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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A love letter to our favourite camping holiday

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I have decided some things about camping holidays. I have decided it’s alright to need a daily shower and a hairdryer, even when you’re in a field. You are you, right? You are approaching thirty, and you are good at lots of things, and roughing it really doesn’t have to be one of them.

I have decided that it’s a good idea to get there before dark. If you arrive at 9.30pm in a gale, and your toddlers wake up simultaneously in a pitch-black, cold car and are distressed, and you run back from fiddling with tent poles and forget the car windows are now rolled up, and plough smack into the window with your nose, well – you only have yourself to blame.

And I have decided this: even if you’re not a camper (I am not), and even if it rains (it did), camping in Dorset with little boys is FUN. I will go further: it is magical.

We’ve been busy and stressed this summer. So we planned this little weekend holiday as a love letter to family, and Dorset, and the National Trust. Our much-beloved NT membership runs out at the end of August, and we’ve decided not to renew it till our house bills are paid, so we made as many free trips to historic sites as we could squeeze in. We went to Downshay Farm, where we went a couple of years ago: a campsite on a hill overlooking Corfe Castle and the old Swanage railway. The steam train clattered past three times an hour, and it never got less exciting for this boy.

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I really did almost break my nose on the car window the first night. Oh my giddy aunt, it hurt. Lying groaning and streaming in wet grass, I was afraid I’d actually broken it, and tried to comfort myself with the thought that Dumbledore managed to carry it off quite well. You will say that Dumbledore didn’t break his by running into his own car. You would be right.

The first day we did Corfe Castle. I can’t tell you why I love this castle so much, but when we drive in and see it, craggy and chalky on the hill, I always take a breath. They had a little medieval village there, and with a thousand nooks and crannies to climb through and jump off, both the boys were in heaven.

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Tim’s brother and his family joined us for a night and a day that evening. Hot chocolate and running in wellies are both better with cousins, we can attest.

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The next day we went to the beach, and the Studland beach area down here is our favourite. Having done both, we prefer Knoll Beach to Shell Bay, but they’re both the kind of white-sand, clear-water, heather-on-the-dunes kind of places that look like they belong in a postcard.  There’s also a nudist beach between them, and one day we’ll be brave enough. JUST KIDDING, THIS IS ENGLAND AND IT’S STILL COLD.

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That evening we took the steam train back to the castle for the Purbeck Film Festival. I was worried about tackling the old train with a double pushchair, but the drivers couldn’t have been more helpful, and Henry and Teddy were beside themselves. We ate fish and chips while we waited for the sun to set behind the hill, then watched The Lego Movie projected against one of the old castle walls. We laughed a lot, even when it got cold. It was wonderful.

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Sunday was our last full day, so we took the chain ferry over to Sandbanks, then a little yellow boat to Brownsea Island. This is also managed by the National Trust, and was a real find: a 1.5 mile-long nature reserve covered in woodland and heather, with amazing views over Poole Harbour. We took a long walk through the forest, pine needles underfoot, soaking up the quiet. Then Hen threw his sandwich to one of the geese and I almost got trampled in a bird stampede, which killed the tranquillity somewhat. Imagine opening your eyes to see the underside of a goose above your head. Now scream.

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(Just a little hint: if you ever go to Brownsea, park on the Studland Bay side in the NT car park, and take the chain ferry on foot. It’s much cheaper, and it will save you spending 45 minutes trying to park on the Sandbanks end like we did. Also, the yellow ferry to Brownsea Island is free until you’re six. Result!)

I don’t think we would’ve left if we hadn’t been rained off site early the next morning. The boys loved everything from the sleeping bags to the marshmallows. We have come back with to-do lists as long as our arms. But somehow, with four days of castles and steam trains at our backs, and in this company, I feel like it could be a walk in the park.

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The week that was…hot

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I am supposed to be doing – haha – SO many things right now, but it’s been a good while since I checked in here. Sometimes my days and nights fill up so much I have to put blogging on the back burner. I miss it when it’s not there.

Some catch-up, then? Here are some inconsequential snippets from our week.

We just got back from a dinner date, where we wandered around looking into restaurant windows for a while before going to Five Guys like we always do. Tim managed three full cups of drink from the special flavours machine before our food even arrived. We decided to pretend we were on a first date, and talked about which character we were most like in Harry Potter (Oliver Wood and Hermione, obvs), and what our favourite films and music were. I confessed my undying love for Inception and Tim decided that whatever type of music Kings of Convenience make, he likes it (Google says they do Indie Folk, so now you know). Also, when you sit up on the high chairs by the balcony, you do actually feel like the Queen of Five Guys.

‘BRING ME MY MANIFOLD FLAVOURS OF DRINK, MAGIC MACHINE.’

‘I WISH FOR AS MANY FRIES AS THE SANDS OF THE SEA.’

‘PLEASE PUT ALL THE FOODS OF EARTH INTO THIS BURGER BUN.’

And they did.

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We are about to head into camp season – Tim is gone for the full week (!) with the teenage boys, though I’m only doing a ten-mile overnight hike with the girls, over a day and a bit. I have started to break it down, and ten miles + carrying a bed roll + sleeping on the floor in the woods without a tent + what the cheff is a bed roll have started to make intimidating sums in my head. It’s alright, guys. I’ve totally got this [am terrified].

this is not a bed.

this is not a bed.

Tim has genuinely got this, because he’s the sort of chap who looks casually hot in a canoe.

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(From last year.) What the.

Henry had a nursery induction this week, where the following exchange occurred:

H’s new teacher: ‘So Henry, what’s your favourite thing to do at home?’
Hen: (top of voice, hands in air) ‘SCREEN TIIIIME!’
Me: (*ALL THE SHAME*) ‘we do, ah, do other things.’

Apart from this, he had a lovely time, and we are crossing our everything that we can move before September so he can go. Between you and me, my dears, I have so much anxiety about our unmoving house move that it makes me want to curl up into a little foetal ball every time I think about it. If you’d like to throw any of your good vibes in our direction and/or politely hustle our solicitors with eyebrows and bribes, consider this my blessing to go ahead.

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This week’s morning adbentures included hot walks/bike rides, train journeys to Goring for weir-watching and ice cream by the river, many playgrounds, the library and a cousins’ trip to West Green House Gardens. The weather has been in the thirties, which sounds fabulous until I remind you that the British do not really understand or see the need for air-conditioning. On the other hand, this has also meant a continual excuse for ice cream, and we try always to take this and run with it.

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Teddy has fallen in deep and profound love with our pop-up version of ‘Dear Zoo’. He’s not allowed to look at it by himself, because he gets too excited and rips off the flaps. I put it in different hiding places, he finds it and takes it off to secret corners to chuckle over; rinse, repeat.

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DIS MY FAVOURITE.

I got a small pile of books from the library that turned out to be all thrillers and Books of Tense and Obscure Emotion, so got out Sadie Jones’ The Unexpected Guests again on a whim. It’s as delightful as I remember. Everything about it is perfect and lovely, and I wish I’d written it so I could tell everyone it was mine.

Instead I wrote this post, and a thing about toddler tantrums and Sirius Black for TalkMum, which is here if you fancy it. It’s no Unexpected Guests, but it was fun.

Oh gosh, 1am. Over and out, you guys. Over and out.

Henries were here

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Summer! Allow me to let you into a secret: when faced with sunshine, my top half converts it all super-efficiently into freckles and third-degree burns, while my bottom half simultaneously takes on a whiteness so blinding all light rays are reflected back into space. This is my superpower, and when I become a time traveller I will use it to be considered fashionable in all eras of history.

I know it’s no adamantium claws and accelerated healing, but.

We’ve spent as much time as possible outside this month. On one day, when the boys and I had driven out to our almost-new-neighbourhood to drop off some forms, we drove a little bit further out to The Vyne, in Sherborne St John. This is one of my all-time favourite National Trust places. Large gardens, a huge front lawn stacked with deckchairs, a lake, an adventure playground, a tea room, and the house – which was visited by several Henry Tudors and Jane Austen, AND has the ring that inspired Mr Tolkien to write the world’s manliest fantasy epic. The little chapel has medieval Flemish tiles, and the back corridor is hiding the biggest, oldest map of England I’ve ever seen. You need a torch to read it, it’s so gloriously faded and mouse-nibbled. They actually provide one (a torch, I mean, not a mouse).

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That morning we had a picnic lunch, with the boys in twin high chairs and me passing them sandwiches and yoghurt and mopping up spills at frantic speeds. Afterwards we spread a blanket on the grass, ‘wilaxed’ in deckchairs (ha!), poked busily around underneath trees, and used every bribery tool in the book to get Henry to leave the chickens alone and come home.   

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Any gardeners know what this flower is called? It smelled amazing

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Toddler picnics make me fervently wish for an extra pair of arms, but somehow I always do feel very relaxed at The Vyne. Maybe it’s the one ring. 

Flying the flag for date night

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Real spouse talk: we find date nights hard these days.

Didn’t everyone say we would, and didn’t we think, all naively, that we’d find a way to work around it? I am in awe of couples who manage to get out once a week or even once a month. Whether you pay someone to come round (sometimes more expensive than we can afford, and difficult to do on weeknights) or just ask a friend (do they have kids already? What might the boys do to their house?), it’s bristling with awkwardness.

More real spouse talk: our relationship deteriorates, in measurable and significant ways, when we don’t have time alone.

And we do not want a relationship of pleasantries and routine. No, we signed up for hand-holding and intimate conversations and intimate everything else. I am here to make a stand and say that friendship, even best-friendship, is not good enough. Even with small children. Even with work and tiredness. I am here for heart-hurting love, and not a single thing less will do.

So it’s a good job, all things considered, that Timothy is the type to book tickets to BBC recordings on a whim, and take us off to London for the evening. All of us, because my brother- and sister-in-law were lovely enough to entertain the boys for the evening while we skipped off into the capital. They live just south of the river Thames, work in animation and theatrical makeup, and are the coolest and nicest people I know.

We were late, of course, so the first half of the date was characterised by sprinting: to the Tube station, onto the Tube, through a sandwich (awkward Tube eating is awkward), and then onto the theatre, where the lady told us they were already full. Great. So we took a long walk down through Bloomsbury to Covent Garden, and got a frozen custard from Shake Shack. Mine came with toffee sauce, chocolate pieces and a kind of malt powder that was like crushed Malteasers plus Horlicks plus crack. I ate it with blueberry lemonade at my elbow, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be the same.

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Pre-Raphelites woz 'ere. *shriek*

Pre-Raphaelites woz ‘ere. *shriek*

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Then – oh, my heart – we hired Boris bikes, and freewheeled over the river, Big Ben and the London Eye gleaming on the water, back to pick up the boys. I haven’t been on a bike since university, and went the whole way chanting ‘we’re not going to die we’re not going to die’. Three miles on a bike through London, while the sun sets? My date-o-meter just spontaneously combusted. We came back to chocolate fondue and some Peppa Pig talk, and it was all so perfect it hurt.

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On my flag of personal absolutes is painted ‘DATE NIGHT’. I believe in date night, however we wrangle it. If it’s on a Boris bike, so much the better.

Share with me your collected wisdom, o internet browsers: how do you make date night work? 

The bottle-thrower in my head

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The other day I was hayfevered up to the max, and found myself in a quandary.

Oh gosh, Thursday, I texted Tim in the morning. If we go out the pollen will kill me, and if we stay in the boys will.

I mean, what is a girl to do?

When I just had Henry, we’d spend some days indoors, and most of the rest between a few familiar places. Now neither of those things are an option. Henry’s old enough to get bored if we go to the same places too often, and bored toddler + demented crawler is the stuff of fearful legend. Especially if we don’t leave the house at all. Great Scott. You know in How to Train Your Dragon, where Hiccup is leafing through the village Dragon Book, and the Night Fury page is ominously empty? That’s what a description of an indoor day would look like in my journal. Just fingernail scratches, and screams.

So – and let’s continue with the movie theme for a minute if we may – you know that scene in films where some unhinged character screeches ‘get out, GET OOOOOOUT!’ And then throws their cigarette/jewellery box/whiskey bottle at the offending guest? That’s what my head does around 10am every day. Breakfast, lovely. Bath, great. Clothes, uh-oh, here comes the whiskey bottle yes here it comes GET OUT GET OUT GET OOOOOOOUT.

I scramble for supplies and we get the heck outta Dodge before another jewellery box crashes around our ears.

Henry calls our morning trips ‘adbentures’. There is nothing that makes you feel more like the Winner of Everything than helping two tiny energetic people have a nice time in an unfamiliar place, and I really kind of love it. But there are two problems, going adbenturing. One, you’re much more likely [read: certain] to get the pushchair stuck or run out of hands when there’s only one of you. And two, I am absolutely awful at predicting the weather.

Here’s the week that was, and the weather-inappropriate things we wore.

Monday: playdate to Mapledurham lock and Purley Park. I dressed the boys in summer clothes, and we froze. Also, cattle grids and pushchairs are unmixy items.

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Tuesday: museum date in Reading Town Hall. Remembering the previous day, we all wore long sleeves. And boiled.

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Wednesday: investigation into the Roman walls at Silchester. I tried to be cautious, and we wore shorts with long sleeves. And boiled, and the path was VERY unsuitable for pushchairs, so I half-carried it for two miles. TEDDY IS NOT LIGHT, FYI.

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Thursday: Caversham park by the river. Ho ho, I thought, looking at the overcast sky. You don’t fool me. Short sleeves and shorts today. And we froze.

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Friday: Rhymetime and library, and it looked like rain. Long sleeves. You know what happened. *wipes sweat from everywhere, shakily stuffs chocolate in mouth*

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Still. New house this summer (we hope we hope) and nursery for Henry after that. I slow down when we’re on the verge of something new, wondering how much I really want it. While we’re here waiting, on the verge, I can’t think of a better thing to do than adbenture, on and on till we get to September and something entirely different.

Museums I have known and sprinted in, by Henry Jeffcoat

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I am a huge believer in kids and museums. Firstly, because I love museums, and if you can’t impose your likes and dislikes on your children while they’re too young to roll their eyes, well, when can you, eh? Secondly, because most of them are free, so I can buy us cake on the way out instead if we’ve got any spare change. And thirdly, because they’re only going to learn appropriate public behaviour if they get a chance to practice. I am as big a fan of soft play as the next rained-indoors mother, but let’s face it: all they learn there is survival of the fittest. It’s like a germy Lord of the Flies.

We do museums in London whenever we get chance – the ‘dinosaur you-seeum’ being our personal favourite, of course – but it’s not quite close enough to go often. But Reading has two jewels in its crown for pre-schoolers, and they’re only a short walk\drive away. The Museum of English Rural Life is a dream come true for transport-obsessed toddlers, and I’ve written about that one here. Today, we went to the other: Reading Museum, in the town hall, a gorgeous old redbrick building near the station.

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Every time we come here, I want to text everyone I know with children afterwards. It’s fantastic. The collection is quite small, and as random as anything: Reading historical artefacts on the ground floor, from the medieval abbey onwards; then a complete, full-sized replica of the Bayeux Tapestry on the first floor (more about this later); then art, stuffed animals and a Victorian schoolroom at the top. The best part, though, is the backpacks. Toddler-sized and colour-coded, you choose one you haven’t used before and take out the treasures inside one by one. Then there’s a question or quest attached to each item. Since Henry’s hobbies include backpack wearing and getting new toys, you can imagine how he feels about it.

Today we started with a brick, and found a wall of magnetic bricks to make patterns (like several redbrick buildings in Reading). We looked at tiny medieval people in glass cases, and listened to some plainsong from the monks.

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Then we had a toy horse – oh, the joy! – and looked over the BayFaux Tapestry to find horses in battle, and horses riding in boats. Can we just take a minute to talk about this? A determined Victorian embroiderer, Elizabeth Wardle, decided that Britain should have its own copy, and engaged her Leek Embroidery Society (yes!) to make an exact copy. It was completed by thirty-five women in just over a year, and they worked from Elizabeth’s memory and from colour photographs at the V&A. This is a brilliantly batty thing to do. Did you need any further proof that the Victorians were happily bonkers? It’s here.

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After that we had a squirrel to find in the stuffed animal room – which also comes with puzzles and colouring pencils – a set of jingle bells leading us to a thumb piano, and finally some binoculars to look at some art on high shelves.

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Henry was so engaged in finding things, rummaging in his bag for the next toy, and zipping up and down in the lift, that he didn’t have time to misbehave. Maybe excitement about Old Stuff will carry through into his adult life, and he’ll enjoy history as much as I do. Or maybe he won’t, and he’s just learning to look and ask questions and be excited about the world around him. I’ll take either option, to be honest, especially if it comes with a backpack.

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He always cries when we leave, and I think this is recommendation enough.