Best Laid Plans….

So this time last week we loaded the car with all our camping paraphernalia and headed to the Dorset coast for a week of camping.

By Tuesday evening we had had enough of the wind, wet weather and leaky tent and drove back home!

This wasn’t in the plan at all. Having spent an amazing three weeks last year touring Europe by train and camping in the Italian heat, we knew we weren’t going to be able to afford the same holiday again. However at the beginning of this year we purchased a new tent and planned a modest and affordable week’s camping in our favourite UK destination: Swanage and the Isle of Purbeck.

This is our ‘happy place’ and the location for many short breaks and days out (we can drive to the Dorset coast in two hours from home). We had a big list of things to do, whether wet or dry, which included:

  • hiring a National Trust beach hut at Studland Beach for our youngest’s eighth birthday The day was so windy, and we were still trying to mop up our tent. Instead we met friends in Poole and went for a meal and game of ten pin bowling which cost £70 in all
  • journey on the Swanage Steam Railway. This we did achieve and even went first class so that our middle daughter (who is into Harry Potter) was convinced we were onboard the Hogwarts Express!
  • trip to National Trust’s Corfe Castle Driving back from our trip to Poole the weather was so wet and misty you couldn’t even see the top of the castle! Alas we went home before we visited these amazing ruins.
  • playing mini golf and a trip to the amusement arcade. Because of the wet weather we actually visited three amusement arcades! It’s a great way to use up all the 2p coins we had collected over the past few months.
  • ice creams, fish and chips and milkshakes. Managed the latter two, although found a trip to the Wimpy (yes Swanage still has one!) was far cheaper than the American themed diner on the front
  • watched Swanage Carnival Procession and Fireworks The first two days of our holidays were actually really hot so we enjoyed watching the carnival procession on the Sunday.However by the time of the carnival fireworks on the Wednesday we had gone home.
  • walking. We took a walk to Dancing Ledge on the coast, which features a man-made swimming pool. And we managed this before the rain set in!
  • Purbeck Stone Carving Festival. Alas, we didn’t manage this at all, although we have been previously and enjoyed the ‘Fair on the Square’ run by the local pub in Worth Matravers
  • Browse the charity shops. This is a ‘must’ when I go on holiday. I had a good browse of Swanage’s charity shops and its excellent Secondhand Bookshop and Oxfam Bookshop. In the former I managed to pick up a couple of gems which I will blog about later

Looking back, I’m surprised at how much we did achieve in just four days. A very windy and wet night on the Sunday had led to little sleep and a leaky tent. Despite mopping up the leaks, the tent still didn’t dry out and by Monday evening, with the forecast not looking much better, we decided to cut out losses and come home.

So the last few days have been spent unpacking, finishing off our camping food (and contacting the tent supplier). We are also determined to spend the next few weeks enjoying a ‘staycation’ at home and I will report back on what we have done (in our warm and dry house!).

Hope your summer holidays aren’t as wet and windswept as ours!

Christmas time board games

board games at Christmas

Do you play board games at Christmas? We tend to buy a new (to us) board game every year or, as the children get older, introduce them to classics from our own childhood, such as my family’s Scrabble set or my old Monopoly game. A couple of years ago we picked up a mint condition (if dated) version of the board game, Risk, which – I have to say – we have only just begun to master.

This year we added a brand new board game to the collection. (Every Christmas time I gather together toys, games, books etc that the children have outgrown and sell them on a local facebook site to raise some pennies for a Christmas treat. Last year it was cinema and pizza. This year we bought a board game)

It’s called Ticket to Ride: Europe and we bought it partly to remind us of our  rail journey through Europe this summer.

Playing board games: Ticket to Ride (Europe)

Board games at Christmas: Ticket to Ride

We’re still working out all the instructions (one thing I’m learning is how complicated some board games can be when you buy ones for older ages). The aim of the game appears to be to create as many rail routes as you can throughout Europe (the longer the route the more points you get) but there are other elements to it as well: creating long distance routes, building train stations etc.

A few years ago I wrote an article on board games for Green Parent magazine. I really enjoyed writing it, interviewing families who like to play games and researching the different types of games that are out there: board games, cards, cooperative games. I’m sure it’s quite obvious but research indicates that playing games helps children to develop numeracy, literacy and emotional skills. I think they are great levellers in families: people of all ages get to play together and everyone is equal.  I concluded by saying:

“Playing games can create happy experiences where family and friends come together. It can reflect old traditions or make new ones and is something that includes everyone, whatever their age or ability.”

I hope you get the chance to dig out the board game this holiday. What are your favourites?

The benefits of not having a car


the benefits of not having a car

First of all I should come clean and say that we do own a car. When we moved to the village 13 years ago my husband rode a motorbike, or took the bus, and I drove the car to work and childcare. Then I gave up work and his job changed. He now drives every day to work in Bristol and I am, more or less, car free. I do have some access to my parents’ car (they also live in the village) but this is intermittent.

Living without regular access to a car in a small village with a limited bus service has proved challenging. Yet we have deliberately chosen not to buy another car for four reasons:

  1. We can’t afford to buy and run another car without incurring debt
  2. For environmental reasons
  3. Parking is very limited
  4. We don’t really need one

I also enjoy the ‘freedom’ that not having a car generates. Yes, I know that sounds odd but I like being free from having to commit to things that mean I have to get in the car to drive to them. It means that when the children were little I didn’t have to strap them in their car seats to go to 101 activities. Instead, we stayed at home, saved money and did our own things at our own pace.

To me, the benefits of being car-free are many:

  1. We make our own entertainment. When I look back on the time before the girls went to school I remember the small, precious things like going on walks to look at the sheep, visiting the village parks or being inventive like exploring the churchyard or playing in our Millennium wood. Now that they are older they have friends to play and my eldest goes on walks and bike rides with friends. Although my husband and I do have the car we are far too lazy to use it to go out socially and, instead, have a great social life with friends within the village (our 80s party every January has become legendary!)
  2. We make full use of local facilities. Our village has a small cafe that opens twice a week so I often meet friends for coffee or we may go there after school for a treat. On Wednesdays we use the mobile library (sadly soon to become a fortnightly service). When the children were small I was actively involved in the local Toddler group and Playgroup, and made some great friends there.
  3. We shop locally – or get deliveries. I know I have gone on a lot about our doorstep milk delivery which I cannot praise enough. We also get a fortnightly veg and fruit box delivered and, once a month, I have a supermarket delivery. When we run out of groceries, I use one of our three two local shops (newsagent with some Post Office services, Post Office, Premier Express). I also rely on the internet a lot for when I just can’t get out to buy presents, clothing etc.
  4. We use the bus. My children have always used the bus. Even when the two youngest were tiny and I had to struggle to get the buggy on board we have found ways to use this service. The bus travels five times a day to Bath and, despite the hefty fee (£6.40 for an 8 mile journey) it’s still cheaper than driving and parking. During the school holidays the kids go free so we often find ourselves heading into the city for the day. This service is a lifeline for people like me, and those villagers who don’t drive. UPDATE: since taking on a job in Bath at the beginning of 2017 the bus has been even more of a lifeline: it’s how I get to work every morning (arriving at my desk for 8.30am) and it’s how I get home (picking up the 5.45pm from the bus station). Without the service I would really struggle to get to my job and, as I work in central Bath, buying a car to park nowhere near my job, would be ridiculous.
  5. We say no. As I mentioned when the girls were little we just didn’t go to baby gym, singing sessions, baby signing, baby yoga etc. (unless I could get there by car). We have always adapted our needs to what can actually be achieved. The children have Saturday swimming classes because that’s when the car is free. Sometimes saying ‘no’ can make our life easy (and cheap) but sometimes it’s hard. My eldest would like to do after school clubs but that’s just not possible. At present she does a drama course one evening per week and we have to make complicated travel arrangements for it to work.
  6. We walk (and sometimes we get wet!) We are a ten minute walk from school and I am constantly amazed when I see neighbours drive to school. Yet I’m also envious on wet and cold days. But we adapt and I have long since invested in wet weather gear for drizzly school runs.

However I don’t want to give the impression that living in a village without a regular car is easy. There are times where we really struggle and I can become exasperated at how difficult it can be. Last week I had to travel six miles to another town. I had to take two buses, it took me nearly an hour and cost £8 in total (for two single tickets!). Being without a car in a rural location is no joke and only serves to highlight how important those village services – both public (subsidised bus, mobile library, schools, doctors, internet access and speed!) and private (pubs, shops, cafes, classes) – are. It’s more important than ever that we support them, and fight for them to stay.

Waste Free Holiday Travel

Last month our family of five travelled through Europe. We went to France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium by rail. We stayed in hotels, hostels, with friends,  and we also spent ten days camping (in a ready erected tent).

As we had made a conscious decision to travel by train  I was also determined to minimise our impact on the environment. I have been trying to reduce my consumption of single use plastic for a while as well as trying to follow some zero waste principles. It seemed that a rail holiday through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe would be the perfect opportunity to put some zero waste ideas into action. This proved to be a great learning experience for us all.

Below are the things that worked for us – and didn’t

  1. Toiletries. Having discovered Lush last year when taking part in Plastic Free July I  returned to the store to purchase solid shampoo and conditioner bars plus a gentle body and face soap. I also bought my first ever compostable toothbrush:

Zero Waste toiletries: Lush shampoo and conditioner bars; compostable toothbrush

It turned out that, despite reading mixed reviews, the compostable toothbrush was great. This is the second holiday I have packed Lush products and, although they are small and have less of an environmental impact, we did find that they were fiddly to use and the shampoo and conditioner didn’t work well enough for me.

2. Picnic Set. I added to my Zero Waste Travel Kit with a small metal sandwich box and reusable bamboo straws. We also took sporks, napkins and (somehow smuggled through security) a small vegetable knife.

The picnic kit was invaluable. We could put all sorts of leftovers in the metal sandwich box (which had two compartments and a separate smaller tin). As most of our train journeys were at least four hours we got into a routine of buying food before embarking and then making up sandwiches, cutting fruit etc when on board. Some of the food came in plastic wrapping but by making up our sandwiches etc we did save some waste.

 

3. Water bottles.

Although made of plastic, our collection of water bottles proved to be one of the best buys. The girls each had one of these leak-proof bottles. The top unscrewed and became a small cup. My husband also had a foldable water bottle.

Images waste free travel: reusable water bottles

 

I used my trusty thermos-type bottle which is also great at keeping drinks cold. I also added some sprigs of mint to the flask to add more flavour.

Drinking out waste free

These were invaluable and probably the best thing we took. Public water fountains seem to be more prevalent in mainland Europe and we were able to fill up everywhere. When we arrived at the campsite in 38 degrees heat we made the mistake of buying a pack of plastic water bottles from the supermarket. But after this we relied totally on the standpipes, which meant we didn’t have to pay out for water at the supermarket or have to carry it back!

Waste Free Travel: refilling water bottles in Milan

4. Onya produce bags and other reusable bags

This was our most successful holiday for using cloth bags. We barely bought a plastic bag (and when we did these became rubbish bags). The Onya produce bags were great for buying fruit and vegetables at the campsite and at other markets. Although most shopkeepers weren’t familiar with them there was never a problem with filling and weighing them.

Plastic Free shopping: net produce bags

5. Recycling. While I’m more of a fan of pre-cycling, or refusing packaging in the first place, I was impressed by the number of recycling options there were on our travels. Having camped in France a couple of years ago where there was barely any recycling facilities I was delighted to see so many bins on our Italian campsite (apologies: I think I became a bit of a ‘bin bore’ on holiday). As you would expect the German trains had some great recycling options and, when staying with friends in Holland, I was amazed by the prevalence of recycling bins at the end of nearly every street.

While I would like to give the impression that we were waste free on our travels this wasn’t strictly true. I had two ‘fails’: when it came to using straws I completely failed to use the bamboo ones as I kept forgetting to take them with me. I also realise I need to get a reusable coffee cup to fit underneath coffee machines as my insulated flask does not do this.

In conclusion I  think we reduced our waste a little while on holiday, and am pleased with our use of cloth bags and water bottles. There were some situations where, due to the heat, children’s appetites and lack of time, we had to use disposable items. If you want to travel completely zero waste I think you have to really plan ahead and it’s hard to do this if you are travelling with limited baggage.

 

Travelling by rail through Europe – and how quickly things have changed

Last month I wrote this post about our impending travels through Europe. 20 days, 11 trains and seven countries later we returned home with heaps of washing, very few souvenirs and lots of amazing memories.

We saw some wonderful sights: huge cathedrals, stunning countryside, lakes and mountains, historic cities and cultural sites.

Travelling by train proved to be so easy and hassle free. We were only delayed twice (both short delays on Eurostar). Booking through the fantastic Loco2 website proved to be so easy (despite my doubts about paperless ticketing). And, yes our £22 individual tickets from Paris to Milan (7 1/2 hour journey) really were valid! The trains were amazing – the majority of them were roomy and comfortable and we even experienced the dining carriage while travelling through the Brenner Pass in Austria.

Our kids became great train travellers, managing to climb aboard each carriage, find their seats and then occupy themselves for up to seven hours.

However I feel that I can’t finish this post without commenting on how much the Europe that we travelled through only one month ago has changed.

It seems incredible to think that less than a month ago we were at Munich train station. Since then the city has seen tens of thousands of refugees arrive. It is amazing to think that we were able to travel freely through seven countries, barely having to show our passports because of the Schengen Agreement which allows/did allow for document-free border crossings. We weren’t turned away at borders, we didn’t have to fight to get on board trains or sleep outside railway stations. At the end of our holiday we could return to our own safe island.

Yet as I write the European continent is now struggling with 400,000 refugees. This has become the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War and it shows no sign of improving.

Red Cross Refugee Crisis Appeal

UNHCR Appeal

 

Slow Travel Through Europe

In just over a week we will be embarking on a family holiday to mainland Europe. We will be visiting/passing through six countries – and all by rail. We won’t be driving a car for three weeks and I can’t wait!

A couple of years ago we enjoyed  a Eurocamp holiday in the South of France and travelled by train to get there. This was such a memorable experience that we have decided to branch out and visit Lake Garda in Italy by rail. One of the main criteria for booking the Eurocamp site was that it was close to a train station and we could get around by foot, bike, boat and rail – without the need for a car.

We will be away for three weeks and have extended our rail plans to include a visit to Germany and then the Netherlands, to stay with friends. We used the excellent Loco2 website to book all the tickets

Our itinerary is something like this:

Ashford International (UK) to Paris on Eurostar

Overnight in Paris 

Paris to Milan

This is a seven and half hour TGV service. Having taken the TGV in 2013 we know how comfortable they are. The kids can read, play games and go to the toilet whenever they want! We get to sit back, enjoy the scenery and have a glass of wine! Overnight in Milan

Milan to Lake Garda

On our way back from Lake Garda we will be travelling:

Lake Garda to Munich

We will be travelling through Austria on this one . I’m looking forward to the beautiful scenery.Two nights in Munich

Munich to Colgone

Overnight in Colgone

Cologne to Leiden, The Netherlands

Staying with friends

Leiden to Ashford, via Brussels

This is a four and half hour hour train trip, including 50 mins in Brussels

When we’ve told friends and family about our rail trip they have been surprised and curious. Many have asked about luggage for the five of us. We will be hiring linen and towels at the campsite. We will be staying in a ready erected tent and don’t need any camping equipment as it is supplied for us. I will talk a little more in detail about our packing in another post but, suffice to say, we will be taking two backpacks (adults), one wheelie suitcase (oldest daughter) and day packs for our younger children.

People have also asked about the cost of travelling by train versus flying. For me, flying isn’t even a consideration. For a start, I hate flying. It is not an enjoyable experience and I can’t bear to think about the emissions. On the Loco2 website it details how much CO2 you have saved on a journey, as compared with flying. I also don’t want to travel by car all the way, and then get stuck in traffic jams around Lake Garda, which we have been warned about.

For us, travelling slowly by train is part of the holiday. It allows us time to sit back, talk to each other, play games and enjoy the changing scenery. We will also be stopping at some major European cities where we will have time to visit and explore the sights, rather than flying to an anonymous airport or driving on a motorway.

When we had a quick look at pricing a flight home from Amsterdam to Bristol, as opposed to taking the Eurostar home, it was £50 cheaper. This included parking fees, petrol costs etc. But we didn’t factor in the things you can’t pay for: the ease of checking in and less security restrictions; the thrill of actually arriving in a city rather than some tarmacked terminal on the outskirts; travelling through six countries and seeing the scenery change; listening to different languages being spoken on the train; letting someone else do the driving etc etc.

It may be a cliche but, for us, the journey is part of the holiday.