Recurring dreams

Last night we went on a secondary school open evening. The boy is in year 6 now. Somehow he has changed from a small boy looking belligerently at us to an almost secondary school aged boy who still manages to look belligerently at us. Time passes for us all.

The opening even was interesting. It was full of portents and omens for a start. As we sat down for the heads speech, the music department and choir did a rendition of Shine on You Crazy Diamond from Wish You Were Here, my favourite album. They even did a pretty good job of it too. Auspicious indeed.

Going round all the departments, it was clear that while the fabric of the building didn’t seem fundamentally any newer than the school I left in 1993 (that’s 24 years ago now), the overall approach certainly was. My class at Broxbourne School was so ill behaved, we never progressed past the recorder in 3 years of music lessons and the opportunities afforded us in basic education don’t seem as expansive as they do today for our kids, even in a climate of swingeing cuts and austerity. View Full Post

Staycation away from home with Original Cottages this October half term

The summer holidays are only just over but we’ve already booked next summers (they book up early you know!) and are now looking to see if we can get away for a few days over the October half term holidays. This particular term always fills me with dread; after the late August bank holiday, the next official day off work for me is Christmas Day, so we always try to do something over half term, even if it’s only for a day or two, just so that we have something to look forward to.

While company’s like Original Cottages offer unique locations to stay around the UK, the weather is something that can’t be escaped towards the backend of the year, so what can family’s do when the sun has gone and Autumn has set in with it’s usual severity? After a disappointing staycation last October half term, we came up with the idea of a staycation at a holiday cottage. That sounds barmy doesn’t it but hear me out, it will, I promise make sense.

One of the things we tried to do on our actual stay at home staycation last year was hold our own mini music festival (we’d missed out on our favourite one, Nozstock, due to ill health), so we set a day, intending to have a BBQ, music, some bunting making sessions and everything. Intentions were one thing but what we actually ended up doing was spending half the day tidying up and doing chores, then doing a supermarket shop, and finally firing up the BBQ at about 6pm, with a bit of music on. Even that was a failure as the kids were properly browned off by then and I couldn’t blame them. Staycationing at home doesn’t work because all the stuff you need to do at home still needs to be done, be it chores, DIY or all the other things you escape from when you’re on holiday.

This is where the idea of a holiday cottage staycation comes into it’s own. You take your board games, your video game console (current, or like us a retro game console), a bluetooth speaker and you spend some time reconnecting as a family, away from the routine and the routine distractions of home. You don’t even need to go out exploring if they weather is duff, you can simple stay in and chill together.

We’ve recently started playing board games as a family (Ned, who is five goes on a “team” with one of the older kids) and took one away with us the other week- Codenames (a Golden Geek Best Family Board Game Winner!), and we had great fun playing it one evening without all the usual distractions of tablets, Netflix and routine.

Almost every cottage we’ve stayed in over the last 3 or 4 years has had a TV with a HDMI port. This comes in to it’s own with my secret weapon, our RetroPie retrogaming set up. Modelled like a Commodore 64 cassette deck, it lets us play old Super Nintendo, Megadrive and arcade games in a package thats only marginally bigger than two packs of playing cards stacked atop each other. The kids can’t wander off into their bedrooms and do their own thing, they’re stuck in a perpetual round of family time that there is no escaping from, and you know what? It is strangely comforting despite the initial reservations they have. I’m a big fan of secondary communication when it comes to finding out how our kids are getting on. If you just sit them down and ask them how they’re feeling, they don’t open up much. Work your way through 100 levels of Bubble Bobble with them, using a credit each in turn, and they volunteer all sorts of information that you can use to help them through life with.

Finally, have you ever come back from a holiday and been asked how your break was by a friend or work colleague and answered, “It was brilliant but I need a holiday to recover from my holiday!“? That’s a response I frequently give because we tend to pack our holidays- last week alone we visited 5 castles, a wool mill, went on 4 long hikes AND still spent half the day on the beach body boarding every single day. On top of a six hour drive each way, a staycation a couple of hours drive away would be the perfect antidote!

Signs your 5 year old is playing too many video games

Checkpoint!

Freshly back from our summer holiday in sunny Pembrokeshire, I’m really convinced I need to cut our littlest’s time playing on the Xbox One down a bit.

I’m not one of these parents who thinks “video games, oh noes!” because I think gaming promotes many good attributes: problem solving, co-ordination, team work, patience and competitiveness. However I do believe in moderation and a few things happened on holiday that made me think that Ned needs to learn a little bit of moderation…

We reached a gate on the walk we were on. Ned gleeful climbed up the gate, sat on the top and shouted “checkpoint!” at the top of his voice. This is not normal.

One day we walked down to a beach from the car-park of a wool mill. It was a pleasant walk on a sunny day, and when we finally got there we were rewarded with a tiny pebbly beach in a beautiful little cove. It was a nice place to stop for lunch so we did. After lunch we piled up some larger rocks and had a game of seeing who could knock them over. Ned not only managed to get the “high score”, he also “levelled up” too. This too is not normal.

I think the real give away though was his obsession with getting a new high score on Crossy Road. Yes, that was the giveaway now that I think about it.

The Pink Floyd Exhibition Their Mortal Remains at the V&A Museum

On Saturday morning I found myself sitting on a train on my way to the V&A for an exhibition entitled Their Mortal Remains. It isthe first significant retrospective of Pink Floyd and their work that a museum has undertaken and as a die in the wool fan for over twenty years, I would have kicked myself if I’d missed it.

As I rode the Thameslink service into Blackfriars I listened to Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here on my headphones, filled with a mixture of nostalgia and melancholia. I still listen to both albums regularly; probably more than anything else I’ve heard in the years since I weighed up spending my hard earned cash on an album with only 5 songs on it. View Full Post

That’s numberwang!

Kicking back with a buddy a couple of weeks ago with a few ales and my good friend Alexa, we devised a new game called ‘30 something‘. It’s not a complicated game but in our defence, it was about half past midnight and we had progressed to the 7% beer (at the beginning of the evening, we arranged the bottles in order of increasing strength). Basically you pick a famous child actor or actress and say, “Alexa, how old is this person?” and whoever gets closest to 35 wins that round.

Things went well until my chum progressed to being so drunk that Alexa could no longer recognise his voice and just simply ignored him. In that sense I figured AI had actually become more impressive than I realised- here was a female voiced AI basically ignoring a drunkards attempts at conversation. Good show Alexa.

Meanwhile, in a bit of non sequitur, I managed to tweet this:

 

Just think of it as a Mitchell & Webb tribute tweet.

Review: Ticket to Ride Europe

For my first foray into the Board Game Club, we’ve been playing Ticket to Ride Europe. This is a sequel to Ticket to Ride, which I hadn’t heard of either. Part of the reason I took up the offer to join the board game club was my board gaming sort of exists in a 1980’s milieu of Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk. And, if I’m going to be brutally honest, a few MB kids games like Frustration and Ludo. I’ve not moved on and as we’re trying to cut down on the amount of telly we watch, it seemed like a great idea.

Ticket to Ride impresses from the off- it’s a very sturdy (and heavy) box, and the board itself is enormous, taking up a large chunk of the table.

Setting up the game involves giving each player 45(!!!) train carriages, some stations and cards. There are a few nice touches with regard to the pieces; the carriages are made from a “nice” plastic, and I didn’t have to pop them out of a sheet or anything (a bugbear of the more recent kids games I’ve played). There is also a little bag with a couple of spares for each of the players in case any get lost. These are nice little touches which add to the impression of quality.

For those of you, like me, who haven’t played any of the Ticket to Ride series before, you play the game something like this:

Players choose tickets that show 2 cities that they need to connect with train routes. On their turn, players can take one of three actions:

  1. Collect train cards, either from the draw pile or from a set of five cards laid face up beside the board. Players do this to collect sets of cards of the same colour.
  2. Claim a route by discarding a set of cards which match the colour & length of the route. A grey route can be claimed by a set of any colour. This is how players build their routes to complete tickets. Players also score points for doing this and the longer the route is, the more points you score for that route.
  3. Draw tickets; you have to keep at least one of the tickets drawn each turn. Ticket scoring is done at the end of the game.
  4. Build a station on any city. Players have 3 stations to use during the game if they wish. Building stations costs tickets but the trade off can be beneficial as stations allow you to use a single route of an opponent as if it were your own for the purposes of completing tickets. However if you don’t use your stations then they are worth 4 points each at the end of the game.

 

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is- I think the biggest problem I had during our time playing it was lining up my 40 odd carriages in an aesthetically pleasing manner. For me, the biggest issue with any new board game is fathoming the rules out and with Ticket to Ride Europe it wasn’t too difficult to get stuck in playing.

Apparently Ticket To Ride has been around in various forms since 2004. Ticket to Ride Europe has been out since 2009, and refines some of the rules (ferries and tunnels have been introduced along with stations). It plays like a mature game that knows what it’s doing and it’s a great introduction to the Esdevium Blogger Board Game Club for us. The games we’re playing have and will be provided for free, based on a survey I did to give an indication of what we might like. So far so good!

Ticket to Ride Europe has an RRP of £37.99 but can typically be picked up for about a tenner less.

The BT TV Summer activity pack is here to help

“Summer has set in with its usual severity”, is one of my favourite quotes. It’s by this chap called Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a 19th Century poet who is famous for Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Iron Maiden based a song on it) and Kubla Khan (you know, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree”). He might have popped his clogs a considerable while ago but sadly it seems he knew a thing or two about summer.

With the school holidays now upon us, it seems a long time since the gloriously sunny 30 degree heatwave we had in the south of England. It’s currently 18 degrees out, we’re on holiday and the beach is beckoning once we have waterproof trousers, coats and jumpers on.

Our kids are a hardy bunch, which is fortunate when the weather’s like this but the big issue we have is on our travels (self catering in Norfolk this time), none of the cottages or holiday homes we stay in have more than the bog standard freeview channels. The kids can barely cope with this in the rain. If the weather was better, they’d be out in the garden doing a reasonable approximation of a Victorian pickpocket gang fighting a turf war but when it’s wet, and all their wet stuff from a day out is dripping over the tiled kitchen floor, they end up sitting around and complaining rather than reading books, or losing the pieces to the one jigsaw puzzle the cottage owners have put in a cupboard in concession to children staying in the place.
Fortunately, BT have the answer with their BT TV kids offering. BT TV Kids offers a mix of nine channels including Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Ranging from Peppa Pig (my favourite) to PAW Patrol (Ned’s favourite) there are over 2,000 episodes of kids entertainment on demand in the BT Player. Older kids (and again me) are catered for with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars Rebels, Ultimate Spider- Man, and Marvel’s Avengers Assemble.

While the rain gently attempts to break the double glazing and the main TV has Flog It! on while we drink a cup of tea, the kids are huddled around the iPad watching Alvin and the Chipmunks. Disaster is averted and we can all dry out before venturing to the artisan fish ‘n’ chip emporium for fish served with chips in a mini shopping trolley.


We firmly believe in all things in moderation (except chocolate because that’s a weakness), so it does help that BT TV Kids has also provided a handy downloadable activity booklet that you can print out and take with you on holiday too. There are games, colouring, puzzles, join the dots and even bunting to make. We tend to use things like this in a couple of different ways- firstly to stop the fights over who watches what, and secondly for competitions- who can do the best colouring, whose bunting looks the most summer fete like, that sort of thing. When you’re on holiday, it’s important you have a rest as well as doing fun stuff, so we always try to ensure the kids have plenty to keep themselves occupied while mum and dad have a nice cup of tea to recover from the traumatic trip to a wild life centre or something.

BT TV has also launched a competition that challenges children to put pen to paper this summer and create their own PAW Patrol pup design. Click here to enter or visit www.bt.com/drawpatrol to find out more.

This is an #ad in conjunction with BT TV. Words, images, and children are all my own. Anybody want to borrow a five year old?

Disney Store’s Spider-Man costume in action!

Spider-Man (the hyphen is important you know!) is one of the most important super heroes for kids. He’s wholesome and little more than a kids himself. And he also has the coolest costume, which is why when Disney Store offered our 5 year old Ned the new Spider-Man costume and the Nerf shooter to go with it, he literally hit the ceiling with excitement. He spends a lot of time running around pretending to be super heroes as it is. Spider-Man is one of those heroes that has a strong moral code and would never really hurt someone, which is a lesson we always remind Ned about!

The new Spider-Man costume is a little darker than the older ones, and the mask is an improvement too. It is defintely more Spider-Man than dressing up Spider-Man and Ned absolutely loved it as you can see from the video below:

The Nerf shooter is wrist operated, and thankfully he hasn’t quite got the hang of the aim just yet, otherwise I’d be in trouble! I particularly like the little web bits under the armpits, which are a great detail that’s true to the actual costume. Ned loves it, and I do too. It’s just a shame that they don’t do it in my size!

The costume has an RRP of £30.99, the Nerf Shooter £24.99. Being Spider-Man itself is priceless! If your little one wants to be Spider-Man you can head on over to the Disney Store and have a look at their Spider-Man page.

Review: Nozstock 2017

2017 saw the 19th annual Nozstock Festival. Set in the Herefordshire countryside, Nozstock is a boutique festival for around 5,000 people who seem pretty universally happy by the whole prospective of a weekend of sunshine (and showers) and some great music.

Friday night saw Seasick Steve take to the stage, and Sunday evening saw the festival finish with the Happy Mondays. In between we caught some great acts like Professor Elemental, Hayseed Dixie, the wonderful Le Galaxie and Goldie Looking Chain.

Friday was a bit Biblical in the weather sense; thunderstorms that seemed like someone had severely pissed Thor off. Fortunately the ground staff are super organised and seemed to have 3 billion tons of sawdust, which got thickly coated on all the areas that accumulated mud, making the site much easier to navigate without a pair of wellies on.

Saturday morning started brilliantly with Drum and Bounce, a drum and bass dance work out, which was notable for teaching me how to skank and triple skank. Prior to this, I had thought that a skank was some bloke who was a bit of a ne’er do well, so I learnt something too, even if all the kids laughed at my timing.

We let the eldest go off with some friends kids (who were a couple years older than he was) because this is exactly the sort of festival that is great for kids. The only thing that wasn’t child friendly was some of the rather colourful language from the musicians up on stage but to be honest the day that Shaun Rider manages to keep the swears in check will be the day they bury him six feet deep.

As well as a lot of jolly young people, there is a feeling of safety surrounding Nozstock. The site is small enough and while full, not crammed to the seams, that it maintains an intimate air that isn’t intimidating to kids.

 

We’re at #nozstock

A post shared by Alex Walsh (@daddacool) on


I think a personal favourite of mine was Professor Elemental- we’d seen the other big star of chap-hop, Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer, a couple of years ago and it was good to see the man who wrote Fighting Trousers.

Next year’s Nozstock is the 20th Anniversary, and is bound to be something unbelievably special. As it stands, Nozstock is a hidden gem (well, it is in the hidden valley), a venue that attracts great, if not necessarily world famous for the most part artists. Headliners like Seasick Steve and the Happy Mondays might sell tickets but artists like The Meow Meows and Little Big Stuff find themselves added to the Spotify playlist for the drive home.

In the summertime when the weather is hot you can stretch right up and touch the sky

This school summer holiday is a bit of a landmark one in the ‘Cool household. The littlest is finishing reception and moving into year 1 and the eldest is finishing year 5 and will be starting his last year of primary school. Terrifying.

It’s also the first year that we’ll have faced the summer holidays as two full time working parents. Of course when we booked our summer holidays back last autumn, this wasn’t the case, I was working full time while my wife was on a 22 hour a week part time contract. This was loaded into two very long days, with a couple of hours on Friday morning as a top up as necessary. It meant that between us, a few days of annual leave and some grand parent involvement covered most of last years summer holidays. This year is decidedly different though. View Full Post