Category Archives: Adventures

Old friends. Bookends.


We spent our Saturday at the gorgeous wedding of my gorgeous friend. She is an old friend in the sense that we’ve known each other for over a decade, though also in the sense that one of us, at least, is much wrinklier than when we met.

(It’s me.)

It was the most beautiful wedding. The service was conducted by a sassy female minister in an old village church, bell peals showering over us as we arrived. Thankfully one of our group had remembered tissues, because we made it through our readings and then bawled. After the ceremony and some confetti, we moved to a reception at a nearby farm barn. We had the happiest afternoon I can remember in a while, eating canapés, taking photos, sitting down at an exquisitely laid table for an amazing dinner, sniffling through speeches, applying celebratory temporary tattoos, hogging the vintage photobooth, roasting fist-sized marshmallows over fire pits, dancing shoeless next to a smoke machine, and eventually turning down the pizza and cheese that kept appearing at our shoulders, because I’d eaten so much my sternum was bruised. And if you didn’t know it was possible to do this, you clearly haven’t been trying hard enough.

Everything was beautiful, thoughtful, understated. Em is that sort. She’s one of the kindest, loveliest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. She’s a good egg.

Spending time with old friends always gets me thinking about old friends. It is such a sweeping relief, spending time with people you’ve known for ages. There’s no need to have awkward first-time conversations about the fact that you don’t drink, or that you think nightclubs are a bit of a gross unnecessary faff, as it happens, because you got all that out of the way years ago. You don’t need to try to be cool, or worry that you’re not. You can talk about Elizabeth Barrett Browning; you can tell them how work is actually going (even if the answer is Not That Great). You can tell ancient jokes that are still funny. You can say things you didn’t quite mean and not worry about them thinking the worse of you. You hand over insecure confidences at odd moments without worrying they’ll be mishandled. You have twelve years’ worth of leeway to give them, and yourself, whenever it’s needed.

I am not so good at new friends – I am taking deep breaths and fixing on smiles twice a day in the school playground, and it makes me come out in cold sweats. But old friends, yes. Any day of the week. As long as we’re not in a nightclub. As long as we’re eating beef and cheese.

September 151

PS, I read this poem during the service. I practised it twelve hundred times in the weeks leading up to it (‘I HATE THIS POEM’, Henry exploded, towards the end), and managed to stay dry-eyed less than twice.

PPS, I missed out the stanza about thighs. I dunno, I might be a bit stodgy, but I don’t think thighs have a solid place in church.


Say yes.
That word on your lips
is a kiss;
is a promise already made.
We made it.

Love did not turn from hurt
or hard work.
When lights failed, it did not switch off.
When love had no road,
we willingly built it.

We shouldered its stones
and its dirt. So thank god
there are days like this when it’s easy.
When we open our mouths
and the words flood in.

Put the word of your hand
in mine.
We have learnt to hold to each other
when nothing was given by right;
how love will insist
with its ache; with its first painful
tug on the guts;

its snake in the nest of the ribs;
the bomb in the chest;
in the Y of the thighs; the red, red
red sun of it, rising.
How love must, at all costs,

be answered. We have answered
and so have a million before us
and each of their names is a vow.
So now I can tell you, quite simply
you are the house I will live in:

there is no good reason
to move. Good earth,
you are home, stone, sun,
all my countries. Vital to me
as the light. You are it

and I am asking.
Say yes.

Love opens a door
then slams it. It does.
It loses its touch and its looks.
But love needs its fury.
We have fought

and when times make it necessary,
we will again. When night draws in,
we won’t forget
how once the streets ran wet with light
and love. Like blood. They will again.

But for now,
we make our promises gently.
This extraordinary day we have made.
Listen –
the birds in their ordinary heaven.

Tonight the sky will blaze
with stars. Today, my love,
rooms bloom with flowers.
Say yes.
The sky is ours.

Clare Shaw

Toddlers, tents and big open skies

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I write this while the boys are in the bath. A bath! No one is overbalancing into a puddle of muddy water, or shrieking about having their nappy removed in a strange cold cubicle, or opening the door to a crowd of curious onlookers while you struggle blindly into your underwear. WOT LARKS.

We are home from our camping holiday, in other words, and there is nothing like camping to make you embrace your own house when you get back. It’s so warm and comfortable and waterproof, it’s a bit indecent.

Still. There’s nothing like this, either. There is nothing like this at all.

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This little patch of Dorset is a happy place for me. It means waking up to birds, and cows bellowing so loudly you worry they’ve wriggled themselves into your sleeping bag. It’s the ruined castle gleaming across the valley and then looming, white-walled, over your head. It’s the steam train with Harry Potter compartments and jacquard-patterned seats.

It’s pale sands and paler seas. Little villages. Long heather-purpled moors. Fish and chips with salt and vinegar, so hot you burn your fingers.

Porridge over a camping stove. Rain pattering on a tent roof. Wearing a furry dressing gown with muddy wellies at absolutely every available opportunity.

We had friends come with us this year, which more than made up for the fact that we had more rain than we wanted, and that an unsoundproofed two-year-old in a crowded field is a popular kind of guy. HOLD ON HERE COME THE PHOTOS. I couldn’t even stop myself.

Eating outdoors really does make everything taste better – thanks, Enid Blyton. Holding fire on the tinned tongue though, if it’s all the same.

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We broke with tradition this year, and did the beach first. The boys insisted on carrying their own chairs, which was a-ok with us.

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Does it say something about the stage of parenthood we’re in that the reason I love the beach is because it’s so hands-off? Go on, boys! Dig yourself into ditches! Climb up sandy dunes! I sat, read a book, passed out the occasional round of bagels, dug out an amateurish speedboat, and it felt like a holiday.

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Ted, kindly stop making me want to eat you.

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Man oh man, I do love these flinging-sand-at-the-sea, wheel-barrowing boys.

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Did someone say steam train? I believe we said steam train. I didn’t get a photo of the Hogwarts-esque compartments we sat in later, as by then our four four-and-unders had started doing things like sticking their heads out of the windows, and swinging from the lampshades. But just picture a steam train with lampshades (!), and you’ll get it.

Daddy love. What a beaut that man is.

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Spot the blue steel. That girl spent the whole holiday killing me dead. DEAD.

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Don’t we look happy? Oh, hang on, I mean sweaty. We look sweaty.

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And then there’s a castle to climb at the other end. It was a funny mixed day: hot one minute, overcast and drizzly the next. We’d already had the open air cinema cancelled the night before due to inclement weather – sob! But the thing about castles is, they’re always glad to see you.

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Don’t tell them H climbed some walls. There was a lady with a loudhailer there for miscreants like this, and she was all over it.

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And now I make an inarticulate noise in my throat.

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It turned out that we’d taken an identical photo last year, so we got to squeal some more. H’s cowlick is keeping its game strong. T’s hair…well. The devil got in it.

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It’s not the easiest thing to take little kids away to live in a tent for four days, but I always surprise myself with how much I love it. Take me back to the spaghetti hoops on a camping stove, with that ole castle just visible through the rain cloud! Alright, don’t – I’m nice and warm now – but we’ll be back next year. How on earth could we not?

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PS, I wrote a more practical guide to camping with kids on TalkMum last month: 7 ways to totally win at camping with kids (even if you hate camping). Which may be more your bag than all this gushing. Have a look!

Sea air

Hello, Friday! Another rainy – torrential – August day, and I am meeting it in shambolic fashion.

We’ve had a wonderful two days away with Tim’s mum this week, and we’re feeling the holiday come-down pretty hard. I’m sat on our saggy sofa, with rained-on fluffy hair the size of a hefty badger, wearing a pair of old glasses with the arm painstakingly taped back on (I left my normal pair in my mother-in-law’s car) and a case of spots with ambitions to pass their Grade 3 Acne exam. In short I am a living embodiment of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Eloise Midgen together, and I really don’t know why we haven’t made a cover feature in Glamour yet.

Something quite miraculous has happened in the past few days. A fog I didn’t even know was there has lifted off my head, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my children. I love them all the time, of course, but they’re hard work, especially 10+ solo hours a day. I think I’ve spent the past few weeks – or even months – in a state of low-level, continuous stress about what the next tantrum might be about or where the next mess will be made. And have forgotten to notice the dimples trying their hardest to make themselves noticed in Son 2’s chubby cheeks. And haven’t appreciated the intricacies of Son 1’s conversation, or the simple pleasure of finally being able to trust him to be safe, to watch out for his brother and himself.

I think the change of scene has helped, and so has having someone there to be a second pair of toddler-restraining hands, someone who loves these boys like I do, and me without judgement. Looking at beautiful things has opened up space in my head, and I’ve let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. There are dimples in this world! My kids are pretty cool and funny! It’s great!

Anyway, none of this is revolutionary – hey, lovely fool, did you know that too much unrelieved slogging away at home will make you insane by degrees? OF COURSE YOU DID – but apparently I have to learn the same parenting lesson over and over before it sticks. It was jolly nice to do it on the beach.

Some photos? I’m glad you asked; I’ve got loads.

Something about little boy t-shirts makes me squeal on the inside. Which is good, because we don’t get to buy any pretty dresses around here.

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Temple. There was an afternoon where I got back to our room at about 3.30pm, and the boys weren’t going to be back till SIX, and I had a hot chocolate and fell asleep and read an Agatha Christie. The whole thing made me want to cry with happiness.

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The next day we went to Arundel. Having first confused it with the kingdom in Frozen (that’s Arendelle – close!) we were delighted to find the Duke of Norfolk’s castle, a Roman Catholic cathedral and a 14th century church and museum, all on the same road. The rest of the town seemed to be pretty cottages, antique shops, cafes and a river. As town planning goes, I feel this is top-notch.

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After a couple of hours, we drove a little further down to the beach at Littlehampton. By this time the indifferent weather was brightening. It got lighter and warmer over the afternoon, while the boys paddled in water, dug in the sand, filled buckets with pebbles and generally did not need hands-on assistance. Toddler holy grail. By 6pm we were eating hot fish and chips under a clear blue sky, while I reflected that everything Swallows and Amazons had ever said about sea air was quite correct. Of course, naming one of your main characters ‘Titty’ wasn’t a decision that would stand the test of time, but how was he to know that, poor love?

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This is a terrible photo, but it’s the only evidence I was there, so I’ll take it.

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Back here now. But I know where I’m heading the next time I need an insanity prevention break.

Mottisfont meets the twos

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Look, I don’t know how I forgot about it. Is it like childbirth, having a two-year-old? You only remember the bits that make you want to have another one?

Ted is now doing what he did for me once before, when the contractions started. Bringing it aaaaaaall back. In technicolour. And in both scenarios there’s a lot of screaming.

Since today was forecast to include some actual sunshine, we took a longer trek than usual down to Mottisfont Abbey, an NT place we’ve been to before and loved, back when only one of our children could move independently. Today there was just me, a pushchair, an almost-four-year-old desperate to complete the Charlie and Lola trail in the gardens, and the Tiny Beast.

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Suuuper good at directing their cheese faces anywhere but the camera

Suuuper good at directing their (admittedly magnificent) cheese faces anywhere but the camera

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No, he’s not a beast, Teddy: he’s a bowling ball. That’s what a two-year-old is: barrelling in one direction no matter how loudly or desperately or sweetly you holler for them to come back. Completely impervious to bribes, disciplines or strategies. On a mission to leap into every large-ish body of water, and climb every high thing, and throw every damn stone within reach. Determined to prove false ye old advice that ‘man cannot live by bread alone’. Oh, but this one can. They are untouchable. And after you’ve cajoled your little heart out and tried every distraction in the book, the only way to make them change course is to pick them up bodily, like a parcel.

(Unfortunately Necessary Internet Disclaimer: of COURSE I don’t let him wander out of sight; of COURSE I don’t let him do whatever he wants; I give him limits and I stick to them as much as I can, completely ignored though they are. None of this changes the fact that two-year-olds are gonna two, and they save most of their twoishness for public places. If you had an angel toddler who stuck to your leg like a limpet, well, tell me more about your wonderful life.)

Today he was in a puckish mood, and ran off gleefully more times than I could count. Some of it was joyous. Watching them make themselves a hideout under a giant tree, far enough away to make them think they were unobserved, felt exactly the way boyhood should be. Once I saw him wandering off the grass section I’d specified, and went to get him. He tipped his head back and laughed too hard to run away. I picked him up and said ‘Ted, you must stay where I can see you. Stay on the grass. It’s not funny’.

‘It IS FUNNY!’ he crowed, legs kicking furiously from under my arm, beaming face flushed with triumph and crusted with bits of cereal bar.

It wasn’t, but in the moment I could see his point.

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In the walled garden they sat for ten minutes, scooping shale chips onto each other’s heads and stirring them to listen to the shirr-shirr noise they made. We sat side-by-side in the little shelter at the end, pointing out spider webs and interesting flowers.

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Then there were the moments where he pounced on flower heads when just out of arm’s reach. Or when we spent five minutes in the disabled loo, during which they took it in turns to unlock the door while I was still sat down, and turn on the tap hard enough to splatter us all with water (the group toilet visit – everything dirty! Everything low enough for a child to reach! – is a particular kind of hell). When we came out a polite knot of mothers and teenage daughters were staring at the door, open-mouthed. It probably sounded like we were skinning a cat or dispatching a corrupt city official in there.

I can’t help but feel embarrassed by this sort of thing. Even though I know it’s what kids this age are like, and the people watching are almost certainly sympathetic if they’ve had children themselves. It makes me feel incompetent. Like if I were a better, more engaged mother, it wouldn’t be like this. When T runs, full-tilt, away from my voice – and H is going in the other direction and I need to go back and get the pushchair and THERE IS ONLY ONE OF ME, WHY IS THIS – it makes me feel like it would be better all round if we stayed indoors.

I don’t believe this, not really. There’s a lot of wonderful things to see in this bright world, things that will make their mouths drop open and their chests hurt, and we won’t see any of them from our living room. And I don’t, either, want him to spend his life in the pushchair when we’re in a deliberately child-friendly place full of families, and he’s desperate to use his legs.

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But, you know, sigh. Just imagine a giant sigh here composed of uneaten sandwiches and attempted scuba-divings and continual soothing and redirecting and much, much sprinting. My legs are tired.

It’s a good job two-year-olds are also so vibrant and adorable you could eat them. And that twoishness passes. And that he wears dinosaur pyjamas like a boss, and that he required seven kisses and three magic blows when he accidentally bit his own finger at dinnertime.

When I was about half an hour past exhausted this afternoon, an old lady smiled at them both, and then me, as they zoomed past her in a cloud of dust. I wasn’t sure whether they should be running in a flower garden, and looked at her anxiously with an apology ready. But she forestalled me.

‘I have two sons too’, she said. ‘Grown up now. They’re wonderful. You’ve done a good thing’.

Honestly, I could’ve cried.

‘Oh!’ I said, so gratefully it was probably weird. ‘Thank you. You give me hope.’

‘There’s always hope’, she said over her shoulder, shuffling on.  (Well-placed fairy godmother? Who says these things to a strange girl covered in yoghurt?)

I crossed absolutely every last one of my digits, and ran.

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The strawberry fields are a-calling

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We’re ten days off the beginning of the summer holidays, and I dunno how H feels, but I am raring to go. I get to be in charge of summer these days, and I’m all gleeful about it. I feel like revelling in every day this summer especially, since it’s the final hurrah before H gets swallowed up by school.

He had a day off last week, so we had a little summer trial run, and went strawberry picking. We found a new PYO farm nearer to where we live now, which turned out to be a real gem: masses of fruit and veg to choose from, a little farm shop, picnic tables and a tiny play area.

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Neither of the boys had ever been before. There are some moments that stick in your head with kids, and watching them realise that strawberries were just SITTING ON THE GROUND ALL OVER THE PLACE and we could put as many in our baskets as we liked was the best, best thing. H was all conscientious about it and only picked the strawberries that called to him personally. T went mad.

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After five minutes he looked like he’d been engaging in cannibalism. If anyone knows how many strawberries a toddler can eat before you should offer to pay extra at the till, let me know. He wasn’t exactly subtle about it.

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The sun and sky did its best to ripen everything while we were there, and we accidentally got the sort of neck sunburn that makes you look like a really responsible parent.

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After that there was nothing to do but play in the sprinkler and then make the best strawberry and cinnamon torte in the universe. Some cakes are like holy things. Oh man, this one is.

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Come on then, summer! We’re wearing a decent amount of suncream, this time, and we’re READY.

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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Heart-eyes emoji may be inserted here.

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.



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).

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