A break from routine….and what it means to come home

I started writing this at 4.50pm whilst sitting on a plane. I’ve never written a post from an aeroplane before….. I’ve never written a post on my phone before either. But all day I had been hoping that we would get home in time to say goodnight to our boys; and then came the announcement that we would instead be sitting on a runway for two hours. Watching the rain. So I started writing this to give myself something to think about, other than the fact that I wouldn’t be home for bedtime.

We were on our way home from a very important three day child-free mission to find the best custard tarts in all of Lisbon*…..also known as a mini-break to celebrate our 10 year anniversary.

(NB. If you are only interested in the custard tart mission then you might like to skip to the end.)

And it really was a treat, even if it was so cold that I had to buy myself a new scarf and bobble hat on day 1. There we were, free to ride the trams, enjoy pre-dinner drinks, finish conversations, and admire the Portuguese tiles. Breakfast was a) prepared for us and b) a peaceful affair; and my days did not begin with a boy in a Stormtrooper costume asking me if I would like a game of Ludo. But a strange thing happens when you get a break from your offspring, which is that much of your thoughts and conversation still tends to revolve around them. My husband and I would amble along and notice things that one, two or all of our boys would have liked – the transport museum, the amazing food markets, the trams. We would, despite being child-free, remark upon the child-friendly nature of the city. As we waited in one particularly long queue, I commented on how patiently the two small boys just in front of us had waited, before going on to wonder how their (very stylish) parents had managed to get out with the two boys, a baby, and not a bag between them. Where were the nappies? Where were the snacks and drinks? And more to the point, WHY was any of this even going through my head when I didn’t have any of my own children with me??

But it was. And then of course I would start wondering what my boys were up to, before running through all of the times I had lost my temper too easily, or shouted too quickly; and finally going on to promise myself that I would return home refreshed and ready to deal with challenges in the calm, patient way that I had always imagined I would.

Our final day was one of those proper rainy going home sort of days, and I could have wept when I heard that our flight was delayed. Yes, I had loved the peaceful breakfasts, lunches and dinners; the coffee stops and the walks through the tiny cobbled streets; but I was ready to get back to the noise and the chaos that would greet our arrival home. I have written about home before….. I love a beautiful home, although keeping one is not my strongest point. But, whether it is calm and serene or messy and chaotic; the familiarity of home is precious in a world that seems to be lurching all over the place.  My house is a mess, but it is also a reassuring constant. And, whilst I already miss those custard tarts, I was absolutely ready to get back to those excited little voices and fiercely tight hugs.

And I couldn’t wait to be woken up by a boy in a Stormtrooper costume.

boys-in-the-rain.jpg

*If you are interested in the outcome of the custard tart (nata) mission, then let me update you. We did venture to Belem (about 30 minutes on the tram from central Lisbon) to sample tarts from the original factory, Pasteis de Belem – the queue went out the door, but standing in a queue with people who clearly loved custard tarts as much as I do was quite special; and yes these ones were were worth queuing for. However, if you don’t happen to go to Belem then let me also recommend Manteigaria, which is just off one of the central squares in Lisbon – it is tiny (standing room only) but the tarts are warm (you can watch them being made) and absolutely delicious.

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Three boys on a sleeper train

We have entered a window of time which seems perfect for big adventures – my boys are 6 and 8, so small enough to want to have adventures with their parents, and big enough to appreciate them. And, of course, they are now old enough for adventures to be just a bit more practical too. And so I have found myself saying yes to more things recently, including ‘yes, let’s all get a sleeper train to Scotland.

My littlest boys have been asking when we can go on a ‘train with beds’ for at least a year, and I tended to respond with a deliberately vague ‘one day‘, as I do to many things. And then, for some reason I decided to actually look into it. And the more I looked into it, the more I liked the idea. So I investigated dates and found myself booking the Caledonian sleeper train all the way from London to Inverness.

I didn’t think too much about it after that – it would be an adventure, but I had absolutely no idea whether the sleeper train part of it would be a success. And then all of a sudden it was upon us, and we were waiting to board with three super-excited little boys.

If you also have this on your family to-do list, then here my attempt at providing you with some (useful?) information:

Where to go? 

The sleeper trains go all over Scotland (from London), but if you are travelling with young children then you will just want to think carefully about timings – for some destinations, you would either have to depart very late or arrive very early. We opted for Inverness, partly because we fancied a little adventure in the Highlands, but also to give ourselves the longest journey possible – the train left London at about 9.30pm but boarding was from 8.20pm, and we arrived in Inverness at 8.40am; so perfectly civilised times for small children.

Is it expensive? 

If you consider the cost of train travel these days, or compare it to the cost of booking flights for a family of 5, then it isn’t bad value. In total our booking came to just under £208.00 – about £72.00 each for the adults and just under £21.00 each for the children (one way). We did invest in a family railcard beforehand so saved a bit with that. We decided to book the sleeper train one way only – after three days in Inverness, we travelled down to Stirling and had a few days there before getting the regular East Coast train home.

How do the cabins work for families? 

There are two bunks per cabin, and if you are travelling with children then you are cabinallocated inter-connected cabins. You can buy a ‘Family Ticket’, which means that if you’re an odd number of people (ie a family of 2 adults and 3 children) then the spare bed is automatically reserved for you. HOWEVER, the family ticket deal does not apply if you book using a railcard…….something I didn’t realise before booking because I didn’t read the small print (d’oh). So I was a little surprised when I looked at our tickets to find that my husband had been allocated a berth a couple of carriages down from the rest of us. No harm done – we were fine and this didn’t really turn out to be a problem at all, but if you are an odd number like us then you might just want to ensure you’re actually booking the ‘family’ option.

Did the children sleep?

I’m happy to report that YES THEY DID! They were in their pyjamas and ready for bed when we left home, and so they were happily tucked up in bed just as we were pulling out of Kings Cross. I won’t pretend there wasn’t a lot of excitement and silliness, as well as 101 questions (‘Are you asleep yet, Mummy?……What about now?…….And now?…….And are you now, Mummy?‘) but the 6 year olds were asleep by 10pm and the biggest boy by 10.30pm. I found the eldest boy having a sleepy wander around the cabin at about 2am, but other than that everyone was quiet until just after 6am, which I consider a result.

Did the grown ups sleep? 

My husband reports that no, he didn’t sleep particularly well; and I didn’t either. Whilst I was perfectly comfortable, I was essentially trying to sleep in a cupboard with three children. I was also extremely aware of every single noise the train made (it is a fairly bumpy ride), and was constantly listening out for boys falling out of bed. It then got to that stage where I couldn’t sleep because I was too busy working out how many hours sleep I would get in the absolute best case scenario. I finally dropped off for an hour or two, but had a very vivid dream in which the whole train had turned into a giant soft play centre with only me in charge…..so my hour’s sleep really wasn’t restful in any way. Having said that, I didn’t mind because the whole thing was a novelty and my children were quiet, so I was quite happy lying in my bed enjoying the experience.

Things you might just like to know….. 

  • My children are not too old to find playing with light switches totally hilarious. Each bunk gets its own berth light (with switch), as well as a switch for the main cabin light. Berth lights caused the most trouble – apparently playing with your own berth light switch whilst also shouting ‘TURN YOUR BERTH LIGHT OFF!‘ to your mum and siblings is one of the funniest things in the world. In the end, I realised that I would have to sit in complete darkness until the boys went to sleep – this was a bit of a pain, but worth it not to hear anybody mention berth lights for the rest of the night. And once everyone was peaceful, I popped my light back on, read my book and had my can of G&T.
  • The gangways are extremely narrow and, obviously, cabin space is also very limited. I’m sure there must be somewhere to store large pieces of luggage, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me when we boarded. We had fairly small bags and so had everything in our cabin with us; but if you are taking sizeable pieces of luggage then you might want to check out where to store these before you board the train. Once you have boarded there is really not much space to be lugging around huge bags.
  • In each cabin, the desk lifts up to reveal a SINK. A friend had warned me about this beforehand but I had totally forgotten about it until all my boys were asleep, and was thankful that I had – combined with the excitement over the berth lights, the discovery of the hidden sinks would have caused total chaos.
  • The inter-connecting door can LOCK OPEN. Unfortunately I didn’t realise this until the morning and so attempted to keep it open with my rucksack…..I then spent the night listening to it swinging open and shut (or the part of the night when I wasn’t supervising the soft play centre).
  • The top bunk is not for a nervous child – the barrier is, effectively, a couple of straps. There is no way my 8 year old would even go up there for a look, let alone sleep up there; so it’s a good job the 6 year olds have no such fear. If you have a nervous child then this is something to keep in mind.

Getting around in Scotland 

coach with a view

Bus ride with a view

We didn’t hire a car and actually, this was one of the things I loved most about our trip – it made such a refreshing change NOT to have a car. Jumping on buses, coaches and trains made the whole trip even more of an adventure, and meant that everyone could relax and enjoy the views, rather than someone having to concentrate on the roads and follow directions. And of course we were up in Scotland so the views were incredible – this was in no way a similar experience to getting the buses in and around London; which is what we are used to. Obviously we would have had more options had we hired a car, but we went out and about from Inverness using public transport and had no problems.

Was it fun? 

Was it fun?!? I would absolutely totally recommend it to anyone who enjoys an adventure. We went to bed in London, and woke up to views of mountains and lochs  – it was magical. I loved the sensation of lying in my cabin and not really knowing quite whereabouts in the country I was (until Facebook asked me if I would like any recommendations for places to eat in Doncaster). Yes, there were stressful moments – trying to manage very excited little children in extremely narrow cabins, trying to get people and bags down the tiniest gangways, trying to get everyone washed and dressed without bumping your head, tripping over something or bashing into a door – but when a 6 year old flings his arms around you just before you board the train and tells you this is his ‘best life ever’, then yes, it is absolutely worth it.

The lesson I have learnt from the whole experience is that sometimes it is worth being guided by small people when making holiday plans, and occasionally saying yes to things that you would normally just say ‘one day‘ to. What came from a request to go on a ‘train with beds’ became a wonderful adventure and something which I know will go down as a highlight of 2018.

 

N.B I have written this from a London-Scotland point of view because that was what we did. Obviously the other way round exists too – I just can’t promise quite the same scenery as your train pulls into London.

If you’re considering a London-Scotland adventure, here are a few websites you might find useful:

Puglia with the kids

If you read my little letter to the Lady on the Plane, you’ll know that just after Easter we went off on our first ever holiday abroad as a family of five. I’ve been meaning to post about it since we got home, which was now over a month ago. But if you’re interested, or considering an Italian adventure with little ones, read on for things to know and places to go.

What and Where?

Our destination was Puglia, which is the heel of the Italian boot and has long been on myPuglia list of places to visit. We flew to Bari, and stayed in a village just between the towns of Monopoli and Alberobello (about a 40 minute drive from Bari). There are a few touristy little pockets, but generally it felt quite authentic and less touristy than many other areas of Italy I’ve visited. If you’re looking for trulli, the little houses with conical roofs for which Puglia is famous, then this is right in the heart of trulli country. And if you’re wondering what on earth trulli are, then they look like this:

trulli

It wasn’t a particularly child-orientated holiday – we stayed in a villa in the middle of nowhere, there were no kids’ clubs; and whilst we did have a pool, it wasn’t heated and never got quite warm enough to use. So it wasn’t what you might call relaxing, but it did feel like the most grown-up holiday we’ve had since having our boys…..just with lots of grazed knees and no going out in the evenings.

Weather

Spring in Puglia was perfect for us – low 20s most days. But what you don’t get at that time of year are warm evenings. So, once all boys were tucked up in bed, rather than sitting on a balcony sipping cocktails we would curl up on the sofa and catch up with series 1 of Happy Valley. It’s more than a little surreal to spend your days exploring beautiful, sunny Puglia and spend your evenings watching a gritty northern police drama but it worked for us (and how good is Happy Valley?!).

10 things you might like to know if you’re considering going with the kids:

  1. In Italy, life is very much about pottering: walking up and down streets, lounging in squares, sitting on steps. My boys got very into the sitting on steps bit and have been trying to recreate it since we got home……it’s just a shame the views aren’t quite as pretty. Everywhere is ‘child-friendly’ just because it is a child-friendly culture, but you won’t find lots of attractions specifically aimed at children (unless you’re staying at a resort). Many of our days were spent exploring little towns and stopping for ice-creams.
  2. Restaurants don’t tend to do children’s meals, so order dishes to share – we usually ordered 2 dishes between our 3 boys which worked out fine (often with some left over).
  3. Most restaurants close at about 3 and then don’t re-open again until 7.30pm. If, like us, you decided to go self-catering and 7.30 is far too late for you to even consider venturing out with your children, eat out at lunchtime and then get food in for the evenings.
  4. Unless you’re somewhere fairly touristy, pizza is usually only served in the evenings and not at lunchtime. I did know this, but momentarily forgot one lunchtime – the waiter looked at me like I had two heads when I dared to order pizza. In my defence, he had given me a menu with a whole page devoted to pizza (and nowhere did it say ‘only in the evening’), but I still felt an utter fool for forgetting. If you see a ‘pizza anche a pranzo’ sign, that means you can actually get pizza for lunch; but it’s not the norm.
  5. Toilets are hit-and-miss. You still sometimes find squat toilets (ie. a hole in the floor), which my boys were less than impressed with. 90% of the other toilets seem to have had their seats removed: you can see the fixings, so it’s like the seat was once there but has been deliberately taken off. Basically, going to the toilet with little ones who a) like a seat and b) don’t want to fall in; can be a challenge.
  6. Shops in Italy usually close for a few hours in the afternoon – in Puglia this seemed to be from 1-5pm. It was fine for us as we weren’t shopping, but it did make some of the towns feel like deserted film sets.

    siesta time in Cisternino

    Yes, it was just us. Apart from that man up in the corner, there

  7. Puglia has a beautiful coastline, but many of the seafront hotels have their own private beaches. Which is fine if you’re staying at one, but means you might need to hunt around for a decent stretch of public beach (we went to Pilone, just outside Ostuni).
  8. And if you are planning on having a beach day, pack buckets and spades from home.
    beach with spoons

    Digging. With a tablespoon.

    We couldn’t find anywhere to buy them and ended up venturing to the beach with tupperware and spoons from our villa. The boys were happy enough, but it wasn’t quite the same attempting to make sandcastles with lunchboxes and tablespoons.

  9. I always used to say I would NEVER drive in Italy because the roads are crazy and the driving, well that can be on the crazy side too. But I did and actually….. it wasn’t too bad. Once you’re out of the towns that is. If you find yourself accidentally driving into an old town area then it’s a nightmare and at some point you will find yourself doing a 17-point turn down the narrowest road in town with an irate driver hooting his horn behind you.
  10. Some of the little streets look so narrow you’d think they must be pedestrianised. But no – cars still manage to appear just when you least expect them. If, like mine, your little ones love to run free, just keep them within arm’s reach – cars can (and do) appear at any moment.

Things to do………

And if you actually want an idea of what there is to do, here are a few things I would recommend. All of the below are a very short drive away if you’re staying around Monopoli or Alberobello:

  • The Grotte di Castellana (caves) are well worth a visit. There is either a short tour (50 minutes), or a full on 2 hour tour. We had planned to do the short tour knowing that 2 hours was a big ask with 3 small boys in tow, but we got there just as the long tour was about to leave so we decided to risk it. It was hard work (I spent two hours pretending to hunt for a gruffalo) but we made it round with minimal fuss so if you are tempted by the long tour, do it.
  • Just down the road from the caves is a Dinosaur Park, which is perfect for little ones who need to let off steam having listened to a tour guide talking about stalagtites and stalagmites for 2 hours.
  • The zoo-safari in Fasano is a full day out. There is a self-drive safari park and a zoo/amusement park – you can visit them both together (which I’d recommend) or just go to the zoo/amusement park without the safari.
  • Polignano a Mare is a lovely little seaside town. There is a small (rocky) beach which my boys loved. There was also a little tourist train to take you round the town. I’m pretty sure the driver charges different amounts depending on whether or not you look like gullible foreign tourists – we got well and truly fleeced.
  • Alberobello is the most touristy town in the area and is full of trulli and souvernir shops. If you walk up the hill to the church there is a playground just opposite.
  • Ostuni is a stunning hilltop town, full of little alleyways to explore and steep steps to climb. If you find yourself in need of a pharmacy, I can recommend the one in the main square which my 5 year old declared ‘the best pharmacy in the world’ (this may have had something to do with the fact that they gave him a lollipop).
  • Monopoli had boats and a cannon, Cisternino had good ice-cream and a deserted square (from 1-5pm), Locorotondo had a playground AND a bicycle hanging on a wall; and Martina Franca had a car with a missing headlight. All were worth a visit.

Would I recommend it?

Yes. I loved seeing my boys exploring somewhere totally new, taking in the sights, listening to a new language and watching Peppa Pig in Italian. Whilst it wasn’t particularly relaxing; it was an adventure in the sunshine, and a chance for us all to discover somewhere new together. Which felt good.

Holidays with small children – a survival guide

We all know that holidays post-children bear very little resemblance to the holidays we enjoyed a few years ago, but if you approach them realistically then you will emerge smiling, even if not feeling particularly refreshed or relaxed. So here are my 10 tips to surviving holidays with small children:

1) Know your limits. I know, for example, that dealing with stressful situations is not one of my strong points and I’m pretty confident that flying with my children would tip me over the edge. Hopefully this won’t last forever, and there will come a time when the thought of spending a few hours in a confined space in the air with all my boys won’t fill me with dread, but for now, it is UK holidays for us.

2) Have realistic expectations. If you are going self catering and staying in this country, as we do, then essentially your holiday will be the same thing but in a different location…..so in some ways, slightly more stressful. Particularly on relentlessly rainy days when you have no idea of local rainy day things to do.

If you go with this in mind, you won’t be disappointed.

3) Accept that attempting to get all members of the family and luggage out of the house will be a truly hideous experience which will make you wonder whether this ‘holiday’ could possibly be worth the trauma. Once you’re on your way you can write it off. Just know that it will be a bad few hours.

4) Safety in numbers. We have applied this rule to holidays since the arrival of our twins three years ago and the last couple of years we have holidayed with another family. The children have loved it, the evenings are sociable, and it feels a bit less like the-same-thing-different-place when there are more of you around. This year we did things a little differently with one set of grandparents staying in their caravan a few miles up the road from us and a friend joining us for a few days in the middle. It worked perfectly – happy and busy, with plenty of excitement for the boys and enough adults to give me a boost when the meltdowns were getting too much.

5) Pack realistically, not optimistically. There is little point in checking the 5 day forecast if you are just going to ignore it. As I discovered, packing all your sundresses will not improve the forecast. There’s a reason we make a big fuss about heatwaves in the UK – they’re just not that common. Pack some woollies.

It was chilly. I was ill-prepared.

It was chilly. I was ill-prepared.

6) Remember that children are just as likely to get ill on holiday as they are at home. Pack the Calpol. We didn’t, which is a pain when you’re on a farm in rural Devon with a poorly child. I don’t know what I was thinking – my suitcase was clearly too full of sundresses.

7) When estimating your journey time, double it. Once you’ve factored in school holiday traffic (tortuous) and frequent toilet / food / leg stretching stops for children, this should be about right. Remember that your children will ask whether you’re there 10 minutes after leaving home, and approximately every 5 minutes thereafter.

Give up all hope of putting on any of your own music during the journey.

8) Choose easy-to-eat treats for the journey. This does not include jelly beans, unless you want to spend most of the journey trying to extract stuck bits from between children’s teeth.

9) The best days will be the days on which your children are not moaning and whining, so plan days out which they will enjoy. It probably won’t be a surprise to hear that pre-children I don’t think I would have chosen to visit the Devon Railway Centre, but this turned out to be one of the best days of our week. I have now realised that all I need to keep the boys amused and under control at home is a model railway, set up in a display cabinet so that it can’t be destroyed. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

If you are not a fan of noisy, manic and in-your-face children’s attractions then I would definitely recommend this place – it is lovely and old-fashioned with plenty for children to do. They even have footstools so little ones can see the model railways without needing to be lifted – there’s nothing they haven’t thought of.

You get the idea, it was a good day out – one which was planned with them in mind but which we all loved because of minimal whinging.

twigs and extinguisher

10) Accept that however many toys you pack, small children will always prefer light switches, doors, and fire extinguishers. Spend as much time out of your accommodation as possible. This little area on the right, for example, proved to be one of the main attractions for my boys – the combination of some branches, a vase and a fire extinguisher was just too tempting.

If it all sounds like hard work, that’s because it is hard work. Because every part of having children is hard work, including the ‘holidays’. But when you get home, despite the mounds of washing to get through and the suitcases that probably won’t be unpacked for weeks, you realise it was worth all the effort just for those special moments like seeing your children running around the beach in their pants. Or totally mesmerised by a model railway whilst standing on a precious footstool.

Model railway + footstools = joy

Model railway + footstools = joy

We stayed at the lovely Lower Hearson Farm near BarnstapleLower Hearson