After a busy Thursday in the Big Smoke, Friday had a relaxed start and then went on to be a day of normals (Maths, English, Music then take your pick) apart from a violin lesson for Lfish with her new teacher. He’s very different to her last teacher and will take some getting used to, but I think it could be a Good Thing for her in the end, if she manages to adjust enough to cope.
L was happy to stay at home with Jfish, Kfish and Afish, under strict instructions to keep busy playing a game or similarly occupying themselves. The house seemed to be intact when we returned so presumably they managed 😉 Next week choir and other activities will have started so Fridays will have a rather different shape. We’re enjoying the peace and free time while it lasts!

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TheBabs is a useful friend to have when it comes to the Natural History Museum 😉 We were already planning to go to London to see Stomp! so the offer of free guest passes to an exhibition at the NHM was impossible to pass up, especially when combined with the chance to meet up with friends 🙂
When we booked Stomp! many moons ago, we didn’t know whether Kfish would be here or in France, so we booked 6 tickets anyway on the assumption that we could either take another child with us (if Kfish was in France) or I could stay at home (if we’d gained a French child). In the event, Jfish was asked if he’d like to spend the day with Jbiff, whose school term hadn’t yet started, so we dropped him off first and then travelled to London from the nearest station to there.
Finding ourselves passing through Tower Bridge on the underground we seized the moment to see how the poppies were progressing. We visited a few weeks ago with French J and found it quite breathtaking so it was good to be able to show Bob as well and to see how many more poppies there were now.
We opted for the exhibition on Mammoths and caught up with TheBabs and B and the Beans there. It was very good, with short videos and interactive exhibits to keep the children’s attention engaged. We saw Lyuba – the most complete woolly mammoth ever found, but only a baby having died at just one month old 🙁 The children also had a go at manipulating a trunk to perform a task, fighting with tusks and working out where best to attach ligaments to avoid having their (mammoth) head pulled down by the weight of tusks.
TheBabs was also kind enough to take us with her to the member’s room (complete with misplaced apostrophe, unless she really is the only member!) where we had a comfortable lunch break, complete with tea (but no milk – tsk tsk!) and then decided to whizz through the earthquakes and volcanoes section to experience the newly refurbished Kobe earthquake experience. I think L would have liked rather longer there, so have noted his interest in volcanoes for future reference 😉 Unfortunately with a matinee to get to time was not on our side.
A brisk walk and a trip on the Tube and we were at Leicester Square, ready to hunt for the Ambassadors Theatre. We got sidetracked briefly by a proper old-fashioned sweetshop where Bob and I decided quite uncharacteristically to treat the children to a bag of sweets for the performance. The lovely assistant very helpfully gave us a mixture of all the old favourites, most of which the children had never tried (we’re quite abstemious sweetie-wise normally 😉 ) and working our way through a few of them helped to pass the time once we had collected tickets and were waiting to go in and then again waiting for the show to start.
The wait may have been tedious, but the show was well worth it. Bob and I saw Stomp years ago when we were both students, as far as we can remember, and they were excellent then. If anything they’re even better now. There were touches of humour, well orchestrated rhythms and musicality, fantastically choreographed dances with dustbin lids, large sticks and even shopping trolleys and even a whole set performed in the dark with lighters. Excellent stuff 😀

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Wednesday and the start of a new term meant Wed Ed – hoorah!

We took along some Zentangles ® for Art. I hadn’t realised until I researched it that Zentangle is actually a copyrighted term for a particular and very specific form of art method invented by a monk and a calligrapher as a form of meditation, where the process is more important than the product, but the product is often surprisingly intricate and beautiful.

HH did some Science based on respiration (which is why we had been looking through the powerpoint earlier in the week) and we learned that Jfish has the largest lung capacity of the children there – not surprising given he is the oldest, the largest (not by much – SB is almost as tall!) and plays the trombone. L has the second largest, which is good news for a saxophonist 🙂

TheBabs had some Maths activities to share too, which kept all of the children busy for some time and some of them for a considerable time. Others moved on to Minecraft; they have a project underway apparently and were very happy that we didn’t have to dash off for choir, since it doesn’t start until next week. I also did some French with Jfish and SB, something I hope to fit in each week if we can.

There was a big gap, though, as Em and co. were not there 🙁 which as well as missing them meant no music.

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It’s been a busy few weeks, with hardly any time for work between music courses, trips away, visitors and all the other things we’ve had going on. Monday felt like a good day to get things going again, first of the month, first day of term and so on. We started with some EFL worksheets for L (I’m planning to print off a whole folder for him to work through at his own pace, alongside the everyday English he’s learning) and then Maths for everybody. Lfish and Afish are both on Singapore Maths (rubbing out previous children’s work as they go – I’m such a mean (impoverished) Mummy!), L and Kfish working through Galore Park books 2 and 3 respectively and Jfish has a GCSE textbook and some practice papers to play with, when he gets round to it – NMYBB and HO have caught up with him for the moment and he’s suffering a severe bout of man flu.
A quick bounce on the trampoline and then we got out the History books and went right back to Prehistoric Britain for the beginning of the History project we’re planning to use as our topic-based learning for the next term or two. Music practices and an archaeology game filled the rest of the afternoon, and the after-dinner slot had just enough time for an extra slice of GBBO before bed 🙂
Yesterday evening I spotted an event taking place today at our local nature reserve, so today we cut bookwork short and made our way there. Jfish was sound asleep, having been woken in the night by a nosebleed, so we woke him enough to ask if he wanted to come and then left him to it. He was still asleep when we got back, so that was obviously what he needed.
The reserve proved to be a fairly long way down a little road near us, so I was glad we had taken the car. We parked and walked along the track, encouraged on our way by little signs with information and suggestions of things to look out for on our way. These included dewberries, which I’d not knowingly eaten before, but which Afish and I enjoyed (the others all turned their noses up *sigh*), blackberries and elderberries as well as various insects, birds and animals. When we finally arrived we found a very friendly warden and a group of helpful and chatty volunteers. There was one other family there, but they were about to leave, which meant the four children had an adult each and I could let them get on with learning while I watched and listened too 🙂 We started with pond dipping, which yielded a multitude of tiny snails, leeches, water boatmen in various stages of life, diving beetles with their bubbles of air for scuba, zebra mussels, bloodworms, mayfly, damselfly and caddis larvae and even a couple of water scorpions.
Moving on to bug hunting the children were determined to catch a butterfly – and indeed L managed to catch two, one with the help of a volunteer adult and the other with Lfish. As with the pond dipping, we had identification charts and magnifying pots to help us work out what we’d found, as well as the knowledgeable warden and volunteers. We gave up on the spiders though; they’re just too hard to differentiate!
The morning was rounded off with birdwatching, using binoculars to look across the water to the island where a multitude of waterfowl congregate. We managed to spot greater crested grebe, Canada geese, mute swans (although the one which was huffing and snorting disgustedly at the excess of people and lack of biscuits while we pond dipped seemed to be grossly misnamed!), coots, moorhens, teal, a pair of buzzards (overhead, not in the water ;)), a cormorant and others too far away to be certain.
It was a really good morning – lots of fun, lovely weather, wonderful people and lots of learning taking place. Sadly the reserve may not be there much longer; there are plans to build a road right through the middle of it and the various protests and petitions raised so far seem to be having little effect 🙁

We came back and had lunch, looking through a powerpoint on respiration at the same time (ready for Science tomorrow), then out came the Maths again. I had planned to do other things this afternoon, but after such a productive morning it felt as though maths and music might be enough. Various games happened, L and Afish made a marble run, we found some video clips of pop songs transposed from minor to major keys and vice versa and talked about how that changed the feel of the music… Your usual kind of HE afternoon really 😉

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Saturday found us divided. Lfish, Kfish and Jfish all had holiday orchestra rehearsals for the Upper Presentation but Afish and L had already finished. This worked out well for sleepovers; Jbiff and SB came home with us after the Lower Presentation (two cars, since Bob had come from work) and back in on Saturday for rehearsals, leaving Afish and L with Bob for the day. The new trampoline net having arrived at the end of the week, their first task was to replace the broken one (darned when we got it, further darned over the months, weakened by three large French lads playing trampoline football over the summer and then finished off by poor L going through it on his first full day here!) with the brand spanking new one. All five children are very happy to have the trampoline back in action – and I’m very relieved to have a good strong net back on it 😀
Meanwhile I took the other children to their various rehearsals, parent-helpered for a bit and was then whisked off for hot chocolate and a chelsea bun with a friend. I’ve been thoroughly spoilt this holiday orchestra, in fact, going out for a cuppa with a friend on three out of the five days 🙂
Once rehearsals were over there was a gap of a couple of hours, which we filled very happily visiting choir friends and admiring their new garden buildings (shed, bike shed and Cube). Bob and children joined us, then we all made our way back for the finale of holiday orchestra, which was excellent 🙂 Chips on the way home and then the desserts episode of Bake Off made a nice ending to a busy but convivial day.

Sunday was most definitely a day of rest. L’s parents had asked if they could ring in the morning, so we waited in for their call, apart from Bob who had a meeting at church and Afish who was keen to go and see her Sunday School friends. In the afternoon Bob and the children went to collect a basket for me (from local FB selling page) which I hope will be suitable for Kentwell and played in the field for a bit. We also attacked the small row of trees which had self-seeded down the side of our drive, with lots of digging, scenes reminiscent of The Gigantic Turnip and finally a hacksaw. Lunch was sushi and dinner, inspired by GBBO, was a high tea which included Baked Alaska 🙂

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It’s been a busy week, with lots of to-ing and fro-ing, but I think it’s gone well and the presentations to parents at the end certainly reflected a great deal of hard work and commitment both from children and from tutors. Lfish really enjoyed the folk music sessions she did; the less formal style suited her well and she loves the challenge of playing and singing by ear in small groups. She managed Upper Strings without too many nerves this time and they sounded superb by the end 🙂 Both she and Kfish did Advanced Gamelan (we’re so lucky to have this as an option, I think) and found being in a smaller than usual group even better as they all worked together really well.
Despite my reservations about recorders and the wide range of abilities it was attempting to meld together (there used to be an option for advanced recorders; both Jfish and I very much wish there still was!) they sounded impressively good by the end, taking into account the aforementioned range of abilities 😉
The jazz group L was in was fantastic and he looked as though he was really enjoying the informal lunchtime concert they gave. Jfish’s Prime Brass workshop was similarly good. In fact it was a very good four/five days all round, with lots of learning and hopefully a lot of fun too. Each time the children do holiday orchestra I find it hard to believe how lucky we are to have such an excellent resource within easy reach and at such a reasonable cost 😀

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Kfish decided last year that he would like to do an exchange like Jfish’s with En Famille, as long as he didn’t have to go to school. I think his decision was brought on by loving our visit to 6’s family in Brittany, where he fell in love with countryside, lifestyle and people. Given the slim chances of finding a home educating family in France we talked about it a lot and he gradually worked up to the point where he thought a three month stay, with a short time in school, might work. Then we went to the En Famille meeting and he came out of that announcing that actually it all sounded fine and he’d like to do the full six months please – so here we are.
Unfortunately the lad Kfish has been paired with was unable to do the hosting first, which for many reasons (mostly to do with Kentwell or music) was our preferred order, so we will need to do some juggling around and some sweet talking of music course directors, but the match seems a very good one so we went ahead anyway. When we mentioned holiday orchestra at the end of August, Kfish’s new French brother L was very keen to come along and take part so we continued our game of musical beds, aided by Jfish being away on a NMYBB tour, and welcomed him and (briefly) his mum on 20th August. So, now we are seven – well, for a day or two we were eight, when L’s mum was here and again when Jfish returned before J left – and it’s a good number when you have a seven seater car to fill 😉
L arrived on a Wednesday (Jfish was in Devon and the rest of us in Wales with my sister so Bob did the airport run while we dashed across the country to cook dinner and restore order to the house) so we planned to keep him busy but not too much so for the first few days. On Thursday we had a slow start, played a few games (notably Akumulate) and then went to a workshop on Victorian papercutting – an activity we hoped would involve little enough English to be easy for him to follow. We finished the day off with a film. In fact, there have been rather a lot of films so far – the cinema’s kids club showings being a fun and not too costly trip out which we used on Friday and again on Monday too. On Saturday we went to Kentwell Hall for the day so that J could see what 6 got up to last year and L could see what we spend a fair chunk of our summer doing. We’re hoping that at least some of us will return and take part at Michaelmas, and it would be great if L were to come with us and learn some hands-on History in the most interactive way possible!
Sunday was church in the morning and then an afternoon of punting for Bob, J, L, Kfish, Lfish and Afish, while I drove across the country to collect Jfish who was apparently too badly broken by ten days (and very late nights) of trombone playing to manage trains 🙄
After the Monday morning cinema trip Jfish gave L a crash course in recorder for the holiday orchestra folk for fun session, where the teacher had decreed no saxophones – enough for L to make a decent noise but decide that he would rather do percussion or voice. In honour of J’s last night with us we had takeaway pizza and hot chocolate fudge brownie and then attempted an early night ready for a prompt start and holiday orchestra in the morning. Ha!
So now here I am, sitting in the foyer at holiday orchestra with jazz coming at me from one side, strings from another and the occasional snatch of voices from the choir at the far end. L and Lfish started the day with folk for fun, Jfish with recorders, Kfish with choir and Afish with training strings, then they moved on to intermediate band (L), advanced Gamelan (Kfish and Lfish), a Prime Brass workshop (Jfish) and folk for fun (Afish) while I was a parent helper in choir – and was told parent helpers have to sing too; it was fun 🙂 Afish is now in her last session for the day, choir, while Lfish and Kfish are in strings, Jfish in band and L in a jazz workshop. Soon Afish and I will be playing games while the others are in orchestra and folk group then we’ll head home and see how much energy everyone has left…

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Some time ago we signed the boys up for a youth orchestra which takes players from France, Germany and England because this year’s meeting was in England. We knew that this involved hosting, preferably one foreign player for each English player and felt this was manageable. Some time later 6’s mum asked if we knew of a family who could host 6’s big sister for a few weeks over the summer while she improved her English ready for an internship in the UK later in the year. Of course we offered to host her ourselves – they are a lovely family and we were very happy to be able to help. This tied up our spare room (and second bathroom) but we had worked out how we could still host two extra musicians. Then the hosting list arrived and we had three. Hmmm.
The girls ended up giving up their room to three French lads, since it was the only room we could fit all three into, and sleeping on mattresses on the floor in the annexe for ten days. It started as an adventure but ended as a nuisance; I need to think of some kind of compensatory treat for them!
It felt a little like the book A Squash and a Squeeze – “take in your cow…” but we weren’t done yet. Just before the French lads arrived we had the very sad news that my aunt had died very unexpectedly. The funeral was to take place before the end of the orchestra visit, leaving us hosting my dad and my sister so that they could get to the funeral. What is more, my sister had no dog-sitter available so we needed dog spaces as well, which is when we discovered that two of the three French lads were scared of dogs. Fortunately 6’s sister J isn’t, so we ended up with my dad on the sofa-bed in the front room, my sister and her dogs in a tent in the garden and J dog-sitting while we were at the funeral.
The juggling is still going on a little, as we now have L staying with us for 6 months so he has taken over Jfish’s bed in the same room as Kfish, while Jfish has been waiting for J to leave so he can take over the annexe spare room. Tonight will see us doing a speedy room changeover before the social worker visits tomorrow to check that all is well and we’re a suitable host family for a French foster son. Phew!

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After the success (for want of a better word) of the first poison gas attack using chlorine, the Germans went on to develop the use of phosgene later in 1915 and eventually also mustard gas in 1917. Once the Germans had begun to use poison gas (against all the “rules of war”) others followed, first the French and then the British. The reality of trench warfare meant that once an army had dug in they were very hard to shift and poison gas offered a means of incapacitating or killing soldiers in their trenches so that an attack could happen. Things did not always go to plan: gas was generally released when the prevailing wind was blowing towards enemy lines, but if the wind changed then the gas could be blown straight back again. Many soldiers on both sides were killed or injured by what might be called friendly gassing.
The very first poison gas attack was unexpectedly successful, partly because the Allies saw the haze of greenish gas being blown towards their lines and, thinking it was a smoke screen to camouflage an enemy attack, ran towards the cloud. In fact, the success took the Germans as much by surprise as the Allies; had they been anticipating so many dead or incapacitated they would have been more ready to make the most of it and attack, but as an experiment it was certainly successful and opened the way to further use of chlorine and other poisons. Eventually a system developed of throwing bottles or pipes of gas into enemy trenches, where they would explode and the heavy gas then spread along inside the trenches, killing and incapacitating as it went. A favourable wind was still important, though, or the gas would drift in the wrong direction.

Travelling on from Essex Farm we passed a small cemetery with a monument to the 20, 000 or so Breton soldiers, most of them seasoned and experienced fighters, killed by gas in 1915. The monument shows a Breton landscape with dolmen (dolmans?) and a crucifix and commemorates the patron saint of Brittany, St Ives (sp?). Behind it flies an Irish flag in memory of an Irish poet (name??) from Slaine who was killed on the first day of the third battle of the Ypres salient. This term describes the half-bow shaped area of land around Ypres. Noel said that in 1915 the Kaiser had thoughts of invading Britain and the Ypres salient formed the last fortification line of defence.
Britain’s involvement in the war was, he said, mostly to help Belgium, a small country which had held itself neutral but was now caught between Germany and France. Belgium’s neutrality dissolved under invasion by Germany, en route to France, and Britain stepped in to help.
From 1915 much of the Ypres salient was in German hands. In particular the higher level ground (at least in comparison to the surrounding area, much of which had been reclaimed from the North Sea and was relatively low-lying) remained German until 1917. Some 250, 000 British soldiers died at the top of the ridge attempting to free this land from German control, and with them perished about the same number of Germans. We passed a monument to Harry Patch, the only survivor of his regiment in 1917 and the only soldier to have a monument dedicated to him in his own lifetime. He stayed in the area and lived to the age of 102, making him (I think) the oldest survivor.
Passing through the village of the same name we came eventually to Langemark (previously Langemarck), the German equivalent of Ypres for the British and Verdun for the French. Langemark began as the Studentenschlag or students’ cemetery but is now the Soldatencemeterie (sp?). 3, 000 students are buried here, their names recorded on oaken panels just inside the entrance. Forty years ago it was decided, not least for reasons of cost and practicality once Germany had been divided, to reduce the number of German cemeteries. Accordingly the original multiple cemeteries were closed and the bodies consolidated into four large cemeteries, one of them at Langemark. The students were joined by 44, 061 soldiers, 25, 000 of them in one mass grave and the others in collective graves spread throughout the grounds. All of these bodies were from the period between 1914 and 1918 and their names are engraved on oak plaques inside the entrance building, on stone blocks around the central mass grave or on flat plaques of volcanic stone laid in serried ranks on the grass – each engraved with a name or names and then a number of “unbekannte”. The whole place has a heavy and sombre atmosphere, with dark stone, huge oak trees and high hedges all about. According to our guide when I came here with the boys, part of this was imposed on the Germans, who were given permission to have a cemetery there only if it could not be seen from the road (hence the hedges and flat plaques rather than headstones) and was as low-key as possible. There are no flowers, apart from a few shrubs and the odd tribute left by visitors, and the inscription over the entrance reads, somewhat chillingly, “Deutschland muss leben, und wenn wir sterben mussen.”
As you walk through the dark doorway, with rooms on either side (to the right a room full of oak panels inscribed with name after name after name, all in evenly spaced letters which give a feeling of anonymity; to the left panels engraved with maps showing where the German forces fought and fell) the rectangle of light ahead shows the bleakness of the mass grave while on the horizon is silhouetted one of the most striking images I have ever seen: a grouping of bronze statues by Emile Krieger. Inspired by an old photograph of soldiers weeping over the death of an old friend and standing guard over his burial, four soldiers stand forever frozen, watching over their fallen comrades.
The negative atmosphere is exacerbated, I feel, by the new path around from the car park, which takes you through a dark tunnel with screens showing footage of scenes from the First World War and related newsreels. The sounds and sights are grim and depressing and set the scene before you even reach the cemetery itself. Amongst the graves, over to one side, are pill boxes (??) and walls which, Noel pointed out to us, echo the shape of the Ypres salient itself. The sense of loss and pain there is still palpable. Noel showed us a newspaper clipping showing Hitler’s visit there early in the Second World War – a return visit in fact, having been wounded there as a young private, a runner, in 1914. It’s easy to imagine the effect the place might have had in galvanising him into a new determination; it is so very much a place about loss and defeat – and yet still with a sense of the importance of patriotism and the (denial?) unimportance of self.
Even here though, there are signs of the comradeship between soldiers of whichever side: inscribed alongside the thousands of German names are the names of two British soldiers also buried there. Noel told us that there are often soldiers of other nationalities buried in cemeteries alongside those they were fighting – in part a legacy of the policy of burying them where they fell – and that at Cannock Chase, in Staffordshire, there is a war cemetery which is completely mixed.

From the huge cemetery at Langemark we went on to the largest British war cemetery at Tyne Cot. On the way we passed the Brooding Soldier, a monument to the Canadian fallen. There are no Canadian cemeteries in the Ypres salient, because they were never buried separately; their graves are to be found amongst their comrades in the British cemeteries. At Essex Farm we had been behind the front line, but now we were moving into the battle areas. The land around still bears the scars of warfare and the road is uneven where old trenches cause subsidence. Every so often a farmer, ploughing his land, will turn up old ammunition – a dangerous business: four bomb disposal experts have been killed in the last ten years – or even a body, preserved by the heavy clay soil. Mud and poor drainage mean there is little oxidation in the soil and bodies stay intact, but identification is not always straightforward because often the body will have no dog-tag; a comrade would frequently remove it to take home it the fallen soldier’s family and all too often then be killed himself before he could make it home to make his report. Today we use double dog-tags to avoid this – one part can be removed and the other left for identification later. Presumably DNA testing has also made identification easier.
The water levels in this area, much of the land having been reclaimed from the sea, were so high that pumping stations were needed, and many of the workers used to build and maintain these came from different parts of the British Empire. It is estimated that more than fifty sub-nationalities of the Empire were involved in the war, not least Chinese coolies and Pakistanis. Many of them died there too.
We passed by Paschendale Ridge, also known as Tyne Cot Ridge, the furthest point of British advances before Armistice Day.

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