Monday, 29 May 2017

The real Malory Towers experience: Take your child to boarding school!

"You have to dress up posh too, mummy," says my daughter, half stern, half playful. "Or we'll never get away with it!"

Saturday morning and me and my 11-year-old daughter are going undercover.

We're going to the most expensive girls' boarding school in Britain (£37,275 a year to be exact) for their Open Day – as a pretend prospective pupil and parent. My bog-standard-state-school educated daughter has devoured Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series – just as I did when I was a kid – and her head is filled with a fantasy life of midnight feasts and hockey sticks. Wouldn't it be fun – and a tiny bit mischievous – to see inside that world for real? We're a little nervous (do we have the acting abilities to pull it off?), but really, what difference will one extra mother and daughter tagging along make? They'll barely notice us.
Wrong! All parents potentially willing to fork out £37K a year on their daughter's education will be noticed. People have flown in from all corners of the globe for this Open Day. It's a v. big deal. As soon as we enter, my bobbly coat is whisked off me (in the end I’d decided the I'm-so-posh-I-can-be-scruffy look would be more convincing) and we are greeted with fresh coffee, still-warm Danish pastries, and programmes with our names on (sports fixtures in school today: showjumping and lacrosse). 

A pretty, skirt-suited woman, a member of the leadership team, bounces over to us. "Just act confident," I whisper to my daughter. "It's all about confidence." The woman introduces herself and reassures us that she has worked in prep schools for many years before coming here so she "knows where the girls are coming from". "What school do you go to now?" she asks my daughter. My daughter looks her straight in the eye and says the name of her bog-standard-state-school loudly and clearly. I see the woman flicking furiously through her mental files of prep schools. Nope, that one's not in there. She moves on quickly. "So, would you be a boarder or a day girl?" "Oh, definitely boarding!" says my daughter, beaming. (Impressive acting!) "Oh yes, boarding is great fun," says the woman. "Like a perpetual sleepover, right? The other day, the girls all took their duvets down to the den with hot chocolate and marshmallows and slept there all night!" she continues, feeding my daughter's fantasies. 
Then she plucks us our own personal schoolgirl to be our tour guide: a quietly-spoken, very sweet girl in Year 8. I notice that both her shoelaces are undone and she has a big smudge across one of the lenses of her glasses (seems £37K a year doesn't get you quite the care from Matron you might hope for). "First, it's really great here," she says, without changing her expression."I have to tell you that first." (Have to? Like, instructed to?)

She takes us down Alice-in-Wonderland marble corridors and past a huge wood-panelled library with spiral staircases. "Wow, wow, wow!" my daughter and I mouth to each other with sneaky sideways glances. Her tour is interjected with bits of housekeeping information, like, "That's where you put your lac stick while you're in lessons". I nod, knowingly, as if lac is a word I bandy around a lot. 
I notice the door security code she presses to let us into the drama department is in roman numerals. (That should keep the riff-raff out.) She seems super-excited about using the lift to take us up to the theatre. "It's the only lift in the whole school," she tells us. "Everyone loves using it." I look at the buttons. There is only G, 1 and 2. "Erm, do you ever get to go out of the school?" I ask. "Yes!" she says. "Sometimes on a Saturday, Matron takes us to Waitrose." 

She escorts us to the astonishingly beautiful Assembly Hall with chandeliers, balconies and organ playing and we take our seats for an introductory talk and Q & A session with the Headteacher and senior teachers, a row of neat grey bobs and androgynous types in tracksuits. I get myself into slightly sticky waters when the couple next to me strike up a conversation. "It does make one reflect on one's own schooling, doesn't it? And whether you want the same or different for your own child." (Erm, yes, but not in the way you think). I bluff my way through with vague answers, reddening. I'm glad I put foundation on at least.  
The Head actually has a bun. And an ample bosom. Perfect. She's like a nice Miss Trunchbull and has a down-to-earth sense of humour. In answer to the question, "How do you keep the girls secure?" she replies, "Well, if I lose a girl, it's game over for me!" We're also reassured that House Mistresses keep an eye on the girls' table manners. She tells us that she went to this school herself. Now she works here. This is her world. "The chance to go into town with Matron [not just Waitrose] when they get to Year 11 becomes a wonderful thing," she tells us, without a hint of irony. 

Next we are taken to a Boarding House by two pupils from China. It is modern. Smart. Comforting, if not exactly cosy. We are greeted by the House Mistress (who lives in an adjoining apartment with her cat) and shown around: Dorms, showers, prep room, dining room. There's also a common room on every floor with sofas, cushions, beanbags – and microwaves. For their Waitrose-bought snacks.
Now, who says there's no such thing as a free lunch? It's fantastic. A choice of hot meals with a choice of hot side dishes, a salad bar, an assortment of fruit and desserts and cheese and crackers. We sit down with our trays and a group of five girls immediately join us. "Great food!" I say. "Yes," they agree. "Though you have to moan about school food. It's just what you do!" They seem eager to meet people from the outside world. Super-eager. They compete for my attention, talking over the top of each other, and I feel motherly towards them all. 

We're feeling really brave now and ask all the things we really want to knowWere you homesick? How often do you see your parents? Can you choose who you share a dorm with? Are you made to have a shower everyday? Do you have midnight feasts? They use words that are foreign to us like mufti and exeat and tell us the nitty-gritty details of their daily life: How their dirty laundry comes back to them washed, ironed and folded in their cubbyhole. How they have to do prep for an hour and a half every evening (though they're allowed to personalize their study booth). How you must walk to and from lessons with your Walking Buddy. How they get sanctions if they talk at night. And how they have to keep their mobile phone in a pigeon hole and are only allowed access to it twice a day (though one parent, they tell me with joyful horror, gave her daughter two phones, so she could secretly call her anytime). The chef rings a bell and two of them jump up like Pavlov's dogs. "That means seconds," they say. "Do you go to school with boys at your school now?" the others ask my daughter. She fends them off wonderfully. "Yes, but I  wish I didn't. Boys can be soooo annoying." She's way better at this than me. 
"So what are you doing this afternoon?" I ask as we get up from the table. "We're going to Waitrose with Matron!" they answer. "Everyone seems really keen on Waitrose here," I say. "Why's that?" They look puzzled. "'s really big," one of them ventures. "So what's on your shopping list today? I ask curiously. "Strawberries!" they say. I look round at the food counter. There is a big pile of strawberries ready for the taking. Clearly, the thrill of Waitrose isn't about the food. 

As we enter the outside world, I'm eager to know my daughter's opinion of the place. "It's a bit like a prison," she says. In Malory Towers, it always says things like 'Daryl nipped off to post a letter', but those girls are there 24/7 – apart from when they go to Waitrose."

"That reminds me," I say."We need to get a few things for dinner on the way home. Let's go to that Waitrose over there." "Urgghhhhh..." she groans. "Do we have to?"

Thursday, 4 May 2017

"Dutch Disneyland" : Take the kids to Efteling theme park

Photo: Efteling
I'll be honest. The very words theme park make me lose the will to live. I picture myself trapped in a long, long queue, moving forwards inch-by-painful-inch, while being attacked by wasps, whingey kids and whiffs of hot-candy-dog-floss breath.

But a niggly little voice in my head kept taunting me: What kind of parent are you? Your daughter's almost 11 and you're not going to take her to do that whole Disney make-magical-childhood-memories thing even once?

So when I heard about Efteling theme park in the Netherlands – sometimes nicknamed the 'Dutch Disneyland' – my ears pricked up. It sounded sort of different. Sort of classy. Enticing even. I decided to take the risk ... and I didn't regret it one bit.

Here are 10 reasons to choose Efteling as an alternative to Disneyland.

#1  It's got the charm factor
Efteling was originally designed in the 50s by Dutch artist Anton Pieck – and you can feel the love! He insisted on using no concrete or plastic and paid incredible attention to detail. Even the bins are made of wicker baskets.
It's a bit like taking a stroll through a beautifully mature park, brimming with lakes, trees, flowers and quirky buildings – that just happens to have incredible rides and attractions in every nook and cranny. 
I mean, you don't expect to see a little gang of ducklings waddling towards the Haunted House, do you?
#2  It's humungus
Make no mistake. This is a Full Size theme park, as big and exciting as you could wish for. Twice the size of Disneyland California in fact. It's divided into four realms (Adventure, Fairy, Travel and Other) and to save your legs, a good-old fashioned stoomtrein runs around the whole park. 
But when I saw how gorgeous these little wooden carts for children were, I was desperate to pull my daughter every step of the way. 
"Er...Hellooo?" she protested. "I'm like, eleven." 

#3  It's fairytale (literally!)
Yes, Mickey Mouse, Dumbo and Disney Princesses are iconic, but any screen character is always going to feel a little superficial and commerical – especially when they're a human in a giant fluffy suit. Efteling, by contrast, is themed around fairytale, folklore and legend which taps into something deeper and more magical. The Fairytale Forest was truly enchanting. We followed meandering paths through the trees stumbling upon life-size creations of fairy stories that made us gasp just a little bit. 
I got an extra surge of excitement when I glimpsed Rapunzel in her tower through the trees. It was like my favourite childhood Ladybird book in real life.
#4  But you can still have a near-death experience (if that's your thing!)
You might think a theme park based on fairytale only has gentle, cutesy rides aimed at younger children. Wrong. There's a mind-blowing tangle of roller coasters. 
Like the one in darkness (Efteling's equivalent of Disney's Space Mountain), the one that flies off the track at the end and smashes you into water, the bobsleigh ride, and perhaps scariest of all, the one that plunges you vertically into a pit of steam – to the sound of angels singing! – and then immediately hauls you out upside down. Er, we gave that one a miss.
#5  You can avoid the crowds
The Dutch school holidays only overlap with the British ones so it is possible to visit at a time when the park is quiet. Really quiet. We went in the Easter holidays and waited in queues of 0 to10 minutes for each attraction. In two days we managed to do absolutely everything we wanted to do, everything we didn't think we wanted to do until we did it – and then do our favourites all over again.
#6  It's about half the price
Isn't it odd how you take your kids to places for their enjoyment but have to pay more for your own entrance ticket than you do for theirs? Efteling doesn't do that. Adult and child tickets are the same price – about £32 for the day. For a family of four, that works out at almost half the price of Disneyland Paris.
#7  There's a lack of tackiness
Nothing is in-your-face at Efteling, not even the souvenir shops and food outlets. Yes, you can buy a can of coke and a portion of chips (though you can eat them with mayonnaise the Dutch way). But you can can also buy more interesting things like Turkish pizza or these crunchy potato spirals on sticks, all at non-rip off prices. 
There are all kinds of restaurants too, whether you're after fish, vegetarian or a stack of Dutch pancakes, and they don't mind at all if you bring in your own picnic. We had to actually hunt out a souvenir shop before we left and I was surprised at how nice the stuff was. My daughter chose two jewels. "They're magic stones," she said. "This one gives you the power of invisibility and this one gives you the power of flying." That's the spirit. 

#8  It has beautiful places to stay
It was this picture of Efteling holiday village that first hooked me in. It looks like somewhere I might choose to stay with or without a theme park on the doorstep. Efteling has two 'villages' snuggled in woodlands  one with undergound houses. But we stayed at the Efteling Hotel with its moat and turrets just a few minutes walk away from the park. "Just follow the yellow footsteps!" smiled the receptionist and my daughter bounced out the door like she was off to see the wizard. 
She loved discovering all the little details in our room like the bedside table in mid-air, the TV hidden behind an ornate sliding mirror and the mouse peeping out from the skirting board.
"It's fit for queen!" I overheard her say to her dad on the phone as the waiter in the restaurant poured her chicken soup from a teapot. Making her own fairy bread and bumping into Sleeping Beauty at breakfast were unexpected bonuses too, even if she did refuse to have her picture taken with her. ("I know, I know, you're like eleven, right?")
#9  All the staff are friendly and fluent in English
Everyone seemed genuinely happy to work there. My daughter even commented on it. As a man helped her out of our boat onto a rotating platform after a ride through Dreamworld, she said, "He has to walk backwards in the dark all day and he's still in a good mood!" They all spoke really good English too. Some of the attractions in the park were based on Dutch stories unfamiliar to us, but that didn't detract from our pleasure. What's not to like about a pair of red shoes that dance through the streets on their own, or a monorail that travels through a village of gnomey people living in thatched hobbit houses?
On one ride, the insanely disorientating Mad House ("Mum, are you going to just stare at your thighs the whole time?" Yep.) we had to listen to a wise old wizard tell a story in Dutch for about eight minutes first, but that didn't put my daughter off wanting to go on it again. 

# 10  It's easy to get to
You can travel to Efteling easily from Amsterdam, Rotterdam or the nearest city, Eindhoven. We flew to Eindhoven with Ryanair for pocket money prices and then took a (double decker!) train and a bus to the park. "You going to Efteling?" asked the bus driver. "Oh, I'm jealous. I went there so many times as a child, and I still love it."

As we watched the spectacular light and fire show on the lake at the end of our last day, my daughter had one of those rare bursts of pure gratitude. "Thank you for bringing me here. It's awesome!" "That's okay," I said, mentally ticking the magical-childhood-memory box. 

"Shall we have a hot dog and a candyfloss for dinner?" 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Make like a model: Recreate the holiday brochure!

We wake up on the first day of our February half-term static caravan holiday in Wales with wind and rain pummelling the windows. And one of us has a revolting virus.
As we droop our heads into our bowls of Weetabix and wonder what the best rainy-day plan is, we flick through the Hoseasons brochure on the table with images of the happy, smiley, tango-tanned holiday we're meant to be having.
"The pictures are so cheesy," says my daughter.
"Yeah, we're obviously not doing our holiday right," says my sister.
"Hey!" I say. "Let's BE THEM. Come on..."

And suddenly there's a burst of happy activity and giggling. We've come up with a new 'thing'. We decide to call it Re-Bro: Re-creating the brochure. The kids are studying the exact poses and expressions of the children ("You need to bend your wrist more.") and the adults are hunting for the toast rack and discussing who should play mummy and daddy ("Well, who's the most orange?"). This is fun and funny. Enough to make us want to go out immediately so we can recreate some of the other pictures. 

Here are the results.

Exhibit #1: Fully enjoying the caravan comforts (turns out there isn't a bloody toast rack. Or a jug. Shame on you, Hoseasons).
Exhibit #2: Having a relaxing drink at the clubhouse (only we weren't prepared to go as far as actually spending money on drinks!).
Exhibit #3: We like it so much here, we decide to actually buy our own caravan. This is the happy moment where we're handed the keys. 
Oh yes, we're living the dream.

Footnote: A friend of mine saw these photos and said that she knows the original models in the brochure  - in fact, they live down the road from me! Coincidence or what?! 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Guest interview: "My hobby is doing special effects make-up!"

This time I talk to Nicole, 14, as she gets to work on us... 

How did you first get into special effects make-up?

I started doing it last summer after I met a girl at my mum's friend's wedding who did it. We became friends on Facebook and I saw her special effects photos and thought, "Ooh, I could try that".

Some people would say it's a very gruesome hobby! What would you say to them?
It's fun! It's artistic! It's creative! I want to be a paramedic and it's made me much less squeamish. Before, whenever I saw something bloody and horrible, I would have gone, "Oh woh woh", but now I'm like, "Oh...okay". It's good being able to watch a film or programmes like Casualty and think, "Ooh, that's fake". You can spot things straight away. I'd love to do make-up for TV. 

So how did you start?
I just got 99p fake blood and researched what I could make myself, like fake flesh out of flour and water with a bit of vaseline. But the blood was BRIGHT red and it was difficult to blend the edges of the flesh, so it looked a bit like having a dollop of cookie dough on your skin! 
But I did a cut and a bullet hole in my brother's cheek with that. Then I experimented with eye shadow, like browns and blues for wounds and bruises, and then I got this box for my birthday with face paints and latex and lots of sponges and brushes and that changed things quite a bit. *Look away now if you're squeamish!*
How hard is it to learn?
It takes time to work out what works and what doesn't and what colour combinations look realistic. I struggled with the very first ones. Even now, it often goes wrong. There's a lot of of wiping bits away, doing it again, wiping it away, doing it again. It definitely develops skills like perseverance and patience!
Where do you get your ideas?
I google YouTube all the time for inspiration. Sometimes you see something and you want to do it but you haven't got the right products, but you've got to be able to improvise, find something that will get the same effect. And you have to be confident – it won't work if you think it won't work!

How long does it take?
Bruises only take about two minutes. The longest I've ever spent doing something was three hours but that was a full half a face. On myself!
How often do you do it?
It's the thing I look forward to doing the most once I've got studying and stuff out the way. It's quite often what I do in the evenings. I just sit there experimenting on myself! I did my friend for Halloween – I did two bloody holes in her neck – and I did my brother's girlfriend the other day.

So, you've finished doing us now. Can we see the results...?
First, my daughter, who would only allow the merest hint of a bruise to be done on her...
Then me, with a right shiner...
And finally, my daughter's friend...
If you like this (or hate it and want a much lighter and fluffier make-up project!), you might like Unbratting the Bratz: Give a doll a makeunder.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

If you go down to the woods today: Go fairy-hunting

Fairy doors popping up in Oxfordshire said the BBC local news headline. Oh boy! Where were my wellies? I'm a sucker for imaginary worlds in the woods. The Magic Faraway Tree was my favouritest book in the whole world when I was a kid.

But where EXACTLY did we need to go to find these doors? It wasn't easy to find out, but eventually Google threw up some (enticing) directions: Cross the railway and go over the canal bridge. When you see the fairy wishing well on a tree by the gate, you'll know you're on the right path...

"Can I ask my friend William if he wants to come with us?" asks my daughter. "Yes, absolutely...[I stop, think] ... but maybe use the word 'elf' or 'gnome' rather than 'fairy' when you invite him..." [I'm being realistic, not sex stereotyping!]. He's up for it. And his mum says she's not missing out. We have our gang of fairy/elf/gnome hunters.
After a while, we start to wonder if we're on the right path. We've found nothing. And then there it is, a tiny wishing well with a super-cute rope ladder. 
And we're off, darting here and darting there, eyes scanning tree trunks, scrutinizing branches, till we make each delicious discovery. 
We linger over the details of the doors...
"A Chinese fairy must live at this one," says my daughter ...
"Can we make our own door and put it here?" says William. 
We know, they know, that there aren't actually any fairies, but it doesn't matter. It's exciting and happy-making all the same because it's out-of-the-ordinary, unexpected, mysterious. Someone (who?!) had the lovely idea to create these delightful doors and secretly crept around (at night?!) putting them in place. It merges the real world with the magical world of hidden, non-human creatures upon which so many children's books are based: The Borrowers, The Hobbit, The Indian in the Cupboard...

I half expected, half hoped Moonface would pop his head out of a tree to say hello. 

But anyway, let's get real. Want to go find these fairy doors for yourself? Send me a fiver and I'll tell you where they are. 

If you like this, you might like A fairy lives in our house. You can find out more about the Oxfordshire fairy doors hereYou can also go fairy-hunting at Gelt Wood, Brampton, Cumbria. Fairy doors have mysteriously appeared there every summer since 2010.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

A real eye-opener: Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre

My daughter has a new friend who is visually impaired. She is easy and comfortable with him. Puts herself in his shoes. At least, knows to read him out the descriptions of the different flavours of Quality Street, not just pass him the box. She’s also started asking me to lead her while she walks all the way home from school with her eyes closed.

So when I recently found out you could visit (for free) the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre near Leamington Spa – which includes a ‘sensory tunnel’ where you briefly experience life without sight – it couldn’t have been better timing.

Our tour guides are Mary, from Cumbria, full of warmth, humour, snippets and stories...
...and Holly, a gentle brood bitch labrador-retriever, pregnant with her third litter of future guide dogs. My daughter and her friend can’t keep their hands off her! And she doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
They are going to take us around the centre and show us the whole Guide Dog ‘production line’ (output: up to 1,500 dogs a year!) – from pre-whelping (ante-natal in human terms) to the seven-week-old puppies who are ready to leave the centre and begin their socialization programme.

We do, however, politely bypass the “honeymoon suite” where the stud dogs and brood bitches do their thing – though Mary gives us an Adult Only aside: “They can choose whether to do it indoors or al fresco, and there’s a special rubber grippy floor and a grass mound – you know, for optimum positoning!” she winks.

Now I am itching to take you on a step-by-step blog post tour of the centre and blurt out every single fascinating fact we learnt – but as that would spoil your visit should you go, I will just give you a little taster and limit myself to: 


1. A pregnant bitch spends the week before giving birth in a luxury suite with hydrotherapy and a 24-hour personal nurse in a bedsit next to her. (Note to self: In my next life, have my babies here!)

2. Each newborn puppy is marked with a splodge of pink nail varnish on a different part of its body so the carers can tell them apart.

3. Guide Dogs are trained to be spacially aware UPWARDS as well as forwards and sideways – so they will warn their owner, for example, if they are going to hit their head on the ceiling!

4.Guide Dogs are trained to obey their owner but DISOBEY if they think they know better than their owner. e.g. they can see a car is coming!

5.It costs 50p to get a Guide Dog (a token amount for paperworky reasons) but the cost of a Guide Dog from birth to retirement is £50,000!

And one unfun fact: 
By 2050 there will be twice as many visually impaired people because of the rise of macular degeneration.

When we get to have a go in the sensory tunnel, we are given special blindfolds to put on. “They allow you to open your eyes behind them,” explains Mary, “to make your brain think you should be able to see.” 
Then we go, alone, one by one, through the tunnel in total darkness. There are traffic noises and different surfaces underfoot. 
“That was fun!” says my daughter as she emerges from the other end. “But scary. It makes you realize how utterly difficult life is if you can’t see.”

An educational day out, for sure, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that a huge part of the appeal for the girls was the Cuteness Factor.
“Even if you didn’t like dogs,” I overhear my daughter’s friend saying, “There’s no way you could look at those puppies and not think they were adorable.” She’s not wrong. I’m no dog lover and my heart’s turned to mushy peas.

And there’s a final bonus: Complimentary tea or squash and home-made cake – donations welcome, but no pressure to do so (the cynic in me had expected we might be pushed into signing up for a monthly direct debit!).
We leave full of red velvet cake, knowledge, empathy, appreciation of our sight – and awe for these very special creatures.

“I used to think when I saw a Guide Dog, you just put a harness on them and off they go,” said my daughter on the way home.”I didn’t know how much intense time and effort and money went into them.”

Then she reverts to a more basic side of herself. “Mummy, PLEEEEEASE can I have a puppy?”

Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre's website here. You can also do a tour of the National Guide Dog Training School in Leamington Spa.