#72: Make a Baked Alaska (for guests)

This dish has been my nemesis ever since my early teens when I tried to make one for a surprise dinner and it melted all over the oven. (Consisting, as it does, of a load of icecream covered in meringue and then baked). So that is how it got on the list.

We went for dinner at a friend’s house (the legendary Hectic, whose patio I assisted in laying not long ago); and I offered to bring a pudding. I had to bring it in several parts, as the Baked Alaska cannot be assembled nor baked until the last minute.

Anticipation was high as I assembled cake base, chocolate icecream, and covered it all in meringue looking like an enormous delectable snowball… into the oven it went – an anxious 4 minutes, and then: Triumph! It survived! (Ignore the odd head coming out of my armpit; that is not relevant to the culinary achievement)
me, hectic and baked alaska
Applause abounded, and we ate a generous chunk each. That got through half of it, and left everyone slightly bilious. (This dish is not light on sugar.) Then we realised it couldn’t easily be saved or re-served, and it was down to the five of us to do it justice. We struggled through a second slice each. Compliments slowed a little. Hectic managed to eat a full quarter of the thing singlehandedly, but the rest of us were beaten. It did sit rather heavily.

Soon afterwards there was considerable competition for the toilet facilities of Ampney Crucis. But let us not dwell on that. The dessert will be remembered (by me at least) as an unmitigated triumph. Hurrah.

#71: Go on an organised coach trip

There are few modes of travel that fill me with more horror, than this. Trapped on a coach, possibly feeling slightly gip, with no control over any aspect of the journey, and 3 smallish children to keep entertained. The potential for trauma abounds.

But we had signed up for the French twinning trip, and everyone was going by coach. It seemed churlish not to join, and also would have meant a long drive for both of us, to end up in the same place. We weighed it all up, and booked on the coach.

The day dawned and we hustled the kids out of bed, arriving at the bus at 04.50am. And would you believe it, all the ruddy seats appeared to be taken. Apart from 2. And we are 5.

There was whispered consternation among the organisers – had they, perhaps, miscounted? I began to fear I would be travelling for 12 hours with a wriggling 5 year old in my lap. But no. Eventually a couple of people reluctantly revealed that the seats next to them were, actually, unoccupied. There were after all, upon very close inspection, 5 seats. Just not together. I would like to report at this point a multitude of kindly souls spotting our plight and offering up their seats…but alas that would not be an accurate report. I tried to persuade my sleepy 4 year old that it might be fun to sit on the backseat with the teenagers. She was not convinced. Nor was I!

In the end, we settled for a 2 and a 3 at the front and back of the bus respectively. It did not make for straightforward sharing of toys or picnics. But at least we were all seated.

The first leg of the journey was smooth and we arrived in Portsmouth at 06.40. We were not due to sail until 9.00. There was some muted questioning of the need to arise at 4am.

Then the ferry was calm and uneventful. The children were introduced to the joys of top trumps, and did an extensive amount of colouring. It is a point of principle and self torture that we travel without ever plugging them in to an electronic device. (Rosie recently reported that she had a friend, with a real television IN HER CAR!!! ‘In Real Life Mummy, she has!’ Dammit.)

In the end, we reached our destination at 19.00 hours French time, after a pretty thorough exploration of French service stations. Happily the French were ready for us, and eased our trauma with many a carafe of wine. Journey survived. On with the French adventure!

#70: Look after chickens

This has not been a hardship. The chickens are very little bother, and the children have been loving it. All through the Easter holidays we could fill any low points in a day by going to see the chickens.

After the first couple of days we got braver, and allowed them to leave their coop. Eva assured me she could catch them again. And indeed she could, catch one of them. Carrot, the inexplicably named white chicken, is extremely placid and allows herself to be picked up and manhandled with the tolerance of a very benign bunny rabbit. Her compatriot in the coop, whose name sadly we forget, and who is therefore known to us only as ‘the black one’ is altogether more wily. She requires two of us approaching her in a pincer movement, and pouncing, and even then it takes considerable time to entice her out of the shrubbery. They are both delighted to eat grass rather than chicken feed. The designated food is barely touched, day after day.

Even so, we go through the ritual of topping it up, collecting the eggs, replenishing the water, letting them out for some exercise, and catching them again. Doing these things in the wrong order has resulted in a number of eggs being smashed on the ground. But no matter. The entertainment is worth far more than the eggs.
eva and carrot
Based on current experience I have no objection to chickens as a household pet. Possibly there is more to it if they are actually your own chickens. But they are certainly winning in the contest over dogs (see ‘Dog sit’ post, coming soon. Oof).

#69: Take the children to a roller disco

I put this on the list because I cannot think of many environments less appealing to enter than this. Noisy, dark, fast moving, requiring physical coordination, and crawling with excitable squealing children, on wheels, in a confined space, that I would then be unable to leave, until the bitter end. To compound my horror, my sister in law had found one that we could go to, at lunch time, on one of the most gloriously hot and sunny days of the year so far. Ideal!

So I went with extraordinarily low expectations. And was pleasantly surprised! In many ways the event was every bit as awful as I imagined, but there was a surprising amount of pleasure in it nonetheless. We took my 3 daughters and 2 nieces, all aged from 4-6, and they managed startlingly well!

The first round was challenging, due to the incompetence of our entire party. We stumbled and fell and dropped one another, and bumped into people, and took out small children by mistake. But with each circuit, there was a marked improvement.

Basically a disco is blaring, and lights are flashing, but you can still see pretty clearly due to the daylight flooding in through every window. Everyone skates round the edge of the sports hall, all in the same direction, (a worthwhile precaution, though collisions were still frequent). There were kids from about 4 up to teens, boys and girls, some with kit that suggested they were regulars – flashing skates, legwarmers and the like. My children were all in the wrong style of skate, with knee and elbow pads and helmets on, all of which betrayed a certain lack of experience.
children roller disco
I wish I had words or video to convey the hilarity of Rosie’s movement around the hall. Her legs were going back and forth as if she were running for dear life, yet she moved forwards barely at all. But she went round and round and round, hardly stopping in the whole hour and a half. Desperately trying to catch up with her older cousin, but being lapped, time and time again.

The youngest niece was like a newborn foal on wheels, if you can picture such a thing – a mass of limbs in all directions, but she didn’t seem troubled by it!

And of course I had to have a go myself. And doing that actually gave me a new respect for my children. Because it was a little bit scary, to find myself out of control, in a roomful of people, looking like a prize knob, and unable to propel myself where or how I wanted! I was wobbly and crap and fell over and it was all rather difficult! and not at all pretty!
me at roller discoAnd I thought, I am doing this once, in a deliberate attempt to challenge myself, which is of my own choosing, and afterwards I’m going to need a good sit down with a cup of tea to get myself together again. Yet I put the kids in this situation 4 or 5 times most days, of being pressured to try a thing that they don’t think they can do. Try this climbing frame (higher than you are comfortable with), walk this dog (even though you are scared of them), read this book (full of words you don’t know), say thank you to this person (who you are terrified to address), say something in French (when you are plainly intimidated), play with this child (who you have never met before)…. And they have no choice, and 9 times out of 10 they do just get on with it. And each time the attempt goes wrong they have to bounce back from it instantly, only to get hit with something else. No wonder they are exhausted by tea time most days! Respect!

#68: Go rowing

This was suggested by a friend, who assured me that if I came to her rowing club on a Saturday morning, I could be assured of exiting my comfort zone, in a good way. I assumed from that that it would be a thoroughly good work out. I was up for that. And indeed genuinely interested, I was actually thinking that rowing might be something I took up, for more than the one session.

The reality was anything but what I expected. For starters, my internet search, it turned out, referred me to the wrong rowing club. I didn’t realise until I checked the website a few minutes before leaving for the session. By then I had committed, via an email exchange with the membership secretary.

So I found myself on one of the lakes of Cotswold Water Park, at 9.45 on a Saturday morning, looking for signs of the rowing club. I asked a chap who was hanging around some boats, and he identified himself as the club captain. What a stroke of luck. Then I met the membership secretary, with whom I had corresponded. Then I met the Chairman! The big names were all in evidence. Everyone was friendly, though perhaps somewhat male, and aged. I looked in all directions for the rest of the membership. There was no sign. We chatted of this and that, and the gentlemen introduced me to their various boats. They explained the learning process, and all manner of terminology. A plan for my session was formed. In the end though I had to ask, ‘Does anyone else come?’ They rattled off a handful of names (all male). At its height, apparently, this club had as many as 12 members! Several however were sighted but rarely. And a couple of them were sufficiently advanced in years that they did not often take to a vessel these days.

I had imagined an assortment of lively folk, my friend among them, all sharing boats and organising themselves into 4s and 8s, a cacophony of boating enthusiasm to get caught up in. Instead, I was emptying water out of a rusty looking tub with 2 old men.

I also hadn’t really imagined that rowing would be very difficult. I don’t know why. I thought that the challenge of it was that it was hard physical work, and perhaps it was tricky to keep in time with the other rowers. It had never occurred to me that there was a skill to be learnt in actual rowing technique, or in keeping the boat upright. Yet there I was, sitting in a boat that a tsunami couldn’t capsize, with one-on-one instruction for an hour and a half, and I still couldn’t get the movements right. Oh dear. If I actually got in a proper rowing boat I’d be in the water in seconds. Thankfully that wasn’t on the cards for my first session.
I was relieved and surprised that it didn’t involve getting wet at all. I wore the same kit that I wear biking! And that was fine. But it was still a bit cold once we were out in the middle of the lake.

It was all really very surprising. Rather less fun than I expected in truth, less people, less banter, more difficulty, and far more of a learning curve if I did decide to take it up. And yet astonishing generosity from the people I did meet – the chap I went out with spent the whole morning doing nothing but tutor me, with no agenda other than to help.

Once again I am astonished at strangers’ generosity in helping me to do all these random things. But even so, I suspect that that one will remain in the realms of a one-off. Unless I ever do find the right rowing club!

#65: Catch a fish AND #66: gut a fish AND #67 eat something I have killed myself

Astonishingly it is true, I have done all these things. Can you believe it?

Long ago I was traumatised, at the height of my teenage vegetarianism, when my French exchange hosts attempted to take me fishing. Treating the whole thing as if it were a bit of harmless fun, rather than the callous blood sport that I knew it to be. And there was a poor fish, wriggling on the end of a hook and gasping for his life, with a whole family of chuckling Frenchies loving it and looking at me expectantly. And me, attempting to convey in pre-GCSE French, that I really didn’t want any part of it.

But that was then. I am harder now. This time there was me, at Bibury Trout Farm, catching the unsuspecting trout, trapping it in a net, and bludgeoning it to death with a rounded stick, in front of 7 children, for no reason other than that I had set myself a challenge to do some unpleasant things for 3 months.

Interestingly, the kids were more interested than distressed. They looked on agog as I caught it and lifted it from the water. And stared harder as it wriggled in the net. Caitlin the 5 year old photographer forgot her camera duty as I began beating it to death, she was too horrified to focus. Another friend took over on the pictures front.
me with caught fish
Then came the washing it and gutting it. I cut its throat, removed its head, ripped out the innards, and washed it inside and out. It was altogether a happier prospect once its eyes were no longer on me. The children were all fascinated. ‘Is that real blood Mummy?’ ‘Is it dead Mummy?’ And then ‘What is that brown stuff?’ ‘Is it really poo?! In real life! Mummy are you washing fish poo???’ And yes, indeed Mummy was. How that cheered everyone up!
bury all my clothes
We got the trout home, and the next morning I found a recipe and baked it in the oven, with lemons, garlic and a load of olive oil, all wrapped up in a silver foil parcel. It tasted quite good! And its lucky I thought so, because I then ate 3/4 of the damn thing myself. Dave politely tried it before revealing that he doesn’t like fresh water fish. Caitlin insisted she would not be eating any of it, and no amount of persuasion or threats would budge her. Rosie and Eva agreed to eat a mouthful in exchange for ’10 points’ from their father, which were quickly proven to be of zero material worth. Inexplicably the simple pair went on to eat another 9 mouthfuls each, in order to win ‘100 points’ – equally meaningless. That was as far as they could be persuaded to go, and it still left me with an awful lot of trout to consume.
cooked trout
But that is a first for me, on many fronts. Eating my own kill. Very Bear Grylls! I’ll be spearing bison next…

#64: Build something

This challenge took the form of a tremendously jolly morning, laying someone else’s patio. It is not exactly building, but still, it is manual labour and learning something that I didn’t previously know how to do. So that will do.

And I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it! I always secretly wanted to be a builder. Sadly I was too clever at school for anyone to take such aspirations seriously. But I think I may now be on the verge of making a late foray into the construction trades. I wonder where I can get an apprenticeship?

I mixed the cement, by hand. I chipped old cement off of paving slabs. I slapped cement in a hole and fitted the slabs upon it, and bashed them down to achieve an even finish. I was remarkably well tutored throughout, and had a thoroughly enjoyable morning’s play.
mixing cement

patio laying

patio slab laying
I am delighted with the results, and now feel qualified to build anything. Feel free to send me your requests!
patio finished

#63: Do something unique and special with each of my children, part 3

None of the 3 unique and special things have been earth shaking events, but the challenge is in separating one child from the mass, and doing something that is special for that child, without then doing exactly the same thing with the other two immediately afterwards. They are all very different, and so enjoy different things, but all too often we do the same stuff with all of them, either together or by turns, just to keep everything ‘fair’. So this challenge was to try and address that, and think about them all individually.

The opportunity for Eva’s ‘thing’ occurred spontaneously, but it was no less special for the lack of preplanning.

We were staying with the in-laws. The weather was bleak. It had poured for 2 days, and we all had cabin fever. We had done swimming and watched films and eaten as much as anyone can humanly eat, and the only thing for it was to put on our waterproofs and go out anyway. So we did, for a short walk, ending in a flat clearing, with a slightly soft football. And we started to play with it. Two children quickly got cold and bored and went home. But Eva, she was onto something. She couldn’t get enough of it. We kicked and passed to one another, and for an hour she had the undivided attention of me, her dad, and her Great Uncle Howard; and none of my children have ever in their lives known that much undivided adult attention! She was running all over the field, dribbling, passing to each of us, receiving the ball and sending it on to someone else, all of us passing back to her… And the compliments flowed, because she really was very good. And very energetic! And she was working really hard.
Eva footballing
She totally loved it, for a good hour. And eventually when we called it a day, she was sopping wet, hair matted, muddy faced, eyes shining. And she said, ‘I don’t want to go to football club mummy. But can I play football again, with you?’ And so I expect we will!
me and eva, football

#62: Drive a bus

I have been trying for a while to pluck up the courage to make this request in our local garage/coach hire company. And today I struck gold.

I popped in, and was referred to Barry, the man who can. ‘I have an odd request’ I began. ‘Hmf. That sounds like it’ll cost me money’. Not so promising.

‘No, its nothing like that’. I giggled nervously. My friend who works there also giggled. Barry looked at us suspiciously. ‘Two giggling women. This could be bad’. ‘Or very good,’ suggested his colleagues, sniggering.

I disabused them of the notion that anything unsavoury was intended. ‘I want to drive a bus’ I blurted out.

Barry looked a little surprised. Then thought about it, head on one side. ‘I can see a couple of issues with that’ he began. ‘You have to have a provisional licence before you even get behind the wheel, for a start’. ‘Ah well’ I said. ‘Never mind’.

Then Barry remembered something.
‘But I don’t give a shit!’ he declared, brightly. ‘Come on. We’ll take one down the Spine Road’. He picked up his keys and was off. (The Spine Road is a busy A road leading out of our village, popular with large lorries).

This was a most unexpected turn of events. I had imagined at best getting behind the wheel for a photo, and maybe going backwards and forwards 5 yards on their forecourt.
‘We’ll take one without our name on the side’. This was the only precaution deemed necessary. And a wise one, no doubt.

So sure enough, the request was no sooner uttered than done. I was driving a bus on a major thoroughfare, with a supervisor who was rather more absorbed in filming me than monitoring my driving. He pointed out brake and accelerator, I released the handbrake and we were off.

I thought he was joking about the roundabout. But no. ‘Just get in the middle of the road. Don’t let anything come near you.’ And it worked! And back we went. ‘Go on then, put your foot down’ he urged. I got up to 50mph! Nothing was hit, no one got hurt. I did not upturn the bus in a ditch.
bus driverme and bus
A ruddy triumph! It was all rather exciting! I am still a bit giddy about it even now. I’d better go and ring the flying school next. Where will it all end!?

#61: Spend a day with the children without shouting

I wish I could report an unmitigated success story here. It was a worthy effort, but as Eva reported earlier this evening, ‘I think you did do 4 shoutings’. But that is a triumph compared to most days.

I had told them the challenge was coming. ‘Mummy is going to try not to shout, at all, tomorrow’, I explained last night at dinner. 6 eyes widened with incomprehension. The scene was beyond their imaginings.

‘So I am going to need your help’ I went on. ‘Will you try extra hard to be good, so that I don’t shout at you?’ Touchingly they are still young enough and sweet enough to try and support my efforts, rather than deliberately sabotage them for their own amusement. Though I did see a glint in one pair of eyes that betrayed it had crossed her mind. Innocence is not long for this household, I fear.

I can account for the ‘4 shoutings’. Driving around Swindon, slightly lost, with the signposts and sat nav arguing between themselves, and 3 people in the back singing all the songs from the Lion King, out of time with one another, all shrieking that it was their turn to be the loudest… Mummy forgot herself.

In a crowded playground, trying to monitor 6 children at once, and discovering that 3 of them had ‘left’, without explanation… Shouting number 2 occurred on their return.

Then there were a couple more which were only very mildly provoked. Bad mummy. But it does get harder to be tolerant after the first 10 hours of childcare.

Broadly though, it was one of our better days. We fed chickens. We bought new school shoes. We met friends in a large park and played and walked and mixed up a cauldron of dead flowers in a puddle. We made playdoh in 3 colours and created ladybirds on a leaf. We all ate our tea. We went to another park and played football and everyone kind of cooperated. (I realise that sounds like a week’s worth of activities. Tomorrow will be less ambitious!)

But achieving all that with only 4 shoutings goes down as a success in my book!