I took our younger 3, H and C (the Beans’ Spanish daughter) on a trip to Parliament that the local Home Ed group had organised. I think one of the highlights was A saying “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be”, which was nice.

We got down to Embankment on the train and Tube, then walked along the river to Parliament. We passed the Battle of Britain memorial, and stopped to talk about it. Lunch was in the grass that’s in the middle of the roundabout thing just outside Parliament, with statues of leaders around two edges (Peel, Mandela, Gandhi etc.) and lots of flags on another. A short stroll to the education centre at the other end of the building, and we met up with the rest of the group – going past a statue of Richard I, and meeting by a statue of Emeline Pankhurst (lots of statues). Airport security, although we didn’t have to take off our shoes, and then onto the tour.

We couldn’t get into the chambers themselves, as they were busy being used by politicians (who’d have thought it). It actually turned out quite well, as the education centre has a room where they have lots of projectors and can make it look like you’re in the middle of the chamber. The guide had an iPad that controlled it all, and could play clips of the Speaker saying “Order, order” etc, and he put silhouettes of the PM etc and other explanations on top of the photos. He was very good – informative, engaged the children and seemed to be glad that we were there. After that we were led around the public bits of the building that weren’t in use, and at the end we got back to the education centre and I thought that was it.

No! We were handed over to another person in another room, who said “I’ll be with you for the next hour”. I thought that this might drag, but she was really good too, and I think the children got quite a lot out of it. She had the children divided up among tables, with a rosette each on it. There tables were constituencies, and the rosettes were parties. Each child picked a rosette, then had to get together with the rest of their party to choose a manifesto.

There was a menu of 10 or so points from which they had to pick 3. Each had a price – up to 50p – and the total price had to have 50p added on for contingency. This was a good exercise in presenting a case to convince people, choosing things fairly and so on. These were then presented to the whole group and put up on the screen – it was interesting that all 5 parties had chosen to increase foreign aid.

Then back to your constituencies to vote. You couldn’t vote for yourself. The red party got 3 MPs and the others 1 each. H was one of the red MPs – none of the others with me got elected. A and her fellow not-elected-red candidate got to chose which of the elected red MPs got to be Prime Minister, who was a girl I didn’t know.

All enjoyable and educational, then outside for refuelling and running about for a bit. We walked back to the Tube, and by popular request went to Harrods rather than a museum – I thought they’d done plenty of educational stuff and should have some fun. We went up the Egyptian escalator to the toy and technology departments. The demonstrators in the toy department were excellent, as were some of the toys. It was interesting to see a couple of augmented reality toys, plus a toy that blended a scalextric-type track and cars with a racing app on a smart phone.

Back to the Tube, which was quite a crush for a few stops, for a brief visit to Coram’s Fields – one of my favourite places in London. Unfortunately we only had a short time before it closed, but it was still good.

No more Tube, as King’s Cross was walkable. We stopped for chips to add to sausages K had packed for us, then had to wait aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaages at the station for our train’s platform to be announced. Chocolate biscuits to revive flagging spirits, and then back home.

Weekend at grandparents

Lfish had gymnastics, and 7 people descending on my parents would have stretched their ability to put up people, so K and Lfish stayed at home while I took everyone else to my parents. The drive up was long but uneventful, nice food, then bed.

I pulled the children way from the TV, and I drove us plus Dad to Alderley Edge (the hill, not the village). Dad knows a lot about it, including the links to the Weirdstone of Brisingamen. He knows the author, and pointed out places that are mentioned in the books. It was a lovely walk in the woods, with bonus history (bronze age onwards), literary links, scrambling over a simple but very good mini-adventure playground made from logs, and searching for treasure. The treasure was little bits of ore left over from the mining – azurite (blue), malachite (green) and cobalt (surprisingly, black). The view from Stormy Point was, as ever, fantastic. Ice creams when we got back to the car park, from the regular van – Dad’s friendly with the owner and gets a discount!

Back home, more lovely food, then out to Widnes. Dad has a radio-controlled battleship, and knows where there’s a boating lake in Widnes. The battleship was not as fast and flashy as a radio-controlled speedboat a father and son were playing with, but still excellent fun and I think the ducks put up with it. Afish and Mum played on some swings while us blokes took turns – fortunately we didn’t need to use the wellies or boat hook that Dad had brought just in case.

We went on to Catalyst, which is a Chemistry-themed science museum. It was small and poorly lit, but a good place for a couple of hours. The favourite exhibit seemed to be the large column of viscous liquid that you could pump air bubbles into. You could create different sizes of bubbles, and big ones rose faster than small ones, so you could get bubbles to engulf each other. There was also a fairly decent playground outside – Mum stayed with the children there while Dad took me to see a bit of local and family history. Our ancestors used to run barges on the Mersey, and near the museum is a post from a barge that used to hold the rudder. It was about 10 feet tall, so it was easy to imagine how vast the barges were – they were the juggernauts of their day.

On Sunday we stayed at my parents’ home – TV and then helping in the garden. This was joining in the battle against leaves, harvesting tomatoes, admiring the pond and waterfall and generally mooching about. Afish spotted an interesting stripey-shelled snail on a bucket, and then impressed Dad by recognising the herbs he was growing (the results of spending time at Kentwell talking to the right people).

More lovely food, then we hit the road. K had borrowed some story CDs from the library, and we got through most of Einstein’s Underpants and How They Saved the World. It was daft and good.

Kentwell Initiation

We had hoped to all go to Kentwell for the May mini-recreation, but in the end J couldn’t get his act together about homework, so Katy had to stay behind with him and I took everyone else. The weather was unusually nice for a bank holiday, particularly so for a Kentwell mini (there has been snow at these before).

I popped up to the office on the way in to hand S’s form over – she’s officially in the system now. The vote for the first port of call was the still room to see if we could bump into KW and home ed friend A. On the way up the front sward we stopped at the decorated well, and I tried (and probably failed) to explain to S what a ha-ha was. More success explaining sun dials (from the one up by the house where you stand in the right place to be the gnomon yourself).

A quick go in the stocks (obligatory photos taken), back bridge sotlers, camera obscura (which worked well, despite it being a bit cloudy) and finally we were near. However, to honour the one-way system, you have to go in via the brew house first and then upstairs to the still room. We didn’t go directly in to the brew house as I wanted to show S the bake house first, a chat to the baker (who I didn’t know), then into the brew house to talk to an idle brewer teaching visitors games (who I did know), then finally up to the still room. I think this counts as fairly quick and direct in Kentwell terms!

Unfortunately A wasn’t there, but we had a look around, on to the seamstresses and I tied a favour to their trinity tree. Next vote was for the alchemists, but as we were heading back (via the camera obscura again), one of the back bridge sotlers advised us to go to the barn sward for a mini fayre, so a change of plan and direction. On the way we were overtaken by A who was running with some lads to get to the fayre, said hello to two lovely enormous horses, and arrived at the barn sward in time for the gentry and others to arrive for the fayre. I showed S the Cotte, where she’s likely to be, had a nice chat to some Kentwellies I knew, and then left the children at the barn sward while I sneaked to the Butts to talk to archers.

They were very busy – the new approach of letting the public shoot is very popular. Earlier in the weekend they had a queue of 40 people waiting to shoot. While this is great at experiencing archery, all the Kentwellies had time for was very rapid schooling of the next person so they could shoot their three or so arrows. So, no talking about bows, arrows, practicing, how rubbish muskets are and so on.

When I got back to the fayre it was still just about going. I had a nice chat with some visitors about the main event, and they had enjoyed themselves and were thinking about bringing their respective mums back in the summer.

By this time we were starting to flag, so while K continued to play with some Kentwellie friends, the girls and I went back to the car for something to eat. On the way back I tried to buy some ice cream from the gatehouse shop, but they had sold out (unsurprising as it was near the end of a hot day, and the last day of the event). They said they had also sold out at the stableyard cafe – cue unhappiness from A. After that the big girls went off to the alchemists, A and I picked K up, and then we headed off as it was closing time.

On the way home I stopped off at the first petrol station and bought ice cream lollies, so happiness was restored. I think that S enjoyed herself, and that she isn’t too scared by the prospect of being a Tudor over the summer.


The boys are back where we used to live for another holiday orchestra, also known as no lie-in. J is in the older choir for the first time, K in the younger one, both are doing gamelan (J would want me to point out that he did advanced gamelan), J does recorder and K plays cello in a string band – his first time of cello there.

It has been great as usual, although the driving’s a bit of a chore. So far we’ve not been late, although cut it fine a bit. K managed to leave his cello there, which a nice lady put away safely when I phoned up. Phew!

As well as the tuition and performing, there are mini concerts by professional musicians to inspire them. This year it was Steve Bingham on the violin. He had a normal violin, which he was brilliant on – attempting to accompany himself doing Owner of a Lonely Heart by Yes (which brought back memories of my teenage paper round, as 90125 was on my personal stereo at the time). He even did the weird percussive bit in the middle by drumming on the violin.

His main thing is using an electric violin, effects pedals, bass pedals (like on an electric organ) and some other bits and pieces (including a laptop) to record himself live and then loop the recording over and over, adding in many layers of other loops. By the time he’s added in the last layer it’s like he has a bionic violin – when he uses his bow it’s like a whole song comes out and not just one part. Also it’s an interesting combination of live and pre-prepared. He has some programming set up in his kit ready to accept music to record and then repeat, but the music itself is all live. He did a Danish folk tune, Clocks by Coldplay and Pachelbel’s canon – marvellous.

I’m glad that he did say several times that all the gizmos don’t matter if you don’t have the fundamental technique on the violin.

Bangs and smells

Yes, a Chemistry lecture. I had just got back from a work trip to London when Katy persuaded me to take the children back to where we used to live for a public family Chemistry lecture, while she was out teaching. We managed to feed them quickly and got there just after the introduction, but had to sit near the back. In an ideal world I would have taken just J or J+K, but had to take all of them. L was tired, and while things were happening was fine, but the mild explanations and introductions were too boring. A wriggled, quietly enough, but was further gone than L. The boys enjoyed it though.

The lecturer made me think of someone’s grandfather, pottering around in his shed, showing things to his grandchildren. Some of the things would be because he thought they’d like them, and some were because he just liked them so much he was going to show them anyway. A little bit of explanation, but mostly just fun stuff. That the grandfather happened to have a shed remarkably well stocked in strong and dangerous chemicals, and the grandfather happened to be a Chemistry professor was just by-the-by.

We had squash bottles on launch ramps being jet-propelled by burning hydrogen, burning crisps in liquid oxygen (surprisingly large flame), melting iron, and a clock reaction. He did a couple in enormous glass ball-shaped jars – one was burning phosphorous, which gave off lots of smoke that was lit up by the flames so that it glowed, and the the other was little orange sparks going up like fireflies or baby fireworks – magical.

He also did a bit about the scientific process, how you can only disprove things, and that no matter what the outcome of an experiment you win (by gaining more knowledge). He then blew bubbles in bubble mixture, with the bubbles containing a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen, and asked people to say if they thought the bubbles would go bang when he lit them or just burn quietly. They burned quietly as there wasn’t much oxygen.

I dread to think how much all the chemicals cost that he gaily burned or melted in the course of the hour, but it was all good stuff.


It’s been ages since we got back, and even more ages since either of us wrote anything. Oh well.

This year I tried my hand at archery – I’d finally given in and bought myself a longbow at a historical fair, but hadn’t had chance to practice before going. I like longbows. Mine is ash, 35lb pull (which is rather weedy, but could still reach all the targets). Some of the other archers do loads of archery, and some of them have loads of money. So there was a proper 130lb war bow that I couldn’t draw, and lots of 70lb ones which were still rather powerful. I got to get quite a bit less bad at it, and particularly enjoyed clout shooting (shooting at a cloth on a stick at the far end of a field, aiming up into the sky to get more range – nearest the stick wins). Also I learned about archery, and how we defeated the French at Poitiers, Crecy and Agincourt against the odds.

The way that people were using a simple but powerful tool made of wood, how different people had different preferences and so on, made me think a bit about the bit in the first Harry Potter book where he goes to Ollivander’s to get a wand. Another thing that struck me this year, I think partly because of some of the other archers also made bows and chairs etc. was that at Kentwell there are people who can actually make things, real things, rather than words in the Web 2.0 user-generated content meaning of make. One bloke, who makes bowls with his lovely pole-lathe started as a geneticist, then changed to selling industrial amounts of liquid nitrogen and oxygen, and now makes pipes for a living (musical ones, but not bagpipes).

He had a second lathe with him this year, where the pole was a proper bit of timber rather than a chopped bit of tree. He was saying how it was all put together at the last minute, using bits of wood he had lying around the workshop – holly, box, ash etc. This impressed me: not only did he have the various kinds of wood lying around, but he could identify them. Then there
were the basket makers – one lady was making a new basket for her dog. I need a basket for my dog, so I’ll make one. Marvellous. They use wickedly sharp knives to cut the willow.

Anyway, as well as all that there were the usual out of hours things – ceilidhs, a boat race along the moat, green man (celebration of midsummer) eating tea out on the front lawn (A got scared of the peacocks, who can be a pest as they scavenge people’s leftovers, which sometimes haven’t been left yet).

K and L had to zoom back as they were singing in a concert. Fortunately we were just back in time to see the interesting part of the boat race. The concert was for all the music groups associated with the school where they do their Saturday morning music thing. The youngest performer was in their group (a 4 year old girl, who did very well), and the oldest was a six former in one of the school groups. K+L were excellent, enjoyed themselves, and also enjoyed the other groups.

Also, K and L got to be gentry for the day, with minimal effort from us. Normally gentry is a hassle, as the costumes are elaborate and fancy, and you need posh accessories too. The outdoors gentry (visiting gentry from elsewhere) a.k.a. gentry in a pavilion a.k.a. tentry, had some costumes spare that happened to fit K and L. K liked it, and L looked forward to it so much she occasionally literally jumped for joy. After all, it’s not every day you get to be a princess. (See Flickr for the many layers of getting ready.)

Katy’s dad was doing his first Kentwell for quite a few years. In recent years there had been a problem of young lads wandering around in feral gangs. There was a school room in the house, but that was fairly posh and small. So the big cheese PP asked David if he could start a second, less posh, school in one of the barns in order to keep these lads out of mischief. He was given a free hand and more help than most stations get as PP realised it was likely to be an unpopular thing.

David did his usual excellent job of preparation, and it turned out to be somewhere that the boys wanted to be. One of the archers had a son who was supposed to be there but wasn’t, and so was almost dragged there by his dad. Later on I asked the boy how it went and he said it was good. They made a sundial by working out when noon was by shadows and then using an hour glass to do the other hours away from that. They used slates and slate pencils, and did their proper work on one side and used the other to give a score to visiting school parties a la X Factor.

They had clay letters and roman numerals made by a Kentwell potter, and they were taught the pre-1588 way of doing roman numerals: XIV is the same as XVI as the position doesn’t matter – you just add up the individual letters to make 16. So 9 is VIIII. Actually, a run of 2 or more Is has a tail on the last I which makes it look like VIIIJ. Doing division by multiple subtraction is a lot easier if the position doesn’t matter. Oh, and chess played to Tudor rules (no castling, no en passant, and pawns never move 2 spaces). And there was delicious cake, made by David’s partner. Katy took some lovely photos of David and the school, again on Flickr.

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As my dad would say, it’s all cookery…

As part of the Science festival, I took K, L and A to the Chemistry department. There was an unexpected bit of learning on the walk from the nearest free car park to the department – the very nice playground we went through had a Moebius strip climbing frame. I’m not surpised, given where it was, but it did make me smile and K and L had fun clambering over it.

I have memories of the Chemistry department from when I was a student – 3 9 o’clock Maths lectures there a week in my first year (because it had a large lecture theatre). When you got to the building, getting in was tricky because all the fume cupboards inside were sucking air out of the building and pumping it out of chimneys, which meant that the entrance doors were being sucked shut. My lecturer was Dr. De’Ath (convenient apostrophe), who was an astronomer, and the only thing I actually remember of his lectures was vector area. He held up an inflatable zebra and asked “What’s the vector area of this?” The answer was 0, as it is a closed surface.

Anyway, back to the present. The doors weren’t being sucked shut as the fume cupboards were off. There was a huge scrum in the entrance hall as lots of people were just about to go into a lecture. A quick hello to a local HE family who were about to go in, then we headed off randomly upstairs. The first room we came to had some nice crystal stuff – examples about the size of a rubic’s cube, and some kits for growing salt crystals with some here’s-some-I-prepared-earlier showing how they would work.

The best bit in that room was the liquid nitrogen. As well as the put something in, freeze it, take it out and smash it with a hammer trick (which was done with bananas, apples and an egg) there were two things I’d not seen before with liquid nitrogen. The first was making a chunky nail out of blu tac and then being able to hammer it into a plank of wood. The second was a foam trough that was having a blown up balloon pushed into it. The demonstrator asked us how many balloons we thought were in the trough. She then got some tongs and kept on pulling out more and more balloons. Most of them had gone down to as small as when they weren’t inflated, because all the air inside had shrunk down in the cold. The trough was about the size of 4 adult shoe boxes in 2 rows of 2, and there were 31 balloons in it. She put them on the bench where they warmed up and got back to normal size – the bench was covered with balloons, and it was a very impressive demonstration.

Next was a bit of Chemistry lego i.e. playing with Molymod. K and L made carbon dioxide. There were diagrams of common interesting molecules, and K asked me to make ibuprofen which while not being e.g. DNA is about 10 times as complex as CO2. The students demonstrating had helpfully made some building blocks (though none I could use) and K put the hydrogens on a ring to make benzene. The student said a bit about it (gives you cancer, good at dissolving things) and K said “The man had a dream about snakes eating each other and worked out its structure” – student was impressed and I had a PDM. They do remember some things I tell them 🙂 .

Next door was another student with different bowls to smell. Which was the odd one out? Caraway, dill, rose petals, orange and spearmint. I can’t remember which one it was (but I think they both got it) nor can I remember which chemical was involved, but it was about chirality – four of them had one version of the smelly chemical and the other had its mirror image. That was interesting timing, as that week scientists had worked out the chemistry involved in Thalidomide harming the body. I mentioned that to the student, and he said that even if you could produce a pure sample of the good Thalidomide, your body would turn some of it into the bad Thalidomide anyway. Hmmm…

We then went to a bit where the children could do experiments. There was a lab given over to getting ready – racks of lab coats, boxes of disposable gloves, and boxes of safety specs. I had A on my back and surprisngly they had no baby-wearing lab coats, so we settled for My First Safety Specs for A and caution for me. K and L had the full works – see Flickr.

The experiments were making snot / goo (borax, PVA and colouring), cornflour and water and an excellent demonstration of density. There were beakers with sugar solutions of different strengths, ranging from just water to a saturated solution. The different strengths were coloured differently, and by carefully slurping some up in a pipette and putting it out into a test tube (in the right order) you could make a rainbow.

We were starting to flag a bit, so we headed up to the top floor where there was more liquid nitrogen, but this time to make ice cream 🙂 . K and L were a bit too young to do it themselves, so they watched as a kind student made some for them and then gave us all some. Very nice it was too – very small ice crystals so not hard and crunchy, proper ingredients including cocoa and cream.

As we were going round we’d been doing a trail where you had to find posters about mystery elements. This certainly tested my rusty A level chemistry, but we got through it and collected the prizes just before chucking out time.

As for the title – my dad’s a physicist and was therefore indoctrinated with the view that chemists are just cooks in lab coats.

Clearing the blog blockage

I hadn’t realised that my lack of CenterParcs post was stopping Katy’s creative flow, so here’s a very belated CenterParcs post. As a result it will be a bit of a jumble.

7 of us in the car was a bit of a squeeze, and we didn’t arrive early enough for the cheeky swim before you can check in. But we got there early enough to not be too stressed. We had paid a bit extra for the chalet, which I think was worth it – I can’t remember exactly what we got for our money, but I remember Katy and me saying it was good.

I think that Sherwood Forest is better than Thetford Forest CP, other than it’s further away and in an area we’re not familiar with. We were weren’t in as close as last time, but I didn’t feel our lack of bikes was a problem. The playgrounds were excellent – a splendid set of musical things to jump about on, a decent rope bridge (actually over a bit of a lake) and other good things for A to play on. Also there was something that looked like a skate ramp, but was actually an enormous see-saw (for e.g. 10 adults at each end). And there were a couple of weird multi-armed see-saw things – so that 3 people could sit on a telegraph pole each and try to bounce each other up and down (the poles were roped together in a fiendish way).

It was still very cold, and one morning when walking to the main bit we saw a rabbit hop across a small lake over the ice. I’m glad I stopped to enjoy the moment rather than try to get my camera out and take a photo and probably miss it. J and M found an archimedian screw thing in a big sandy bit (actually a beach by the side of a lake), and had to force it loose of the ice that was jamming it up.

Generally the swimming was great – easier than last year. We didn’t have to battle J to get him swimming, which made things much more pleasant. (He occasionally took quite a bit of persuading, but definitely not what I’d call a battle.) K and L were as happy as last time, and better at swimming than last year so less hard work. M was in his element – he hadn’t been to a place like that before, and really enjoyed all the chutes and flumes. A liked it a bit, and I hope that next time she’ll be generally a bit bigger and capable and so get more out of it.

I was glad that all the various families going had managed to book so that we were at least in clumps if not all together. We had a DVD night at ours one evening (with rather delicious panettone bought as a post-Christmas bargain), but didn’t join in the late night board games sessions as I’m such a lightweight.

It was a bit weird getting a couple of phone calls from Newsround about the exchange in the middle of the holiday. Once I was in the middle of helping A across the big rope bridge and asked if he could phone back later – I gave the reason as I thought he’d understand. Possibly one of the strangest “I can’t talk to you right now” reasons they’ve had.

At the end of swimming on the last day M managed to lose his trunks and a pair of goggles, J and K had earned one of those big foam sausage things each, and K had found a disk from the laser clay pigeon shooting.

As well as a lightweight I’m also an old fogey. The only place I could get wireless reception was at the bowling alley / bar in the main bit. We met up there first for a birthday celebration for Big, which was during the afternoon. I went back one evening and the music was SO LOUD. I couldn’t see why people were sitting there voluntarily, in the name of enjoyment, shouting conversations to each other. Some couples had their babies with them in buggies. My laptop’s battery is so feeble that I had to plug into the mains, and the only place I could find a socket was next to the info kiosk thing – I did feel a bit weird, the only person there tapping away on a computer rather than chatting and drinking, but we needed to keep in email contact with Katy’s dad.

We cut it short a bit (but not much – just the cheeky, after you’ve checked out swim), so that we could get to Norwich in time (taking a slight detour to deposit M with Gina and co). Despite a stressful stretch or two where we thought we wouldn’t make it, we got there OK. and Katy has already blogged about all that.