library:

Turns out we should have turned right instead of left at the back of the building because the Dorfman Theatre is on the east side of the NT and the entrance is near the back. Luckily we had left plenty of time to find it, so still had enough time to eat a sandwich in a deckchair:

The actual theatre was relatively intimate, with traverse seating so that you were never far from the action. A large slab of meat hung from the ceiling as Billy William and Mr Gum growled around the edge of the stage, looking for beers. I don’t think I was the only one to jump when Mr Gum suddenly shouted “Shut up, all of you!” and the show began. It was very in character though.

There were some immediate differences with the book…the order of events was slightly different and the framing device (Billy and Mr Gum need money for booze) given the opening slot, rather than Andy Stanton’s slightly rambling monologue about bears. It worked very well and introduced loads of new sight gags straightaway. I won’t tell you what they are because I don’t want to spoiler but it’s a good sign that the show can make two kids laugh out loud within minutes despite knowing every joke in the book.

There were some slight variations in the characters as well. Mr Gum and Billy were exactly as you’d imagine them but Polly was played by a grown woman, which takes some adapting to when you picture her as someone Reuben’s age. It’s a credit to Keziah Joseph that by the end of the first half, she was just Polly…no overthinking needed.  Oh and she reeled off Polly’s full name flaewlessly so yknow, extra kudos for that.

Mr Gum & The Dancing Bear
©The Other Richard

Other changes included Friday O’Leary having a much bigger part in the story than he does in the book (where he’s inexplicably missing for the vast majority of the plot) and there’s some added emotional depth to Jonathan Ripple’s storyline. They are subtle changes but help to flesh the show out and help the plot to flow

And of course there were the songs! Big, theatrical numbers with knowing touches (“This is the saddest song in the show”). There’s a disco ball, glitter, even a dancing pizza slice at one point. Mr Gum may have poured scorn at the idea of being in a musical at the beginning but soon he’s jazz-handing just like everybody else. Well, almost.

The production values are very slick. From butcher’s shop to South Pacific, the set changes effortlessly and there are some great touches in the design – like Alan Taylor’s series of books covering animals from A-Y and then “Zebras”,  and the Lamomic Bibber neon signs which Billy vandalises to read “Bear”. Oh yes, and there was a massive bear as part of the cast. I almost forgot that.

Mr Gum & The Dancing Bear
©The Other Richard

As a show it works very well – the story is self contained and not too complicated. There are probably some parts which would make less sense if you were new to the world of Mr Gum – like I’m not sure they ever mentioned that Billy was a butcher so you might wonder why he’s covered in blood. But there is an excellent program that was given out free to all the kids, which had mini bios of the characters along with a bonus Mr Gum story…well half of one anyway.

I won’t say too much more because the show really has to be seen to be fully appreciated…but I did ask the kids to sum it up in one word. Roo chose “hilarious” and Eva  said “Can I use a few words instead? Too brilliant for words!” What more endorsement do you need??

Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear is now booking to 31st August. For tickets and more information, click here.

Disclaimer: I received free press tickets in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own. 

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