A Giant Hedgehog, an Albino Squirrel and Dame Judi Dench

Outside the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield there is a hedgehog the size of an elephant. It is probably the most impressive over-large thing I’ve seen and I’ve seen the world’s biggest thermometer. The hedgehog isn’t real obviously but it is so splendidly well-rendered that it’s actually difficult to tell. There isn’t a prickle out of place; it’s so realistic you can almost smell the milky bread on its breath.

The hedgehog is probably the main attraction at the Centre so its position in the car park is slightly unfortunate. Every animal which follows it seems slightly insignificant in comparison, even if they are more animate. In fact the hedgehog is visible from the road so it’s possible to sample the best bit of the British Wildlife Centre and keep zooming on by. Essentially the hedgehog is the A22’s answer to the Angel of the North.

There’s nothing exotic about the inhabitants of the Centre, most of them you could probably meet on a particularly ambitious ramble. But there are treats within if you look hard enough, although you might first have to pass through what appears to be a section dedicated to vermin. This is mainly rats, who’ve colonized a grubby transparent drainpipe.

Sometimes the Centre resembles more of a sleep institute; a lot of the animals appear to hibernating out of sight in a bush. Or just lying in. At one point it felt like we were the victims of an audacious scam in which we’d been tricked into walking around pointing at hedgerows. We did see about a second of an albino squirrel which made all the traipsing through empty shrubbery worthwhile.

The Centre offers a solid selection of squirrels, of varying shades. The red squirrel enclosure is plastered with several images of Dame Judi Dench, who appears to have some association with the Centre. We did not see Dame Judi Dench while were there. It may have been that she had snuffled down in the foliage with a lazy weasel.

I should stop focussing on the amount of shiftless animals at the Centre. We saw a massively high-octane stoat. I’d never really given the stoat much consideration before, but this one was quite striking. It looked like a tiny lion with a ferret’s head, with an amazing furry extravagance at the end of its tail. It spent its entire time entertaining us by pelting up and down its chicken wire play tunnel.

We also came across a family of foxes strutting around their pen, smug in Tory-proofness. Nice wholesome foxes, not like the scabby ones near our home that look like they’ve been scraped together from pipe cleaners. We also saw a parade of fat owls, a very still heron that might have been a garden ornament and a troupe of otters wrestling on the bankside.

But still nothing as magnificent as that hedgehog. It’s worth the admission fee alone. Except that technically you don’t need to pay the admission fee to see it.

Any good?

Where Do You Draw The Line When It Comes To Bums?

My sons’ interest in their lower regions and the substances that emanate from there has reached a bewildering pitch recently. Earlier this week my older son got out of the bath and started acting out a skit which might have been titled: ‘In Conversation with my Bum’. It was basically a two-hander, with his bottom performing like a ventriloquist’s dummy with its voice booming out in a preposterous baritone. Mainly the bum discussed with its owner how much they loved their mum.

Obviously I couldn’t help admire the ingenuity of the show, a sort of alternative to alternative comedy. But at the same time didn’t want to be seen to encourage it. So I offered the mildest, most tender rebuke I could and moved on, sniggering silently to myself.

On Saturday I took the boys to a model village in Berkshire. It’s quite an amazing place, a handful of 1930s towns and villages recreated in loving miniature. It’s very wholesome and at the end of the trip my older son wholesomely declared that he was going to build his own model village. Innocently I asked him where. “Up my bum” was the reply.

It appears that my younger son is being drawn in to these shenanigans, watching on in joy as his brother launched into what could only be described as a naked revue, busting some hand-on-hips glam-rock dance moves. At this point it was impossible to resist their delight and we melted into rich fortifying laughter.

I know that the lavatorial humour is normal at this age. In fact it sustains children up through whoopee cushions and stink bombs, continuing to scrawled penises on school textbooks, and culminating in some unfortunate cases in a love for Mrs Brown’s Boys. Even now I can appreciate a well-seasoned knob gag. And in the signing book at my own wedding, someone scribbled the word ‘minge’.

But I also worry that my boys will go to school and be the one that takes it too far. Maybe the bum-ventriloquism will cross a line with some schoolmates and they’ll end up being the child with an empty peg either side of their kit bag. So I did some research online on the kind of boundaries that we should be setting at this stage.

There didn’t seem to be much consensus but I did come across one incident in which a couple were invited to school to be informed that their son was bothering other pupils by sniffing their bums. In fairness to him he had probably had his own bum sniffed frequently in his early years so was simply repeating the trick.

Either way, the fact that the teachers stepped in to intervene makes me think that perhaps I’ll leave the boundary-establishing to them and keep on sniggering.

Any good?

What Can You Do If Your Child Misses Out On A Primary School Place?

The evening before the primary school admissions were announced I posted on Facebook that the process was like the tombola at your village fete. Except that the prize wasn’t a Dundee cake or a box of Matchmakers. It was your child’s future.

Well the next day we discovered that we’d pulled out a losing ticket and I wished I hadn’t been so flippant.

My son was not allocated a place at our first choice school. Or the second. Or the third or the fourth. Admittedly the fourth choice was something of a wild card, given that it was two miles away. My initial reaction was shock. Followed by a biting sense that at the first opportunity to fail my son I had done so. Perhaps I had been blasé, perhaps I hadn’t been duly diligent in helping my wife make the selection.

Our first choice is around 500 yards from our house and is the school which adjoins the pre-school that my son currently attends. We looked back at previous intakes and reckoned he’d have been admitted four out of the five last years. It seemed like a relatively safe bet. And anyway our second choice provided an attractive contingency. I was feeling quite smug.

But we played the odds and lost, knackered by the unfortunate geography of it. The school he was given was undersubscribed, which told us everything we needed to know about it. At first I was incensed by the arbitrariness of the allocation, the sort of ‘tape measure says no’ culture of it. Apparently the distance is measured from the front door of the home to the front gate as the crow flies, although as far as I’m aware no crows actually applied for a place this year.

Of course the process has to be arbitrary. It is not left open to interpretation or nuance and emotional pleas or appeals can be waved away with the swipe of a ruler. In a sense there isn’t anything you can do to change the situation but as nonsensical as it sounds, I would suggest do something. It may be an act of self-delusion but both my wife and I felt comforted by being pro-active.

We rang the council to confirm the next steps and important dates. We made sure we were on all the waiting lists for our original choices. We contacted the offices of those schools, not because we can exert any influence on their decision-making but more in the pursuit of information, a notion of where we stand. I’ve taken odd pleasure in the detective work involved, sniffing around like Columbo.

We sat down and looked at private school options and worked out how many internal organs we’d need to sell to finance it. Kindly grandparents have offered to take up their cudgels in the fight, wherever that fight needed to be fought. We accepted the place at the school he’s been offered, in spite of our misgivings. It is important to do this. It’s very easy with a few rash, angry clicks to reject that place and catapult your child out of the school system entirely, only to have to slink back to the end of the queue later.

Among the other more unviable options that were mooted were to for me to quit my current job, train as a teacher and apply for a vacancy at our preferred school. Or temporarily move the family to live in the caretaker’s hut and put us at the top of the waiting list. Or reduce the distance by bricking up the front door and pretending that the back door has been our front door all along.

Perhaps the flippancy is a coping mechanism.

Any good?

The Real Horror of Growing Your Own Butterflies

To grow your own butterflies sounds like a charming childhood activity. Like rustling up a batch of homemade marshmallows or establishing a pixie colony at the bottom of your garden. We thought that butterfly-cultivation was a chance to gaze in wonder at one of nature’s most remarkable transformations.

The reality is a bit grubbier.

The process begins when five caterpillars arrive in the post. The thought of insects travelling through the Royal Mail system struck me as odd for some reason, although I’m not sure how I thought they’d be delivered. Perhaps on a lettuce leave by a local squirrel.

They actually pitched up in a container that looked like a Waitrose hummus pot, which was within a jiffy bag. It seemed cruel for the caterpillars to be transported in this way, but my guilt was tempered by the fact that we were protecting them in their early weeks from hungry predators like a starling or a shrew or my two-year-old son.

The caterpillars are miniscule when they turn up, no bigger than an eyelash. But they immediately start to grow, increasing in girth at an alarming rate. It happened before our very eyes, like they were enchanted caterpillars. I began to feel uneasy that they would not stop growing and they would begin to pose some actual threat to the family.

The other thing that began to grow was a hefty pyramid of caterpillar shit at the bottom of their pot. I have no idea what the caterpillars were eating to create such a massive output, perhaps residual hummus. But it’s revolting. Eventually the confines of the pot meant that one tragic caterpillar became mired in his and his pal’s own sewage heap and didn’t make it.

It is no surprise that quickly after this accident the four remaining caterpillars, each now about the size of an overly-plucked eyebrow, sought asylum within their chrysalises. The transition from caterpillar to butterfly is a staple of children’s books, it’s a genuinely magical happening. But what actually occurs is grotesque, more like the plot of a schlocky body-horror.

The caterpillar basically blends itself into a chunky broth featuring its own organs. It then congeals itself somehow into butterfly. It probably for the best that this happens behind the dusty curtains of the chrysalis. Unfortunately one caterpillar was perhaps too eager to slip inside his sleeping bag and appeared to have liquefied himself too quickly. The result was a lonely caterpillar head dangling from the top of the pot like a badly-misjudged Christmas bauble. And then there were three.

Once the chrysalises are fully formed it is up to us, the farmers, to transport the circular pad to which they are attached safely into a net in which the butterflies will eventually appear, probably a bit confused. Once installed the chrysalises gradually begin to rise eerily away from the pad, in a position that can only be described as ‘erect’. Then the chrysalises begin to split apart and the shiny metallic bodies of the butterflies show themselves.

Of the butterflies that had made it through to the final three, one got caught up in its own chrysalis and passed out from the energy required to escape. I thought about intervening but David Attenborough has always said don’t get involved in nature. And I’d have probably obliterated its delicate structure with my clumsy fingers anyway.

So two butterflies eventually made their way into the great beyond. Probably delighted to flee their own private hell of the hummus pot. And probably straight into the waiting beak of a hungry starling.

Any good?