The Lost World of North London

I don’t go north very often – north of the river, that is. My personal fiefdom these days doesn’t stretch far beyond the British Museum – but a couple of recent happenings have reminded me of my North London days, and I thought it was worth trying to capture those moments before they slip away altogether.

View from Parliament Hill Fields

My first proper job was in Camden. It was an odd place to work, as opposed to hang out, or shop, or drink. There was a whole other non-tourist Camden under the surface: the pub where we used to drink was a stones throw from the Worlds End, but it was down an alleyway a few steps away, and if you hadn’t been intending to go there, you’d have no reason to find it. This meant we mostly had the pub entirely to ourselves, and as the office had a lack of meeting rooms, we met in the pub.

I remember particularly the Friday after my first proper week at work (I’d been an intern for six weeks before that). We had, naturally, gone to the pub. I happened to glance out of the window, surrounded by my new colleagues, newly solvent and newly thrilled with myself, and saw an old-ish man walking past. He gave me a weary, dismissive glance – and it was, who else, Alan Bennett.

I wanted to run out after him and explain. I’m not really one of them, Mr Bennett. I went to Leeds. I know how the trams used to run past the Packhorse. I’ve been to Kirkstall Abbey. My mum and dad went to Beyond the Fringe. Don’t lump me in with them!

Anyway, this all came to mind when I read that Bennett’s former home on Gloucester Crescent is for sale. I never saw him again in Camden, and I never realised till years later that many other literary types lived on the same street (not that I would have recognised Michael Frayn or Claire Tomalin if I’d seen them).

I did wander the back streets when I got a chance, though – particularly in the second year when we moved to a bigger office in Primrose Hill, and some of those grand streets along by the canal became short cuts through to the new office.

Canal, east from Camden Lock

The book which taught me all about Camden’s literary hinterland, and brought back all its messy glory was of course Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. By genuine coincidence, the week I read about Alan Bennett’s house being on sale, I also went to see Stibbe reading from her new book, An Almost Perfect Christmas, and this brought on the sentimental urge to revisit my Camden days.

To be strictly honest, being a media executive in Camden in the Noughties is probably not very much like being a nanny there in the Eighties, but there were some things which rang true.

It felt a lot like the Camden I knew – Parkway with its shabby non-tourist shops including a pet shop that actually still sold pets, and always had a sad parrot in the window, and my first proper hairdresser where Darron cut my hair, Delancey Street with its posh bistro where I had to endure a terrifying lunch with my new boss and drank far too much, and the cafes on the High Street, (pre-Costa, pre-Starbucks and nicer than any of them) – Ruby in the Dust and Bean and Cup, you are still the benchmarks of my favourite cafes, all these years later.

Then there was yoga, which featured in Love, Nina, and for me, too. It was the year 2000, I was 23, and I was all about the yoga. I had been going to a class in South London, but the commute home wasn’t getting me there on time, so I looked for a class near to work. ‘Near’ turned out to be in a community hall on the stunning Maiden Lane Estate, which was a brisk walk from the office, and practically half way to Kings Cross – so I used to walk back along York Way to get to the tube, marvelling at how desolate and magnificent it all was.

I can barely remember if the yoga class itself was any good, it was the splendour of Maiden Lane’s terraces and alleyways, and those long walks through the wasteland of pre-gentrified Kings Cross that stay with me.

St Pancras, mid-regeneration (2008)

When we moved to the new office in Primrose Hill, I discovered we were close to the chi chi Triyoga, beloved of various Spice Girls – so I switched allegiance from poor old Maiden Lane and for a few months was able to claim I shared a yoga teacher with Sporty Spice, Simon Low. That was the peak of my Camden cool, as it came to a halt in autumn 2001 when I was made redundant, with a good chunk of my colleagues following at the same time or a month or so later.

There was a rather bleak period of unemployment – it was a cold winter, not a pleasant time to be in a flat with no central heating, or out pounding the pavements looking for temp work, but just like something out of a chick-lit novel, I got a week’s work just before Christmas, which meant I could afford to buy Christmas presents.

After an unsatisfactory 9 months commuting to Chiswick, (not recommended) and it was (too good to be true, another chick-lit plot point, but genuinely true) almost exactly 12 months to the day I was made redundant, that I started a new job back in the borough of Camden.

This time, though, it was Fitzrovia, and though the work was less fun and I missed the golden days of schlepping round Camden and afternoons lounging on Primrose Hill when we should have been working (no wonder we were all made redundant, really), it felt like the start of proper grown-up life.

And it opened up a whole new bit of London, which became far more special even than Camden had been, and led eventually to the year I spent in my tiny but very much loved Bloomsbury flat.

My fireplace in Bloomsbury

Finally, when browsing through my old photos from days wandering round north London, I found a favourite which captures the essence of Camden for me – the plaque commemorating the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine stayed (it’s probably nearer to Kings Cross than it is to Camden, but the same neck of the woods).

When I took this photo, the terrace was in a state so shabby, it seemed very appropriate, given their reputation for being dishevelled and generally disreputable, but it looked like it was heading towards being done up. And I am still amused that someone put a plaque up to commemorate that they stayed there for just 3 months – so fleeting, so pointless, but somebody out there bothered to record it.

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Even Further West

This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing, but also putting off – because I’m going back to one of my favourite places, but I’m also not sure I can do it justice.

When I went to Cornwall in 2002, I stayed right at the very end. Ok, not the very end, but in one of the last villages before Land’s End.

It was one of those holidays memorable not solely for idyllic and relaxing moments – I remember a lot of mist, fog and rain – and a holiday barn which you might call bijou and atmospheric, but could also have accurately been called basic and somewhat uncomfortable.

But something about the far west of Cornwall got under my skin, and it hasn’t ever really left me. This time round, when we stayed squarely in the centre of the county, I noticed a difference – we were surrounded by cornfields, not to mention acres of cauliflowers (if we’d got cut off from Truro and Waitrose by a flash flood, we could have survived quite well on caulis).

It was charming and scenic and bucolic and so on, but it wasn’t the wild, rugged Cornwall I remembered – where the recall of magical names like Sennen, St Buryan, St Just, Lamorna, Treen and Mousehole can still cast a spell over me.

So, with only a couple of days left in Cornwall, I wanted to go back to my favourite place. The weather didn’t look promising, but crucially it did look like it would improve the further west we went – so we set off, and as we passed St Michael’s Mount and Penzance, I felt my spirits rising (and the sun did come out!)

It is impossible to put my finger on it, but beyond Penzance, the landscape did change subtly. Narrower lanes, definitely, less trees, (and those there were more obviously shaped by the wind). Houses seemed to get smaller and more hunched into the ground.

Everything slightly less lush and green, as if all the vegetation had been scorched by salt. We drove slower, the roads got narrower. I was convinced we’d missed a turning: it didn’t feel like a place I ought to be using a smartphone. Back in the day, I would have had a road atlas on my lap, but some of these lanes were too tiny to be on an atlas.

Then, finally, the lane turned abruptly downhill and we got a glimpse of the beach I lost my heart to all those years back – Porthcurno, home of the famous Minack theatre.

I hadn’t visited the theatre last time, and we didn’t plan ahead well enough to arrange to see a play this time, but we could pay to look around, so this is what we did first. The cliff top location is every bit as dramatic as I imagined, the sheer scale of it impressive – and quite terrifying if you have any problem with heights or cliff edges.

Quite how you’d manage to watch a play there without being completely distracted by the surroundings – let alone the issue of audibility, which is often a challenge for me – but there was a fascinating exhibition on the site explaining how theatre companies deal with the, um, unique performance conditions.

Then, we went to the beach. I’m not sure I can quite explain why I love Porthcurno beach so much, but these things probably contribute:

– it’s a perfect horseshoe curve of a bay with the dramatic Logan Rock (see far right in the picture above) at one end, and towering cliffs on either side.

– the sea is the colour above (ok probably not in February) and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in Britain.

– it is simply the best beach for swimming outside of the Caribbean I’ve ever been.

The waves are not so huge that you can’t get into the water easily, but once you’re in, the ground shelves away quickly and you’re comfortably out of your depth (just enough for it to feel slightly thrilling, but not dangerous, provided you’re a confident swimmer).

I must have spent a good hour, on and off, with my feet up, sculling with my hands, bobbing up and down in the waves and feeling in complete heaven. (Btw the last time I was there, a shark swam into the bay. It was exactly like Jaws, the speed with which everyone got out of the water. This time, fortunately, no shark).

The other joyful moment was taking the big girl for her first proper swim in the sea. (The toddler’s verdict was that the waves were ‘too scratchy’).

The big girl loved it, though, and I hope that she remembers the first proper time she went in the sea was at Porthcurno, the one of the best beaches in the world, and her mum’s favourite place in England. (Not my favourite place in Britain – that can be saved for another day).

Further West Country Rambling

It was quite a thrilling moment, crossing the Tamar to get to Cornwall. I hadn’t gone to Cornwall via that route since my first trip there, and that was only to have breakfast at a Little Chef after getting off a Brittany ferry in Plymouth.

Yes, my parents were trolling me – I had begged for years to go to Cornwall, inspired by Over Sea, Under Stone, naturally – so what did they do? They took me there for breakfast. And then drove home to Essex. I held that grudge against them for years.

I’d been to Cornwall a couple of times as an adult – one brief trip over the border from Devon during a weekend break, and a proper holiday there circa 2002, but neither trip had taken us over the Tamar bridge, so I commemorated it with this rather poor photo.

and found myself remembering a favourite line from ‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ – ‘What’s he mean, Logres?’ demanded Jane. ‘He means the land of the West,’ Barney said … ‘It’s the old name for Cornwall. King Arthur’s name.’

I have loyalties and affections in many corners of the UK – raised in East Anglia, family roots in Wales, very drawn to the wildest furthest bits of Scotland and islands in general – but nothing quite matches Cornwall for me for magic, and it was probably the influence of Susan Cooper which put the germ of it there.

I did also have a great fondness for Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, which covers the most famous Arthurian and Cornish legends with a light touch, though it didn’t shy away from the more down-beat elements of Arthur (spoiler: there’s a big battle and it doesn’t go well for him).

I hadn’t thought of it for years, but as luck would have it, the holiday barn we stayed in had a copy, and the 5 year old was enchanted by it. (She’ll come to Susan Cooper in time, I hope).

View near our holiday barn, Tregear

I seem to have veered off the original topic, which was meant to be a holiday round-up – but there was a point in there somewhere.

My daydream version of Cornwall as a child was all tied up in magic and mystery and legend, all of my favourite things – the reality I learned from this holiday is that Cornwall has buckets and spades and holiday parks and heaving beaches and cafes of questionable quality, just like any other British seaside district.

It isn’t all mists and stone circles and empty cliff tops, which was much more the experience I had staying there in 2002 – of course, that was pre-children, and a very different kind of holiday. I hoped to find more of what I had loved about it back then, but searching for wild and lonely places whilst also trying to have a family-friendly holiday is a bit of a challenge.

Holywell Beach, nr Newquay

We certainly saw areas which looked like they’d seen better days, and plenty of inferior boxy housing going up – plus some very nasty mock-Georgian stuff on the edges of Truro, which has a new Waitrose, presumably put there for the horrid grockles like us (and of course we did use it.

I suppose what troubles me is that in Cornwall, the place which felt like home to me before I’d even been there, I know I am truly an outsider. In Wales, I feel at home because I can pronounce Machynlleth without fear and know to say diolch instead of thank you.

In East Anglia and the Kent/Sussex coast and the Lake District I’m in the places I spent my childhood holidays, so I feel very at ease. In Cornwall, though, I’ll always be a grockle. The question is how to do it without feeling too guilty about it.

Staying well away from the tourist hotspots and the coast was a big advantage – we were beautifully isolated in our holiday barn at Tregear, with the most complicated network of tiny lanes crisscrossing the fields to get us there (I was reminded of what Britain must have been like in wartime, with all the signposts gone – how do you navigate when every field and junction looks interchangeable?)

View from Tregear Barns

The location, despite its peace and quiet, was actually very well placed for driving to either the north or south coasts, (once we’d escaped the jumble of lanes) and convenient for Truro and that damn Waitrose. I had assumed we’d mainly stick to the south coast, but we ended up exploring both, and I had a proper sense for the first time of how different their characters are.

Perranporth Beach

The huge stretches of sand at Perranporth and Holywell in the north reminded me of Brittany, and diving into the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, aged about 15.

This time, I was practically the only person swimming (ok, jumping in the waves and paddling a bit) there rather than surfing, and it did make me wish I’d signed up for a body boarding lesson. Perhaps signs of a mid-life crisis but when I saw everyone but me doing it, I wanted to give it a go!

The south coast, on the other hand, was more like bits of Devon I’d been to years ago, and we found some pleasingly wild places alongside the more manicured and tourist-friendly. I was pleasantly surprised by Falmouth, which was much more upmarket and yachty than I’d realised – the place to go if you want to shop at Joules or Fat Face – but was still somehow a proper place, not all full of Hooray Henries, and the maritime museum is brilliant.

Falmouth Harbour

And I did, eventually find – or rediscover – the place that really owns my heart in Cornwall, Porthcurno, but that deserves a blog all on its own. Plenty more to follow!

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 Major Incident

For most of us, the idea of being witness to, or involved in, ‘a major incident’ is probably something we idly imagine, or hope never to experience. When it actually happens, it is such an odd and disconcerting experience, I thought I had better put it down in writing before I forget. 

I have been in proximity to a major incident before, the tragic events of 7/7 – although thankfully not a witness, I was inadvertently quite close by, trying to get back to my office after being evacuated from the tube. But my memories of that day have become very much mingled with the collective memories of my work colleagues and the images which filled up the news night after night.

This time, thankfully, there were no fatalities, so the experience has become much less upsetting and more fascinating, realising you are a bystander to an event which has taken over the news on a slow news summer day.

We were going to the seaside on Bank Holiday Saturday, and had made very good time getting out of London – avoiding the south circular meant we’d barely been stationary by the time we got on the motorway. Then, suddenly, the unwelcome sight of traffic slowing down ahead.

We ground to a halt, and almost immediately saw that people were getting out of their cars. At first we were incredulous – surely if it was a crash on the other side we’d be moving fairly soon, why risk getting out of the car? – and a sense of distaste at the thought of rubberneckers, if the accident was serious. 

It reaffirmed my instinct that I am not a rubbernecker – I am terminally nosy, but I don’t want to see bad stuff, and I don’t want to see others suffering. But then, as more and more people got out of their cars, I searched for ‘M20 traffic’ on Twitter and discovered that what had actually happened was a motorway bridge had collapsed onto a lorry (or been hit BY the lorry – at this point it wasn’t clear).

Then, I started to have a different appreciation for the ‘rubberneckers’ – perhaps, after all, these were the ‘citizen journalists’ who were communicating the news story as it happened; as we waited, many people around us were tweeting pictures and video footage to local radio stations, getting the word out there fast and perhaps saving other drivers from wasted journeys.

With two children getting bored and fidgety in the back, we did eventually get out of the car, but I didn’t feel very comfortable doing it – there were still motorbikes (police and otherwise) weaving through the cars, and people opening car doors unexpectedly, but it was too surreal and odd not to take the opportunity to walk on a motorway.


This photo shows where we were, right in the middle of the jam, about 40-50 cars behind the bridge itself. We saw the air ambulance hovering but didn’t see where it landed – it was already being reported on social media that there was only one injured person, and unbelievably, it was being said they had only sustained minor injuries.


Still, even knowing it was not a fatal crash scene, I didn’t want to go any closer. I didn’t actually see the broken bridge or the trapped lorry myself, despite being so close – it is odd, but somehow I knew I didn’t want to be one of the gawpers. 

The atmosphere at this point had  changed, though – we all knew no-one had been killed, miraculously, but we all also knew we might be there a long while, so a bit of Blitz spirit had kicked in – people were chatting to each other, football was being played on the other side of the barrier and a remote control car being driven around. People were climbing the nearest stairs up the embankment and bringing back cold drinks, apparently from a local golf course. 

We had thankfully brought packed lunches for the children and lots of water, but I *was* beginning to wonder when I’d get to go to the loo. (We’d been stationary for about 80 – 90 minutes at that point).


We began to notice a few drivers were turning around near us – at first we thought ‘no way’, surely they would just get stuck in amongst the traffic facing the right way, surely there was no way through?  

Then we noticed they were going through a gap in the central reservation a few hundred yards behind us, and by then lots of engines were starting up. Clearly we were not going to leave the motorway driving forward, as it wasn’t safe to go under the hanging half-bridge, so we had to turn round to get out. 

We joined the queue weaving through the stationary cars, and in only a few blessed minutes we were being waved through the gap by a police motorcyclist. Oh the joy of being on an empty motorway speeding away from the jam, and the relief of it being finally over, and the pity for those still stuck on the wrong side!

Our day out at the seaside was not to be, but having been cooped up in the car for hours, we couldn’t just go straight home. We realised we were very close to lovely, tranquil Ightham Mote and there couldn’t have been a better place to rest and recover ourselves. 


From there we had a smooth journey home, and we saw from the news that the rest of the traffic was cleared within three hours. 

It certainly wasn’t the day we planned, but it was simply a huge relief to have been able to drive away unscathed from something that could have been an awful tragedy. 

The wider implications of what happened – the state of motorway bridge maintenance, the height of the load which hit the bridge, are still at the back of my mind, and I’m sure it will be a while before I feel comfortable going under motorway bridges again, but for now, the ‘major incident’ can become one of those ‘I can’t quite believe this happened to us’ tales we will remember for many years.

And to repeat the advice I’m glad I had already taken – full packed lunch and lots of water. The children ate two lunches that day in the end, but without the distraction of food I don’t know what we would have done.

Mixed Feelings

I have to confess – I’ve been dabbling elsewhere: I’ve had a blog posted on a site which is collating breastfeeding stories of mums who, like me, have used the Lambeth and Southwark Milkspot cafes, which are now threatened with closure after Kings pulled their funding. (If they do survive, it will likely be as a shadow of their former selves, with the expert clinical staff replaced with health workers who have perhaps had just a few days training in breastfeeding support).

  
I wouldn’t be breastfeeding at all without their help, so the cause is one very close to my heart, but without the threat of closure hanging over them, I doubt I would ever have written about my experience of breastfeeding on a public platform. 

Having been active on parenting forums and Facebook groups since the Big Girl was born, I’m aware that breastfeeding seems to raise heightened emotions and hackles wherever it goes. I follow the threads and read the articles and comment anonymously, but raising my head above the parapet to speak about my own experiences was just a bit too daunting until now.

The ‘Claridges breastfeeding’ story actually began on one of my local Facebook parenting groups, and I remember reading the thread late at night and thinking ‘I bet this will all kick off in the morning’ – and indeed it did. The story took on a life of its own, and the mum originally involved seemed to disappear – I hate to think she was hounded by people who thought she was attention-seeking when clearly she was very upset by the experience.

In my case, I am sure it was my difficult experience of breastfeeding that has influenced my own strong opinions – as a mixed feeder (both my children have had  breast milk and formula), I have a foot in both camps.

I am a pro-breastfeeder through and through, and I struggle with those who find the idea of it ‘icky’. I was raised by a biology teacher mother, human bodily functions hold no particular fear or hang-ups for me. It seems completely natural to me that we should feed our babies the way other mammals do – the clue’s in the name. (Incidentally, the thing that really blows my mind is that underwater mammals produce milk and suckle exactly the same as we do – the idea that whales and dolphins produce milk, I just can’t get my head around).

  
(Mare and foal in the New Forest for illustrative purposes. I don’t have a photo of a dolphin nursing its young, surprisingly…)

At the same time, I am under no illusions that breastfeeding is easy – and luckily thanks to the advice of a good friend who was a few months ahead of me in the parenting lark, I was prepared for it to be hard, for pain, for the fact I might need to express or use formula. 

Once I’d got over the initial disappointment of having to offer formula the first time, and worked out that I could mix feed, I had no problem with there being formula in the Big Girl’s diet, provided I could still breastfeed too. I was not part of the club that is exclusive breastfeeding mums, but I realised that, personally, I didn’t need to be. 

I didn’t feel judged or criticised at the breastfeeding cafe as a mix feeding mum; rather I was supported in my goal of trying to reduce formula and sustain breastfeeding, whilst keeping my baby fed and happy. Formula was a safety net which meant I no longer had to worry about her weight – when I had stopped stressing about that, I felt more relaxed, and feeding got easier.

The second time round was much harder, as I discovered giving too much formula too early could lead to a  baby losing interest in breastfeeding, and that was a whole different kind of hard. It was only then, when I was days away from having to give up with a baby who refused to feed, that I really realised how much I was judging myself, and how much of my self image as a ‘successful’ mother was predicated on me being a breastfeeding mother.

However – and this is the really important point – the only person I was judging myself against was me. Everyone has their own limits and measures of what constitutes ‘successful’ parenting and to try and rank us against each other is a pointless exercise. 

For every mother that makes it to the magic goal of 365 days of breastfeeding and feels good about it, there will be one who makes it to 366 days. She has every right to feel good about it – getting to beyond a year is an amazing achievement – but there is no ranking order of ‘better’ parenting for every day longer you breastfeed. And my early breastfeeding woes are nothing compared to those who’ve had repeated bouts of mastitis – I’m sure I would not have been able to continue through that and I’m lucky never to have experienced it.

In terms of my personal goals, if I had stopped feeding either of my children before six months, I think I would have felt terribly disappointed – but I stopped feeding the Big Girl at 10 months, and there was no huge feeling of let down (pun intended) at that point. It would have been nice to make it to 12 months, when I was so close to it, but I didn’t feel in any way like it was required of me. Our feeding was slowing down gradually and it came to a natural stopping point – there was no regret. 

The same applies to Baby Sister, now gloriously six months old and just starting weaning – we carry on, we feed as long as she wants to, but I judge myself by nothing but my own expectations and hopes, I have no fixed goals or rigid rules to stick to. 

I am proud to be a breastfeeding mum – because I know how hard I worked to get this far – but I know that for others it’s even harder, even more painful, even more heartbreaking than it was for me. I don’t place myself on any pedestal, I compare myself only with me. 

There are no medals or prizes for parenting except those we award ourselves – and if breastfeeding is that for me, great, I can award myself a big invisible rosette and throw myself a tickertape parade. Go me. But I’m not entitled to say that makes me a better parent compared to anyone else. We all have our own mountains to climb, and up them we must go. This just happens to be my personal mountain, my story.
  
Milky baby 

The pink thing

You have a baby girl, you get given pink stuff. Your baby turns out to be fair and blue eyed, you get even more. You have another girl, and still the pink stuff keeps coming. This is a scenario so ubiquitous I could have started with ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged….’ but I’ll spare you the Austenisms.

Pink has become something of a battleground in the years since I became a mother of girls – I was aware of Pink Stinks (though their website seems to be rather dormant now), and also more recently the efforts to reclaim pink as an acceptable colour for men, boys and grown-ups, not just small girls. 

I didn’t go into parenthood with any strong feelings for or against pink – after all, I like pink flowers (especially the ones in my favourite local front garden, half way down the hill, where  the planting beautifully reflects the sugared-almond pink house).

  
When it came to wearing pink, clothes are just clothes, I thought; my feelings about gender stereotyping were  much more engaged by the Let Toys be Toys campaign, perhaps because I remembered my own diverse childhood interests so vividly.
I was devoted to my dolls house and my Lego townscape, true – in pride of place was the 70s-tastic Snack Bar – but I also played with Space Lego, an awesome toy farm my mum & brother made from papier mâché to house our Britains toy farm vehicles, and of course with Star Wars figures. We didn’t quite have Brio in my era but you can bet I would have played with it if we had.

So the world of gender stereotyping toys is one I felt duty bound to challenge, clothes I was a bit more ambivalent about. We were given such nice clothes, it seemed a shame not to use them – and not all of it was pink, (though quite a lot was). It wasn’t so much a case of shying away from pink, more a question of what to buy to complement all the pink clothes we already owned?

My salvation, when dressing the toddler, became H&M, partly on the grounds that it was the nearest clothes shop with a decent range I could get to by bus, and because it met the brief – lots of tops, dresses and leggings in flexible colours and lengths to work alongside pink. The toddler’s wardrobe staple became black, navy or grey marl leggings, hooded tops, and t-shirts in a variety of stripes, spots, hearts and so on, all of which could be made to work with pink. The toddler, it turned out, was even better at a capsule wardrobe than I was.

It was only the other day, when sorting through yet another load of navy, grey, denim and stripy laundry, that I realised what the problem was. I had started to dress the toddler exactly like me!  As pink has started to fade from her wardrobe I only seem to have replaced it with dark and plain colours – where is the joy in that? Why should she have to wear a boring ‘mum uniform’ just because I do?

She needs more bright colours, more patterns, more fun – and now that she is 3, the clothes aimed at her do begin to bother me; far more emphasis on frills, garish glittery logos and slogans and cheap looking Disney rip-off designs. 2 year old girls can wear simple easy-to-wear leggings and t-shirts with no fuss, but it seems 3 year olds have to wear crop tops and frilly vests and flouncy lacy skirts and vacuous slogans – and that bothers me far more than the colour pink itself. 

I fear we have to extend our shopping range well beyond H&M to achieve that – which means buying online or travelling further. 

The baby sister is faring better with her new outfits, though it is hard to find multi-buys without some element of pink in them:
  
However we had more success at our recent Jumble Trail where I found some strictly non-pink and very bright and not boring outfits for her:

  

And of course you can’t go wrong with something hand-knitted by Granny.

  
I feel like, so far, we’ve tackled the challenge of dressing small girls in a way that neither denies nor overtly emphasises their femininity – it will get harder I’m sure, but for now, I will embrace pink, provided it’s part of a rainbow coalition of colours in our lives – and I’ll try to take a break from all that grey, navy and black. Hell, I even bought myself a red top the other day!