The Price of Blaeberries

One of my fellow Little Trekkers Ambassadors posted a drool-worthy photo of ripe blaeberries (bilberries) yesterday, and noted that they were particularly abundant this year. So although the forecast was for murky drizzle and rain, we decided to brave the mental driving* over the Cairn o’ Mount road and go back to an old haunt at the foot of Clachnaben, in Glen Dye, to go foraging.

*’Mental driving’: expect to encounter slow-moving cyclists round every corner, and oncoming speeding 4×4’s overtaking them on blind bends. I’ve yet to drive this road without swearing loudly at oncoming traffic.

I think the whole of Aberdeenshire had the same idea: the wee car park was full, the overspill layby was full, cars were parked along the side of the narrow road and in the slowly-dripping-downhill bog opposite. One white car blocking a forestry path nearby had already been written on with blue marker pen. So we kept driving on to try out Scolty Hill near Banchory. Well, we quickly abandoned that, too, because we were 5p short of the £1 minimum parking charge. The Boss agreed to see whether he could ask another motorist at the ticket machine for the missing 5p, but came back muttering darkly that we were to give up and go home.

Ever the optimist, and determined not to have a long drive in vain (it was now 1pm), I stopped again at the Glen Dye car park. And found a space! Within a minute, we were out, covered in waterproofs and off down that forest path.

blaeberriesThe best blaeberries are only about 100 – 200 yards from the car park, so we didn’t have far to go at all. As usual, we reminded the kids not to strip a bush bare, not to be too greedy (one Treasure Jar = 500g of fruit (ish) = plenty), and not to trample the ground. And oh my stars, they certainly are / were abundant! There were very, very few under-ripe ones, so I should think they’ll be gone by the end of the week.

tick baitAfter about 3 minutes of picking, the midges found us. I giggled through a long-winded explanation of what ‘Character Building’ meant to the minxes and how midges crawling over them would do just that. They didn’t appreciate it, and went from being irritated to angry to howling with rage within another 5 minutes. Midi started to get a bit distressed at the midges, so I looked up. It was quite a swarm around us! So we split up and headed in 5 different directions to try to lessen the swarm. Nah – they just called all their friends to come feast on the foragers. midge foodAnother 5 minutes later and The Boss called a halt to the foraging – his sensitive skin comes up in big weals with midge-bites and the poor man was beginning to look like Lizard. We ran away bravely to the car, where I keep a first aid kit containing a packet of loratadine antihistamine tablets. Luckily I’d got the one you can give to children over 30kg – poor Midi Minx obviously inherited her Daddy’s skin, whilst the other pair are a bit more midge-resistant like me.

jelly contentWhen we got home, we immediately displayed our fundamental priorities: I started weighing and washing the blaeberries to make jelly, Maxi turned on the Tour de France on the TV, her sisters got out their My Little Ponies, and The Boss checked his bare legs for ticks. He found 3 immediately. Screeeeeeech to a halt! The minxes were told to drop everything, strip off their lower clothing and line up on the white bedspread for a tick check. Midi found 2 crawling on the sheet, Mini had been bitten by 2 and had another on her. Bleurgh! I’m not overly concerned about the risks of Lyme disease (I caught it myself in 2005) because they were off so quickly, but I’ll obviously keep a wee eye out for bulls-eye rashes on her or flu-like symptoms over the next 3 weeks.

I think you can see by the photo of Mini way up there ^^ that those bare ankles were enough to attract them. Even though we weren’t near bracken, it’s obviously tick-heaven in Glen Dye right now. We’ll go back in a day or 2 for more berries, but next time will remember to tuck long trousers/leggings INTO socks, do buddy-buddy tick checks after being out, and I’ll buy another of my favourite tick hooks at the vet’s – I gave the one I keep in my purse to my mother-in-law and forgot to replace it because The Boss has one too. You can’t have too many O Tom tick twister hooks, in my view!

I’ll let you know how the jelly turns out. How would you use a glut of blaeberries yourself?

Quick Visit Back To Our Old Stomping Ground: Day 2

Saturday 9 April, Day 8 of the Easter Holidays

I didn’t enjoy my sea-induced sleep for long: Maxi woke me at 2am, crying because she needed to go to the toilet ages ago and couldn’t hold it in much longer.

You know, once you’re actually out your warm sleeping bag, stumbled into wellies and struggled into your big down jacket, it’s not so bad being up at Silly O’Clock. There’s something about a silent campsite that makes me feel a bit like a kid sneaking around on Christmas Eve. Maxi felt it, too. We strolled / waddled / giggled over to the toilet block, torch-light making the rabbits dance around us. They were as big as cats! We gawped at the bright Milky Way above us as we plodded on, and promised to stop and look for meteors on the way back. However, in a short few minutes the clouds lapped over the stars and, just as we reached the tent, the first raindrops fell. How lucky were we?! The pattering of rain on the taut roof, hissing waves and Mini’s piglet-snores in my ear sent me back to sleep. Normally I fight sleep, only closing my eyes when I can’t keep them open any longer, frustrated at the ‘waste’ of time. But the comforting sounds, wrapped around my most-loved 4 people, in my favourite place, relaxed me for the first time in months. Years!

Jammies TailThe Boss earned yet another ironed shirt from me by getting the coffee ready for us as soon as we woke up, then poured hot porridge into the kids. I promise I told him about his jammies tail before too many people saw him…

breakfastWe unleashed the kids on the brilliant onsite playground to burn off some energy while The Boss packed everything away (he doesn’t trust my packing: he takes the gentle origami approach, whilst I favour the stuff-and-hammer-it-down method). Midi taught Mini how to hurtle down a zip-slide without rapid death ensuing. All sorted and car shifted by 10am, The Boss announced that it time to hit the beach.

Oh, I love that beach! I got immediate flashbacks to a walk The Boss and I had taken along it almost exactly 6 years earlier with a baby Mini on my chest and still high on painkillers. It was probably all the lemon primroses and the cave with the ever-present discarded Buckfast bottles in it that prized that memory out…

The minxes and I settled into our usual beach routine – climb anything not moving / draw lovehearts with ‘Mummy’ in it to earn an extra massive hug / build a big beach collage / turn over every rock to find a starfish – while The Boss had a clamber around sites of near-epic bike crashes in his past life.

By the time the tide came in and shepherded us back to the main bay, it was about time to sort out a treat lunch: Scribbles Pizza Restaurant, scene of many a minx disaster and wonder and our favourite place to eat in Elgin. Although the inside has been completely renovated since we last visited 3 years ago, they still make my favourite beef chilli melts (I craved them throughout my last trimesters when I was expecting Midi and Mini) and the coffee and walnut cake was just as delicious as I’d remembered.

Cummingston gorse - if only that scent could be bottled!

Cummingston gorse – if only that scent could be bottled!

With sunshine fighting back against the drizzle and our little bubble of nostalgia unburst, we drove back again to one of our favourite beaches: Cummingston. At this time of year, the gorse is incredible: a coconut sunscreen scent hangs over the whole area when it’s hit by sunlight. All 3 girls love the looooong slide at the playpark because it feels scary. As does dodging the nesting seagulls dive-bombing people who get too close to the cliffs, but today we wanted to look for cowrie shells and sea-glass so headed for the beach on the far right initially.

Although we could have happily stayed for many more hours, eventually we realised that at 6pm it really was time to reluctantly head for home. We only winkled the minxes back into the car by promising to come back to the area the very next weekend that we could. It was an easy promise to make, and personally I can’t wait!

 

Quick Visit Back to Our Old Stomping Ground: Day 1

Friday 8 April, Day 7 of the Easter Holidays

We all felt sad about not getting out camping and were getting fed up rattling around the house – the week had started well with visits around and about but the weather forecast was miserable for the entire weekend. In occasional bouts of nostalgia and wistfulness, I sometimes check the forecast for the area where we used to live. This weekend it would be mild and dry there. A quick Google showed me I could get a nearby campsite place for under £15 for Friday night. It didn’t take me long to convince the rest of the family that we should go.

We loaded the car on the Thursday night and set off for Elgin before mid-morning. With that Historic Scotland membership still shiny and new and with the sun splitting the heavens, we made a bee-line for Elgin’s ruined cathedral. Despite Elgin being our nearest large town for 6 years, we’d never explored or even looked twice at the cathedral. Within 5 minutes of entering, I was regretting leaving our visit for so long! Elgin Cathedral made an even bigger impression on us than Melrose Abbey the week before, which is why I’ve written a separate post about it (I’ll amend this to add a link).

30 seconds before the tent was up and ready

30 seconds before the tent was up and ready

tent home

The nerd tent: bigger on the inside than the outside.

A quick packed lunch in the car and an emergency outgrown waterproofs purchase (Maxi and Midi are growing like weeds), and it was time to drive to Silver Sands campsite just outside Lossiemouth. As it’s mostly laid out for static and touring caravans, there’s only a little grass area set aside for tents. There was plenty of space, though: not many campers fancy pitching a tent in sub-5degC weather. We didn’t hang about: our little Vango Halo was up in a couple of minutes, every tent peg we owned holding it into the sandy ground against the wind! The minxes were delegated the job of jigsawing together the foam floor and placing roll-mats, sleeping bags and pillows. I tried hard to ignore the wails and screams that constituted kids negotiating who slept farthest from whom and closest to “Squashy Mummy”… Camp struck, we hopped into the car and nipped off down the back road to see whether the fish and chip van still visited our old village on a Friday evening.

We were so overwhelmed at seeing the fish van and some old friends in the queue that it took us a wee while to notice that the land it was parked on had been substantially prettified: beautiful plant beds and borders and decorations. Colourful, beautiful and a visual testament to great community spirit – the villagers had done the work themselves.

fish and chips by the seaWe strolled round the corner to the sea front to gaze out over the Moray Firth towards Cromarty while we ate our chips and creamy fish. All 5 of us sat silently, 3 minxes on one bench, us crumblies on the other, happily munching and smiling and reminiscing. Ahhhh, despite the chill, life just doesn’t get any better than this!

climbing wallTummies full, we walked back towards the car with a quick detour via the brilliant climbing wall along the side of the school. We should have driven back to the campsite then, but only got a few feet before all agreeing that we had to stop for a quick play at our old swing-park.

zip wireI think that was our mistake – by the time light was fading and we had to leave, we had 3 sad little faces in the back seat. Mini burst into tears and declared that she never wanted to hear the name of our old village again. “Never say that word again!” she sobbed. Amongst the family, she wanted us to rename it “The-village-where-we-used-to-live”. I think a lot of the tears and emotion were down to being so very tired out. However, I didn’t feel too even myself. I’d have loved to have said hello to our old friends, but I couldn’t really face walking up our old street and it would have been rude and too much of a surprise to just drop by unannounced.

Mummy's 'special' water bottle

Mummy’s ‘special’ water bottle

Back at the campsite, we quickly got sorted out. We could have been very distracted by the tvs in the wall of the bathrooms, but were too tired to linger over teeth-brushing. The girls sleeping-bagged up and collapsed in a big huddle. There were snores almost immediately. The Boss and I just about managed to stay awake to enjoy a shared bottle of Tiger beer (I volunteered to have my half in a water bottle – classy) before we squeezed into the huddle, too. For once, I enjoyed a little bit of insomnia, lying there listening to the wind rattling guy-ropes, the scree of the oystercatchers and the insistent swoosh of the waves, idly NOT planning the next day’s fun.

Arbroath Abbey

Tuesday 5 April: Day 4 of the Easter Holidays

Have Historic Scotland membership; will use it! The Boss and I compared the properties on the Historic Scotland website that we could drive to, alongside their forecast weather, in a demented game of Top Trumps. We settled on Arbroath Abbey. I vaguely remembered visiting it when I was around Maxi’s age and thought it might be quite interesting, so off we drove.

It was empty bar 3 or 4 other people. Maybe they’d heard we were visiting..? We started by touring the indoor visitor centre, whose displays and panels listed the Abbey’s historical timeline, described its links in the 1950s with the Stone of Destiny, and explained why the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 – signed at the Abbey – was so significant in Scottish history. Upstairs in the visitor centre is a model of the finished abbey and a wall of glass through which you can see the Abbey, presumably for when it’s too wet to go out and explore yourself.

Minxes being minxes, they needed to get outside and explore and touch and see and compare. So they did. With much glee. I’m still surprised when they enjoy visiting old crumbly ruins, but I think they each get something out of it: 6 year old Mini likes the freedom of being able to run around; Midi is fascinated by sculpture and carving; at nearly 10, Maxi’s imagination lets her picture what life was like hundreds of years ago, and she’s curious about the differences.

The red sandstone of Arbroath Abbey hasn’t stood up to the elements as well as that at Melrose Abbey, so there wasn’t so much stonework for Midi to study. However, the intact Abbot’s House had some exhibits and replicas inside that took all the hard work out of Maxi’s imaginings and brought the building to life.

We paused for quite a while trying out the very long echo of the sacristy. Even still, it didn’t take too long to explore every opening door and climb every accessible staircase, so decided to have a look further afield.

We’ve been to the town centre of Arbroath a few times, so decided to explore the walk along Seaton cliffs at the very end of the seafront esplanade before going home. It starts beside the public toilets and follows a tarmac path along the edge of the cliffs. It felt safe enough, but we didn’t venture too far – just as we started spotting the sand martins and were looking out for arches and stacks, Mini suddenly was very glad that the public toilets were so close. By the time we’d walked back, it really was time to go home. Perhaps we’ll finish the walk in the summer.

Monday Morning Holiday Blues – Not!

Monday 4 April: Day 3 of the Easter Holidays

After a very eventful weekend abandoning the tent and then making the most of it, you’d think we’d sleep in on Monday morning back at home, still on holiday. Well, we probably WOULD have done, had The Boss not set his alarm clock to his normal 0645hrs. Meh!

We didn’t unpack because we still harboured hopes of grabbing the little 3-man tent and heading off for a night or 2 camping locally. In the meantime, we spoke again to Kim at Waren Mills campsite, scene of our tent catastrophe, and the lady who tried so hard to help us out at the time. She did an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing and talking to other people on our behalf, out of the goodness of her heart. The end result is that our booking has been transferred entirely to another date. As we won’t be able to afford a replacement family tent anytime soon, she suggested we stay in one of their wigwams instead. Wow! I’ve never seriously considered glamping, but the prospect of being able to drive down to Northumberland after work on a Friday night, drop the sleeping bags in and get our heads down, and even have a kettle and fridge there, is just amazingly luxurious! We prefer to sleep in one big huddle anyway, so the one-big-bed approach is just perfect. Even better, we *will* get to explore that beautiful campsite and heavenly location after all – driving away on Saturday with the site and beach unexplored hurt so much.

So, I’ve gone from being distraught at losing lots of money with no holiday week to show for it, to now having a weekend in August to seriously look forward to. I absolutely cannot wait and The Boss and the minxes are very excited too. And all because someone at the campsite cares very much about how their customers feel. I’m looking forward to meeting her and saying thank you again in person.

On a high, then, we were inspired by the freezing cold rain and sleet outside to go swimming in our local pool. The minxes have swimming lessons there every week, and I’ve noticed finally (finally!) how independent they’ve become. Gone are my days of having to do absolutely everything for all 3 of them, and usually all at the same time. At worst, now, I just need to be on-hand to be an extra pair of hands juggling towels, wash-kit and clothes.

Cat in the Hat pink cat ring

Pink cat ring, from The Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr Seuss

I’ve not been swimming in over a year, so one 4-bladed razor head, a clogged drain and half a pound in hair later, and I was ready! My hair is currently bright red so I brought Midi’s fetching blue swim cap to avoid a Cat in the Hat pink bath ring around the pool. I looked like a blue baked bean. Still, I’m glad I wore it – after 15 minutes of fun, we were all ordered out of the little pool and told to shower with soap before going into the big pool. Someone had blown chunks and the vomit needed to be cleaned up. Poor soul and ewwww in equal measures!

Mini seriously impressed me. For the past 6 months I’ve not watched any of the girls swimming because of the timings of their lessons – I spend the entire time moving bags and kit from locker to locker and to and from each girl, and feeding them. Maxi goes straight to Cubs afterwards, too, so that’s a LOT of kit to juggle. Last time I saw Mini swim, she’d been moved back down from Level 3 swim lessons to Level 2 because she refused to get her face wet, even in the shower. So you can imagine my expression when I watched my baby girl happily doggy paddle on a swim-noodle by herself, happily chatting away to me through constant splashes and mouthfuls of water. What a girl! She even asked for help with her current terror: jumping into the pool herself. Channelling her tenacity for good – fantastic!

Midi has just moved from Level 4 to Level 5 (after around 2 years of trying hard); Maxi is still in Level 7. They happily rolled in the water, did handstands, showed their proud Daddy how many lengths they could swim, and generally had a brilliant time.

Me and The Boss? We got to bob around in the cool water, watching our offspring with pride. But the best bit? Getting out was an absolute breeze. Six solid years of weekly trauma shepherd’s crooking kids out of showers and ushering damp minxes around finally paid off. Have I got across to you yet how smug and satisfied that made me feel?! Crikey, we might even go swimming as a family again soon!

After swimming we did a quick and cheeky Lidl run for some savoury pastries from the in-store bakery, then a seriously big shop. The Boss and I finally accepted that the weather within a 4 hour drive of home was just not good enough for us to take little kids camping, so we had a home DVD evening, with homemade popcorn and Daddy’s super hotdogs (they’re super because they include a free onion-chopping and cooking lesson for the kids). Fun and free. Well, we’ve got to start saving those pennies for a replacement Vango next year.

Melrose on a Sunday Afternoon

Sunday 3 April: Day 2 of the Easter Holidays

grunmpy children

We no wan’ no steenkeeng treep out inna rain

We woke early on Sunday in the Musselburgh Premier Inn after a disastrous start to the Easter Holidays. I’m not sure whether The Boss or I actually slept much, with Mini punching and kicking and karate chopping through the night.

The very first thing we did was check the weather forecast. Rain. With extra rain on top. So we changed our plans yet again and hit the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast instead of heading straight out to explore locally. The service was cheerful and friendly, and the food was fine (apart from the sausages that were hot on the outside, stone cold and pink on the inside, and allegedly not under-cooked, but rather ‘it’s the food colouring’). The girls ate prodigious amounts of everything and we all waddled out to the car to explore the Scottish Borders a little bit before doing the Drive of Shame back home.

Butterfly Girl - day made

Butterfly Girl – day made

I’d have liked to have explored Musselburgh and Portobello at least a bit, but the forecast was for the fog and rain to hang around all day. It looked driest south-west of there, so we drove to Melrose.

“What’s in Melrose?” asked The Boss.

“Dunno. An abbey? Maybe?”, I replied, fountain of all knowledge as usual.

A 40 minute tootle through rolling countryside later and we got out into more drizzle. We broke out the waterproofs so we could properly stretch our legs without worrying about the rain getting heavier. Mini was delighted at spotting a shop called Butterfly. It was shut, like everything else in Melrose. I thought that the north of Scotland would observe Sunday closing and that the south would have more of an English attitude, but my experiences have definitely been the reverse! Never mind, Melrose’s main attraction was certainly open: its beautiful Abbey.

And we had such a brilliant time at Melrose Abbey that I’ve written it a post all of its own.

bulb bed at Harmony Garden MelroseEmerging into the sudden sunshine a few hours later, we decided to push the kids’ hunger levels a little more with a quick run through the small but beautiful Harmony Garden. The beds and walled gardens look like they’ll be incredible in the summer; the bulb lawn, crocuses and fritillaries made me feel very Spring-like.

Lunch! Get me to some lunch!

Lunch! Get me to some lunch!

Tired and hungry, we finally agreed to go seek some food. That was going to be interesting on a Sunday with everything shut! Luckily, I spotted a line of people coming from near a banner advertising The Abbey Mill, proclaiming that it sold woollen goods and had a coffee shop.

And what a find it was! The bottom floor sold touristy cashmere and wool clothes, rugs, scarves and so on; the entire top floor was a large coffee shop. We ordered a cream tea for 4 to be split 5 ways. To boost the spirits of the flagging minxes, we made a big deal out of letting them try some very milky, watered-down tea for the first and possibly last time ever. Properly hyped-up, they washed their hands and sat nicely until the staff swiftly brought a huge platter of goodies. Oh my! Colourful, tasty fresh salad; egg mayo and ham sandwiches, on both white and brown bread; 4 iced cupcakes; 4 enormous warm, freshly-baked fruit scones with strawberry jam and cream. The staff thoughtfully put the teabags by our cups so that we could control the strength of tea for the kids, brought some extra water, then stood well back in safety as the troughing commenced…

Within 20 minutes, all that was left was a small half-ring of onion, a single egg mayo sarnie and half a cupcake. It was absolutely delicious, completely filled us up, and at £6 a head was brilliant value for such high quality food. Midi laughed when I blushed at the praise meted out to the minxes for their good behaviour and pleasant table manners. I tell you, I basked in it, savouring every word. It might tide me over next time we’re slinking out on the Walk of Shame from another cafe on a different day.

We ambled over towards the River Tweed to the chain bridge. We walked over it just for the sheer hell of it, though poor rule-abiding Maxi got herself in a right state waiting for there to be less than 8 people on the bridge at any one time so she could walk over. We didn’t tarry too long on the other side – the path was one long dog poo obstacle course. So we walked back again in the direction of the town centre, via a bit of parachuting off a fallen tree, in search of a play park.

We found a fantastic and very busy playground past the rugby ground and over beside a busy caravan park. The minxes wore themselves out over a one hour thrash around. The bark chippings underfoot were very thick, the play equipment wonderfully varied, Midi made a new friend, and all 3 tried hard to wrench their arms out their sockets on the monkey bars especially.

Around 5pm it was time to call it quits and finally head for home. We paused at Leaderfoot Viaduct to have a good look around and for The Boss to boil a kettle for hot chocolate and coffee. We saw plenty of cyclists zoom down the cycle path from the viaduct and onto Drygrange bridge – maybe that’ll be us in a few years? – but the sheer number of dog poo deposits left on the grass verges, cobbles and paths around that area mean that I honestly can’t recommend it as a stop-off. Unless you’re wearing footwear that can be easily hosed down. It’s pretty disgusting. We’re talking 2 dog poos per A4 paper-sized area of grass. Bleurgh! So a quick coffee and back on the road.

The drive home over the Forth Road Bridge took maybe 4 hours of steady driving. The sun flirted with us, giving us beautiful views over Edinburgh. We finally got home in the darkness and fog and rain that’s been forecast to last until May. I can only hope the Met Office mean May 2016…

Melrose Abbey

3 stoogesSo, we unexpectedly arrived at 900 year old Melrose Abbey, all ready to spend an hour or so running around the grounds in the drizzle.

There was an entrance fee. Of course there was. But the friendly and knowledgeable David explained that if we were likely to visit 3 or 4 Historic Scotland sites in a year, then we’d be better off with an annual ticket. And best of all, paying by monthly direct debit would cost the same overall as paying in one installment, and would mean paying less today than a one-off ticket. A quick look at the list of Historic Scotland sites convinced us both that we’d be visiting an awful lot more than 3 or 4 sites this year – perfect!

heart of Robert the Bruce Melrose Abbey

Heart of Robert the Bruce – perhaps

Tooled up with a free audio guide for Midi, a quiz-sheet for Maxi, and undivided parental attention for Mini, off we set to learn more about the monks who’d set up and lived in the abbey. Mini was obviously listening to me explain who Robert The Bruce was and why his heart was allegedly interred here – she merrily explained who King Robert was later when we visited Arbroath Abbey and talked about how he’d organised the writing of the Declaration of Arbroath.

3 little gargoyles on the south wall

3 little gargoyles on the south wall

I got distracted by the beautiful and still-intricate stonework. I liked the crouching demon and bagpipe-playing pig gargoyles best, and helped Mini spot the telltale zigzags on walls where old staircases used to be.

We 4 eldest all trekked to the top of a spiral stairwell to the very top of the abbey. Such a beautiful view! But I made the mistake of looking over the barrier, down a 25m sheer drop to the ground. I instantly lost my ability to focus, so trotted down the stairs to rescue a scared Mini and take her to ground level. Meanwhile Maxi and Midi impersonated another gargoyle very well. I’m glad that The Boss’s (far fitter) thighs burned as much as mine on the return to ground level. Made me feel like less of a loser.

Maxi reckons this must be a pirate's grave, lol

Maxi reckons this must be a pirate’s grave, lol

After answering all the questions on Maxi’s sheet, reading all the excellent information boards and counting stone-mason marks, we walked over the medieval drains to the 16th century Commendator’s house, which is now a museum. Midi tried on one of the monk habits and looked for all the world like a cream-coloured ghost. The girls spent some time colouring-in and having their imaginations fired by the little dolls while The Boss and I looked at the stones and exhibits and sniggered like teenagers at the unearthed piss pots.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the visit as thoroughly as I did; it was worth making the journey (had we not found ourselves there by accident). The rest of our day in Melrose was just as fabulous.

Camp Fail

Saturday 2 April: Day 1 of the Easter Holidays

The Boss and I had spent since Friday lunch-time packing, stuffing and loading and finally shoe-horned the kids into the car just before midday Saturday. One last check of the long, long list and off we set for 6 days camping in Northumberland! We’ve never been there and were looking forward to exploring it and hopefully enjoying the driest and mildest weather around. Except us being us, it never quite happens like that, does it…?

Princess Daffodil

Princess Daffodil

We arrived at the campsite, Waren Mill, around 4.30pm. The rain had stopped for a little bit but the fog hung in curtains over the sea, so undistracted by the hopefully gorgeous views, we got our pitch allocation, drove round to the wonderfully empty field, released the delighted and squealing minxes into their natural habitat, and quickly set to work erecting the behemoth tent (Vango Maritsa 500).

The little puddle in the bottom of the tent bag was a bit out of place, but as we unfurled the tent and poles and pegs, everything seemed fine: well, it had started to rain again. Like a well-oiled machine, The Boss and I took opposing sides and slotted the heavy poles into place. A bit of heaving and juggling and wishing we’d another 3 pairs of hands to hoist it (as yet too short and not strong enough to meaningfully help), and the tent was up. Hooray! Just as the rain really started to come down. We ordered the girls away from their daisy chains and daffodil crown-making and temporarily into the car while we painstakingly pegged out the tent, re-centred it on the placement as instructed, untied and retied the guy-lines, pegged them, meticulously opened and pegged the vents… Och, you get the picture. We know from long experience that time spent at the beginning getting it right pays dividends when the heavens open in the middle of the night. As forecast throughout the week ahead. Along with the hovering-just-above-zero temperatures.

As the rain decided to go from steady to heavy, I grabbed the tent inners and nipped inside to get them hooked up so that we could quickly all loll around our lovely, light, airy tent. The zip into the tent was jammed. I tugged. I teased. I yanked. I pulled steadily. I threatened. I shouted. I yelled. I growled. Nothing. I looked more closely: the zip seemed to be gummed up with what looked like wet silvery salt. Oh-oh…

I called The Boss over for reinforcements / moral support / possibility of blaming him. He tried everything I had (except for the shouting – he doesn’t really do Drama Queen). We remembered the tent has 2 other entrances, so he unpegged one and tried to unzip that. No go. With a “grrrrrRRRRR!” he finally managed to open it. I ran round, shielding the inners from the rain with my wet head and tumbled inside.

Dear goodness, the place stank! And the floor was wet. Very wet. This didn’t bode well at all. I called for the cloth we’d packed to mop up condensation in the morning. It just smeared the water around. I considered sacrificing a towel. The Boss came back with a penknife, so we left the puddles and prioritised taking turns to chip away the salt around the zip of the front door from either side. Chip, chip, chip, pull. Chip, chip, tug. Chip, yank. Like a pair of archaeologists we painstakingly dug out the zip. Finally, finally, we got it to open! We brushed off all the detritus and zipped back and forth, back and forth, freeing the teeth. It worked. Ish. Hooray! Right, now to investigate the water. And the smell.

Well, the smell was easy – every single seam was mouldy. All the once-clear windows were now entirely opaque. The zips at all the windows were jammed shut with similar powdery gunk to the front door zip. Ew!!! Maybe if the rain stopped and the wind started up, we could air the tent…? I looked at the rear ‘rib’ that the bedroom inners hook onto. Sodden. How could I get that dry? No new drips on the floor – good, at least it’s not leaking. Hopefully. I looked at the central ‘tower’ that the inners also hook onto and where we store our clothes in. Mouldy, wet through and actually disintegrating. Was I really going to connect the bedroom inners to this? Was I really going to sleep in here? Were we really going to subject our little kids to this?

I called The Boss indoors for an emergency conference. His wee face fell as he looked around: I didn’t need to explain. He suddenly frowned at me and asked if I was wheezing. Yes, my chest did feel very tight, but was that because I wanted to cry…? We looked again at the main sticking zip. Still sticking. I worded what we were both thinking: “What if we need to get out the tent tonight in a hurry and the zip sticks? That’s so dangerous.” We knew what we had to do, but decided to sit in the car with the over-excited minxes and discuss it in front of them, reluctant to actually make the final decision.

Maxi showing her happiness not 20 minutes before

Maxi showing her happiness not 20 minutes before

In 100% humidity, it wouldn’t dry out. We couldn’t sleep there overnight. We probably couldn’t sleep there ever again. We couldn’t clean it and we couldn’t replace the zips. And not being able to get out was too unsafe. We’d have to junk the tent and abandon the camping holiday.

“Can we salvage anything?” I asked The Boss, over the sound of 3 bitterly disappointed children howling. “Guylines? Tent poles? Inners? Pegs?”

“Just the pegs. The unbent ones”, he said sadly.

Right. No time for hysterics. It was already after 6.30pm (why, oh why, oh why could we not have discovered this before we’d spent 90 minutes setting the tent up?!). We were undoubtedly not the first campers this had ever happened to. Perhaps the campsite staff could suggest a cunning plan while we were still reeling in shock? The Boss called the Emergency Warden, who suggested staying in one of their wigwams or caravans overnight and sorting ourselves out in the morning. Brilliant! She promised to call back with the details.

Goodbye lovely tent

Goodbye lovely tent

In the meantime, The Boss and I set to work dismantling the tent and taking it to the skip. The girls cried and hugged each other. I felt a terrible heart-pang myself, remembering some of the fantastic holidays we’d spent in it: camping in the garden and horrifying the neighbours with the kids’ screaming and shrieking; our first family-of-5 camping trips; the camping that kept our family together 2.5 years ago (no-one was coping with The Boss commuting at weekends with his new job, so we spent the summer holidays camping at the campsite closest to his work).

Had it really been 2.5 years since we’d last used The Behemoth? We’d camped lots since. Right enough, we’d used the little 3-man tent instead each time. The Boss sheepishly admitted that he vaguely remembered putting the big tent away with a wet groundsheet that last time and waiting in vain for a dry day to put the tent out in the garden and dry it off properly. Normally I’d have screamed like a banshee at him, but the error was 3 years ago. Could I have promised back then to sort it out instead? A dim memory stirred in me, too. We were probably equally culpable. Why had we not got the tent out and aired and checked it before booking the trip? We normally would have. Oh yes – because it’s barely stopped raining since last August. Meh. How would we ever be able to afford to replace this? We said goodbye and thank you to the tent as we stuffed it in the skip.

unhappy kidsThe Warden called back as we sat in the car sheltering from the rain. Unfortunately they were fully booked. She was ready with details of how to get to the nearest Argos and outdoor kit shop and their closing times so we could nip off and buy an emergency tent. We thought about it as a family. Maxi immediately said that it would be daft to buy a little tent when we already had a 3-man one at home. I pointed out that a cheap tent wouldn’t cope with the forecast daily rain over the next week. Midi asked whether we’d get any money back at all. The Boss said no, it wasn’t their fault at all and they were only being helpful because they were kind people – we’d lost our money. Mini cried anew over her forgotten giraffe stuffed toy.

Damn. No tent. Bad weather. Upset family. I calmed the kids down and explained that things in life didn’t always go the way we’d planned. We could either sit and be miserable about it forever, or we could choose to make the most of it. The Boss and I agreed that we should eat first, discuss it all over dinner, then make a move, whatever that move was. The campsite had a restaurant on-site that we’d planned to eat at on the first evening anyway, so we did just that.

Over the next hour, we sat waiting on dinner, fielding ideas. Mini suggested that we go home that night to get Giraffe. We agreed that would be the most sensible and cheapest thing to do. But we didn’t want to. And the longer dinner took to arrive (the restaurant was very busy), the less likely we’d be able to make the 4 hour drive – The Boss and I were exhausted. Midi suggested that we stay in a hotel overnight then spend tomorrow having fun somewhere and going home tomorrow night. Aha, now that’s more likely! Then we could stop stressing about getting home at 1am. But we only had our budgeted spending money left. We sat watching the painfully slow wi-fi load LateRooms.com pages onto The Boss’s phone every 4 – 12 minutes (yes, I timed it).

LateRooms turned up nothing. The problem of having 3 children and not being able to afford 2 hotel rooms! We called the nearest Premier Inn. No, they absolutely would not let us share one room. Please? No. Pretty please? No. We tried a few other websites. Nothing. The phone signal waxed and waned and the wi-fi ground to a halt as the restaurant got busier.

We ate our fish and chip dinner and decided to set off before it got any later (it was 8pm) and just hope for the best. We let the Warden know we were leaving and thanked her profusely for trying so hard to help us out. As we approached the A1, The Boss’s phone picked up 3G signal, so he checked out the Edinburgh Premier Inns. He phoned the Musselburgh one direct. The lady on the other end said the same as her colleague in the more southerly hotel: that we couldn’t share, and that she only had one room left anyway. Voice cracking, The Boss explained that we were actually quite desperate, and told her our tale of woe. The lady sympathised. She talked to her boss. She relented and said she’d do her very best to get the room ready for the 5 of us before we arrived.

An hour and a half later, after a slow and difficult drive through thick haar fog, we arrived looking like red-eyed survivors from the rainforest. The lovely receptionist made us feel safe and welcome and commiserated with our bad luck. She even apologised that Mini would have to share with one of us. We didn’t care – we had a place to sleep that didn’t drip, creep, splosh,smell or give us asthma!

Don't care where you lot are sleeping - this is MY big bed!

Don’t care where you lot are sleeping – this is MY big bed!

Well, I say sleep – the kids slept well. Mini slept like a whirling dervish. Occasionally she’d punch me in the kidneys, slap The Boss, kick me in the stomach, rouse and demand that she be handed Midi’s Heffalump to cuddle, then kick the covers off and snore and splutter in The Boss’s ear. The Boss and I just clung to the edges of the bed either side of Mini and felt thankful for a room!

So, Pop Kids, what have we learned from this sorry tale?

  1. Always, always, always dry your tent. Somehow. Find a way. Just do it. Don’t ever leave it for 3 years.
  2. Always get your tent out to check it before you set off on holiday. Even better, get it out and check it before you pay for your booking.
  3. Always have a back-up plan; a proper if-all-else-fails plan. That doesn’t involve driving through the night in haar fog when you’re tired.
  4. Involve the kids when you have to make tough and upsetting decisions – they’ll feel less helpless and will burst with pride if you use one of ‘their’ (cleverly-planted and set-up) ideas.
  5. Bar one single person, everyone we asked for help and advice gave us it gladly. It was humbling and heart-warming. And I’ll tell you just how brilliant the kind Waren Mill Warden was in another post…

Minxes Think They Know Better

7 Nov 2015

“So, kids, who do you want to dress up as on Childhood Hero day at school this month?” I asked the minxes on the way home from school.

“Midi!” said Mini, straight off. She didn’t even check out her sister’s reaction. Awwww! She really, really idolises her. In fact, this evening we’ve just been treated to a half-hour tantrum because Midi refused to sleep close enough to Mini on the floor. On the floor. Floor. Yep, they’ve taken to making a nest out of blankets and a rug on the floor so they can snuggle up together (bunk beds obviously aren’t close enough). I swear Mini’s going through a phase of Separation Anxiety with her sister waaaaaay tougher than when she went through that with me when she was an infant. Perhaps I should feel jealous…?

Family Skywalker: Queen Amidala, Whining Luke, Princess Layabout and Darth Vader without the mask

Family Skywalker: Queen Amidala, Whining Luke, Princess Layabout and Darth Vader without the mask. Maxi (Harry Potter) took the photo

Dressing Up: we took the kids out guising at Hallowe’en last weekend. It was their first proper time, going from door to door. The Boss and I taught them guising etiquette (only knock once, only knock on the houses with lit pumpkins / porch lights / Hallowe’en decorations, have a decent joke or song ready to go without being asked, don’t be greedy).

We came across a great idea: one mum left a bowl of sweeties outside the door with a note saying, “Sorry, we’ve gone out – please help yourself to sweeties from the bowl”. It was such a great idea that I raced back to the house to do the same thing so I could stay out with the family. Well, I need to be there to complete the set, really, because we went as the Family Skywalker plus Harry Potter: Mini was her favourite film character, Queen Amidala; Mini was Whining Luke Skywalker; The Boss was Princess Layabout and I was Darth Vader (without the mask). Maxi of course was Harry Potter.

Don’t let the cute photo fool you – not 10 seconds before the photo was taken I truly lost my bananas and was a shrieking, cursing shrew with the kids messing around and The Boss not even being dressed.

I blame our morning for my bad temper: the kids had each won their respective age groups at the local library for the annual competition. They’d been invited to the shire prizegiving. Now, I know that the minxes won because they were the only entrants, so I was under no illusions that the prizegiving would result in any further prizes, but I decided to go: it was rare that all 3 could go, plus parents; it would definitely be a different kind of experience for them; there might be a nice wee buffet lunch in it. So I accepted before really looking at where it was. I check the night before. Ninety minutes drive away. Good grief, had I been starving hungry when I accepted, or something?! So we had to leave home at the crack of sparrows on a Saturday morning to find a high school on the other side of the county.

Well, we got there in time and piled into the auditorium. The minxes amused themselves by counting how many people were there – just shy of 200. Busy! They helped themselves to the offered juice carton and biscuit and settled down. The speeches started: a man did the obligatory Health and Safety Here Are Your Emergency Exits thing and introduced a representative from the sponsor. She gave a speech and introduced the next speaker. She spoke for a bit then introduced the next speaker… In the middle of 7 (seven!!) speakers, an author spoke for an hour entertainingly about his books, but I felt that his jokes were pitched at a different level than the average age of the audience – I’m 44 and I’m just old enough to understand references to the shower scene in Dallas. When the 7th speaker came on just to do a Vote of Thanks (what?!) I’d really had enough and felt like kicking the chair in front of me. The audience of 90-odd kids did wonderfully well sitting listening for nearly 2 hours, especially as most were under 10, and especially as the mini juice carton and plastic-wrapped cookie were our lot. The kids all got a goodie bag made up of the prizes they’d already won lots of during the summer reading challenge already.

I understood the goodie bag when I heard the intriguing fact that there were 90 entries to the competition across the county. Hmmmm… the prizegiving invitation was for each prize-winner plus an adult. The hall currently held just under 200 people. I let out a loud snigger – pretty much every single entrant to the competition had won a prize and was here. So there were probably lots of prizes leftover from the not-too-well-supported summer reading challenge. Ah…

Still, on the bright side, the kids got one up on me. They’d been banging on about how they might see F, a little girl they met while we were holidaying in Shetland who lived in the same county as us. “No, no”, I’d insisted: “F lives in a town the other side of the county. It’s a very big place with hundreds of thousands of people. It’s likely you won’t meet F again”. They all folded their arms and looked stubborn. Well, they DID meet F – she was one of the overall prizewinners of the competition! It was lovely watching all 4 girls catch up like they’d all known that they would someday soon. I guess us adults know nothing, eh?

The minxes drew them; The Boss carved them. I think they were really trying to test him this year

The minxes drew them; The Boss carved them. I think they were really trying to test him this year

Which takes me back to Mini wanting to dress up as Midi, her hero. The Boss and I discussed how we might do that. “Put her in one of Midi’s owl dresses”, he suggested. I wondered whether we could get some plastic insects and let her carry them. “Dress her up like an owl and cover her in flies?!” he summarised. Ehhhhh, no.

Owly Nature Girl was in the bath yesterday and came out nonchalantly, blethering away about something or other. Except she had a big house spider crawling all over her bony little chest. She strolled into the kitchen to see me, letting it scurry down her arm and over her hands before she’d return it to her shoulder. “This is Lucy”, she announced (she names all the insects that seem magically attracted to her hands).

“Welllll….”, I warned, “If you annoy Lucy she’ll give you a big nip that will feel like a wasp sting!” Mini winced (she got stung on the cheek last month, the poor wee soul; Midi is still hurt about being stung herself this time last year). Midi quickly shook off Lucy. I insisted the spider stay indoors so s/he could go find its family and live in peace under the floorboards or something. Midi was happy with that, and wandered off to find some poor unsuspecting Daddy Long Legs (aka Plinky-Plonks) to love to death instead.

In other news: Maxi is still being plagued with tonsillitis so took the day off with a quick visit to the nurse in the middle. I finally raised a metaphorical 2 fingers to the speed of her formal education and let her fly free a bit. I just asked her if she knew what density meant. She spent a happy hour discovering the relationships between area, volume, density, mass and weight. We discovered that none of my measuring jugs or scales are very accurate. She likes my analogies of spaceships filled with astronauts, kit, computers, servers, etc. (Don’t judge me. I needed more coffee).

Last night The Boss pulled out his copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (? I don’t know, I’ve not read them yet – I’ve just started Anne of Green Gables on Maxi’s recommendation. She read it aged 5. I’m finding that it’s influenced her character and mannerisms more heavily that I’d realised). He told Maxi she could read it this weekend. So after a late lunch (that she made herself – she astounded me at how capable she was!) she settled down for a bit of a long read at her book. It was just as well – you could tell when the paracetamol was wearing off as she got paler and paler.

Maxi now also has a date for her initial ASD assessment. I’m still not very sure what it’ll involve, but I’m hoping it’ll include a check of the state of her mental health – this week’s shenanigans (not written about as promised to Maxi) have me more convinced than ever that she’s depressed enough to need actual, concrete help from outside the family. Having a mother with a less sharp tongue would also work wonders for her, too, I’m sure.

Anniversary Advice From a 7 yo

Anniversary Advice From a 7 yo

Talking of taking advice from a minx (Anne of Green Gables from Maxi – see above), Midi offered me encouragement and advice on my marriage on mine and The Boss’s 10th wedding anniversary. It’s now on display alongside the gold star trophy award I gave him for putting up with me so long.

Taking the Minxes for a Pub Lunch

Today I sweetened the hellish ordeal that is school shoe shopping for 3 girls by taking them all the way to Arbroath and going to Wetherspoons for lunch.

It wasn’t just for the treat – I may have looked like a harassed, dumpy, middle aged mum to casual eyes, but underneath I was an eagle-eyed, inquisitive, secret reviewer of The Corn Exchange‘s child-friendliness for the Soil Association. As I explained when I reviewed our lunch out at McDonalds last week, the Soil Association are using an army of parent volunteers to help them in their Out To Lunch mission to assess and improve big food chains’ approach to feeding and serving children.

So how did our visit go? Well, we loitered outside in the sunshine for a while, reading the displayed menu in detail and bickering over whether it was ok for one girl to have a lemon San Pellegrino if the others were having orange… Give me strength! I must have banged my head letting them drink fizzy pop at all. But better to get the squabbles over and done with in private before walking past the big “Families Welcome” sign.

I settled the minxes at a big empty table before ordering immediately. Children weren’t welcome at the bar itself, so I had to leave them at the table and hope for good behaviour  (“You’re in charge of her; you’re in charge of her; you’re in charge of the table; you’re in overall charge; I’m right over there at the bar and I can see and hear everything!“).

There was no children’s menu, so I had a lot of questions about which meals might be appropriate for the younger girls and whether the adult food portion sizes could be varied. The staff member taking my order (the Duty Manager) apologised for there being no children’s menus out and said that the portion sizes couldn’t be varied. Oh. However, she made some appropriate alternative suggestions for Midi and Mini’s orders.

I delivered the kids’ Ultimate Treat Fizzy Drinks then decided to chance their good behaviour lasting long enough for me to swing past the toilets to check on a few other things:

  • There are no babychanging facilities signposted. I watched a woman with a baby try the disabled toilet (locked), then the ladies toilet (clean, airy but no changing area), then search for a staff member to fetch the radar key for the disabled toilet. I hope that full nappy held on long enough…
  • The high-chairs are the brilliant sit-beside-the-table ones, so the baby is sitting with the whole family rather than being a little outcast satellite self-contained table.
  • Lots of the restaurant’s tables are in booths or in cosy nooks, giving good privacy for breastfeeding.

Well, I was only gone 5 mins maximum, but when I came back the food had already been served. My heart sank, anticipating microwaved, rubbery rubbish. But it actually looked, smelled and tasted good. Maxi and Midi had obviously been charmed by the waitress while I was away. They said she’d been careful to make sure they all had the correct meals, had explained the cutlery (Midi and Mini were given a teaspoon alongside standard cutlery; there was no child’s cutlery when I asked) and had been very friendly:

Maxi: “She didn’t seem like she was rushing away. When she asked us a question, she actually waited until we’d replied and really listened. Not like you, Mum”.

Maxi and I had lasagne; Midi and Mini had the children’s cheesy pasta (macaroni and cheese with some broccoli stalks and peas stirred through); we had a couple of additional sides because we’re all garlic freaks and are greedy.

So, 5 mins to plate all that means it’s obviously pre-prepared food. I guess it makes sense: the menu stresses the calorific value of every single dish and all its variations, so to do that you’d have to have very precise portions and ingredients. In fact, online there’s an extremely detailed nutritional analysis of every meal. That’s fine if you care about numbers, though not all calories are equal… Looking round at the very busy Tuesday lunch-time crowd, about half were families, and lots were engaged in that thrice-daily struggle of getting food into little Johnny / Janie and to hell with whether it’s the low-cal option or not – is it good food and does it taste nice? To be fair, the food was tasty enough for that to be no problem at all for my 3 at least – they enjoyed their meals very much:

Midi: “You could taste the actual cheese in the macaroni cheese!” (As opposed to…? I was too afraid to ask)

Midi again: “The broccoli and peas were like our veg, which is really good” (Was that distant praise for my cooking?! Surely not)

Mini: “It’s so yummy! Much nicer than your macaroni” (No. No praise for my cooking at all, there).

Talking of the broccoli and peas, I loved that the children’s food came with 2 green veg and a fruit bag as standard; chips, garlic bread and fizzy drinks* were extras. Normally it’s the other way round – I usually have to ask for extra / any vegetables – so that makes me feel that someone’s thinking about the nutritional content of the food served. It would have been even better if the fruit had been a wee bowl of fresh fruit instead of processed, bagged Del Monte apple slices and grapes, but that’s just me nit-picking. Would the person preparing the (good) adult side salads have the capacity to chop extra fruit, too?

*Well, I say that fizzy drinks are extras. But now that I’m home and can actually look at the children’s menu, I can see that I could have had fizzy pop or a healthy drink included as part of the meal. What a shame – if I’d known, I’d have asked for the free bottle of water as well as ordering the Evil Fizzy Pop for the kids anyway.

Mini's lunch today has been brought to you by the colour yellow

Mini’s lunch today has been brought to you by the colour yellow

OK, ok, the fizzy pop: when I ordered it, I assumed I’d get 4 cans or maybe 4 tall glasses to pour it into (and then spend the rest of the meal mopping up the repeatedly knocked over contents). But instead the Duty Manager filled 4 huge brandy-style glasses with ice, added a big chunk of freshly-cut fruit into each, popped in a straw, and added the pop. The minxes eyes were as big as the glasses. As I watched their chubby wee fingers grip the round glasses and stubby stems, it slowly became obvious that these fishbowl glasses were a stroke of genius: easy to grip, near impossible to knock over, sophisticated-looking and stable enough to cope with the inevitable, frenzied ‘poking the fruit with the straw’. Fantastic! I’m a convert. Maybe I’ll buy my future grandchildren a set of brandy glasses instead of sippy cups…

So would I eat there again? Yes. Yes, I would. It cost twice as much as the McDonalds lunch but the improvement in comparable food quality meant it was better value for money. And it filled us up for longer. I think Wetherspoons have tasty, decent fast-food for kids at a reasonable price nailed. They just need to make more child-friendly amenities available to move them from good to great.

This doesn’t look like lemonade. Are you sure we’re in the right pub, Kyle? Photo: artwork available from HistoricalFindings on Amazon