Category Archives: Adventures

How a bear does birthdays

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Ok, ok, just one more about T’s birthday, and then we’re done. PHOTO AVALANCHE AHOY, CAP’N. So help me, I cannot narrow them down more than this.

(There’s something about having a birthday midweek and then a birthday tea at the weekend that seems to make it last f o r e v e r. Lucky T. He sees any old open flame these days and yells ‘happee birthdee day!’)

We are in the middle of redoing our little garden at the minute – more about that later – so we wanted to celebrate in ways that would be fun, but also relatively inexpensive. I found this balloon wall on You Are My Fave, and it looked perfect: five bags of heavy-duty coloured balloons from Hobbycraft cost £5, and boom, done. Or should I say, boom, much late night fiddling with tape, bicycle pumps and string, done. I’ll do a quick tutorial for this later in the week, because we tried a couple of different ways that didn’t work before we found one that did.

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You should’ve seen his face when he saw it. His mouth fell into a perfect O.

The thing about being a second child is that basically everything you play with belongs to your older brother. One of the nicest parts of the morning was seeing him overwhelmed by opening new, exciting things just for him.

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We’d given H the day off from nursery, and planned to go into London and visit the Natural History Museum. First though, lunch. On your birthday you want to eat your favourite food, and the problem with this two-year-old is that there aren’t many grape-and-strawberry-yoghurt restaurants. But he does love…curry, of all things. So we found a fabulous curry house just off Covent Garden and had a grand old time. They had a children’s menu, and we introduced T to mango lassi, which as a combination of milkshake and yoghurt (two of his favourite things) blew his tiny mind wide open.

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We will pass over the Tube trains we took on the hottest day of the year. Nothing like marinating in a sardine-tin sauna, air shimmering with the sweat of strangers, hanging on to two overheated and angry boys for dear life.

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H, I bless the day you got yourself a photo face. HAHA.

It all got better once we got to the Emirites cable car. It was like stepping into another world: cool breeze, open sky, and the blue Thames glittering ahead. And I don’t know if you’ve ever taken the cable car, but you MUST. If you have a day travel card you get a discounted ticket, and it is so, so worth doing. The views are incredible, and it’s just thrilling.

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At the other side we found a few splash pads next to the O2, and what looked like a worldwide Salvation Army convention enjoying the sun and spray. The boys were desperate to pull off their shoes and get wet, so we shrugged, and saved the museum for another day. They spent an hour running in and out of the water, soaking their clothes and cooling down before we headed home. Honestly, it was wonderful.

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Then on Sunday we had some family over for a little birthday tea (I am firm in my belief that it’s pointless to plan themed birthday extravaganzas before they can remember it). Most of the food was low-prep and easily done: veg and dips, fruit and chocolate fondue, scones and jam, chips and cookies. I found these brilliant watermelon napkins and cups at the supermarket, along with cocktail stick forks, which I found far too exciting for someone who claims to be an adult.

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The cake – oh, my giddy aunt – was an unmitigated disaster. I wanted to make the cinnamon roll cake we love, but in round tiers rather than a single tray. But the layers were too dense after baking, and became even more so after leaving them in the fridge overnight. The cream cheese frosting I’ve made before with no problems went through a terrifying cottage cheese stage, where the butter refused to mix properly into the rest. Then it wouldn’t set firm. Then there wasn’t enough to cover the cake. I’ve had many a cake horror before (you know this, loves) but never one in which, twenty minutes before guests arrived, I sat in a corner deep-breathing and saying ‘he has no birthday cake. HE HAS NO BIRTHDAY CAKE’.

Anyway, it slapped together with minutes to spare. Good enough for candles. And T was thrilled. He was getting the hang of this blowing-out-candles thing by this time, and kept trying to get it done before we’d finished singing ‘Happy Birthday’.

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That’s the main thing, isn’t it? Happy boy, covered in chocolate, running round the garden with a new helicopter. The balloons are still on the wall. We’re getting through the cake by heating it up into cinnamon roll pudding. The new toys and books are well worn already. It ain’t a bad life.

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A Runners’ Creed, for Those Who Hate it

Runners' Creed

The first thing to be asked is: why run at all, if you hate it?

Well. It’s a sort of least-worst option thing. First, I want to keep rigorously applying chocolate cake to my mouth whenever the urge takes me. Second, it’s free and convenient: it starts outside my front door (or wherever else I might be), and a pair of trainers takes up much less room than a cross-trainer in the living room. In any case, how do you even use a cross-trainer; every time I climb on, one of my legs becomes mysteriously shorter than the other and I fall right off again.

I’ve been running on and off (mostly off) for a few years. I’m not particularly fast, and I’m not one of those joggers bounding like a spring lamb, filled with the joy of the chase. Honestly, I find running any distance h a r d. Not just a bit sweaty and tiring, but more like my-chest-hurts-my-breath-hurts-I’m-going-to-die-goodbye-sweet-world-I’m-going-to-die. I am scarlet-faced. My fringe looks like hair vomit. My lycra bulges in all the places I’d rather it didn’t. The expression on my face says nothing so much as ‘I curse the earth and all the inhabitants therein and wish only for the caress of the grave, and that right soon’.

Still. The chocolate cake thing. And it’s not just chocolate cake: I feel like now I’m on the other side of thirty (HAHA NO BUT REALLY), it’s more important to keep my body in good working order. Treat yo’self right, as well as treat yo’self, you know. So, since October I’ve persisted. I aim for three times a week but usually only make it out twice. I ran our local 5k ParkRun on Saturday for the first time, and survived to tell the tale.

This isn’t going to be one of those ‘I started jogging and now I run jubilant marathons’ stories. Clearly. But not everyone wants to be a marathon runner. If you just want to get started, and feel stupid doing it, I thought these might help you too:

Everything is an achievement

If I get up in the morning and think ‘today I’m going to run four miles without stopping’, I am overwhelmed with fear and chicken out. So I tell myself ‘today I’m going to go for a short run. And after I’ve run a little way, I’ll see how I feel’. By the time I’ve got to the end of the first mile, I usually feel like I can carry on some more. If it’s particularly hard that day, I might promise myself a few seconds’ walk at the end of every half-mile.

Sure, it’s not as good as running the whole way without stopping, but what does ‘good’ mean, anyway? It’s my exercise.

Running three miles with stops is better than running just one and going home.

Running at all is better than no running.

A brisk walk is better than a schlump on the sofa.

You are a hero just for putting on the workout clothes and going out of the door. It’s more than you were doing last month. Feel good about it. If you don’t feel good about it, you won’t keep doing it.

Bed it in

If you love your bed as much as I do, let’s face it: you’re never going to get up at 6am to run. You only make space for things you love or have to do. Likewise, I might go for the occasional jaunt before dinner if Tim gets home early, but realistically I’m never going to get the boys to bed, collapse in exhaustion and think ‘gosh, I fancy ripping my lungs to pieces for the next forty minutes’.

So you have to find a place in your schedule where it’s easy, or natural. Bed it in. I know I have to take H to nursery every morning, so it’s not too much of a step to put workout clothes on two mornings a week. I drop him off and then run with the pushchair from there.

Incidentally, I also find it easier to get out if I just think first about putting on the clothes. And then I do something else. And then, since I’ve already got the clothes on, I might’s well go for a run. It’s a lame psychological trick, but my lame psychology usually falls for it.

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It will get better, but I don’t mean easier. And that’s ok.

I will say it again: I find running h a r d. Really hard. I can’t say it’s become much easier since I started in October. It might be that way for you too.

But (and it’s a big but, not unlike the one I’m trying to tighten up a bit) my endurance has improved, so I can carry on finding it hard for a much longer period. At the beginning I used one of those Couch-to-5k apps, which I can highly recommend, and was only running for intervals of a minute. These days I run for forty+, with a few ten-second stops to cross the road and rescue T’s many escaping trains.

Sometimes you can only see how far you’ve come by looking back at where you started. I might still be slow and saggy, but I’m slow and saggy at SOME LENGTH. That’s worth something. If it’s hard, it means it’s working.
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Endorphins are a thing

I was always baffled by the people who said they came back buzzing with good health and civility towards all men after a run. To some extent, I still am. All I want to do when I come back is drink two pints of juice and never be bothered by anyone again. But I have noticed, especially in the last few months, a soft glow of gratification settling on me as I wobble into the shower. I forget how terrible it was, and feel glad that I’ve done it. (In this respect, it’s a lot like childbirth.)

It might be endorphins, or it might be the natural satisfaction that comes whenever you do something you find difficult. Either way, it makes it easier to get out the next time.

A good place to run laps. They gave me a high five every time I went past.

A good place to run laps. They gave me a high five every time I went past.

Choose your entertainment

Tim is the sort of person who cycles 50 miles in a week, and thinks it was a jolly good lark. He runs listening to nothing but his own breath, so he can monitor his pace. I have endless admiration for him (in many more areas than this), but I know I’ll never be that hardcore. When I run I need 1) distraction from the existential horror of running, and 2) something to force my feet and breath into alignment.

So I’ve experimented: some days I listen to a comedy show for half of it, then switch to music that fits my running speed for the second half, when I’m tired. I find audiobooks and radio shows make the time go quicker, but if I want to actually run quicker, music is better.

Everyone’s different, so experiment with what works for you. My general rule is that if it makes me want to fist pump in the car, it’ll likely work on the road.

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I think I can say I’ll never be consumed with the desire to run a half-marathon. Who knows? I’m aiming for a 10k distance this year, which is so astronomically far from where I started it feels like landing on the moon. But hey, I’m building my own rocket. Twice a week. With stupid hair. I think I’ll get there in the end.

Let’s do this thing.

From Hay Festival, with love and venison

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Greetings from the sick bay! Honestly, small children get bugs so often that it’s a good job we’re not Tudors, because we’d always be hanging up herbs over the door. Since they eat a reasonable amount of fruit and veg and spend a lot of time outdoors, I have to conclude that their immune systems are going through an experimental phase. Trying out every new virus that floats by, in addition to getting a nose piercing that doesn’t suit them and listening to grunge.

Silver linings, though: poor H is no longer throwing up and is at the ‘lying dolefully in bed watching Netflix’ stage of things, which means I’m sat next to him, monitoring his temperature and (CRUCIALLY) not having to move much. In fact I’m reminiscing about the weekend at Hay Festival we just had. Which was, as is tradition, wonderful.

Have you ever been somewhere that feels so much like it was made for you, you never want to leave? I feel that way about Hay-on-Wye. Who decided to build a little town up the slopes of green Welsh hills, all warm stone, pretty cottage doors, and views of the lazy river moving sluggishly through the valley below? Who thought that what this little town really needed was an abundance of book and antique shops, with the occasional ice cream parlour to break up the nerdery? Who decided to hold an arts festival there, and invite all the people you love violently to talk books at you for hours? Who put an old-timey Ferris wheel by the river and lit it up at night? It wasn’t me, but it could have been. I love it so much it’s embarrassing.

This year our fantastic boy-watchers, days off work, finances and lack of foetuses all combined to let us do what we’ve been planning for ages, and camp overnight. We booked a little campsite halfway up the opposite side of the valley, and arrived to find they were waiting for us.

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Even a three-hour car journey is brilliant when you’re pretending to be young and free and unwrinkled, and no one is filling nappies or having a meltdown, and you’re listening to an old radio adaptation of the Narnia books and feeling all these twenty-year-old feelings, and you also can’t move for sugary snacks. TOOTH DECAY, WE OPEN OUR ARMS TO YOU.

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There’s Hay, on the other side. And the only rainstorm we saw the whole two days, which coincidentally happened to be the only half hour in which we were trying to put up a tent. #soggypants

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I do like a town with a mission statement. And a proper appreciation for bunting.

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The festival site is right at the other end of Hay, which handily means you end up walking miles and burning off your sugary snacks. Our first talk this year was David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas author, not comedian). He talked very thoughtfully and beautifully about writing complex plots at your kitchen table, and how joyful the process of writing is: put one phrase against another, a surprise here and a evocative word there, and add in some punctuation and pow, see what you’ve made! ‘Semicolons are like bow-ties’, he said. ‘Lots of them are overwhelming, but just one in the right place makes the whole thing pop’. YES. So now I want him to be my literary uncle, and ply him with cups of tea so we can sit in comfortable jumpers and talk for hours about adjectives. Can someone arrange this please, y/n.

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In between, we stopped in at the food tent (venison burgers or BUST), read newspapers in deck chairs, and literally could not stop ourselves doing this:

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Next came Marcus Brigstocke and Steve Punt talking about climate change – hilarious – and a quick wander into town for ice cream and hot chocolate.

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YES PLEASE *weeps*

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On the way back we found a path by the river, got a tiny bit lost but not too much, and surprised some sheep in a golden-green field, which was smashing.

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By this time it was getting dark, and the lights were all lit. Just the right sort of atmosphere to listen to Neil Gaiman talking affectionately about Terry Pratchett, and to cry a little into your sleeve, and to resolve to reread ‘Mort’ and be a better human as soon as possible.

We walked up the hill in the dark with the Ferris wheel lit up behind us, and a firework display just starting over the river. We rolled up into our airbed knowing that no one but the birds would wake us up the next day. And I remembered, as I always do at Hay Festival time of year, that we are people still, and we can talk about things other than potty-training, and that of all the boys I love with every part of me, I loved the one I married first and best.

Thanks, Hay. See you next year.

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The manor house that sanity forgot

It's all fun and games until someone starts *trampling* the flowers

It’s all fun and games until someone starts *trampling* the flowers

I think we are probably the National Trust’s biggest fans. I have never in my life turned down the chance to ooh and ahh at some fancy tapestries. It doesn’t matter who lived there; I get a little vicarious thrill when I climb their staircases and imagine their footfalls on the carpet, however long ago.

We’ve been NT members for a few years, and love, love, love it. The boys and I visit our nearest places (Basildon and the Vyne, holla) probably once a fortnight at least. We never go into the houses now they’re old enough to enjoy swinging off priceless furniture and see a ‘do not climb’ notice as a personal affront. But the gardens are always large enough for a good roam around, and there are often secret trails and playgrounds too. If I’m feeling especially flash (or it’s freezing) we might pop into the tea room for hot chocolate and cake.

There are just not many places where I’m sure I can distract, entertain and manage them both by myself for an afternoon without any of us suffering a nervous breakdown. National Trust properties do it all splendidly. And there’s always cake.

Yesterday, with it being a Bank Holiday and a Daddy Holiday and everything, we decided to go a bit further afield. I’m so glad we did. We ended up at Waddesdon Manor, and frankly it was bonkers. You know it’s going to be good when the gates are all swanky with gold leaf, and a shuttle bus takes you from your car through rolling woodland to the main house.

It wasn’t really a house, either: it was a sprawling asymmetrical manor with aspirations of castledom and turrets stuck in places just for the heck of it. The gardens were genuinely, even-by-NT-standards, huge and lovely, with naked statues glamming it up round every corner. Some gardener had decided to make some giant birds out of flowers, and fair play to him. There was an aviary. There was a woodland trail. There was a huge playground built into a hill and covered by trees. It was amazing. We didn’t even get inside the house! I’m already agog about the possible state of the tapestries.

Look at it. Someone just went a bit mad, didn’t they?

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Suddenly my flowers shoved in pots seem a bit casual.

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The bird. Well, why not?

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Here are two boys plotting the best way to get in and ride the bird. *sigh*

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This turret was covered in a big lattice of trained ivy. As you do.

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Pretty flowers.

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Do you think they’d let us move in? Come on, they wouldn’t even notice.

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We ate a picnic next to an expansive carpet of flowers, made friends with the birds in the aviary, ran up and down like savages in the woodland playground, and walked till we were sore. It was fantastic. When can we move in?

UPDATE: someone has just informed me that it’s even better at Christmas; CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE; does Saint Nicholas himself descend from turret fourteen dressed in a golden cape or what.

Our other favourite NT destinations: Basildon Park, the Vyne, West Green House Gardens, Cliveden, Mottisfont, basically any of this dreaminess in Dorset.

 

Not by the hair on my piggy pig pig

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Do you remember an Enid Blyton book about a farm family? A set of happy, hardy children had their spoiled rich cousins come and live with them after something unspeakably awkward, like a divorce. One of the coiffed kids was called Melisande, and she had manicured fingernails and perfect hair and whined like a baby when she had to pitch in. Then, Enid noted approvingly, she had a moment of enlightenment where she realised that having cold baths and dirty hands was a sign of being a Jolly Good Sort. And everyone had hope for Melisande’s soul, or at least her willingness to be a Jolly Good Sort, until her parents bought a brand new farm with running hot water (cowards!), and that was the end of her transformation.

Looking back at this, I think the kids sound like judgemental prigs, and maybe it was ok for poor Melisande to want a hot bath every now and again. Probably she had it right about the 5am starts and the smell in the pig pen, too. But there’s a little seven-year-old inside me that still kind of wants to live on a farm (see also: desire to run away to a circus and to own my own island).

Today we visited one (a farm, not an island for sale, alas). It’s lambing season, and we watched the ewes waddle around uncomfortably, shooting daggers at all the hopeful people staring at their backsides. I thought that poor Duchess Kate might be able to sympathise. At least the sheep wouldn’t have to stuff their bruised selves into a Jenny Packham dress and have their hair curled before they could go home for some pizza.

There was a giant hay bale city, a ride-on train, a petting zoo, a strange moment where two old men made four ferrets have a race, and more fudge and homemade grandmother tat than you could shake a stick at.

It was marvellous. We had such terrible wind-hair. Enid would’ve been all over it.

*dies*

*dies*


yes, this is really how babies are born

yes, sorry, this is really how babies are born


What a mistake. Now they want a puppy.

What a mistake. Now they want a puppy.


all pile on

what, this is normal


he's my wheel man

he’s my wheel man


a train, a traaaaain!

a train, a traaaaain!


there is a man holding a lamb here, and I think my attractiveness meter just exploded

attention, there is a man holding a lamb here, and I think my attractiveness meter just exploded


engine driver

engine driver

Good luck, new sheep mothers. Good luck, Duchess Kate. Now go off home and put on some fleecy pyjamas (sheep, you already have this covered).

Boyhood, free-range

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Happy almost-Easter!

We’ll be decamping to parents later on today for Easter weekend. Right now, some family time: we keep forgetting to schedule Tim’s work holidays with H’s school holidays (because, apparently, with a school-age kid you have to do this?) so this long weekend is the only time we’ll have with him.

Tim and H are watching something about dinosaurs downstairs. T has squirrelled himself next to me with some Sarah & Duck, chubby forearms resting on mine. I am laughing at videos from my brothers, who are rewriting songs with rude lyrics and recording themselves singing them. This is the purpose of brothers, even at a distance of several thousand miles.

Later, we’ll get out.

The best thing about living here is how much time we spend outdoors. Living next to a busy street had its advantages – Henry’s ninja road safety skills, for one, since the alternative was getting flattened by a bin lorry – but living next to green things has made me happy. If I’d have known that before, we would have made more effort to go places. I don’t think it matters at all where you live or where you take them, as long as it’s green and outside.

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I’ve been surprised by what being out in the woods does for me. The sun falls through the trees in slanted columns. My wellies squelch in mud. I stop worrying about keeping the boys tidy and safely within grabbing distance. I feel like I can breathe easier. Is this a horrible cliche? Do I need to start hugging trees?

Actually, the bark is so wonderfully crusty and light-patterned that sometimes, I’m tempted.

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Children seem ten times more themselves in the forest. (I first wrote that sentence as ‘boys are more boyish’, but any girl of mine will be tramping through leaves and getting filthy too, thankyouverymuch.) It speaks to something instinctive and joyous in them, something that screens can’t touch. They don’t have to be quiet and they don’t have to stay clean. They’ve cautiously poked frog spawn, ridden bikes over dirt mounds, fallen into swampy mud piles and been pulled out, laughing and shivering. They are physically incapable of holding a stick without poking something or seeing a puddle without going in.

And why shouldn’t they? Learning how to get muddy – and that mud washes off – seems to be something worth knowing.

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H daren’t speak above a whisper in a room full of people, but we found a fat log balanced over a deep trench and he scrambled over it in a minute. Uncharacteristically fearless. The other Sunday we found piles of cut-down trees and made them into an Eeyore house. I kept wanting to freeze the afternoon  – golden evening light, boys in Sunday jumpers with arms full of sticks – so I could stay there even when the clouds came back.

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And that sort of wish never works, of course. But we can go back and do it again. I wish it hadn’t taken our house move to show me how much we need the mud and sun and air.

Here’s to free-range childhood.

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Cake for breakfast

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And so we discover that time, that fickle mistress, halts for no man, and no matter how sunny your good looks are, EVEN YOU WILL BE TWENTY-NINE IN THE END.

Or, in other words, Tim had his birthday this week, which means I’m not the only one in this house officially on the short slide to thirty. HARDEE HAR HAR.

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We had a lovely day. We decided to keep Henry in nursery in the morning, because it would make it more likely that family naps could happen (and they did). But before that there were presents, bunting and cake for breakfast. I don’t know why we haven’t just done cake for breakfast every birthday morning before this, by the way. It makes everything better. Maybe it’s a special milestone in adulthood, being able to decide that cake is a meal without any regrets? If it is, we are there.

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I found this root beer float cake on Joy the Baker’s glorious site some time ago, and bookmarked it immediately for Tim’s birthday. He is the sort of chap who drinks his own weight in the stuff every time we head across the Atlantic. Last year my sister got him a boxful of different brands in murky brown bottles, and he sat us all down and conducted serious taste comparison tests. With a spreadsheet. Love him.

Anyway, it’s a fabulous cake – the root beer comes through quite beautifully, and not too strongly – and I am a convert to bundt tins, because no more ugly first slices. My version was a little rough and ready, mainly due to the fact that a) I made it at 11pm, and b) I can never be convinced that it’s worth the effort of sieving cocoa powder and icing sugar, until my frosting comes out in pimples, and then I remember that it is. To make it a proper root beer float cake I stacked Cornish vanilla ice cream into the hole in the middle, which I think is the best labour saving device invented since I gave up the sandwich and started just eating peanut butter and jam off the same spoon.

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We took the boys swimming in the afternoon, then around dinner time left them with Tim’s lovely mama to go on a birthday date. We tested out some digital radios for our kitchen in John Lewis, then went for obscenely good steak (mine came with beef dripping sauce. Hnnnnggghhhh) and watched Interstellar at the cinema, groaning from our overstuffed stomachs.

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Interstellar is astonishing. It almost tries to cram in too much, and has some usual Nolan problems (some clunky dialogue, a twist a minute). But the visuals, the themes, the scope of the thing, Matthew McConaughey’s beauteous craggy face…oh my. We were overwhelmed.

We have a happy day whenever this guy has a birthday. Like steak and root beer and the great McConaughey himself, he only gets better with age.

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Jewels, grasses, chestnut shells

I am commemorating Autumn this year in the best way: by teaching the boys that ridiculous primary school song that pretends to be about autumn but is actually about jet planes and gratitude. You’re singing it already, aren’t you?

Autumn days when the grass is jewelled 

And the silk inside a chestnut shell

Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled (?!)

Oh the things I love so well

So I mustn’t forgeeeet (swaying)

No I mustn’t forgeeeeeeet (descant)

To say a GREAT BIG THANK YOU (fist pump)

I mustn’t forget

This is such an adorably dorkish song that everyone needs to learn it, so they can sing it while swishing their way through leaves on their way to nursery. I have never thought to be grateful for jet planes, personally, and didn’t know they refuel in midair (do they?), but it’s an autumn essential, so now you know. YouTube it!

Oh, and we went to pick a pumpkin on Saturday, which was brill.

You may remember, reader love, that we already had a pumpkin from Odds Farm Park. Two days after we got it home, I noticed a bit of spidery mould inside, and by the next morning it was pushing out of the eye holes like some grotesque fungal disease. Halloweenish, yes. Sanitary and toddler-appropriate, no. So that pumpkin ‘went on holiday’, and we went to Garsons Garden Centre with my brother- and sister-in-law to find a healthier one.

Garsons is a bit of a drive for us, but I really like it there. The pumpkin patch was much gloopier than last year, after the recent rains, but we’d come prepared with wellies so were totally devil-may-care about it. Teddy couldn’t decide whether he was more excited about the pumpkins or the free mud bath. Why choose, Teds? Pick both.

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We are the absolute winners of the family photo, though, aren’t we?

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Do you want to see something scary? This is us standing in the same spot, a year ago. I expect Teddy to have grown, since he’s leapt from baby to person this year, but Henry, oh, Henry. You are so much bigger now, and yet you’re still wearing that top. (Also, this photo looks like it was taken in the sixties. What kind of camera did I bring?!)

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Boy 1 loves his cousin. I tried hard to get a photo of the two of them, but they wouldn’t stand still long enough.
Finding a tree-star did the trick.

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After the pumpkin patch, there are two huge farm shops: one with fruit, veg and other food, and the other with everything else ever. There’s an expansive Christmas section where I got our special bauble for this year, and enough lovely toys and kitchenware to make your purse hurt.

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Don’t forget the mutant squash. I think that long chap is the one that can turn things to ice, and you know the two-headed monster is the one with the retractable claws.

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This sort of outing can only be rounded off with giant hot dogs and curly fries, and – luckily for us – it was.

Happy October! Wishing you jewelled grasses and jet planes in bulk.

Garsons Garden Centre, Esher, Surrey. I like Esher because Edward Seymour lived there once, but also because of the mutant squash. 

A baa-somely good day out

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I am sometimes guilty of trying to hurry my children into things they’re not ready for. (I don’t wish to point any fingers but, Roald Dahl Complete Works, I might just be looking at you.) We’ve visited so many farms and petting zoos since Henry was born, and all with the same result: animal terror, or animal indifference. No, I don’t want to feed them. No, I don’t want to stroke them. Let’s play in the playground instead.

This makes it all the sweeter when we realise he’s finally old enough to get excited about farm animals. We were lucky enough to be given a family day out to Odds Farm Park in High Wycombe this Saturday, and we all had a whale (sheep?) of a time. There were so many things to do that even Teddy, who isn’t keen on animals, was thrilled: a big barn with sheep, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs, animal shows, tractor rides, huge outdoor playgrounds, a big indoor soft play, go karts, mini electric tractors, and (during the weekends in October) pumpkin carving in time for Halloween. The best thing about all of this – as a person with tumbleweed hair – is that lots of it is indoors. Every time the rain appeared we retreated back inside to see the animals, or revisited the scary slides in the soft play area. This was bad for hair in another way, but it wasn’t wet.

Unless you had new wellies to try out. Then it was.

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Who do you think is enjoying themselves more here? It’s actually hard to say.

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SHEEP. We loved this. At other farms we’ve visited, the animals have been (understandably) skittish. These sheep are happy about everything: your camera, your face, the bag of food you’re holding, rainbows, kittens, brown paper packages, etc. Henry got right in there with hugs, and the sheep were all BRING IT ON, WE LOVE YOU.

Hiiiiiiiii.

Hiiiiiiiii.

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After the animals we had lunch in the cafe, and rioted in the soft play for a while. There were sections for bigger and smaller children, so both the boys had a lovely time. But the tractor ride was winner of the day. They were beside themselves.

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Even after all that, we had a lot of playground to cover. Sand! Water! Swings! Castles! Wouldn’t you love to be a playground designer? They have all the fun.

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I will be writing on the back of this photo ‘The Way You Were In 2014′, since it has them both to a T. Henry, wandering lonely as a cloud. Teddy, the beast.

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We visited the pumpkin tent just before going home. Jack Skellington says hello.

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There were lots of things we didn’t get to see, too. The place seems endless. Now, it’s not cheap, so I’d recommend planning a full day with packed lunch to get your money’s worth. And the loos could use a revamp. But the activities were so varied and so exciting that we’d love to go back again. Apart from anything else, we promised that sheep we’d let him know how his headshot turned out.

Odds Farm Park, Wooburn Green, High Wycombe. They were nice enough to give us a free family ticket, but our (enthusiastic) opinions are our own. I mean. Just look at that face.

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A science-y kind of birthday

Just a quick one about Henry’s birthday, before August is properly over and all my posts turn into meditations on apple crumble.

I didn’t organise a party this year, because we thought we’d be moving house in the middle of it. Then we weren’t moving this month after all (and do not even talk to me about that) but by then it was too late to coordinate everyone’s schedules. So instead of one medium-sized family celebration he had… three small celebrations, one after the other. I think he came out of it rather well.

When I asked Hen what he wanted for his birthday, he said he wanted a chocolate cake, and to see his friends. So we held a Favourite Dessert party the night before, with all his best little people, to tick them both off. For the birthday cake, I made The Cake Hunter‘s Ultimate Chocolate Cake that morning. It is an INSANELY good, easy recipe, and I will never need another chocolate cake in my life. The cake actually tastes of chocolate – this is rare, I find – and even though I’m not much of an icing fan, there’s something fudgy and incredible about the frosting. I doubled the frosting quantities, as I wanted to frost all the way around the outside (my cakes tend to need hiding), and threw on gold and silver stars at the end. It turned out pretty well.

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We put up the bunting from Teddy’s party (I will be doing this until one of them is old enough to mind) and bought napkins, pots and dessert flags from the supermarket, which has seriously impressed me this summer with its party gear. In the middle of all this flour-tossing and sugar-inhaling we had a disaster: Teddy tripped over and smashed both his lips against a colander he’d taken for personal use. Oh, it bled like the River Styx, dear readers. I was about two soaked flannels away from taking him to A&E, rambling on the phone to NHS Direct with one hand, wiping nameless gunk out of his mouth with the other. In the end it dried up all of a sudden, and he seemed totally fine. So we all changed our clothes, cleaned everything up, and ate some desserts.

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The day after was Henry’s actual birthday. First, a few presents from friends and admirers to open over breakfast.

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Then we did as birthday celebrators do, and went to London. If our great capital consisted solely of a Tube network, and all you did was ride round and round till you were dizzy, he’d still think it was the best day of his life.

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As it was, we also had Shake Shack for lunch, along with a very serious conversation about whether Shake Shack or Five Guys do the better burger. Tim and I come down on opposite sides of this divide, like poor Littlefoot and his grandparents from The Land Before Time, and I’m not sure we will ever bridge the gap. We put a lit candle in his burger, because if you can’t have a burger cake when you’re three, when can you, eh?

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PS, I love Covent Garden. There was a chap dressed up in full costume and paint as the Mad Hatter, drinking tea from vintage crockery, all SUP GUYS THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL FOR A TUESDAY.

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We’ve been to the Natural History Museum (‘dinosaur you-see-um’) a few times now, so we thought we’d try the Science Museum this time. He loved it. A word to the wise for parents of toddlers: you need to hit The Garden in the basement (the bit for under-sixes), the cars and planes on the ground floor, and then the Launchpad on the fifth floor (with all the hands-on experiments), and that’s all. Everything else is beyond them, and will only make your feet tired. We discovered this so you don’t have to.

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Know who else was hanging out in the Launchpad that Tuesday? STEPHEN HAWKING. ACTUAL STEPHEN HAWKING. It’s seriously impolite to stare at famous people, I know, but HELLO. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Tim run so fast.

Happy belated birthday, Henny-Pen. Sorry I often call you ‘Hen’ in public and in front of people who don’t know your name. It makes you sound like a chicken. I know, I know. You can carry it off.

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