More Christmas

Yesterday I took J, L, and A into town early. J is doing a holiday music thing, so we had to be there (20 mins drive away in perfect conditions) at 9.30. Hmmm… It’s for 4 days, and 9.30-1.30 means it’s not quite worth going home again to come back out again. He’s doing gamelan, recorders and choir, and is enjoying it – it runs every holiday and next Easter K will be old enough to join in too. It’s in the university music school, and the place is full of Terribly Nice Middle Class Parents Who Want To Help Their Children Develop (like me, and former colleagues I keep bumping into).

After I’d dropped J off, I took the girls to church. We were sooo early that we sat in the car reading for a bit, and then headed off to the anglican church just down the hill from the Methodist church we’d otherwise go to. The Sunday after Christmas is traditionally a low turn-out, and so churches often get together. St. Giles is run by a lovely woman who really likes children. We sat at the back of the church in the comfy play area, played with the cuddly nativity set and read books.

One of the books was new to me, and one of the best tellings of the Christmas story I’ve seen: The Nativity by Julie Vivas. The angels have billowing ragged wings the colour of dragonfly wings, and unlaced Dr. Marten boots. When they visit the shepherds, some of them ride the sheep. There’s a picture of an exhausted but glowing Mary sitting and leaning against Joseph, who’s cuddling Jesus. It shows quite how hard it is for a heavily pregnant woman to get onto a donkey. Afterwards, when it’s time to go, an angel holds Jesus while Joseph helps Mary onto the donkey, and then Mary rides off with Jesus in a baby sling.

What I like about it, I think, is that it isn’t the bloodless stained-glass perfection depiction. It shows a normal-ish family coping with extraordinary things in amongst all the normal bits of life. God is drawing near to them, becoming a real person, born in a dirty stable, lying in an animals’ feeding trough. He’s not checking them off against a series of tests that they’re designed to fail – he’s in their life. There’s life and substance, like Aslan being a wild lion.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of God as just some nice mate. One of my favourite hymns from around this time of year is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (all the words are here) – that’s the utterly freaky thing about Christmas, the infinite, immortal, cosmic creator somehow here like one of us.

After church, we pottered a bit and went to pick J up but he reminded me that there was a free concert as part of the holiday music thing, by Prime Brass. He persuaded me to stay, and I’m glad he did as it was excellent and L and A managed to keep quiet and enjoyed it too.

On the way home J said that one of the songs he’s doing in choir is in Latin. He doesn’t know what it means, but apparently it sounds like “Ta ra ra boom teeya in an emu’s nostrils.” I’m glad all the rushing about (and hence not having a completely relaxing holiday) is worth it!

End of the week

I had Thursday off work, so that I could take the boys to a school at which a friendly teacher teaches. We were late and so stressed up to the eyeballs, but as it turned out not too late to have missed anything. The teacher had let home educating families crash the visit she’d arranged by a company that comes to schools to do interesting history things. There should have been more school- and more home-educated children, but illness had stopped some of them coming, so it was just Dave, J’s friend J, L’s friend E, me and the boys from the world outside school.

The day was on Victoria life, and was very good – the leader, the teacher and children accepted us all, as did the other parent helpers. In the morning we did a couple of hours based on lovely old suitcases full of interesting things. Some had some genuine Victorian things (hats – including deerstalker, pith helmet and top hat in its custom-made leather hat box, and a wooden writing box complete with secret drawer), and some replicas with a story that we would then re-do ourselves using the replicas as props. One was a tea service, and the other was stuff for washing day.

I still remember my grandmother’s laundry tongs, and there were a couple of pairs in the suitcase. My grandfather had a splendid wardrobe with lots of special-purpose shelves and drawers with labels on, such as one for collars and studs. The suitcase had a couple of round leather boxes with collars in, and a flat iron, and a washboard. It was excellent for the children to actually see and handle everyday things from long ago, which I could still link back to.

In the afternoon we were making things, and each adult stayed put with one activity, while the children went from thing to thing as they wanted. I was on making fans with coloured feathers on, and had a fair number of customers over the afternoon. There were other things like a rough book, a blotting paper hand and sleeve, an optical illusion thing, and some embroidery. We all enjoyed it, and knew more at the end of the day than we did at the start.

On Thursday night there was my work Christmas do for my section of about 15 people. It was at a swanky hotel, even though we weren’t expected to dress up. Our party was put down in a basement room in our normal clothes, while the people in black tie and cocktail dresses had the ballroom and other swankier (and more visible) rooms upstairs. It was particularly nice as lots of people who left in 2007 and 2008 came back, which shows how good the team spirit was and still is.

On Friday night Katy picked me up straight from work and we all headed off to Milton Keynes. Partly this was to continue our tour of the world’s Ikea shops, to which we’re drawn like moths to lights. But mostly it was to see the Christmas stuff in the big shopping centre, which was lots of lights, a little train ride, a helter skelter and a carousel. It was very nice, and Hawkins Bazaar has a shop there which was entertaining for a while too.

On Saturday I was up early for a weekend, so that I could take the boys to the Young Astronomers Club at the Institute of Astronomy. J’s friend J goes, but we haven’t been for ages – it’s only once a month, so if you miss one it’s a big gap till the next time. As it was the end of term the leaders put on a panto – apparently this happens every year. They write it themselves, and it’s got science jokes in and props etc. While I was sat outside, the Astronomer Royal popped in to the Institute, like some kind of well dressed, very clever, famous and important kindly grandfather. He’s one of those rare people who needs to know the precedence rules for titles around your name: Professor, Baron, PRS, OM… The juxtaposition of panto and mega-brain + tradition was weird but very nice, and not at all wrong for Cambridge.

Another end of year thing was the stall selling interesting rocks – bits of the moon, bits of meteorite etc. The boys spent some pocket money on tektites, which was all they could afford! They look like little black lumps of rock, and so aren’t impressive unless you know what they are.

We picked up R, and then went to a lecture called the Horrible Science of Cambridge, given by Nick Arnold of the Horrible Science books. Apparently he grew up in Cambridge, and was only interested in writing horrible stories as a child. It was pitched accurately according to the publicity and so a bit too old for R and K, but J enjoyed it and others weren’t too fidgety. It was a blast from the past for me, as it was in the lecture theatre I sat in 3 times a week in my first year for Maths lectures. The route from the car to the lecture theatre took us past the hut where Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA, where Rutherford split the atom, and the rooms that Newton had at Trinity College.

On the way back we saw the Chronophage – the boys had seen it before but I had only seen photos and videos of it. It is utterly brilliant – a huge grasshopper (the eater of time that gives its name to the whole clock, but chosen because of the escapement mechanism named after the grasshopper), a good tick tock sound, pendulum and gear teeth, lots of Victorian era shiny metal but also circles of blue LEDs to actually tell you what the time is.

Katy, L and A all have the lurgy quite badly, so today we just mooched around the house. It was nice, after all the rushing about, but it wasn’t a day for getting lots done. We watched ET, made some Christmas presents, had a brief kick about outside for some fresh air, played some Viking Defense (sic) and not much else.

busy week

quick resume to fill in later:

Monday – shadows show and workshop; Wed planning
Tuesday – swimming, shopping, odd jobs and errands
Wednesday – hearts, Latin, French, Z; CHEF planning
Thursday – Tots, book clubs, science, recorders, present-making, christingles
Friday – odds and ends and music
Saturday – UEA lectures and family visits


All the way back from Niccamp (apart from when engrossed in Robots) the boys were asking if we can do a “Frenchcamp” next year so I’ve been researching a bit and have a few ideas to get down partly so we can see if anyone else might be interested and partly so I don’t just add them to my long list of bookmarks I never look at again…

According to P&O website, ferry looks like being £50 – £60 for a return, using May as an example; the site was so slow I can’t face doing it again for June and September just now!

Camping le Brevedent – just over 1 hour from Calais; 1h 30 from Parc Asterix; works out at 30 euros/night for us (basic pitch, 2 adults, 2 over 7, 2 under 7) if we go in May, June or September. I like the sound of the orchard camping or the conservatory if we had a group to fit together 🙂 Pools, mini golf, children’s and toddlers’ play areas and baby baths in shower blocks all sound good too 🙂 Oh, and on Wednesdays there’s a coach to Paris, apparently, while on Saturdays there are concerts and on Sunday evening the owner opens her salon to visitors wishing to hear her family history…

Similar price, but rather nearer to Calais (and correspondingly further from Parc Asterix, which appears to come high on Bob’s list of things to do, never mind the boys’ 😆 ) is Chateau du Gandspette
which has heated pools, games room, sports field and tennis courts but looks more traditional in layout as far as I can tell from pictures (ie individual pitches with hedges between).

La Paille-Haute is the other side of Arras (so about an hour and 20 minutes from Calais) and looks to have more open areas for pitching, but comes across as being more basic. There is still a swimming pool, though, and it’s a bit cheaper – 21 Euros 50 for 4 people (plus 2 Euros for each extra child under 7 so 25E50 for us) per night. There’s a playground, a children’s games room and apparently also a bouncy castle, although I’m not sure if that would be there out of season. They’re very proud of their family parties and soirees dansantes too – hmmmm 😕

Anyhoo, just putting down a few ideas for now 😀 Of course there’s always the option we used to go for pre-children, of getting the ferry, driving until we find a nice-looking town and then stopping at the camping municipal until we’re bored, at which point we pack up, find the mairie to pay our 5 euros or whatever and move on to the next town. Definitely the cheap option, but somehow less appealing with four small children in tow!


We’ve just come back from a very nice week away seeing people, and it’s a bit weird arriving home on Friday rather than Sunday, but it means that all the tedious unpacking, washing, catching up on sleep and so on can be done before I go back to work, plus I think it was just about the right length of time (or rather, just about the maximum comfortable sleep debt).

Up to near York to see my godson T and family. We had hoped to leave on Friday night, which turned into 9 a.m. on Saturday, then 10, then err… 12.30 from our local Tesco. Ho hum. Looooads of fog on the way up, but otherwise a good trip and lovely to get there. Playing, chatting, etc. then happened. On Sunday I got to see T’s dad Paul preach at a small fairly recently rebuilt chapel in York, which was great and reminded me of some important things that I’d managed to forget. The children and mums joined us in York, via bendy buses, at a very nice veggie restaurant called El Piano that serves all sorts of things (onion bhargis, veggie shepherd’s pie, falafel, etc.) in tapas size helpings, so we ordered loads of different things and everyone had something they liked. Back to T’s house (more bendy buses) to be in for some other local friends from college whom we hadn’t seen for ages. We stayed till Monday lunchtime, which meant we could pick T up from school and say goodbye properly.

We then headed off to Helmsley youth hostel, where we joined a few other families as odd as us i.e. other home educators for a splendid NicCamp. A pottered about being cute, the others largely disappeared to play with friends / DSs / do craft things. There was Christmas lunch for 37, lots of cakes and mulled wine for those who liked it, playing music and singing, a birthday party and secret Santa. It snowed, twice, properly: decent snowball fights and snowmen and lots of people to do it with. A got her first experience of snow, which will end up on Flickr soon. The highlight for me, other than the chats and cake, was watching and singing along with Mama Mia with more-or-less lubricated friends after the children had gone to bed. It was projected onto a wall by equipment that registered its protest by having a sulk afterwards.

On Friday, after packing, cleaning, loading into cars etc. we tried to get to Helmsley Castle, but got no further than the gift shop as apparently the site was too icy. It had some impressive swords – that we didn’t buy (my excuse was that none was useful for Kentwell) – and a rulers ruler that we did buy. Katy had hoped to meet up with some imaginary friends there, but weather and illness had put them off.

She was also meant to meet some more imaginary friends at Rievaulx Abbey, so we pootled off there. The manager of the Helmsley gift shop had checked it was open for us, and which road to take, so we got there OK despite the snow and ice. They gave us each a phone-like thing with an audio commentary, and we had the place to ourselves. K and L really got into the commentary, but J was in too much of an odd mood to appreciate it, and flitted from thing to thing in the little museum in a rather annoying way. (The museum is small but really good, with hands-on things for the children, plus enough other stuff for adults.) I hadn’t expected it to be so big or to have so much still standing, and the pictures of what it might have looked like in its day, plus the fact that Katy and the children had recently gone to Ely Cathedral to do a day on monks meant it wasn’t just a pile of old stones. The whole site covered in several inches of snow, with no-one else around, was magical although we were all glad of the warming power of tea and cake in the tea-room afterwards.

An uneventful and fog-free trip home, an excellent veggie sausage omelette cooked by my gorgeous wife and then bed. A nice trip away.