A walk around…Hever Castle

I thought I’d written about Hever Castle before – I thought I remembered the blog quite clearly, but when I went back to search for it, no such blog existed. 

Then it came back to me – we went in early March 2015, when the toddler would only have been a month old (looking back, I’m amazed we did such an ambitious trip so early on) and I was at the height of my Wolf Hall obsession, just after the TV adaptation had aired. Baby brain being what it was, I had never got round to writing about it.

I had read Bring Up the Bodies on holiday the previous summer, in the first trimester of pregnancy. I spent a LOT of time in a hammock in the garden of a French gite, reading and sleeping. The heart-wrenching climax, sharpening towards the fate of Anne Boleyn had, in my hormone-addled state, preyed on my mind, and when the same grim scene was replicated on TV I was right back there in that hammock feeling emotionally drained all over again.

So, (despite the emotional trauma) new baby in tow, we went off to see the Boleyn childhood home, (for purposes of admiring spring flowers, as well as the pursuit of history) and almost exactly 2 years later, we came back to do it all over again.


It was a little past the best of the snowdrop season, but there were still plenty of them, plus banks of crocuses and primroses – no surprises, but lovely nevertheless.


The site has good woodland paths to explore – possible with a lightweight buggy, though there are steps;  we barely did any of this last time, so I was evidently still at the stage of shuffling round at that point and the heavy-duty buggy would have held us back a bit. What a difference two years makes!


The part of the gardens we had explored the last time were perhaps not at their best – the formal Italian-style gardens were fairly bare, but I loved this sculptural heavily pruned tree with a splash of purple crocuses beneath.


Closer to the castle, inevitably the gardens get more Elizabethan – the most OTT topiary I’ve ever seen….


And of course there is a maze – thankfully an easy one, I went in with the big girl, let her take the lead and we were in the middle within minutes. Waaay too easy!


And another thing I’d missed on the first trip, an entire chess set in topiary.


What we didn’t do this time was go inside the castle – first time round I was lapping up all the Wolf Hall connections, and there was some fairly interesting history of the house itself alongside all the copies of the familiar Tudor portraits. 

Would be nice to see it all again without the baby brain-fog and take a little more in, but it was cheaper to just go into the gardens and it was a nice enough day to stay outside in any case. By the time we’d taken in the adventure playground, lunch and first ice creams of the year, we certainly felt we’d done it justice.


Now if Hilary Mantel would just hurry up and finish the last part of her trilogy, I will be able to get Wolf Hall fever all over again. (One other place I MUST go is Penshurst Place – very near Hever – which was used  as a filming location for the TV drama).

The Twelve(ish) Books of Christmas

This blog is rather unapologetically taken over by Christmas at this time of year, and I realise the posts have got rather repetitive (though rest assured I am not missing out on my annual wreath round-up, no siree). 

And then I remembered I had not done a post about my favourite Christmas books. Hurrah! Problem solved. And then in a piece of perfect serendipity, I was reunited with a favourite Christmas book I’d loved and lost years ago: 

 

The Lion Christmas book was a book I poured over for hours, all year round – if I ever wanted to evoke the spirit of Christmas, I simply picked it up and dipped in.

It is the perfect Christmas anthology in that it has a balance of stories, crafts and baking ideas, poems and non-fiction (‘Christmas traditions around the world’, etc).

There is a lot of religious content, but much of it used to explain Christmas traditions – the origins of St Nicholas, the legend of a frosty spiders web inspiring tinsel – and it tells the Christmas story beginning to end, including Herod and the flight to Egypt, so it pulls no punches there.

It is sentimental, terribly naff and much too godly for my tastes now, but I still love it. I was thrilled to find a copy on a charity bookstall and after years of wondering if I’d ever see it again, am delighted to own my own copy once more.

The first Christmas book I remember, though, I have never parted with (and no intention of ever doing so). I was surprised to discover that my copy from 1981 is a first edition, I assumed it was much earlier than that, as the feel of it is more 1950s-60s.

Nevertheless, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas is very reminiscent of my 1980s childhood in lots of ways, but with an added bit of Shirley Hughes magic – look at those lush borders around the edge of the page, hung with gingerbread men and all sorts of other goodies. 

In Shirley Hughes’ world, there are always roaring fires to come home to, snow at Christmas, real candles on the tree, (who ever does that, nobody in 1981 that I knew of) and Salvation Army bands playing in the town centre. 

None of that was really part of my childhood, but the book still takes me back there in other ways, as there is much that reminds me of the Christmas build-up – the home-made cards, the nativity scene, the waking up early on Christmas morning. 

It’s the tiny details that make this book lovely – the cotton wool snow and gold paper star on the Nativity is a particular favourite picture of mine, but it is also famous for acknowledging the times when Christmas isn’t so much fun.

Tom has a meltdown and goes out for a walk with Grandpa. As the book says ‘Just the two of them. The sun is very big and red’.

Simple, beautiful, and instantly brings back the memories of Christmas tantrums or cooking disasters or sickness (and she never ate blackcurrant Fruitella again), but also pitches you into a moment of pure sentiment if you, like me, wish you could have had just one more Christmas with your grandad or granny there.


Moving on from the slightly melancholic to cheerier things, I bring you Mog’s Christmas. This is much more Christmas as I knew it in the 70s/80s – more garish and kitsch, with streamers, balloons, tinsel and paper pom-poms, but rendered in Judith Kerr’s trademark soft pastel shades, it feels very homely and familiar. 

There is still snow, of course, and the story is so slight you could blow it away like a snowflake, but who cares, it’s Mog, and I love her.

That covers the top 3 books from my junior Christmas reading era, and to take it to 12 will mean either a very long blog, or several. 

I’m not sure I can even get to 12 books without more research and digging back into the memory banks, but I can do a quick run-down which hopefully may prompt me to return to this topic next year.

4. The Box of Delights: I loved the celebrated TV series as a child, but the book I’ve read countless times, one of my default comfort reads.

5. The Dark is Rising: such a well-loved fantasy book that it now has a Christmas readathon associated with it. I could write essays about this book, let alone one blog!

6. A Child’s Christmas in Wales: a staple of our family Christmas, especially the lovely edition we had illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 

7. The ‘Little House’ books: all of them have a Christmas chapter, but my favourite is By the Shores of Silver Lake, where the Ingalls family are left behind in South Dakota when nearly all the other prospective settlers go back East.

8. The Armourer’s House: one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s less well-known books, set during the reign of Henry VIII, but it reaches its climax at Christmas and delivers a supremely happy festive ending.

9. What Katy did at School: for the marvellous scene where Katy and Clover unpack their Christmas boxes and find all kinds of goodies inside. Actually the Christmas chapter in What Katy Did where she plans all kinds of surprises for her siblings is rather sweet.

10, 11 and 12 still remain unclaimed. Not even considered A Christmas Carol yet, as I suspect I’ve read it far less than the number of times I’ve watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. Another 12 months to see if I can think of something to fill in those gaps!

A visit to…Ashdown Forest

The recent mayoral elections in London may have been a messy and unpleasant affair, but there was an added benefit for us: preschool closed to become a polling station, followed by a bonus inset day, suddenly a glorious four-day weekend beckoned. We won’t get many opportunities like this left once school starts, so we have to grab ’em while we can.

I had been longing to visit Ashdown Forest, the real location which inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, and it being very conveniently a short hop away on the Sussex downs, it was a nice easy long weekend option. 

As it turned out, roadworks in Tonbridge made the ‘nice easy drive’ a nightmare, but we reached our holiday cabin (found via Airbnb, the first time we’d used it since we stayed in in Hastings in 2013) and discovered we were on the edge of a smallholding with views like this: 

– and then we realised it was probably going to all be OK. Going out to see the sheep and chickens in the morning and at bedtime became a fixture, and I felt quite sure I too could easily keep sheep and chickens and live on the side of a valley in Sussex miles from anywhere – well, maybe. There was good 3G reception there and that does count for a lot.

We spent the first afternoon exploring our local patch and only venturing into the nearby town (Heathfield) to pick up food for dinner. The next day, we set out to explore the forest.

My first destination was the legendary, real Poohsticks bridge. We have our own personal favourite Poohsticks places, at Morden Hall Park and in Wales near my parents’, but I’d always dreamed of visiting the real thing.

The bridge is deliberately hard to find – I imagine they don’t want to encourage coach parties – but having missed a turning the first time, we doubled back and found the discreetly signposted car park. 

There were several paths leading into the woods, and again the one leading directly to the bridge only had a very subtle sign indicating that this was the right route. The big girl was keen to have a proper explore, so we took a different path winding in the opposite direction, only to find that it looped back, crossed a field and took us down towards the bridge anyway. 

So we rounded a corner and there it was – 


The stream itself was pretty lazy so playing actual Poohsticks was a rather gentle affair compared to a rushing Welsh stream, but we had a good go at it. Lots of sticks had got stuck, I do wonder if the huge drifts of washed-up sticks get cleared out every so often to avoid a dam building up! 


From there, we drove to the nearby Gill’s Lap, which in the AA Milne books becomes ‘Galleon’s Lap’, Christopher Robin’s Enchanted Place. 

From the signboard at the car park, we could see that there was a circular walk taking in some of the other well-known locations – Roo’s Sandy Pit, Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, etc, but not all these were necessarily accurate to the places Milne had in mind; it was more the case of retro-fitting the key locations from the stories to make a nice child-friendly circular walk.


Unfortunately, we didn’t have the leaflet for the circular walk, and yet again the signposting wasn’t great – plus it was, by then, a very hot day with little shade, so we didn’t go further than the clump of trees on the horizon (above) – the high point of Gill’s Lap.


However even just going this short distance was very satisfying – the atmosphere of Ashdown Forest feels exactly like an EH Shephard illustration come to life. 

It may come as a surprise that so much of the ‘forest’ is actually heathland, but the landscape of gorse, heather, clumps of pine trees and sand beneath the feet is certainly a favourite habitat of mine – nice gentle walking conditions under foot, lovely views, sweet smelling gorse – give me that over a trudge through Forestry Commission plantations any day! 

The lack of shade did deter us from going any further, though, so we beat a retreat to have lunch and in the afternoon went to the Ashdown Forest visitor centre

Here we found the leaflets for guided trails which would have been useful earlier on – and did a circular walk starting from the centre which proved to be a bit of a struggle with the buggy up a steep slope and a big girl increasingly unwilling to walk any further in the heat. As much as I loved it there, I do think Ashdown Forest is somewhere we’d go back to once we’re out of the buggy years – far fewer buggy-friendly trails than we found in the New Forest last year.

The next day was spent in a more leisurely fashion travelling on the beautiful Bluebell Railway – another place of childhood dreams, with dinky little private compartments making you feel you’re on your way to Hogwarts, and if you peer out the window (not too far, boys and girls!) the sight of real steam puffing out of the engine. 


Not to mention all the glorious retro and vintage signs which adorn the stations along the way – 


The line ends (or begins, depending on which way you go), at Sheffield Park, a National Trust garden near Uckfield. We had a few hours to kill after our lunch before the return train, so we explored the grounds laid out by Capability Brown.


To be honest, masses of carefully tended rhododendrons and artfully arranged vistas of trees are not really my thing, although there was a proper wild area with bluebells that had just finished flowering, but there were some undeniably lovely views.


We finished the weekend in the best possible way, by the seaside at dear old Birling Gap which never fails to impress:


The slog of a drive back to London was the only really unpleasant prospect, not to mention returning to a stuffy house which had sweltered for 4 days with the windows shut, but we counted ourselves lucky; based on what’s come since, those 4 days appear to be the main summer we are getting this year! At least we can say, we made the most of them.

Building a library for children, part 3

I am going into dangerous territory with this blog: I am entering the world of Twee. It’s not fashionable these days, and it’s not encouraged, and I have my reservations about it as much as any other feminist, but I do like a bit of twee, of things that are fancy, sweet and tiny and pretty and dainty.

I don’t know what started it off, but I suspect an early fascination for all things miniature went hand in hand with a love of flowers – I was very keen on making miniature gardens as a child, the sort where you put moss in a plastic tray and a mirror for a pond.

As we were growing up in the countryside with parents keen on wildlife, learning the names of wild plants was a given – and my mum encouraged this by giving me my first Flower Fairy books when I was about 7. (I remember the occasion as they were a present after I’d had a very minor operation in hospital, along with what became another much loved book, Little House in the Big Woods).

I think my mum – not otherwise a fan of fairy related stuff – liked the Flower Fairies because the floral illustrations were accurate, and didn’t just focus on pretty flowers.

She pointedly *didn’t* buy me Flower Fairies of the Garden, thinking garden plants are not nearly as interesting as wild ones – and the Flower Fairies of the Wayside includes some of the most despised weeds, including groundsel and goose-grass.

The Flower Fairies of the Autumn also taught me the difference between white and black bryony, and was my first introduction to poisonous plants and berries.

This came in useful when I was able to reassure other parents at the toddler’s nursery that the plant we’d found in its  garden was in fact not deadly nightshade but the less likely to be fatal (but still nasty) woody nightshade. Phew.

Of course it helped that when I was growing up, many of these plants were commonly found in the hedgerows so I was able to learn them and recognise them – I saw them all the time.

It won’t be quite so easy for a city dwelling child, but we have woods nearby which we visit quite often, and plenty of flowers in our garden have been inspired by my childhood love of the Flower Fairies, so I hope she’ll pick up some knowledge on the way. And knowing which berries not to eat is basic common sense information all children should learn.

The poems which accompany the Flower Fairy pictures are probably verging too much on the twee even for me, but some of them are lovely – and the fairies themselves, whilst some of them have frilly dresses (see Guelder Rose, above) are pleasingly lacking in glitter and wands and so forth. Look at the Blackthorn fairy, for instance –

There’s a hairdo that hasn’t seen a brush in a while!

I throughly approve of these wild and slightly mischievous fairies – they belong to the world of fairies Shakespeare knew, of Robin Goodfellow, of the fairy folklore in Edward Thomas’ Lob (one of my favourite favourite poems) and of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.

Moving on from fairies, though, there are also animal books which enthralled me as a child and still do – Beatrix Potter was a stalwart of my childhood, meeting parental approval again because the animals were drawn accurately from life (though as has often been pointed out, how poor Potter is at drawing people!), and the Lake District was one of our favourite family holiday destinations (my copy of Mrs Tittlemouse proudly has a label inside saying it was bought at Hill Top).

So we have already got a confirmed junior Potter fan in our household, with her own Peter Rabbit money box (alongside my original set of PR china which has somehow survived childhood intact – mug, plate, bowl and eggcup!)

The other animal books which I don’t think my mum would endorse (or at least, I never owned myself as a child, but always coveted) are the Brambly Hedge series.

This is an unashamedly twee world – a place of tiny mice, of pretty flowers and lace and frills and all things dainty.   But again, the animals and plants are all drawn accurately, and it’s the level of detail I love most of all.

I think it’s the cross section drawings of the mouses’ homes which captured my imagination as a child – the winding stairs and larders and corridors disappearing around corners were fascinating, and they appealed to my love of miniature things.

The Flower Fairy pictures never showed their homes, but Brambly Hedge imagined a whole world entire, with weavers and bakers and birthday parties and weddings. It was so complete, and so perfect.

I can’t remember when I first encountered Brambly Hedge, but what I do know is that any book showing cross-sections inside houses fascinated me – and ultimately it led to another enduring passion, my own much-loved dolls house. That’s probably a blog in its own right, for another day, though.

I have made up for the lack of Brambly Hedge in my own childhood by buying the books for the toddler – but I have resisted reading them to her too much – I love them, but are they too twee and girly to merit approval these days?

I also picked up Angelina Ballerina in a charity shop, but that I think is a step too far into the world of tweeness even for me and it has remained hidden away, so far. I love ballet, but I’d far rather the toddler’s first experience of ballet (when she’s a bit older) was the Ladybird book of Ballet which I treasured as a child (and how I wish I still owned it!), and of course, Ballet Shoes. But it’s a few years until she’s ready for either of those, so I’m not sure I can keep hiding Angelina Ballerina for too long.

I am aware that there is an awful lot of projecting my own interests onto my children here: fairies, dolls houses, ballet and flowers – so I should add that we are also encouraging trains and dinosaurs too, but we don’t have so many books about these. Perhaps I should be getting some recommendations….

Building a library for children, part 2

I have no shame in admitting that if there is a kind of childhood book I love above all others, that I could never part with no matter how many I own, it is fairy tales. It may have become fashionable to knock them – or at least the Disney Princess variety of fairy tales with all the stereotyping and traditional gender roles they bring – but I came to fairy tales from a rather different direction.

I wasn’t really raised on Disney (bar the classics like Dumbo and Bambi), and the thought of ever going to Disneyworld is enough to bring me out in hives. Rather, my first exposure to fairy tales was via Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book and Hans Christian Andersen. So the versions I read included the chopping off of heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper, and the terrifying fate of the Little Mermaid to feel like she was walking on knives when she replaced her tail with legs (though how relieved I was that she had a happy ending of sorts, even if it didn’t involve a prince).

Luckily, alongside the more disturbing versions of these tales were the picture books I loved most of all, Cinderella and Thorn Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty) illustrated by Errol le Cain, published by Puffin. I’ve since also bought (possibly my favourite of the lot) the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which I borrowed from the library as a child but never actually owned.

It’s the gorgeous, detailed, jewel-like illustrations which make these books so precious to me. Here, for instance, is Cinders dressing one of her ugly sisters for the ball…

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And here is the Sleeping Beauty asleep in her bed:

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Here, finally, are the twelve princesses in their magical underground palace, dancing…

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(Incidentally, how weird and mysterious that story is. Who *are* the princes trapped underground in the castle? Do they ever get out or do they wait forever in vain for the princesses to come back? The book doesn’t answer those questions and it’s always haunted me…)

Those pictures don’t even show the best of the books, but it’s hard to capture the tiny details in a photo – mice transforming into horses for Cinderella’s coach, the different costumes of the twelve fairies invited to the Sleeping Beauty’s christening, and above all the frames and borders of each page which are decorated in the most lush, delicate repeating patterns.

As a child, it was hard not to believe in fairies when presented with such fantastical, magical pictures, and if you can track these books down on second hand sites anywhere, I highly recommend them to anyone you think needs an antidote to Disney. (And for the record, I did have a ‘princess dress’ as a little girl, but also had a ‘Cinderella dress’ made of shabby brown stuff covered in patches, and a toy broom to go with it, so I could play at being Cinderella when she was sitting in the ashes).

As I grew up, my early love of fairy tales opened doors to more stories – British folklore like the Mabinogion and the tales of King Arthur, and the mythology of Greece, Rome and the Norsemen, as told for children by Roger Lancelyn Green (again, if these are still in print I recommend them – Lancelyn Green’s novel for older children about the fall of Troy, The Luck of Troy, is particularly worth a read).

Even devouring these books aged 9, 10, 11 or so, I never would have imagined what would follow – the fascination with fairy tales and mythology led me to what was possibly my favourite ever module of my English degree, Romance, Ballad and Fairy Tale. This course introduced me to the idea of fairy tales as symbolic narratives which help shape children’s understanding of the world and the journey to adolescence and adulthood (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Angela Carter, Marina Warner).

Then, my fascination with Norse mythology drew me to study the Viking sagas, which in turn gave me a yearning to go and see all the places for real one day – and thanks to that, I got to visit Iceland for a memorable weekend in 2009, followed by Newfoundland in 2011 to see L’Anse aux Meadows, the place the Vikings (it is believed) knew as ‘Vinland‘ in the saga of Erik the Red.

Who would have believed a childhood love of fairy tales could lead to such adventures and experiences?

So, for anyone who worries about whether their children should be reading fairy tales or not, or anyone who has neglected to read fairy tales themselves, I have plenty more weird, wonderful and inspiring books to share.

Angela Carter’s collection of updated fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, is most definitely for adults not children, but I read and enjoyed her Virago collection of fairy tales from around the world in my late teens.

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Worth owning for the cover alone is Alan Garner’s amazing collection of folk tales. Some very odd and fascinating tales here you won’t find anywhere else. I’ve also just been given a lovely collection of tales as retold by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Faber.

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For younger children, I’d also recommend the glorious, sunny tales of Joan Aiken’s A Necklace of Raindrops collection – no dark or troubling corners to be found here, only the magical illustrations of Jan Pienkowski and a world of fantastical and imaginative stories. (I also had a couple of other collections by her aimed at slightly older readers, The Kingdom under the Sea and Tales of a One-Way Street).

Finally, no house should be without Grimms Tales (as per the current trend, you can buy a Penguin Classics edition retold by Philip Pullman) and Hans Andersen – and it’s worth remembering that although many of the tales are psychologically quite disturbing and even more are downright bleak and depressing (see The Red Shoes, for instance, or The Story of a Mother if you want to feel really miserable), there are plenty of positive role models too – heroines who rescue the men rather than the other way round – East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon is a favourite of mine, and of course the best heroine of them all, brave, resourceful, loyal Gerda in the Snow Queen.

We’ve now become converts to Anna and Elsa in our house – despite the lack of Disney in my childhood, I have no problem allowing The Mouse into our house, provided it’s *good* Disney. The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and The Lion King are all welcome, and Toy Story OF COURSE, (mainly parts 1 & 3 – 2 was a big disappointment). So far, Frozen wins on all counts – great songs, some very impressive set pieces of animation and a heroine as brave as the Hans Andersen character who inspired her. But I won’t be neglecting to tell the toddler the real stories too – when I look at where it led me, how can I resist?

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Me at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, 2011

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The day before, we’d been on a boat trip to see ICEBERGS! See what I mean about where a love of fairy tales can lead you? Icebergs, that’s where! I rest my case.

Building a library for children, part 1

Having no new house updates to share, and a garden still mainly off-limits in the wild meteorological conditions we’ve been having, I’ve been rather stumped as to what to blog about, but then inspiration struck.

I haven’t blogged about books for a while, and I’ve never really tackled the subject of children’s books – and considering I spend a lot of time reading children’s books and reading ABOUT them (many, many good children’s book bloggers out there who have inspired me), I realised I was missing a trick.

As an adult BC (before children), I still clung fondly to my favourite childhood books, and actively tried to replace copies which had gone astray or got damaged; when I was pregnant, like any hopeful bookish parent, I dreamed of sharing most-loved books with my child, rediscovering old friends and generally getting swept away by the nostalgia of it all.

The reality, of course, when you’re reading Topsy and Tim or Charlie and Lola for the umpteenth time, is quite different – but I still have some of my classic and most treasured picture books stashed away for the future, and I have tried to make sure the toddler gets exposed to real poetry as well as nursery rhymes.

For anyone becoming a parent soon, or buying a present for a young child, I do have some book-based guidance which may be of use – there are many, many lovely poetry and rhyme anthologies which you may think would look beautiful on a nursery shelf.

Which they will – but if you are from a bookish family like ours, you might find that you’ve ended up with *many* anthologies and treasuries, and next to picture books, they rarely get a look-in during the toddler years, which is a shame.

If you are considering buying an anthology as a gift, maybe check first with the parents that they don’t already have several. I would also check a poetry book for age-appropriate content, too – I had a poetry collection as a child which contained the highly depressing and unsuitable poem ‘Flannan Isle’, about a mysterious real-life tragedy at a lighthouse, exactly the sort of thing calculated to give me nightmares, I can’t imagine why it was included in a children’s collection.

Having said that, there are some poetry books no child should be without, and these I can wholeheartedly endorse. The poetry book I loved most as a child is the classic collection edited by Kaye Webb of Puffin Books, ‘I Like This Poem’. It was published in 1979 in support of The International Year of the Child, and to my complete joy is still in print.

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The poems were all selected by children for children of their own age, so everything is arranged in chapters for 7 year olds, 8 year olds, etc, up to 14/15, and each poem is followed by a brief comment from the child who selected it explaining why they like it (and how odd to think that these ‘children’ from 1979 are now adults older than me!)

It was from this book that I discovered some of the poems that have stayed with me for years – Night Mail, Ozymandias, and Tarantella.

I discovered romance and death in The Highwayman, laughed myself silly at When Daddy Fell Into the Pond (unbelievably, these two by the same author, Alfred Noyes) and was entranced – still am – by the opening line of John Masefield’s Cargoes: ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir’. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what a quinquireme was, it was the magic spell cast by the rhythm and the fascinating, unknown words that stayed with me.

If you have a child, and they don’t own this book, buy it for them now. Just do it!

The second poetry book I love most will be familiar to anyone who encountered the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 80s – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I had the cassette tape of Cats, and the mug, and the t-shirt and the souvenir programme, but I had the poetry book first – and having known and loved Old Possum for so long, it didn’t feel quite so daunting when I had to tackle TS Eliot for adults later on. (The Waste Land was the very first thing I studied at university – a long way from Jellicle Cats, but it now has as fond a place in my heart as Old Possum does).

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The legacy of ‘Cats’ the show being so closely associated with the poems is rather a bittersweet one – in some cases, I can’t read the poem without hearing the song in my head, but in others, the cat jumps right off the page and is alive in my mind without any need for Bonnie Langford prancing around in tights. Bustopher Jones, for instance, ‘The St James’s Street Cat’ – who hasn’t known a black cat with white spats swaggering through your garden like they own it, just as he makes his stately progress down Pall Mall in the poem?

Reading the poems aloud as an adult, you find yourself having to stifle a giggle at odd places, especially in Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer – ‘after dinner, one of the girls/Suddenly misses her Woolworths pearls’ – and Growltiger’s Last Stand, which slightly terrified me as a child, is actually hilarious, I now realise.

My favourite poem in the collection is still, as it’s always been, Macavity the Mystery Cat. As a child, I was fascinated by this rangy, mangy, wicked ginger cat, but it was only as an adult that I realised who was the true inspiration for Macavity: it was, of course, James Moriarty.

I was reading Sherlock Holmes about 4 years ago, and the description of Moriarty – domed forehead, sunken eyes, head moving from side to side like a snake – and it jumped out at me, Macavity IS Moriarty! And how cheeky of TS Eliot to have lifted the character so blatantly from Conan Doyle, though obviously it’s an homage rather than sheer plagiarism – though wouldn’t it be great if Eliot had written a sequel where Macavity gets his comeuppance at the hands of a consulting detective cat?

This is our second copy of Old Possum, by the way – the one I actually read to the toddler.

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The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great fun, though I do find the faces a little too human – I like my cats to be cattish, not humanoid – but as a picture book for a toddler it’s perfect.

The other area of poetry no child should be without is the nonsense rhyme – the best exemplar being the mighty Edward Lear. Shamefully, we don’t have a Lear collection in the house yet, though the toddler does already know and love The Owl and the Pussycat. We do have a copy of another nonsense classic, Spike Milligan

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– which has gems including The Ning Nang Nong and the unfortunate tale of the soldier called Edser, (‘Edser in bedsir/Was deadsir’) but some that go into rather (unsurprisingly for Milligan) bleak territory.

I feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of my favourite poems here, but it’s a start, and I haven’t even got on to fairy tales or picture books yet. More to follow on this topic – much more – and if you have favourite children’s books or recommendations, please share them!

A walk around…Oxford Botanic Garden

I am not sure quite why I am bothering to write anything for this blog now there’s a great opening line, as I could just upload all my photos from this trip and it still wouldn’t do justice to how much I loved the Oxford Botanic Gardens.

We had a long weekend planned in Oxford as the Mr was at a conference – and the Botanic Gardens was top of my list of places to visit. The colleges all look lovely but not the kind of place you can snoop on a weekday (especially not in exam season), climbing church towers not really toddler-friendly, and the museums I suspect she will enjoy much more in a few years.

So I had the rare luxury of going somewhere I wanted to go – and why not Britain’s oldest botanic garden?

Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford Botanic Gardens – view across the walled garden

I was completely out of my depth identifying the trees, though many were clearly very old, but idling around the flower beds I spotted a few favourite plants – alliums, irises, columbines.

Irises

Irises

Allium

Allium

A new one to me was (what appeared to be) a white version of a verbena. I love purple verbena but the alba variety is gorgeous…one to try and get hold of one day, if I can find it.

Verbena alba

Verbena alba

The gardens spill out from a formal walled area into lawns which end abruptly at the river’s edge – a sheer (unfenced) drop which the toddler teetered on the brink of, terrifyingly, to watch ducks and punts going by.

River Cherwell

River Cherwell

Along the river side of the gardens we also found the glasshouses, not on the Kew scale but still very impressive. Lilies, cacti, carnivorous plants.

Water lilies

Water lilies – Nymphaea

Golden Barrel Cactus

Echinocactus grusonii – commonly known as Golden Barrel Cactus

Finally, and most importantly of all, there was a bench I needed to find. I had done my research, read up on other blogs, looked at Google Image Search, and I was determined to find Lyra and Will’s bench.

It really was the loveliest place I could have imagined – under a spreading tree, with its back to the river, and a view of flower beds stretching away towards the church towers and college walls.

Will and Lyra's bench

Will and Lyra’s bench

View from Will and Lyra's bench, Oxford

View from Will and Lyra’s bench – toddler in foreground

We found the names Will and Lyra scratched into the wood, and I wondered how many people will fight to sit there on Midsummer Day, and dream of lost loves?

His Dark Materials is one of those books I wish had been written when I was younger – I can take or leave Harry Potter, I haven’t tackled the Hunger Games or A Song of Ice and Fire (and I don’t intend to), but if only, if only I had been 14 or so when I first encountered Lyra and Will, it would have been a life-moulding experience.

As it is, I love the books and I re-read them religiously every year, but I know they won’t quite bind themselves to my heart the way they would have if I’d read them in the crucible of teenage angst and fury. As it is, I feel a kind of nostalgia for that white-hot intensity, but mainly a relief that it has passed.

Instead, I grow my garden, I water, I nurture and plant and weed and dead-head and prune – gentle, grown-up, non-threatening pursuits – but just for a moment, I got to be Lyra sitting on her bench, and it was just perfect.

Sitting on Lyra's bench

Sitting on Lyra’s bench