A jolly good time at the fair!

Carter’s Steam Fair came to town the other week. And while I don’t usually blog about ‘just a single day’, opting instead for a marathon account of our latest adventure (that will come, they are backing up!) I felt this particular day was just too good not to share.

This one will be short and sweet. Just like the steaming hot cinnamon donuts that taste awesome out of a carnival caravan…I hadn’t had a hot donut in years…although I have to say the boys didn’t like them! I blame myself. Too much home made prepared snacks like cut up fruit. What was I thinking!

Anyway, back to the fair. A pinch myself moment: Standing in the tokens line I got talking to a man who was filling up a plastic bag with coin tokens while his kids shoved the rest in their pockets – that would do them for many, many rides I thought. He explained they lived just over the back fence there and the kids had been hassling to go to the fair for days. Every day in the week prior when the show folk had been setting up, the kids would come down and watch. It turned out the cast of Midsomer Murders were in town to film an episode. The episode is set in the gorgeous little town of Holyport where we found ourselves, just 4 miles from Windsor. It has a village green and two pubs facing into the village green, while the fair is in the middle. It really is very picturesque and very English.




The production team asked the kids to film a scene on the haunted house ride. So, these ghost ride virgins, as their father put it, were suitably miked up to record terrifying screams. Except the kids froze in real terror and uttered not a sound…Nothing was recorded when they played it back. And they refused to have another go – the poor things were terrified! So while laughing along with this well spoken English man in his tweed jacket, I thought to myself…Midsomer. Here. All those years of watching the show and dreaming of living in a little English village with a thatched roof and Tudor walls and riding a step-through bicycle with a trilling bell while taking the boys to school in a little village-cosy school house where they called them into class with a brass bell… Well, while none of that ever actually came to pass, at least a film set location had. Pity we’d missed the actual filming! But happy to know it was happening here anyway!

I can see why Midsomer Murders would use the fair as a backdrop. Carters Steam Fair is a traditional, vintage, family owned carnival that travels all over the Home Counties – those counties that border Greater London. A perfect location for some grizzly village murders, small town eccentricity and beautiful English backdrops. Over the years the family have collected all these vintage rides and restored them back to their former glory – a bit of British Heritage that you can touch and not just look at. The paintwork and artistic flair on the rides is beautiful. The colours are exuberant, the lights are sparkly in the darkening afternoon skies. The steam organ of the vintage Jubilee Steam Gallopers (read: carousel) belts out carnival tunes at high speed, creating an atmosphere of gaiety and fun. It’s like stepping back in time. And then whoosh! up goes a puff of steam, helping to propel and generate any number of rides.




Some of these rides date back to the late 19th century. Anthony braved the Victory Dive Bomber that could well have been used in the war it was so old. The rock n roll dodgems were awesome as they always are – who doesn’t love the dodgem cars (bumper cars over here mum, bumper cars). The Paramount Chair-O-Plane was like walking on air except Hamish thought he might accidentally kick someone in the head! The White Waltham High Flyers, or swing-boats, were unexpectantly fun, being designed for two people facing each other and making them go by pulling ropes. Such a simple design but something our two boys adored and didn’t want to get off. Proving once again that kids will always love the simple stuff. The staff were very generous and let them stay on for ages.




That was our day at the fair, and here’s hoping we can catch it again next year. For now, I’m keeping my eye out for the new episodes of Midsomer Murders. The village pub of Holyport features prominently in the filming of the episode we just missed, and was renamed from George On The Green to The Black Dog. So there’s your clue!


An interlude of Royal proportions

Something exciting happened today – we saw the Queen. It’s Saturday today (and for the first time ever I am hoping to publish a post on the same weekend the events actually happened). I digress; back to the Queen. Today marked the last day of the Royal Ascot races for 2015 – Ascot arguably being the Queen’s favourite event on the racing calendar.

Ascot is about 10 minutes from Windsor and the Queen takes a lovely scenic route to get there every day for the five days of racing: first leaving Windsor Castle and heading down the Long Walk by car procession (which is one of the most scenic landscapes in all of England – the Long Walk being flanked on either side by Windsor Great Park and looking down upon an avenue of magnificent trees all the way to Snow Hill and the Copper Horse). The Queen then changes into a horse drawn carriage for the final leg to Ascot racecourse. I’m not a royal stalker – I promise (!)

We were given a hot tip last year and positioned ourselves excellently to see the whole royal regalia of horses and carriages. It was awesome and such a spectacle of pomp and ceremony. This year, alas, it was drizzling and we were running a bit late so we parked and high tailed it down a short cut that gets us to some gates about halfway down the Long Walk. Not five minutes later two security vehicles whizz by and we cross our fingers that the Queen wasn’t in there – they were going so fast ain’t nobody would see her!

On the way to Ascot - 2014

On the way to Ascot – 2014

Glancing over at the Gatekeeper, who was peering through some binoculars in the direction of the Castle, gave me confidence that we hadn’t missed the royal cars. Bless him, this same Gatekeeper then told us which side of the road to stand on to see her directly. And nobody was around us. And through the gates she came. And we waved like the crazies we are and she smiled and waved back.



Such a thrill! I will never tire of living in this town when stuff like this just happens on our doorstep. We had been to visit Windsor Castle just this morning. This followed Hamish declaring, upon waking up, that he really wanted to see Queen Mary’s Dolls House at the Castle, and then threw in for good measure, a need to see King Henry VIII’s armour. We definitely got our royal fix today!

And just because I have some photos I want to share – here are a couple more times I’ve been lucky enough to see the Queen. The very first time was as part of a State Parade, when the President of Ireland met with an English monarch for the first time on English soil. The horses on parade were enormouse and beautiful, rattling away in all their armoury. They wound all the way up the High Street and into Windsor Castle. We saw Prince Charles and Camilla that day too!




And another day that same week, the Queen and Prince Phillip left St George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle when we just happened to be attending a kids arts and crafts day in the Moat Room at Windsor Castle. The coincidence is astounding. I jest – yes it was coincidence, but I did make the boys wait with me for forty odd minutes to see her walk out of a church and into a car which took all of thirty seconds. I tell myself they are developing patience!



Sorry, I don’t have photos of the day Sophie Countess of Wessex (or as Hamish described her: ‘a real Princess mummy’) came by the school, and all the children lined up along the road to wave. Or the day this year that Hamish’s school class was invited to visit the Royal Household Cavalry at their barracks in town to meet ‘real soldiers, with guns and tanks and everything’.

But I do have some photos of the 800 year anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede. Just last weekend, a flotilla of boats followed the Queen’s barge, the Gloriana, down the River Thames, through Windsor to Runnymede. Such an historic event and we were so fortunate to catch some of it. We were on our bikes that day and just popped down to the river.



I don’t feel so removed from my teenager self, pouring over my grandmother’s New Idea and Woman’s Day magazines and joking with Nan about ‘what Queenie is wearing today’. But fast forward 15 odd years (actual more like 20 years) and I wish Nan could see where I am now. She’d have a good laugh!

I still pinch myself that we live here.

The royal history is all around us. And we love it!

Messing about in boats

The boys and I have made many visits to a special museum on the banks of the river at Henley-on-Thames. This museum houses a Wind in the Willows permanent exhibition, complete with a walkie-talkie retelling of the story and torches to guide you through the dark bits in the forest (for those that remember the story). One of my most favourite quotes in the story is this one:

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Which also seems to be a perfectly apt backdrop for me to re-tell our own story on the river – not the Thames, but the River Avon. And not in a canary yellow gypsy caravan, but in a canal boat (which incidentally was yellow). Or as Anthony’s dad described it: a caravan on water!

Anthony had taken a serious interest in wanting to do a canal boat holiday. Anthony’s dad jumped at the idea and thought it fantastic to do something really different on their visit to see us in summer. I took a fair amount of convincing – all I could envisage was two little boys getting a bit too excited and falling over the edge. After confirming yes, the canal boat had kid sized life jackets, I was on board! 4 nights was agreed, the biggest canal boat was located, the most picturesque waterway was identified (which also had to include a good selection of watering holes along the way) and we were locked in. No pun intended!




We drove to our pick up point at Stratford-Upon-Avon and unpacked one very full car, into one very beautiful boat – which sat a fair bit lower in the water after all the food and drink was stowed on board! There was going to be no Tesco’s by the canal, and we were prepared for anything and everything! After some lessons on navigating, reversing, turning, canal boating etiquette and how to operate those all important locks, Anthony spent some time with the owner of the boat and a map of the canal, pointing out where we intended to get to. Which was a fair way for a boat that had a top speed of 4 miles per hour. The owner of the boat hemmed and hawed, shook his head and strongly advised us not to go THAT far, on fear of not making it back in time. And then off we set, full of excitement, and maybe just a bit of nervousness when approaching our first lock!




What followed was a lovely afternoon putting our way along, saying hi to this boater and that boater, scrambling out to tackle a lock and determining where we would spend our first night. A suitably gorgeous aspect was located at the tail end of a long line of beautifully decorated boats, a simple meal of sausages was had after which we high tailed it to the Mary Arden Inn on the Green in the village of Wilmcote. This was very Shakespearian country we were in and we walked past Shakespeare’s mother’s house and farm (Mary Arden’s farm). We have to go back there, it was all so lovely and so English, what with its Tudor buildings, village Green and stone bridges.

Day 2 was a wet and drizzly day and I was glad I wasn’t the captain. Anthony and Doug soldiered along, manning the tiller and opening the locks with umbrella in hand. I was on kid patrol and was quite happy with that job. I was inside. Anthony’s mum, Marea, was popping inside the cabin and out, when weather prevailed, delivering the all important cups of tea! We debated about whether we should press on to try and get to Kingswood Junction, our target turning-about point, or turn around at the winding hole at Preston Baggot. We decided we would see what the weather was like in the morning. Once we made the decision to ‘go the whole hog’ that was it – we were committed. Due to the narrowness of the canal, there was nowhere else to turn around until Kingswood Junction. It continued to rain through the night.

And thankfully, that was all the bad weather we had. By Day 3 we were all pro’s at this narrow boating experience and each had a turn at the wheel, and each handed it back to Anthony at the sight of a lock or a tiny stone bridge I might add! Negotiating an old canal bridge was like threading a needle – our boat was 64 foot long and steering and acceleration are from the back end. It was only for the most practically minded and confident drivers (which ruled me out!)




The days were spent enjoying the English sunshine at either end of the boat, chatting to friendly people we met along the way, stopping in for a pint and lemonade at a canal side pub. When we wanted some exercise after a few hours on board, us cabin crew would get out and walk the tow path for a few locks.It was all rather relaxing with just the hum of the motor and dragon flies skipping across the sill water. The boys had an opportunity to throw a line in, I even got a chance to squeeze in a few cheeky chapters of my book! The scenery was beautiful – barrel roofed lock cottages, long summer evenings, families of ducks following in the wake of the boat.

So did we make it to Kingswood Junction? You betcha we did. We celebrated at a beauty of a pub (the Navigation Inn) located canal side and selling hand-pulled Guinness on tap. I’m pretty sure that was the sole motivation Anthony and Doug needed! That evening when we bedded down for the night, we heard a canal chap in the boat behind us playing the squeeze box. Chatting to him earlier, we had discovered he was a permanent resident on the waterways. I likened him to a leprechaun – he was a tad eccentric! There were a few of them around these parts!




Our return trip was lovely as was the trip out – past the familiar villages and the Bearley aquaduct (this was a real highlight – don’t look down!). We said good-bye to the English countryside as we approached the industrial outskirts of Stratford on our final night, and got in amongst it (and really tested the navigation and steering skills) when we took the boat into the Stratford Basin, right in the centre of town. Another night, another pub – I can’t remember if it was the Red Lion or the Pen and Parchment, but it was good! And then we were home, with a ton of photos of the English countryside, and a stack of fun memories.

Canal boats, or narrow boats, are making a resurgence in recent times. The canals all over the UK had fallen into disrepair after WW2 and sadly, a lot of them failed to connect to their old networks or waterways, and therefore proved impassable. Volunteer enthusiasts began restoring them for pleasure boaters in the 1970s and this work is still continued today, with a substantial network of interconnecting, fully navigable canals across the country. Ours was a great trip. But as good friends of ours warned us before we committed to the trip – you’ve gotta get the ratio of kids to adults just right. Our mix was perfect – plenty of hands on deck to man the locks, kids and meals – and still have a relaxing and fun time.

So who’s coming with us next time?!


Beside the seaside in Cornwall

It’s the dead of winter in England right now. Anthony and I get up and go to work and drop the boys at breakfast club at 8am. The sun gets up well after all of us and says goodnight at 4pm. The days are short, overcast and cold. Scraping ice off the windscreen in the morning AND the evening is part of the routine. The winter is dragging on. Nothing grows. Mud is everywhere. Wellies become regular footwear for children. After Australia, I wonder: how do people live like this?!

At about the point I’ve had enough of it: the cold, the dark, the dampness and the hibernation – winter amazingly seems to let go and eases up on everything. The days become longer. There are less frosts in the morning. And we start thinking of holidays in the SUN! Oh the sun – how we miss you right now!

Which brings back memories of our holiday to Cornwall last summer with my mum and dad. Four adults and two kids, a promise of some lovely weather (a bit unpredictable in England – that’s probably an understatement – very dicey is a better description, but we were lucky) and a huge holiday house overlooking the stunning Atlantic Ocean, were the ingredients for a terrific short break away in June.

Our St Ives backyard

Our St Ives backyard

So here is where I confess to being an avid Doc Martin fan. It’s not just me – Anthony likes it too – and mum and dad put us onto the TV show to start with! So how could we possibly go to Cornwall without stopping at the town all the episodes are filmed at? Impossible – we couldn’t!

The fictional seaside town of Port Wenn is actually Port Isaac. I trawled the Internet for a ‘self guided Doc Martin walking tour’, found one, and off we set. The surgery – found it, Mrs Tischell’s pharmacy (actually a sweet shop) – tick, the primary school, Louisa’s house, the Large family restaurant – we saw it all, took a heap of photos in this beautiful little fishing village and had heaps of fun pointing out different scenes and TV locations! The village is tiny though – I was advised by a friend to park at the pay and display carpark just as you get into town and walk the rest. The little streets were impossibly narrow and meandering and so totally gorgeous – but there was no way Hector would have fitted down them!




We got to St Ives – on the north coast of Cornwall and almost at the tip of the southern most peninsula in England – in the late afternoon with still hours of sunshine ahead of us (June – sun goes down around 9pm? How dreamy). We immediately thought yep, we’ve picked the right place, this is lovely – my mum was mentally taking note of which shops she just HAD to visit as we drove through town. Two little boys to bed; drinks and nibbles on the terraced garden; spectacular views out to sea and as far as the eye could see – and we could see why so many Brits come to Cornwall for their annual summer holidays.

Yes - Angus is asleep here!

Yes – Angus is asleep here!

The following day saw us drive some of the beautiful Cornish coastline and end up at St Michael’s Mount – a special little rocky island just a short way from the mainland, complete with its privately owned castle (still lived in) with a thriving community and locally made arts and crafts. We didn’t make it to the castle, but we did catch a little tinny out to the island which was good fun. When the tide is out, you can actually walk the causeway all the way to the island. We took the lazy option (that, or swim!) but could see what looked like a yellow brick road emerging from the water on the return trip.


But in my mind, the highlight of our trip to Cornwall was our visit to the Minack Theatre. Located almost at Lands End, near Penzance, the Minack Theatre is an open air theatre constructed on a rocky granite outcrop jutting straight out into the ocean. The sun was shining and it was quite warm, but a bit chilly in the breeze blowing from the ocean. But as far as you could see was the most magical blue and turquoise water. The theatre seats are all terraced and shaped by granite stone with grass inlays – and in a country where the grass is always green – it was pretty comfy! I had bought tickets to a Noel Coward play for Mum and I – so in we went for the matinee performance while Dad, Anthony and the boys had a picnic lunch and played in the sand far below our rocky outcrop.

The show was really great, hugely entertaining and in the most spectacular surroundings. Sometimes I didn’t know whether I should be watching the play or taking in the location. A bit of both really. I hadn’t seen a theatre production in years and forgot how much I enjoyed them. And to see a production in such a breathtaking area of the world was just spectacular, and really very special. Now we just need to find ourselves back down that way again so Anthony can see it. The theatre puts on kids shows in the holidays so that will need to go on the list of must do’s!



Back in St Ives on our final day, we enjoyed browsing the shops and checking out the local artist studios. Yes, St Ives is a tourist town, but gee it’s lovely. We picked up some homemade Cornish pasties from a tiny little shop which was more like a hole in the wall, and thought ‘where better to eat these than on the beach’. As it turned out, anywhere but the beach would have been a better option! The seagulls over here are, no joke, about four times the size of Australian seagulls. And ten times as courageous! We survived many dart attempts to snatch our pasties, but credit has to go to Angus, who wrestled with a seagull over his bread roll. And won. No creative license here, he snatched that bread roll back like it was the only food he was getting all day, and that particular seagull gave up and watched us from afar. After that, it was decided by all that it was probably a safer bet to eat our Cornish icecreams IN the ice creamery. Later on, I did happen to see one poor lady while eating her icecream near the harbour, happen to have one of those huge monsters land on her shoulder and have a peck of her icecream. As you can imagine, it frightened the life out of her! That’s it, I knew I didn’t like birds for a reason! Go Angus – you’re braver than your mother!

Everything about Cornwall was great. We all enjoyed our time in this beautiful part of the world. And we found an excellent cafe on our final morning before making the trek back to Windsor. Finding decent coffee in England is no easy feat! Top job Cornwall – we love you and are definitely coming back!



Holidays in Holland

Christmas and Holland with a side of Amsterdam – not the most popular choice for a Christmas holiday for most people, especially most people with kids! But the Netherlands was somewhere we wanted to visit, and we both had a good amount of time off work, and it was close to home. Decision made. Oh and did I mention there was plenty of accommodation available?

We found an awesome farm just outside of Amsterdam that would suit us nicely. That sorted, we packed up the car with 3 bikes, half of Tesco’s grocery department, a Christmas tree and the contents of Santa’s sleigh in the roof box and left at 6am (after a bedtime the night before of 1am and an awkward discussion of oh no…this stuff just ain’t gunna fit…it did, phew). We booked the euro tunnel this time instead of the ferry – this was much quicker, being a 35 minute crossing on the train. Hugely exciting for the boys – they were so looking forward to driving a CAR onto a TRAIN and going UNDER WATER! Do you stay in your car? Do you get out? Do you see the water? So many questions. For what it’s worth: you can get out, you can’t go anywhere except to the toilet train, and no you don’t see water. Still exciting (and quick!)

We did the 3 country traverse through France, Belgium and into the Netherlands and unpacked a very full Hector (the car) in fading light on Christmas Eve. Our accommodation was even more awesome than it looked on the website and here is where I do a plug because it is SO worth it. ‘Swanenburgh apartments’, located in the Purmer district in North Holland – do yourself a favour and stay here: Jos and Coba were fantastic hosts and our apartment was immaculate and perfectly set up. We have stayed in a lot of different places in Europe and the UK – and this one was right up there. We were happy to call it home for six nights!


What followed was a relaxing Christmas Eve as ALL presents were already wrapped. Santa’s plate was put out, stockings were laid carefully beside the beds, the magic reindeer dust was spread beside the canal out the front of our apartment, and two very excited little boys cuddled up in their single-beds-pushed-together, whispering into the night about when Santa might come. Well, Santa did come at about 11pm – I heard the boys talking to each other at 1am and upon visiting their room, they excitedly told me that Santa had already been (but that they’re weren’t going to peek until morning time). Unbelievable. They made that decision together, and dutifully went back to sleep until 8am. Pretty sure these kids aren’t normal!

The weather on Christmas Day was fairly atrocious which bothered us not one iota, wrapped up as we were in Thomas trains, Scalextric slot cars, a Christmas dinner fit for kings and skype and FaceTime sessions with the grandparents. It was a great, full day and the boys spent it inside, in their (new) pjs. SO much time to play with new toys🙂


Boxing Day in the Purmer turned on a crisp, sunshiney day. You knew it was winter, but it was perfectly still and very enticing for a bike ride. We set out first for Edam, and peddled around this quaint little town. Unfortunately most of the shops were shut, being a public holiday – it would be great to see the cheese market in full swing on a Wednesday in summer. The canals provided a gorgeous reflection of Dutch architecture and lovely decorative buildings – and a healthy amount of shops selling the famous yellow waxed round of cheese! Onward to Volendam – a kilometre or so along the bike path. The riding was super easy across this vast, flat land, crisscrosses by canals. The bike paths were fantastic as you would expect for Holland. Hamish just LOVED the fact that bikes got their own miniature traffic lights at kid level.

Volendam – not much to say here other than it being on the water and super touristy. Tacky touristy, not nice touristy, and a particularly laddish vibe spilling out from the (very full) pubs. Volendam was also very busy with tour groups spilling out of boats. We jumped on a boat and made the crossing to Marken, an old fishing village that in years gone by was cut off from the mainland but is now attached via a peninsula. On arriving in Marken, we made the rookie mistake of going inside to the closest eatery on a promise of fish and chips and inside warmth (and instead got bad service and overpriced food). And here lies my strangest experience of Holland – the waiter told me not to say ‘please’. He said once was enough, but that I had said it five times (who counts?) and that it was just annoying now. He almost sounded offended by my good manners. You might say he was abrupt. You might say he was rude. He was Dutch. I was perplexed. PUH-LEESE!!! And from that point on I became more direct in my dealings – which I feel is bossy and arrogant, but perfectly acceptable here. Ah the culture differences – eye opening🙂 But he was still rude…


Marken was lovely with its traditional Dutch fishing villas and harbour front. A particularly beautiful old section of the town around the church square was just divine with its traditionally painted houses in dark green with white windows frames. Onwards we pedalled to the lighthouse along a sparse, flat and fairly barren landscape. Not necessarily beautiful. This was ok as one look at our watches made us fair hike it back to the harbour to catch the last boat of the day. We made it within minutes, and in limited light back in Volendam at 4pm, we struggled back home with Hamish now on the tag-along, Angus lolling about in the bike seat asleep, along a very dark back country road with no lights. Not the safest – when the sun starts to fade, it happens fast!

The next morning we woke to howling winds, slanting rains…and it was so cold! And this was our designated Amsterdam day. We shelved that idea and instead headed south to Rotterdam. Half an hour down the road we noticed signs of snow: a dusting here, a sprinkling there, and then it was coming thick and fast and there were snow ploughs chucking up sprays of snow, closed lanes and marzipan icing on car roofs. Totally unexpected and just a little bit exciting! Slushy and white in the city, but beautiful. Cold, so cold! The Maritime Museum in Rotterdam was our retreat and we had a lovely visit. The kids section was great and had a suitably nautical feel for this ship building and haulage city. This outside play area has the kids moving shipping containers with cranes – pity it was so cold we couldn’t get outside!




Take Two on Amsterdam the following day was much more successful. Clear, blue skies and not a breath of wind – perfect bike riding conditions. Not wanting to navigate our own car and bikes around Amsterdam (Amsterdam is notoriously short in car spaces – they are hugely expensive and rumor has it that a car spot remains vacant in Amsterdam, on average, for 30 seconds) we drove to the Park n Ride and took a tram into the city. Absolutely the way to go – cheap and easy. Arriving in Amsterdam’s centre, we picked up a couple of bikes – not your average bikes, but a Bakfiet (or as the boys like to call it, a ‘bucket bike’) and a lovely cruiser for me.



These Bakfiet’s are awesome. The boys loved sitting up front and were easily entertained – Hamish even took a video of parts of the journey! They were as snug as bugs in rugs and just soaked it all in, while Anthony and I pedalled along getting us super lost in this really confusing city to navigate! Not as easy to ride bikes as you might think – a few times I found myself being railroaded into taking a path I didn’t want to. You have to act like a car – none of this pulling over and turning the bike around caper. We stumbled upon the Jordan district which was awesome, and saw some lovely old buildings sandwiched together along the canals. It was Sunday morning, 10am and the city hadn’t woken up yet, which was great for us. Lunchtime saw us at the Public Library of all places – but this was a library like no other – 7 floors of blissful reading where I could easily fill a day – a whole floor dedicated to kids (and I thought Windsor library was awesome) and a cafe on the top floor, with arguably the best views in Amsterdam (I wouldn’t know – we couldn’t get out onto the Terrace as it was all locked up – too cold!) and definitely the best food and surprisingly decent coffee.

Our afternoon saw us covering more kilometres on the bikes, which led us to Leidsplein, one of the city’s squares, and the location of a rather cute little ice rink. The ice rink was bordered on three sides by cafes and food stalls selling all manner of Dutch food and drinks and Christmas lights and music was everywhere. It was lots of fun and at least one boy enjoyed it (Angus – not so much. One heavy stack – heavy as I landed on top of him – and he was over it. Can’t blame him for that). In dwindling sunlight, but in an abundance of Christmas lights, we were back on the bikes and catching our last glimpses of this lovely city, it’s squares and Christmas markets. By this time, every man and his dog had taken to the streets and I was glad we were on the bikes. I won’t lie, I greatly enjoyed ringing my bell to get pedestrians off the bike path. In fact I think I was permanently ringing it for the last kilometre (where had these people come from?!)



No trip to the Netherlands would be complete without a visit to see some windmills. Zaanse Schans is the place to do this – only 10 minutes away from where we were staying, and all the windmills you need to see. We learnt what their purpose was, how old they were and anything else you might like to know about windmills! But the highlight of the day would have to be the clog making demonstration. The boys insisted we sit through this twice, with Hamish declaring that when he grows up to be a man, he wants to move to Holland and make clogs. Great, there’s a future in that I’m sure. It really was a surprisingly lovely day, with an unexpected view into some of the history of Holland. And an opportunity to pick up some cheese, munch on some ‘Hollandse Stroopwafels’ (Dutch syrup waffles – I LOVE these) and eat pancakes for lunch.


We all enjoyed our trip to Holland and winter was definitely a fine time to visit. It was fun checking the canals to see them begin to freeze over as the temperature dropped, and spotting windmills on car journeys, and cosying up every night and trying a new Trappist beer from neighbouring Belgium. But, it was also nice driving back into England and seeing the rolling hills of Dover as opposed to the flats of the Netherlands. A nice place to visit – maybe next time I’ll get to a museum!


Part II – Paris

We had booked TGV train tickets to take us from Toulouse in the south of France, up north to Paris. Making sure I booked the fastest route with no stops I thought yep – we can do this. 5 hours on a train is do-able with the boys. I’ll book us a nice booth seat for four with a table in the middle. I’ll pack plenty of food and card games, Oma and Poppy Rog will be across the aisle for a distraction/backup. What an adventure, it will be fun!

It started out quite nicely. The scenery was picturesque, the train left on time. A little bit slower than what I expected though – I thought this was like a bullet train but oh well, I’m sure it will speed up when we exit the city. That was the first sign things weren’t quite right. The air conditioning struggled. The sun beat in through the windows. There was no water in the taps in the toilet. We ran out of food and almost ran out of drinking water. The train actually decided to stop in Bordeaux. Then stopped in the middle of nowhere for close to an hour. There was an announcement in French, followed by much tsk tsk and groans. The boys were climbing the walls and after six hours we gave up trying to control the volume of their voices. Hamish learnt to count to 100, loudly. Every time he made a mistake, he started again from 1. And after 7 hours, we finally crept into Paris. Exhausted, hungry, irritable and and not really knowing whether we could get into our Airbnb apartment.

Fortunately we found our apartment. Mums relief at having found it without the owner meeting us was written all over her face! The apartment was compact, shall we say. And typically Parisian with a tiny little lift with double doors and concierge. It had everything though and was really close to the Metro in Montparnassee. I’m learning about this Airbnb thing. The apartment was owned by a family, who live there on a permanent basis judging by the photos, souvenirs and magnets on the fridge. All the personal effects were there to see, including dirty washing in the washing basket, as the boys discovered! The owners vacate their homes when they want to rent it out I suppose. Nice way to make a living. The toilet was hilarious – it was wall-papered on every side with realistic scenes of a forest. Behind the cistern were cylindrical lumps of wood, to represent trees we supposed, with a tiny little garden. It became a regular joke with the boys when they needed to ‘go and do a wee in the forest’.


Our first day proper in Paris was looking much brighter. Mum and Dad took the boys and Anthony and I took off to explore Paris! We got lost for hours in the Louvre and loved it. My only time to the Louvre was in my backpacking days, and unfortunately that day I chose to spend with shall we say – non art lovers. It was a rushed visit then, and I was desperate to spend more time and see more than just the Mona Lisa. Anthony and I both loved our time here, and broke it up with macaroons and coffee for morning tea. We just loved spending time together and having an uninterrupted conversation too.

The forecourt of the Louvre

The forecourt of the Louvre

We hear the boys had a great day and spent hours at the park, eating donuts and convincing Oma and Poppy Rog to buy them mixed-lollies-by-the-weight and let them ride the carousel. All those things they harass their parents for, but rarely get! Not that we minded, as by that stage we were probably at the Notre Dame and peering up in awe at the beautiful stain glass windows on the inside and the intricately detailed gargoyles on the outside.

We come back to the apartment and what do you know, mum and dad have both the boys sleeping, no easy feat and something I haven’t managed in about 18 months, just for one boy! Which is quite fortunate, as we later decided that the Eiffel Tower would be good to visit after dinner!

Napolean himself!

Napolean himself!

I have to say, the Eiffel Tower was probably the highlight of Paris. Mum took the boys to the top in the lift, while Anthony, Dad and I took the stairs to the second floor (easy), before taking the lift to the top (we weren’t lazy – there are no stairs beyond the second floor!) I think the idea was that we get there for dusk, but all I remember is looking out into an ocean of city lights and making out Parisian landmarks. The boys loved it, and Hamish really took it all in and was so excited. Time seemed to go by very quickly, before we realised we were actually going down in the last lifts for the day. Which felt like herding cattle through a cattle race – we were literally on the top of a pin head, being funnelled down with hundreds of others – tired boys in backpacks and on hips – to be deposited on the midnight streets of Paris, having to navigate our way through the street sellers jangling trinkets in our path.


Our second and last day in Paris was as equally fun as our first, and for completely different reasons. My mum and Dad went exploring the Musee D’Orsay followed by the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus; while Anthony, the boys and I went in search of Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens). Specifically, a little marionette theatre. We found it, bought our tickets and took our seats (boys up the front, parents mid way back) in a quaint little children’s theatre complete with red velvet curtain surrounded by show lights. The story was the Three Little Pigs (we think, it was in French) and it was just delightful. Hamish sat there with a protective arm around Angus, munching on lollies and laughing along with the Parisian children at all the funny little jerks and jumps of the puppets and yelling ‘non! non!’ when a crocodile got in the pigs’ house. The boys loved the show and honestly so did we. It was the first puppet show I had seen!

The Luxembourg Gardens were lovely and we definately want to come back here. There were pony rides through the gardens, an awesome play park (it cost to get through the gate – I thought you have GOT to be kidding! But it was a very cool park and the boys LOVED it. Best park ever). We dragged four iconic 1923-designed sage green metal chairs (bloody heavy – you wouldn’t be wanting to nick them) and picnicked. As the day got on and the temperatures soared, those chairs were a rarity.

An 'I love my brother' moment in the Luxembourg Gardens

An ‘I love my brother’ moment in the Luxembourg Gardens

We spent the afternoon on a river cruise down the Seine. It was a mission to find the departure point I must say, and it was so so very hot. We kept luring Hamish along the footpath with the promise of an icecream. That promise was fulfilled (7 euro later for two haribo pop up icecreams – that vendor saw me coming) and after demolishing it in 5 minutes, he promptly went to sleep sitting upright for the entire 40 minute cruise. The cruise was a good way to see the river, the city and the buildings without having to exert any energy at all. No one in Paris was exerting any energy that day – hundreds of people were just lying around catching the rays along the rivers edge, lolling about draping their legs over the (very steep and very deep) edge. My favourite bits were the beautiful, sandy coloured old buildings with black, wrought iron tiny little Juliette balconies, with the ubiquitous flower boxes holding popping red geraniums. It was picture postcard perfect!


We enjoyed Paris, and hope to come back here again. The boys picked up a bit of the language and enjoyed practising it – and then being fussed over by French restauranteurs and concierges. We did find eating out really difficult in all of France with the boys. The French really make a big deal of lunch and dinner with a three-course meal for both, and the food really is quite exotic for two boys who are used to munching on cheese and vegemite sandwiches for lunch, and their favourite – sausages and mash for dinner. Crepes and baguettes for lunch worked well, and dinner we ate in every night. All menus are in French obviously, and generally speaking, the French either don’t know any English (the south of France) or deliberately choose not to speak English (Paris). So who knows what you’re ordering!


But I must say, the bread and cheese were just superb and that’s not a bad diet for 7 days right?! Oh and the Eurostar connection back to London was just awesome – a great way to finish off a great trip.

The Blairs.

Rural France, farms and barns

Our trip to France in May was with a party of six this time, and took just a little bit more organising than our usual spontaneous trips! My mum and dad joined us, or rather we joined mum and dad, for four nights at the base of the Pyrenees and three nights in Paris. Mum has an old school friend who has been living in the UK for probably the best part of twenty years now, and it was to Mr B’s converted water mill and barn in the rural countryside of France, outside of Toulouse, that we found ourselves.


The day we arrived at Mr B’s town the sun was shining, it was peaceful, and there were very few people about. After the long journey from Windsor, this was nice. The day started in the cold and dark with a maxi taxi pickup at 6.15am for the 50 minute trip to Gatwick airport, which was done in much less time thanks to our crazy, breakneck taxi driver. The time we gained there was lost in airport delays due to foggy, inclement UK weather. We arrived in Toulouse in the mid afternoon, glad the connections had all lined up and ready to pick up the people mover. Toulouse, right down in the south of France, was true to its geographical location: it was hot, and nothing but big open, blue skies. The boots and long pants, deemed essential that morning, were totally out of place in Toulouse!

Into the people mover we piled. What followed was a confusing mess of French road signs, left hand driving, an imposing snow capped mountain range in the distance, boys who finally decided to sleep after a 5am start, near misses on the right hand side of the car, and three too many backseat drivers…poor Anthony – he was DD for the whole road trip. And did surprising well I must add. We finally rolled in to town, struggled to decide whether the parking was free or metered, ‘conversed’ with the local deli to buy a very late lunch (involving much pointing, smiling, merci’s and awkwardness) and ordered at a terraced cafe what I thought was a cappuccino using my excellent above mentioned conversing skills. What arrived was coffee at the bottom, whipped cream (to represent frothy milk?) and an artistic display of coffee beans scattered on top. I honestly expected the coffee to be good in France. And I can honestly say that I didn’t have a good one the whole week! Oh well. At least it looked good right? It is, after all, France. Good thing there are croissants! And chocolate…and wine…and cheese…and bread…

We stocked up on all of these good things at the local supermarket before following Mr B home to the farmhouse. The supermarket in itself was mind boggling: it was huge, and things are kinda confusing when everything is in French. Particularly when all the French you know is limited to three words! It would have been really useful to know the French word for ‘horse’ – we discovered the French have somewhat of a penchant for horse meat and I really, really hope I didn’t inadvertently eat any of my four-legged friends. In terms of supermarket size (and the importance placed on wine!), the wine section alone was as big as an all-rolled-into-one meat deli, fruit and veg section, Asian cooking and health aisles and bakery section back home at Coles in Figtree…oh my. Wines from every region, for every budget.


Mr B’s house was awesome: rustic, rural, farmy, and covered on one side with ivy. It’s older than Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia (although the converted barn is decisively modern). As we approached, smoke could be seen curling out of the chimney, giving it a romantic feel and reminding us that the temperature does indeed drop during the night. The main and original house still has all the original features, including a rather wonky and noisy staircase with some beautifully dark wooden, well-worn treads. The house and barn sits atop a stream which can be heard burbling and trickling wherever you are on the property; in fact this is the only sound you hear really, as the nearest neighbours are over a paddock away. All of which was just so lovely after the busyness of traffic and close living quarters we find with life in the UK. You could sit and read a book on the window sills, the recesses are so deep; the walls so thick. The boys wasted no time in exploring every inch of the house, tearing up and down the stairs, peering out the huge windows and as boys do, making use of each of the (five?) bathroom facilities…sorry Mr B.



Our time in the country was a good mix of relaxing and road tripping. Our host led us on some terrific all-day drives through the countryside on not less than two days. We passed through St Beat and Valentine, two typically French villages at the base of the Pyrenees, before making the climb up the mountain, at which point we really noticed the temperature start to drop. On most occasions, these villages were really quiet and not one person was around. The odd farmer we passed would stare at us as though we all had three heads – I don’t suppose they get too many tourists this far off the beaten track. The buildings butted right up to the narrow village lanes and were a dusty, orangey/creamy colour with terracotta roofs and pastel shuttered windows. The term ‘shabby chic’ comes to mind, but the French farmhouse look is so much more beautiful when it’s authentic and in its natural setting. We noticed the window shutters were almost always shut – our host shared with us a funny little fact: all shutters must be closed at night – if you are broken into during the night and your shutters aren’t closed; well that just voided your insurance policy! Every town had it’s Mayor’s office and memorial to WW1, which in a lot of cases was a woman mourning the loss of her son or husband. The countryside was green and agricultural with a dusting of buttercups and wildflowers. Really, it was a stunning location, the central Pyrenees.




Despite the warmth, there was still snow on the peaks and we even managed to track down some snow at Le Mourtis ski resort. Hamish loved it, Angus not so much! Bit cold in shorts I suppose! Another first for the boys – snow! Finally…it took us two days to find it in the mountains as it was rapidly melting in the spring sunshine. The drive to the ski resort was amazing – we climbed our way up the hugely steep Col de Mente, one of those crazy mountain stages on the Tour de France. Anthony swears he wasn’t afraid but only because he had a steering wheel to hold onto – he pushed the performance of the Seat, so he says (I was in the car in front), on the switchback hairpins that made up this section of mountain road! The gradient was so steep it was pant wettingly scary (and I wasn’t even driving) and at one point I felt compelled to ask ‘are we really going down there?’ – I don’t know how those guys ride it on bikes.


We lunched at Luchon, a pretty mountain spa town, and had coffee in Aspet, a gorgeous little village with a central market square and quintessential cafés with wrought iron chairs and flower boxes. We crossed the border into Spain while in the mountains and wandered around Bossost, a village on the River Garona with cobblestoned streets and cute houses. It was all very gorgeous. Mum, Dad and Mr B made every stop a coffee stop while we were keen to run the boys around. It mostly worked!




A definite highlight was visiting the town and Cathedral of Saint Bertrand de Comminges. The Cathedral sits at a high point in the central Pyrenees countryside, and looking down to the town below is looking down onto a sea of red roofs. The Cathedral has passed through 800 years of history, suffering only a very small amount of damage and amazingly, no damage from the world wars. The design is Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance: built in three different periods and styles. It was very peaceful up there, with cow bells being heard from the nearby farms. The site is on a pilgrimage trail and it’s easy to see why. Walking back down to the town, we passed a simple plaque on the wall of a house, noting it as a French resistance operations house. I want to come back here. And read about a billion books on the French Resistance.


Our time on the farm was relaxing and fun (and a nice change from the car). Anthony and I borrowed some bikes and pedalled around the country lanes, over an old Roman bridge and up to an old cemetery (a bit morbid, but the views to the Pyrenees were amazing). Anthony tried out one of those three words of French we know – Bonjour – on one of the old farmers whose dogs were madly barking as we cycled past. Anyway this old guy must have thought it was his lucky day, someone to talk to, and began to initiate conversation. At a complete loss of what to say, Anthony notched it up a gear and kept on riding! Lest he get found out. We discovered that while the people in this part of France were extremely friendly and really quite lovely, they spoke only French. Which is quite unfortunate for people who only speak English!

The nights were spent eating way too much cheese and bread, and probably not enough wine for this part of the world, and ended around the cosy fireplace eating chocolate. I’d like to say the boys romped around the paddocks, floated sticks down the stream and experienced adventures galore: but they merely proved they really aren’t countrified, and instead whinged and whined about the grass scratching their legs! Rides on the lawn mower and in the tractor trailer were in order though, and were a definite winner. We enjoyed poking through a traditional village market one morning, and taking up an offer of afternoon tea with Mr B’s friends at their expansive home and garden in the afternoon.



We said our goodbyes to the countryside and Mr B, with promises to return (and an invitation to stay, lucky us), maybe in the winter with the boys, try our hand at skiing? Or the summer.. And before we knew it, we were back to Toulouse and boarding the fast train to Paris.

Stage 2 of our Tour had begun.

The Blairs.