Boat Building

A replica of the Dawn Treader
The Dawn Treader - this one doesn't float

On a wet weekend my son often asks “Dad, can we do ‘making’?”.  He doesn’t ask me.  He knows, from previous disappointing experience, that my efforts don’t transcend their raw materials.  They look like nothing more than two cereal boxes precariously bonded with masking tape and daubed with poster paint.

But when he does ‘making’ with his Dad, the most remarkable transmogrification occurs.  No longer does he have a pile of packing paper, egg boxes, and other bits and bobs from the recycling bin.  He has the Dawn Treader sailing out of Narnia.  Hans Solo is Edmund, and his Drago Bakugan is Eustace the dragon; a new toy with endless play scenarios awaits.

They have made some memorable boats over the past few years.  Unfortunately we didn’t photograph our favourite.  It was a pirate ship.  The base was made with old plastic bottles, so that it actually floated.  It had a hand-painted jolly roger, a red fabric sail, and best of all, a long piece of string secured to the prow which meant that it could be towed along in the water.  They made it one rainy Saturday.

On Sunday the clouds cleared.  Hand in hand they walked to the bus.  They carried their boat all the way down to Little Venice and walked along the tow path, pulling their own pirate ship along the canal.  Our son was just three years old, but he still remembers that boat, and that day.  Apparently a few people stopped and took photographs of them – if you saw them, then I just hope you were having as much fun as they were.

A friend of ours builds boats – real ones from timber by hand.  He teaches the skill to kids.  I hadn’t really thought about the organic beauty in a curve of wood until I saw some photographs of his work.  But then a hand-built boat is romantic whatever it’s made from.

 

 

 

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Pitfalls of apartment life

There are people who have lived in London for twenty years and never become a local.  They don’t know their neighbours, except by the noise they make.  But of course you can learn a lot just from that.

We used to have a couple of neighbours, long since departed, (not departed this life, you understand, just departed further up the property ladder) who started arguing every evening at 8.30pm.  They reached a crescendo around 9.30pm, just as I was lying in bed wondering when my husband would get back from work and how many times our baby would wake up in the night.  I found myself listening to them in the manner of a radio play.  I couldn’t help myself; it was as loud as if they were standing right next to my bed.  They argued about some shoes she bought, and about his endless DIY, and about whether she listened to him properly, and whether she didn’t listen because he wasn’t very interesting (she had a point there, I felt).  It was a bit like ‘The Archers’ if ‘The Archers’ featured young urban professionals with too many power tools.  I got hooked, and when my husband came in from work he’d ask ‘So, what’s the latest?  Is she going to let him put those shelves up or what?’.  We didn’t get out much at the time – couldn’t afford the babysitter.

They complained once about the noise of our baby crying.  I was tempted to point out that surely if they could hear the baby, then did they realize that I could also hear them?  But like a toddler ‘hiding’ by putting their hands over their eyes, they hadn’t grasped the concept of object permanence as it pertained to their downstairs neighbours.

We never really got to know those neighbours.  It was awkward, because we knew too much already without asking them over for coffee and banana cake.   And we weren’t impartial.  We were both definitely on ‘her’ side.  My husband held a grudge over a DIY-related mishap that caused our baby’s nursery to flood at 2am, and said only: ‘I’m glad she gives him earache, the drill-happy fool’.  For my part, I couldn’t be doing with a husband who was forever faffing about with the decor – it was a small flat, just how many shelves could they need?  And he shouldn’t have started on her shoes.  We’ve all bought ill-advised footwear on credit, and a gentleman wouldn’t have mentioned it.

I like all of our neighbours now.  Even if the young man upstairs has just started… to learn the trumpet.  Ah, well.

Picnics in London

Food tastes better outside.  Sausages sizzling over a campfire, fish and chips on the beach, a Flake 99 ice-cream at the park after school, steaks on the barbecue… Hungry already?

This delicious alchemy even works on frankly substandard food – those campfire sausages tend to be a little burnt on the outside, don’t they?  And yet the memory of their taste is more vivid than any of the Michelin-starred meals I’ve enjoyed.

In the summer we often take our tea to the local park and eat there.  An average family meal turns into a celebratory event just by adding a few picnic blankets and the promise of an ice-cream from the van for dessert.  Restaurants in London do tend to be expensive, but you can ‘eat out’ very cheaply in this city.  My favourite venues are:-

  • Golders Hill Park which is beautifully landscaped, with lots of open spaces.  It’s particularly good for small children thanks to the free zoo, sand-filled toddlers playground, and adventure climbing frame. In summer there is often a free butterfly house too.
  • The area of Hampstead Heath just above the Vale of Health is great for picnics – head up the slope to be wowed by a view of London which stretches out past Canary Wharf and the Gherkin to the rolling hills beyond.  There is a wide open field sheltered by trees.
My son playing frisbee
Don't try this in a restaurant
  • Regents Park is a regular venue for us.  In another life, I remember lying on a blanket reading all day in Regents Park while my husband sketched the other picnickers.  Now that I’m a mother those ‘lying down reading’ days are over, but Regents Park is still a great place to be.  Each area of the park has its own attractions – if you’re on the edge that runs along London Zoo you can see the giraffes and the zebras through the hedge.  Whereas down by the ponds my son loves feeding his crusts to the rare breed ducks and herons and watching the rowing boats.
  • Hyde Park is convenient if you are sightseeing or running errands in town, and it’s extensive enough to find your own private patch of grass even on the busiest day.  My son and I watched some breakdancers practising there while we were eating our sandwiches last week.

Later this week I’ll be packing a picnic and joining my son and his primary school class on Hampstead Heath for a day out.  I’ll be responsible for four or five of his classmates so I doubt if I’ll finish my sandwiches!   But they will taste amazing.

Did you want a list?

I’m a list-maker extraordinaire.  I have schedules, spreadsheets, notebooks with coloured flags sticking out of them, pens which are only used for writing particular tasks into particular notebooks.  (And when that pen goes missing…  oh, the horror.  I have to either buy a new pen of the exact same colour, or stop doing that kind of task.)

So did you want a list?  “100 cool things to do in London” – is that what you wanted?  I am surely equipped to give that to you.  But… No. For once in my life I’m not going to write a list.

If you want a detailed tourist guide to London, check this and this

If you’re just looking for ‘free things to do in London’ then check this

If you want to know that it’s possible to live in this crazy city on a small income and still be content, and if you want to know what that feels like and looks like, you’re in the right place.

An afternoon at the Imperial War Museum

It is, astonishingly, free to visit the IWM but donations are appreciated.  As we walked around the corner from North Lambeth tube my five year old son started jumping up and down with excitement – ‘Mummy, those are the biggest guns I have EVER seen in my whole life!’.  He was over-awed by the submarines, Spitfire, Sherman Tank, and Polaris missile on display, but gradually his questions became more philosophical, leading up to the real stumper “Why do we have war, Mum?”

IWM scrapbook
My son (and his talented father) made a scrapbook

The museum is certainly more thought-provoking than I expected.  I noticed a group of people collected around a small black object,  shaking their heads with bewilderment as they read the information next to it, and hesitating to move on.  It was the “Little Boy” bomb, the same model as was detonated over Hiroshima.  There is a Holocaust Exhibition at the top of the museum but it is not suitable for children.

A Tibetan Peace Garden, originally opened by the Dalai Lama,  forms part of the beautifully kept gardens around this museum, and there is a park off to the side where you could take a picnic.

After visiting the museum we walked to the river and crossed at Westminster Bridge – my favourite view of London.

Property ladder?

We rent our flat, and it’s tiny.  We’re saving up for a deposit on a place of our own, but that will be tiny too.  That’s central London for you.  Everyone else wants to live here too, and the laws of supply and demand are unforgiving.

Property is an obsession in London, and even those lucky few who own a decent-sized family home worry about keeping up with the giant mortgage.  Or they hanker for that extra step up the ladder which climbs inexorably towards Hampstead Village.  I’m as captivated by the “property porn” online as the next feeble human, but envy is not a good look.  Never mind the property snakes and ladders, I can live like a property millionaire wherever I am, with my three step system for happy small space living:-

1. Have your dreams anyway

I kept daydreaming about a garden, wishing that I could plant herbs and vegetables, imagining myself relaxing outside on a sunny day.  We have a balcony which is half the size of the average kitchen table.  But I thought, why not do it anyway?  So I asked for this book for my birthday, and planted the balcony with herbs, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries, all of which are well-suited to growing in containers.  I killed about half of them, but the half that survived tasted great.

2. Get into minimalism

Not the design trend, the philosophy. I started out by reading Zen Habits then Becoming Minimalist then The Minimalists and now I check about a dozen minimalist blogs for inspiration every week.  Inspired by Dave Bruno’s brilliant 100 thing challenge and  this blog on 28th December 2010 I resolved to have 365 less possessions in one year’s time – by Christmas 2011.   Every Saturday I check around the flat and find seven items that we can either sell, donate or throw out.  Today we’re donating a black bag of kids clothes to charity, giving another bag of kids clothes to friends, and I’ve set aside some plates and cups and a pair of i-pod speakers to put in the next car boot sale we do.  Our flat looks so much better.  Having less stuff means that however small your space is, you can still experience the luxury of space.  Funny how the less you own, the more luxury you enjoy…

3. Go out

There are so many things to do in London, why would you want to stay home anyway?  I love to get out onto the Heath, go to a free talk, or a gallery, or take my son to the park.  And when he’s playing at the park (instead of in that dream garden that lives in my head), he makes friends, or bumps into friends he knows already.  And I see my neighbours walking their dogs or watching their kids play and we have a chat.  Maybe if we lived in that palace in Hampstead I wouldn’t have the same quality of life I do now.

 

Something for the rugrats

Where did all the Aussie families go?  I’ve noticed an Antipodean exodus from London over the past couple of years.  Guess the weather finally got to them…

The British Museum has been filling the cultural deficit with Australian Season which runs until October 2011.  Over half term they’re even keeping the nippers happy with Australian Adventure activities in the Great Court, from 11am to 4pm.  It’s free, just drop in.

The museum runs a mind-boggling mixture of free and paid events and will get its own blog post one of these days.  Or perhaps 67 posts – one for each of the rooms open free to the public stuffed full of unique antiquities and wonders.

After the museum the kids will probably need a good run about outside.  And you might need a break from saying ‘don’t touch that darling you’ll set off the alarms’.  Fear not, Corams Fields is just a short walk away.