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Would you like to run away, sometime?

September 12th, 2020 (by Steve)

So ask the opening words of our motorhome videos from a few years ago. Now, more than ever, the answer is “yes… please?”. This summer we were going to attempt to give our two wee ones a taste of motorhome life on the open road in France. Well, we all know that this didn’t happen. So when the chance came for Kiri and I to have a couple of nights away in a motorhome in late summer, we leapt at it. I say “a motorhome”, but this isn’t just any motorhome. Let us introduce you to Fifi.

Now you may remember Bertha, our Talbot Express Autotrail Chinook who will have just turned 30 this year? Well, according to latest MOT details, she’s had 8000 miles added since we sold her, so that’s not bad. But enough about Bertha – let’s talk Fifi. Fifi is a 6-berth Fiat Ducato Sunliving S70DF belonging to Kiri’s parents. She’s got a clever bathroom door, a snazzy control panel that shows you levels of water and batteries and a diesel cap that talks to you. But even more incredible than that – power steering, and a top speed higher than 60mph!

So, with two nights away, where would we go? To the top of Scotland? The middle of Wales? Land’s End? Nope – Forest of Dean. After a quick Lidl shop (the first time we’ve shopped together since March) and with Kiri at the helm, we powered our way to Mallards Pike. Only once did I have to hop out and guide us through a three point turn when we went the wrong way… and technically I didn’t have to hop out, as Fifi has a reversing camera, but old habits die hard. Once in the car park, we parked up, opened the windows, turned the gas on, fired up the fridge (no electric hook up you see) and boiled the kettle. It was nearly disastrous as we’d forgotten to buy tea bags, but luckily as Fifi is hired out by the Motorhome Holiday Company, we found a hidden stash and the day was saved.

So why were we at Mallard’s Pike? Go Ape. When you’re an exhausted parent, it’s the natural place to go and relax, right? Following a socially-distanced briefing, we donned our harnesses and set off into the trees for a couple of hours of fun. According to Kiri, it would have been more fun if we hadn’t had to wear harnesses. According to both of us, it would have been more fun if we hadn’t had a cuppa just before spending two hours in the tree tops. But saying that, once we’d done our final Tarzan swing, slid down our last zip wire, filling our shoes and covering our backs with bark chips, we agreed that it was over too quickly. And if we’re after climbing with no safety ropes, we know where to go.

Sadly, but understandably, it’s not possible to stay overnight in any of the Forestry Commission car parks in the Forest of Dean, but we’d noted a spot just down the road where we could spend the first night; Lydney Harbour. Our only adventure was when we went down a road that said it was unsuitable for vehicles over 7 tonnes (we were 3.5) and found ourselves in a very narrow spot. The cars coming the other way were very understanding as they all reversed, and the hand signals they gave us were certainly rather European. We styled it out though; as the livery of Fifi clearly shows the logo of the Motorhome Holiday Company people probably assumed we were novices, when actually we should have known better.

Putting our experience of parking on chocks to good use (Kiri’s learned a lot since her first experience 7 years ago), we settled in for the night at Lydney Harbour, cooking up halloumi, mushrooms and steak and cracking open a beer. We learned that the cupboards in Fifi weren’t designed for the vertically challenged when we were attacked by some nuts, but we put that to one side as we went for a sunset walk around the harbour with lovely views down the Severn estuary. The tide was out and on our return to Fifi a V-shape of geese flew low over us, and a lone feather drifted down to us. Celtic Christians used the wild goose as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. Co-incidence?

We retired to Fifi and received news from home of an “interesting” bedtime from the grandparents.

We’ve had a lovely afternoon with some successes that have made us smile… bedtime wasn’t one of them but we’re there now

Been there. Many nights actually. So our reaction was to crack open a second beer (unheard of these days) and play crib, whilst pondering that drinking in a car park is generally frowned upon… yet legitimate when in a motorhome. We’d splashed out on special beer from St. Peter’s brewery, as they do the finest gluten free stout around, so maybe that makes things better? The evening drew on and random cars pulled up for a short while before driving off – pretty standard in our experience of overnight stops in car parks. Finally Kiri announced “I feel so tired – it feels like the middle of the night; what time is it?”. Readers, it was ten past nine.

The following morning was a lazy one (well, for me – Kiri went for a run), watching the birds – cormorants, woodpeckers, robins, pigeons, but alas, no wigeons. What’s a wigeon? Apparently an estuary bird, but we think the sign writer was having a laugh. As we weren’t on the continent, I couldn’t indulge in the standard Schoko muesli motorhome breakfast, but we were able to slip back into our routine of reading the bible together, thinking about walking and listening to God. And what better way to put it into practice than to go for an amble around the local area. Now we like to get off the beaten track and at times we commented that it seemed like no-one had been on these footpaths for years… until we realised we weren’t actually on the footpaths! A shortcut involving barbed wire, brambles and stinging nettles got us back on track. Forget walking and listening to God (well, maybe not) – we should have walked and consulted a map! The two and a half mile jaunt ended with a woodland path along the cliff, which, according to the harbour regeneration project noticeboard (from around 2005) had some lovely views. Turns out trees can grow a lot in 15 years… maybe the noticeboard will be updated as part of the current regeneration project?

The tide was back in (I won’t bore you with details of tidal estuaries) as we returned to Bertha (oh dear, Freudian slip – I mean Fifi) for a lunch of cheese. And then it was time for some planning. With another night to go, where could we go for more adventure? What could we do? With COVID-19 cases on the rise again and the new government announcement about laws regarding groups greater than 6 we ideally wanted to avoid campsites and pub car parks… but there wasn’t much choice with regards to wild camping in the immediate area. Kiri decided to lie down and nap to aid the decision; the first time she’s had an afternoon nap since she was pregnant (before you ask… just no!) and I settled into a book. I glanced up from my book with a start when some youths in a car next to us were examining the various dents in their motor and mentioned that one of them was from a camper van. Fifi winced too. But they moved on without any drama and I returned to my book.

By the time the nap was over, we decided we’d stay put. Now one of the joys of motorhoming for us is the moving around, setting up camp in a new place, exploring the area and living a simple life from a mobile base. But as a parent, it’s rare to have time where you think “I don’t have anything to do”, so I continued reading and Kiri did some reading, then some sketching. If we’d followed our original plan of 2 weeks in Fifi in France with the kids, we wouldn’t have been afforded that luxury and it would have been a very different experience. We follow the adventures of Marmalade Tour (a family of four, with two young children, full time motorhoming) on Twitter with equal parts envy and respect – could we do that? Possibly not with our children the age they are… but maybe in the future?

Tea this second night was the simple, hearty, staple Bertha tea of pasta in a vegetable and tomato sauce, which we followed with another evening stroll, before washing up and settling down for more beer and crib. Mid-evening a group of youths congregated in the car park and started playing loud music, but they were no hassle. It’s lucky they didn’t stay for long, as I was ready to burst out of the door and bust some moves to their sick beats. That would have shown them. Instead I was thrashed at crib by Kiri. Once dark, we headed out of the motorhome to empty our grey waste and we spent 10 minutes or so just marvelling at the stars, whilst bats darted around above our heads. It was a bit nippy though, so we headed back to the motorhome and Kiri commented that she hoped the earlier youths had coats. We then had a pretty uneventful night again… apart from being woken up by youths (maybe the same ones who had returned once they’d got their coats?) setting off fireworks whilst holding them in their hands. We prayed for their safety and ours before rolling back over into a deep slumber.

Any good holiday has to end with a bacon butty for breakfast. We cooked the bacon alongside some frozen mushrooms (next time we’ll learn how to turn the fridge down!), before turning off the gas, rolling off the chocks and stowing everything away. It was my first chance to drive Fifi and I certainly noticed the increased length and width over Bertha, whilst also being disconcerted by how little effort it took to turn the steering wheel! I soon got into the swing of it, although I welcomed the new road markings that had appeared in one village since we’d passed it on the way in – they must have known I’m a less experienced driver than Kiri! And before we knew it, we were home – just in time for me to roll into my first meeting of the day (luckily with no video, so they couldn’t see that I hadn’t showered for a couple of days!)

So, reflections on the two days. Not quite the shape of break that we’d envisaged for this summer, but definitely what we needed. Would we resurrect our original plan for Fifi with the kids? No question! So many things reminded us of how much we love the motorhoming lifestyle. Would it be challenging? Of course, but we love a challenge. And now let me put on my 1970s infomercial voice.

Are you dreaming of a couple of nights away from it all? Do you want all of your facilities in one place? Do you want that place to be somewhere of your choosing? Then why not book Fifi? Just visit the Motorhome Holiday Company website to find out more. Terms and conditions apply; you may fall in love with motorhoming and end up buying your own.

Posted in Life | 2 Comments »

Stop, Lego time

July 28th, 2020 (by Steve)

Lego has been a mutual love of ours throughout our relationship. From a Lego-themed wedding programme, to the opening credits of the videos documenting our motorhome trip around Europe, to the Lego calendar that we’ve added our family to. But never have we dedicated quite so much of our time to playing with Lego as we have been during lockdown.

We’ve already written a brief blog post for the Gloucester Diocese site (the title wasn’t chosen by us!) about how we got into making short Lego stop-motion animation videos of bible stories and you can watch all of our videos on our YouTube channel:

Several people have asked us how we make the videos though, so here’s a bit of a behind the scenes look at the end to end process.

1. Choose the bible passage and script it

Our starting point is the lectionary. What’s a lectionary? It’s a centrally-curated suggested list of bible readings for particular dates. Our current church chooses to follow the lectionary on a Sunday, which for each week gives a reading from the Old Testament, a psalm, a gospel reading and then a reading from elsewhere in the New Testament. Once we’ve chosen which one we’re going to animate, Kiri distils the passage down to capture the essence of the message. This involves a whole wealth of complexity, including reading multiple translations, looking up what other people have said about the passage, working out the simplest way to convey that message, quite often a debate over the wording… and a lot of prayer!

2. Identifying new Lego to buy

Depending on the passage, there may be parts of it that we can’t easily represent with our current Lego. For example, trawling eBay for job lots of minifigures for big crowds, buying foliage for the parable of the sower and buying fish for the Kingdom of God being like a huge catch of fish. The rest of the time we improvise with what we’ve got. It’s always touch and go as to whether the Lego will arrive in time for the filming, but to date it’s worked out OK for us.

3. Building the sets and the characters

It’s fair to say that the sets have been getting ever more elaborate as we’ve progressed with the videos. It’s not been a deliberate decision; we’ve just got a bit too engrossed! Where possible we’ll try to re-purpose one set for multiple scenes, but in fairness as the building of the sets is so fun, we don’t really mind building multiple sets (although we often have to dismantle part of one set to have enough pieces for another). This is one part of the process that we can do with the children around; Lego spread across the living room floor and all of us on our hands and knees playing together. And sometimes we spend disproportionate lengths of time building bits that only feature for a few seconds (you don’t want to know how long it took to build the tractor!)

4. Recording the script and editing the audio

Once we’ve got the script, we record the audio with our eldest. Several people have asked how a pre-schooler can remember all of the lines like that. We’ll share a secret; it’s not done from memory. We set up a laptop with a USB microphone and Audacity. I then break down the script into short chunks (sometimes even sub-sentence chunks), reading out each section in turn, which are then parroted back. We do it all in one take (although occasionally repeat a line or two) as it’s unfair to ask a child of that age to record multiple takes. Once recorded, I edit the audio in Audacity; removing my voice, trying to make sentences seamless and smoothing out the volume that we get from being different distances away from the microphone.

5. Setting up the “studio”

We don’t have a dedicated place in our house where we can shoot the footage. Our first video was shot in our eldest’s bedroom, on the bed with the white wall behind and natural lighting from the side. However, as you’ll see from the final footage, the set moved around a fair amount; not very ideal. After that, we moved the “studio” to the kitchen, twisting the ceiling lighting to point at the kitchen table, putting a white bedsheet over a couple of taller toys (to give a white background), and weighting down the set board with a large bag of popcorn, a heavy candle or some tins of food to stop movement. For our latest film we’ve invested in an angle-poise lamp with a daylight bulb to give us a bit more control over lighting, plus it means when I’m doing the washing up, I can actually see what I’m doing as the kitchen lights are now pointing in more sensible directions.

6. Setting up the camera

Some people love the techy details. So, we use a Nikon D5100 camera with a 18-200mm lens on a tripod with an infrared remote release so we don’t have to touch the camera to get the shot. For the majority of our shots we want a fairly large depth of field (so that most things in the shot are in focus), so we set it to aperture priority with aperture somewhere between f/14 and f/32. Once we’ve set the focal point for the sequence, we’ll make sure that the focus is set to manual so that we don’t get any variation of what is in focus.

7. Shooting the footage

The bulk of our time is spent shooting the individual frames that will be stitched together. Each of our videos is made up of between 600 and 800 shots, that we then stitch together at 6 frames per second. Now if we were doing this properly, we would take the recording of the script and work out exactly how many frames we’d need per scene. We’d also probably synchronise how we animate particular things – for example when Kiri films someone walking she’ll move the arms too (attention to detail), whereas I focus more on as an accurate a portrayal of leg movement as I can (it’s incredibly frustrating when I forget which leg I’ve just moved!). With multiple people in a scene, we should also probably document the path and movement for each character, but instead we just wing it.

You’ll notice that there are two styles of scene we’ve employed; the 3D standard scene, then what we refer to as “grey board” scenes, where we shoot with the camera directly above a grey board and shoot in 2D.

Our most complicated scenes to film so far have been:

  • Flocks of sheep – as we didn’t stick them down onto the board, we found that when they’re close together, if you knock one sheep over, the rest will fall like dominoes!
  • Jerusalem street scene – we had so many different characters doing different things that it was tough to keep track of what everyone was doing. We worked on this scene together, with Kiri moving some characters and me moving the others
  • The docks – rocking a boat, moving people, having fish “flying” through the air – there was a lot going on to try to co-ordinate
  • Everyone going into heaven – working out a path for every character to take as they were funnelled in through a gate, and then getting them to follow that path, whilst avoiding other people was quite a challenge

With scenes like these, it can take upwards of 30 seconds to move everything for each frame, whereas for simpler scenes with just one character moving, it’s more like 10 seconds per frame.

And we must give a shout-out to blu-tac – with particularly tricky things that people are holding, or balancing on, we use a strategic bit of blu-tac to hold it in place. If you freeze a few of the frames, you might be able to spot a bit still!

8. Bringing it all together

By this stage we’ve got several hundred frames and an audio file and what happens next is fully in Kiri’s realm; with her degree in graphic design (majoring in moving image), she works her magic. She uses the DaVinci Resolve video editing software (version 15, as our computer can’t handle version 16) to import the frames and choose the frame rate, add transition effects and synchronise the audio. It’s at this point that she’ll come to me and say “I need a sheep sound” or “I need a woohoo”, so I’ll dutifully record the sound effect (normally on my phone). Once these are incorporated and a title has been added, it’s time to render the film, which we then upload to YouTube.

To start with, our plan was to record one of these every week during lockdown, but as the whole process is fairly time-consuming, we found that we were working on the Lego films most evenings. Don’t get me wrong; we’re happy to spend date night drinking beer and playing with Lego (either building sets or moving characters tiny amounts). We thrive on being creative together, but every night was a bit too much! We then moved to once a fortnight… which worked when our eldest was spending some time at pre-school, but now we’re in the summer holidays, we might reduce it to once every 3 weeks.

We’ve had several people asking us whether they can use these films at holiday clubs, in services, in assemblies etc. The answer will always be “yes!” – we made these to be used and shared. And if you want to be notified of when there’s a new film, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel.

When will we stop making these films? Who knows!

Posted in Life | 4 Comments »

Playing a podcast over the phone

April 10th, 2020 (by Steve)

Coronavirus. An uncomfortable time for all of us, in different ways. But some great things are coming out of the crisis – the incredible sense of community and the way that people are serving others. We’ve tried to do our own little bit and part of that has involved helping to move a lot of our church communications online. Nearly a year ago now, I set up a system in our church to record sermons – pretty simple, a line out from the sound desk into a laptop with a program to record the audio. We then upload it to our church website. Simples! But what about those members of our congregation who don’t have access to a computer?

On 26 March I read a really interesting blog post about how you could use a service called Twilio to allow people to call a phone number and listen to an online audio file. I dropped an email to our vicar to ask whether there was a need for something similar in our church… and the response was positive; over 20 members of our congregation without access to email or the internet.

So, it was worthwhile doing, but I’m lazy and the method cited in the blog post involved changing an audio file every week. I don’t really want to be doing that – plus I don’t want to be a single point of failure in a system. Everything else with regards to our sermons is automated – we upload it once to a custom post type that I’ve created in WordPress, then we use IFTTT to detect when there’s a new sermon and post a link to the sermon to our Facebook and Twitter accounts. Then separately I’ve created an itunes-formatted RSS feed, at which I’ve pointed Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, PlayerFM and Spotify so people can be served the sermons from their favourite podcast platform. So let’s see if we can automate this phone call stuff.

The first thing I do when creating a new thing is to find out whether it actually is a new thing, so I check whether something exists out there already. This was the 27 March… it didn’t, so I got started. Using the blog post as a starting point, I got stuck into familiarising myself with Javascript (the language that the functions needed to be written in), and wrestling with some libraries to help me out. Oh, and there was also the thing of entertaining young children, working from home etc that meant I couldn’t dedicate much time to it. I finally finished on 6 April and it was all working.

And then I found out that someone had already done it and blogged about it on 3 April, with what I think is a neater solution (using the rss-parser library). The Switched On Network method enables you to point to any standalone MP3 file. Nick Holcombe’s method consumes an RSS feed, and gives you a menu of sermons to select from. My method is somewhere in the middle.

So, here’s my code in case anyone wants to see my alternative way (follow the instructions in the other blog posts to get Twilio up and running… the only extra bit you’ll need for mine is to add an npm dependency on the node-fetch library – version 2.6.0).

url = "https://www.stpaulstephenglos.org.uk/join-in/sermon-podcast/";

const fetch = require('node-fetch');
const DOMParser = require('xmldom').DOMParser;

exports.handler = function(context, event, callback) {
	// create the voice response object
	let twiml = new Twilio.twiml.VoiceResponse();
    
    // load the first item from the RSS feed (https://developers.google.com/web/updates/2015/03/introduction-to-fetch)
    fetch(url)
  .then(
    function(response) {
      if (response.status !== 200) {
        console.log('Looks like there was a problem. Status Code: ' +
          response.status);
        // end the call and hang up
	    twiml.hangup();
	    callback(null, twiml);
        return;
      }

      // Examine the text in the response
      response.text().then(function(data) {
        
        // create a parser, give it the RSS feed and tell it to parse as XML
        parser = new DOMParser();
        xmlfeed = parser.parseFromString(data,"text/xml");

        // extract the data from within the channel
        const channel = xmlfeed.getElementsByTagName("channel")[0];

        // get the title and description
        podcastTitle = channel.getElementsByTagName("title")[0].textContent;
        podcastDescription = channel.getElementsByTagName("description")[0].textContent;

        console.log(podcastTitle);
        console.log(podcastDescription);

        // Say the welcome text
        twiml.say('Welcome to ' + podcastTitle);
        twiml.say(podcastDescription);

        // get the first item 
        const podcastItem1 = channel.getElementsByTagName("item")[0];

        itemTitle = podcastItem1.getElementsByTagName("title")[0].textContent;
        itemDescription = podcastItem1.getElementsByTagName("itunes:subtitle")[0].textContent;
        itemDurationTotal = podcastItem1.getElementsByTagName("itunes:duration")[0].textContent;

        // use the double not bitwise operator to round to the minutes
        itemDurationMinutes = ~~(itemDurationTotal / 60);
        // use the modulus to get the seconds 
        itemDurationSeconds = itemDurationTotal % 60;

        itemUrl = podcastItem1.getElementsByTagName("enclosure")[0].getAttribute("url");
        
        console.log(itemTitle);
        console.log(itemDescription);
        console.log(itemDurationMinutes);
        console.log(itemDurationSeconds);
        
        // Introduce the item
        twiml.say('You are about to hear ' +itemTitle);
        twiml.say(itemDescription);
        twiml.say('This is ' +itemDurationMinutes+ ' minutes and ' +itemDurationSeconds+ ' seconds');
        twiml.say('Please wait while we load the sound file');
        
        // Play the item
        twiml.play(itemUrl);

        // end the call and hang up
	    twiml.hangup();
	    callback(null, twiml);
        return;
      });
    }
  )
  .catch(function(err) {
    console.log('Fetch Error', err);
    
    // end the call and hang up
	twiml.hangup();
	callback(null, twiml);
  });
};

Before I close, it’s probably worth a brief note on SOP and CORS (no, not SOP and The Corrs… although check them out!). This is all about permissions for scripts to access resources that are stored on other sites. The best description of it that I could find when trying to work out why my code wasn’t working was at javascript.info.

In essence, I needed to make a minor addition to the .htaccess file on the church website; we’re happy to allow GET requests from anywhere, so this is the code I added:

Header set Access-Control-Allow-Origin "*"
Header set Access-Control-Allow-Methods "GET"
Header set Access-Control-Allow-Headers "Content-Type"

But hang on, there are other services consuming the RSS feed (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Player.fm, Spotify)… how come these permissions are not needed for the other feeds? My educated guess (although please do correct me) is because this code uses javascript (which is a client-server interaction) whereas the other podcast feed code will be server-server. SOP and CORS only apply for client-server conversations.

If you fancy using my code, it should work for you by just changing the URL to be the URL of your podcast RSS feed. If your podcast is available on ApplePodcasts or Soundcloud and you don’t know your RSS feed URL, then you can use the handy getrssfeed.com tool to find it.

Am I little irked that I could have saved myself some time an effort if I’d kept on searching to see if anyone had done this? Yes. Am I pleased that I managed to get something working on my own? Yes. Is the code meeting a need? Yes. And actually, that’s the main thing.

Stay safe.

Posted in Life, Web Design | 3 Comments »

Icecream and crackers

July 18th, 2019 (by Steve)

“We’re still at the stage where a dry cracker has just as much draw as an icecream”. That was the last time we went to Cotswold Farm Park two years ago. Oh, how times have changed. This time it was ALL about the icecream. And we had better weather.

When you go camping as a family of four, there’s a lot of stuff you need to take with you. When you live as a family of four, there’s not much time for writing a list of stuff to take. So, after a quick scout around the house to pick up random important things we just about managed to squeeze into our car alongside all the essentials (like giant marshmallows), hoping that we’d got everything. We remembered the children (I’m told that’s the main thing) and the oldest was determined to “help with the mallet”. Once on site, it turned out that the youngest was determined to eat mud. Great start.

There wasn’t room for food in the car, so once we’d pitched our tent we trotted back out to the supermarket for food, then picked up some supplies in the farm shop, choosing duck eggs as they were just as cheep(!) as chicken eggs. After being told “Daddy, you’re not allowed to play with the frisbee because you’ll get it stuck in the tree again” (fair point), we had a quick camp dinner of reheated leftovers from our freezer then went to see the sheep before bed.

Bed. That thing that normally isn’t too much of a problem. After 2 hours of trying to coax a pre-schooler to sleep, you get slightly delirious, so the phrase “Mummy. You have beautiful eyebrows” seemed hysterical at the time. Eventually both were asleep and we realised what we’d forgotten. A pack of cards. With nothing to do but drink beer, Kiri and I had a proper “date night” and it turned into a blessing that we had no activities to distract us from proper conversation. Well… apart from overheard snippets of conversation from a tent nearby – the typical kind of thing you might expect from a group of teenagers. Fascinating insights… but we never heard the conclusion as our other child woke. Lovely.

When we chose our camping pitch, we deliberately chose a spot in a far corner so that the children wouldn’t be disturbed by other campers. What we didn’t bank on was rooks choosing the same corner for the same reasons… only they have a different idea as to what constitutes a sensible time to wake up. Rooks wake at 5:20, children wake at 5:20, we wake at 5:20. Caws and effect. Coffee was much appreciated at breakfast as were the fried duck eggs and finally, 4 hours and 40 minutes later the farm park opened.

Highlights of the first day:

  • Kiri being asked “do rabbits eat humans?” as Kiri held one on her lap. Kiri answering “no, but some humans eat rabbits”. Not sure who looked more horrified; the other visitors or the rabbits
  • Missing the tractor “safari” and the same little one who was placated with a dry cracker two years ago saying “let’s have an ice cream then”. I mean, it’s good logic, so it was only right to reward the reasoning (and consume one myself)
  • Seeing a sneezing sheep. It must be terrible to be a sheep with hayfever; “I’m so hungry, let me put my nose down to eat the…” *ATISHOO*

It was an easier bedtime with both kids asleep by half past seven, so Kiri and I cracked open the wine and once again put the world to rights with some quality time.

Following a quiet night, the rooks were at it again soon after 5. Joy. But the new day brought reinforcements in the shape of Kiri’s parents. With tent number 2 erected (this time a leak-free tent), we headed back into the park. By my estimation, our little one must have driven at least 4 brands of tractor on this trip, including an electric one, one left on our camping pitch, a John Deere and a JCB. Kiri matched that. I only racked up 3. To be fair, the target audience were children…

The target audience for the bottle feeding of goats was probably children too. The target audience for the huge inflatable pillows was probably children too. But hey, we are still children, right? I mean Kiri brought her parents with her, so we count as children!

Following a sheep fashion show (particularly appreciated by my Welsh Father-in-law, although I’m not sure his heritage is related to his appreciation), ice cream number two happened, as did our youngest being introduced to it by a naughty Nana. Plans of dry crackers being sufficient for months to come melted as quickly as the ice cream in the summer heat.

And then back to camp for a perfect evening – a camp carbonara cooked with local lardons and duck eggs with their huge yolks. Silky, salty, cheesy goodness. Once again we visited the sheep and goats before bed and the children were asleep by half past seven again. Out came the beer, chocolate and canasta. I really didn’t want to like the Rare Breed ale that’s produced from grain grown on Adam Henson’s farm as it was sure to just be a gimmick, but… well… actually, like everything else associated with Cotswold Farm Park, it’s a quality product. A very drinkable beer.

Perfect mornings follow perfect evenings. But only in story books. In reality, rain in the night wakes your children at 4am and you end up with 4 people in a double sleeping bag with 2 of them desperately trying to get back to sleep. And then the cafetiere turns out to be cracked, but you risk it all the same with hot liquid because you need the coffee. But then you realise that you’ve got milk with “cream off the top” from a glass milk bottle which reminds you of your childhood. And then you cook up the remaining duck eggs with bacon, and manage not to burn any of the eggs and you realise you’ve cracked it (the frying of duck eggs, not the cafetiere – that was nothing to do with me, and definitely nothing to do with dry crackers). And then when washing up in the camp kitchen, a retired lady walks in, seductively says “good morning”, then proceeds to hand wash her underwear in the sink next to you. And suddenly it’s all right. And then you stop talking in the second person and starting your sentences with “and”.

Now I’m not saying that the day was planned around replacing the cafetiere but… we decided to go to Stow on the Wold. If only there were a homeware shop there. Great Scott! Scott’s of Stow! Cafetiere purchased. Tea shop visited. Charity shops emptied. Barbecue bits and pieces bought. With all of that stuff (and the wold) all stowed, we returned to campsite for a barbecue and the chance to finally toast those giant marshmallows; a highlight of the holiday for a certain young ‘un!

This time we went into the farm park with animal feed so the sheep, goats, piglets etc were more interested in us than previously. And we were fairly interested in them. At different points dotted around were solar-powered speakers with bits of information. Now I don’t know whether it was the rain affecting the power output, or just that Bob Bunny had been tucking into the Rare Breed ale, but he seemed to be struggling to get his words out to explain the animals around him. By the time we’d finished the trail, the ice cream place was shut, so we packed the kids back off the campsite for an early night; this time they were asleep by half past six.

That left us to have adult tea, then coffee and canasta on the coldest evening so far. Kiri and I were winning by the end of 8 rounds and would have won the ninth (and therefore the game) had it not been for a threat of being mooned by my Father-in-law. I didn’t want to risk it, so played on instead of “going out”. My parents-in-law may have won the game, but (and it’s a big butt) I like to think that we claimed the moral high ground. There was no moon (well, there probably was behind these clouds…) as we crashed out soon after 9pm.

4:30am is slightly more humane than 4am and by now we were in a nice routine of zipping the kids up in the tent compartment with us as we tried to sleep whilst being climbed upon. This was going to be a 2 coffee morning. Once camp was struck (so much easier with 4 adult pairs of hands to occupy the 2 child pairs of hands), we headed into the park for the last time and the kids made a beeline once more for the bouncy pillow.

We were the first customers of the day at the icecream stand and as the different sizes of icecreams were explained, “two shots for adults, one shot for children”, I couldn’t help but wonder what they would be shots of. Whatever it was, the youngest one had a taste for it. Target identified. Target locked. Heading towards Nana. Icecream consumed. All gone. New target identified. Target locked. Heading towards Daddy. No icecream being given. Abort. New target identified. Target locked. Heading towards older sibling. Hmmm, moving target. Must follow.

Fuelled by coffee to offset the early mornings, we departed the farm park wearier than we entered, but with smiles on our faces after a genuinely lovely time. But the holiday hadn’t quite finished… we had another stop to make on our way home. Might our next adventure be a slightly different shape…?

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Where’s the holiday?

June 21st, 2018 (by Steve)

“Where’s the holiday?”. Was the question that we had for a few hours from a toddler. After a long drive to Llandudno, stopping off with some friends to partake of some Finnish mini eggs (we didn’t actually drive via Finland…), and going up hill, up hill some more, and up hill a final little bit to stop on a near-vertical slope, we could finally say “here”. A grubby, slightly run down Airbnb half way up the Great Orme. The state of the place didn’t really matter though by the time the little one had been excited about bunk beds, we’d re-laid the stair carpet (literally!), and we’d had tea. We had an amazing view, that you’d normally have to work hard at to earn, beautiful light, the water coming out of the taps was sweet and the only noise we could here was sheep outside. Oh, and the place had Netflix. So we chilled. We were on holiday.

Now this was to be the first holiday since the birth of the wee one where we’d gone just the three of us, without grandparental reinforcements, so we were in new territory. And the first morning set the tone – “I’m incited to get up early”. Our cursing of whoever had been doing the inciting didn’t last long as we realised we could stay in bed, and watch the rabbits, goats and sheep from where we were. We could also see the trams from our window, and from just outside the door, the cable cars. A perfect spot.

As our first day was a Sunday, we packed a picnic then headed into town where we ended up at Gloddaeth church. We exchanged glances when the service was described as “contemporary”, then the first song was a rather cheesy one that was as old as we are, however it only got better from there and I was reminded that I need more Rend Collective in my life. The picnic that followed wasn’t the best planned, as we opted for a spot between the beach and a playground which both were rather enticing as we tried to focus on ensuring everyone ate their lunch. But hey, that’s what mid-afternoon icecreams are for. But before the icecream we had things to do:

  • Build a gargantuan sandcastle with perfect sand (left unfinished – we were over-ambitious with what can be achieved with a toddler)
  • Paddle in the sea (planning fail – the little one was more equipped to go deeper than we were. Result – wet socks for me)
  • Collect shells and stones (note to future selves – teach children to be discerning about which stones we may wish to collect)

We deserved that icecream, although somehow the adults didn’t end up with a flake! And we deserved the cuppa when we went back to the cottage too to get dry socks. Before tea, we decided to drive around the headland in the stunning evening light, which brought back wonderful memories of driving along the Verdon Gorge, around the Italian Riviera, and in Meteora. Only in our motorhome we had a higher vantage point… and weren’t trying to keep a little one awake. Bath time included the attempt to make a water castle (as opposed to a sandcastle) as my attempts to explain fluid dynamics fell on deaf ears. The extra sugar consumed earlier that day made bedtime a little tricky, but we eventually managed to settle down for an evening of cribbage.

With so much to do in this part of North Wales, we were keen to make the most of it and didn’t really mind another early start. As we walked up to the top of the Great Orme to catch the cable car down (we were told on no uncertain terms, that we had to go in an orange one) we reflected on what a privilege it was to be in such beautiful surroundings. The price of tickets (£21 return for all 3 of us) seemed a little steep, but it was totally worth it with amazing views of a sea wind farm, moorland, our cottage, a toboggan run, the pier, and a sweeping bay. Even if we ended up in a green one rather than an orange one.

After a coffee at the end of the pier, we meandered back into town then onto the other beach for another picnic, where we inadvertently ended up having the little one repeating “no – go away” to the pesky gulls. Who let us be parents? After a few skimmed stones and a minor paddle, it was back to the cable car, where we overheard another parent aghast at the price, giving an ultimatum of “OK, you can either have dinner, or go on the cable car”. With another evening ahead of us, we made the most of the log burner and settled down to do something we very rarely do these days, reading the bible together (that evening the book of Ruth).

Given that the holiday was in Wales, it was inevitable that rain would come at some point, so we all had a lie-in until 7 then after a bit of playing went back to bed for the rest of the morning! A wet drive took us along the coast to Colwyn Bay where we had a quick sandwich in a shopping centre under an inappropriate sign reading “our staff are thick, but our toast is thicker”, then headed to the local swimming pool. Yes, it would have been cheaper to get wet in the rain, but not as fun. We took a minor detour via Kingdom Krafts on the way back with a lovely spiced apple drink and flapjack, then had a low-key evening – fish fingers for tea, followed by lighting the fire again.

The following day was dry again, so we headed to the local farm park, which opened at 10. Only it didn’t. Eventually at 10:20 someone turned up and let the queue in. We all had great fun driving on the little tractors, then went to find the animals. I know we really shouldn’t compare it to Adam Henson’s farm that we went to last summer… but… well… ummm… the playground was fun and there were lots of excitable farm dogs around. We then had a look at the owls (it’s also an owl sanctuary) – one of whom had a sign saying “please do not disturb or tease this owl” – does that mean the other owls are fair game? Tea, coffee and gluten free cake were the answer (but to a different question), then we headed back to the cottage for some lunch.

The afternoon was rather more exciting as we donned hard hats and went down into the copper mines. The tunnels were narrow; fascinating that they were so old as we saw history, archaeology and geology collide. “Where is the mine?” was the accompanying question as we wandered through the ancient rabbit burrow. How does one describe the concept of a negative to a toddler? I mean, someone I know wrote a whole dissertation on the question “is a hole?”. “Here” apparently wasn’t a sufficient answer. I can’t remember the answer I gave in the end, but allowing the little one to choose some little coloured “stones” (probably just coloured glass) to take home was enough of a distraction. I popped to Asda to pick up some supplies (Orme beer, salt, vinegar, gluten-free snacks (where I saw the chocolate cake that we’d had at the farm park!) and chocolate) before we settled down to watch “La la land” – the first film we’d watched together in ages. Great film. Incorrect ending. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

“I’m awake. My eyes are open. I had enough sleep”, is not the first thing I normally say when I wake up in the morning, but apparently when you’re a toddler that’s normal! Today was the day of the tram. To all intents and purposes, I would call it a funicular because it’s cable-driven, goes up the side of a hill on rails and the cars on the rails counterbalance each other. However I would be wrong; because it’s on a road in parts, it’s a tram – a cable tram to be more precise. As we waved to everyone that we passed, Kiri and I ruminated on why, just because we were in an unfamiliar vehicle, it is suddenly acceptable to wave at strangers. As a young adult, my friends and I once waved to a car full of elderly people as we passed them on the motorway. They looked horrified and I saw them mouthing to each other “they’re waving at us”. I never did that again. Yet in a tram it’s fine. Hey ho.

It was also bitterly cold in the open tram, so after kying a flite on the beach, we warmed up in a coffee shop before walking a long way to Chish n Fips. With warmth emanating from the wrapped paper, we bravely sat by the beach, determined to enjoy our haddock, cod and chips in the bracing wind. Having exhausted all free options for shelter, we headed back to a tram, where crime awaited us as a couple were thrown off the tram for skipping the queue. Once again we were frozen by the time we were at the top of the Great Orme and craving sugar and warmth, so we nursed a hot chocolate before venturing back to the cottage.

You get to this stage in a holiday (and a blog post) where you don’t really want it to fizzle out, but you’re tired. On the last day, it was wet outside and we were all lacking motivation. In the end, after a fish-finger sandwich lunch, we drove to Betws-y-Coed for the Conwy Valley railway museum and model railway. We’d just bought our tickets and were heading into the model railway, when “uh-oh” – the first accident of holiday. If anyone tells me there are closer toilets than the ones along the platform, over the railway track, through the station and across the car park, I might not be impressed! However, on our return we had a lovely 8 minute journey on the miniature railway, bringing back happy memories for me of a childhood visit to Pecorama. We popped into the model railway, but what really grabs the attention of a toddler? Electric bumper cars with no straps in an area surrounded by breeze blocks. What’s the worst that could happen eh?

Our final treat of the holiday was a coffee at the Alpine Cafe in the main station with quite possibly the best ever gluten free chocolate brownie and a huge pot of tea for one which did 4 cups! What followed on the journey back to the cottage cannot be explained logically. I’m not quite sure where, in my mission to keep the little one awake, a tupperware took on a personality and became “catty”, but even now it’s a firm favourite and as loved as any cuddly toy. A holiday souvenir.

So we did it. Proper adulting – taking a child on holiday without grandparental support. And we enjoyed it. I don’t think we’ll do it again though. Not just the three of us…

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Greenbelt – The Common Good

November 8th, 2017 (by Steve)

It’s a bit weird to be blogging about something over 2 months after the event, but at least it gives me chance to properly chew over the content of what I’m writing. That’s exactly what this year’s Greenbelt has required – in fact not just chewing, but swallowing and digesting too!

For those of you who haven’t come across Greenbelt before, I’d probably sum it up as a festival where faith, arts and politics meet across the August bank holiday weekend, with a cheeky bit of subversion on the side (no, not that one!). This year, the general theme was “The Common Good” and all of the talks, discussions and panels were chosen to unpick aspects of this (as well as perhaps defining “common” and “good”), alongside some cracking art of all kinds – visual, musical and performance art to name a few. The last time we had been to Greenbelt was back in 2011, where I asked my now parents in law for their daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for a dowry of plastic cows. A lot can happen in 6 years, so it was good to be back (accompanied by said parents in law).

Oh, and we were attending with a toddler.

We’ve been learning through this parenting malarkey that life is simpler when you’re organised, so prior to the weekend we’d selected which items on the programme we’d like to go along to. Turns out that this had been at the expense of writing a proper packing list though, and it was only once we’d done the packing that we realised that having a list would have been handy, so we hastily scribbled one together at that stage, making last minute decisions about whether we should bring the parrot.

After queueing for an age to leave the M11 services, we finally arrived at Boughton House near Peterborough and realised how useful a buggy is at a festival for transporting things to a tent. Greenbelt is such a child-friendly festival where everyone looks out for one another – where else would someone chase after you to let you know you’ve dropped a couple of big bars of chocolate, eh? Once camp was set up and the festival ground open, we wandered in to find me a hat (I seem to be in a perpetual cycle of losing flat caps and struggling to find new ones that fit properly) and soak up some of the atmosphere. The atmosphere could be described in one word – Emmanuel – meaning “God with us”; a real sense of this being a special place.

If beer and chocolate is the perfect way to round off a first evening at a festival, a bacon buttie is the perfect way to start the first full day. The drizzly campsite was humming (nay, whistling actually, with all of the camping kettles on the go) with activity and there was an excited sense of anticipation in queue for the very clean portaloo. Although the anticipation probably wasn’t linked to the toilets. Hmmm.

Once in the festival ground again, our little one was most disappointed that the plastic latticed walkways weren’t floor-level trampolines, despite looking very similar to the one in our local park. Nevertheless, much jumping ensued in the hope that somehow their elasticity would increase. It certainly led to tiredness and with a toddler snoozing in the buggy I headed off to the first event I’d chosen – Salma Yaqoob exploring whether there might be a link between the rise of ISIS and the rise of far right politics. Spoiler alert – she suggests there is; with both there’s the common language of “make x great again” which, when following its natural progression will lead to someone being an oppressor at the expense of someone else being the oppressed. Her suggested antidote to this was to lay aside political and religious leanings, focus on who is being oppressed and support them. She argued that you do not dilute your identity by working with people of other faiths, as “loving your neighbour is not a compromise to core beliefs”. Whilst I unequivocally believe that we should focus on what unites rather than what divides, I couldn’t help but notice that the whole talk used a language of blame, referring to the nebulous “them” in authority as responsible for a lot of the issues, which undermined some of her credibility. Food for thought though.

Food for my stomach was also required, so we had a lovely picnic lunch accompanied by live folk (the music genre obviously – although there were plenty of living people around). Whilst the other grown ups (yes, I vaguely would categorise myself as grown up) headed off to other sessions, I took the wee one to the “play zone” where we splashed around in water play areas, found a proper trampoline and, even more excitingly, a bouncy castle. Whilst the bouncing was going on, I amused myself with a spot of folding chair spotting (because I’m cool like that) – intrigued by the properties that different people prioritise when choosing their comfort at a festival – small form factor, comfort, weight – a balance to be had.

The afternoon session that I went to was a talk by Ann Pettifor with the title “The Rise of Rentierism”. I don’t think that I had quite appreciated how little I understand of true economic and monetary theory and actually this session was a good “Economics 101” boiling it back to basics of what the monetary system actually is – a system of managing promises. In Ann’s view, austerity leads to asset price inflation, which can only give power to those who have assets (property, works of art, precious materials), therefore it leads to inequality. Inequality is at odds with “The Common Good”. She suggested that the next financial crisis won’t be a lack of money, but a shortage of assets. So what was her proposed solution to this inequality? Well in her words, “I’m old – I shouldn’t be here – I should be looking after my grandchildren. Hopefully a young person will come along and have a good idea”. Many people cleverer(!) than me devote their lives to trying to solve inequality and I felt powerless as I returned to camp for a quick corned beef hash.

The wonderful Kate Rusby provided the warm, comfortable entertainment as we lounged in the early evening light; my Father-in-law supping on a pint of “Bad Christian II”. We were glad that she didn’t sing “You belong to me” as that features on our little one’s sleep-inducing bedtime playlist and it hadn’t reached that hour yet. A bath in a large garden trug provided the requisite soporific effect though (not for me you realise) and once all was quiet in the camping cot, Kiri and I headed out for some more live music.

Whilst I sampled the “Bad Christian II”, Kiri was very pleased to find that there was a gluten free beer in the Jesus Arms – a pint of Piggin Saint, served by a lady in a dog collar. You can’t get more Greenbelt than that! The soundtrack to our evening was energetic live rock, courtesy of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires – a group from Alabama with a message for the world of unity over division and standing up for justice. It did indeed feel like we were listening to the sound of resistance – in a world of massive change, art is always sure to respond. It led me to ponder – can music change the world on its own, or does it just provide a soundtrack for the change?

And then for something completely different. Limbic Cinema. A light projection on an ancient oak tree.

We upgraded our breakfast on Sunday to be a bacon AND egg buttie. This truly is the life. And then for one of the most powerful events of the whole of Greenbelt – everyone joining together for a communion service. Nothing speaks louder than thousands of people in silence. As part of a communion service we sometimes say “we are one body, because we all share one bread”. To be joining with thousands of other people – all expressing our belief that Jesus died for all of us, taking the punishment for all the rubbish stuff we do, then defeating death by coming back to life – that confirms that we are truly one body. Yes, we express it in different ways. OK, due to crowd that Greenbelt attracts there were parts of the body missing. But still, there’s strength when we unite. Oh, and we got seconds of communion.

With the little one still trying desperately to turn the walkway into a trampoline, after lunch we all went to listen to some feel-good entertainment provided by Harry and Chris. Their unique fusion of inclusive comedy, jazz and rap oozed pure positivity. I want to enthuse more about them, but words aren’t enough – you really have to just hear some of their stuff to appreciate their genius.

Our plan had been to go to a session about poverty after leaving my Mother-in-law to accompany the little one to the play zone, but instead we met Sam and Andy who we hadn’t seen since our wedding 5 years ago. My prayer before Greenbelt would be that I would meet the people that God wanted me to meet there and I truly believe this was an answer to prayer. Despite the fact that we hadn’t spoken for nearly 5 years we talked deeply for nearly an hour about callings, dreams, aspirations and realities. I think the setting of Greenbelt – away from the daily realities – adds fuel to our desire to live life more radically – questioning why we’re doing things a certain way – asking how we can serve others better.

I was on toddler duty whilst the others headed out to be wowed by Joanne Shaw Taylor and Newton Faulkner. The wee one was asleep and I had space to be. With fading light and limited phone battery I had time to process thoughts. No agenda. So I started doodling pictures and questions. The key phrase that I couldn’t get out of my head was “place of privilege”. Much as it strives to be an inclusive festival and offers many grants to enable many to attend who wouldn’t otherwise be able to, realistically, Greenbelt attracts a middle class, white festival-goer. All of us are therefore in a place of unearned privilege that affords us the luxury of spending our spare money on going to a festival. It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others – most often to look at those who are more successful, or richer, or with “better” lives, but I find it a really useful reminder that in any challenge I face in life, I’m starting from a place of privilege. What do I do with that though? How can I use my time, my money, the other resources that I’m a steward of for my time on earth, for the common good?

Following eggs for breakfast in the mist, we went to hear our next talk which started with lines something like “Hi, I’m Jack Monroe and I’m here to spoil your day”.

Someone who wasn’t starting from a place of privilege, yet has been campaigning for the voiceless and invisible in society. Snippets that I noted from the talk speak for themselves:

“I’m only here because of kindness. People have saved my life and sanity through kindness”

“I’m bold and strong and… crying here in front of you”

“I can’t change the world on my own, but I can change MY world”

“Know your neighbour. Learn their name. Love them”

“Stand face to face with people who don’t share your life view and talk”

That last challenge is possibly the thing from Greenbelt that has stuck with me the most in these last couple of months. It’s so easy in this world to be isolated from people who are different; who share different views. We gravitate on social media towards people who are like us, who reinforce our own world views. We need to engage outside our comfort zones, otherwise our worlds will get smaller and more disparate.

It seemed a neat segue to go from a talk by a user of food banks to a talk about reducing food waste from the Real Junk Food Project – highlighting an issue which encompasses environmental, economic and social issues. Once again I realised my ignorance of the scale of the problem in all parts of the food chain. For example, I had no idea that because of supermarket standards, farms generally produce 130% of the contracted amount of produce to ensure the contract is met… but supermarkets don’t buy that extra 30%. That’s even before we get to food wasted at the supermarket or café, or in our cupboards, fridges and freezers. The key theme was that of rediscovering the value of food through education, making use of some of that wasted food and also adopting a mindset of nothing going to waste.

By this stage in the festival, I was beginning to think about all of the various projects around the country and around the world that are set up to meet a need. I then overheard someone saying that they were working on a project, only to find someone else working on a similar project in the same space. At best it’s duplication. At worst it’s competition. That’s one to squirrel away for the future if ever we’re involved in setting something up – to remember to focus on collaboration rather than competition.

After a supper of fish and chips in the shade and watching a game of Quidditch (as you do), I armed myself with an Apostle IPA that one of the music acts had brought to Greenbelt from the US and settled down for a panel debate on the post-truth world. This was a fascinating dialogue covering mainstream media vs. social media, news vs. opinion pieces and accuracy. Kudos has to go to Peter Oborne who willingly entered what is essentially a fairly left wing festival to communicate his views and provide some balance to the panel. Despite a few whiffs of hostility and a few divisive comments, in general there was respect in the conversation, reinforcing Jack Monroe’s message that you need to understand what your opponents are saying in order to counteract them, otherwise you just end up in an echo chamber. Deep conversations ensued back at the tent accompanied by beer and chocolate as we lost the light.

The cold (and disturbed) night was replaced by a morning of glittering dew and striking camp was a lot more pleasant than it had been back in June. Once again we loaded up the buggy with anything but our child as we made the journey back to the car and back to reality.

It’s all very well and good sitting in a field armed with a lovely beer and philosophising over matters of inequality and meeting common needs in society, but what happens when we’re parachuted back into real life? Well, it tends to get in the way and dilute some of the passion and fire I’ve felt. So, I decided to set up an action plan:

  • follow people on social media who don’t share my world views and engage with them (first part easy, second part a bit scarier)
  • find out what the needs are in my area (via census, statistics, local council etc) – plan how to meet them
  • try to connect organisations that are meeting similar needs, or could benefit each other (starting with trying to broker a collaboration between Mooncup and food banks)
  • cut down household food waste (can be tricky with a toddler)
  • work out how to use my places of privilege to change lives

Don’t agree with any / some of the stuff I’ve written? Great – let’s talk! Intrigued by Greenbelt? Come along next year!.

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Intense in tents

June 12th, 2017 (by Steve)

“So what’s the plan for tomorrow?”. We’d just arrived at my parents-in-law’s house about to head off camping with them the following day and I was caught off guard by the question. “Ummm, I’d only really planned up to arriving here”. They were in a similar position – a hectic patch of life, a need for a rest, but little time to organise. A month ago we’d sent a load of camping gear from our flat in London down with them, so at least we knew we had the right kit for the trip, but other than that we’d be making things up on the fly!

Our destination was Cotswold Farm Park – the baby of celebrity farmer (two words I never thought I’d use together) Adam Henson. I will admit I’d never heard of him, but then again I’m not up with popular culture. The draw was that if you camp there, you pay for one day’s entry to the farm park, then can come and go as you like – ideal for holidaying with a toddler.

The drive from East Sussex was long on a baking hot Saturday and car park conditions on the M25 ensured that we didn’t arrive at the campsite until 4pm. After registering at reception, where we were informed that they sold pizzas on Friday and Saturday evenings, we headed to our neighbouring pitches and the competition started. 17 year old tent with two dab hands who had pitched it many times versus a brand new tent with two people who had pitched it once before. Who won? It turns out that toddlers complicate things – stealing essential parts of the tent at opportune moments, then depositing them elsewhere as something more exciting takes their fancy. The wise thing was to abandon the competition and take it in turns to pitch, whilst the other couple entertained the wee one. Final task was the traditional marking of our territory with a parrot on a pole.

By this time it was dinner time and we realised we hadn’t got any food, so I headed to reception with my father-in-law to order a pizza then head out to some shops for supplies. I was sent with one condition – no pizza with pineapple. I returned with no pizzas ordered – there had been a run on them, and the only remaining ones were ham and pineapple. Unforgivable. Pineapple does not belong on a pizza. So we headed for the nearest “supermarket” in Stow on the Wold (which incidentally had a cracking gluten-free selection for such a small shop), before grabbing some fish and chips and heading back to the campsite.

Following the previous week of blazing sunshine and Mediterranean temperatures, it was a surprise to have to layer up as the temperature fell with the light. It was a challenge to get the little one down to sleep in a light tent, with lots of exciting things to explore (such as the new travel cot) and distracting sounds outside. However, once settled we added yet more layers, had a great chat with Sam who looks after the campsite and lives in a motorhome on site (is that the perfect job? Obviously we’re not jealous…), before a numb-fingered game of crib. We hit the sack just before we totally lost the light, soothed to sleep by the gentle squeaking of the parrot’s tail as it turned in the wind.

The very early morning (our little one woke with the light) brought a dismantled parrot (was it the wind, or another camper annoyed by the squeaking? Oh, Kiri’s just informed me it was her Dad!) and news of yet another horrific terror attack. Over a bacon and egg butty we tried to digest how people could be so filled with hatred that they would have so little consideration for the lives of others. It was impossible to get our heads around.

Although being in a car is quite a novelty for the young ‘un, it’s a great place to sleep, so some shut-eye was had on the way to church. We then unleashed our secret weapon in the test of how welcoming a church is – a screaming toddler. St. Michael’s passed with flying colours – we were offered an activity bag to play with (we assume it was for the parents…?!) and when that failed I received looks of sympathy rather than annoyance as a noisy, kicking bundle was carried to the crèche. At our church in London we’ve got a speaker through to the crèche room so that adults can hear the talk, which there wasn’t at St. Michael’s, but it did mean I had a chance to have a deep conversation with one of the helpers, unpicking and processing the events of the previous night in London while the little one happily played. I can’t begin to understand the suffering in our broken world, but I do know that we have a faithful and loving God, so all we can do is cry out for strength to share that love with others.

Lunch (as with every other meal thus far) was an alfresco affair (Kiri thought that “alfresco” meant naked – I can assure you we remained fully clothed) on Cleeve Hill with fantastic views. Due to a communication breakdown, my coat was still at the campsite, so I was the wally with the brolly out in the countryside when the rain arrived soon after we’d eaten. The wind had picked up, so the precipitation was short-lived, but it did mean that our parrot was lacking a tail when we arrived back at the campsite. Again.

When the next batch of rain appeared soon afterwards, the elderly tent became, well, I guess you might say, incontinent as we all sheltered inside to have a cup of tea. Thank goodness there was a good weather forecast for the next few… oh… wait. Ah well, we’d take it in our stride and come to that when it happened. In the meantime we ventured into the farm park.

It’s a great time of year to visit the farm park, with lambs, piglets, kids and chicks galore, and even a foal. The attention of our toddler though was immediately drawn to the ride-on tractors, so we spent a good proportion of our time playing rather than looking at the animals. And why not, eh? The evening brightened up and we had a lovely dinner outside with a most British topic of conversation – the weather. The forecast was rain for 36 straight hours, accompanied by 45mph winds. Looks like we were in for an adventure!

The following morning started earlier than ordered once again, but we managed to keep noise levels low by reading books in our tent until a slightly more human hour. The rain struck after our breakfast, two hours earlier than forecast, leading to an emergency summit which, for some strange reason, we happened to hold in the leaky tent. Maybe this is what clouded the outcome of the conflab – which hinged around the weighing up of adventure versus the sensible option. It was apparent that the elderly tent would not hold up in the coming gales, so our options were to find some way to stay, or call it quits and strike camp.

For those of you who followed us around Europe in Bertha, you’ll know that we thrive in reaction to awkward situations, but that doesn’t mean that I would willingly enter a situation that I know will definitely be awkward. Well, as definite as a weather forecast can be. Adventures are often more fun in hindsight and my appetite for one was certainly diminished given that we had a toddler in tow too. However, we’re made of hard stuff and don’t want to give up easily. We chewed on a few options including rigging up a ground sheet and bungee cords over the top of the old tent, or buying a new tent. We certainly wouldn’t be able to all cook, live and sleep in just our tent. So, feeling slightly cheated that she was missing out on an adventure, Kiri conceded that she was out-voted and we set about dismantling camp.

The old tent was dismantled first (and I believe was quite helpful in dismantling itself!) whilst the little one was entertained with books and pens in our tent. Then we swapped and, as the others sought some warmth and dryness in reception, Kiri and I battled against the wind and driving rain with numb hands to strike our tent – 3 days earlier than planned – as I questioned whether I’ve gone soft (Kiri says I have). Had we been in Bertha, we would have most definitely stayed and in fact there are hard-standing areas at the campsite, making it ideal for a motorhome. Alas, we’re in a season between motorhomes, so are more at the mercy of the elements when holidaying.

Coffee and cake was the answer. I’m not quite sure that there even was a question, but coffee and cake was most definitely the answer – a big breeze block of lemon drizzle cake all to myself and half a coffee – I say half, because my numb hands knocked most of it over my mother-in-law. And then, given that it had some indoor bits, we ventured into the farm park again – first to the “touch barn” (I’m sure they used to be called “petting barns” when I was younger – I can’t think for the life of me why the name has been changed), then to the indoor soft play area. Oh, and I went on the zip line in the rain. Because it’s a zip line. And it would be rude not to.

We didn’t go straight home, but dropped in to stay overnight with one of Kiri’s grandmothers. It’s amazing how entertaining a stairlift can be (Kiri wants one in our one-storey London flat!) and it was amusing how our little one kept on answering questions aimed at the dog, as if to say “the toy’s over there, silly!”. It was a real privilege to be four generations under one roof.

It would be a lie to say that as we headed to see Kiri’s other grandmother we didn’t question whether we’d made the right decision in leaving early. Are we getting less hardcore? (Kiri says that I am, but she isn’t – she wanted to stay!) Could we have found a way to make it work? (Kiri says without a shadow of a doubt, yes!) I think our downfall was that we hadn’t really taken time to prepare for all eventualities (Mum – it’s nothing to do with my upbringing – I was well trained in making sure I pack an extra night’s worth of underwear!). We had a lovely time with the wee one’s other great-grandparent (well, actually all the grandparents are great, but there are only two great-grandparents who are also great) where our little one decided to step into the dog’s water bowl. It’s our fault really, given that we encourage splashing in puddles!

Following a long drive home where we spied plenty of fallen branches, we vowed to make the most of the rest of our holiday, but just from the base of Kiri’s parents home rather than a campsite. The next day we pitched our tent to dry it out before hopping in the car to Bexhill. Our plan to all have icecream while a certain child slept in the car was scuppered, but we’re still at the stage where a dry cracker has just as much draw as an icecream, so all were happy. We were amazed by the playground in Egerton Park – there was something for everyone there (including another zip line for me!), so we spent a good long time playing before we found a sheltered spot for a picnic, observed by a gull who circled around us like a vulture. We failed at trying to both keep the fruit out of sight of a toddler who wanted to move on from savoury, and a hawk-eyed gull and ended up losing a corn on the cob which was in the same container. I’ll leave you to guess which nabbed it!

All hopes of this holiday being a true rest went out of the window at 10pm on election night when we realised it would be impossible to go straight to bed. I was slightly alarmed when my father-in-law announced that he was going to put something more sexy on, but relieved when he re-appeared in a Wales t-shirt. The only downside of a late night when you have a child is that they still get up at the same time in the morning!

A change is as good as a rest though. In London we can’t just pop down the lane to visit the tractors. We don’t have two ewes and three lambs suddenly appearing in the front garden that have to be herded back to their field much to the delight of a toddler. We don’t have geese that we can go and feed around the corner. And we don’t have the beautiful Norman’s Bay just down the road with its smooth nature-battered, sea-sculpted groynes finer than the craftmanship of any human. So whilst the holiday didn’t provide bodily rest, it was balm for the soul. Having a sleep-inducing car at our disposal made a huge difference, meaning that we could deviate from the normal routines and be a lot more flexible with our movements.

London was an assault our senses as we returned. I’d optimistically packed a couple of books to read on this holiday. They remain untouched. I wonder how long it will be until they’re opened! In a final act of defiance before being dragged back to the normal pace of life (perhaps I exaggerate a little!) we had a leisurely barbecue, just the three of us. Lovely.

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Romance in Riga

February 11th, 2017 (by Steve)

Imagine if you were able to time travel – where would you go to? The past, the future? We had an opportunity for a little bit of time travel at the beginning of December; a few days where we were just Kiri and Steve once again without having to think about our child. Believe me, it was weird, weird, weird! But where would we go? What would we do? As we’d missed the Baltics in our travels with Bertha, we decided on a few nights in Riga, Latvia. I’d been before on my own, both in summer and winter and we were hoping for snow. Would guilt at leaving our child override our enjoyment though? Would we find stuff to talk about beyond logistics and the little one back home?

Who knew that in the mind of a small child, you say goodbye through the medium of shoving cornflakes in your Dad’s mouth? It was a straightforward journey to Luton, where we breezed through security, played Uno for a while, then had a very easy flight to Riga, bought our contactless bus tickets (that’s new since last time!) and hopped on a bus into the city from the airport. More importantly, there were 3-4 inches of snow on the ground, so we were straight into playing mode, despite the biting cold. Kiri announced “I can’t tell you how happy I am with my thermal leggings” before proceeding to tell me, at length, how great they were. My Poundland gloves didn’t quite cut it in the Baltic temperatures though, so we picked up some more in a supermarket before heading out in the falling snow to have a lovely goulash for dinner.

It was still bitterly cold the next day, but rainy, leading to a bit of a quandary – do you walk close to the road where you’re likely to be splashed by melt-water, or do you walk close to the buildings where you run a gauntlet of being caught by snow sliding from the rooftops? Our walking tour guide chose the former and was encompassed by a tidal wave created by a passing bus. This was the third time I’d been on the walking tour and each time the guide has presented the city in a different way. This time the narrative was one of an occupied nation, celebrating in 2016 its longest period of independence – 25 years. In contrast to previous tours though, the relationship with Russia was talked about with much more caution – the words chosen very carefully – “I can never view Russia as a peaceful nation” – and parallels drawn between Latvia in 1940 and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The tour ended at the Splendid Palace theatre with a recommendation to view a Latvian film. Eager to find activities that took us out of the cold, we asked to book two tickets for the following afternoon. The cashier scrabbled around her papers for a good few minutes before declaring “…but it’s not in English?”. She seemed bemused that we still wanted tickets, but nevertheless completed the transaction.

Before the first day was out, I had a promise that I needed to fulfil. As with many cities in Eastern Europe (and more recently Western Europe), padlocks are put on bridges as a way of marking the commitment in a relationship. Many years ago, when I first visited Latvia with my ex-girlfriend, we broke up on the first day of the holiday (that’s a totally different story, but it was mutual!). She made me promise that should I ever get married, I would put a padlock on a bridge in Riga with my future wife. So Kiri and I had come to Riga, with a padlock prepared, which we duly attached to a bridge as a mark of respect, throwing the keys into the water beneath (which confused the hopeful ducks).

That evening we had a hearty meal at Lido, washed down with the sweet, malty, Russian rye bread nectar that is Kvass before heading to the Skyline bar at the top of one of the posh hotels. The first time I visited it, I was young, newly single with a solid job. The second time I visited (6 months later over New Year), I was still young, still single (on the closest I’ve ever been to a “lads’ holiday”) and freshly redundant, with many questions about my future. And here I was, several years on with my wife beside me and our child hundreds of miles away. This was to be an evening of deep reflections and conversations on life aspirations. A chance to be Kiri and Steve the couple, rather than Kiri and Steve the parents. As we took our time to sip on little glasses of Riga’s famous black balsams we were able to reconnect in a way that’s so difficult to do alongside parenting.

The balsams ran out all too quickly though, so we stopped via a supermarket on the way back to our hotel room to grab some more at half the price! We were nearly back at our hotel, wandering down a little alley, when a police van roared past us, stopped suddenly, then turned on its siren. Startled, a cat leaped out from beside us, making us jump, before a huge cascade of ice descended from a roof in front of us. Had the cat not jumped, we would have been underneath it. And the moral of that story? Ummm… cats can sometimes be useful?

That night there was further rain and hail, meaning that there was very little snow left when we ventured out the next day. The temperature had once again plummeted, turning all of the puddles to sheet ice. We spent time wandering around the many Christmas markets and buying a few of the wares on offer. I was particularly taken by how precise the Latvians are when I went to use a toilet:

“To flush, press and hold foot pedal for 3÷5 seconds”… I make that 0.6 seconds. I’m not sure that my flushing is quite that accurate, but I did my best! Leaving the Old Town, we had lunch in the Index Cafe amongst a different crowd – all young professionals and no obvious tourists, as we steeled ourselves for the film.

The film was “Melanijas Hronika“, or, for those of us who don’t speak Latvian, “The Chronicles of Melanie” – starting in 1941 during the forced exile of 40000 Latvians under Stalin’s orders. It was not easy watching – a harrowing and poignant tale with a clear message even if we didn’t understand the spoken words of Latvian and Russian or the corresponding Latvian and Russian subtitles. Reeling, we retreated to the modern luxuries of peace and freedom to unpack this film in a lovely little coffee shop over a hot chocolate. Could something like this happen again? Could it? Surely the voices of reason and justice can prevail?

Our evening was to take on a lighter note as we headed to an underground tavern of hearty food, good ale and live folk music. Our tour guide had recommended that we stick to beers starting with the letters “B”, “V” and “U”, so we plumped for Valmiermuiza and Bauska dark beers. The “beer snack” of garlic croûtons (we prefer our garlic alongside our beer, rather than in it!) that we ordered as a starter would have been sufficient as a main course, but as we’d already ordered mains, there was no going back, so we also chomped down on our half loaves of bread filled with beans, bacon, onions and a cream sauce. And the accompaniment? Some cracking live music from Rahu the fool who were a lot more free than the video in that link suggests, with spontaneous transitions from jazz flute to washboard playing and guitar to banjo. What a great way to end the trip.

We found that 3 nights away had been plenty and by the last morning we were very ready to be reunited with the wee one and return to the rollercoaster of parenting. We tucked into a hearty breakfast once again (our hotel had an amazing buffet each morning including Schoko Müsli (woohoo!), pickled fish, cooked breakfast, champagne and pastries!) before stocking up on balsams at the airport and being whisked back to Blighty. The little one was quite overwhelmed to see us again; running between each of us, beaming from ear to ear. Hearing about all of the fun the grandparents had got up to, we were reassured that we hadn’t been missed that much whilst we were away.

So when are we going away again? Well, there’s nothing planned, but given it’s taken over 2 months for me to find time to write this blog post, it might be a while before we find time to plan another trip!

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An ode to Schoko Musli

November 27th, 2016 (by Steve)

So I’m going to let you in on a little secret today. I fell in love on our travels around Europe in Bertha. Before I get anyone worried on Kiri’s behalf, she was well aware of my illicit love, for the subject of my love shared the breakfast table with us most mornings. Yes people, I fell in love with a cereal.

Now I’ve always liked a bit of chocolate in my cereal, having grown up with Weetos and Coco Pops as a treat. However, there’s that goldilocks balance to strike between a chocolately breakfast cereal and one that will properly fill me up until lunchtime. Don’t get me wrong, Coco Shreddies work, but, well they’re out of the question because they’re Nestlé. Sadly no supermarket has stepped forward with an own brand equivalent. So that just left chocolate granola, which is a bit too sweet for my liking or normal fruity muesli, which obviously contains no chocolate. But that all changed on the first day of our trip.

We woke in the little town of Bavay in France, ventured to Lidl and I’ll admit – it was love at first sight. Oats, pieces of chocolate, a few bits of puffed chocolate rice, a few bits of nut. Master Crumble Schoko Müsli. The perfect combination – the perfect balance – the perfect cereal.

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Some people think that it was petrol that fueled us around Europe. They would be right. But equally as important was the daily bowl of Schoko Müsli. On our return to the UK I was eager to see whether it had hit our shores, so checked the nearest Lidl… nope. So I checked another Lidl… nope. My quest took me all over the country and… actually, that’s a lie – I just asked them straight out on Twitter:

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Little (or should that be “Lidl”…? You see now I’m a Dad I have an excuse for the Dad jokes!) did I know that in the same month in 2015, a fine, upstanding gentleman named Christopher Young (OK, I’ll admit I don’t know the fella and I’m basing this purely on two public Facebook posts!) was making exactly the same request on Facebook:

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He’s a motorhomer too. Good chap.

What did it achieve? Well, I got a virtual hug from Lidl – I can’t complain at that, but I’m still waiting for the real thing to be stocked.

When my parents went to Belgium, I asked for them to bring me some back from there. They returned with some lovely Schoko Knusper Müsli; it was close… but it just wasn’t the same

So when I went to France this summer, I made sure I was reunited with my lost love. I even introduced it to my wider family (who agreed that it’s really quite nice). Some people load up the car with French wine on their return. Me? Schoko Müsli.

But that was the summer. The nights have been drawing in. Our ties with the EU are no doubt going to be cut. The country has spoken. Is this the end of Schoko Müsli for me?

People, you can make a different. I beseech you, in a world where hope seems to be failing, where everyone (apart from Leicester City) are asking “what has happened in 2016?”, to stand up and say “I want to try something new – I am ready for Chocolate Muesli”. All you need to do is retweet this:

And one final note. Lidl, I know you will read this. You believe in great customer service. I trust that you will do the right thing. For the sake of international relations. Thank you.

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Europe – a new chapter

September 5th, 2016 (by Steve)

Just under two years since we departed mainland Europe in Bertha, we were back in France. Not in a motorhome. Not just the two of us. Nope, with our little one and Kiri’s parents, we squeezed into a family hatchback (with a roof box) with our destination set to be a campsite near a little village north of Bordeaux, where we were to meet up with Kiri’s sister’s family too. Turns out it’s quite a long drive from Calais to near St. Gilles

Having nearly been defeated by the headlight deflectors (those things require a degree to be able to understand the instructions!) we realised less than a kilometre out of Calais that we’d left the sippy cup upside down in the wee one’s car seat. Although there was no complaining, we decided that if it were us, we wouldn’t particularly want a bidet experience on a long car journey, so we stopped at the first aire we came to, unpacked the roof box, got a change of clothes and patted down the car seat. Stopping and starting was to be the order of the day and therefore progress was slow, even though we were on toll roads (a luxury that we decided never to waste on Bertha, with her top speed of 90 km/h). It was a novel experience overtaking slower moving vehicles, although a little disheartening to overtake the same vehicle again after another stop for a nappy change or something to munch. It almost would have been easier to travel in a motorhome, with all facilities on board.

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We eventually arrived at the campsite and disembarked into a chalet with a construction reminiscent of Bertha (although a little more modern). And there started our beautiful cycle of hearty meals outside – dinner with local wine, breakfasts of fresh bread, pain au chocolat and Schoko Müsli (more on that in a later blog post… when I next find time to write a blog post!), lunches of bread, olives and a fine array of cheeses. I seem to recall that a few other things happened between these mealtimes, but sharing food together was central to this holiday. I can almost still taste the tartiflette, the boeuf bourguignon and the risotto “with curly meat” (as described by my nephew – “prawns” to you and I). Ah yes, there were other things that happened – icecreams! Most were swiftly eaten and rescued before the hot sun plastered them all over our clothes (although in the case of my nephew his clothes got a pretty good deal), but the decadent flavours of tiramisu, coffee and creme brûlée linger in my memory.

Nom.

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So what was this place that we were staying at? Well it wasn’t just a campsite – it’s a place run by Spring Harvest Holidays and their website describes it as “a setting in which you can be refreshed and renewed: spiritually, mentally and physically”. Sounds too much like organised fun? The great thing was that all activities were optional, so we could dip in and out of things as we wanted. For the first time in, well, a long time, Kiri and I were able to get fully immersed in a bible study, knowing that our little one was having a whale of a time with the grandparents. And what an appropriate time and place to be studying Acts 2 – a chapter in the bible in uncertain times where people were looking for a message of hope in a divided land. Soon after we arrived, our screens were bloodied by yet another inevitable and horrific Godless act of terror near Rouen. We joined together as a campsite to pray for France and all other countries affected by these acts. It’s amazing how much a continent can change in just two years – when we were travelling in Bertha, Schengen was still strong, an EU referendum wasn’t even on the cards and terrorist attacks were few and far between. What will the next two years hold for Europe?

Hmmm, I seem to have digressed a little. Where were we? Ah yes. Kiri and I made it along to a few of the organised sessions, but the rest of the mornings I was based in the 0-3 year old group, mainly being chased around a bouncy castle by boisterous 3 year olds, punctuated by occasionally being hit around the face by a spiderman toy. I thought it would be exhausting going on holiday with 3 children under 6 and I was right (“Why do I need to be quiet? Its 7 o’clock”), but it was so much fun too! With 6 adults, we were able to share the load of childcare and catering (although Kiri and I had the lightest load by far in the latter category) and have a lot of fun playing in the chalet and going to pool together. The incredible weather resulted in me trying to find a hat to wear in the pool (oh, the joys of having thinning hair) which I eventually found in the nearest Super-U next to the meat. Obviously. Mais oui… les chapeaux sont à proximité de la viande! And I even had time to read a whole book. Holidaying with family is definitely a win-win.

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This was very much a holiday focussed on family time rather than “doing” stuff, or having adventures. But that’s not to say we didn’t have a few adventures – the two younger generations (bar the youngest member of the family) hired canoes and we had an exciting, if slightly uncoordinated, paddle up and down the local river. In my defence it was my first time in a canoe… I think the same could be said about our niece, but she seemed to pick it up faster than me!

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We also had a day trip to Noirmoutier in the rain, planning on driving across the causeway on the way back that separates it from the mainland. Sadly, the sea’s timings were a little off (it definitely wasn’t our timings) and as we didn’t fancy the “risque de noyade”, we took the bridge instead.

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Evenings were a time to play board games as the sky slowly darkened around us. I blame my increasing level of relaxation for my fall from grace that took me from winner of Carcassonne in the first game to definite loser by the last. My father-in-law has asked that his 3rd place on the final night be noted for posterity. On the two Fridays we were there, we took part in the pub quiz – unfairly robbed in the first one (we blame a miscount) despite acing a round on identifying European countries on a map (methinks we had an unfair advantage following our travels). The second one was better (4th out of 40 teams) and I am not ashamed to say we aced a round on 90s pop music. You can’t beat a bit of Hanson! Kiri and I even managed a date night where we sat in the bar at an open mic night; taking the opportunity to dream together about what our future might hold.

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Suddenly our 10 days were up and we were off, back up the toll roads towards Calais. With our motorhome mindset very much alive, we asked our sat-nav for directions to the nearest supermarket petrol station (1.03 per litre rather than the 1.26 available on the motorway!) when we were running low. It was sobering to end up in the very suburb where the priest had been murdered a week previously. A quiet suburb where the supermarket wasn’t open on a Monday. With a ferry to catch and a young child to entertain in the car we didn’t have much time for reflection as we motored on up towards Cite L’Europe, where we had dinner and popped into Carrefour to grab four of our favourite beers from our trip in Bertha (for those of you who were wondering – Kwak, Westmalle Trappist, Chimay Blue and Kasteel Donker).

And then back to our little London flat with an ever growing and developing child. What a great holiday. Same again next year? Who knows what situation we’ll be in by then.

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