Tag Archives: Dorset

This feels like the stuff childhood is made of

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Sometimes I disconnect during our camping trip to Dorset – mind buzzing up and away from its normal constraints under all that empty sky – and wonder what our ancestors would think, if they could see us leaving our safe, waterproof Life Boxes to sleep under a flimsy, pegged-down balloon. Voluntarily huddling round open flames to cook our dinner and warm our bones.

I’m not putting myself forward as a candidate for the Stone Ages or anything, but camping really isn’t as mad as it sounds. Sometimes. This time, the boys a tiny bit older, the weather better, friends and their baby with us, and all our plans working out like a dream – it felt like five days of bliss. Even though there is such a thing as camping hair, and it visits my head with the wroth of a thousand fuzz-fires. I just try not to look in mirrors.

Camping haaaaaair

Camping haaaaaair

Our little experiments, back when we first tried this in 2012, have solidified into traditions we look forward to for weeks. Plan to arrive before dark. Actually arrive after dark, and put up tent in glare of headlights and frayed tempers. Eat breakfast overlooking the valley and the steam train. On the sunniest day we head to the beach, all purple heather and white sand. This year H surprised us by galloping into the sea first thing, and staying in there most of the day. Apparently he’s not afraid of water anymore? I wonder if I will ever learn not to assume his dislikes and fears are permanent. Probably not, but it’s one of those occasions where it’s nice to be proven wrong over and over again.

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After a hot and windy day in Studland bay, we drove into Corfe for the Purbeck Film Festival, which runs an open-air cinema every year in the castle grounds. We order hefty boxes of fish and chips from the local pub, and eat them under blankets, waiting for the sun to set. This year we watched the new, live-action Jungle Book, which Tim and I thought was ace, and both boys decided was ‘weally scary, actually’. (It was, a bit.)

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The next day we went to Brownsea Island, surely the Enid-Blytonest day trip ever invented. We park on Studland Bay, take a chain ferry over to Sandbanks, and then a little yellow boat over to the island. Brownsea is a nature reserve (red squirrels! Peacock babies!), and also the place where the first Scout camp was held in 1907, though it’s much older than that: a solitary hermit monk set up camp there in the 9th century – lording it up spectacularly, I’m sure – and it hasn’t been left alone since. These days there are amazing clifftop views, lots of bright heather, a cracking wooden adventure playground in the middle, and lovely forest for little hikes. The island is small enough that even the longest hike is a doable challenge for toddler legs. It’s my favourite day, this one. No matter how many people get off the boat with you, you always feel like you’ve got the place to yourself.

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Then, of course, the castle day. I keep expecting H and T to get bored of coming to Corfe Castle, but they haven’t yet: they loved it this year more than ever. We got there on the steam train – always a pants-wettingly exciting experience for these two – and then had a good ramble around the ruins.

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And a sword fight. Can I get one of these furred tabards for casual leisure wear? It was like being embraced by a bear who respected personal boundaries.

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We always take the same photo in this window, and it always takes us at LEAST half an hour to find it again. Which leads to me bellowing across a crowded castle yard ‘I’ve found it! I recognise the mould patterns!’

They are very distinctive mould patterns, to be fair.

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That evening I settled into my million layers and read a book under a duvet, while Tim and our friends played cards, and Teddy wailed through firmly-zipped canvas ‘BUT I WANT TO KEEP THIS HOLIDAY FOREVER AND EVERRRR’.

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The next morning we packed up, loaded the car, and drove away in the direction of Durdle Door.  We’d never actually been to Durdle Door – silly, because it’s one of the main tourist attractions in the county – and it was busy, but utterly breathtaking. Not a beach ideal for little ones, because it’s pebbles rather than sand, and you have to climb an awfully large hill to get back to the car. But the view! I couldn’t stop looking.

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On the road out we always pass a little footpath sign that marks 2 1/4 miles to Corfe Castle, and I think ‘one day, when their legs are long enough’. Maybe in a few years. In a few years they’ll spend rainy mornings reading in their sleeping bags. In a few years, we can cycle. It’s rather a lovely thing, knowing that your August bank holiday is only going to get better and better – even if that’s not true, alas, of your hair.

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(The castle, the island and the beach car park are all owned by the National Trust – we already use our yearly membership to death, but even if we didn’t, this one holiday would make it even out. The steam train, the film festival and the little ferry (still free for under-sixes!) tend to be our only activity expenses, which is extremely happy-making.)

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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TED.

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PAGING THE BAYWATCH THEME TUNE. YOU ARE REQUIRED ON SET.

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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!

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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Castles and canvas

So guess what? It’s raining, and since I’m underneath an actual roof, I’m totally casual about it. Rain on, my friend. Rain on.

Of course, we knew when we decided to go away camping for Bank Holiday weekend that it would rain. August Bank Holiday and rain are like bacon and…more bacon: two stalwart adventurers that will never be separated. BFFs for life. They took a blood oath and everything.

Oh gosh, I’m tired.

Anyway. We did go camping for August Bank Holiday, and it did rain for a fair bit of it, but it was so unbelievably brilliant that we didn’t mind. For me, camping is a traumatic experience – I don’t believe in choosing not to sleep in a bed, for a start, and a have a pathological attachment to hot showers, for a continuation, and terrible things happen to my hair without a hairdryer, for a conclusion. But in this company and in this setting, it was all just marvellous.

We went to Dorset, and camped at the top of a hill overlooking rolling hills, a ruined castle and a steam train. We traded an incredible view for an incredibly long walk down to the toilets and showers, but it was worth it. Views like that are food for the soul, even in drizzle.

We looked around Corfe Castle village, tramping around medieval castle ruins, tiny stone cottages and a big, echoey old church. We [I] slept badly, shivering and getting up three times to check on Henry, who each time had squashed himself into the smallest, most suffocating space in his sleeping compartment. He thought it was all a grand adventure, and didn’t mind at all.

Then there was the beach: a quiet little alcove we found in Studland with clear water, myriads of shells and properly golden sand. I had no idea we had beaches like this in England. Unexpectedly, Henry was beside himself with excitement. He sat,  hair stuck up in every direction with suncream, flinging sand everywhere and toddling off to the sea.

That evening we boarded a steam train (!) back to Corfe – OR HOGWARTS, YOU DECIDE – and watched a film at an open air cinema in the castle grounds. With fish and chips, and chocolate hobnobs, and the sky fading to indigo behind the ruined keep. Oh, wonderful. When we arrived back off the train near midnight, I put on two jumpers and an extra sleeping bag, secured Henry in place with rolled up blankets, and slept like a log.

Then it was nearly over. We packed up the car in the morning, drove off our hillside and through Corfe Castle for the last time, and went to visit a National Trust country estate at Kingston Lacy on the way home. It felt like we were suffering a little from grandeur-fatigue, but it was still delightful. It had an old organ in the dining room. Wide marble staircases up to huge arched windows. Paintings on every wall. High carved ceilings that made you gasp when you looked up, and up. Oh, and a cafe in the old stables, where we had cake (obviously).

We’ve been so busy this month, and Tim away so much, that our lives have shifted into autopilot. Work and dinner and meetings and bed, over and over, and hardly a conversation that didn’t involve practicalities or Henry. I missed our connections, the little habits and happinesses that make us ourselves. We found them again in Dorset, and I just can’t express how lovely it was. Even – yes, even – in the Bank Holiday rain. Please ignore the hair.

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