Paused for thought

Paused for thought

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Staycation postcards: A final flourish, week one

I simply cannot believe that the summer holidays are nearly over. They have been longer here in the Midlands than in some other parts of the country and they have still passed by all too quickly.

As you may recall from previous blog posts, ours did not go quite as originally planned this year. Consequently the last full fortnight is being spent in a frenzy of creating great memories with family and friends, helped along by family birthdays, an excellent excuse if one were needed for additional celebrations.

We started week one of this final flourish at Trentham Monkey Forest. A wonderful place, quite quiet and peaceful with 140 monkeys wandering the paths and eyeing visitors curiously. Babies hung onto their mothers, watching social interaction with eager eyes. Old monkeys strolled, with little care or attention to Homo sapiens invading their territory, there was no sense that they were at all concerned about their hierarchy being upset.

We can learn so much from these cousins of ours. Their careful, loving nature. The support that they give each other. The watchful eye they keep on their young and the open aired expressive learning environment that they grow up in.

Monday saw us venture to the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry. A completely free museum (donations are welcomed) with both adult and family orientated exhibitions and a lovely studio room set up for exploration by young children. Our boys certainly loved playing in it, and there was something that captured the minds of each of them, despite the age range of 0 to 4 years old. In fact we were joined by friends with older children who seemed happy to while away time there too.

By Wednesday we were off to Santa Pod Raceway for their Junior Drag Day. What a delight! We revelled in watching monster trucks roaring, playing on fairground rides and cheering the drag racers on! No amount of rain could dampen our enthusiasm.

Thursday was spent relaxing at the Stratford Butterfly Farm. Billed as the UK’s biggest tropical paradise it lived up to expectation. Butterflies landed on us, and fluttered gently around us as we stood and observed. An area dedicated to caterpillars was a big hit with our children (one of whom chose to spend his pocket money on a small plastic caterpillar at the end of our time there, such was his fascination with them). At the opposite end of the building stands a section for insects great and small. It boasts one of the largest collection of insects in Europe and it did not disappoint with its interactive displays and tanks at a reasonable height so the little ones amongst our party could take a peek inside.

By the weekend we were all rather tired but a family party finished the celebrations nicely, whilst we took some time to relax ahead of another well planned and exciting week.

Check back next weekend to read about our adventures in the final week of our holiday!

The origins of the blog

Perhaps this should be retitled 'the origins of this blog', this post is certainly not a profound entry on the origins of all blogging history (although as a side note here you may be interested that the phrase “weblog” was coined in 1997 and reflected the process of logging the web). Instead it is an easy reading amalgamation of a few of the most frequent questions I have been asked over the past few weeks by supportive family and friends.

Why start a blog?
To put my thoughts somewhere. I’d love to say that there is some wonderful back story to my blog, other than to practice my writing, to challenge my writing, and to motivate myself to pick up the pen again. Along with the above, it is a space to put everything so I can refer back to it without losing it like I did with my first ever blog, started in the year 2000 and lost to the wilderness of the internet and a web page no longer maintained that has swirled into a technological black hole. It also gives me the opportunity to share it with anyone who is interested.

Why call it The Thought Allotment?
I don’t want to reverse myself into a pigeon hole of writing only about one thing or another. People who know me personally know that I like to talk, about everything. My writing is much the same. I like to write, about everything. No topic too small, and none too large, although plenty will spin way beyond the hemisphere of my brain. The idea behind the name was that my blog would be a place to publish a post or two or three, much like sowing seeds, and let the thoughts and writing continue; grow and flourish if you will. Some may flower some may not, but just like an outdoor allotment, I can try anything. There will be some surprises, my postcards for example get a large number of readers on every publication which I didn’t foresee. Such is the beauty of the blog space.

Why are photographs limited?
Photographs are something that I will work on, perhaps when I have a little more time?! I certainly should invest in a small but quality camera rather than continuing to rely on my Apple phone. But whilst photographs of locations are plentiful, I regularly sift through a bounty of images when deciding which might be most appropriate, you will never see current face on photographs of my children. This is a personal decision and everyone sees these things differently. For me though, I don’t want to impact their privacy until they are of an age to fully understand and consent to that. I will always try my very best to ensure that the faces of others do not feature on my blog unless I have their express permission too.

Will you earn money from it?
At the moment, no. My priority is as a mother to 3 very young children. When I commit to something professionally I give it my all. I’m not in a position to do that at the moment. BUT, if I am ever rewarded for any of my posts I will always disclose that to my readers. I like to think that gives you all some confidence that I will always publish my honest opinions, whether complementary or not!

What’s next?
I’m working on a bigger writing project that will, most likely, take years. My posts here will help of course with my writing style, and they will continue and are completely independent of my other project. I’m always open to new ideas, challenges, and feedback!

So there you have it. My little space, my little writing haven, my little thought allotment. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Becoming Papa: A guest post.

"Oh, really? Are you sure?" We stare at it - the blue cross. Does blue mean it's a boy? I'm entering a world I do not understand.

Hours pass, or perhaps it was months. I don't know if I've watched too many sci-fi films, but there's something unnerving about it, something other... Is that a hand? A foot? I don't really want to touch, but know I should. My wife laughs at me. I like feeling him now he's bigger – I put my face against his skin shell and talk to him, he goes quiet and listens, or at least that's what I like to think.

I'm not really worried until about a week beforehand. I've got it planned out: 1) start new job, do that for 4 weeks; 2) baby arrives, check he's functioning as expected; 3) go back to work, no other changes required. My spidey senses tell me this may not be true, I remember my be-dadded mates saying something about "ooo, it's really quite different" - I haven't seen them in a long time, what are they doing?

“Jacob!” Water, everywhere! I sit-up like a mousetrap going off. My body immediately pulsates with adrenaline – I run downstairs, get the mop, towels, cleaner. “What are you doing? Don’t worry about cleaning it up now!”. That’s not what my brain is telling me, I’m fairly sure amniotic fluid can rot through a mattress in a matter of minutes, stripping varnish from the floors, searing through metal, wood and brick leaving visitors to look up through the holes in the floor expecting to see Sigourney Weaver staring back at them.

We make a trip to hospital, they put a monitor on, everything is fine – contractions slow down, “go home”. Can’t you just poke him out with a stick – I sensibly keep this thought to myself. Nothing. By this time we’ve been awake for 48 hours, we decide to go to bed.

One Born Every minute is heavily edited I think to myself. I'm standing, looking at my wife, she's on the floor, attempting to rout dust mites from the carpet by lying face down, mooing at them. The mooing gets louder and longer. I write down timings, it's a very important job - medical professionals will be checking my work, must make my handwriting neat.

I suggest a bath – I think I saw a lady in a bath once on a TV programme and she seemed quite relaxed. Bath seems good, relaxing, peaceful. “Er, I think we should go to the hospital again” says my wife. “What do you mean you can’t get out!” I exclaim. What’s with these contractions, making life so difficult. Can’t you just hold them in for a second? No, no you cannot it turns out. We make it to the car.

Come on, come on, come on. We’re sitting at a T-junction. Let me out scumbags, can’t you see I’m carrying a pregnant lady here about to give birth! Stop all the cars, the traffic, turn the lights to green, a baby is coming! We probably only waited a minute. I drive the half a mile to the hospital. Hobbling across the car-park – pausing for contractions. Don’t mind us, yes, many knowing looks from strangers. They know what’s coming, we mercifully, do not.

This is it, I check everything. The snacks, the drinks, the music. Some sort of clothes for the baby – probably be useful. The room seems nice, like a Travelodge for people who make a lot of mess and require wipe down floors and surfaces. I try to think of helpful things to say as the paper flows out of the machine, providing a seismic trace of my wife’s body attempting to eject the baby.

I eat too many biscuits, cake, peanut M&Ms – I have a sugar crash, giving birth is hard work. I can’t keep my eyes open, not much happening anyway. I’ll go to sleep for a bit. “We’re having a baby…” those words penetrate my slumber, I sit-up with a shot. My wife and two midwives look at me like an idiot. “No, not yet.”

They’re coming thick and fast, some real pushing going on now. It can’t be much longer, he doesn’t seem to want to come all the way out. Stuck in some sort of U-bend. A consultant turns up brandishing what looks like the plunger off of a baby Dalek. He tries that, doesn’t seem to work. Another suction device comes out, I think the first one was just for show. He attaches it to baby’s head. It’s hooked up to a diesel generator. That doesn’t work either. He takes out what looks like a baby extracting wrench. The consultant braces his feet against the bed – his muscles bulge, the midwife holds him by the waste. It’s like some awful human centipede. I expect a second midwife to join in on the end. It’s not required. The baby is out!

My mind keeps saying “It’s a baby, it’s a baby”. I’m not sure what I thought he’d be. I am filled with love, tension releases, he’s so small. I can’t believe he is made from both of us. He lies on my wife’s chest, cuddling in, absorbing the warmth, acclimatising to planet Earth. Suddenly, we’re alone in the room – I feel slightly nervous, do they know they’ve left us in here with a newborn baby? I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I hold him while my wife has a bath. My eyes become strangely damp, my brain is creating new portmanteaus of feeling. I feel unprelated, exciervous and lovxious.  I’m so happy he’s here, in my arms, a tiny new life and I am instantly, unassailably, in love.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Summer holiday 2015

This year our summer holidays haven’t quite gone as originally planned. Telling a 4 year old and a 2 year old that the week away to visit family and stay in a caravan by the sea is no longer going to happen, was one of the harder moments of being a parent. As was settling into a new routine following a change of job for my husband that removes any guarantee that the children will have time with him during the week. So it is with incredible pride that I write how inspirational our children have been in handling this change.

Shortly before the school holidays, we had a family emergency that rather shook our comfortable, secure little lifestyle. As a result we made the decision to cancel our much needed family holiday and rearrange it for a future date. I was initially faced with the inevitable “why can’t anyone help us?” question from our 4 year old, but this was followed by something quite unexpected. Rather than huff and puff like I had done the evening before when discussing it with family, he sat with his 2 year old brother, wiped away a tear and explained to him that we weren’t going away, adding, “don’t worry, Mama and Papa will still make sure we have lots of fun!” I noticed a few days later that the flow of ‘X’s moving across his wall chart towards the holiday week which had been filled with stickers and smiles had quietly stopped. He’d taken it in his stride. My 4 year old, who doesn’t much like change and who values time as “just the 5 of us” above all else, had dealt with this situation with incredible understanding and maturity beyond his years.

Absolutely determined to make the most of our ‘stay at home holiday’ or ‘staycation’, my husband and I threw ourselves into keeping our children happily distracted. For the most part I think we succeeded. Amongst other things we had a wonderful trip to Snibston Discovery Centre, we made a return trip to CBeebies Land at Alton Towers, and we went to Mary Arden’s Farm. We started ticking off all the local parks listed on the council website that we had not been to before. We made it to the sea to visit one of my sisters and her family. Our children were happy. Relaxed and pleased to have had that all important quality time with us.

I learnt something important during that week that I have thought before but perhaps not put into practice with such determination as I did then. Yes, children are, or can be, adaptable, they get over things very quickly, they take delight in new activities and old ones revisited, and you don’t, at this age, have to spend half their inheritance to be rewarded with a grin on the smile-o-meter (my eldest son’s measure of how happy he is). More than this though, I learnt that sometimes you have to prioritise differently. You have to grab time where it’s available and not be afraid to rearrange plans, but make the most of a new situation. You have to ask for help, and if the help and support that is needed is not available, you should not assume that you will absorb the to-do list one way or another anyway, it’s simply not always possible. If you make a promise of fun to a child, then keep it. That doesn’t mean that plans can’t change, it just means you should make the most of them. And learn from children to exercise mind over matter, get on with making new plans, stay focussed and keep positive.

My husband returned to work after a good break to a new role that has increased his time away from us during the week. Our attitude, however, has continued unabated. We’ve had trips with friends to Compton Verney, Ryton Pools, Coombe Country Park and Rainsbrook Valley Railway to name a few. We’ve explored old favourites like Charlecote Park, and new places like the pick your own fruit and veg at Malt Kiln Farm. As a family we’ve been to the Bristol Hot AirBalloon Fiesta, butterfly spotting, and on snail hunts. Now with a fortnight to go, we are determined to finish the school holidays with a final flourish of joviality. Never forgetting for a moment that it is the time together which is most important of all.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, 2015

Every year the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta attracts thousands of visitors from around the country across its four-day period. It’s not hard to understand why. The family event offers plenty of fun in the form of ground entertainment, music, food, and of course, airborne attractions too.

We first visited the fiesta in 2013 and had a super day out although unfortunately the balloons were unable to fly in the evening due to high winds. Nevertheless we were determined to make it back and see them take off, and we made the journey this year, on the Saturday. We arrived in Bristol mid-afternoon. Predictably the traffic was heavy but we were prepared and entered the festival excited to see some balloons which were scheduled to fly around 6pm.

We began by taking our boys to the fairground attractions. The helter skelter was a big hit! The carousel went down well as always and whilst we were enjoying the rides we saw two wingwalkers on bi-planes, a first for our boys!

We settled down for the main event, spreading out our picnic rug, setting up our picnic tea and snuggling in together. The pilots went in for their briefing and there was much excitement among the crowd when we heard that they would be flying. The sky was virtually clear from clouds, the sun was still shining, there was an “ooo” and an “ahhhh” then a huge cheer and applause as the first balloons took to the skies. It was enchanting, watching balloon after balloon rising for around an hour and a half. Happiness spread thoughout the crowd, perfect strangers joking and chatting as the balloons took to the skies and set off over the city of Bristol.

I would love to leave this post there. On the high note that we felt that evening. The magical atmosphere that sent a warm glow through us watching those balloons. Unfortunately though, the organisers of the event did miss a few crucial points that would perhaps have enabled the day to be seamless for those who visited, and it seems remiss of me not to mention them. The biggest one was that they were clearly in desperate need of more volunteers to help steward the event. Don’t be put off visiting by what follows! But do take note so that if you sit here reading and hoping to visit in the future, you might be better prepared than we were.

Unlike other major free events, the Bristol Balloon Fiesta is not ticketed, meaning that to an extent any number of people can turn up and there is no prior warning of a rush of people appearing at the gates. According to news reports at one stage 6,000 people arrived within 15 minutes! I later learnt that on the day that we visited people had been turned away as it was deemed that the event was full. Certainly from the inside by the evening it seemed chaotic and over-crowded. One lady lost her child and couldn’t find a marshal anywhere to assist. There were disposable barbeques being set up all round the site with no thought to the large volumes of alcohol also strewn across the grass (I lost count of the number of large empty vodka bottles that we saw). Pathways that had been clear when we arrived were packed with people on our way out and were impassable for our buggy carrying our by then sleeping baby. Toilet queues were so long that there was a mass urination relay taking place in the surrounding trees. We tried to leave at a reasonable time after the evening balloon launch and before the night glow, thinking we’d slip away at a quieter time for traffic on the site. We made it back to our car at 9pm, tired after shuffling through the throbbing crowds, but ready to get on the road and back home before the mass exodus after the night glow and fireworks. We finally left the car park at 12.30am. Yes, three and a half hours later. Again, there were simply no stewards helping the vehicles to exit the car park. Please don’t misunderstand me. Was it a good day? Absolutely! And it was free! But somewhere along the way some basic practical organisation seemed to be lacking.

I hope that the event planners will have a lessons learnt debriefing to assist with future fiestas, and in order that future visitors have a much more pleasant experience throughout the day. That said, will we be there? Yes, I hope so. With a carrier for the little one and a hotel booked to escape back to at the end of the evening.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Emojis - the new cool

The big child in me is thoroughly amused by emojis at the moment. Forget text speak, this is the new cool. Why say you're happy when you can use an ever so slightly scary smiley face instead? Or sad when there are a multitude of sad faces (including one sneezing? Or is that just a sneezing face? Why would you send someone a sneezing face? Oh, maybe they have a cold. Okkaaayyy...) 

On that note, has anyone else noticed just how many there are? Including some that make no sense? What’s NG for example? Or UP! Perhaps a reference to National Grid? If NP might be No Problem, perhaps NG is No Gain? And if there’s an ‘UP!’ why not a ‘DOWN!’ And the person in the bath that’s tucked away with the sports symbols. “But, Dr, I just don’t understand why I look like a prune, I work out every day, sitting in the bath…” I also love that some useful ones are missing. For example, I am yet to find a fingers crossed emoji on the standard Apple keyboard. But there's a bicep. Yes, a bicep. So when wishing my friends and family luck with something I send them the lucky bicep. And yes, I am quite pleased with my childishness.

Then there are the ones that simply make me laugh out loud every time I see them. The little fella running. He looks like he’s had a hard day. I’d like to take him by the hand and treat him to a piece of flapjack. The sad devil. Why a sad devil face? Why? Is it more or less sad than a regular sad face? I’m not sure. 

Of course with their watch, Apple have taken things one step further with animated emojis. I can’t say I understand all of those either. The waving ‘whatever’ hand, or is it devil horns? The winking smiley face with its tongue lolling out, looking like a teenage boy lusting over the music video channel. But hey, they have a fingers crossed in the mix so they’re not all bad. And you can download them and send them via email to get in on the action if you’re without the latest piece of Apple kit. 

Stepping away from Apple and text speak, Facebook is, naturally, in on the act with the stickers that can be sent via messenger. Top tip, don’t send too many at once. Facebook does not appreciate it and will temporarily ban you from using them which is quite annoying if you’re having a sticker sending contest with your husband and he doesn’t get banned but you do, but I digress. Smiley stickers, food stickers, film characters, you name it you can find something that might suit. You’d like cat on a scooter? Got it! A green sickly monster? Done! Even an angry oyster, don’t ask.

When I was a child, or a teenager at least, amusing pictures were reserved for doodles in the margins of my school workbook. These images take art to a whole new, entertaining, level. On this occasion though, I think I'll leave the artwork to others.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Staycation postcards: Mary Arden's Farm

Nothing quite says summer holiday for me like a trip to the farm. For our family, the obvious choice in the Midlands is Mary Arden’s. Located in Wilmcote and the former home of Mary Arden (Shakespeare’s mother) and her family, the farm has acres of land, beautifully laid out for children and adults to explore. There is so much to do and for just £12.90* per adult (under 5’s are free) which gives you a year’s access, you can have a thoroughly enjoyable day out time and time again. 

The farm will take you back to Tudor times with interesting demonstrations, Tudor music and dancing, falconry displays and activities for children to enjoy through the year like pumpkin carving and clay tile decoration. On our visit there was a lovely hay bale maze, perfect for exploring and clambering on!

The house is carefully presented as a Tudor home with dinners prepared in the kitchen and served at lunchtime. Rooms can be explored giving a taste of life in the 1500s and perhaps a glimpse of what the young William Shakespeare would have experienced. Out buildings house a dovecote and a cider press.

Along with the demonstrations and activities and displays are, naturally, animals. There are a number of friendly local breeds as well as rare breeds such as (our favourites) the Mangalitza pigs. You will find informative signs displayed around the farm relating the animals living there today to their predecessors in times gone by, with quotes from Shakespeare’s work too.

A short walk will take you to a children’s playground, a willow tunnel, a wooded area with lovely dens constructed from branches and twigs, and on to a meadow. 

To me, Mary Arden’s is so much more than a farm, a house, a history lesson. It is a wonderfully relaxed place to go with family young and old. It is a somewhere to have a moment of peace and focussed family time in what can sometimes be a chaotic family schedule. Although I have written this postcard following on from our latest visit, I am certain that we will return before the summer holidays end, for a little bit more Tudor magic.

* correct as at August 2015

I did not receive any compensation for this post. All opinions are my own.