Archive for the ‘trips’ Category

Christmas – twice over

Our first Christmas, at the correct point in the calendar, was at home with Nan & Grandad. On Christmas Eve, we visited the Bridgewater Hall for the sing-along carol concert. The kids were as content as they have ever been at this annual trip, enjoying the music and finding the singing amusing not annoying or embarrassing.

Christmas Day and Boxing Day passed in a pleasant fuzz of family chat, presents, food and drink. Gabe particularly enjoyed playing Jenga, which captivated Nan. Robin was delighted with his bike, and so we rode around the neighbourhood in the dark on Christmas evening (the bike’s brakes having been made safe during daylight by Grandad). Eliza sauntered in and out, her social circle never more than a few clicks distant.

Our second Christmas, happened four days later, at Grandpa’s, with Auntie S, Uncle S and cousin F. While in Scotland, Robin accompanied me on walks across the sand at low-tide, laying out the plans he has devised for his future: living in Edinburgh or Glasgow, teaching. Gabe joined Uncle S and me at the pub one evening, keeping the conversation always lively and keeping up his end with a pint and a half. Eliza was the moving force of an attempted indoor decathlon after our Christmas dinner, until we all flaked out. Most memorably she won the ‘standing on one leg’ contest, fighting off fierce competition.

Gabe, Eliza and Robin – I hadn’t spent so much time with them in months and they were a delight, making parents and I think grandparents, very proud.

A gallery, water-park and a Tudor house

The children’s interests have diverged, but I was even more conscious of the lack of pleasure they take in each other’s company. For the sake of harmony, I took three successive Fridays off work – each to spend with one of the kids at a place of their choice.


Eliza was first and didn’t have strong views about what we should do. I suggested, with her GCSE art course looming, a visit to a gallery. We settled on Liverpool and my research took us to the Walker. Although she loves doing her own art, Eliza acknowledged she didn’t know much about the subject, or even what she liked. We wandered through the 20th Century gallery, pointing out what appealed to us (for me, a Freud portrait). Then we found some paper and pencils to take on the challenge of sketching jugs selected from a painting of a dozens of jugs in a loft.

The older paintings, other than the Impressionists, held less interest, so we went to the 2018 Moores Painting Prize Gallery. We looked really hard to find something we liked, but failed.

Eliza chose Nando’s for lunch, where she chattered and bubbled like the little girl she used to be.


I took Robin and his friend A, to a water-park. We lunched on Subways – 12 inches allowed – before entering the indoor park which by early afternoon was heaving with holiday children. We toured the pool, tried the lively lazy river, the simplest of slides and braved the outside pool, before dashing back inside.

After an hour, the boys decided to queue for one of the major slides. For the next two hours, they moved from queue to slide to queue, before returning for a waffle by which time we were almost the last to leave as the centre was being tidied up and closed. In the car on the way home, Robin dropped off to sleep.


Gabe wanted to go somewhere historical, so complete has been his evolution into a serious student of history. I offered a couple of options, but then settled on Little Moreton Hall, the archetype of a Tudor mansion.

We walked the public areas of this odd, rambling but beautiful building. Gabe, unlike every other visit to somewhere of cultural interest, showed no impatience, content to wander, read and discuss. We took the guided tour, which answered our questions about who, when and how this hall had come about. I had expected Gabe to be unkind about the guide’s laboured jokes, but I was wrong. We had lunch in the tight, little restaurant with a curious menu – Gabe finding only a scone appealing.


Silver Coast and Lisbon

While Britain roasted, the four of us who travelled to Portugal found mostly sunny, temperate weather, which kept us active and outdoors more than had it been very hot. Robin was attracted to water, spending the most time in our villa’s pool and was the first in the sea or lagoon at each beach we visited.

Robin was insulated against the cold of the water. I joined him on an inflatable assault course that we had to swim to in the bay of a local resort. It was a cloudy late afternoon and clambering around, splashing in and out of the sea, I soon felt the chill. Eventually, taking pity on me, he agreed we should swim back, where I needed layers of clothes and tea to recover.

Robin and Eliza had two long surf lessons, the second of which took place amongst waves taller than them. Both progressed from their first lesson in France last year and quickly managed to stand as the wave swept them towards the beach. It thrilled them and left them exhausted.

Sight-seeing trips were much better-humoured than last year’s, with Robin sticking tightly to L or I. Eliza only protested at a march around the ramparts of Sintra’s hill-top Moorish fort and sat alone listening, I assume, to music. But a similar trip to Obidos, walking the medieval wall of the the village was approached enthusiastically by all.

A thread of anxiety ran through Robin’s holiday: the flight and difficulty sleeping. In Lisbon, over the final two days of the holiday, he worried about earthquakes. But we found the city benign, albeit noisy at night around our apartment in the traditional Alfama district. He added Benfica’s Stadium of Light to the list of major stadia he has visited. Eliza left with an attachment to nata, the Portuguese custard tart.

University visits


In the space of two weeks, Gabe visited Oxford, Durham and Cambridge. The second he disliked. At Oxford and Cambridge, he attended sessions on applying for history and took in as many small, central and traditional colleges as his patience would allow. Oxford is his preferred destination. I asked if he could explain why. “No,” he said – he couldn’t put it into words. He seems both realistic about his chances and motivated to give it his best effort.

Amongst all the sights of academic excellence and ancient architecture, my strongest memory of the visits was from the very start of our journey to Oxford. To Gabe’s annoyance, I said we would take the tram to Piccadilly Station. As the tram pulled in, he baulked and like a nervous horse, refused the ‘obstacle’. I spoke quietly, but urgently to him and when the next tram came, he put aside his fears and stepped on board. 45 minutes later, we took our seats on the train to Oxford. A teenage girl sat on the seat to our right. She was being fussed over by her Mother, prior to travelling alone. My phone buzzed. There was a text from Gabe, stating just ‘Home schooled’. The swing from highly anxious to contemptuous had taken less than one hour.


Eliza’s Duke of Edinburgh expedition took place on one of the hottest weekends of this hot summer. The supervisors made a humane concession, relaxing the requirement that the participants carry everything they will need with them, by providing supplies of water at their check-points.

Eliza’s group didn’t repeat the navigational mistakes that saw them fail their practice expedition. On Sunday they rose early, left camp an hour ahead of schedule, made good time and arrived hours before they were expected. Eliza was lying on the ground, tired and bored when we pulled up, almost three hours after the expedition ended.


Robin won two awards at his school presentation event. One for being part of the league-winning football team and the other for being the best cricketer. He was unimpressed that they were not ‘proper’ awards. More to his liking was the day he spent at the Chill Factor skiing, snowboarding and tobaganning as part of a select group of students rewarded for their achievements during the academic year.

Driving lesson


Gabe’s number one desire for his 17th birthday was to learn to drive. L arranged for his first lesson to be the day after his birthday. A week ahead she checked he had his provisional licence. There ensued a home-wide hunt. Gabe’s view was that it had been thrown out when we made him tidy and clear his room. We searched every room. There was tension around the search of Gabe’s room: he wanted to find his licence; he wanted us to do the searching; he didn’t want us rooting through his room. We finally gained admittance, but the licence didn’t show up. L cancelled the driving lesson and went on-line to re-order the licence, where she found that the fact it had been issued should be sufficient proof for the instructor. The lesson was back on. Gabe enjoyed it greatly.


We drove Eliza to Garstang early on Saturday morning. She was to complete a practice of the two day Duke of Edinburgh award expedition, with a night of camping. She was equipped with a large and very heavy rucksack. Could she cope?

We heard nothing for the next 30 hours (mobile phone use was proscribed, other than in emergency circumstances). Sunday afternoon we drove into the Trough of Bowland and waited in a car park in a small village. Eliza’s group of seven girls had been the first to leave, but were not the first to return. Thirty minutes after their target time, they did arrive, by car. They had got lost in a field – not far from their destination – and had called the emergency number. Eliza was tired, a bit embarrassed and had a blister on a big toe, caused by wet socks. While not looking forward to the real expedition, she’s not dreading it either.


Robin’s unease through the autumn was a product of his new school and also his anxiety at world events. Early in the spring, he declared he was happy: Trump and North Korea were going to be talking to each other and scientists had discovered an enzyme that breaks down plastic. Within a couple of weeks, that contentment had been chased away – this time by Trump reneging on the Iran agreement.

Oxford visit


Gabe and I started the half-term holiday with a trip to Oxford. In clear, winter light we walked to and around the larger colleges – Christ Church, Magdalen, New College. Gabe was awed and, I think intimidated. We returned the next day and headed for the centre: the Bodlein, the Radcliffe Camera, and then Lincoln to meet Dr Gauci, senior fellow in his office above the porter’s lodge. Dr G chatted away, checking himself a couple of times, to ask, “But what do you want to know?” Gabe struggled to summon up a question. We toured the college and then headed to the Indoor Market. From there, to Quod for lunch with Senior Fellow Skinner, who gave us the low down on all matters relating to admissions. Again, Gabe was tongue-tied, but we obtained all the information we needed.

His response to Oxford was positive. He liked Lincoln, although said he wouldn’t want to go where I had been, perhaps another small college. We now wait to see whether the purpose of the trip will be fulfilled: to motivate him to work hard.


Eliza received a school report – a table of numbers and letters. All was, as in with her previous reports, very positive (Her higher than expected performance in PE notable), with one exception. Her behaviour in Technology was graded as ‘requiring improvement’. She brushed it off, “Oh, he hates me. Everyone talks, but I’m the one he tells off.” But it seemed consistent with the thread of stories she has started to relate about school, which feature her being sharp-tongued, even insolent. At last, a bit of a rebel in the house.


This dates from September last year, but needs recording.

Robin accepted an invitation from his old school friend, A, to go to a Friday night youth club. It was held in a church across town. I left him and returned a couple of hours later. Robin didn’t delay leaving. He was muttering and unhappy. “Never going back.. boring.. they made us listen to them talking about religion!” He explained, affronted and almost outraged.

Seven, seven, seven..


In the final week of Robin’s first half-term of secondary school, L and I attend an evening meeting with his form teacher. The girls’ PE teacher fulfils too many stereotypes of that subjects’ teachers – drowning in the shallow end of education. But she’s enthusiastic about Robin: he plays in the school football team and he’s academic. She shows us a table of his progress, with scores extrapolated ‘by a machine’ for GCSEs in five years time. Sevens across the board – A’s in old money.

Robin broods when we tell him this news. He’s unhappy. Why don’t they think he’s going to get eights and nines (A* and A**s)? It’s early days, we say. To be told you’re going to get sevens already is amazing. He looks determined.


Gabe’s acquisition of a hi-fi system to enable him to play his vinyl is proceeding slowly. Having sold the record player he received for his birthday, as well as his X-box, he bought an upgraded record player and an amp. They were not compatible and so, when he next had money, he bought a pre-amp. That came without an output cable. Soon, he will have bought that, which leaves the connection to his speakers. Until that combination is sorted he will listen with his headphones, but for the time being, his vinyl stays ensleeved.


Eliza has visited the world war one battlefields. She left by coach late one night, returning three days later. One hundred years ago many servicemen returned shell-shocked and unable to relate their experiences in France and Belgium. Eliza had no such trauma, but other than acknowledging enjoying visiting the trenches and the chocolate shop, she’s giving little more away.

Bordeaux week 1 – sleep, eat, rest

Gabe flew with us. For two days in the run-up to the holiday he had called L and my bluff and said he’d prefer to spend two weeks with his Grandpa than fly. As L and I made ready with compromises, he backed down. His aspiration for the holiday: sleep, eat, rest.

Mornings in the gite passed quickly. The kids rose late and lazed around the lounge with headphones and devices. To those activities they would return directly from finishing lunch. But some days we enforced trips: to Saintes, Bordeaux, Royan, the beach at St-Palais-sur-mer. These risked, and usually resulted in bad tempers, with frequency related to increasing age of child. The tempers could be assuaged with pizza lunch, or ice cream.

We went kayaking up a river that flowed gently into the Gironde. Robin and I had just established a good rhythm when a kayak occupied by two grey-haired men and a young woman capsized. Hampered by language and them being too heavy to haul onto our kayak, they spent ten minutes in the water holding onto their upturned vessel before they maneuvered to the bank, tipped the water out of their kayak, climbed back in and continued their trip.

Back at the gite, the pool and table-tennis prompted the most activity, particularly from Robin. We borrowed bikes and cycled on the narrow roads bordered with vines and sunflower fields. A couple of evenings, they joined in the rounders match run by the hosts’ children, involving the kids of the other gite and the French children staying with the owner.

Young Voices


‘Birdcage of my soul’ was an unlikely song to hear Robin singing, but They Might be Giants‘ craziness was part of the repertoire of over 20 songs that he learnt to take part in a Young Voices concert at the MEN Arena. There was an African chant, folk-tunes and hymns as well. Hundreds, maybe thousands of school kids took part, filling much of the arena. It has put Robin in the unusual position of having performed at Manchester’s two major music venues: MEN Arena and the Bridgewater Hall.


Seven weeks after Christmas, Gabe and L got their present from me: a trip to London to see a National Theatre production of This House at the Garrick on Charing Cross Road. I had taken a chance that Gabe would enjoy the subject-matter – 1970s parliamentary politics. It turned out to be good guess as he was fully engaged by the tales of the two main parties’s whips offices, in the days of slim or no majority governments. The play was fast-paced – clearly influenced by TV production – amusing and full of swearing. All three factors probably played towards Gabe’s enjoyment.


Eliza has been pondering and testing the notion of becoming a vegetarian. It seems to be part of her growing awareness of societal ills. Like many people in her situation, she has to overcome her partiality for meat – in particular chicken, but also sausages. Unlike many, though, the major barrier is that Eliza doesn’t like a lot of vegetarian staples. He compromise is that she has given up meat, apart from chicken and fish.

Sights of Tuscany

The children might have settled for two whole weeks at the villa, but L & I led us away every second or third day to a Tuscan sight.

In Pisa and Florence we scaled tall buildings: the leaning tower and the domo. Robin was enthralled by the climbs and the sense of height. Eliza was anxious and needed a hand to be held (almost as much as I did) as we walked around the summit of both climbs. Gabe made it to the top of the Leaning Tower, briefly, but pulled out of the ascent of the domo before the section that took you up stairs cut into the arc of the lower level of the dome.

The children were more reluctant to appreciate the architecture from street-level – apart from in Pisa where the tower offered photographic opportunities. We managed an hour and a half in the Uffizi: Eliza most focused on the art; Gabe on historical and cultural facts; Robin under intense strain.

More popular was a day at a crowded water park. As a threesome, they queued for trips down slides, not demanding L or I participate.

But every trip out was tolerated knowing that it would bring a reward in the form of ice cream, coke and pizza.