Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The cathedral challenge

I don't know what makes me think the candlelit Advent Carol Service in Blackburn Cathedral will be suitable for a five-year-old and a three-year-old. Maybe it's the prospect of singing carols, or the word advent with all its calendar-opening anticipation.

Anyhow, ignoring the fact that it's a service and that it's an hour and a half long, I persuade my family to miss Strictly Come Dancing and jump in the car for an adventure. I'm in grave danger of overusing the word adventure.

Luckily for us, Joe falls asleep on the way, stays asleep as we carry him past the slightly intimidating Blackburn youths, and doesn't stir throughout the first half of the service.

Luckily for us, we're seated in the north transept. The service starts in semi-darkness, with the candlelight and choristers gradually making their way around the congregation. The north transept is their last stop, so we have plenty of time to whisper to Rosa and feed her snacks.

The singing is sublime. Piercing medieval plainsong, crunchy modern chords, lilting Victorian melodies, all in an impressive modern cathedral with underfloor heating.

Then the moment of truth. The bishop, the choir and the candlelight reach the north transept just as Joe wakes up with a coughing fit. I hold up his favourite plastic dinosaurs to distract him, at which point he noisily bashes their heads together (silly me for choosing a herbivore and a carnivore). So I frantically unwrap a Kit-Kat - crinkle crinkle - and thrust it into Joe's hand. Sticky chocolate silence.

More singing, a few prayers, another Kit-Kat, a reading and then... a hymn. Allelluja! As the organ pipes up and the congregation scrape to their feet I make a getaway with Joe to the loos in the crypt.

We process out at the end of the service and notice that ours are the only children present, with the exception of the choristers. As we shake hands with the bishop there's a familiar feeling of foolhardy triumph.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Bucket and spade

We decide to go to the seaside for the weekend. In November. In Lancashire. We're not being over-optimistic, just nurturing our sense adventure.

We drive to a chocolate box town, leave the car and take the train across rugged farmland, past Railway Children stations, a brief pause in respectable Lancaster then on to the end of the line. Morecambe.

I admit I'd only heard of Morecambe because of the cockle pickers. And even then I thought it was in Kent. In fact it's a stunningly situated seaside resort, with views across its extensive bay to the hills of the Lake District.

I've looked up what to do if it's raining and the best I can come up with is tea at the elegantly restored Art Deco Midland Hotel. Well I have married an architect. Fortunately the sun is out, albeit very low in the wintery sky, turning the exposed mud flats into a vast lake of molten silver. We make straight for the beach and issue the kids with a bucket and spade each.

That's the next two hours taken care of, as if the bucket and spade are magic keys to a world of harmonious pottering. And curiously the perfect castle-building sand takes second place to the mud and gloop and seaweed and unmentionables that constitute the ingredients for 'chocolate pudding'.

It gets cold and pretty dark by 3pm but before we succumb to the allure of the Midland Hotel we happen upon an accordion player on the pier and a maze cut into the stone: more harmonious pottering, now with a musical accompaniment.

It's the simple things in life. We reach our B&B hardly noticing the amusement arcades, the Wacky Warehouse, the discount stores and the derelict buildings. I haven't a clue what the rest of Morecambe's like (apart from a surreal dog show on Sunday morning), but the seafront on a sunny day is pretty special.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Whistling at turkeys

In London we had our regular walking routes, the ones we had to do to get anywhere, namely:
- the school run (or rather drag)
- to the park (usually by scooter)
- to the library or cafes (same as the school run, but without the need to drag)
- to church (short-cut through an estate and past the police station, often by bike)
- to one of three bus stops.

Here we drive to get anywhere so walks are just for the sake of walking. Because the air is fresh and the countryside is beautiful. Neither of these reasons work on the kids, so we have to come up with alternative incentives. These are the ones that work:
- jumping in muddy puddles
- watching sheep do poos
- decorating the glade in the Christmas Tree Forest
- playing pirate games on top of the reservoir
- finding dandelion leaves for the guinea pigs
- foraging for firewood
- feeding the friendly horses.

This Sunday we took a different route to feed the friendly horses and happened upon a field of turkeys and a goat. I don't think I've ever seen a live turkey before: dangly, red face growths, impressive peacock-esque feathers, and they really do go "gobble gobble". As we stood transfixed, their owner came out of her house accompanied by our landlady. They'd been having a brew together. Next time we're passing the owner has offered to let the kids feed the turkeys and stroke the goat. Her parting gift was a well-kept turkey secret: "If you want them to gobble at you, just whistle."

So I can now add whistling at turkeys to our list of walk incentives.

Tupping update

I've just noticed a sheep with a rusty red head. Poor thing.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The high road to Lidl

Nelson (the town) has seen better days but one shop has found a home for itself, billed by my parents as the next best thing to Waitrose, or even better when judged purely on price: Lidl. According to Dad, Lidl tops the Which smoked salmon list.

So it's a Friday after school and we're off to buy some weekend treats: honey waffles, ice cream, marmalade and, of course, smoked salmon. From school it's a longish schlep along a boring urban road. To get back home, joy of joys, I find a rural short-cut. Literally two minutes out of Lidl car park and you're up on the moors. It feels (and looks) like we live in the middle of nowhere but we're actually only a 12-minute drive from the best supermarket smoked salmon.

Not only that...

During our last summer in London, Rosa was increasingly aware and interested in other cultures and countries. Wary that we were about to leave for a rural monoculture, we travelled the world within our own city: lunch in Chinatown, Turkish takeaways, a visit to the Hindu temple in Neasden and a fabulous Asian sweet shop. Fastforward four months and imagine my surprise and Rosa's delight when we find an Asian sweet shop in Nelson, only a short walk from the Lidl's car park. Our weekend shopping has just got better.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Why Joe wants to go back to London

1) I want a blue door.
2) I want to press buttons to open the gate.
3) I want a normal house with bedrooms downstairs.
4) I want just one car.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Nature is all around us. So is farming. Of both I'm quite ignorant. The farmer explains why he washes the sheep's white faces and dyes their fleeces golden: it's to make them look bigger and more handsome when they go on sale.

I'm confused therefore several weeks later when sheep in another field are smudged rusty red. It takes a visit from our London friends to enlighten me. Look closely and one of the sheep has a rusty red tummy. The other sheep are either all white or have rusty red backs. As time goes on, more sheep are of the red-backed variety and fewer remain all white. All clear?

You've probably figured it out way before me. Just in case you haven't, here's the missing clue: the red-tummied sheep is the only male.

Apparently it's called tupping. Not one for the kids and I'm glad I didn't ask the farmer.

Miniature bottles (a confession)

When I was a teenager I collected miniature alcohol bottles, mostly of spirits. The contents didn't interest me, but the different bottle shapes and labels were really pleasing. I thought that on my 21st birthday I would have a mad party and drink them all. I didn't. Then I thought that one day I might play an epic game of draughts, Graham Greene style, where the bottles are the pieces and you have to down each one that's captured. I haven't.

So my miniature bottle collection has followed me into adult, married life, and it's spent most of its existence wrapped in newspaper in a cardboard box.

No longer.

The niches in the chunky stone walls of our farmhouse are crying out to be filled with curios. We have a plastic skull in one, fossils in another and, to the left of the aga, a perfect home for my miniature bottles.

Now we reach the confession. As my collection has matured, so have I. What could be better, on a cold dark night in a handsome yet chilly farmhouse, than to sit in front of the fire sampling an unusual spirit. I don't know much about peaty overtones and oak casks, but I know that this Vieil Armagnac, picked for its stubby green bottle whilst camping with my family in France in the '80s, tastes pretty special.

Fortunately the curios look just as good empty or full. Hic.

Halfterm, part two

After a day and a half to tidy the house and buy some guinea pigs (!), our next visitors arrive and bring with them a comforting dose of Stoke Newington. The kids just disappear and play brilliantly together (actually that never happened with Joe in Stokey - he must have grown up a bit) and we congratulate ourselves on no longer having babies or toddlers.

Coaxed by 'walker treats' we route march the troops across fields and moorland - a necessary part of visiting Sheep Poo Land, specially when the sun is shining. It's lovely to see them frolicking on the pirate ship in the middle of the lawn, and hair-raising to watch them totter over slippy rocks to collect water from the river (to wet the ship, of course).

Halloween is a brilliant excuse for a party. We light the conservatory with pumpkins and nightlights and eat crisps and hotdogs. The kids look priceless in their fancy dress: Witch (Rosa), Witch's Cat (Liv), Skeleton (Joe) and Pumpkin (Johnny). Jen's fab festive game is apple bobbing followed by no-hands retrieving sweets from a cake of flour. Crusty white faces all round. Then sparklers and toasted marshmallows by the fire before rushing in to watch the Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special!

We get that back-to-school feeling after our friends have gone, coupled with a reminder that we've very far away from the bustle and familiar faces of Church Street. At least we know that they're still there and we can always go back. Would be nice if they could all move here though.