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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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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Brighton – 27/07/19

Today, we went to Brighton. Surprised? That makes two of us. I was expecting to go to Frinton-On-Sea, which is where we’ve been with church for this beach trip the last two years. And if your grasp is geography is any good, you may ascertain that Frinton-on-Sea and Brighton are in very different parts of the UK so it’s just as well we found out about the change of plan before we left the house. I wonder whether any of the Americans we took with us realised just how many miles the plans had shifted – though 100 miles probably seems like a short stroll to Minnesotans.

The weather was the driving force behind the decision – it was due to be tipping it down all day in Frinton with possible thunderstorms. And Brighton was looking brighter tho it didn’t seem that way when we arrived:

Not that it put anyone off visiting for the day. I thought that it would be relatively quiet but no, Google Maps told us it would take 11 minutes to drive the final mile to the seafront and it wasn’t wrong. Obviously, a wrong turn at the roundabout by the pier didn’t help but to be fair, that is a very confusing roundabout. Who knew there was an extra road down there? It looks like you’re just about to drive into the sea.

Finding a parking spot wasn’t the easiest either, despite the rain. Neither was it easy to pay for parking  – we had to download an app and create an account, all while wrangling over-excited kids and their buckets and spades. We were meeting the rest of the church folks by the adventure golf, which was a spot chosen for its proximity to the coach parking and not for its proximity to the naturist beach. Seems like it was a bit too cold for the naturists anyway. I certainly didn’t spot any. Not that I was looking particularly hard.

We found our people camped out slightly grumpily on a pebbly ridge near the shore, with some huddled under raincoats and some in the sea. I’ll let you guess which were the Brits and the non-Brits. Nathan chose to keep his leather coat on and be one of the former group, whereas I thought the sea sounded the warmer option. So I went to the Yellowave Cafe to buy Nathan a coffee, use the loos and change, hoping that the swimmers wouldn’t all have given up before I got back. The coffee took a while and so some had indeed given up, but not all so I still had some company. Reuben changed too, although I doubted he was going to enjoy swimming in cold water in the rain.

He did dabble a little with getting in but I wasn’t encouraging him to. The pebbles were painful to walk on and so standing in the shallows wasn’t totally pleasurable. And then once you were a little way in, there was a very sudden ridge after which even I struggled to get my feet on the ground. His swimming is coming on really well but I’m still not ready for him to be out of depth with no side to cling on to and no watchful lifeguards. When Eva came along in her cossie, I was even less encouraging, although I spent quite a lot of time paddling with her with our flip-flops on (no really, those stones were punishing). Most of the time I spent in the sea was watching to make sure other people’s kids didn’t drown…but I think that was probably time well spent. Over time, the rain even eased off a bit.

I took some time out of the sea to enjoy the very middle class picnic I’d packed – parma ham, rocket, berries, sundried tomatoes and four pots of houmous. Of course Eva wouldn’t eat any of the houmouses because the selection pack contained two caramalised onion ones instead of a plain one. So she mainly ate berries and a delicious “wrap wrap” – a tortilla wrap with salad leaves wrapped in…you guessed it, another tortilla wrap. In so many ways, I wonder how she survives.

After another dip in the sea and some close calls with the increasingly rough waves, I decided to dry off and accidentally went for a coffee with my pastor instead of hanging out with my kids. She asked if I wanted her to get me one, I went with her instead, they gave us the drinks in mugs not takeaway cups…what were we to do? So we spent a very pleasant hour in the cafe and got back to find that the kids of the church had managed to have a sandcastle competition, despite the lack of sand. They’d just dug down under the pebbles a bit. At this point, it hadn’t rained for hours and the sky was even looking a vaguely blue shade although not in a terribly convincing way.

Which obviously mean it was time to go home. We’d already added an extra hour to our parking through the app, to make it 5 instead of 4…but that was ticking away. Just time for a quick visit to the playground:

 

As we drove home, Eva spotted all the exciting things we’d missed around the pier so she’s made me promise to take her back another day. Maybe it’ll be properly sunny next time, just like it was on these previous visits in 2001 and 2007:

But we probably won’t go out clubbing and then sleep in the car like we did in 2001. Probably not. See you again soon Brighton!

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“Mr Stink” at Chickenshed – 20/07/19

Last year Reuben and I marked the end of the school year by visiting Chickenshed for a very special performance of Mr Stink with David Walliams himself in attendance. This year term isn’t quite done yet and it’s Eva with me instead of Roo but Mr Stink is back at Chickenshed before a UK tour and we were there to see in the summer in style. I haven’t read my review from last year in case I spoiler it for myself so apologies if I repeat myself at all. At least I was on time this year.

Early even! Eva and I had time to explore the community market in the Chickenshed garden before the show started and she persuaded me to buy her an oreo pop.

We were lucky enough to be sitting in the front row and spent some time before the start studying the set, which looked a little different from last time. Eva thought it was “amazing” but she was confused by the white lump of plastic that looked nothing like her idea of a telephone. Ah, the youth of today!

It was while we were sitting there that I found out that Eva had read the whole of Mr Stink in one night. I remembered her starting it on Reuben’s orders the evening I told her about the show but I hadn’t realised she’d devoured it in one sitting. I’d like to know what time she went to bed that night. Actually, on second thoughts I don’t want to know….

The show started with a spoken introduction over the PA from David Walliams, which I don’t remember from last time. A lot of the cast were the same but there were a few changes, most notably Joseph Morton in the title role. He certainly filled the stinky boots well tho and there wasn’t a beat missed in the whole show.

As Eva knew the story already there weren’t many surprises in terms of plot- although she jumped when Mr Stink unleashed his almighty burp on the bullies. She loved the songs and dances though, which I think really flesh out the source text and make it into a show rather than just a retelling of the story. The ensemble were slick in both their singing and their dancing, with the main characters seamlessly integrated into the routines. Occasionally there would be a solo singing line that could have done with being at a slightly higher volume but that’s a minor thing. Generally, the music was beautifully blended and, as always with Chickenshed, full of energy. I rightly predicted that Eva would enjoy Annabel’s ballet dancing but I’m hoping she doesn’t get any ideas about how many extra curriculars you can fit into a week.

The main parts were well cast, with Chloe full of earnest youthfulness, wanting to change the world in a slightly misguided way.  Belinda McGuirk as Mrs Croooomb was prissy and cold with the mannerisms of a modern day Hyacinth Bouquet. Courtney Dayes as Annabel was similarly prissy and annoying in the perfect little-sister way. Ashley Driver as Father brought a touch of heart to the family as well as a touch of rock and roll. And then there were cameos from everyone’s favourite David Walliams character Raj (Goutham Rohan) and Jeremy Vine as Sir David on “Politics Tonight”, which was one of Eva’s favourite bits.

I’m pretty sure I said this last year but special mention  has to go to Lucy Mae Beacock who very much carries the show as Chloe. Her singing is so pure  especially her falsetto notes, and her dancing absolutely effortless. I don’t know how old she is – I thought she was older than 12 but Eva thinks she’s 9. “Which means she can compete in Witch Wars and she’d like Witch Wars because everyone wears black and black is Chloe’s favourite colour” However old she is, though, it’s  a very assured and accomplished performance.
The first half ended with Mr Stink’s surprise appearance in the Croombs’ kitchen and with that it was time to get some fresh air and a lollipop in the Chickenshed garden:

Which she later used to pretend she was Chloe, wearing a radio mic:

The second half had a great deal of pathos, which occasionally made my girl let out a sob. Mr Stink’s backstory is all the more tragic for the low-key way it’s portrayed, and the way he is used as a political pawn is subtle but emotional. She didn’t haven’t a proper cry until Chloe and her mother were having a heart to heart in the kitchen and I must admit to feeling a bit teary then too. “Mr Stink” has a lot to say about the nature of family and where we find our true home. It never tips into over-the-top sentimental but, as with a lot of Chickenshed productions, manages to touch the audience right in the feelings.

The show is now on tour and I’d strongly recommend you catch it while it’s nearby. It’s a great family show with plenty to keep the 5+ plus market entertained. It’s two hours, which might be testing for smaller ones, but perfect for Walliams fans who enjoy good storytelling and a bit of spectacle. The tour dates are as follows – more information and tickets here:

Cheltenham Everyman    22 – 27 July.
Shrewsbury Theatre Severn, Walker    29 – 31 July.
Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage    1 – 3 August.
Lowestoft Marina Theatre    5 – 7 August.
Southport Floral Hall    9 – 11 August.
Southampton Nuffield Theatre    12 – 14 August.
Barnstaple Queens Theatre    16 – 18 August.
Bolton Albert Halls    20 – 23 August.
Watersmeet Theatre Rickmansworth    25 – 27 August.
Llaneli Lyric Theatre    28 – 30 August.

 

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

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A Sunny Weekend in London

Well, that was summer. Did you enjoy it? All three days? We did. We got Out and About over the weekend even though there are no trains from HP for 8 weekends in a row. Which is the kind of situation that leaves you on a sweaty bus to Leytonstone:

But let’s look on the bright side because after an equally sweaty journey on the Central line, we got to go on the DLR, which is one of my favourites. It took a little effort to find the Woolwich branch at Stratford – despite instinctively thinking it was near the “town centre” exit, I got distracted by the big “DLR” sign  and spent a few minutes confused on the platform, wondering why there were only trains to Canary Wharf. Then we retreated.

So I think I’m right in thinking that I’ve never done this branch of the DLR before. Hence not being able to find it. And there’s super exciting stuff on it! Some bits were disappointing, like the glamorous-sounding Star Lane which looked much like an industrial estate:

But the double-decker station at Canning Town was interesting:

And Eva enjoyed seeing the cable cars by the O2 arena, which means I’ll probably have to take her up in one again soon. I miss the days when she was scared of heights:

There was not one but TWO Tate and Lyle factories along the way, one of which had a giant model of a golden syrup tin outside. Both kids were drooling at the idea but I can’t think of anything I fancy eating less on a hot day than a giant tin of syrup. Just me?

We caught glimpses of the Thames Barrier and London City Airport and the inviting waters of Pontoon Dock. And just before we went under the Thames, the kids managed to nab the driver’s seat. Who doesn’t love pretending to drive the DLR?

When we got to Woolwich, there was a community festival going on, which meant it was all a lot more colourful than I suspect it usually would be:

 

But I think this Pride crossing is a semi-permanent feature:

And let’s not forget the wonders of the UK’s 3000th McDonalds:

 

After all that excitement, it doesn’t seem possible that we might have the capacity for more on Sunday. But after church, we headed to Highbury Fields for the Big Jewish Summer Fete and yes, there was more excitement to be had.

Like the exuberant bubble man:

And the terrifying bungee trampolines:

And some gentle crafts from the Jewish Museum:

There was also taxidermy, a Torah scroll and Jewish music from the main stage. Arsenal were there with a goal challenge and the Met recruited their latest member of the Riot Squad:

Obviously, he specialises in causing riots rather than preventing them but still…

It was lovely to see the Jewish community out in force and engaging with local people. Obviously we aren’t Jewish in the most Orthodox sense but it’s an important part of my identity and the kids’ identity so we like to celebrate it when we can. Especially with a picnic in the sun.

We finished the afternoon in the playground, on the bouncy swing that seems to cause nothing but grief:

And a giant slide that’s almost as terrifying as the bungee trampoline:

Good times!

 

 

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End of June can’t come too soon

 

Ee blimey, it’s been a weird month. Mainly not in a good way #vagueblogging. But I thought I’d check in to prove I hadn’t forgotten you all and to tell you a few things we’ve done this month which have been good.

Like visiting the newly completed bit of the Askey’s Row playground in Islington. Some is still under construction, and Roo is sad that the helter skelter has gone but there’s a new slide, new wooden assault course and some brightly painted rocks:

Hanging out and looking moody in the underpass of the Crooked Billet roundabout on a walk to Lloyd Park:

Eating ice cream at Bru. Like all the time. Except today when their freezer was on the blink and so we kinda drank ice cream instead:

Performing at the Chingford Village Festival and seeing lots of the lovely ChoirFest choirs perform too. Eva was most excited by meeting Ariel though:

Swinging by Diagon Alley on my way to work:

And taking a load of rambunctious boys to the Extreme Park at the Feel Good Centre for Roo’s birthday:

Still, not much in the way of *actual* adventuring going on. Bring on July and the summer holidays! Or maybe don’t….

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Debden House Campsite – 01/06/19

Today, we’ve been camping. Yes, I know it’s out of character for us because we’re not natural campers but also, it seems unlikely that I might be able to blog from a tent in the middle of a wood so I’ll let you in on a small secret….we’re not still there. We went camping for the afternoon, had a lovely time and have come home in time to watch “Good Omens” and go to bed. Honestly, it’s the best way to do it. We did camp for one night last year, at Suntrap, and it was more or less bearable but we got about 4 hours’ sleep and were grouching at each other for about a week afterwards. And that was taking the easy route of camping with several of Eva’s peers with other people organising everything for us.

So, when Bob and Not-Bob offered us the chance to come camping with them in Epping Forest, we didn’t quite jump at the chance but we did do a cautious kind of hop at the chance. And it was only on the fringes of the Forest, not right in the heart of it. I think. No-one quite seems to know, even the people who made this poster for the campsite:

But wherever it was, it wasn’t far from home. So we could easily hop in the car, visit for an afternoon and come home again. And that’s exactly what we did….it cost us £19 for a day’s access to the facilities for the four of us (including parking) and that applied from 9am till 8pm. We only got there at 1pm because we wanted to brunch at home first, just in case there was no coffee on site. Turns out that was a wise move. So we had around 6 hours of camping before dragging the kids away at 7 as the weather started to turn a little less than roasting. And what did we do in that time?

Well, there was a lot of tree climbing:

And Eva almost got absorbed in this particular bit of tree. It was quite sinister to see her disappearing like something out a Guillermo del Toro film:

And then Reuben fell right through all those thin little branches and scraped his legs all over so we had to limp back to the campsite and patch him up.

There was a water fight and some marshmallow toasting:

And a pretty good BBQ, where we cooked pork steaks, mango and lime chicken and around 48 sausages. For 7 of us.

The kids did lots of playing in the playground while we sat around drinking cider and non-alcoholic beer for Nathan. He was driving us home, so I got him the Pistonhead Flat Tire “Drinkers’ Edition” 4-pack and he said it wasn’t too bad. A day when I willing go and commune with nature and Nathan drinks non-alcoholic lager….stranger things have happened but it’s hard to think of any examples right now.

We also had a not-entirely successful trip to the camp shop, which only opens on demand this time of year. They had a few ice creams, so we pretty much cleared them out and the random boy who’d attached himself to Boby spent his money on some kind of blue sweet that he wasn’t supposed to have. Ah well. The shop and reception both only take cash so be prepared and no, there is no barista coffee available. The Hackneyites were most disappointed.

As a “getting away from it all” experience, it was pretty effective. No WiFi, no crowds and only patchy amounts of phone reception. Bits of the campsite look like they haven’t changed since the 70s but what do you really need apart from a bit of ground and some toielts? Especially if you’re not actually planning on staying the night. Happy camping!

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Albufeira – April 2019

So, we went to Portugal for a week. You’d think there’d be a lot to say – like my 5-post, 5000-word epic series on our Athens trip – but really we spent a lot of the time lazing around and eating so it would get pretty repetitive pretty quickly.

But here are the essentials. We flew with Ryanair, which was adequate but definitely not inspiring. We took off on time and landed pretty much on time both ways but we had to skimp on baggage and didn’t get so much as a seat pocket to put your book in on what was a seriously frill-free plane. The flights were quite straightforward though – the kids read their books all the way there, even though Eva had taken quite some persuasion to pack a book in the first place. Her suitcase was full of unicorns and, as I said, our baggage allowance was stingy at best.

Flying from Stansted was pretty good – we were playing a serious long game moving to Highams Park because that 29 minute drive to Stansted in the middle of the afternoon felt remarkably stress free. The airport itself is nothing spectacular but it had a Burger King with super quick service so that was all the kids really look for in an airport.

And the holiday itself? Pretty good too. We stayed at Monica Isabel Beach Club in Albufeira. It had some less than favourable google reviews but we’re not overly fussy on decor and things like that so it suited us fine. There was one day where we had no towels for four hours in the afternoon so I had to shiver dry after a chilly outdoor swim…but that was the only glitch. We dined three times a day in the restaurant, enjoying the all inclusive food and booze and Reuben in particular really embraced the ethos of “It is available to eat, therefore I shall eat it”, often squeezing in a hotdog meal between lunch and dinner.

We had one day away from the hotel, when the clouds were gloomy and so our usual swimming and sunbathing activities seemed off the table. There was a shuttle bus from the hotel to Albufeira Old Town but it never materialised so we walked the mile or so in the end, down a very steep hill that we might come to regret on the way back. Coming into the Old Town, there was an outdoor escalator down to the beach, which was a novelty for all of us, and by the beach was a 5D cinema. I thought it would be a bit too scary for Eva but she was the one who loved it the most. At 5Euro per person for 5 minutes, it was pricey but we really hadn’t spent any cash at all since we’d arrived so that was OK. Especially as Eva says it was the best part of the holiday for her.

We chose the Wild West Rollercoaster and it was..intense. You’re strapped into theme park-style seats and given 3D glasses so it really feels like you’re on a tiny cart, rattling through the mountains. The 5th Dimension element – a bit of water squirted in the face – was underwhelming but the overall effect was convincing, if nauseating.

The plan was to go for ice cream straight afterwards but three of us were feeling a bit sick so we wandered around the town for a while first. We visited an art gallery where all the paintings were made with coffee and a shop that sold gigantic versions of Eva’s unicorn Fantastia. I mean, almost as big as Eva. We did not purchase it. But eventually we felt well enough for a yummy ice cream from Sailor Ices on the main town square:

And after that we visited the famous cliff elevator, which really was just a lift on a beach. I mean, the views were cool but not overwhelming. It was free though, so can’t complain.

That’s pretty much all I need to blog about. Compared to the Calais trip, it all went very smoothly and successful trips don’t make the best blog posts. There was one glitch when we arrived in Faro and our transfer driver was not waiting for us as promised – if you ever book a transfer with Best Airport Transfers, always read the small print and realise that you have to check in at their desk before you get a driver. There will be no-one with a sign with your name on it.

Apart from that, a good holiday I thought. Which is why it’s taken a month to post about it…Happy half term!

 

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