Category Archives: Outdoor Activities

A walk in the woods not a day on the DS

Just outside Corby, Northants

This evening, as I was driving Boy the Elder to his Scout meeting(in a field, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere) we saw a barn owl, a muntjack, a weasel, endless rabbits and something small and very fast which flew right in front of the car.  It was wonderful, particularly the barn owl whose ghostly white wings described delicate and silent patterns in the air, like a pale and feral angel.

I was gratified to witness the excitement of the boys at seeing these creatures and pleased that, despite living in the country, wild creatures are still wonderful to them.  As a child brought up on the outskirts of London, I remember reading nature books that would cite certain insects or birds that were apparently ‘common’ throughout England.  Not in bloody Stanwell they weren’t and I remember wondering where all these creatures could be living?  Actually they were probably there for the finding, but I didn’t know where to look.

Of late, I haven’t spent enough time taking the boys on walks in the countryside. The last few years have caught up with me a bit, and on the rare occasions when I sit still I fall asleep.  They play sports at school and spend time outside, but there is no substitute for just being in the woods or the park, taking time to see the detail, making up games that involve trees, sticks and mud, listening to the trees, the birds and the tiny sounds.

Speedwell

A couple of weekends ago, I sent the two of them off into the woods and told them not to come back for at least two hours.  Their mission was to explore their surroundings, get the lie of the land, see what was beyond the Co-op and the fish and chip shop, find out where the railway line went, discover the best climbing trees and viewpoints.

They came back tired and delighted.  They had found footpaths and a tree swing, a circular walk all round the town and the track bed of an old railway line.  They were particularly pleased with a concrete lookout point on which someone had sprayed the word ‘cock’ in large red letters.  This is now known as The Cockpit and is the focal point of many games and rendezvous.

Hawthorne

Children need to connect with nature.  They need to have unstructured time in which to get bored, thus giving them the brain space to get really creative.  Separation from the natural world takes away their freedom, their peace of mind and their independence.  Some parents are terrified to let their children go to parks or open spaces unsupervised because they have become obsessed with the idea that there are perverts and kidnappers round every corner.  Those same children may not have been taught to cross the road properly and yet the fear of them being run over takes second place to the threat of paedophiles.

Children’s time has become too structured, outdoors has become a facility not a place to be enjoyed on its own merit.  Children are taught about nature in schools through eco-disaster, floods, famines, global warming and whilst these things need to be taught, I wonder if this encourages them to really connect with nature or whether it persuades them that nature is an enemy to be overcome?  How many people became passionate naturalists without actually experiencing nature at first hand?

Where have the nature tables gone, with their birds’ nests, conkers, multi-hued leaves and shells?  When do the nature walks happen when children can feel the ground beneath their feet, smell the leaf mould, discover wild flowers and learn the difference between moths and butterflies?

We don’t have to live in the middle of nowhere to find these things, any tiny wild area will have something of interest and we need to find them, enjoy them and then pass on our enjoyment.  Note the difference in someone after a day in the fresh air to a day in front of the TV or a computer screen.

Let’s reclaim our natural spaces and in return find some space for ourselves.

How deep?

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Vintage Air Shows and Festivals for this weekend and September

September  seems to be the month for Vintage festivals.  Here are a few which sound fun.

The Duxford Air Show, Cambridgeshire
3& 4th September – 8am – 6pm

The Duxford Air Show is the highlight of the Museum’s flying events each year and features both historic and contemporary aircraft, civilian and military.  At the heart of this year’s air show, and 75 years since its inaugural flight, we celebrate the sight and sound of the Spitfire, that most celebrated British single-seat fighter aircraft.

The Victory Show at Cosby, Leicestershire
3-4th  September from 9am

The two day event is held over a 60 acre site, providing historical societies & re-enactments through various forces from several era’s and theatres during the period of 1939-45. From Airmen to Infantry, the Victory Show 2011 opens a window in time to the fabulous 1940’s.

Shackerstone Festival

Shakerstone Family Festival, Leicestershire
3-4thSeptember

Battle of Britain planes, wingwalkers, aerostars, jousts and stunts, duck herding & sheep racing, dog displays, marching bands, steam trains, canal exhibitions, birds of prey, tractors, cars, steam engines, ploughing demos, craft fayre and so it goes on…

Dorset Steam Fair

The Great Dorset Steam Fair, nr Blandford Forum, Dorset
3rd & 4th  September from 8am

You can stand amazed at the variety of exhibitions and the sheer scale of the show means that there is always something new to see. The show has something for everyone, whatever your interests – collector, a steam fanatic, an exhibitor, a heavy horse fan, an avid camper, a music fan or just on holiday in the South of England.  The Great Dorset Steam Fair is a typically British event offering a unique blend of nostalgia and entertainment. Come and soak up the special festival atmosphere whether as a day visitor or taking in the full five days by camping on site. There is no other event like it anywhere in the world.

Capel Manor Classic & Vintage vehicles

Capel Manor Gardens, Enfield, Middlesex 
4th  September 10-5pm

Motor along to the Classic and Vintage Vehicle Show with cars from as far back as the 1920s, the Annual Rally of the North London and Middlesex Morris Minors Association, auto jumble, the Enfield Brass Band and crafts in the Manor House with Fig Fairs

Maldon & District Vintage Working Day at  Southminster and

Ploughing Past and Present Country Show at Pebmarsh:
East Anglia

4th September

Goodwood Revival

The Goodwood Revival

16th – 18th September from 0730-1900hrs

In the summer of 2010, a brand new concept in British festivals was launched at Goodwood to huge critical acclaim.  Known as ‘Vintage at Goodwood,’ this award-winning new event enabled fans of British Cool and Popular Culture to fully indulge their love and passion for the golden era of British style and influence.  

Vintage at Goodwood brought together a unique blend of 1940s, 50s and 60s fashion, music, film, art, dance and design in a fun, authentic and imaginative way. Similarly, the annual Goodwood Revival, the world’s biggest historic motor racing event, has been successfully doing this for over a decade, with the added excitement of thrilling wheel to wheel motor racing as a unique and extraordinary backdrop to an utterly British experience. The Goodwood Revival brings together the most glamorous and exotic cars, and their star drivers all racing on the original classic race track, it is the only major sporting event to be completely staged in an authentic period setting, creating a truly magical step back in time.


The Foxton Locks Festival

17th & 18th September 10am-5pm

Foxton Locks Festival is Leicestershire’s Premier Day Out with something for all the family.

Come and browse the craft stalls and grab yourself a bargain, watch the interactive Viking re-enactments taking place during the day and grab a bite to eat and drink at our Food Village and Real Ale Bar.

Take time out to visit the Locks and see the brightly coloured boats negotiate their way up the staircase locks, pop into the museum and learn about the history of the canals and don’t forget a visit to the remains of the Inclined Plane Boat Lift.


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Wills’ Cigarette Cards No 8: Cycle Brackets

Now I know there are a few of you out there who would find much use for a sturdy pair of brackets like these for your velocipedes, to say nothing of frollicking with a bracing strut …

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A day out at Canons Ashby and a Wartime Housewife Quiz

Canons AshbyToday, and on a whim as we have spent too much of the summer holiday relocating, we fired up the Escort and visited the National Trust property of Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire.

Canons Ashby was owned by the Dryden family for four centuries from the late 1500s; bookish, conservative, modest people who respected the buildings enough to re-model and extend but never to completely sweep away the past.  The house itself is rather more than a manor house but not quite a grand mansion and much of its beauty lies in its homeliness and attention to the decorative.

Sir John Dryden (1631-1700), the very first Poet Laureate, is a member of this family and was appointed by Charles II in 1668.  He was the best poet, dramatist, translator and critic of the age and his translation of Virgil is one of the great masterpieces of translation in English.

The house is full of interesting and beautiful things, including some fascinating items which I have never seen before or didn’t know about.  Let’s see if you can identify them.  There will be a modest prize for the person(s) who can identify all five correctly.  If you click on the pictures, you will get a larger and more detailed image.  Good luck!

This competition closes on Friday 2nd September 2011 and the winners will be announced on Saturday.
The Wartime Housewife’s decision is final.

1.  WHAT IS THIS AND WHAT WAS IT USED FOR?

2.  WHAT IS THIS?

3. WHAT IS THIS AND WHAT WAS IT USED FOR?

NB: This soldier is 5 feet high

4. WHAT IS THIS?

5. WHAT IS THIS DECORATIVE CEILING MADE FROM?

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Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle, bicycle … rack

A splendid summer evening

Yesterday evening the boys went to Pitsford with the Scouts for the annual 7-mile cycle round the reservoir followed by a barbecue.  Until recently, the boys’ bikes have been small enough to get both of them into the boot of the car, but they will persist in getting taller, and Boy the Elder’s bike is now bigger than mine.  I was forced to buy a bike rack.

A couple of months ago I bought a large tent in the sales and a bike rack, with the intention of attempting a brief camping trip with our bicycles in the summer holidays.  I hate camping with a passion I find hard to express, but I figured that if I had a tent I could actually stand up in and a covered area for cooking if it rained, it would be marginally more tolerable.

Naturally, there is always a part of me which is utterly convinced that our holiday will be like a Famous Five novel, pedalling gaily down country lanes, picnicking on sardines, heaps of tomatoes and ginger beer.  We will then retire, tired but happy, to our tents pausing only to climb into crisp winceyette pyjamas before sleeping the sleep of the innocent.  Will it bollocks.  But I digress…

I had forgotten about the bike ride and, just as it started to rain, I realised that I needed to assemble the damned bike rack.  I opened the box and pulled out a large piece of metal and a couple of bags of straps and metal bits, which I laid out neatly on the grass by the car.

I have never owned a bike rack, and because I haven’t needed one, I haven’t paid the slightest attention to the assemblage of such items on the cars of others.  I instructed the boys to go far away from me, with the gravest of threats should they utter a single sound, and set to work.

I always read instruction booklets and never fail to be amazed at how easy it is to do things when you already know how to bloody do them!  I dutifully followed the booklet, step by step, strap by strap, ratchet by ratchet.  Then I undid all the straps and re-assembled them in the correct wotsanames.  I turned grippy things with one hand whilst trying to balance an unwieldy array of metal tubing exactly two inches above my bumper, whilst avoiding another metal tube which hovered exactly one inch in front of my right eye..

Having finally got the rack in the right position with all the metal sticking out at the correct angles, I crawled under the car in search of a hole in which to hook the bottom straps.  I drive a 12-year old, hag-ridden Ford Escort which I have decorated to look a bit like a Spitfire – the underside is not a pretty sight, particularly on a muddy, stony track, just as it has started to rain.

In all honesty,  neither was I a pretty sight by this time; dirty from the proximity to my car, sweaty with exertion, my long skirt tucked into my knickers, my wet hair plastered to my head and now covered in mud and gravel from crawling under a pseudo-Spitfire.  But England wasn’t built on glamour and competence! No sir!

After an hour of swearing, cursing and ratcheting, the thing was done, the bikes were strapped on and we were going to be 20 minutes late.  I had no time to change my clothes and we headed for Pitsford.  As the rain became increasingly torrential, badgers and rabbits started appearing in the hedgerows in pairs, holding paws and looking expectantly at the rising puddles.

I parked the car and the boys set off at top speed to catch up with the others.  I squelched across the car park in strappy sandals, my rain sodden skirt clinging to my legs in the fashion of an unpleasantly mis-shapen mermaid.

‘At least there’ll be hot dogs’ I thought, but the barbecue was wet and the Scout Leader was manfully erecting a tent in a desperate attempt to bring the spitting, smoking pile of charcoal under canvass.  I stood sullenly with damp, corned-beef arms wrapped around my dripping torso in a futile attempt to fend off certain consumption and probable mildew of the extremeties.

Eventually, thanks to the good spirits and efforts of other people, the barbecue was lit and the heavenly scent of sausages and burgers wafted through the air, just as my boys hove into view.  Boy the Younger claimed to have had a heart attack half way round and Boy the Elder had torn his trousers.  Despite my misery, I was terribly proud of Boy the Younger who has never cycled 7 miles in one go before, and I patted his soggy head and wiped the rain from his little pale cheeks as he munched on his hotdog.

‘Enough of this,’ I said ‘I’m going home, and if you want hot cocoa you had better come at once.’  They jumped into the car whilst I wrestled the bikes back onto the rack.  We drove home with all haste, wipers struggling to hold back the rain and narrowly avoiding a large wooden boat parked at the side of the A508, small animals gratefully ascending the gang plank…

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More evidence that the world has gone mad

Boy the Elder came home from school today with the following information. There are nine hundred children at his school between the age of 11 and 14 and they have a large playing field with lovely country views … which they have not been allowed to use for recreation at lunch or break time.

They have now been told that they may use the field in groups of no more than twenty two children at a time and, if they do manage to get a go, they have to wear hi visibility tabards.

I have nothing more to say on the matter, mainly because I can’t speak properly with my fist in my mouth.

Boy the Elder has only three more weeks left, until  in September, he starts at a school where getting dirty, climbing trees and roaming the grounds is positively encouraged.  And hurrah to that.

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Sunday Poem 88

I’m so sorry that the Sunday Poem is so very late today.  I was up at 5am helping Irish Alice cook breakfasts at her excellent new café at her fishing lakes at Yoke Hill Farm Fishery in Upper Benefield, Northamptonshire.

Boy the Younger and I got back home about 3pm in time for a short kip  before taking him to a roller skating party at 5pm.  I’m posting this poem and then I shall hit the sack myself.  Oh hang on, I’ve just remembered; I have an ice cold bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge and I intend to take the unusual step of having a glass of wine on my own.  I really must drink more….

Leader of Men – by Norman MacCaig – (1910-1996)

When he addressed ten thousand
Faces worked by automation
He was filled, exalted, afflated
With love and ambition for
His fellowcountrymen – in so far,
Of course,
As they were not incompatible
With the love and ambition he felt
For himself.  No sacrifice
Would be too great.  No
Holocaust.  No bloodbath.  He
Was affected by the nobility
Of his vision, his eyes were,
Naturally, blurred.

How was he to know
The mindless face of the crowd
Broke up, when he finished, into
Ten thousand pieces – except that,
When he went home,
He found the tea cold, his wife
Plain, his dogs smelly?

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Bargain camping offer from Halfords!

A bargain at £129.99

This Family Tent pack is currently on sale at half price in Halfords for only £129.99.

As you can see from the picture you get:

1 x 4-person, walk-in tent
4 x sleeping bags
2 x double airbeds
1 x carry bag for the whole caboodle

They also have a Camp Cooking Set for £29.99 which has a gas stove, pans and storage boxes etc

I loathe camping but mainly because I can’t bear all that crawling and crouching one has to endure with a ridge tent.  I will be able to stand straight and tall in this one!

There is a very real chance that we might actually get a holiday this year.

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Hallaton Bottle Kicking 2011

I gave you the history of the Hallaton Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scrambling last year, so you can click HERE to mug up on the details.  I give you instead a series of photographs to give you a taste of the event.

The Bottles and the Hare process through Hallaton

Processing the Hare through the streets to the church

The pipers provide a rousing accompaniment

The Vicar cuts up the Hare Pie

The crowd eagerly awaits the flinging of the pie and the bread

The Bottles held aloft

Hallaton and Medbourne engage

Down the hill they come

Nearly finished, just the stream to contend with...

...and victory for Hallaton

The Bottle is raised in triumph!

There were many injuries - several broken ribs and one person stretchered off. This chap escaped exhausted with just a bloodied lip

Boy the Elder watched from the safety of a tree

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Bank Holiday Weekend

In which the Wartime Housewife discusses, Easter, Good Friday, the amenity of Welland Park, food mixers, crucifixions, St George’s Day, Hallaton Bottle Kicking and Simnel Cakes.

The last two days have been fairly varied and marginally calmer than my life usually is.  We all had a bit of a lie in on Friday morning and then my former common-law sister-in-law, Eliza, came round for a coffee and to give the chaps their Easter Eggs.  We decided to go to a performance of Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’ at Rothwell Church in the evening, which seemed particularly appropriate being Good Friday.

Not that anyone would have known it was Good Friday.  My electric food mixer decelerated to a halt on Thursday and I had to buy another one in order to make Simnel Cakes for Easter.  I know, I know, I have a wooden spoon and I’m not afraid to use it but time is precious, it is.  I naively rang Argos to see if they were open on Good Friday and the girl on the end of the ‘phone came as close as she dared to saying ‘Errr yeah, durr?’ (you can add the irritating teenage inflection yourself).

Welland Park

When I went into Market Harborough it was clearly just another shopping day with every shop packed to the gills with people loading up trolleys for the oncoming siege situation of a Bank Holiday.  I bought my mixer, taking care to take out the extra 3-year cover, as the last two mixers have only lasted me a year each.  Well, a year and three days actually so they were JUST out of warranty. (Insert your own choice of compound swearing here).

I dropped the boys in Welland Park for a couple of hours and went home to make Simnel Cakes.  The delicious smell of hot cinnamon, nutmeg and fruit cake wafted around the house in a tantalising way as I rolled out the marzipan for the top and made the 11 balls for the disciples (twelve minus one for Judas Iscariot).

I left the last two in the oven and went back into town to pick the chaps up.  Welland Park is a wonderful facility just on the outskirts of Market Harborough.  There are tennis courts and bowling greens, a cafe for tea and ice cream and a massive play area for the children, as well as open grassed areas for ball games or sitting quietly under the trees picnicking.

But the most glorious thing is the gardens.  As you walk in past the tennis courts, there are the most glorious flowerbeds in complementary colours ranging from soft pinks and mauves to vibrant reds and oranges.  My favourite was a bed full of swathes of forget-me-nots in pink, white and blue with deep mauve tulips standing guard over their smaller, fluffier cousins.

As I walked towards the playground, I passed through the rose garden which has the bell tower from Symington’s factory as the centrepiece, and which has just been planted with tiny, intricately patterned box hedges.  In the summer the smell from this garden is heavenly from roses, lavender and the honeysuckle which boldly scales the trellises and archways round the edge.  We are fortunate indeed.

In the evening, we collected Eliza and headed off to Rothwell to hear ‘Crucifixion’.  It’s not an easy piece of music and it was performed admirably by the choir and the two soloists, particularly as quite a proportion of the choir can’t read music.  There are some familiar hymns in it and the congregation joined in which was most enjoyable.  It’s a very moving piece and just the thing to round off Good Friday.

Today, I dropped the boys off with their father and headed into town, which was even more packed than it was yesterday.  I bought some wide ribbon to finish off my cakes then returned home and ate my lunch whilst watching a repeat of James May making his plasticene garden for The Chelsea Flower Show.  St George’s Day appears to have been completely forgotten in all the excitement of Easter and a Royal Wedding.  I shall have Mushrooms for supper (after Dr Who, of course – hurrah!).

Tomorrow morning, I am driving down to London to pick up The Aged Parent and take her to Sister the Second for Easter Day.  I am hoping for many Lindt Bunnies for I have been a good girl all year.  So far anyway…

On Monday it is The Hallaton Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scramble.  Hip Hip Hurrah!

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New Season Gardening Tips

Heavenly blossom in the churchyard of St Nicks

A Blackthorn Winter:  You may have noticed an awful lot of blackthorn in blossom.  This heavy blossom usually follows a hard winter and country lore says that you shouldn’t put new plants or vegetables in until the Blackthorn blossom is dying off as there are still likely to be frosts.

Hanging Baskets:  Now is the time to sort out your hanging baskets.

Tip 1.  Line hanging baskets with old tea bags – they hold water and release nutrients for the plants.

Tip 2.  Old jumpers make super liners for baskets and look jolly as well.

Tip 3.  You  can avoid covering yourself in water when you water your baskets by putting a handful of ice cubes on top of the soil every so often.

Evergreens:  Clip and prune evergreens and flowering shrubs and give them a good mulching,

Mulching:  Mulching can be done with all sorts of things.  Try to get as many of the deep rooted perennial weeds out as you can for the best results.  The mulch must be thick enough to deprive the weeds of air and light.  You could try:

Carpet squares or lengths with holes cut in for the plants

Newspaper laid in thick layers then covered with straw can later be dug into the soil if necessary.  Alternatively you can cover the newspaper in bark or gravel

Old lino or vinyl floor covering is superb

Grass cutting laid 6” thick are an effective mulch round the bottom of currents or raspberries to keep down annual weeds

Seeds:

After sowing seeds, put a stick into the ground at the end of the row then place the seed packet or a label into a jam jar and put it upside down onto the stick

Individual seeds can be planted in tea bags and kept moist.  When they sprout they can be transferred directly into the soil without upsetting the roots

Seedlings can be protected from pests with plastic bottles, using the end with the cap on so you can allow air in

Soot:  Lily of the Valley enjoys being fed with water that has been mixed with a couple of tablespoons of soot.  Leeks will grow stronger if you add two or three handfuls of soot to the soil when you plant them

Wildlife:  If you are planting for the new season or moving your garden around, try to have an area with a bit of hedge where insects and small animals can shelter.  Also reserve a small area which can go a bit wild, including some logs to encourage beetles and suchlike

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Burrough Hill, Leicestershire – a lovely day out (and it’s free!)

Ancient ramparts at Burrough Hill

Borough Hill is one of our favourite (and free) places to walk, winter and summer alike.   To get to it, you have to park your car at the bottom (there is a small charge for parking) and walk along a farm track, past pleasantly smelly cow sheds and farm machinery, past a field full of hairy cows with big horns and through the gate to the bottom of the hill.

This is an Iron Age Fort, rising up out of the Leicestershire landscape, near the village of Burrough on the Hill, just south of Melton Mowbray.  It is 690ft (210m) high and on a clear day, one can see several counties.  Its bowl-shaped grassy top makes it excellent for kite flying, model aircraft and running about and falling over.  The land around  is predominantly arable but there are cows and sheep grazing the land on and  immediately round  it.  This also provides plenty of dried sheep poo which we never fail to enjoy throwing at each other.  We know how to enjoy ourselves in the country, I can tell you.

What you can see from the top of Burrough Hill

In fact, Borough Hill has a long association with sports and leisure activities.  As far back as 1540 local people would converge on the hill on Whit Monday for competitive games such as races, shooting and wrestling, as well as taking the opportunity for a dance.  These entertainments were abandoned  in the 17th century, and apart from a brief  revival in the 18th century they tailed off.   The Whit Monday Games did happen very occasionally after that and may well have happened as recently as 1955.  Someone should start them up again – it would be glorious.

However, for about 70 years  in the 1900s, it became a popular spot for horse racing, especially the Melton Hunt Steeplechase.  The bowl shaped nature of the hill made it a perfect natural grandstand for spectators and there was even a race horse called ‘Burrough Hill Lad’ which rejoiced in the connection.

Marauders

This fort was built with ramparts of stone but faced with turf, and knowledge of other hill forts would suggest that there would have been a strong wooden palisade.  Natural erosion has occurred but also stone was taken  for road building in the 17th and 18th centuries, so there are lots of gaps in the ramparts now, which provide excellent stalking opportunities for imaginative and bloodthirsty boys and girls.

Archaeologists have excavated the site on several occasions since the 19th century and there have been finds dating from the Mesolithic period which would suggest that the site was in use long before its function as a hill fort.  They also found pottery and coins of Roman origin which indicate that the site was still in use in the 4th century AD.  In more recent excavations, they found a cobbled road, the remains of a guard house and evidence of large timber gates at one end of the entrance.

Hill forts were not only defensive structures, they also shouted loud and clear that these were communities to be reckoned with.  In some ways they fulfilled the same purpose as small towns would today,  in that they were centres for economic, political and religious purposes, albeit with fewer people.  Hill forts were also useful rallying points for markets, festivals and the election of leaders and there is some evidence to suggest that they acted as protected grain stores for the locality.

Nowadays the hill not only provides recreation for walkers and lively children, but also important habitats for plant and wildlife.  Wild Thyme, Milk Thistles and Lady’s Bedstraw are to be found there as well as species of Waxcap fungi and other specialised fungi which thrive on sheep and rabbit dung.    The gorze bushes are a delight, not only to look at and smell, but they also protect the slopes from grazing.

Birdlife thrives: Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Kestrels, Linnets, Yellowhammers, Tree Sparrows are all to be found there, and you can imagine the joy on a summer’s day of lying on your back, listening to supersonic, singing skylarks  high in the sky.  Hares and Muntjac are to be seen in the open grassland and the rabbits build burrows large enough to shove a small child into.  Believe me, I know.

Sunshine on a rainy day at Burrough Hill

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Snowdrops

What a vision of hope on this beautiful, crisp, sunny afternoon.

Snowdrops at Skeffington

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London – Part 2: The West End

Now before we go any further, if you are planning a cultural / sightseeing/ shopping trip to a big city, and money is at all limited, the first thing you must do is to pack a picnic.  As I mentioned yesterday, eating at the site of an accepted landmark is reckless and foolhardy.  Their sole purpose is to fleece hapless tourists of their hard earned euros / dollars/ yen and no amount of weeping and cries of “I’m not a Tourist, I’m a Free Man!” will melt their hardened capitalist hearts.  Trust me, I’ve tried it.  Backpack, picnic, flask of cocoa; thirty quid more in your pocket to spend on fridge magnets and fudge.  That was Top Tip No. 1

Oxford StreetWe left St Paul’s and headed along the Central Line to Oxford Circus, where we emerged into a throng of more people than I have ever seen in my life, despite being a Londoner by birth.  Apparently, last Saturday is the busiest Saturday of the year.  Top Tip No. 2 – do not visit the West End of London on this day. 

In the past, Selfridges department store has had the most fabulous window displays; marvellous dioramas of fairy tales or children’s stories, or cats or something, all with moving figures and sparkly stuff.  This year there were groovily arranged piles of merchandise with mannequins with Betty Boop style heads on.   Boy the Younger liked it because it was bright and colourful, but Boy the Elder and I felt that we’d walked a sod of a long way to see a Shrine to Mammon.  We wandered around the store for a few minutes but were totally overwhelmed by the people and the stench of perfume nearly set my asthma off.

We went back into Oxford Street and walked slowly along, looking at all the shops and enjoying a variety of people you simply don’t get in Market Harborough.  Remind me another time to talk about hats.  A lot of the shops were having a fun with their displays and there were loads of hospitality girls and demonstrations going on.  Debenhams had a fashion show in their main window which was brilliant, hosted by a really gregarious and attractive person who, whilst showing off some really nice gear, nevertheless had his tongue firmly in his cheek. 

Window display at HamelysWe bought some freshly baked triple chocolate cookies from a tiny shop in an arcade and proceeded with all speed to Regent Street for the Hamleys experience.  The windows there were really lovely; huge bears in clothes doing baking and moving about.  That’s more like it.  There were so many people trying to get in, that there were security staff on every door, stairwell and escalator and they were letting the shoppers in in batches when enough other people had left.

It was completely overwhelming and again, although the boys loved it, there was none of the sense of ‘specialness’ that one used to get in Hamleys, the feeling that you were in a special place full of special toys.  We have a toyshop in Leicester called Dominos which is equally good and considerably cheaper.  I gave the chaps £5 each to spend as they saw fit; BTE bought an Airfix model and BTY found a Lego figure which he adores … which was lucky as there was precious little else they could have afforded.  Top Tip No. 3 – support your local toy shop, if you are still fortunate enough to have such a thing.

Regent Street lights

Home beckoned, and we sauntered down Regent Street, enjoying the ‘Narnia’ themed lights, to Piccadilly Circus.  It was quite touching how excited BTE was to see the huge flashing advertising board on the corner in real life and to see Eros silhouetted against it.  We fought our way onto the tube and settled into the inevitable monologue of BTY reading out every single station name and counting the number of stops left until Hatton Cross.

We arrived back at the Aged Parent’s at about 7 o’clock, to be greeted with steaming plates of sausages and mash, tired but thoroughly excited by our day.  When Granny asked the boys what had been their favourite bit, I was hugely gratified when they answered (with absolutely no prompting from me) that it had been St Paul’s.  With the triple chocolate cookies coming a very close second.

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London – Part 1: St Paul’s Cathedral

We had the most wonderful time in London.  We got to the Aged Parent’s gloriously warm house  late morning, and headed into town for lunch and an afternoon of cruising round the shops.  The day was finished nicely with fish and chips and the DVD of ‘Nativity’ – I sobbed throughout, as usual.

We got up relatively early for a Saturday and headed into town on the tube.  The Boys get very excited about going on the tube, particularly Boy the Younger who oohs and aahs at every bit of dark tunnel and every bit of decorative tiling at the stations. 

Our first stop was St Paul’s Cathedral.  I last went there in 1982 so it was a glorious revelation for all of us.  The first revelation was the entrance fee: £12.50 for me and £4.50 each for the boys.  As I was standing, swearing vilely at the information board, a very kind Guide pointed out that if we nipped across the road to the Tourist Information kiosk, they would give us a tourist map which had a 20% discount voucher.  Therefore, entrance for we three plus a guide book came to just over £21.  It had better be good, we thought.

It was.  We were given ipod thingies which had the most extraordinary guide, including film footage and choices of information so you could tailor your visit completely to your own interests.  Boy the Younger had to show me how to work it, of course.  It’s really hard to describe the wonderfulness of it, particularly as you aren’t allowed to take photographs but one of the highlights for me was seeing William Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’ which I find unutterably beautiful.

St Paul himself

Naturally we trudged up the stairs to The Whispering Gallery and whispered frantically to each other – thankfully wheezing works just as well.  There was also a Eucharist Service performed while we were there which was lovely and what was even nicer was that virtually every hour, the clergy asked for a moment’s peace for prayer and contemplation which made me somewhat less inclined to order the merchants from the temple.

Boy the Elder then decided that he wanted to go up to the next level, The Stone Gallery.  This involved another hundred or so stairs, so he and BTY skipped up with the camera with instructions to photograph London.  They came down with some smashing pictures and demanded that we make an unaided attempt on the summit, aka The Golden Gallery.

Taken by Boy the Elder

Now, I went up there in 1982 and came down every step on my bottom, pausing periodically to change my underwear, and I only did it then because I was trying to impress a boy.  I had forgotten just how hideous it actually is.  The dome of St Pauls is actually in three parts.  There is the inner dome which is above The Whispering Gallery.  There is then a conical structure on the top of that, around which is built the outer dome which is the familiar and iconic image of St Paul’s. 

Also taken by Boy the Elder

In order to ascend to The Golden Gallery at the top, you have to climb a narrow, open fretwork, iron spiral staircase which winds its way between the cone and the outer dome.  On either side and below, it just drops away into darkness.  There are narrow platforms which serve as passing places, but otherwise you just go up and up and round and round in a way of which Dante would thoroughly have approved.

We got about a quarter of the way up when BTY did what I was desperate to do, but couldn’t because this time I was trying to impress MY boys.  He burst into tears and wouldn’t go any further.  I can’t tell you how relieved I was.  We scuttled down and ran straight into the crypt for some refreshment.

And that is where the horror started. 
I jest – but can I just tell  you that a mug of tea, a plain scone, two tiny tubs of fruit salad and two Fantas came to £14.95.  Another change of underwear please.

I will tell you about The West End and our arrival at home tomorrow.

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