I’m A National Trust Member And I’m Officially Past It

I remember when it all ended for me and my wife. Even as the transaction was complete I felt some of my life-force slip away from me, like we’d taken a shortcut into our autumnal years. I looked down at the little circular sticker that I’d just been presented with and all it said to me was: IT’S OVER FOR YOU. We were members of the National Trust.

We joined up in March last year at Wimpole Hall near Cambridge. Wimpole has a working farm and terrific selection of ginger pigs. We were seduced. Since then I have attended only a few events that might possibly described as youthful. This summer I went to a music festival on an industrial estate in Peckham Rye. And even though the dancefloor was filled with people of my own age, I felt decrepit.

The stigma of NT membership fixed itself to me around like the stench of homemade preserve. I shuffled around as if ‘ANCIENT’ had been branded onto my forehead. All I could do was to loiter sheepishly in the wings and tap my foot arrhythmically. I may as well have been a chaperone, a fusty old dad only there to pick up his kids. I was a member of the National Trust, the oak branch logo lit in the sky above me like the Bat signal.

The motto of the National Trust is “for ever, for everyone”. But mainly for old people. There seems to have been a concerted push to appeal to younger families, but in truth there isn’t a vast amount to do for a small child. They introduced an activity list for children, but it’s mostly things you can do on your doorstep, like making out farm animals in cloud formations or rounding up beetles. On a doorstep.

If there is an adventure playground then it isn’t very adventurous, perhaps a small curve of tree stumps to skip along. At Easter and Christmas treasure trails are offered, mostly perfunctory copy-and-paste jobs from the year before. If you are lucky, somewhere in the grounds there might be an angry owl on the end of a rope and a man in an oven glove waiting to show it off.

But I don’t regret signing up. Because even if there isn’t a great deal to do, National Trust properties are nice places to be. They’re always kempt, the woodwork always freshly chalk-painted, and you can set your watch by the jam scones in the cafes. I believe that they may have found the perfect baked spud and cheese and cloned it.

There is something affirmingly democratic about how the National Trust allows the population at large to scurry and nose around what used to be exclusive domains of toffs. Our preferred NT property is Polesden Lacey, where the Queen’s mum and dad had their honeymoon. Its history doesn’t register with our kids. When you are running off your cloned jacket potato on the vast rolling slopes, nothing does.

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A Guide To Hitting North Mallorca With Kids – Part 2

Any cave fans that find themselves in Mallorca should go directly to Porto Cristo. There are two cave complexes here, both at Cuevas del Drach and Cuevas del Hams. I presume this is just because of the natural geography of the place and not a response to an unusual demand for cave systems.

We did not know that del Hams existed until we accidentally pitched up in its suspiciously sparse car park. At that point our sat-nav threatened to walk off unless we started listening to it and we made our way to del Drach.

If you really love stalagmites and stalactites then del Drach is the ultimate destination. If they make you weirdly uncomfortable then probably steer clear because there are millions of the dangly bastards there. It is a bit like walking under a massive canopy of stony daggers. At least my sons had great fun comparing them all to gigantic bogeys.

At the base of the Drach complex is a large auditorium carved out of the rock in front of an underground river. As we filed in I was expecting some kind of rudimentary lightshow but in actual fact a solemn-looking chamber quartet came floating past in a barge. They were straining out an awful dirge and it came across like a funeral, but for someone who really liked caves. Or as if band on the Titanic managed to find a lifeboat. Needless to say it filled my little boys with the sudden urge to return above ground.

Above ground in Mallorca there are other things to do and see with small children. Such as the Zoologica Parc Natura which lies in the centre of the island. I am ambivalent about zoos. I normally find that the animals seem depressed, either mooching around or asleep. But my kids love them.

The Parc Natura is a really bad zoo. It’s poky and slummy, and everything seems to be coated in a fine film of shit. The enclosures aren’t really fit for purpose, there was a confused-looking zebra plonked in the same pen as a confused-looking ostrich for instance. The redeeming quality of the Parc Natura is that it’s a rescue centre so technically its inhabitants have been saved from an even shitter existence.

A prime example is an elderly lioness who was rescued from a circus where she’d had her claws removed and been generally brutalised. She is described as being cross-eyed and having learning difficulties. I know that she is in a slightly better home but even a minute in her company proved to be a dismal experience. We didn’t dare enter the gift shop but we later found a tick which had embedded itself in my youngest one’s arm so we did at least take away one souvenir.

The aquarium in Palma is altogether a more wholesome venue. I feel less guilty about aquariums than zoos, mainly because it’s more difficult for a fish to look sad. This one has a solid variety of tanks but an also a section resembling the Amazonian jungle and an impressive and unlikely selection of bouncy castles. It should be noted that in the blazing Balearic sun the bouncy castles become hot enough to fry an egg or a small child on.

Perhaps the most memorable trip was a spontaneous nose with my eldest around the church in Pollença. There was a service in progress when we visited so we took our seats in the most reverential way possible. My son gazed with widening eyes at the spreading stain-glass windows to his left, ornate figurines to his right and a gleaming gilded altarpiece in front of him. As I looked at him and wondered if right there he was being filled with the fear of God.

A deep and involved theological discussion followed later, during which the little boy seemed confused. Probably wondering how what God was thinking about when he created a bullied, cross-eyed lion with learning difficulties.

In case you’re wondering, Part 1 is here.

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A Guide to Hitting North Mallorca With Kids – Part 1

I didn’t know too much about Mallorca before I went. I knew that Magaluf was there and I had my concerns that the whole island would be riddled with pissed-up school-leavers on banana boats. My fears were unfounded. We stayed on the northern tip of the island where life is less frenetic. And largely inaccessible to banana boats.

If you are in this area and inflatable fruit is your floatable boat then my advice is to head to Port de Pollença where ranks of ginormous pineapples and watermelons dangle from the shopfronts on the promenade. There was a pleasant low thrum of activity here and for some reason it reminded me of Eastbourne, probably because of the many veteran-class English holidaymakers. It seems they’ve been coming here a while. Agatha Christie returned here on several occasions and set one of her short stories in the bay. Presumably the victim was battered to death with a large inflatable cucumber.

We ate at the Hotel Capri on the front. Like many of the restaurants in the port, the Capri stretches over the road and out into the ocean via a small pier. The waiting staff scurry back and forward to serve diners sitting at the end. There are no barriers in the space so if you have toddlers it may not be conducive to a relaxing meal. There’s little way of getting face down in a paella if your child is taking a nosedive into the Med.

Further down from the Capri, is the largest, most ornate sandcastle I’ve seen. There are two burly men stationed at its gates, presumably to ward off any vandals. Judging by the twitching feet and naughty twinkle in my sons’ eyes the precaution is probably very sensible.

If you want to destroy your own sandcastles, the best beach we found was around the bay on the Cap de Formentor. The beach is only around twenty yards deep or so your children can indulge in some light paddling or castle-construction within a skip of a sun lounger. The downside is that the beach is so compact that it is very congested. To ensure ourselves a space we booked a bed through the Hotel Formentor, which has a private section of beach. It wasn’t cheap it has to be said. The beds also come with those Balinese beach shelters which sort of feels like relaxing under the end of a broom.

The drive to the beach is worth the trip alone. The road snakes around the peninsula like a varicose vein and gives splendid views of the plunging coastline. You can pretend you’re James Bond pratting about in an Aston Martin, except there are confused goats and puffing portly cyclists in the way. We had great fun encouraging the struggling bikers up to the summit, some of whom appeared to be going backwards. For some reason Mallorca attracts bike-fanatics. Probably more to do with the strikingly wide cycle lanes rather than the searing heat.

We stayed in a villa slightly inland where the mosquitoes seemed to have gathered for some kind of mosquito conference. I apparently seem to be attractive to mosquitoes, more so than women for instance. I got bitten all over. I have to admire the spirit of adventure that led one little chap up into the darkness of my bum crack. I read afterwards that mosquitoes bite you using six needles, each with various functions like a drill-bit set. And while they suck your blood they piss on you at the same time.

So my suggestion would be take some repellent.

The rest of my north Mallorca thoughts are coming over next week. They got lost on Ryanair.

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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.

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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.

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An Awfully Pig Adventure: The Peppa Pig Film Preview

I went to school with a boy who later went up to Oxford and became a film critic for one of the student rags there. He became notorious for writing reviews of films he hadn’t actually seen. His claim was that his film knowledge was so superior that he could form opinions based simply on who made the film, who was in it and what it was about. Like most right-minded people I find this approach both high-handed and objectionable. And that is why I am trying very very hard to reserve judgement on the upcoming Peppa Pig film.

Or Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience to give it its proper title. The name strikes me as curiously functional, like re-imagining Raiders of the Lost Ark as Indiana Jones and the Search for the Culturally Significant Religious Artefact. In fact the label doesn’t refer to plot of the film. It’s directed at the audience themselves.

Thus it becomes probably the first film in cinematic history to incorporate its own marketing strategy into its title. But at least this way any potentially harrowing scenes involving Peppa’s first encounter with a hot dog stand are avoided.

I speculated as to the content of the film and how the makers would tackle the challenge of making this well-loved television character a cinematic proposition, without losing its essential Pepperiness. But actually, the Peppa Pig film isn’t a film at all, it’s nine new episodes shown back-to-back. So it may just be that Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience is less of an artistic endeavour and more of a profit-making one.

This novel formula at least offers a raft of opportunities: a week’s worth of surround-sound Coronation Street. 3-D weather forecasts. Or A Question of Sport: The Movie.

In fairness you could say that most films are propelled by financial imperative. And the format suits my children, particularly the Minor who would probably struggle to sit through the opening credits. I’ve sat through a few Peppa Pig marathons myself, normally at around 5.22am. It is possible to enter a sort of stasis during this period, and rouse yourself an hour or so later, slightly furred like the inside of an old kettle.

I should add also there are some episodes of Peppa that contain a streak of subversive humour which is genuinely appealing. Who can forget the classic moment when Daddy Pig reads The Wonderful World of Concrete to his kids at bedtime? Uttering the immortal line: “concrete is a construction material composed of sand, water and chemical admixtures”.

The resident cast boast several actual comedians, which has been bolstered for the “film” by the likes of Jo Brand and David Mitchell, perhaps playing a slightly spluttering middle-class badger railing at the rank commerciality of it all.

The most concerning element of the Peppa Pig cinema enterprise is that it’s apparently interactive. I’ve researched this and this involves live action characters (failed actors in intimidatingly large suits) initiating dancing and sing-a-longs. No parental hibernating here. Given that the only famous song associated with Peppa is the theme tune, I can only see this going one way.

Altogether ladies and gentlemen and children…

“Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun Pepppppa Pig dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun Peppppppppa Pig….”

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Why I Really Really Like Going To The Dump

Of all the sickening sights that I’ve witnessed as a parent there is nothing more putrid than the nappy bin in a public baby changing room. The stench from my own son’s nappy is unholy enough, but when the nappy is atop of a mound assembled from a hundred other children’s nappies then it becomes overwhelmingly evil. To glimpse down the open shaft of a communal nappy bin is look into the actual depths of hell, the very basement of hell where even Satan is a bit scared to go.

A lot of parenting is waste disposal. It’s not just nappies, there other revolting unwanted substances to get rid of: half-digested breakfasts, dripping snotrags, sodden bread crusts. Bin administration dominates conversation. The quality, or lack of quality of bin bags has a serious material effect on my wellbeing. We have three large bins outside our house which we fill almost the second they are emptied. Some homeowners want to improve their house by converting the loft or installing a new kitchen. We need to create a landfill site in the garden.

One of the few benefits of producing so much rubbish is the necessity to visit the local dump on a regular basis. I’ve been so often recently I deserve a loyalty card. In truth I’ve been keen on dumps even before I became a dad. I have many cherished memories of the dump in Wembley near where we used to live. It even had a traffic-light system in place to ensure that waste was disposed of in an orderly manner.

The dumps local to me are not as organised. It’s sensible to go early in the morning when the ginormous bins are just starting to glister under the milky sun. Even at this time there are several other dump-goers. And there is a communality, a sense of shared satisfaction in clearing the decks, getting things in order and flinging large objects energetically into skips. I find peculiar pleasure in lobbing bottles into the bottle banks. If I hit the right trajectory a tremendous smashing happens. But I’ve also got it wrong on occasions and shattered a bottle on the side of the bank like a mental Queen christening a liner.

What I really like about all the dumps I’ve visited is that the staff always seem to genuinely care. The customer service is excellent. The moment they spot you grappling with a large slab of MDF they’ll dart over and say things like: “ooh, I know a lovely bin where that could live”. I once turned up with a knackered old microwave and the operative waved me over to a small stack of microwaves he’d built. I felt like I was releasing the microwave back into the wild.

This piece is an excerpt from The Good Dump Guide 2017.

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A Good Way To Entertain Your Child In The Supermarket

I once saw a man limping down a supermarket aisle, a demanding toddler in each arm and a basket crashing rhythmically into his thigh. Both his children had obviously required an urgent cuddle, but he also needed to buy his groceries. He looked exhausted. And faintly hunted. I would not do well in this scenario. I do not have the muscle. The three of us would end up cowering in a huddle by the bakery counter. Continue reading “A Good Way To Entertain Your Child In The Supermarket”

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It’s One Small Step In Gazing Up At The Stars

Like most children probably, my sons are inquisitive by nature. They ask a lot of questions. Normally I can field these satisfactorily but sometimes they happen upon a gap in my knowledge. This is always a concern to me because I’d rather the boys regard me as wise and all-knowing so later in life when important decisions need to be made they’ll seek my advice and in this way I’ll exert some sinister form of mind-control. Continue reading “It’s One Small Step In Gazing Up At The Stars”

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A Mildly Miffed Letter To a Train Company

My youngest son is a big fan of trains. The older one quite likes trains too. To be honest after some years of commuting I’ve gone off trains, particularly as one tried to eat me:

Dear Sir or Madam

I am writing to complain about an incident which occurred while disembarking one of the 0835 from King’s Cross at Grantham station on Monday, 7 November. Around 50 of my colleagues and I were attending a ceremony to celebrate long service at a country hotel not far from Grantham and had travelled up from Kings Cross that morning.

The doors opened as usual once the train had pulled to a halt in the station. I was already stood in the area by the toilets waiting to step off the train. I allowed a lady to disembark first and then followed her off the train. To my surprise the doors closed as I was leaving the train and struck me on the neck. Gladly I was not decapitated by this as it may have put a dampener on my day out. If I’d have turned up at the hotel without a head then I would not have been able to enjoy the tea and shortbread that was served on arrival. Disregarding the shortbread and thinking more about long-term strategy, my head and body have worked well together as team previously and it certainly would have been a shame not to be able to continue with this arrangement.

It may also have had a negative impact on my marriage if I’d have returned home without a head. My head is one of the reasons my wife fell in love with me. God knows it wasn’t my body. I also think that my employers may have looked upon it dimly had I shown up to work without a head; it would negatively affect my capacity to fulfil my duties properly and also look a bit scruffy.

I’m being facetious. I can’t pretend that the impact of the door even hurt. But it was a shock. And I have a strong virile neck. If I was a little frail old lady with a little frail old neck then the ramifications could have been more serious.

Happily for me, the doors opened again and I was able to step down onto the platform. I was one of the lucky ones. Most of my colleagues were sat in a different carriage and had diligently gathered their luggage and queued to leave the train as it was pulling into the station. Unfortunately some at the back of queue were unable to leave before the doors closed again, this time permanently. 14 ladies made an unscheduled trip to Doncaster. I’ve heard that Doncaster is lovely in late autumn, but when there is tea and shortbread promised on arrival at a hotel near Grantham then it’s not the ideal destination. Happily they were able to turn around and return to Grantham in time for lunch (rice, new potatoes, a selection of cold cuts).

Again I’m being facetious, but again there could have more serious implications. If a family had been disembarking and the children were allowed to get off first the doors may have closed behind them, temporarily orphaning them and sending their parents to Doncaster. The children would have been left to fend for themselves on the mean streets of Grantham with no-one to look after them but a little old lady with no head. Sorry, facetious again. Can’t help it.

When we remonstrated with the station guard he explained that there was nothing he could do. Apart from not blow his whistle perhaps. He offered nothing by way of apology. Perhaps he had a shiny new whistle which he couldn’t wait to blow. Or maybe he simply couldn’t conceive that 50 people actually wanted to get off the train to visit Grantham. He said that all passengers should be ready to disembark before the doors open – which is fine until 30 people want to step off the same carriage. They’re not circus performers, they can’t all get off at once.

One of the Doncaster crew spoke to the train attendant who explained that stations are fined if they keep the train in the station too long. If this is true then I would suggest that the guidelines are eased slightly to allow for common sense to be applied and to allow 50 people who just want to get off the train and eat a little bit of shortbread.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts

Kind regards

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