29 September, 2012

Visiting Longleat Safari Park

I was rather sad to discover, when we visited Legoland Windsor last year, that Legoland occupies the spot that used to be taken by Windsor Safari Park. I have vague memories of visiting Windsor when I was very little (there's a family photo of me watching a giraffe from the safety of my dad's arms) and it seems a shame that the source of those memories no longer exists.

So, we decided to take our kids to a safari park this summer and eventually made it to Longleat a couple of weekends ago. We had a really good time there -- there's a lot of interesting stuff to see and do and, although there were many visitors, the park seemed to absorb them and didn't feel crowded.

We managed to fit in a stroll around the jungle kingdom, a visit to Longleat House, a safari drive through (two hours in total!), and a play (for our kids) on the adventure playground. Things that we particularly enjoyed were feeding lettuce leaves to the giraffes, walking amongst the lemurs, and the house, which is beautiful and very interesting and has very few visitors compared to the rest of the park.

It was a real experience to see so many wild animals so close up on safari. We had a rhinoceros standing (literally) right next to our car, and lions and tigers just a few yards from us. It was also quite an eye opener to see how blase the staff were about opening and closing the gates between the big cat enclosures with no protection for themselves!

One of the highlights of Longleat, of course, are the mischievous monkeys. We didn't dare drive through their enclosure for fear of the damage they might do to our car (I remember monkeys all over the windscreen and roof when I was young, and feeling really quite scared...). But we were able to watch all their antics from a safe distance by taking the bypass lane.

All in all, Longleat was a very enjoyable day out. Safari parks may have been around for a long time, but they have managed to maintain their allure over the years, and I'd prefer a trip to a safari park over a trip to Legoland any day!

22 September, 2012

Reducing grime, disorder and smear

I read something rather clever recently.

On my way in to work one morning I spotted a painter and decorator's van sporting the strap line 'Reducing grime, disorder and smear.' Nice line in itself, but if, like me, you live in the Thames Valley, it takes on a whole new level of meaning. That's because the strap line for the Thames Valley police, emblazoned on all its squad cars, is 'Reducing crime, disorder and fear.'

I've always found this rather amusing--as if the police force is some kind of private sector hit squad that needs to advertise its services in order to attract potential new custom.

Always good to know that one's sense of humour isn't unique. Or indeed warped.

15 September, 2012

The demands of primary school

School's only been back for a couple of weeks and already the requests are flooding in. Not from my kids, but from school itself.

So far I've been asked to bake two lots of cakes for two separate cake stalls, to sew sequins on to five T-shirts for one of my kid's class assemblies, and to volunteer a whole day to help out on a school trip. Quite a lot of requests in just a few days, I think you'll agree.

It's not that I mind helping out and I do understand that all these activities require extra support. However, when you're already very pushed for time (working plus running a freelance business in my case) it can be difficult to accept even more obligations. Almost every mum I know with school age children works, so the situation is pretty much universal, I think.

Primary schools, in my neck of the woods at least, do appear to be rather stuck in a bygone era. And they don't seem to recognise the nowadays commonplace phenomenon of two working parents (see one of my earlier blog posts).

People tell me that secondary school is entirely different. No requests for help, no more standing round in the playground, no contact at all with the school, it seems. I'll miss the playground cameraderie and the open, friendly atmosphere of our primary, but I can't pretend that it won't be a relief to receive fewer requests for assistance.

11 September, 2012

Blackberrying...and cooking!

We took the kids blackberrying at the weekend. I have memories of picking heaps of large, ripe blackberries as a child, along hedgerows in the middle of nowhere, with a gentle September sun shining overhead. And my kids were keen to experience something similar. But, of course, our outing was nothing like that. Well, it was sunny, but that's about as far as the parallel goes...

For a start, we were picking along a fairly well-frequented footpath, which meant that most of the berries had already been picked and those that hadn't were small and scraggly. I'd also forgotten how prickly blackberry picking can be. We spent a lot of time searching for dock leaves and consoling children who'd been scratched by brambles and stung by nettles.

But they weren't deterred. After half an hour or so, we'd managed to pick enough half-decent berries to flavour the apple crumble that was planned for supper...which neatly leads on to the second part of this blog post.

The kids had volunteered to cook for us -- guacamole, salad and bread, and apple crumble. Sounds great, doesn't it? But a ten and an eight-year-old doing the cooking does not mean that the parents get to put their feet up. In reality the parents supervise, which means advising at every step, helping with anything that the kids can't do themselves, and generally hovering in the background ready to avert all culinary disasters.

But I exaggerate. Every time the kids cook, they get better and need less and less supervision. This time they even loaded the dishwasher and wiped down the surfaces as well.

Oh, and the apple and blackberry crumble tasted great too, so it was worth the effort after all!

08 September, 2012

"The Taming of the Shrew" at Shakespeare's Globe

We recently went to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe.

It was a great experience. The acting was superb – so lively and athletic that it thoroughly held the attention of my eight- and ten-year-olds. The building was fascinating. And one had the sense that the whole package was as authentic as it could be.

The play itself is also an interesting one. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story – one of the main plot arcs involves Petruchio, who wishes to marry Katherina on account of the size of her dowry. However, the one snag is that Katherina is a “shrew”, i.e. a wayward woman who shouts, screams, is physically violent and refuses to do anything that she is asked (or expected) to do. Petruchio therefore sets about “taming” her. He does this by starving her, depriving her of sleep, and denying her decent clothing unless she concurs with everything he says and does, even if that is patently false. (He insists that it is the moon that shines in the middle of the day rather than the sun, for example.) Deprived of her most basic needs, Katherina succumbs to Petruchio and becomes a perfectly “obedient” wife. She is, literally, forced to succumb in order to survive.

Sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t it? And indeed the play can be extremely difficult to stomach for a modern-day audience. But, of course, all of this needs to be understood in its historical context. Women were expected to defer utterly to their husbands. What did choice did they have, after all, when their husbands owned all their worldly goods, they had no personal freedom, no independent wealth and no means of earning a living? They relied on their husbands to provide for them in every way.

Given that this was the context in which Shakespeare was writing, the play becomes more understandable. But even so, Katherina’s personality and Petruchio’s attempts to subdue her are extreme. This allows for a number of interpretations. "The Taming of the Shrew" can be seen as a straightforward farce, or a piece of social commentary (the extremes of the play serving to highlight the unjust situation in which Katherina, and indeed all women of the time, found herself), or a depiction of the battle between two incredibly strong personalities (the fact that they are man and wife only being part of the picture).

Or maybe it’s none of these things and we’re just trying to make ourselves feel better by putting a modern spin on the blatant brutality of the play. Either way, the actors did a grand job and put on a thoroughly enjoyable show. A visit to Shakespeare’s Globe comes highly recommended!

04 September, 2012

Three cheers for the Paralympics!

My family and I attended the Paralympics on Sunday morning and had a fab time. We were extremely lucky because we saw Aled Davies win the gold in discus for Great Britain. The atmosphere was great and we were part of the the celebratory Mexican wave that went round the stadium after Davies' victory.

But it wasn't only the winning that meant we had a good time. We were impressed by many things, starting off right at the beginning with the organisation. Our train was greeted at Stratford by several staff who directed us and made sure we didn't do anything stupid (like falling off the platform onto the tracks!). The joining instructions advised us to arrive at the Olympic Park two-and-a-half hours before our event, but in fact we were through security and into the Park in a matter of minutes, including ticket check and security and bag scan. This was down to the number and efficiency of the staff, as well as lots of ticket checkpoints and numerous x-ray machines. The airports could certainly take a few lessons in managing crowd security from the Paralympic team!

The staff were also super-friendly. You might think that dealing with that many visitors all day long would be wearing, but the staff were unfailingly positive and helpful. They undertook their duties with a real sense of humour and made a great effort to interact with the visitors and particularly to make children feel welcome.

The catering was much better than expected too. I had envisaged McDonald's only, but in fact there were various catering outlets appealing to a variety of tastes -- Indian food, deli-style sandwiches, fish and chips, champagne and seafood... Again, there were plenty of staff around, directing people to less busy outlets so that they didn't have to queue for such a long time.

And the Olympic Stadium was a very impressive structure -- worth a visit in itself to admire the size and the design. Our seats were right at the back of the stadium, but still we had a good view. The angling of the seating meant that we had no problem with the heads of the spectators in front of us.

I wasn't quite sure how we'd find our Paralympic visit as we're not hugely committed sports fans, but the experience was really good, and this was down to the quality of the whole package, not just the sport.

03 September, 2012

And another great review for "A Matter of Degree"...

I have just received another really positive review for my novel "A Matter of Degree" from reviewer Lisa Wood. Here are some choice quotes:

"This book had me laughing, crying and eager to read more."

"ideal for a holiday read or just to be transported away from whatever you are doing in your daily life"

"the characters were believable and engaging"

You can read the full review on Lisa's blog here: http://bit.ly/PDwd9b

"A Matter of Degree" has received only four and five star reviews on Amazon, and people seem to really enjoy reading it. I'm very grateful to the various book review bloggers who have reviewed it so positively.

Thank you, everyone!

01 September, 2012

Calke Abbey: the "un-stately" stately home

On the way to our recent family holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, we broke our journey by visiting the National Trust property Calke Abbey.

This is rather an unusual place. Dubbed the "un-stately" stately home, it has been very little restored since being taken over by the National Trust in 1985. Unlike most of the Trust's properties, peeling paintwork, untidy, cluttered rooms, and overgrown courtyards are the order of the day here.

The idea is to present the property in the state in which it was left to the Trust, at a a time when families were struggling under the burden of maintaining these enormous houses and, due to lack of funds, were often forced to close up rooms (and sometimes whole wings) of their homes and let nature take it course. The effect is refreshing -- rather than passing through splendid room after splendid room, the visitor comes to understand the worries and problems faced by the owners of Calke and so gains a more intimate insight into their lives. It is also  interesting that, at Calke at least, preservation does not necessarily equate with restoration.

And finally, on a more modern note, when entering the Calke estate, you are handed a CD to play in your car on the drive up to the house. The running commentary explains a little about the history of the house as well as pointing out key landmarks as you pass by them. Once parked, you return your CD to visitor reception. All rather ingenious and not something I've encountered before.

Just in case you're wondering, I would heartily recommend a visit to Calke.