Friday, 28 October 2011

The Aldbury Circuit, Part II

In which I manage to make it all the way around the village of Aldbury, enjoy the (possible) last of the sun and ponder elaborate interpretations of In The Night Garden.

Ordnance Survey Map: Explorer 181
Distance: 5 miles approx
Time: 90 minutes (which, considering the last time I tried to do this it took me 75 mins to do half the distance, shows the lack of faffing around in this walk).

Rating: Easy-Moderate Walk

Both The Chap and I were a bit headcoldy, so it seemed a wise move to get us out into the sunshine (while it's still visible!) and get some fresh air into us.

Parking again outside The Greyhound pub, pass the duckpond, cross the road  and head down Trooper Road.  This retraced my steps from the quick exit I made when I was in Aldbury in September. At the end of the road, go through a metal kissing gate and follow the field boundary until you meet and pass through another gate.

Once you have done this, turn right up a gently rising field, again following a field boundary until you pop out onto the road. It is not a difficult stretch of road-work - there's an easy bit of verge you an leap on when cars go by, and you're not on the road for very long, anyway. Shortly up ahead there is a path leading away from the road and up a slope - take this until you reach a cross-roads. At the cross roads turn right along a dirt path, giving you views of gently rolling countryside and sheep. It's the countryside that rolls gently, not the sheep, you understand. Sheep generally do what sheep do, which is stare with the dull-eyed vacancy akin to youths sodcasting on buses.

In the distance, popping up over the trees is the odd green cup on top of the Bridgewater Monument.

Meanwhile, in the 1800s...
"Duke of Bridgewater! How do you want to be remembered?"
"Well, let me think, Carruthers... I built a lot of canals. Don't you think that would help people remember me? There's the name and the canals, they sort of go together..."
"Steering committee isn't too keen on the canal angle. Not with all these rumours of Stephenson's kettle on tracks. We need to think big!"
"Bigger than canals?"
"I think we need something punchier, sir. Something for people to really rally around."
"What do you suggest, Carruthers?"
"I think we should stick a massive green cup on top of a pole, sir!"
"Capital idea! You read my mind!"

As I passed by the sheep, I saw some men walking in the distance, one of whom was in a very jaunty red jumper. I quietly approved that others were taking advantage of the nice day. Carrying on up the path, I lost sight of them and all of a sudden I saw the red-jumpered fellow again, but closer this time. They seemed to be walking round in circles - were they lost? Had they not made offerings to Keith, God of Those With Poor Map-Reading Skills And A Dubious Sense of Direction? Would they like to look at my map? Then, a horrifying thought came to me - maybe these were the murderers my mother had warned me about! That's what they were doing! Walking about, waiting. Waiting to come and get me! Oh, what an impetuous boob I had been!

Then I rounded a corner...

Ritual significance, possibly religious...?

 Or, they could just be golfers.

From here it was a simple case of following the path until reaching the road. You are led along a wooded path down the side of the golf course for the most part. It was one of the last few sunny days we are likely to get this year (although for the past month people have seemed to suck their teeth and say "Well, the weather's going to change at the end of the week..."), so it was nice to be out in it before winter finally appears.

It's a funny old thing, being a parent. You start off with all these rules in your head that you've acquired from somewhere, only to jettison them when you discover the practicalities of the things you'd say you'd never do. I still think it's probably best to avoid Godfrey's Cordial, similar laudanum based soothers or gin (for the baby), but on the less extreme end of baby-calming, I had said I would never use a dummy. I think we had one in use from the end of about the first week when we discovered it worked.
Similarly, television. We lived without a TV for around 3 years in the days before digital streaming onto computers, and now we technically don't have a TV - we watch pretty much everything through the laptop. We like to wag our fingers at the influence of television at a fair few social ills in our house. My child? Pfft! No television until they're at least 3! And then strictly rationed! Like the gin bottle, it was officially marked not for babies.
Until, of course, I discovered the wonderfully soothing effect that In The Night Garden can have on a small, teething child who has been making that UUuuuuhhhh. UuuuuuHHHH. UUuuUUUUuuuHHHH. noise of General Discomfort for, ooo, three hours. UUUuuuuhhh. UuuuhhhHHH. Chewy toys, cucumber, teething gel, going for a walk - none of it worked. UUuuuuUUUHHHH. UUuuuuhhhh. In desperation, I went for the nuclear option; the Ninky Nonk.


Say what you like about In The Night Garden - it works. It is famous for having a slightly soporific affect on children, but I am also interested in the soporific effect it has on grownups - ten minutes of Derek Jacobi talking soothingly and counting Pontypines and I was a lot calmer, as was the baby.
This is not the way to the Garden in the night.
Mention In The Night Garden to parents, and they have a sort of wide-eyed expression of one who has glimpsed Nirvana (unless you're the sort who would like to hiss about how it's rubbish and doesn't teach children how to speak properly. If you'd like to do this, I raise you Bill & Ben The Flowerpot Men, The Clangers and Pingu. I'd also advise you to go away and read this and then come back with a structured argument as to why it's rubbish and then I will listen to what you say. More often than not, the people who do the hissing have never wathed a full episode...). I certainly wouldn't let The Chap watch TV every day, but if he is cranky and any amount of playing, reading, watching the washing machine or going for a walk hasn't worked, a spot of Makka Pakka (OCD or misplaced Christ complex? Parents I have spoken to are divided) works a treat.

Flushed with success as I reached The Greyhound, I decided I had the time, inclination and agreeable baby to keep going, so I decided to complete the circuit following instructions as for The Aldbury Circuit Part I (To be honest, I did do a slight variation where instead of taking the first left after the first benh, I carried straight ahead which cuts out all the uppy-downy business and just pops you straight out onto the road. It should be pretty obvious if you look at a map. I think.).

Passing the duckpond again, The Chap woke up and peered about, but he seemed quite jolly and happy to continue, so I was able to carry on up the hill without having to turn back.

One of the joys of In The Night Garden is the plethora of elaborate interpretations that parents seem to glean from it. Our children just seem to be amused by Upsy Daisy dancing - one friend, however, asserts that the whole of the programme is the fevered fantasy life of Iggle Piggle creating a cast of characters to make him feel less alone as he floats, hopeless and abandoned, upon the winedark sea. For the rest of us, it just seems to pose questions. Is Makka Pakka's OCD under control? No-one needs to wash that many faces and stones in a day. Why has no-one noticed that the driver of the Ninky Nonk appears to be drunk? Who is driving the Ninky Nonk? Why do the Tombliboos hang their trousers on the line without washing them? Are the Pontypines drawing state benefits? Upsy Daisy can inflate her skirt so she shows us her pants ("No better that she ought to be!" cries my husband) before doing a dance. Is this the sort of female role model I should be presenting my son with?!

In short, I enjoy it very much. And as long as I am sitting there with The Chap and chipping in with Derek Jacobi and waving at the Haa Hoos, I don't think it can do that much harm - if I left him on his own watching it while I went away and did the washing up, I wouldn't be so happy with the situation. And anyway, if I did that I wouldn't get to count the Pontypines.

I finished the walk down Trooper Road and back to the car via the stocks and whipping post. I still have a few ideas as to who we could pop in there should Aldbury wish to rejuvenate this historic site...

Things I Learnt

  • When it comes to parenting, never say never. Except, perhaps, when it comes to Godfrey's Cordial.
  • Aldbury is a lot closer to Ashridge than I think it is.
  • Makka pakka akka wakka mikka makka and, indeed, moo.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Dunstable Downs Circular Walk, Via Bison Hill and Whipsnade Tree Cathedral

In which I don't go on the walk I originally intended to do, but have a nice wander round in the sunshine and am generally quite jolly.

Ordnance Survey number: Explorer 181
Distance: 4 miles approx
Time: 90 minutes

Rating: Easy-Moderate (Mostly flat, but map reading skills required. Also contains a few hazardous earth steps down the side of a bank).

My husband is a massive feminist. The F word gets a funny old press - it's got linked to a bit of fundamentalist strain, and fundamentalists of any sort are never a good thing. Most of us just want to have a cup of tea and get on with stuff - extremes are impossible to deal with. But yes, in short, men can be feminists, and I will shortly explain how this made me go all girly and produced what my husband refers to as my "Oh, Mr Darcy!" response.

Autumn has appeared, and there's been a very pleasant bite to the air along with some lovely sunny weather. That, however, was not the reason I went for a walk. The reason was due to an 'accident' with a packet of the new Cadbury's Crunchie biscuits, and I felt the need to burn off the calories.

The walk started at the Chiltern Gateway Centre on Dunstable Downs, where it was a lovely day and people were out flying kites. For a £2 car parking fee (if you're not a National Trust member), there's a shiny Eco Visitor's Centre with little seating areas inside and outside and the ability to get a cup of tea and go to the loo and change your baby's nappy. Not all at once; that would be weird.

Head down from the Visitor's Centre towards an iron lump. It may look like modern art, but it is in fact part of the eco ventilation system for the Visitor's Centre -it does something clever with the winds around the Downs to pull air underground which is then used to heat or cool the building. As rusting iron lumps go I think it's quite nice. There were a lot of rusting iron lumps in the Palace Gardens at Versailles when I was there over the summer, and I didn't like those. Incongrous, rather. I quite liked this one, however. And it's useful, too!

Turn left at the big iron lump and head walk along the clearly marked Icknield Way. All around Whipsnade, there are some really pretty waymarkers that look like they hold giant Fruit Gums with interesting designs stamped into them. It's supposed to be something to do with the history of the place, I think - there's an ammonite on the yellow disc. It's probably the sort of thing that will be dug up thousands of years from now and historians will intone "Ah... Some sort of ritual significance, possibly religious".

 The views are impressive - below the Downs it's incredibly flat and seems to stretch out forever. Not only can you watch sheep, and farmers dealing with their fields far below, but you can also watch gliders being pulled up into the sky and then flying around. It's useful that they go up so high, and my reasons for saying this will become apparant later...

But back to my husband, the enormous feminist. He works in an office with a group of women of a certain age (the sort who can sometimes be uncharitably referred to as 'a coven'), with whom he gets on very well. He's pleasant and well-presented and polite and notices when people have had their hair cut or are wearing new shoes, and the ladies of his office have somewhat adopted him. He went into work to find the following forwarded email had been printed out and left in the middle of the communal table:

New evening classes for men!

All are welcome open to men only

NB: Due to the complexity and level of difficulty, each course will accept a maximum of eight participants each.
Sign up early and get a discount on registration.
The course covers two days, and topics covered in this course include:

Day one

How to fill ice cube trays
Step by step guide with slide presentation
Loo rolls - do they grow on the holders?
Roundtable discussion
Differences between laundry basket & floor
Practising with hamper. Pictures and graphics.
The after dinner dishes & silverware - do they levitate and fly into kitchen sink or dishwasher by themselves?
Debate among a panel of experts.
Loss of virility: losing the remote control to your significant other
Help line and support groups
Learning how to find things, starting with looking in the right place instead of turning the house upside down while screaming.
Open forum

Day two

Empty milk cartons: do they belong in the fridge or the bin?
Group discussion and role play
Health watch - bringing her flowers is not harmful to your health.
Powerpoint presentation
Real men ask for directions when lost
Real life testimonial from the one man who did.
Is it genetically impossible to sit quietly as she parallel parks?
Driving simulation
Living with adults: basic differences between your mother and your wife
Online class and role playing
How to be the ideal shopping companion
Relaxation exercises, meditation and breathing techniques
Remembering birthdays, anniversaries, other important dates and calling when you're going to be late
Bring your calendar or pda to class
Getting over it. Learning how to live with being wrong all the time
Individual counsellors available

Now, I am a fan of women, but this sort of gubbins is unhelpful. When my husband came home and told me about this, I sputtered about how if it had been the other way round, and he was the only woman in an office of men, one would hope this sort of thing would be discouraged by the line manager (just to be clear here, his line manager is a man). It wouldn't be considered acceptable, I opined, finger either waving in the air or tapping firmly on the table. Treat others how you yourself would like to be treated, I pronounced.

"Well, yes," said my husband. "But that's not the reason I don't like it". And then he went on to explain. I'm afraid I liked his explanation so much there may have been some girlish giggling and flapping about.

Because having been faced with the forwarded email on the communal table, he responded by placing the following note next to it:

I find this offensive, and not simply because I am a man. Neither is it as simple as putting the shoe on the other foot and imagining what would happen if an equivalent list of evening courses for women was put on this table. I find this offensive for a different reason.

This is sexist, and it is sexist towards women.

The great strides that have been taken by women into industries, professions and boardrooms necessitate reciprocal strides by men into the domestic sphere. These strides have been taken and are being taken in the face of ridicule from the media and from women collectively seeking solidarity in documents such as this. We find this amusing primarily because a man in a domestic setting is a figure of fun. This is part of the backlash against women's liberation, in which this document is taking an active and self-defeating part. The author, in seeking to deny the cultural acceptability of a man who is capable around the house, is effectively policing the borders of women's own domestic drudgery.

I challenge this, and invite you to do the same.

I am so his fangirl.

Leaving the shameless fawning over my husband where it is, let me distract you with large bovine creatures. Bison, to be exact; this indicated that I was approaching the boundary of Whipsnade Zoo. I tried to take a picture, but it was pretty rubbish. Bison are awfully big; do go and have a look.

Turn left, continuing to follow the clearly marked Icknield Way  - it's a really obvious path between two hedgerows. The sun shone prettily through another glass waymarker, and I liked the way somone had left stones on top of it like an offering (possibly ritual significance?), so - not expecting to see it again - I took a picture.

I passed one turning onto a footpath on my left, and continued forward until another left hand turn leads you towards Whipsnade Tree Cathedral (indicating worship of nature Gods, I hear future archaeologists declaim). There's quite a narrow gap you have to wiggle through (well, you do if you've got a baby on your front and a knapsack on your back) before you pass through a field auditioning for 'Pastoral Idyll'. At the corner of this field you go into the back gate of Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, which is one of those places we've often threatened to go to, but never quite made it there. I didn't quite make it there this time, either, but it does look very nice.

Whipsnade Tree Cathedral

Follow the boundary until you pass the obelisk and the gate, and then immediately almost double back on yourself. You follow the path until you pop out onto a single-lane white road, cross over and bear right into the woodland strip of Sallowsprings Nature Reserve.

It was at this point I went wrong. I thought I had gone further than I had done, and thought a mast had been removed when I suspect it was there all along - I just never found it. Confused as to where exactly I was now, I did not do what common sense dictates. I knew vaguely where I was, so what I should have done was - wait for it - looked at the map. I should have stopped and had a good look. Instead, I did what I usually do when I feel a bit lost - got to a signpost and followed the path I recognised a name for. I knew I was on the Chiltern Way, so it couldn't be all that bad. The Chap had been fed in the last hour and was still napping in his carrier, and if the worst came to the worst it would be an hour to retrace my steps to the beginning, and a spell of bandaging of my wounded ego.

Looking back on The Field Of Confusion

Following signs for the Chiltern Way I turned left through the Field Of Confusion. My sense of direction is bad, and so I was pretty disoriented, but I sort of knew the  area I was in, so it wasn't a cause for panic. I was aware that the chances of me getting to my husband to pick him up from work at the time we had arranged was now unlikely, so I phoned him with the merry cry of 'It's fine! I know vaguely where I am! I'm still on top of a Down!". I'm sure this filled him with confidence.

Mercifully, however, while I was on the phone a glider rose up into the air to my right. Having seen the gliders earlier and knowing where they were coming from, my sense of direction was restored, and I just needed to get over there somehow.

At the end of the field there were some hazardous earth steps down to a strangely familiar path. I turned right, heading in the direction of the glider. My suspicions of where I was were confirmed when next to the path ahead of me I saw...

I thought the path seemed familiar. Maybe the stones on top were an offering after all - to the God of Those With Poor Map Reading Skills And A Dubious Sense of Direction, perhaps. We'll call him Keith. Thank you, Keith, God of Those With Poor Map Reading Skills And  A Dubious Sense of Direction!

I got to have another look at the bison (really very big), and retraced my steps, enjoying a nice view of the Down as it heads towards Dunstable. I had been facing the other way the first time, and so had failed to appreciate it.

It was not a long journey back to the Visitor's Centre and the car, and so despite the unintended route my walk had taken, it all turned out rather well. I was even only 15 minutes late picking up my husband from work. Thanks for that, Keith.

Things I Learnt
  • The Chiltern Gateway Centre is a building that breathes. It does something terribly clever with air underground, that works as both cooling and heating, and when the building gets too hot, windows by the roof automatically open and let hot air rush out. Very clever!
  • When I find myself disorientated, I should not hare off in the direction of the nearest signpost with a vaguely recognisable name. I should slow down and take a good long look at the map. That's what it's there for.
  • You can look at anything and declare that it may have ritual significance, possibly religious.

The chap chills out in his car seat while waiting
for me to take my boots off.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Sloe, Sloe, Quick-Quick...

A playdate fell through this week, so I decided to spend the time I would have been drinking tea on another beverage... sloe gin.

I have tried in the past for fruit liquers, although this is my first foray into sloes. I have a friend who is able to produce marvellous, toothsome, fruity beverages; my efforts usually have the tang of raw ethanol with a hint of fruit.

Still, this doesn't put me off. Armed with a recipe I got from the internet, I went a-foraging in the hedgerows and emerged with a small bag of sloes.

Day One


150g sloes
75g caster sugar
35cl gin

  • Prick sloes with a pin
  • Put sloes, sugar and gin in sterilised jar.
  • Shake jar, then place in babyproof cupboard.
  • Wait.

It'll take ages for anything to happen, I thought. Like the whole thing is going to go purple overnight? P'ctha!

Day Two - The whole thing went purple overnight.

Still got to wait until Christmas to drink it, though...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Sing Me A Song

I went to story time at the local library this afternoon, and had a realisation - I had never before sung my son Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Or indeed, Baa Baa Black Sheep. Or any 'classic' nursery rhyme. We enjoy some baby songs that have actions (Row Row Row Your Boat, Wind Your Bobbin Up, I Had a Little Turtle), but the 'obvious' ones have never seemed obvious.

What I do sing him most, however, are songs I know the words to (and that I can sing. Immigrant Song or Killing In The Name isn't going to cut it here).

So the songs I can sing range from selections from the religious such as Down In The River To Pray ( I also extend it with 'O, babies' and 'O, kittens' if he's just dozing off but not quite asleep yet), to the popular like Bob Dylan or Blur, to the traditional (although I don't know the second verse because as a child I never liked the cat dying) to downright inappropriate songs about

Alcoholism and Adultery

Shooting Mexican Revolutionaries

and singing the lyrics of Anarchy In The UK to the tune of Edelweiss.

But not once did I ever think to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Curious...

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Bloombsbury Literary Tour

In which I walk with The Chap's Godmother from Tottenham Court Road to The Lamb in Bloomsbury via a pretty circuitous route, we think about heroes - super and otherwise - and I consider what people say and what I hear.

Ordnance Survey Map: None Used. We used this instead.
Time: 2 hours (including beer & a sausage sandwich)

Rating: Easy

My mother is worried about me wandering round the countryside and being stabbed by a loony. Contrary fellow that I am, therefore, I decided to go to London, where the odds of loony-stabbage are really an awful lot higher than, say, halfway up a Chiltern.

A small note of seriousness before I work up to a picture of a massive statue of a gay icon - look at this. This is the access at my local station to the platforms. They are all like this, and I have yet to discover any lifts. I have the power of my legs and a sling to help me access the train, but people with prams, cat-appreciating, whiskey-drinking, book-writing bearded philosophers whom I once vaguely assaulted with absinthe, people on crutches or with other mobility difficulties, old people, people in fabulous shoes on icy days and daleks (among but a few groups I could mention) are unable to gain full access to the platforms. I'm sure if I rang up three weeks in advance they would work something out for me (probably with the cry of  'go to another station!'), but we seem keen to spend £30 billion on high speed trains to places we can already get to, yet access to our stations is currently pretty poor. I'm just saying.

The Chap's Godmother has the good grace to live in central London (and indeed has yet to be stabbed herself), so sporting a brace of degrees in Eng Lit we decided to enjoy a walk I found here, which takes you on a literary tour of Bloomsbury. I won't go into the directions we took too much, because we just followed the instructions until we got to the pub, and then we gave up. We didn't take too similar an approach to our degrees, I must add, although pubs did occasionally feature.
We started where all great Literary Tours must start - below a giant, golden statue of Freddie Mercury. Allegedly we were supposed to be starting at Tottenham Court Road, but I think we all know the truth: enormous gold Freddie is where it's at.

My friend has the sort of job that steals her weekends to hide in monster caves and occasionally dress up as the Very Hungry Caterpillar. At the moment, she's thinking about superheroes. Now, I think our preferences for genres  can easily be illustrated by one conversation that we had in the third year of our degrees:

"Bye!" she said. "I'm off to look at genre in The Merchant's Tale!"
"Bye!" I said. "I'm off to watch The Matrix!"

It was, I assure you, part of a module charting SF from Frankenstein to Cyberpunk - I wasn't just off on a jolly. Honest.

So yes, I very much feel she has alighted upon my specialist subject; it's not really her sort of thing, regardless of the fact she's currently cross-stitching a dalek.

Our first stop after Freddie was Bedford Square, where the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used to hang out. It is allegedly the last complete Georgian square in London, despite being a circle.

For me, the key to superheroes - and all sciencey type fiction in general – is that they deal with what we are worried about in the present, even if the ideas or the story were had or set in the past. Superheroes are not about leaping about with pants on the outside; they are therapy. They help us deal with problems sideways on, rather than having to look them in the face, rather like the way I continue to argue that Alien (1979) is about fear of childbirth and motherhood, and not actually about aliens at all (more on that at a later date, I imagine).

Gower Street
Depending on who you are, you can view Freddie Mercury, The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood or any of the people on our walk as heroes, but what is the difference between a hero and a superhero? You can't just do things better than everyone else - Sherlock Holmes is better at deduction than anyone else, but he isn't a superhero. We concluded that the key to superheroes is the concept of transformation of some sort, usually signified by a costume.

Passing by the street in which Darwin used to live, I wondered if maybe it would have been helpful if I could have had some sort of costume when I became a parent, other than the charming embroidery in my nethers. I'm not asking much - a cape would do. Maybe some sort of headgear. Maybe if you get some sort of badge or spangly tights when you are crawling from your bed at 3am for the fourth time that night you might feel a little bit better about it. Not a lot, but maybe some form of glittery accessory might be nice to acknowledge that what you're doing is really bloody hard work.

After Bedford Square, we passed by The Ministry of Truth (or the University of London Senate House, inspiration George Orwell's MiniTrue in 1984).

In 1984, Winston Smith spends his time rewriting news stories to fit in with the current political agenda. Annoyingly, I appear to be doing battle with my very own Ministry at the moment. I have yet to ascertain exactly what its agenda is, but it seems awfully keen on taking what people say to me and rewriting it to make me feel rubbish.

What people say:

What I hear:

Your husband is lovely. You're so lucky.
You're punching a bit above you weight there, darling.

Your baby: he's so good, isn't he?
Why aren't you coping with this better? Look at your baby, he's really good, there are ones so much worse out there. What are you complaining about?

Up three times last night? HA! You should have had my baby.
You're rubbish at this. That baby you've got is easy, and you can't even manage that one.

He's really good looking, your husband, isn't he?

And what's he doing with you, you moose?
I don't know where you find the time.

You neglectful slattern!

Indeed, for many years my husband has been banned from using the phrase 'You have a wonderful personality', because all I hear is the silent addendum 'Which is handy, looking at the state of you.'.

It's complete tosh - people are just trying to be nice. They are saying nice things. This is nice. But why does it sometimes seem hard to take things at face value? I know I'm not the only person who does this. I have friends who hear "He's into everything, your son, isn't he?" as They will reintroduce the ASBO specifically for your child; a fellow baby-led-weaner  hears "Not too fussed about the baby-grows, then!" as I will report your filth to the nearest Health Visitor at the earliest opportunity. I'm not sure why we do this; I'm not sure what purpose it serves, other than to make ourselves miserable. I might be tempted to point a bony finger at the media and the curse of rolling news - we've got to keep the channel full, so let's bang out another story about how older mothers/the unemployed/cheesy wotsits/self esteem issues cause cancer/infertility/lowering of house prices/illegal immigrants/green jellybeans & acne. You have 1000 days to really mess up your child! Make a hash of it now they will be miserable for evaaahhhhhhh! Choosing a nursery or pre-school appears to have been ramped up to levels on a par to an Oxbridge interview; just chill out, people. Chill out.

No.46 Gordon Square
On the subject of misery, someone who seemed keen on lavish suffering - not only of herself, but on inflicting it on others by writing books (both The Godmother and I are united in the fact that we were effectively tortured with To The Lighthouse during our degrees) was Virginia Woolf. We took a detour around Gordon Square to find the house she lived in before she was married.

There are some things I hear a lot, however, that I am able to take as they're intended - wearing a sling, I get a lot of "Doesn't that hurt your back?" from women, and "That looks cosy." variants from men (most of whom I imagine long to have nothing more to do than be strapped to the bosom of a large woman and carted about). I take both of these comments to mean exactly what they say, although some of my baby-wearing friends hear the same responses differently. Mind you, one friend was upbraided by a neighbour for babywearing her son because 'he'll grow up clingy and never learn to walk'. The child, of course, has shown the truth in this woman's comments by abandoning his mother the moment they enter a baby group and toddling about.

The statue of Ghandi in the Peace Garden at Tavistock Square was bedecked in flowers, probably because it was a few days after his birthday.

It's all about interpretations, I think - I'm sure some people out there can mutter negatively about Ghandi or badgers or babywearing or artichokes or whatever. It seems too easy to put a negative side on things when you start thinking about it, which is why I need to winkle out these behaviours with a special pin, because frankly life is too short for all the mithering. And yes, Ms Woolf, I'm looking at you, too. Although the advice , in your case, may be a touch late.

 After Ghandi it was on to Woburn Walk, which is in some way connected to W.B. Yeats (and the sort of odd cult the aforementioned cat-appreciating philosopher might know about), and is oddly paved and treed and quaint and doesn't look very Londony at all.

We didn't make it all the way back to Tottenham Court Road, but instead stopped a haunt of Dylan Thomas ("Was he still under the table?" my father asked later. If he was, he has been peppered with bits of discaded apple rice cake, I fear). The Lamb (Youngs) has the triple virtues of being a proper pub serving proper beer and not looking properly horrified when you march in with a baby. The Godmother had a pint of T.E.A. (Hogs Back [sic]), I had a half of Rucking Mole (Moles), and the chap had a sippy cup of tap water and part of  my sausage sandwich. It may look like we were just having a nice time, but no - this was a careful lesson on gender stereotyping, showing that a girl can order a pint or a half as she chooses. That was exactly it. We didn't enjoy the beer at all. I rather hope that my son will grow up and be happy to order a half in a pub if that's what he wants; I used to go out with some ne'erdowell who would order a half but then tip it quickly into his pint glass, for fear that being seen drinking from a smaller glass would make him appear gay. Because that's what makes you gay; drinking half pints. Oh yes. Enormous golden statues of Freddie Mercury would agree, I'm sure.

Moral guardianship!

We could have gone and finished the walk as indicated on the website, but I needed to get the last off-peak train and so we cut it short and went back to The Godmother's flat. A pleasant afternoon, well spent, and not one of us was stabbed. All in all, a good day.

Things I Learnt

  • My head can interpret perfectly innocent comments as complete tosh.
  • I need to catch my head in the process of turning perfectly innocent comments into complete tosh so I can discourage it from its tosh-turn-innery.
  • The last complete Georgian square in London is a circle, and none of us got stabbed in or around it.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion

I'm on Offbeat Mama as a Guestpost this week! If you came here from there, hi - you could click on the link above and forever be trapped in a vortex of clicky links between me here and me there... But you have better things to do, I hope.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Walton-On-The-Naze Pier to Frinton-On-Sea (Circular Walk)

In which I walk from Walton Pier to Frinton-on-Sea, am generally impressed by the British ability to pile onto the seaside at any given notice, and consider it high time to reclaim Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.

Ordnance Survey Number: Explorer 184
Distance: 4 miles approx

Time: 1 hour 40  mins

Rating: Easy

Struck by an unseasonably warm October weekend, we did what a large section of the Great British public also appeared to do - we headed to the beach. The ability of the nation to drop everything, tear off their clothes and lie, gently perspiring, in even the mildest patch of sunshine is testament to how little we actually see any days of good-quality sun. Those of us on the Essex coast on the first week of October 2011 were not disappointed.

After the nappy debacle of The Aldbury Circuit last week, I was very keen on rebuilding my confidence with a walk with conveniently placed baby-change, which may in some way suggest why this walk takes you past not only a pretty part of the Essex coastline, but also a minimum of four public toilets.

The Chap is not amused.
Composure recovered.
The only downsides - if you are a baby - is that a) you can get too hot, and b) your parents insist on slathering you in sun cream. This is an enterprise that can take up to three full-grown adults - two to rub the cream in, and one to take the photos.

However, all was quickly forgiven, and the chap was stowed in the sling for his trip along the coast. This walk starts at the glamorous location of Walton Pier, over the entrance of which is emblazoned the legend 'The Happiest Sound in All The World is That Of Children's Laughter'. I find the whole place oddly menacing.

Stand facing the classic beauty of the pier (the charm of which is certainly improved now the letter A has disappeared, possibly stolen by Nathaniel Hawthorne fans), and then turn right towards the promenade and the beach huts.

This is a nice, flat, easy walk route that is good for prams, although you may have to dodge the odd family sitting on plastic chairs below their beach hut. One of the interesting things about walking from Walton to Frinton is seeing the change in the huts - Walton is definitely more brightly coloured, gaudier, and often in multiple rows. Frinton, on the other hand, is more restrained - huts may be blue, white or unpainted, because That's Just The Way Things Are Done. It's Frinton, darling. It's a place where currently, and without irony, there is a restaurant calling itself The Last Viceroy Of British India. That sort of bear.

The beach and serried ranks of beach huts at Walton.

The first half of this walk is very simple - you walk from the Walton end of the prom to where it stops in Frinton. The weather was weirdly better than it had been when we were last here in July, where the chap ended the day wrapped up in all sorts of woolly goodies to keep him warm.

Today, however, was sunny and lovely, and the joy of the sling is that you have hands free to enjoy a rum & raisin icecream - always helpful to the thought processes, I find. I've recently been reading the 'Wild & Wanton' edition of Pride and Prejudice, which advertised itself as Austen's work with some added Hot Bennet Action, but has sadly turned out to be rubbish - Lydia getting occasionally frisky and a few desultory Mr Darcy masturbation scenes doesn't really classify as Wild & Wanton in my book, but then again it all depends on your viewpoint. If you want an alternative P & P, I'd advise you strongly to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which opens  with the sentence 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains', and only gets more pleasing as it goes along.

Heading towards Frinton
Anyway, what Michelle M Pillow's atrocious attempt at gilding Austen's lily has done is made me look at the original and really appreciate the restraint of the original prose. But also on this reading I have been drawn towards the character of Mrs Bennet. For me, Alison Steadman's performance in the 1996 BBC production (and Colin Firth's big break in his lovely wet shirt) really nailed Mrs Bennet - shrieky, ludicrous, overbearing. Indeed, Austen herself is not a fan of the character, going as far to describe her as 'a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper'; and that's when she's feeling generous. But now with one baby giving me cause to clutch at my nightgown and demand that someone takes interest in the protection of my nerves, I begin to feel that Mrs Bennet has maybe been unjustly dealt with.

The woman has had 5 babies, and as Lady Catherine de Bourgh stresses, had no governess or staff to help in the raising of them. I've only got one baby, and some days I feel like my grip on sanity is pretty wafer thin. Not only that, but the baby I have was conceived by choice when I felt I was ready for it (or as ready as I'd ever be) - I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be relentlessly pregnant with the only choice of guaranteed non-conception being to refuse sex, and in doing so risk your husband going out to prostitutes and coming home to infect you with something horrific. Combine that with high mortality rates, and it's a wonder any woman managed to stay sane.

Maybe she would have found her nerves more easily dealt with if they'd all taken a carriage to Frinton beach, where some impressive fort building can be got underway. The endeavour below had all been achieved by midday, and as you can see from the gentleman in the middle left of the picture, Phase 2 of this imposing enterprise appeared to involve tunnelling. All very impressive.

Sterling work, gentlemen.

However, Mr Bennet refuses to go to fashionable Brighton, much less Frinton, so there's no joy for Mrs Bennet on that front. Moreover, the five babies she has all turn out to be girls, leaving her in very real danger of being out on her ear when her husband dies. Jane Austen sets Mrs Bennet up to be ridiculed for her relentless banging on about the estate being entailed away to Mr Collins, but say Mr Bennet died in Chapter 27 - what would happen to the family then? If Mrs Bennet's brother Mr Gardiner was not kind to her, then she would be a gentlewoman with no house, no home, nowhere to go, no staff to look after her. It was very important if you were part of the gentry to uphold those ideals, so there's little likelihood of her knowing how to make her own cup of tea, let alone cook or earn a wage. The chances are that if Mr Bennet did die before one of her daughters married 'well', it's a long slow slide to poverty, prostitution and death. I rather think that would pray on your mind. When Lydia doesn't quite elope with Wickham, Mrs Bennet complains of 'such flutterings, all over me, such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night or by day'. Knowing that your daughter eloping seriously affects the chances of your other daughters making 'good' marriages probably would  lead you to panic attacks, because you know what is coming to you is a pretty poor old age.
The Greensward, Frinton-on-Sea
By now we had reached the end of the prom - you can choose either to go up a set of annoyingly shallow (and slightly uneven) steps or up a ramp to the Greensward and the Frinton public toilets - now is your time if the baby needs changing. The chap, of course, didn't; he likes to save his epic nappies for more awkward occasions.

Once you reach the Greensward, turn right and head back towards Walton Pier, visible in the distance (or, if you have had enough, you can head straight up Connaught Avenue in the direction of the station and a train back to Walton). Either route, you can feel a little unnerved when your son starts babbling at passers-by - it would be all very cute and lovely if the syllable he hadn't recently started on wasn't "Die! Die! Die! Die!".

So why does Austen set Mrs Bennet up as a character for ridicule? In many ways, she probably is a vain and silly woman. She doesn't seem to exist as a holy fool to make some noble pronouncement and redeem herself - she's silly at the start, and silly still by the end. The only thing she does achieve is that she atually does have three out of five daughters married before the year ends - she is, in fact, wholly succesful in her aims, and Jane and Mr Bingley's relationship does indeed 'throw the girls into the path of other rich men. '. Austen may set out to sneer at her, but Mrs Bennet is a wholly succesful product of her time - society says she must get daughters married off and protect her future, and so she does. Of course, you can argue that Jane and Elizabeth married despite Mrs Bennet's efforts, and poor old Lydia is probably going to die in penury or from syphilis due to her husband's gaming and whoring - if childbirth doesn't get her, of course. But whatever the argument, in the end it's all semantics: society says she needs to marry her daughters 'well', and she does it. She is, in that respect, made of win.
The beach and Walton Pier from the Greensward

My suspicion is that Jane Austen saw these women in real life and despised them, despised their witterings and their attacks of nerves. However, she herself never married, never had to deal with the inevitability of a pregnancy that could lead to her own death in childbirth, and, if you survived, having to worry about the death of your own child. Doing that five times, combined with the threat of having your entire life being taken away from you upon the death of your husband, I think would leave you somewhat stressed. Before I had a child I was completely on the side of the team that claims the woman is a fool. Now, however, I think there is space for Mrs Bennet to be reclaimed. She is loud and overdramatic, but is this not a coping strategy she has developed in a house where there are five children all clamouring for her time, and a husband who disappears off to his library every chance he gets? Is it so far to imagine that all her attacks of nerves she has are symptoms of a genuine distress - the fear of being left to fend for herself and five daughters when you have little ot no money or means to support yourselves? I still wouldn't want to find myself trapped in the kitchen with her at a party, but I think that Mrs Bennet may not be as unreasonable and ridiculous as Austen appears to want us to think.

Keep going past the marker for fallen policeman Brian 'Bill' Bishop until you reach the end of the Greensward. It finishes in a little dirt path that leads you onto a tarmaced walk. You can turn left up this walk and take the pavements of Woodbury Way, and then take the first left down Southview Drive (good if it's hot and you would like some shade for a little bit), or you can turn right and head down the walk and then take the first left that will lead to a grassier route past the caravan park. Either way, you will appear back on the front, and take a paved path past the backs of some houses. You will shortly come to a gate - pass through this onto Southcliffe, straight on to Woodbery Way for a hundred metres of so, then bear right all the way down The Parade until you find yourself back where you started.

It's all very pretty, really. I love Frinton and its excessive primness - indeed, I urge you to pick up a copy of The Frinton and Walton Gazette, which is a publication that fills me with inexplicable joy. It is cover to cover mutterings over goings-on in Clacton and Jaywick, the people of Walton wagging fingers at Frinton's nimbyism and Frinton hissing back 'but not INSIDE the gates!'. I have a great fondness for it. And everything looks a bit better when the sun is shining - except, perhaps, Walton Pier.

Things I Learnt
  • As noted, babywearing leaves you free to enjoy a seaside icecream as you walk - a previously unconsidered advantage over prams, which I just can't steer one handed.
  • Despite a reputation for restraint, the Great British public need only a mild glimmer of a nice day before we all run to the beach and strip off.
  • My son is like a canary - wide awake one minute, but cover him over with his hood and he'll be asleep in seconds.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


I got an email. It starts like this:

"Why hello there, and thanks so much for submitting your story to Offbeat Mama! I just wanted to let you know that your guest post will be published on Offbeat I will follow-up with you once I have a definite date and time for the post."

I am very excited.