So, children, what have we learned?


Day out at the Horniman

It is almost the end of half-term, our first term of the Big Girl being at school. The week has gone by in a flash, bringing back memories of half term holidays gone by – the big rush to get everything done which we no longer have time to do during a regular week, buying vests and winter coats, the homework hanging over you, the frantic washing of school clothes – but it has also been a brief respite from the new regime and a chance to catch my breath.

So, how has it been so far? The bits which are easier than I expected – the settling in, and the parting at the school gates, not nearly as bad as I feared. We can go right into the classroom, I can hang up her coat and bag and see her settle down on the rug to begin the first task of the day, so it’s a very gentle process. There were a few grumbles the first week, but since then it’s been pretty smooth, and she is (as I fully expected), happy to be there. 

I dreaded the morning routine itself – the slog of getting out on time every single day, the clean clothes, the tidying of hair and cleaning shoes – but once you are locked into the rhythm, it just becomes what you do. I haven’t, as far as I know, left the house with toothpaste smeared on my cheek or in slippers, but hey, there’s plenty of time for that yet.

I expected to feel the anguish of ‘letting go’ of my child at the school gates; I worried that she’d ‘belong’ to school and not to us any more, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – she rushes out of school ready to tell me about the day, (luckily she’s not the classic schoolchild who forgets everything the moment they’re outside the school gate). 

I hear all the news and gossip, what she had for lunch, what happened at break time, what she made that day (so MUCH handmade craft & stuff coming home every _single_ day). 

Most of all, I know she was ready for the big change – she does talk sometimes about ‘missing preschool’, but there is no doubt the challenge of school has been a Good Thing.

Where the strangeness of it has hit me is in the little things – the fact that I had to clear out the Big Girl’s clothes drawer, and realised she hardly needed new clothes any more, just endless school polo shirts, whilst her little sister has an ever-growing pile of hand-me-downs to squeeze into. 

The fact that, even though the school day is so much longer than preschool, the day seems to flash by, and 3 o’clock comes round faster than I ever imagined. 

And I look forward so much to that walk home, her scooting alongside me and knowing we have the prospect of a quiet hour with cup of tea and a sit down waiting. Our days are less busy now, no more day trips or afternoons in the park after preschool, but getting home earlier means a calmer, better paced evening routine, which I appreciate.

The fact that when she leaves school, she doesn’t just tell me about her day, she asks what I’ve been doing with the baby sister, where we went, what we had for lunch, is lovely. She wants to know everything about everything right now, it seems.

Her curiosity about the world is undimmed, her enthusiasm, her own individual self-possessed self remains. I worried that school would be a cookie cutter, stamping out individuality, grinding down children into learning machines, in this bright new world of academies and SATS (or not so new, thinking of Gradgrind), and I know it’s early days, but I hope she’ll get through the system without losing too much of her spark. 

Now, just 7 1/2 weeks till Christmas. Bring it on…


Half term in Wales

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A walk around….Chatsworth

At the end of our holiday (July – how long ago that seems now!) we broke the journey with a few nights in the Peak District, an area I hadn’t stayed in since I was a Venture Scout, and I was able to fulfil a long-term dream of visiting Chatsworth.


The Great Cascade – looking up

On arriving at the house and considering all the varied and eye-watering prices for entering different parts of the site, we decided to forgo the house and just focus on the gardens and the farm/children’s play area, which could be entered separately. 

I would love to see the art collection – some other time, when not encumbered by a 4 year old and toddler – but the house itself was partly under scaffolding so the visual impact of it was somewhat reduced. In any case, for me it was all about the garden, so we got started by climbing to the top of the Great Cascade – a really impressive piece of engineering.


The Great Cascade – looking down

From there, we walked on to the rock garden, and it was here I began to see the influence of Joseph Paxton, a man I associate with my own dear Crystal Palace park, but of course his link with Chatsworth is perhaps even more enduring than that with the Crystal Palace


Rock Gardens

The tumbledown style of the rocks was very reminiscent of the earth works and rock setting of the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace park – but on a much larger, mountainous scale. It was perfect for scrambling and exploring, and whilst like any sensible parents we exercised caution, you’d be hard pressed to keep a child from climbing up these formations.

The next spectacle was the site of Paxton’s great greenhouse, and here I was surprised and initially disappointed – I had expected to see something like the houses at Kew, but there was nothing there, just a huge walled sunken garden. 


Then, on reading the display boards and recalling dimly something I’d seen on TV years ago, I realised there was no greenhouse. It was demolished, deliberately, after WWI because there were not enough staff to maintain it, and the walled garden was built around the foundations – you can still see the entrances and exits and the stairs. 

It was a beautiful, haunting place, with the ghost of the shape of the greenhouse still there, just like the great terraces at CP park hint at the huge structure that once stood there, albeit in a rather more shabby and unloved way (though the terraces and dinosaurs are getting some long overdue restoration, I’m glad to say).

I could happily have sat there for hours soaking in the atmosphere – and handily there were some outdoor games like Jenga to occupy the kids – but we needed lunch, so we headed back to the stables block via the back of the house. 

This gave us a chance to see a bit more of Chatsworth’s famous outdoor art, including Henry Moore.


Art at Chatsworth 

I also liked the memorial to what must have been a much loved pet, and the horse sculpture in the stable yard was a big hit – no one objected to children being lifted on it for photos (see above) and its back had been well-polished to a shine after years of children climbing up there. 

After lunch we went to the farm and play area – an extremely ambitious adventure playground, with a stream running through it and lots of sand and messy play. Here we came up against one big problem – we had (for the first time in a long while!) forgotten the changing bag, meaning no nappies or spare clothes – the horror! A kind passing mum who saw our plight was able to lend us a spare nappy, so we were safe on that front, but no spare clothes meant neither child was allowed to throw themselves into wet play with abandon. Boo hiss.


There wasn’t much in the way of garden to admire in this area, but there was on one side of the farmyard a beautiful wall, thick with moss, lichens and toadflax – a really gorgeous sight.

From the play area we walked back into the main gardens for me to have a final snoop around the remaining glasshouses (some of which didn’t have public access, in fact, nor did the areas I assumed from the maps to be kitchen gardens – these were all staff access only).

However there was one much earlier glasshouse – one of the first ever purpose built, in fact, housing a collection of camellias and passion flowers…


…and back on the edge of the lawn outside, a wild flower meadow – well, the most manicured, least scruffy wild flower meadow I’ve ever seen – with a range of colours of cornflowers the like of which I’ve never seen before. It may not be strictly as nature intended, but it was impressive.

My lasting impression of Chatsworth will be the sheer epic scale of it. The setting of the house itself was not quite as monumental as I’d been led to believe – I think I was expecting the drama of seeing it for the first time as Elizabeth Bennett sees Pemberley – but the surrounding car parks and the scaffolding detracted from that a bit. However, the impact of the grounds themselves, the scale of what was undertaken in a project like Paxton’s greenhouse, was unforgettable. 

It’s not a warm and cosy garden, not intimate, despite all the secluded glades and winding paths – you are aware all the time that you’re on the film set of some epic family saga, with so many famous names associated with Chatsworth – the Kennedys as well as the Mitfords, Cavendishes and the royal family, Lucian Freud, and the other artists Debo Mitford supported. It was a thrilling experience – and I will be back one day to do the interior.