Friday, 27 January 2012

A slightly Alan Moore themed mini-walk from the Bank of England to the Tate Modern via St Paul's

In which we don't so much do a proper walk/hike but instead take a stroll through London, have a look at the Occupy protest outside St Pauls and play a spot-the-Alan-Moore reference in the places we walk throungh.

Map: Any cheap map of Central London will do. I think ours is a Collins pocket map we bought in Euston or similar at some point.
Distance: 1 mile
Time: 40 mins (includes time for peering about the Occupy site and making pretentious observations in the Tate Modern)

Rating: Easy

I find it difficult to talk about how much I like Alan Moore as I writer, because I like his work so much I tend to go purple in the face and splutter, and so I don't tend to put it in a good light. In my youth, I had read some comics - The Crow, for example, and 300. But I never really understood where the phrase 'graphic novel' came from. Until, however, I picked up a copy of Watchmen at the local library and found myself waving it at my husband with the cry of 'it's a book, a proper book, except its got pictures'! The thing I like about Moore's work is that the characters, whether in Victorian London or pre-First World War Austria or 1980s New York, is that they are all completely realised with complex psychologies and motivations in a way you don't get with many conventional books, let alone the one-dimensionality of a comic. He's really thought about what it is he's doing. I am quite evangelical on the subject.

Starting at Exit 2 of Bank tube station, come up out of the underground (which you can do with ease with your child in a sling. I wouldn't want to try it with a pram, but I know people do manage it). Turn left and admire the 18th Century architectural cake of the Bank of England building. Now, I am almost certain that the Bank of England is featured in From Hell - possibly in relation to its similarity with St George's Church in Bloomsbury - which is why we started the walk here, but I have lent my copy to The Godfather (like all evangelists, I find myself doorstepping people with literature. In the case of From Hell, it's just a  little bit bigger than a pamphlet.) so it's hard for me to check. It's built in what I will politely refer to here as the 'Foxtrot Off' style of architecture, all Neo-classical Corinthian Columns and big old chunks of stone.

Turn away from the Bank of England and cross over Princes' Street at the cross roads, and take the next right down the charmingly named 'Poultry'. Not Poultry Street, not Poultry Way, not Poultry Place - Poultry. No messing around with what used they used to do here, then. And, if nothing else, it gives you space to enjoy a childish giggle at whether or not 'Poultry Retail and Food Outlets'  is a retail and food outlet selling only poultry based products, or if I have found the place Nic's chickens  have been trying to get to every time they break out. All they've been wanting is a little shopping break to the Capital, obviously!

(A vague aside, but many streets in London bear names that suggest their previous usage. Poultry is pretty obvious, and Cheapside is a reference to the markets that were once in the area ('cheap' having mutated in meaning to now mean 'inexpensive', but it used to refer to a market). Not far from both Poultry and Cheapside is the now seemingly innocuous-sounding Grape Lane, but if you wish to read about fruity words & rude activities, I direct you to Wikipedia to enlighten you about its history.)

St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside
designed by Christopher Wren
Poultry quickly becomes Cheapside, on which you can see St Mary-le-Bow church, which my husband waved a finger at and declared 'surely that's a Hawksmoor, look, it's got a bloody great obelisk on the top'. Later investigation has proved him to sort of be right - St Mary-le-Bow church was designed by Christopher Wren, for whom Hawksmoor worked as an apprentice.

It is definitely my intention to copy the tour of Hawksmoor Churches using the route laid out in Chapter 4 of From Hell. It's on my list of Things To Do, as is walking full the length of the Blackpool Illuminations at some point. Whether or not there are hints of black magic and child sacrifice on both walks as yet remain to be seen.

Not far after St Mary-le-Bow, the road opens up to reveal the massive bulk of St Paul's Cathedral. This is the denouement of the Hawksmoor churches tour in From Hell, and is used symbolically to depict the corruption which is seen to be existing within the very heart of the establishment. It's also a large and impressive church without ponderings as to whether it is or not at the centre of an occult conspiracy. Cross the two roads between you and the Cathedral, and follow the path going down the right hand side of the building.

St Paul's Cathedral
For those interested in the history of St Paul's, you can find a brief summary on the cathedral's website. We didn't go in on this visit, although both me & ChapDad have been there before. I went on one of the jaunts that a friend and I used to do in summers around our sixth form year with her German pen pal. It was only years later I thought what mischief we could have been raising in the capital - illicit drinking, nightclubs, ne'erdowells... what we actually did was wander round museums and take in a show each year. My teenage years were nothing if not rock n roll.

The reason we went on this occasion was to have a look at the Occupy London Protest. Coming round the side of the church we were met with a line of tents a few rows deep, each tent kept off the floor by pallets to keep the occupiers warm overnight. It all seemed quiet and rather tidy. We peered at tents from a distance, although were not lured by the offer of free tea from one of the tents. There were placards out asking for things to help support the camp (gaffer tape, cooked meat, tinned veg & hummus was high on the agenda, it seemed), and it all seemed clean, tidy and not matching with the accusation of the Occupy movement being "nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness". Some stallholder did shout out at our baby about being cute and seeing him later, but I don't think rape or thievery was on his mind when he did so. Maybe they leave the louting and unruliness til later, but The Godmother had said she'd been in the evening and they were all outside their tents strumming tune; as she observed, there's only so much damage one can do with an acoustic guitar.

The quote about 'louts, thieves and rapists' comes from Frank Miller, who, like Alan Moore, also writes comics (most notably Batman: The Dark Night Returns and 300). Alan Moore is not his fan (indeed, Alan Moore is not a fan of Batman, despite the copy of his The Killing Joke Batman story that I have on my shelf. More often than not Moore trots out something similar to the phrase "most of us, if our parents were killed when we were little, would not become a bat-themed costumed vigilante; that’s a bit mental" he uses in this interview on Youtube.). They had quite a bit of spat online and in the papers in December 2011 in which Alan Moore described Miller's work as "unreconstructed misogyny..wildly ahistoric, homophobic and just completely misguided. I think that there has probably been a rather unpleasant sensibility apparent in Frank Miller's work for quite a long time.". Alan Moore, however, supports the Occupy movement, and in the copy of the Occupy Times we got he has written an article entitled On Waiving Rules and Ruling Waves, which in his characteristic style employs paragraphs such as:

 'A wave, like a 300lb gorilla, goes exactly where it wants. If one is bearing down on you then hurriedly-concocted legislation ordering it to cease or orchestrated tabloid disapproval, realistically, aren't really going to make a lot of difference to it. The same goes for pepper spray and water cannons. While these might be temporarily effective in dispelling some localised spillage of dissent or scattering some protesters it should be recalled that people aren't the wave itself but the medium it moves through. Suppressing individuals does nothing to address the much more serious problem of the motivating seismic force behind them, which is historically irresistible and will not be denied'.
The Occupied Times of London, Issue 9, 20th Jan 2012, page 12

Which is all very well and encouraging to the protesters, but smacks a little of Dulce Et Decorum Est to me...

Having kept a wary distance from the tents, and had been a bit reticent to go in any of them (why? I don't know.). One tent, however, did suck me through its door...

Detail from side of the Info Tent
at Occupy London
Honestly, if a small, second hand bookshop were tidily tucked just inside the gates of Hell, I would find myself accidentally falling in 'just to have a look'. Now I think about it, Hell's Own Bookshop would either be a cracking place of banned juiciness or full of foxed copies of Heart of Darkness, Pamela and Domby & Son.

I was rather disappointed by the offerings from Occupy London's info tent. Occupy Wall Street apparently had an astonishing array of books in their library before many of them were allegedly thrown in the bin. Disappointingly, there were a few grey & white misery memoirs, and some pink and mint green covered chick lit, but nothing inspiring. Maybe this would also be the contents of the Bookshop Inside the Gates of Hell - a dispiritingly small selection of nothing much. Pity, really.

Front of the Info Tent at Occupy London
At the front of the tent, next to the legend 'Caring is everyone's business. Our presence here expresses our concern for global economics and social justice' and the picture of Ghandi is the other link to Alan Moore as we stood outside St Paul's - there's a poster for Occupy Oil and bearing the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta.

(Some quick background - V for Vendetta is set, so the back of my copy says 'set in an imagined future England [when 1998 was the future] that has given itself over to facism', and in it a self-proclaimed but unknown anarchist fights against the establishment. If you've ever seen the Princess Bride, the theory of V is similar to that of the Dread Pirate Roberts - as V wears a mask, you never know who he/she is, and therefore anybody - or everybody- can be V)

Since V for Vendetta was made into a rather dismal 2006 film, Time Warner have been selling the masks which were then picked up by the hacker movement Anonymous, which has pleased Alan Moore but Time Warner have remained quiet about their association with rogue hacktivism. They're still selling the masks, though. It's a nice little money spinner.

Either way, the V mask was being used on the Occupy Oil posters as well as being worn by a number of people wandering round the Occupy site. I've read the book, and I know the theory, but still a person in a mask is a threatening thing, for all your clean and tidy site, your tent libraries and your free paper. That being said, a person in a mask is a threatening thing until they wander over to the Hare Krishna lunch chap, acquire a plate of pasta and then push their masks onto their heads to eat it. Then they're just a load of people eating lunch.

V for... the queue for lunch?

Hare Krishna monk in Adidas trainers
serves lunch to a the Vs

The Occupy encampment
outside the front of St Paul's Cathedral
 Having nosed enough around the Occupy site, we turned our backs on St Paul's and headed across the road to Godliman Street and then onwards to the Millennium Bridge. Just before you go on to the bridge, it's always worth a look back to have another view of St Paul's towering above you. 
That done, we wandered across the Millennium Bridge, pausing in the middle to look across to London and Tower Bridges (a similar view, from a lower viewpoint and with more 'red muck' in the Thames can be found in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume II Chapter 6). As I stopped to take the picture, I heard a father taking the time to educate his son on the finer points of architecture. "You see that building?" he said ."What is it, Daddy?" his son replied. Without hesitation, his father answered"It's glass. It's called The Shard. It's rubbish.". "Yeah." said his son. "It's rubbish.". We have all been told, it seems.
Having crossed the bridge, we then ended our walk in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. As far as I know, this has no link to the works of Alan Moore - we just went there because I like to look at the exhibitions. On show at the time of our visit was FILM by Tacita Dean, which projected 35mm film onto a 13 metre white monolith at the end of the Turbine Hall.

It wasn't really my thing, to be honest. My top three exhibitions in the Turbine Hall so far have been Olaf Eliasson's 2003/4 The Weather Project (a huge sun at one end of the hall and vast mirrors on the ceiling. The hall was made slightly humid, and the yellow lamps in the sun played funny tricks on your eyes that made you see in black and white), Carsten Holler's 2006/7 Slides (fantastic fun for a Christmas trip - timed tickets allowed you to have a go on water-shoot type slides from various floors of the Tate down the Turbine Hall. I'm not sure what it said about art, but it was fun) and Doris Salcedo's 2007/8 Shibboleth (an enormous crack in the floor running the length of the hall). Notable mention should also be given to Louise Bourgeois' Maman, which as a huge and somewhat menacing spider said something about motherhood that was a refreshing change from pastels and cupcakes.

On the whole, it was a nice little wander. We got to see some interesting things, have a bit of a think, and the Chap was entertained by tall buildings. Although it does mean he leans backwards out of his sling at quite an alarming angle.

Things I Learnt

Revolutionary Crossword in the Occupy Times
  • We were delighted to discover that the Occupy Times runs a Revolutionary Crossword (16 Down - Month of the Bolshevik Revolution. (7) 20 Across - Untamed feline withholds labour (4, 3, 6)). I love the thought behind that - we're going to smash the system! But first - word puzzles! Why not while away your hours as you wait for the downfall of Western capitalism with a crossword, eh?

  • Inspired by the visit to Occupy to read V for Vendetta again, I found myself googling the Violet Carson rose... to find that Violet Carson was the actress who played Ena Sharples in the soap opera Coronation Street. There's a curious Venn Diagram waiting to happen...
  • My husband loves a challenge - which is why for dinner the next night I was presented with something he was proudly calling the Occupie:

Yes, that is a bold attempt at
 a V mask rendered in mashed potato

Friday, 20 January 2012

Pitstone Windmill to the Base of Pitstone Hill Rambling Success (Circular Walk) Friday Post Part 1

Today's post has 2 parts, depending what you fancy reading- I couldn't seem to get them o mesh properly into one post, so you get two today. If you want to read about my walk, you can stay on this bit, or if you'd like to skip to learn about the slings and arrows of making a birthday cake for a one year old (as I had to do last week), then you can find to that here. But for the walk, see below...

In which I manage to get to the base of Pitstone hill without being rained on, and enjoy some peace and quiet from a grumpy baby in the sunset and see some nice views.

Ordnance Survey: Explorer 181
Time: 60 mins
Distance: 2 miles

I will confess, this is one of those walks I forced myself to do. When the weather was good this week, I was busy doing other things (like taking the Chap for his MMR jab), and when it was bad I was free but stuck in the house. I was also supposed to go for a walk with a friend this week, but due to my general tardiness in looking at the bus timetables and communicating, it didn't happen. I hit 4pm on Thursday, and was pushed out of the house to wander about by a grumpy baby - if I put him down, he wanted to be picked up. I picked him up, he wanted to be down. He'd claim he was hungry, but refused all food offered. You'd take him out of his highchair, he'd cry at being hungry. I couldn't win. I went out.

Pitstone Hill viewed from the old quarry
I'm very glad I did, because it was sunset, and slightly sunny, and a very pretty time to go for a walk. Starting at Pitstone Windmill, cross the field, turn left at Vicarage Road, right down Church Road and across the old Quarry, left up to the roundabout, cross the road and over the stile into the wooded path at the base of Pitstone Hill as in my walk to Tring and my failed walk towards Bulborne and the Grand Junction Arms. The sky was clear, the weather cool but not too chilly, and the light made everything very pleasant.

Normally, I dislike January, and February is four weeks too long at the best of times. This year, it's so incredibly mild it feels like Spring, and I'm missing out on the winter blues. It also helped that the sun was shining. What I do like about this time of year, however, are the bare branches of trees against the sky. I love the way it looks.

Instead of turning right out onto the road through the kissing gate after 500m or so, I continued on the path bearing left and beginning to climb Pitstone Hill. One of the nice things about walking at this time of day is that you have a natural timer set against you with the sun going down. I watched the shadows start to climb up the side of the hill through the trees (As opposed to The Shadows, who do something quite different). After a gentle climb, a gate appears in the undergrowth to the right. Go through this and continue down a green lane along the side of the hill heading for Aldbury. As you continue, there are some nice views towards Tring, particularly at this time of the day. The sun had just set and the clouds had gone pink, although sadly my camera refused to pick it up too well. Pretty, though.

About 1k down this route, after it has turned into a untarmaced white road, you come to a place where a few paths lead off either up the hill or towards Aldbury. I followed another route- the signposted public bridle way off to the right. This leads you down onto Station Road. Turn right and follow the path, passing the turnoff towards the Grand Union canal and Tring to the left, and go through the kissing gate back into the woodland and the base of Pitstone Hill.

View of Pitstone Hill through the trees
From here, it is a case of retracing your steps back to the windmill. Whether or not you choose to lie on the floor and wave your legs in the air with your father like inverted loons when you get home is between you and your God.

 Things I Learnt

  • Walking as the sun is going down is not a disaster for you and a baby. It was good for encouraging me to keep a pace up, and also the sky was pretty.
  • I knew this one already, but a grumpy baby who treats the offer of breadsticks as if they are poison while in the house will happily eat all of them while being taken for a walk in the sling.
  • Waving your legs in the air is, apparently, hilarious.

Birthday Cake - Friday Post Part 2

This is the second of two posts for this Friday, and if you like cake more than walking, then this is the part for you...

I have spoken before of my love of baking and celebratory cakes in general. I find the whole concept of this edible chemistry very pleasing. I'm not one of those people who produces immaculate cookery every day of the week, but for an Occasion, I love to prat around in the kitchen. So with great joy I realised I was now Someone's Mummy, and therefore in position to have to Bake a Birthday Cake. To some people this would fill them with horror, and to you I wish you all the best in your trip to Marks & Spencers. This, however, is My Kind Of Fun. Or at least, I always think it's my kind of fun, until I get halfway through it, find things are more difficult than expected and then swear lavishly at the whole cake-production process. It's an important stage, I find. I do really enjoy it though.

So here, for your delight and delectation, is how to make a pair of baby building blocks cakes for a first birthday, with the Great Birthday Cake Construction began with a day of baking 2 days before the family celebration of the Chap's first birthday...

Building Blocks Cakes - A Halfway Passble First Birthday Cake in 30 Easy Steps

1) Ever keen to make my life more difficult than it needs to be offer guests variety, decide to make 2 sorts of cake. The two on the left of the picture are Nigella Lawson ginger cakes, and the one on the right is a banana bread using my mummy's recipe.

2)Leave to cool and stowed in Tupperware overnight before The Great Day Of Cake Decoration. Feel gratuitiously smug. Aren't you organised?

3)Get up the next morning. Cut the first ginger cake in half and see - to your horror - that the damn thing is still raw in the middle.

4) apply a certain quantity of swearing, followed by cries of 'fetch Nigella!' (The plain sponge cake recipe from Domestic Goddess was employed, and while that was cooking I set about the other cake.).

5) Take one banana bread loaf, cut in two and sandwich together with buttercream to form as close to a cube as you can manage, like this:

6) Measure the sides of your cube, and then cut a cardboard template out to the right size.

7)Roll out marzipan (because a birthday cake without marzipan can be a sad thing indeed), and use your template to measure out enough to cover the four sides. brush cake with apricot jam and then apply the marzipan. A little light cake massage may be required to achieve the correct shape.

8)Cut out a square of marzipan and apply to the top. Mine looked like this:

9)Repeat using fondant icing.

10)Remove cake from oven. Test. Decide it isn't cooked yet. Return to oven.

11)Break out the food colouring and an inexpensive paintbrush. Make imperious demands on your husband to tell you things that start with the letter D. Declare that you haven't got the artistic skills to successfully render a dog in a recognisable form. Settle on ducks and dinosaurs.

12) Use a spare bit of fondant to practise your technique.

13) Furkle through the baby books in search of a satisfactory duck picture to copy.

14) Paint on ducks, dinosaurs, daisies and drums.

15) Remove cake from oven. Test. Decide it appears cooked, but you don't trust it after the ginger cake episode. Return to oven.

16) Faff around.

17) Remove cake from oven. Decide it's probably ok, but give it another 15 minutes.

18) Waste time reading Twitter feeds.

19) Remove cake from oven. Leave to cool.

20) Do other stuff for the afternoon.

21) Once your child is being bathed and put to bed by his father, cut plain sponge cake in half, to find - to your horror - that this cake has had the opposite problem to the ginger cake, and has been overcooked.

22) Have at your sponge cake with a bread knife and whittle out enough edible sponge to form something that may resemble a cube. Or not.

23) Lavishly pad cake to the same height (ish) as the first one using buttercream and jam. Apply apricot jam and add rolled marzipan. Declare that this cake looks nothing like the first - it really isn't a cube shape.

24 a) Use the phrase 'bleedin' nightmare' and 'bloody well going
to Marks & Spencers'
24) Construct false corners for two sides of your cube using marzipan, and press cake into shape using two glass placemats.

25) Add fondant icing. Massage cake again using placemats.

26) Break out the food colouring again. Have a moment of childish giggling with your husband regarding things beginning with the letter C that you really shouldn't paint on the side of your child's birthday cake. Decide cats, cherries, caterpillars and clocks are more appropropriate.

27) Realise you have given your caterpillar far too many legs to be an insect. Declare you intended it to be a centipede all along.

28) Finally finish decorating your cake, some 9 hours later than when you first set out to do it. Sit down for a cuppa and an episode of Being Human.

29) Once dry, cover with cling film and leave overnight.

30) Wake up, observe cake, have a general sense of smugness when the rest of your family see your cake and go 'oo'. Don't mention steps 1 - 29...

The finished cake - a lesson in marzipanning over the cracks....

Monday, 16 January 2012

Mum Shoes

I had a day at work last week, just as a general getting-back-into-the-swing-of-things, find-out-what's-what type of business. I was leaving the office to have lunch with a colleague and a newer member of staff who has popped up while I've been off on maternity leave. The newer member of staff is not familiar that I have somewhat of a ...footwear reputation at work (indeed, I was greeted by one of the senior practitioners with the cry of 'I look forward to you and your shoes coming back to work'. My mother always told me I had too many shoes and I would never get to wear them all, so bloody minded swine that I am, I do try and wear them all. And they're useful if you feel you need to bring out an accent colour, and - I continue to assert - the wearing of a heel instantly lowers your BMI. Anyway, enough shoe justification).

As we were leaving the office, she looked down at my sage green suede effect Mary Janes and declared loudly:

"Those aren't Mum Shoes!"

Au contraire.

I've written before about the mum-prefix, but it's been bothering me ever since this shoe comment was made. I am a mother. These are my shoes. If those aren't 'mum shoes', then what are? And, interestingly enough, the woman who made this pronouncement has 3 children herself, and a degree from Oxford, and she wasn't in work dressed for childcare either. What I'm trying to say is, she's obviously bright, she's a mother too, she hadn't arrived in a professional environment dressed in a tracksuit, yet still the pernicious expectation exists - even in mothers - that mum = dowdy. Yet this was one of the things I got stuck on in my 'show everyone you're coping' period - do your hair, wear proper shoes, good forbid you should appear (and I hate myself for saying it) - mumsy. This bullshit hides in all of us; these pernicious myths abide.

Pish, I say. Pish.

And, just in case you are interested - pony skin leopard print ballet flats are today's shoe of choice.

These are also mum-shoes.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Coombe Hill Birthday Circular Walk

In which I take the Chap for a walk in the fresh air for his birthday, think about how having a baby (ie, childbirth) is not as bad as people make it out to be, think about how actually having a baby (ie, in your house) is a lot harder than all those advertisers pretending we float past on a lily pad while wearing pastels are making it out to be, and admire the trippy woodland.

Ordnance Survey: Explorer 181
Time: 1 hour and a bit
Distance: 3 miles

Rating: Easy-Moderate Walk (a little map reading, very windy, a lot of mud)

Determined I was going to leave the house and not get my walk rained off, and inspired by a the book Chilterns Teashop Walks sent to me by Geekysweetheart, I decided it was high time I had a look at Coombe Hill. A picture of it is on the front of my Ordnance Survey map, and it's one of those places I've looked at for a few years and thought 'must go there', so I thought I may as well get on with it.

Safe in the knowledge that I would have cake to make up for my exertion, I decided to do this walk on the Chap's birthday. He was one year old this week, and that has lead to a lot of reflection and general assessment of the year between his father and I. We've decided that he has passed his probationary year and will continue within his employment as our son. On the whole, phrases like 'bloody hard work', 'I see what you are doing, and it is good', 'bloody hard work', 'completely knackered' and 'bloody hard work' passed our lips, mostly once he had gone to bed and we were quietly dealing with a bottle of champagne that needed drinking.

In fact, I think it is fair to say I was in labour for about 10 months or so - the actual act of getting the Chap out was hard work, but in many ways the labour that came afterwards (particularly in the first 6 weeks) was far, far worse. Hard bloody work, as Dick-Read asserts in Childbirth Without Fear (an interesting aside - did you know that the 'agony in childbirth' promised by the Bible is a mistranslation? The Hebrew words 'etsev' and 'itstsabon' are synonyms, but one got translated as 'hard work' in relation to a man farming and the other got translated as 'suffering' when it came to talk about chidbirth. It was a marvellous book to read in preparation for labour - although being a bit dry in parts and slightly quaint in its views every now and again, knowing about fear-tension-pain cycles and how the best way to have terrible contractions is to say to someone "The next one will be really bad, you must be brave" was really helpful.).
Coombe Hill has its own car park and a nice, obvious entrance gate, so I went through that and walked on the path that went straight across the middle of the field. Although I went further afield, this whole area would be fantastic if you have an off-road pram (or have a child who doesn't mind a bit of jiggling in a normal buggy) - even now, at the wettest time of year, the ground was pretty firm and there are a fair few packed-earth paths. Follow the path through a patch of woodland until you come out onto the wide grassy area and follow the obvious route towards the war memorial.

People seem to delight in telling you how awful childbirth is when you're going to have a baby. No-one ever tells you how funny it is. The ridiculous things my friends have done, such as shouting "THREE! TWO! ONE! RELAX!" in a manner that to everyone else seems anything but relaxing, or taking the mouthpiece from the gas & air out to pronounce "I haven't been this pissed in ages.". The favourite one from my labour was in searching for more towels to protect our carpet, I sent my husband into the cupboard to find an old towel that I knew was in there. I could feel the contraction coming, and just as it began I saw my husband turn around holding one of our best towels. "Is this is?" he asked, and with a contraction just starting to bite I was lying on the bed proclaiming "Nooo! Not the ones from John Lewis!".

Follow the Ridgeway
to Coombe Hill War Memorial
I meant to follow the grassy field all the way to the memorial but off to the left I saw a path heading through gorse bushes towards a pretty impressive view, so I followed went that way and found myself on the Ridgeway National Trail. I also found the views, which are pretty impressive.

I turned right and followed the Ridgeway up to the War Memorial, where I found some more views and a Welshman whose birthday it also was. He had taken the day off to take some photos, and had been pleased to find that someone he knew was listed on the war memorial, so he was taking some photos to send to his old regiment's history people. He kindly took a picture of me & the Chap with my camera, but it was too windy to be any good, really - I had too much hair flying about.

Continue to follow the Ridgeway around the edge of the hill - it's conveniently signposted by black posts with the National Trust acorn on.

This path leads you out of the designated National Trust Coombe Hill area. I left through a metal gate and then crossed a bridleway sunken into the hillside. Through a second metal gate, I continued slightly downwards towards Bacombe Hill.

By this point, I got the sense that maybe the Chap was a touch peckish. What could have given this away...?

"...or I'll eat my hat"

Marmite rice cake provided (the latest unexpected baby delicacy - but when I fished the first one out of the packet the other day his eyes lit up like a Hobbit declaring "It comes in pints?" and he has been a firm fan of them ever since) and the hat safe from chewing, we continued along the Ridgeway until you come to a fork - the Ridgeway goes downhill to the left, and an unmarked path looking like a sheep trail goes to the right.

I took the right hand sheep trail and followed this round a scrubby group of trees to effectively do a U-turn so I was then following the top of the rise along the treeline. Not far along this there is a wooden gate in a break in the trees- I went through this and then took the muddy path to the right through the woodland.

For a lot of this year, I have found dealing with the Chap really, really hard. Mostly because of sleep deprivation. For a long time he completely destroyed any semblance of quality of life that I had, and it has only recently I have felt like I have begun to get it back. For a long time I felt like I was sort of stuck. I found that I had a lot of conflicting emotions around being somebody's mother, but I found it really difficult to talk about any of it for fear of any of the slightest suggestion that maybe I don't love everything about being a mother would be indicative of me not coping. The concept of demonstrating 'coping' was very important to me for a long time, but I haven't thought about it for what feels like so long now, I think I must be fine. But I was terrified people would think I had not formed enough of a bond with my child, was being self-indulgent and generally the sort of person who should be slapped right onto the Safeguarding database so everyone can peer at my child's progress and judge me on it from now until the end of time.

 Basically, I think it boils down to the fact that this baby shit is _hard_. It's way harder than I thought it was going to be, and that's because I don't think anything can actually prepare you for the full on relentlessness of it. To quote Caitlin Moran (as oft I do these days),  'The parallels to war are multiple: you wear the same clothes day in, day out; you keep saying, hopefully 'It'll all be over by Christmas'; it's long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror'. The problem is, to say that child rearing is hard is expected, but to say you're not enjoying it is perceived to be an appalling affront to the very heart of motherhood. You! Not enjoying being woken up three times a night! Not enjoying having your hair and flesh repeatedly pulled! How dare you! Get on the database! You can tell people about isolated events that you dislike, but to actually sum up the whole activity as quite a cavalcade of unrelenting shit is somehow Not Cricket.

But there's the other side of the coin, because while, on the one hand, it is unrelenting shit, it's also lovely. There's a tiny little chap who wriggles round the floor and sticks inappropriate things in his mouth and learns all the time and is really happy to see you and lifts up his little hands so you'll pick him up and who you love with an extraordinary intensity.

But at the same time, he had, for a really long time, shot my quality of life through both kneecaps. A mother, we are taught to expect, is Selfless in caring for her child. How dare I resent not being able to go to the Opera any more! I should welcome the repetitive round of feeding and cleaning, because it is all For The Good Of My Child. How dare I find it boring!

Actually, I don't find it boring, not all the time. I like his enthusiasm for sticking things in his mouth, I am amused by the faces he makes, by him smearing himself in spoon-food, and by the damage four teeth could do to a slice of cucumber, the the destruction eight teeth can wreak on an apple.  But some days, playing with blocks is still playing with blocks, and I'm a bit old for it to be truly stimulating.
And now I feel comfortable to say all this, or at least to put it on the Internet, and I don't really think it means I'm a bad mother. Some people might like to think that of me, but hey ho. There's a Canadian website called Bad Moms Club (missing the apostrophe, I know, but it's them not me), so called because one of the main things you have to deal with  is that someone, somewhere, really does think you're a bad mother. And while it shouldn't matter, to be honest, it does matter to most of us. I don't think I'm over it, but I can say all this stuff about how I didn't like this or that and I know people will pop up on Facebook or somewhere and say to me 'yes, yes I felt that too', and that has really helped my sanity. And let's face it, sanity can wear pretty thin when you've been woken up at 12, 3 and 6 for months on end.

Anyway, this woodland. It's a funny one. The trees have been coppiced and (probably due to the handsome winds that blow around the top of the hill) are very... well, wiggly. I don't know if it was the day I was there and the light, but the colours were really weird - the bronzey orange of the leaves on the floor had some strange effect with the green algae that grows on the trees to make them seem almost like they were glowing. I hadn't taken anything, I promise. The colours were really kicking out.

Squelching along this muddy woodland path will ultimately lead you back to the Coombe Hill car park. It took me longer than expected because it was so muddy when I was there, but it was definitely better than retracing my steps.

Things I Learnt

  • Oof, it's windy up there.
  • I had forgotten my desperation for a lot of the year to demonstrate 'coping'. It involved doing my hair before I went out and pretending everything was fine. Pretending that I could be arsed about losing the baby weight. Lots of stuff felt unreal, as if when we were complaining about stuff we were acting out parts, and none of us really felt anything. People felt oddly interchangeable, possibly due to repetitive initial conversations with women in Children's Centres that I would never see again. Going to the Sling Meet has helped. Having a lot of people sitting round going "Were you the weird one in your postnatal group too?" "YES! I talked and everyone else just sat there looking at me like I was crackers!" is oddly reassuring...
  •  I am, as I always knew, not really a baby person. Now the Chap is one, I am delighted. For the past couple of months, he's been a great age. This is what I wanted- to have a child, to produce a person. And even though he will grow up and disagree with me and slam doors and bring inappropriate people home, that will all be part of him being him. Which I think will always be better than the tiny baby stage, even when it's horrible.

    It's been a long post, this one. Thank you if you're still here with me at the end :)

Friday, 6 January 2012

Pitstone Windmill to the Base of Pitstone Hill Total Ramble Fail

In which I don't manage to walk anywhere of note, but do manage to think about attitudes to toys and parenting gurus. And get very, very wet.

Ordnance Survey: Explorer 181
Time: 20 mins
Distance: Enough to get soaked in.

Rating: Rubbish

It's a new year and the weather has been atrocious. I had planned to have another crack at a Totternhoe Knoll this week, but the day I had set aside for it was lost to a migraine, and all I could do was lie in bed, whimper and occasionally vomit. Fortunately the ChapDad was home early and I was able to just get on with being ill in my bed rather than be ill and try to deal with a baby.

So, filled with... no, I wasn't filled with anything. Filled with can't be arsed-ness is what I have been filled with, but I set out anyway in an attempt to do a variation on the Pitstone Windmill to Tring theme, this time going via the Grand Junction arms.

Following the same directions as when I did this the last time, I set off across the old quarry, which was looking pleasant.

I felt that, while I might currently prefer hiding under a duvet, in about 15 minutes or so I might think this was a good idea. Oh, the folly...

Our house feels like it is groaning under the weight of new toys post-Christmas, and what with the Chap's first birthday on the horizon, more could well be on the way. Yet, as I found myself starting a Toy Rotation System, I found myself having an odd thought on the subject of toys.

I have discovered that I appear to be a Toy Puritan. I appear to feel that all the child should have is a wooden spoon, a saucepan and a cardboard box and to have anything else is an appalling frivolity on my part.

I crossed the stile and walked up the wooded path, unlike in the original Pitstone Windmill to Tring walk when I walked up the road. I was surprised when rain started falling from what appeared to be a clear sky, but by this time the Chap had fallen asleep and his hood was up, he was wrapped in many layers of clothing and protected from the weather, so I thought, hey ho, the sky is clear, it'll stop in a few minutes. Oh, the folly...
Oddly enough, it seems that toys is another,inexplicable area in which you can feel you are Doing It All Wrong. My friend Nigella has got a lot more toys for her son than I have for mine. Yet she feels that maybe she doesn't have enough; maybe her son needs more stimulation. I, on the other hand, feel that we have too many toys - I don't feel that the Chap is overstimulated, I just feel he seems to have more fun with boxes and so forth. As I type, he is currently driving the plastic pod steriliser around the kitchen floor. I put cars out for this purpose, but they don't have an interesting handle on the top or clips down the side, so the steriliser it is. And I'm not being sniffy about my friend who has more toys, that's not it. The point I'm heading towards is that we both feel that somehow, we're not quite hitting the mark.

There is so much a being a parent that appears to be judged and scrutinised, but to make it worse you suddenly turn around to find you have these Ideas from somewhere. Ideas of the Ways It Should Be Done, which is a fearsome concept. But the weird thing is, I don't know where I get these ideas from, because I have never read a parenting book. They make me feel uncomfortable, somehow.I distrust anyone who pops up with claims that they can solve all your problems. I distrust the way 'parent' has become a verb, and the way but doing so it has become something to which it has become a concept of something you are doing constructively. Actually, I lie - I did start to read a Baby Whisperer book, and when on the second page I hit the term 'accidental parenting', I dropped it like a hot brick.  It smacks of micro-management to me. Hogg, Sears, Ford, the lot of 'em. They set about the creating The Other, in which you identify yourself by what you are not. I know these books and ideas are very popular, and I know a lot of people use them and they must really work for them, but all I see when you start talking about the gurus is a lot of judgement about how you're doing it all wrong. Or how I'm doing it all wrong, really. I guess it would have been nice when we were doing baby led weaning to have had some accepted guru to say 'Ah-ha, well, Gina says' every time someone said "Have you tried puree?" to me (yes, I have, he won't eat it, that's why we're doing baby led. Yes, I have tried giving him a spoon of his own. Yes, I have tried having a spoon each.). So I don't know what anyone says about toys. There are probably people who do believe wholeheartedly that anything more than a wooden spoon and a box is the crushing of imagination, and there are probably people out there who think you can never have enough toys. In the end, I have concluded that the right amount of toys is one that you can comfortably fit in your house.

As you probably have guessed, the rain did not stop. I thought I was still walking into sunshine. I turned, and the Uncle Monty line from Withnail and I crept into my head - The sky is beginning to bruise, and we shall be forced to camp. Actually, it was beyond beginning. The sky behind me was an evil purple-grey, and I had no umbrella. I thought about trying to make it to the Grand Junction Arms, but I was pretty sure that if I got that far I would be stuck in the rain, without any buses that pass by to get me back to the start. I gave up and headed back.

The Ivinghoe Beacon disappearing in the murk.

It was not pleasant. I went to University on the Welsh coast, so I have been familiar with horizontal freezing rain, but the wind that came with it - my God, it's not surprising they put a windmill here.

I considered stopping to get the plastic-backed travel change mat out of my bag to hold over the Chap, but on closer inspection he was fine - the weather hood was soaked through, but his handsome bobble hat was keeping the wet cloth off his face, and the rest of him was pretty well protected by the sling. I, however, was a drowned rat, even having to take off my glasses because thy had go so wet I couldn't see for drops of water. I marched back, and once firmly back in the house, the Chap decided to wake up, look at me and, tactfully, laugh.

My drowned rat look. Nice.

Things I Learnt

  • This time of year does not appear suitable for walking.
  • No, really, do pack an umbrella. I know the sun is shining. Remember which country you're living in...
  • You can always rely on your children to laugh heartily at you.