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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One thousand and ninety two

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Dear Henry,

Today you are three. Today has been a good day.

It’s getting harder to write about you properly, because describing you is becoming a challenge. The sweeping generalisations we hold up to babies – he’s loud; he’s busy; he’s a good sleeper – are poor greyscale things when held up to the patterned light of a three-year-old. You are multi-layered and contradictory, full of depths that surface and take us by surprise. You are increasingly a person. This is something we will both have to get used to.

Let’s just write you into this page a little. You talk. And talk and talk. You don’t say ‘I fell down’, you say ‘gosh, that was a tumble’. You don’t say ‘it’s dark’, you say ‘look, Mummy, outside it is dark and werry gloomy’. We laugh at you and with you a lot. Following your thought processes is like trying to catch a spark in blackness. It is difficult, but oh, it illuminates such lovely things.

You are passionate and emotional, as I think all toddlers must be, and we are learning to navigate this together. Not always very well. You love dinosaurs, books, trains, racing cars, Winnie the Pooh (a bit left-field, that one). You still run everywhere and only from the waist down. You whizz so fast on your little balance bike that I have to sprint alongside you with the pushchair, watching your hair stand on end. You can say seven wordless things just by raising your eyebrows. As of this morning, you do not own a single pair of trousers that fit.

I think now that all of my children will be special to me in their own way, and nothing will ever take away from the miraculous firstness of you. You were the moment I heard a jagged newborn cry through my own exhaustion and pain. The point at which everything in my head and heart changed all at once was marked, indelibly, by you.

I watched you open-mouthed, astounded, that first long night. I still do. I think I probably always will.

Today we have ridden trains, conducted serious experiments in the Science Museum, eaten chips in Covent Garden. Today we bought you pick-and-mix, and every time Teddy pulled on your sleeve for a foam banana, you very quietly and kindly passed one over to him. Today has been a good day. I hope you’ll remember some of it.

May three be good to you, little boy.

You are good to us.

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A hairy intermission

Hola.

I have a big deadline coming up this weekend, and working nights is kiiiiiilling me, and my eyes are getting that please for the love of pete don’t look at another screen kind of rawness around the edges. And can we, while we’re here, talk about freelancing with small children? We’ve got a pretty good routine that doesn’t involve them gawping at Netflix all day, but it’s precariously dependent on them taking simultaneous naps, and all of it goes out of the window anyway when it rains. I would like to do a few things well instead of many things adequately. Sometimes I feel like Bilbo Baggins after all his years of Ring-hoarding, like butter scraped over too much bread.

Anyway. Just popping in to say I’m alive, hope you are too, and my baby got a haircut today and broke my heart with it. I mean, he was actually blinking through his fringe like a pit pony, so it was well overdue. I was really worried he wouldn’t sit still at all, but we brought all of the lift-the-flap books he’s normally not allowed to look at by himself, and he was like WHAT IS THIS BEAUTIFUL MADNESS. Then he leapt straight into little-boyhood in the space of fifteen minutes, and I am ill-equipped for that sort of nonsense. Especially in a rugby jersey.

(I don’t especially like rugby, but I could dress my boys in rugby jerseys every day of their little lives, and love it for always. STRIPES.)

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PS, Henry, this afternoon:

H: I need my clicking block.

Me: Your what?

H: My yellow clicking block. Can you help me find it?

Me: I don’t know what a ‘clicking block’ is.

H: It’s a…clicking block. It’s a clicking block that makes my train taller.

Me: Ohhhh. Duplo. Right.

Take care of yourselves, lovely ones. You’ve earned it.

I eat my feelings, and maybe you do too

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I am the sort of person who thinks a lot about food. You might be able to tell. Most of my jokes are about biscuits, aren’t they? I maintain forever and always that a good biscuit joke sets most people at ease and, an additional benefit, encourages them to think more about biscuits.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether my relationship to food is as healthy as it could be. My goodness, food and I are complex, intertwined, weirdly co-dependent creatures. Here are a few things that are true for me (are any of them true for you too?):

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I am northern. My cooking tends to be on the heavy, meat-and-potatoes side of things. I like meat and potatoes best when it’s in a pie. DO NOT EVEN GET ME STARTED ON PIE.

I do not smoke, drink or take drugs, but I use chocolate ice cream in a way that resembles all of these things.

I like good food, whole food, expensive food…and down-and-dirty food, greasy food, delivered-to-your-door-in-a-damp-paper-bag food. I eat unhealthily often, and gleefully, but with a sad sense of grossness afterwards.

I tried counting calories once, and it bored the freaking pants off me. I would never, ever consider giving up dairy, wheat or meat unless I were actually dying. I mean, CHEESE.

I come from a family where our genes run small and skinny. I have a vastly skewed sense of ‘normal’ size and weight as a result. I place far, far too much emphasis on how much I weigh, rather than how I feel. If you ever asked me my weight, I could tell you and the number would be accurate to within 48 hours.

I would rather spend money eating out at a restaurant than buying almost anything else.

I don’t enjoy being pregnant, and I think maybe one of the reasons is that my body shape is out of my own control.

I often go days or weeks between fizzy drinks, but I have to close my eyes in intense appreciation after the first gulp of cold Coke. Every time.

I use food as reward and emotional salve: the times I’m eating for other reasons – exhaustion, boredom, stress, sadness – far outnumber the times I’m eating because I’m hungry. And by the way I talk about it (‘will some fruit snacks make you feel better?’), I think I encourage my children to do the same.

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Doesn’t that make me sound seriously unbalanced? I’m not, I promise. But this is hard: food is energy and health and a delight in its own right, a bringer-together of families and friends, delicious in its earthiness and physicality. You should love it, we say, but not the bad parts and not too much and not in a weird way. There has to be a line you can walk between ‘I like to eat’ and ‘I am unhealthily dependent on liking to eat, and use it to propel myself emotionally through the day’. I want to find that line. I think it would do me some good.

So I’ve been trying to make some changes around here – not so much in what we’re eating, but in how we eat it. These are not refined theories at all, and I’m really just feeling my way to some better habits. What do you think?

one,

I’m trying to be a little more aware of why I’m opening the  kitchen cupboard, and organising the continual grazing into structured meals and snack times. Ben & Jerry’s after the boys go to bed and before I start work? Reasonable. Ben & Jerry’s at 9.30am because drying my hair took less time than expected? Unreasonable.

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two,

I’m trying to eliminate the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eating (adults talking about ‘naughty’ food is a cringey bug-bear of mine), and consider instead what my body might need to take in, and how much it needs before it’s full. I can appreciate the iron in our beef lasagne and the vitamins in my salad…while also accepting that sometimes a whacking great burger and fries is exactly what I need, because it tastes nice and I enjoy it.

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three,

I’m trying to make our daily family meals more of an event, particularly dinner time. Flowers, place mats, fancy napkins and serving bowls, little side dishes to round out the main course…we usually saved these for guests, but why should we? I am a big believer in forging our family links around a dinner table. This is where the boys learn to talk about their day and listen to someone else’s. They need patience and social graces to make it through a meal. And I’ve noticed that when I make it feel a little more fancy, Henry is more excited to be there, and more inclined to raise his game.

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four,

I’m trying not to make quite so many jokes about biscuits. KIDDING, AS IF I WOULD EVER.

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I ate Ben & Jerry’s while writing this, and I can’t decide whether this is ironic or whether ice cream and blogging is a perfectly reasonable combination. But here’s to food in its proper place: on our plates, in our bellies, making us happy but not, somehow, needing to. I’ll clink our cheeseburgers together to that.

Breathing space

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I have told the boy listening in the dark that I love him, and closed his door. Tonight I think he’ll stay in there. A click of the door, then, and quiet in front and behind.

I grab the bag of dirty nappies that represent my day’s work and take it downstairs, out of the door, up the steps, across the little car park and over to the bin. I don’t put shoes on. I swing the nappies into the bin and then turn back, a few steps away, and stop. I want to stand for a minute and feel the gravelly asphalt under my bare feet and the sky over my head. The sun is setting behind clouds, the light cool. I breathe in. Out. Feel the pull of my bladder, as usual, and wonder how long I’ve needed to pee.

I look at our house, standing there peacefully with shuttered blinds, as though it’s always this quiet and composed. Half an hour ago, Henry screamed so loud over having his teeth brushed that I worried the neighbours might think we were branding him with an iron. No sign of that now. Just the little gabled entryway, the skylights open to the heavens, the blackout blind keeping two boys in sleep.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be here. I am aching with anxiety about it all, but, looking at it now, I am suddenly aware of how hard it will be to leave. This house, this life. I cannot imagine bringing this to an end.

I walk back across the car park to the front door, and think about what Hilary Mantel wrote once.

‘There are no endings.

If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings.

Here is one.’

Notes from the trenches: 5

I love reading these ‘Twenty-Six Text Messages You Must See Before You Die’ listicles. And one of the reasons I love them is that they’re proof that people actually send normal text messages to their friends and significant others. They organise social events and discuss dinner. They flirt. They do not, as a general rule, give an hourly account of the bodily waste they’ve come up against lately.

You know whose text messages do? Mine. Poor Tim. AND POOR ME, READERS. POOR ME.

(Just kidding. I laughed my little head off reading this evidence of my strange, frantic, toddler-driven life, and I think I’ll laugh more once this phase is done.)

10 April

Wee in library toilet! *thumbs up*
Poo in library pants! *thumbs down*

It’s like Gladiator, but with faeces.

30 April

So Hen found your Reece’s lip balm and has been sneakily licking it all morning. I’ve been saying ‘DON’T lick daddy’s lip balm!’ a lot.

Just now I asked him what he was doing, and he said what sounded like ‘I licking daddy’s bum’. Let’s hope that one doesn’t go public.

9 May

I forrealz just cooked a tea towel along with my chips.

14 May

Me: ‘I need to get ready, Henry. You’ll have to wait till Daddy gets home to ask him.’
[Henry presses the iPad button for Siri.]
Henry: ‘HELLO. HELLO. I NEED TO SPEAK TO TIMOTHY.’

15 May

From the bedroom, quite distinctly: ‘oh, CWAP’. Whoops.

13 June

Talking to Hen about senses.
‘What do we use for listening?’
‘Headphones.’
‘No, ears. Ears are for listening. What’s your nose for?’
‘Teddy pressing.’
‘Smelling, actually. What do we use for looking?’
‘The iPad.’
‘Your eyes. What are your feet for?’
‘Shoes and socks.’

New concepts :-)

17 June

Even in a fictional Game of Thrones universe generated by a computer algorithm, I am not cool.
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21 June

Just poked my head around the door and saw Henry dragging Teds down the stairs by the foot. So I dropped my phone on our hard floor and ran.
Downside: poor phone. It’s ok, but it was lucky.
Upside: definitive proof that I love my children more than my phone.

23 June

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I’m now letting him eat from my Muller Corner using his hands. Hashtag desperation.

26 June

From nowhere, today: ‘Hey mama, bees don’t have willies’ –?!

30 June

Forgot to tell you Teds pulled the ladder down on top of himself this morning – and it was by the stairs, so he fell backwards DOWN THE STAIRS with the ladder on top of him. Heart attack city.

- Yikes. Is he ok?

Amazingly, yes. Hard as nails, this boy.

2 July

Just banged my head on the corner of the car boot so hard I am literally strapping the boys in with tears streaming down my face.

Why can’t I just be a suffragette and have Mary Poppins be brilliant with my children?

5 July

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This guy woke up at 5.45am: bought 20 more mins with a bottle, and 20 more with him trashing our room.

He’s just got to Only Sitting On Your Face Will Please Me stage.

16 July

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‘Do a wee, ball! Time for you to do a wee!’

[puts on deep voice for ball] ‘No wees coming, thank you.’

17 July

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He made it to the top. *horror face*

- He is his brother’s brother.

19 July (6pm, FYI)

I’m coming home! Via Tesco.

- How soon is too soon to put Teddy to bed? He seems like he’s nearing the end of his tether.

-You are a wonder woman.

- In case you didn’t know.

23 July

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Found an empty bottle, pulled down your shirt, got himself settled.

24 July

‘Whass Teddy doin’?’
‘I don’t know, what is he doing?’
‘I sink he’s pretending to be a sea cow.’

30 July

‘Where on earth did that water come from?’ I said, watching Teddy splash in a puddle on the floor. ‘Seriously, there are no bottles nearby…and it’s not sick…’

Wee. He’d made a splash-pad out of his own wee.

From now on I will only be accepting emails addressed to ‘Rachel The Virgin Jeffcoat, Mother of Winter’, in case you were wondering why yours keep bouncing.

(You can see previous Notes from the Trenches here, here, here and here – and the quote formatting with this blog style is pretty gross, but I don’t have time to fix it now, so let’s all just agree to not mind.)

Why I’ll be sending my kids to camp

I’ve just got back from girls’ camp – well, not just: I’ve been back long enough to sleep for a couple of hours, to unpack all my moss-covered, grease-covered things, and to realise I’ll be doing a full-body cringe for the rest of this week while my fiery sunburn dies down. I’ve only been involved in a few camp activities this year, but the feeling is always the same, and it made me think of this post I wrote the last time I was there.

Here’s to helping our girls feel their bright, brilliant, ferocious worth, right to the ends of their muddy fingers. 

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that August is a month worth camping in.

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Yesterday I came back from girls’ camp. Forty-eight teenage girls, thirty-ish adults, twenty-seven million clumps of knee-high, prickly grass. It’s been a long, hard, exhilarating week we’ve been planning obsessively all year. I’ve sat in a smelly marquee eating dinner from a tin plate, sung ridiculous songs in the heat of a campfire, listened and talked and run around like a lunatic, and all of it surrounded by talking, shrieking, singing, laughing girls.

I think there must be nothing on earth like this. I watched them arrive on Monday morning and wanted to reach out for them because I remembered being in their place – impatient, self-conscious, unsure of myself, my place in life, my body. Making decisions that would affect the rest of my life and frightened to death of doing it wrong. I wanted so much and didn’t know how to get it. What do they hear from the adult world we inhabit, these girls? You must be beautiful. You must be popular. Don’t be stupid and don’t be clever. Be funny. Be skinny. Wear this. Take this off for the camera. There, now you’re something. They see a hard, bright world of boxes we created for them to fit in, and they’re lost in it. How could we do it to them? How could we?

We spent last week making spaces to tell them something different. You are something, and somebody, and valued on your own terms. You have potential. You can make decisions that bring you self-respect. You are a daughter of God, and there is so much happiness ahead of you. Not one of you, not ever, needs to be lost.

As I sat with these girls, I knew I’d be entrusting my children to them in fifteen years or so. I want my boy, my girls and boys to come, my girls yet unthought-of, to know the truth: that they are worth more than their skin, that their destiny is their own, that they are loved more than they can comprehend. I do not want them lost. So I’ll be sending them to camp.