Tag Archives: Days Out

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.

 

On learning to love the mud

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Boys love mud. I’ve had to learn to love it, too. Last Sunday we went for a walk around Lardon Chase and The Holies, just outside Streatley, and even on a sunny day we slipped and slid. We left the pushchairs behind, put Teds in the back carrier and Henry in wellies.

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You notice a lot more when you’re going one-eighth of a normal walking speed. The feeling of crunchy bark on the trees, the pattern of sunshine and shade on the ground, the exact sucky-squelch of the churned-up soil. Sticks become swords and molehills launching pads. He tends to be more interested in where we are than where we’re going, and I try not to yell for him too often. Wandering by yourself in a sunlit wood is one of those childhood experiences that needs to be lived so you can remember it later, and the mud on the seat of your trousers is your triumphant souvenir.

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Once, there was a boy

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One day I was in the Tate Modern (always a good beginning). I’ve forgotten why, but there didn’t have to be a reason: we were still in that carefree part with no children, but also quite a way into the part where I wanted them. We wandered into the gift shop downstairs, and found racks upon racks of brightly coloured picture books. They were in gorgeous, hold-your-breath colours, the sort you have to run your fingers over to properly appreciate. Intoxicating, especially then. I found an author I’d never seen before , who’d made a beautiful book full of skies and stars. And a boy, who loved them both. It started, ‘Once, there was a boy’. And the book was by Oliver Jeffers.

‘How to Catch A Star’ was one of the first picture books I bought, the beginning of a hopeful little library waiting for a boy I could read to. Then I got one. I sat him down in front of Oliver Jeffers far sooner than he could really appreciate. We’ve got the whole series now, all with hold-your-breath illustrations. Henry adores them. And I still get a touch of that old anticipation and longing, that shiver of skies and stars, every time I sit down and begin, ‘Ready? Once, there was a boy’.

So you can imagine how delighted we were to discover a new theatre production of ‘Up and Down’ by Ga Ga Theatre. They’re a new theatre company aiming to make theatre outings friendly and welcoming for children. So all their venues are pushchair-accessible, and the productions are forty-five minutes long without an interval. Ours was in a little independent cinema, about a minute from Notting Hill Gate Tube station. We arrived with Henry’s cousin and auntie to an enthusiastic welcome and a giant posterboard of the boy and his penguin, which we managed to knock over seven times in ten minutes. The theatre was one of those with huge, plush red seats and a gilded ceiling, crammed today with mothers and excitable kids. You don’t realise how much you worry about your pushchair getting stuck in a doorway or your toddler trying to sit on someone’s head until, suddenly, you don’t have to.

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He didn’t, in any case, because the show was completely delightful. Funny, inventive, and faithful to the whimsical spirit of the books. Two actors played the boy and the penguin, telling the story with the help of giant, cartoony props and Jeffers’ own illustrations moving on a screen behind. It took Henry about half the performance to realise that the people jumping on stage were pretending to be the characters, but he was enthralled from beginning to end. I had to tell him that ‘peggwin’ had gone home for his dinner just to get him out of there. I was afraid he’d park up next to the checkers board and never leave.

There’s something quite lovely about seeing a favourite book opened up so beautifully in front of you. Given half the chance I would have stepped inside it myself, tucked us in with a blanket and said ‘Alright. Ready? Once, there was a boy’. Then up and up we’d spin to skies, and stars, and everything in between.

‘Up and Down’, Ga Ga Theatre, various London venues till 3rd November.

Ga Ga Theatre kindly provided us with free tickets for today. But the opinions (and enthusiasm) are mine. Henry’s too. Even with the prospect of chicken nuggets before him, he wouldn’t stop talking long enough to eat them.

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A temple a day

Oh, we lived life on the edge today. The VERY EDGE.

My beloved, best-ever sister offered to watch the boys for the afternoon so Tim and I could do something nice. We were so overwhelmed by the possibilities that we took most of the morning to decide what to do. I never descend those stairs without carrying a car seat, a box of raisins and twenty nappies, holding Henry’s hand and keeping up a running commentary of ‘no, there are no bears down here. Yes, you’re wearing your shoes. Don’t poke Edward in the eye. Thomas is a train; he doesn’t need shoes. Hold on to the wall please – holdonholdonholdon… Argh’.

You know what I left with today? Face powder, and no carpet burns. It felt like living.

We ended up at Stowe, a 250-acre landscape garden that used to be top destination for the posh in the 1800s. Now, in your average National Trust property you might get a large, fancy house, some manicured lawns and maybe a little temple with Roman statues. This one had the largest house we’d seen outside Buckingham Palace, three lakes, and a temple everywhere you looked. A riot of temples, an embarrassment of temples – all of them with the sort of acoustics that just begged for a bit of Mariah Carey, and architecture that needed a Pride and Prejudice reenactment. You know, one of the really intense scenes, where everyone’s windswept and wearing jodhpurs. We were happy to oblige.

Oh, and the views. And the sky. And that lake threaded with fallen leaves like something out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

We did the whole circuit – something like four miles – and had uninterrupted, hand-in-hand conversations. As we walked back through the gate towards the car park and home, we saw a tiny blonde boy riding a bicycle, his legs pumping furiously, cheered on by parents who were obviously regretting giving him that bell.

Once, we would have talked about how fun it would be to bring a boy here someday. Today, we made a plan for October.

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Just down the tracks

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I do not know where my [relatively] [sort of] ordered life has gone. Today we decided to look for it in Pangbourne.

This was a good idea for all sorts of reasons, for example, 1) I’ve driven through Pangbourne on my way to and from work hundreds of times, admiring all the pretty cafes and wondering what it’s like by the river Thames, and I’ve never once stopped there. It’s fifteen minutes from my house. Madness. Also, 2) Henry woke up with a snotty cold today, and this combined with his recent personality transplant meant you’d be a dam-fool to stay indoors. I am not. And 3) we decided to walk down to the station and take the train, which meant his day was made several hundred times over.

Note: I just wrote ‘river Thomas’ instead of ‘river Thames’, above: this should give you an idea of the state of our train obsession at present. Henry nearly mugged a kid by the river because he was wearing a Percy t-shirt.

Second Note: I keep telling myself that things will Settle Down with my wonderful firstborn, but let me tell you, I was pondering Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat this morning (2am is weird) and felt for a moment that selling Joseph to the hairy Ishmaelites sounded like a pretty good idea.

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The train was a massive hit, to the extent that getting off ten minutes later went down Very Poorly Indeed (of course). Big ticks for the shops, the river and that nameless muscular chap with the sword.

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There was also a b-e-a-u-tiful Georgian church I dragged Sarah into. I have a thing about old churches. I’d have all my picnics in graveyards if people didn’t think it was weird. This one was a belter.

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Third Note: The church is called St James the Less, which seems a bit harsh on poor St James. Less than what? I looked it up and it seems that he might’ve been called James the Less because he was shorter than the other Jameses in the Bible. As you do.

The cherry on the no-one-getting-sold-to-Ishmaelites cake was this hair. It’s either sticking up with strawberry yoghurt or sweat, and I’m not sure I want to know which.

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Yo ho ho and a cup of herbal tea

There are things in my life that make me feel terribly English. See, exhibit A: love for scones and jam; exhibit B: inability to sing ‘Jerusalem’ without bellowing; exhibit C: crippling awkwardness in social situations. Spending the day on a narrowboat chugging down an Oxford canal has to be in the top five.

We did this last year, but it was even better to do it again when I could actually fit through the doors. Two of us had babies this year, which makes you wonder how many years we can keep going before our rate of increase actually sinks the boat.

Off we sailed, passing boat parks and beautiful houses by the canal, overhanging ferny trees and crumbling bridges. Henry didn’t stand for the lifejacket for longer than five minutes, but he agreed to be Keeper of the Rope in exchange for not hurling himself overboard.

I think all of the country’s eccentrics go and live on the water. One of the gardens we passed was set up like an abandoned outdoor wedding reception, but with cobwebbed silver teapots and Finding Nemo chandeliers (yes, really). As we sat and ate barbecued sausages in our makeshift campsite, another narrowboat inched past on the water. ‘I say’, said the chap at the tiller. ‘You haven’t seen a dog walking past, have you? We seem to have lost ours’. We hadn’t. A narrowboat is an odd place to lose a dog, but the owners didn’t seem very concerned. Perhaps it’s a regular thing, and the dog quite often leaps off to go and solve crimes or something. I would believe it.

It was a sunny-rainy, chocolate-button-and-cheeseburger, entirely delightful day. We arrived home with damp clothes and sunburn. See? Totally English.

Oxfordshire NarrowboatsThrupp, Oxfordshire. Drink up, me hearties

The Hay festival just made my heart explode

Today I died and went to heaven. It looked exactly like the Hay Festival. I know, imagine. No pearly gates at all.

In all seriousness, my loves, the Hay Festival is amazing. I walked in and squealed with such intensity my whole head vibrated. I have wanted to go for years. This year we got ourselves together enough to buy tickets to Hilary Mantel’s talk on Bring Up The Bodies (obviously). Next year, we’re going the whole caboodle, planning it properly, securing an overnight babysitter and parking ourselves in a tent.

In case you don’t know, Hay is a literary festival that now includes film, politics, comedy and lots of other things as well as writers. And it lives in Hay-on-Wye, a town on the Welsh border famous for its second-hand bookshops, vintage fairs and funny narrow streets. It’s also got a beaut of a church, and on our way back to the car we nipped down a little lane that led to a bridge that led to a rambly path next to a half-buried stream, and we felt like the only two people that had ever found it. I mean, it doesn’t sound bad, does it?

Hilary was fabulous. She read from the book, then talked about her research methods, her characters, her history and her writing. I loved it. And was only slightly on the edge of my seat because we’d sneaked in a baby, and he’s just learned to shout.

Actually, he was so good. He didn’t make a sound, not that that stopped the snooty man next to me from glaring. What, are you allergic to silent babies, Sir Quiff? Even though they smell nice? Are you ALLERGIC TO THE NICE SMELL?

I think Henry enjoyed it, nonetheless. We walked out just in front of Tony Robinson, who’d also been in attendance, and I think he got a bit starstruck. Thankfully he didn’t try to grab Tony’s face.

We had a venison cheeseburger and spicy potato wedges for lunch (venison is nice, did you know?), browsed the fancy stalls, almost made it into the book signing queue until they shut the door on us, and accidentally watched a 3D film on the Amazon in which a Brazilian naturalist kissed a sloth. It was disconcerting. But delightful.

Hay, you and I were made for each other. Let’s do this again next year. Ok? Kisses.

UPDATED because my favourite sausage-dog-blogger and all-round snazzy lady Emily went to Hay today as well. Since she was sensible enough not to take a baby, she got some great photos of Hay-on-Wye delights. Check it. (That’s not an order. Unless you want it to be.)

The original Henricus Rex

…Or H-Rizzle, as he was known on the madrigal circuit. Oh, you know he was.

BLING.

Tudor nerds unite. And let’s do it at Hever Castle, because it’s brilliant. It’s the ancestral home of Anne Boleyn, and I was certain it’d be the sort of place that would call forth the Jiggy Dance of Historical Joy I keep locked up for special occasions. I just wanted to go without splattering 500-year-old stuff with baby sick, because I thought it would probably be frowned upon. On Saturday, with my own Henricus Rex having a marvellous time at his grandparents’, the opportunity arose and I grabbed it.

It’s more expensive than your average National Trust (it’s privately owned) but oh, oh, oh.

First came the lake and the rowing boats named after Henry and his unfortunate wives.

Then the gardens, huge and immaculate and filled with little private spaces and Roman artefacts.

Then the mazes: one of yew trees, and a spraying water obstacle course that made Tim come over all Crystal Maze Contestant.

Then the castle. It’s tiny, as castles go, but riddled with spiral staircases, tiny windows set in thick stone walls, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, long galleries and things the Boleyns had actually touched. We loved it so much, we went in twice. You weren’t allowed to take photographs, so we didn’t take…many.

(Taking turns to cough hammily in order to disguise the sound of a camera shutter will enliven any time spent in a castle, by the way.)

Emerging dreamily from under the portcullis, we were about to head back to the car when we discovered a huge and thrilling adventure playground tucked behind a hill. We tested everything, and it was all adult-proof. You’re welcome.


Other things we did with our baby-free weekend: ate lots; went to the cinema; had long baths in a funny little hotel; and slept all night and all the way till 8.30am (steady on). Tune in tomorrow for the Hunger Games verdict: I have Opinions.

Hever Castle, Edenbridge, Kent. Go, enjoy, and buy yourself a magnet in the shape of Henry VIII. You know the old devil would want you to.

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