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.

 

The desert, and other stories

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You are in Arizona. There is something odd about Arizona. A huge, open valley ringed with mountains you never reach. Burning heat. It feels like the ends of your hair are crisping up, like every tiny part of your skin sits under a magnifying glass held by a curious, ant-killing giant.

The intense flatness of the vivid blue sky: no clouds, no sense of perspective. Beautiful, and pitiless.

The Aztec-style decorations on bridges and highways: spirals and lizards etched out in chalk.

The cacti loitering by the freeway and in people’s gardens, playing it cool, like it’s not¬†the weirdest thing ever. You text home. ‘THERE ARE CACTI ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, ALL CASUAL. Like we’re in the Wild West or something?’ ‘Um, you ARE in the Wild West’, they text back. Good point. Where else would it be but here?

The knowledge that every plant has been put there on purpose, because almost nothing grows spontaneously except those enormous lordly cacti. Then seeing how the city planners got carried away with the plant thing and started disguising non-plant items as plants, like mobile phone masts dressed up as palm trees. It feels like a sixties Bond film. Are there Russians dressed up as palm trees too? It’s brilliant.

Citrus fruit trees, with their trunks painted white to stop them shrivelling. The flash of acid yellow lemons between the leaves looking as foreign as anything you’ve ever seen.

The dust in the back of your throat. The point at which your winter-ready English feet get tired of sandals, so you take them off, and last about half a second before you have to leap for some shade, soles singeing.

Hunting for scorpions at night on the wall. Watching them glow blue under torchlight. Spending some time afterwards imagining scorpions leaving the wall for a jaunt into your bed. Sleeping with the duvet tucked in.

The m.e.x.i.c.a.n f.o.o.o.o.o.d. (Pause for sobbing.)

The family whose conversation you slide back into like you’ve seen them every day for the seven years they’ve been gone. A wedding full of lovely details. A ceremony you cry through, a reception where you eat burritos until your dress is straining, and then dance hard and hilariously, sweating into your hair, through the orangey evening and into the night.

Walking out into a city anchored onto desert, and never being able to forget the desert just a few feet underneath, hustling around the edges, whipping into your hair and mouth on the back of a hot wind.

The wind always hot. Even at night. When there’s any wind at all.

There is something odd about Arizona. You belong back with the tangled weedy hedgerows and narrow roads, the drizzle and the dry humour. As soon as you land you feel the rightness of it. But you miss the desert.

You are in Arizona, and then you are not, and you don’t think you will ever get it out of your head.

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Even the rain loves Hay Festival

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If you are looking for a tweed jacket or trilby hat, go to Hay Festival. It’s not that there are very many tweed-and-trilby shops, but almost everyone there is wearing them. So you’ll get lots of ideas, and can go home and make a Pinterest board.

There are other reasons to love Hay Festival than trilbies, and I’ve written about them in enthusiastic detail here and here. Short version: books and talks and old stuff. This didn’t feel like our year for Hay: we are on absolute spending lockdown till all our house-moving bills are paid, I was full – nose-drippingly, smoker’s-coughingly full – of cold, and as I’m away in the States next week we’ve already used up all our babysitting favours for a lifetime. Still. It’s a tradition, and we love it with a passion: when a Jeffcoat is tired of Hay, s/he is tired of life, etc. We already had tickets for Steven Fry and Tony Fadell. We went.

(On the subject of colds, may we all, as a human race, take an unbroken vow of silence about the fact that I looked up to find Teddy eating one of my nose-soaked tissues today. Eating. I am shuddering as I type. HE MUST NEVER KNOW (until he’s old enough to read this blog. In which case, sorry Teds; and heck yes to your immune system).)

In sad contrast to last year’s enamelled blue sky, a raincloud descended somewhere around Bristol and didn’t lift all day. So no sunning ourselves in the quad over newspapers this time. But that left plenty of time for wandering round the little stands, taking photos and breaking our sugar fast with a hot chocolate so sweet we were buzzing for hours afterwards. I also ate an almond croissant, filled with almond-flavoured custard, that was seriously as large as my face. I might as well stop eating now, because nothing will ever be as good again. We sat in the food court making little whimpering sounds of joy, opposite two Germans making serious work of a ploughman’s lunch. They sat down with plates of salad and chutney, and I thought ‘this lunch seems a little slight’, and then they took out an enormous venison Scotch egg from a paper bag. Our eyes met across the table, and I hope I managed to communicate my respect for you is as the vastness of the universe, good madams¬†with a look. Because, a venison Scotch egg as big as an adult fist? That is the business.

We love Stephen Fry, although we did think that when you’re interviewing someone, they’re probably supposed to speak more than you. Tony Fadell invented the iPod, Stephen. Let him finish a sentence.

‘I had a question for him that was much better than any of those’, lamented Timothy, as we filed out at the end of the Q&A session. It was, too. Isn’t that always the way. Perhaps he can write a fan letter.

We didn’t have time to go into Hay itself this year, alas – though touring twenty book and antique shops with an empty purse would probably have been more painful than otherwise – but we got the Hay 2014 bag and utilised the photo booth, so left feeling like it was a job very well done. And our car reversed first time out of the soggy field we’d parked in.

Even a rained-out Hay day comes up trumps.

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Now we are four

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Things that have occurred since Tim started his month-long gardening leave:

1. We have settled into a pleasing division of labour where I’m doing all the laundry and he’s doing all the washing-up, because these are the tasks the other one hates. Consequence: the laundry and the washing-up are ACTUALLY GETTING DONE;

2. Tim is watching twenty-seven thousand movies, all of them starring¬†Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner or Matt Damon doing punchy things or getting their daughters kidnapped or finding out they’re actually a reengineered clone of their former selves;

3. We have lost all concept of ordinary time;

4. We’re going on a lot of walks.

The weather has been lovely, and it’s been nice to forget Bank Holiday weather predictions for once, and just go out when the sun shines. I’ve had a lot to get done lately, so Tim’s been doing the daily park trips, but last week we made it out together to Basildon Park. The sun was shining, Henry did a wee in the woods, rather than in his pants, and all was right with the world. Then we headed off past the manor house on one of the woodland walks, and the heavens opened. We were drenched, right up until we got back to the car, when the rain stopped and the sun came out. Nature’s revenge for the woodland pee? I don’t know, but what I will say is that the rain cloud followed us around for an hour and it did not rain at all at home, so MAKE OF THAT WHAT YOU WILL.

Mushrooms. They never seem to sell any of these, and I’m glad because I love them.

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And now, your daily ovary explosion, courtesy of the bear.

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In the woods these days we look for Eeyore houses and sing the Winnie the Pooh theme song. Henry says ‘Crister Wobin’, and it kills me.

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He was actually a lot happier than this looks. And wetter, too.

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This photo was taken from underneath an umbrella, underneath the rain cloud that hated our faces. Netherfield was nice and sunny at the other end of the field, but then Netherfield hadn’t peed on a tree. Lesson learned.

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I want Bear Grylls to be proud of us and I think we have finally managed it

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You know that TV programme on this week with Bear Grylls, where he leaves thirteen chaps on an island by themselves to prove how rugged they are, and one of them gets stung in the face by a jellyfish (?! in the face? How?). Then all the others volunteer to wee on his face to neutralise the venom, and no one’s quite sure whether they’re rugged enough to watch?

Replace the jellyfish with a square mile of stinging nettles, and you basically have our Bank Holiday walk in Sulham Woods this afternoon. I feel like someone should let Bear know, because we were as rugged as it’s possible to be when no one is wearing appropriate footwear and one of us is tangled up in a pink skirt.

We just didn’t expect it to be that wet on a sunny day (amateurs). But it was, so we squelched through bogs and thistle clumps in shorts and ballet pumps, our bare legs exposed to every prickle that passed. Thank goodness Tim remembered, five minutes in, that I still had my mother-in-law’s walking shoes in the boot of my car. They didn’t go especially well with my skirt, but then again neither did the thistles.¬†Tim carried a shrieking Henry for most of it, and there was, regrettably, one moment where Teddy got conked in the face by an unexpected twig. We were like Amazons. Bear Grylls would have squeezed out a tear of manly approbation, watching us.

Once we made it to the less overgrown part of the woods, we realised what the rainwater was doing there: making the greenest trees ever seen. Honestly, I haven’t put any colour filters on these photos at all. It was breathtaking.

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This below is the face of someone who has just peed his pants, somewhat regrets it at the moment, and will regret it more soon. QUICK, WHERE ARE THE NETTLE STINGS.

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Then we left the woods to walk back over the fields, and that was, well. Look. No nettles at all, and a lot of this.

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This is the best (worst) jumping photo that has ever been taken, and I defy you to prove me wrong.

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Oh my giddy aunt. HAHAHA. I weep with laughter every time I look.

Henry likes to get up close to the soil. A career in farming, perhaps?

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Or maybe he could be the next Bear Grylls. He’s got the emergency pee supply down already, so it can only go up from here.

Eggs

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Cousins, in sibling pairs. Which I’m sure you couldn’t guess.

What I love about having babies is that you can get more and more into celebrations as time goes on. Easter this year was a cracker (mixed metaphor unintended). I know that chocolate eggs and church and family are great ideas, but it gets ten times better when all four of us are stuffing our faces together. I hadn’t even considered how exciting an egg hunt might be. It was, and even more exciting when I considered that next year we’d have two boys in the game. So it will actually be a hunt, and not just one boy being followed around by three adults looking weirdly and significantly at eggs.

Photo avalanche ahoy, cap’n!

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We spent most of the Easter weekend with Tim’s parents, and some of the Monday at Donnington Castle. It’s a funny little atmospheric keep, a little outside of Newbury. It looms out of the pretty suburban landscape all of a sudden and apropos of nothing, and is all the better for that. Once Henry had got over his customary pushchair outrage (sigh) it was a great place to explore.

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Can we get a photo with all of us looking at the camera and appearing reasonably pleased? Can we cheffers.

Just before we left, we spent some time and energy assembling Tim’s siblings on a tree branch for an Awkward Family Photo. It turned out very well, I thought. Aren’t they an attractive bunch?

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Of course, then the littles wanted a go.

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Normally we’d have spent the rest of the afternoon making ourselves a little sick with leftover Easter chocolate, but this year we had an Adventure planned. Tim had meetings in Edinburgh on Tuesday and Manchester on Wednesday, and ages ago (when it had been raining too hard to leave the house for days and the walls were pressing on my head) he suggested that I come with him, leaving the boys in the very capable hands of their auntie. So off we jollied into the Scottish hills and an orange sorbet sunset. And we had the most wonderful time.

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I’ve written elsewhere about how much I love Edinburgh (one of my favourite posts from last year). I am terribly, horribly in love with it, and in all guises – even (as I’ve usually seen it) in grizzly rain. Our hotel room was beautiful: one of those that comes with a little spa downstairs and fancy soap, temple balm and lip recoverer in the bathroom, whatever that is. When Tim went off early for his meeting, I had a giant bath, got ready slowly, balmed my temples and recovered my lips, and then headed out by myself to explore.

You can spend as much time as you like in art galleries, when you’re flying solo. Your photos tend to be restricted to mirror selfies, but the freedom more than makes up for it.

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I tell you what: all that fuss the National Gallery made about buying those Titians a little while back? TOTALLY WORTH IT.

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After a night and a day and a night, we got up extra early and drove down to Manchester. I’d never been, and was rather put off at first by the bankruptcy-worthy parking charges and a shopping mall as big as the sun. But just round the corner, there was this.

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There are beautiful things in every pocket in the universe, aren’t there? Happy Easter.

Some of these photographs – nay, many of them – are courtesy of my father-in-law. He has so much more patience behind the camera than I have, and it shows. Thanks Jeremy!

In which I am not a bronze god

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At some point along the way, I’ve turned into a person who can leave the house having forgotten to brush her teeth. And not just once, often. If it makes you feel any better, I’m never any less disgusted when I remember. It doesn’t make me feel much better, though.

Today was an accidental dirty-teeth day. which should have told me something. The weather is good at the moment Рlovely, in fact; a generosity of sunshine and clear April skies Рso I decided to drive down to Winchester: Tim was working just a few miles down the road, so I thought we could take some sandwiches and have a nice walk, then meet up with him after work.

I was halfway up a ramp in a multi-storey car ¬†park, making an especially tight turn, when my power steering died. Let me tell you, until you’ve had to wrench a full car up a hill, back into reverse because you can’t turn fast enough, then forward again juuuust managing to miss the parked cars and all of this using only your own puny arms, you do not know the meaning of panic sweat. There were cars queuing behind me, Tim wasn’t answering his phone, I was blocking several people in, and both the boys were grumpy. And then my phone was about to die. Thankfully a beautiful hairy man helped me get the car into a space, for which good deed he has earned his place in Paradise. Then I got through to Tim, who came and wrestled my car out of the car park so the AA could come get it, leaving me his in return.

When I make grand, impulsive plans and they end up causing a lot of bother, I feel so foolish. Babies are a juggling act, a plate spinner of enormous proportions, and every time I feel like I’m getting the hang of it I get conked on the head. But if there were ever a city to heal a battered day, it’s Winchester in the sun. That cathedral is something else. There are so many lovely little alleyways and intriguing shops. Today there was a market, and we admired cheeses and gaping fish with great enthusiasm.

If you follow the path alongside the cathedral, under a series of archways, you eventually end up at a little square pond, where a great bearded bronze someone glowers over the proceedings (Jesus? Hercules?). It’s so quiet and forgotten-about back there, it feels like another world. Henry had just fallen over his own feet – a particular talent – so to distract him from crying I told him that the pond was magical. We picked two shiny brown leaves and dropped them into the water.

‘Now you have to make a wish’, I told him. ‘Let’s wish for… a milkshake’. (Priorities.)

He didn’t say anything, but looked down at his floating leaf, absorbed.

‘What will you wish for?’ I asked.

‘Stars’, he said.

We bought milkshakes from Shakeaway, later. Some wishes I can grant, but I am puny-armed and only human. If you ever happen to be in Winchester, and follow a little path behind the cathedral to find a square pond and a bronze god, do ask him how he’s getting on with Henry’s stars.

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Hey, if you have a spare clicking finger and a mild fondness for this blog, perhaps you wouldn’t mind voting for me in the MAD Blog Award finals? You can find me under Best Baby Blog. Voting closes soon! Thank you so much!

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