Saturdays

Saturdays when I was a lad mostly seemed to involve either hanging around leisure centres while my parents played netball and football, or staying round my Nan’s house while my parents played netball or football.

We were three brothers and it was just how Saturdays were. We explored and played and ran about the leisure centres of Swindon, running onto the pitch during half time and trying to cadge 8p for a cup of hot chocolate from the vending machine.

At my Nan’s we’d have a bonfire, teach Nan how to play computer games on our ZX Spectrum, explore the railway sidings at the bottom of her garden and help her check the football pools when the results came in (an important job since we were all going to Disneyland if she won).

Saturdays for our girls are quite different.

The Lovely Melanie and I aren’t interested in either playing or watching sport; we don’t live in Swindon; grandparents are quite a distance away, and no modern parents would let their children have an unsupervised bonfire!

Yesterday I found myself marvelling just how different the girls’ Saturdays are to my memories, after we caught the train into the centre (of London) and had a great time at the Royal Society, for their annual open day.

Crazy shades at the Royal Society
At the Royal Society

There were demonstrations, robots, talks on how science gives us “superpowers”, stunning holograms, mind-blowing augmented reality, a display of (justifiably!) award-winning photographs, lots of hands-on science displays, and all presented by really smart and nice people.

We expected it to be fun, hoped it might be inspirational – and weren’t disappointed. It was great seeing the girls getting stuck into all the displays and chatting with the people running them. I got talking to those running the robotics and hologram displays, too – it’s nice to let your inner nerd out to play and get really in-depth and interesting answers to any questions you have.

Particularly well done to the lady giving the “superpowers” talk for keeping all ages attentive, but also for showing plenty of women talking about their careers in science and engineering. Millie and Amber probably didn’t notice the gender balance, but I did. 🙂

We stayed right to the very end (as did lots of other people) and then went to Chinatown, as promised, for Chinese food, which we all love. The girls loved the food and the place – especially the giant fluffy dragons by the door.

That’s where I looked around at my family, in a “proper” Chinese restaurant, eating Chinese food with chopsticks, and realised we would never have done this when I was growing up.

Not better, just different. 🙂

Educating Millie

When I think back on my childhood, it went on for absolutely ages. At least, like, 30 years, and I was at school for what felt like half my life. At least, in my memory it seems that way.

When you’re a grown-up things move a lot faster, and barely six years after starting primary school Millie’s getting ready to move up to big school. Einstein’s theory of relativity says time goes more slowly the faster you’re moving. And since children move a lot faster than big clumsy adults time passes more slowly for them.

Or something.

schoolAnyway, Millie’s in her last year of primary school so we’re now attending open evenings at local schools to find the right one for her.

In my day we didn’t have a choice where to go: “You’re off to Hreod Parkway in September” I was told, and that was that. Everyone I knew was told the same thing: FYI, pack your things, you’ve done Haydon Wick, kthxbye!

Now, it’s much more complicated. We get to choose where Millie goes.

Personally, I’d rather not. I’d prefer every school was kept at a half-decent standard and Millie just went to the nearest one – less paperwork for everyone concerned, no splitting friends up, just one open evening to attend, job done. But that’s not how it’s done now.

Which is why last week we spent an evening at Blackfen School for Girls for one of their open days. We were shown round the school by two polite and helpful pupils, met the staff and headmaster, saw the facilities and asked questions such as, er, well, nothing, really – your first open evening is all a bit strange and we didn’t really know what to look for or ask about.

Blackfen, as you might have guessed is s single-sex school. Both the Lovely Melanie and I went to mixed-sex schools and are a bit suspicious of single-sex schools. Although Auntie Kristine, the Lovely Melanie’s sister, went to a single-sex school and, er, she seems fine.

Apparently. 😉

Millie asked about the point of single-sex schools, which was a good question. All I could muster was something about girls in the olden days often not being educated at all, or taught skills like deportment and sewing, while the boys went to learn rugby and Latin.

Before visiting Blackfen Millie was also sceptical about going somewhere with no boys at all, but it has a reputation as a good school, so we thought it worth a look.

Once you get over the single-sex thing (and it was weird to hear the headmaster only refer to “your daughters” and “the girls”) we were quite impressed – as was Millie. Her only reservations were about the sheer size of the place, but as we explained, it’s not called “big school” for nothing; Blackfen isn’t even particularly big, they’re all that size!

There are still four more schools to see in the area: only four, as Millie decided she didn’t want to sit the 11-plus exam. The Lovely Melanie didn’t want to pressure her and the headmaster explained children should only sit the 11-plus if they’re definitely grammar school material. Millie’s got the reading and writing chops for it, no question, but would struggle with the maths.

I was all for entering her for the exam – hell, why not? – but the headmaster specifically warned parents against this, saying it would be a lot of stress for nothing since there are so very few grammar school places available in Bexley.

When Millie told us she wasn’t interested in taking the exam either, we decided not to. She can go to a regular school just like both her parents did. 🙂

Larks in the mud (mudlarks!)

OK, so poking about in the mud on the banks of the Thames might not be everyone’s idea of a grand day out but the Carter family had a fascinating time doing this on Saturday.

The small bit of “beach” in front of the Tower Of London belongs to the Queen – 364 days of the year you’re trespassing if you go down there. On just one day of the year, for a couple of hours at low tide, the Queen graciously grants her subjects permission to…well, to poke about in the mud as part of the Totally Thames festival.

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This stretch of beach is a goldmine for mudlarks however, being off-limits 364 days of the year. So we visited these rather-less-than-golden sands, along with a few hundred others, to see what we could find.

Mudlarking these days is better organised than it used to be: you get gloves, a quick health and safety lecture and the help of some friendly volunteer experts to explain the things you might find.

I did wonder what the girls would make of it, neither of them is particularly “girlie” but…poking about in the river mud – it’s not exactly a trip to Alton Towers, is it?

As it turned out we all had a fascinating time, scanning the hundred metres of beach looking for “treasure”.

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Clay pipe bowls

The eagle-eyed Lovely Melanie was quick off the mark, spotting the first of many tiny clay pipes – tobacco pipes, that is. These turned out to be two-a-penny, but then she spotted a bowl almost immediately, which was lucky – it was almost an hour before I found another.

Her bowl (the smaller white one in the picture) is probably Stuart or Tudor, so 400-odd years old. Mine, the larger, darker one, is most likely Victorian, so “only” 150 years old at best.

Millie was excited to find lots of pottery fragments, some of which were probably hundreds of years old, and quite a few bones and teeth – animals bones and teeth, that is – all stained black from their time in the water.

I was initially excited to find the metal wheel from a block and tackle, as well as some very rusty nails. Unfortunately, these were completely undateable because of all the corrosion (the Thames, being a tidal river, is quite salty, so things in it rust fast).

We spent about an hour on the beach, and then another 20 minutes showing our finds to the experts and chatting with them. I was disappointed not to find just one coin or similar item, but it was – somewhat unexpectedly – really good fun, and educational, too!

The Totally Thames festival continues for the rest of the month, but this was your only chance to hit the Tower beach this year…

Three great snaps

I snapped not one, not two but three great pictures last Friday (my final day of solo parenting these school summer holidays – this week they’re away at Grandma and Granddad’s).

The first two come from the South Bank – our go-to destination for boredom-busting free entertainment in London.

#1 – the girls drinking some crisps (no, of course they’re not really drinking crisps – we put our slushies inside crisp packets to keep our hands from getting too cold!)

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#2 – the clay models we made at the free clay-making session. Mine is in the middle. The girls’ ones look so amazing because they cheated and used moulds for their heads.

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And #3 – a stunning rainbow spotted over Bexley when we got home.

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A beautiful end to a lovely day out. 🙂

Good liberal parenting

Because I’m a good, bourgeois, Guardian-reading parent who wants to use the summer holidays for improving activities the girls and I have been jolly busy the last few days.

Yesterday we visited the Houses of Parliament.

Millie (10) and Amber (7) mostly enjoyed it – the 90 minute tour did go a little above their heads, and I did see Amber yawn a couple of times, but the Palace of Westminster (to give it the proper title) is a fantastically impressive place, so I think I got away with it.

We arranged the trip some months ago with our local MP (thank you, James Brokenshire) – completely free of charge.

Arriving at the Palace at midday in time for our 12.30 tour slot we were thoroughly checked, scanned and cleared by a small army of security staff and police, who took away my tiny pen-knife keyring, just in case.

Westminster Hall, where you enter, is HUGE, and I mean MASSIVE! Millie and I worked out that it was more than twice the height of our house you could probably fit our entire street inside.

Oh, and it’s over 700 years old, too. They really knew how to build ’em back in the 1300s!

Our tour guide was a smiling and very knowledgeable man named Rob who gave just the right mix of information, trivia and humour as we wandered around – and there was a lot to see in a fairly short time.

Although not quite as large-scale as Westminster Hall the rest of the Palace impresses in its own ways – mostly by being opulently decorated or unnervingly familiar as a backdrop to the TV news.

I was overwhelmed to be stood in such a famous room, looking at seats and thinking “That’s where the prime minister sits on the news!”

It seems smaller than on TV – which is what everyone thinks, apparently – but still has a…a power and a grandeur that you can’t explain. Even the girls, who didn’t really know what they were seeing, looked a little awestruck.

wpid-20150810_134210.jpgI was told off for taking this picture of the girls in front of the Speakers Chair in the House of Commons Chamber.

All the awesomeness took it out of us, however. Despite the tour lasting only about 90 minutes we came feeling exhausted and all fell asleep on the train back to Bexley.

At home I had a little nap, only to be awoken by Millie reminding me of a promise to take her to see the new Fantastic Four movie directed by Josh Trank (whose earlier low-budget superhero movie, Chronicle, I was super-impressed with). All the reviews of Fantastic Four, I reminded her, had been terrible, but there was no stopping her, so off we went to Bexleyheath Cineworld.

There were just seven other people in the cinema with us (one of whom left halfway through), but the film itself wasn’t nearly as bad as expected. Sure, it wasn’t great, but the first half, before they get their powers, is actually pretty OK.

Unfortunately, everything goes to hell in a handbasket after that. I was surprised by Millie’s review of the film on the bus home – she pretty much agreed with me, and was particularly annoyed that the end battle was so rushed and uninspiring…

School Summer Holidays

My determination to stay positive following our lovely holiday in Kos remains strong. And how could it not after a day like yesterday? 🙂

wpid-20150730_091433.jpgFirst, there was this piece of paper left carelessly on the sofa by Amber. If you can decode the handwriting it’s a presentation she’s written talking about my BLISS award (you remember the BLISS award, right?)

Where did this come from? Who will she be presenting it to? Are there PowerPoint slides to accompany it? No one knows. She just upped and decided to write a presentation about BLISS awards.

But it made me very happy and earned her a huge hug.

Second, as it’s the school holidays, and I had the day off to look after them, so we went to Peckham to see Inside Out, the new Pixar film.

wpid-20150730_130352.jpgPeckham might seem like a strange choice, but I go there with my friends Nick and Si most Tuesdays to see a film (Tuesday is cheap night at Peckham’s premier cinematic experience, the PeckhamPlex!) I’ve taken the girls to the Bexleyheath Cineworld many times, but that’s a rather soul-less and expensive complex. Peckham’s not the best cinema in the world but, like a slightly down-at-heel old pub, it has personality, which I like.

It’s a slightly smelly and crazy personality, but a personality nonetheless. 🙂

And I discovered you can get from our local station, Albany Park, to Peckham Rye in less than 45 minutes. At least, you can in the daytime.

At 10am yesterday I was in my dressing gown at home looking at showtimes on the computer. By 11.15 the girls and I were stood outside the PeckhamPlex.

To me, that’s remarkable. To you, maybe not so much.

The girls loved Inside Out, as did I, and were completely unfazed by Peckham. Well, except for the obligatory crazy guy roaring and shouting at people inside Peckham Rye station. That left them a little confused, but we could only hear and not see him, so they laughed that off.

And the pièce de résistance for the day? My installation of the brand-new Windows 10 on my PC. I was almost disappointed as it downloaded, began to install and…finished installing, without a single white-knuckle moment.

In the old days when there’d be code appearing on the screen, the monitor would flash, you’d get a cryptic error message and the whole thing would just hang for about an hour. Eventually you’d have restart, ignoring all the warnings that said “DO NOT RESTART YOUR COMPUTER DURING THIS PROCESS!”

Then, following three more ill-advised restarts, when Windows actually started, it wouldn’t recognise your Internet connection, all your thousands of mp3 files would be appended with “Copy” and half your programs would crash when you opened them.

Nope. Windows 10 installed itself, restarted and worked perfectly. Hell, I even like some of the new built-in Microsoft applications!

Millies are away, Ambers can play

Millie’s been away with the school for the first time, visiting a “field centre” called Sayers Croft with the rest of Year 5.

The Year 5 teachers undertook the heroic task of looking after 90 children for an entire weekend (90!), ensuring that 90 went away and 90 came back.

And came back they did – tired and muddy, but all of them with a smile on their face when they got off the coaches. They left on Friday morning (to tears from one or two mums, including the Lovely Melanie) and arrived back Sunday afternoon. In between there were stream walks and midnight feasts and walks in the woods and heaven only knows what else.

Whatever it was, it tired Millie out. She came home, had a bath, sat on the sofa and fell asleep, exhausted (of course, she then woke up again and couldn’t get back to sleep until gone 10 o’clock that night…)

While her sister was away, Amber revelled in being an only child for two and a half days (and, despite dire warnings, sneaking in to read her sister’s diary); but at times even she seemed a tiny bit lost without her sister. So we went to Surrey Docks Farm, a little inner-city farm in East London, next to the Thames. It was a toss-up between Nunhead Cemetery and the farm – both were having an open day – but the weather was too nice for mooching about catacombs so we went for the farm.

And we were so glad we did. It was much bigger than we were expecting, and just full of animals, most of which could be petted and stroked. Personally, I found the sheep-shearing demonstration absolutely fascinating (you can take the boy out of Wiltshire…), not least because the little OCD voice in my head couldn’t wait to see that messy fleece tidied and sorted… 🙂

And there were goats and turkeys and ferrets and lambs and cows and pigs and chickens and donkeys and baby chicks.

Amber face paintingMillie, whose love of cute furry animals knows no bounds, would have wanted to live there; Amber, whose love of cute furry animals is quite minimal, mostly tolerated it.

Despite being the loud bolshie one in the family she’s a bit of a chicken when it comes to animals: visibly unnerved by the sheep shearing (which, to be fair, was very physical) and unable to bring herself to hold a baby chick, she nonetheless managed to stroke a lamb, declaring it not unpleasant.

There were demonstrations of baking delicious bread in a wood-fired outdoor oven. There was face-painting, too, which we queued half an hour for (but which was well worth the wait – those ladies had skillz!)

If you’re in London next May and find yourself with a hankering for the countryside, pay a visit to Surrey Docks Farm, you won’t regret it. 🙂

On the ThamesAfterwards, we took a different route than planned back home, following the bank of the Thames westwards. It was a glorious day so seemed churlish not to follow Old Father Thames on his merry way.

But Old Father Thames didn’t have to walk it, and by the time we got to Rotherhithe station complaints were being raised by some members of the Carter family about their legs. But never underestimate the restorative powers of an ice cream on a warm day, and we were soon homeward bound.

As you can see in the picture, I managed to avoid my usual sunburnt bonce by using Amber’s hoodie as a hat. It’s only May and I’ve already been caught out like this twice, but not today! 🙂