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3rd Aug 2009

What Not to Wear When ...

Tamsin: What not to wear when going to the seaside during a plague of ladybirds - a green sweatshirt top.  They must have thought that they had found the largest leaf ever, a great place to rest after their flight across the sea from the continent.

Apparently, they have invaded our country in order to feed on the massive number of aphids that are on our plants this year. A quick 'spot' count showed that most of them were 7 spots, which is apparently one of our commonest ladybird. There were variations among them though. Some were dark red ....

... and some were more a deep orange colour.
My sister informed us that the ladybird larvae look very different - like mini crocodiles. I have yet to see one but hopefully with so many adults flying around in a few weeks time the garden will be crawling with them.
PS Our family has always called ladybirds 'bushybarnabees'. But perhaps that should have been 'bishybarnabees', as the name was derived from the similarity of a bishop's red coat to the bug's crimson wings.

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30th Jun 2009

Mud and Stuff...

Jane: There’s something incredibly glamorous about face packs. I can hardly believe I’ve just written that sentence (apologies to women everywhere) but it’s true: in glossy magazines, you’ll always find a gorgeous gal with a gloopy green mud face pack and cucumber slices over her eyes, looking trendy but tranquil, really chilling out. I remember as a teenager thinking that this (the mud pack) was the height of sophistication, so I wasn’t surprised when the girls started badgering me to try some out some for themselves. 

Boots failed on the trendy face pack front so I went to Superdrug, where they have loads in little sachets with pictures of funky Honolulu-inspired girls with exotic flowers over their eyes. I bought a handful of them: peaches, lime, lemon, raspberry, blue ice, smoothies – apart from the mud, it sounded better than lunch. 

The girls got to work, squeezing out the sachets and applying the coloured gloop to their faces. 

Immediately things started to go wrong. The stuff was too itchy, they couldn’t move their faces, they wanted to scratch, it was in their hair, their skin had gone all tight. 

They lay down for the picture in a row the garden. Not a good idea (‘Mum, there’s an insect on my legs, get it off…’, ‘This grass is too itchy’ etc). I applied the cucumber, petals and flowers over their eyes, hoping to soothe them, but they started writhing around as if in enormous pain. Pollen was in their eyes, they wanted to see, it’s too itchy, it’s horrible…  

So they got up, removed the eye whatnots, and went in to play Sims3 with their face packs still on. We forgot about them until about an hour later, when Edie came in with her face so stiff it resembled dried plaster of paris. It took ten minutes in the shower to get it all off.

So, did they like their face packs, I asked? No, they were horrible, they replied in unison (for the reasons outlined above). But afterwards, kissing them goodnight in bed, I said how wonderful their skin smelled, all fruity and clean, and they agreed. The glamour, you see, somehow lives on. 

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4th Jun 2009

Clouds and Contraband

Tamsin: Once a year I take my family on a so-called ‘walking holiday’. We usually go somewhere mountainous, staying in a remote house and with suitcases packed with waterproof gaiters. I love this one week in the year when it is just us, walking, talking and connecting again. My son now enjoys the adventure while my daughter has a healthy ‘well if I have to’ attitude to the whole expedition, just as I did when I was her age and my parents dragged me up mountainsides wearing the most awful unfashionable outfits. It is such a wonderful feeling to stand on top of a mountain, exhausted and exhilarated from the climb – surveying all that you can see. Sometimes the view looked like this ...

...when we were very pleased that we had a compass to help with the navigation down. Sometimes the view looked like this ... which point we could shelter behind the cairn and savour our sandwiches with the satisfied feeling of knowing that the slog was behind us. 

Evenings were spent in front of an open fire, drying off bog-sodden boots, playing games or flopping exhausted in front of a DVD. I was delighted to find in the games drawer of the house one game I had not seen for years – Contraband. I remember spending hours with my sisters sitting cross-legged on the floor, hoping to get the crown jewels and smuggle them through under the diplomatic bag. The main aim is to blag honestly so as to not arouse the suspicions of the customs officer.

Maturity did not seem to add to my skill at the game and all I managed to do on this holiday was giggle every time it was my go to smuggle something through. I was doomed to lose, especially as each time I tried to declare ‘nylon’ stockings, Joe shouted out ‘silk’, which was what was written down in the instructions.  I held my ground as my card clearly stated the artificial kind of stockings. After some investigation we realised that there were two packs of cards, obviously from different eras - we wondered when the change had been made? When did nylons overtake silk?

Oh, and we even spotted the very rare Irish spotted slug.

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16th Mar 2009

Deadly Catapult

Jane: A couple of weeks ago, I was camping with some other journalists in the Cambodian jungle looking at ancient, beautiful but half-collapsing temples. One of the children who followed us around the temple sites (telling us stories of the history and natural world to make an extra dollar or two) showed me this highly effective catapult he’d built. It’s basically a strong bit of branching hardwood which has been whittled to a Y-shape. He cut a bit of camera strap to make the catapult cradle, then attached that to two chain of rubber bands to give it good stretch. Definitely worth trying at home.  

An Asian palm civet cat

Warning: people of a sensitive, animal-loving disposition should probably stop reading this blog now.

That night in the jungle, while we were eating a delicious dinner prepared for us by a team of Cambodian cooks (I should point out that this was a cushy five-star jungle trip in ‘luxury’ tents), one of the team fired a stone from such a homemade catapult. It hit a cat, well actually an Asian palm civet cat, a gentle, black, shaggy, raccoon-like creature (see above) which eats mostly fruits and insects (including those delicious tarantulas of the blog dated 9th March, see below). The stone broke the cat’s leg so it fell from the tree, and was then killed, skinned, cooked and eaten by the Cambodian team for dinner. We observant journalists didn’t notice a thing.
Next morning our guide told us about the catapulted cat and, of course, we were horrified (even though we had been eating steak and lamb for supper). 
Is there a moral to this story? It certainly brought home what a strange and contradictory attitude we Westerners have to the food we eat. But, more importantly, how hungry many Cambodians are (20% of the population live in ‘extreme poverty’ according to the World Food Programme) for a bit of free meat.

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9th Mar 2009

Would You Eat This?

Jane: I’m always keen to try weird and wacky foods, thanks mostly to my dad, who encouraged us to get to grips with snails, liver and frog’s legs by the age of about eight. But on a recent trip to Cambodia, the concept of wacky gastronomy hit a new high (or low, depending on the strength of your stomach). To wit, tarantulas. You can see them in the picture above, piled up in a country market stall near the jungle, several hours’ drive from the capital city of Phnom Penh. Would you eat these? Thought not. But two of us with more hair than sense decided we must, just must, have a taste to show we’ve walked on the wild and jungly side and lived to tell the tale. 

Well, let me tell you, spiders taste foul. We took one off the top of the big pile. It was black and shiny, fried in oil. (One man told us they pull out the poison sac and fangs before you eat them which was some comfort, and apparently tarantulas are not really poisonous anyway, they just look it.) We both chewed a leg (not the same one). It was tough and fibrous. With an oily aftertaste. I spat it out and gave up.

Lizzie munched manfully on.

We asked the children if spiders really were a delicacy and they nodded enthusiastically. But when we asked if they wanted one they all said no, except for one brave girl who didn’t really look as if she was enjoying it either, especially when she got to the soft yellow bits in the middle. (A few days later we were told the spiders have to be fresh – ie just fried, and eaten with rice. These ones were probably days old. No wonder they tasted a bit off.)

In Cambodia, our guide explained, they eat everything except the table and he wasn’t joking. In the next basket were grasshoppers, and we saw big red ants – the stir-fried eggs are considered a special treat.
This ‘if it moves, eat it’ philosophy is partly a legacy from the days of the Khmer Rouge, when people were starving and would eat anything from tree bark to flying insects to stay alive. Nowadays, people aged 40 and over who lived through the 1975-79 Pol Pot atrocities often have terrible stomach and digestive problems, and one of the things they take for it is spider whisky in which tarantulas (and sometimes ants, for the formic acid) are steeped to make a strong medicinal tincture. Apparently spider whisky is good for bad backs too. 

In the end I gave up on insects and turned to the delicious fruit instead. This beauteous pink thing is a dragon fruit.

Its insides are white with tiny black seeds, like a well-washed lino floor. Delicious.

I enjoyed that.

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25th Feb 2009

Forging Ahead

Tamsin: What do you give someone who asks for a forge for a present? This was what Joe decided he would like when asked what he wanted for Christmas. I felt this was a non-starter but then decided t I had to think creatively round it and began to look into blacksmithing. I was not expecting, due to the paranoia around health and safety nowadays, to find someone who would take on a 14-year-old so was much surprised when after only one phone call, I had booked not only my son but also my husband on a three day ‘Starting Blacksmithing’ course. 

The course was to be held in February and it turned out to be a rather snowy and freezing weekend. This was most noticeable in the morning when first entering the workshop to find the buckets of water frozen over and Jack Frost on the windowpanes. Luckily, blacksmithing requires fires and plenty of physically demanding work so Joe and Mike soon warmed up. They slogged all day to make items which took them six hours to produce but would probably have taken their teacher 15 minutes.

 I was amazed by the standard of work they produced as absolute novices – far more intricate and dainty than I had expected. Each day a different item was fashioned so we are now a household with two pokers, two toasting forks and two plant hangers. It was lovely to see my ‘boys’ returning home with blackened faces, aching muscles, and dry, raw hands but brimming over with pride and contentment at their day's work.
They are now talking about the next course (where you make all the tools you need to do the blacksmithing) but only on the proviso that it takes place when the air temperature is above freezing. 

So, if someone you know ever asks for a ‘forge’ I would highly recommend sending them here: 
Peat Oberon School of Blacksmithing

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2nd Jan 2009

People, Sausages and Seals

Joe: Let’s begin by setting the scene, its New Year's Day and a group of friends are driving through the beautiful Norfolk countryside to go for a bracing wilderness walk. At one point the cars slow down and exclamations of horror are heard as a line of 50 cars draws into view; could this possibly be the peaceful beach walk they were expecting? Luckily for them they carry on, past the multitude of people and through a set of twisty routes until eventually they draw to a halt down a tiny lane. Once they have prepared, the group sets off down the path to their distant goal of a steep embankment and, beyond it, a peaceful beach. None of them notice the small car park, devoid of any empty spaces.

As they walk on they find their path to be very crowded, worryingly with many of the people walking in the opposite direction. The closer they draw the more it seems like the embankment is fenced off, but no one could close a beach, could they? Finally they reach a barrier surrounded by people, and one of their group notices a sign, proclaiming in bold type:
Grey Seals Birthing
Voluntary Beach Closure
Thank you for your co-operation

After the initial surprise has worn off the group is aghast, but luckily they can climb to the top of the embankment to view the seals. Once the likely looking people in fluorescent jackets have been queried about the extent of the closure, and following the discovery that the nearest stretch of free beach is a six mile walk away, it is decided that the only thing to do to escape the hordes is to continue walking along the bank. The group eventually comes to rest in an isolated hollow, with a perfect view of the seals. It is now that the secret weapon is revealed. The rucksacks are opened to reveal a small gas cooker, hotdogs, white finger rolls and assorted condiments – the perfect lunch. Whilst the sausages are bubbling away, the group turns to seal watching. There are many of them, ranging from teeny white, fluffy babies to huge (and I mean really big!) adults. Their entire life seems to consist of sleeping, only ever moving to get comfortable.
Once sufficient seals have been watched and hotdogs consumed they head home, stopping at the local pub to finish off a very enjoyable New Year's Day out.   

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14th Sep 2008

All In The One Pot

Tamsin: The family is getting older, my son is taller than me and my daughter is fitting into my shoes. I've hit the teenage years, or rather they have crept up on me. Every so often, I suddenly find myself having to readjust my mothering technique as I am jolted into a new phase. This summer gave me one such jolt, but luckily I found that the adjustment was only slight. It all began because I had booked us on to a cookery course at The Olive Tree Cookery School, which had opened up near our annual holidaying spot. As a holiday group we were a party of eight, two families ranging in age from 11 to 49. 

The night before I suddenly realised I was not taking along a group of ‘children’ but independent-minded young adults and I wondered if we could still go on an activity together and all get enjoyment from it?  

We were in very good hands with our chef and teacher Giuseppe who immediately relaxed us by sitting us down with a cup of coffee while he talked through how the morning would work. Each person took on a cookery task and began to prepare their dish while Giuseppe supervised, making sure we were all on target – I felt he was the leader in charge of a rather dishevelled but willing orchestra and conducted us perfectly.

The realisation that enjoyment was certainly going to be spread to everyone  came when the lobsters were brought out. Immediately, the 14 and 16-year-old were hooked, dropping them into the pans of boiling water (probably regretting that Guiseppe had humanely killed them first), cracking open the shells and pulling out the contents.

For those of us who were a bit more squeamish, there were plenty of other jobs and we all found our niche. Carla concentrated on pudding (her favourite), Emma and Andrew the mayonnaise and salads, Mike the aubergine rolls and Nienke the fiddly vegetables.

The result was a picnic which was a real feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

The greatest praise was a whispered comment from one of the teenagers – ‘I’m in danger of really enjoying myself!’ A good result indeed. Not only did we take away a delicious picnic but I also made the firm decision to carry on booking ‘family’ experiences over the next few years, feeling confident that this will enhance us all. Mind you, this belief was tested a short while later when I booked us all to go to the circus ... but that is another blog!

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11th Sep 2008

Little Shrimps

Jane: Any one for shrimping? Okay, we might at the fag end of the season but it’s still worth a go. This summer, my neighbour Gill rediscovered her lovely wooden shrimping net from childhood: it’s 40 years old and as you can see, in pretty good nick. As a child, she used to go shrimping on Happisburgh beach in north Norfolk with this very same net, and this year took her children to Waxham Sands near Great Yarmouth to see what they could catch. 

The net is a good solid one with a flat edge at the bottom which you push along the seabed in a few inches of water when the tide has gone out, as shown above. The shrimp, tiny flatfish, starfish, crabs and loads of other kinds of marine life are scooped into the net. 

You can see Jasmin holding a brown shrimp, a wiggly translucent thing…

Collect the shrimp in buckets as shown here (Millie and Edie are practising their mussel technique in the garden)…

The children were horrified but Gill and her mum cooked the shrimps on the campfire, then ate them with buttered brown bread and a sprinkle of white pepper. (To cook, you put the shrimp in heavily salted boiling water for three to five minutes until they turn pinkish. Take the heads off before you eat them, but crunch the other crusty bits.) Or like Millie and Jasmin, you might feel happier chucking them back into the sea…

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25th May 2008

Shell Seekers

It's half-term and we're on a quiet Scottish island where the sand is white, the sea is deep turquoise, and the beaches are full of shells of incredible shapes and colours. We're staying in a house with shell art on the walls and a beach 20m away, so decided to see what we could find in a couple of hours' beachcombing. Everyone took a bag and picked up the shells they liked best, then brought them home and laid them out on the table to make instant homemade art. Carla arranged hers in the shape of a wheel, and also found a pipefish, which used to be rare but you see more often now...

Mike collected tiny yellow and green flat periwinkles and packed them into a circle...

Joe collected small fragments of edible sea urchins, top shells, periwinkles, and unusual stones...

Maudie went for white and blue and arranged them in double decker stone sandwiches...

Tamsin picked periwinkles of all colours, plus some white cowries, and arranged them in bold lines of colour...

Edie liked pyramids of white limpets, rough periwinkles, and also found a crusty old mussel.

It's sunny now but on the next rainy day we're going to stick the shells onto flotsam and driftwood and make artworks to put on the walls... 

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27th Mar 2008

DIY Kites

Jane: Forget about buying expensive kites – today with the help of Alex, who’s been making kites since he was a kid, we learnt how to make an excellent  kite from scratch using a bit of paper, some cotton, a couple of wooden kebab sticks and a few old plastic bags. It is pretty easy. First the kids cut out a small rectangular bit of paper each, and drew a design of their choice on each one.

Then as if you’re sewing, thread a thin wooden kebab stick or skewer along the length of each crease.

Fold the paper opposite corner to corner so you get two criss-cross creases.

To make the hanging end of the kite, cut up old plastic bags into long strips and tie them together in a tail about 12 to 15ft long.

Tie a short piece of cotton (we used polyester cotton which is tougher) to the bottom corners of the kite and attach the tail in the middle so it hangs down.

Then cut three bits of cotton about 15cm long. Tie one to the centre of the two kebab sticks. Tie the others one on each top corner of the kite. Then join these three strands of cotton together in a knot at the other ends to form a pyramid.

Tie the long reel of cotton to this central knot and allow to unreel. Get someone to throw the kite up into the wind – you control it by unreeling the cotton as far as you can. If the kite keeps falling to left or right, the tension in the pyramid made by the thread might be slightly askew – there is a bit of skill involved in getting this right and you might need to fiddle around with the lengths. Once it’s up and flying, Alex ties it to the washing line and leaves it to zoom around the sky all night. Quite brilliant!

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25th Mar 2008


Tamsin: I have had many contented moments holding a piece of string, with my eyes raised to the sky, watching a colourful kite dip and dive around.  Kite flying is a traditional pastime in some countries over Easter and can be the focal point for a trip out over the holidays. 

On one Easter holiday in the Caribbean we came across a mass kite flying event with thousands of people gathered on the top of a ridge flying small colourful tissue paper and wood constructed kites.  The day was sweltering with a clear blue sky and the kites looked magnificent dashing around against the perfect blue background.

We have also had other less warming kite flying trips.  One that particularly stands out was a North Norfolk beach trip in January when it was so cold that, despite a similar blue sky to the Caribbean, we could only just hoist up the kite for a few minutes before our fingers froze and we were beaten back to the car by the easterly wind that must have come straight from Siberia.

Kite flying is one of those activities which the whole family can enjoy together.  Choose from the simple one string kite, which can fold easily into the pocket, to more elaborate stunt kites for those who like more of a challenge.  Find a park, a field or a beach and take along a thermos of hot chocolate, unless of course you are nearer to the equator.

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16th Jan 2008

Warming Socks

Tamsin: I don’t know what it is about Joe and his socks, but they spend more of their time apart than together. Each morning he gets a pair out of his drawer and then wanders around the house clutching them in his hand until putting them down in some ‘particularly-difficult-place-to-remember’ corner of a room. Then, having lost them and needing to leave the house, he happily gets a second pair out of the drawer, puts them on and walks out. I’m left to rediscover his lost pair of socks and return them to the drawer, when the whole sock cycle begins again. Yesterday I found a pair of his socks next to the microwave so I put them in on full power for 30 seconds and served them to him for his breakfast.

This was a big hit due to the toasty warmth of the microwaved socks – a good tip to remember for cold feet days.

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6th Jan 2008

A Walk in the Dark

Tamsin: The weather was not promising and I knew it would be hard to convince the younger generation that a brisk amble in the New Year’s drizzle was going make their day. Luckily for us, Mike had put on a New Year firework display and also unearthed from the attic a box of flare candles left over from our millennium celebrations.

An idea was hatched. First we’d have a snug day, mooching around the house, playing games, cooking, reading, then just before dusk we’d walk to the woods, play on the rope swing and find our way back home in the dark in the light provided by the candle flares. The idea was an instant success with children and adults alike, though as evening approached my enthusiasm turned to anxiety, thinking of the perils of outdoor fire, blustery winds, artificial coat materials and teenage big hair trends.
Thankfully, none of these fears were realised but it was still a bit dangerous. By the time we lit the flares and begin to walk back it was quite dark and I was glad of the small torch I had in my pocket to see the fuse to light the flares. The wind was blowy, so we wasted quite a few matches (take lots, is the answer). Walking with the flares was fairly safe as long as you held them upright, but the adults walked behind just in case any stray embers blew off.
Walking through the woods in the dark was great fun and the shadows that were cast made for dramatic eeriness. But I was actually glad of the drizzle – this is not an activity to do in crisp dry weather when the woods are like tinderbox, but for bleak, damp, winter, more dark than light days. And for a safer walk in the dark, home-made lanterns or torches are just as good.
The children, inspired by our friend Andrew and his packet of lozenges, also played a great game in the woods which we’ve called Sweetie Treasure Chase.

NB: Please take special care using fire or matches outdoors and always supervise children closely.

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9th Nov 2007

Colour Chart Walks

Tamsin: Crisp autumn and winter days are made for walking out in the countryside or park, wrapped in duvet warm coats and scarves. If you’re lucky the sky will be blue and there will be sun to warm your face. The picture is sounding rosy but sometimes you have to go through a bit of pain to get there. The major hurdle once you’ve convinced yourself that leaving a lovely warm house is worthwhile is then to convince the kids. Wails of protest come hurtling out of their mouths and I immediately feel my whole body tense up. I know that once they’re out they will enjoy the walk – years of experience have taught me this, so I sweep them along closing my ears and bustling them through the door.
But every little bit helps and last weekend the ‘carrot’ was to hand each child (and adult) a seasonally appropriate paint colour chart that Mike picked up on his morning shopping trip. Off we went, each clutching our card, with the idea of finding something on the walk to match every nuance of red, brown and green.

Having a brown card on a walk surrounded by reeds I thought my colour palette would be easy to find – how wrong I was. There are so many browns in this earth but my surroundings did not throw up the yellowy tinted ones I needed – a gravel pathway would have been better.

The kids threw themselves into the task and soon had pockets full of little bits and pieces. But it was the adults who really got involved (and dare I say a slight competitiveness crept in amongst them...). Back home there was much discussion over the colour matches as we laid them out for all to observe. It amazed me how beautiful they looked especially against the black kitchen marble top.

This is certainly an activity to be repeated. The only drawback is that the distance covered on your walk is greatly reduced but the conversation and involvement easily make up for it. If you have younger children, go for colour charts with lots of different colours to make it easier for them. And if you live in a city, you can have just as much fun looking at the built-up environment where the greens might be the challenge.

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21st Oct 2007

Go Ape!

Maudie: three friends and I went to Thetford Forest in Norfolk to do a Go Ape! course for my 11th birthday party. When we arrived a man gave us harnesses to put on, then gave us a demo on how to attach ourselves to the wire. Then he took us to the first course. There was a series of wires and zip wires on this one. It looked quite easy, but you had to attach a red metal clip to yourself and it was really hard to get off. Then you had to attach two ropes with a metal clip onto the clasp on top of the wire. Then you flew down a zip wire. You had to run in the air when you came in to land, but I landed backwards instead and got bark down my trousers!
Then we went on to the first course, where we had to climb up a rope ladder and swing on a Tarzan drop and catch a net. That was really scary! We also walked along a single piece of wire, and swung on another zip wire, but this one was 30 feet from the ground. Again I landed with bark down my trousers.

My favourite thing was the zip wires because they were really high from the ground, and at one point, 60 feet! All the courses were fun. Here’s some of the things we did: Giant Tarzan swing, wobbly logs, trapeze walking, more zip wires and so on! It took three hours to do the course, but it was great fun.

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14th Sep 2007

Underwater Magic

Jane: My last memory of using an underwater camera was 20 years ago in Florida. It was my brother’s (he lived there) and it was big and clunky and, even in those crisp blue waters, the images were mostly of murky blotches of wetsuit with the occasional blurred parrot fish floating by, due to slow shutter speeds, or something like that.

But now you can just buy a cheap (about £8 for a Kodak Max Underwater or Fuji Quicksnap Marine) disposable underwater camera online and have a go in your local swimming pool. S’easy: you just hold your breath, point and press. The kids love it and zoom around underwater doing funny poses and pulling horrible faces for the camera – being photographed floating two feet underwater with mermaid’s hair and floppy limbs is pretty special. They also like taking arty shots of brilliantly coloured goggles floating towards the bottom of the pool…



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12th Sep 2007

A Live Surprise

Tamsin: It is a beach I’ve swum at all my life. A lovely sandy cove where at low tide you have to wade for miles for the sea to gradually inch up over your belly button, agonisingly prolonging the moment when you finally immerse yourself in the cold waters. I thought I knew all its hidden secrets but last year my brother-in-law rolled up his trousers, took a net and scooped a couple of flat fish out of the sand. In all my years swimming there I’d never seen them before, they’re so well camouflaged on the sandy bottom.

So this year, Joe set out with net in hand and snorkelled in the shallows hoping to repeat the catch. Much to our surprise he caught instead a snake pipe fish, our second encounter with them in a year. This one was shorter and had a fanned end to its tail but it was definitely a live version of the one we found washed up from the North Sea a few weeks earlier.

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28th Aug 2007

Snake Pipe Fish

Tamsin: You never know what you might find on a beachcombing expedition…but this find was rather exciting. The day started off with a three-generational family swim. I was brought up to swim whenever an opportunity came my way but despite this I looked on nervously as some large waves crashed on to the shingle slopes. Reassured by my elderly but very sprightly parents who were leading the way into the sea that it was okay for swimming, Joe, Carla and I raced in after them. They were right of course, once past the breakers we bobbed about safely with no worries at all except that of timing our exit to miss the one in seven, much larger than the rest, wave.

To warm up after a dip, a jog along the beach usually does the trick but on a shingle beach that is not only hard work but painful, so we began to beachcomb along the high water line instead. My brother-in-law was first to spy the strange snakelike fish, camouflaged against some sticks and forming an ‘S’ shape. We were eager to find more and soon saw a second, much straighter one that looked even more like a dead twig. Held against the light they were beautiful and unsmelly, definitely something to take back in a bucket and adorn a shelf at home.

On our return we looked through our books to try and identify our find and decided that it was most aptly named a snake pipe fish, now becoming common in the North Sea and replacing the once common sand eel. This is confusing native seabirds that rely on sand eels as part of their diet. The trouble is that that the eels are soft and chewable while the pipe fish are related to sea horses and have a hard exo-skeleton, so are a bit of a mouthful. To see one of these poor birds trying to deal with its hard-shelled catch go to this BBC link. There’s also an interesting nature photo blog you can dip into with some amazing shots of creatures great and small.


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2nd Aug 2007

Chicken Chasing

Our holiday in Derbyshire was a great success, but one of the most fun things to do was… Well can you guess? Chasing chickens! The place we stayed in had the most ridiculous chickens. They were let out each day and we spent hours trying to chase them back into their pen at night. They were really daft, as soon as you got one in the pen, another ran out! Dad had to chase them round to Edie, who was wearing my jumper, hood up and all, who made loud noises to scare them into the fruit cage, where I was ready and waiting to chase them outside near to mum who would shoo them in through the open door of the pen. Sounds a pretty civilized plan, right? Wrong!

It was hard enough to chase them round a blackberry bush almost three times as big as me. But there was one really daft white chicken who just didn’t want to go in. It took me three minutes to chase him round to mum, but she didn’t have time to get him into the pen because he ran like lightning back to the place he’d started. So, we’d have to start the whole process again. He did this many more times, and we kept chasing him until Dad’s arms stung from stinging nettles, Edie’s throat hurt from shouting, my legs and arms were scratched from chasing him around the bush and Mum’s hands were red sore from clapping. In the end – guess what? We gave up and he stayed out all night. I’d advise you NEVER to get chickens – stick with a rabbit or a dog.


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28th Jul 2007

All Creatures Small

With nets and bucket we set off to the river. Optimistically, we wore our Crocs imagining hours of fun wading around along the riverbed. Joe was first to venture in and screamed in agony at the temperature of the water. I followed and very briskly paddled out again – it was foot-numbingly freezing. Still, we were on a mission and had lured the young cousins down with promises of fish-catching so the feet just had to freeze. After a few minutes of icy water, all pain and indeed feeling had subsided so we could get on with the serious business of fishing. The technique is to lift a large stone as the fish live in the cracks beneath the stone and look very carefully because they are camouflaged extremely well. Then either scoop them up or place a net in front and guide them towards it.

It took a while but in the end we (Joe) caught two – a bull head and a baby cat fish (you can tell by the whiskers). To top it all, on our way home the whole verge seemed to be alive with little frogs (or toads, we think you tell the difference by the way they move: frogs jump, toads don’t). 



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23rd Jul 2007

Fairy Fair

It was an enchanting start to the holidays when I took my nieces aged three and five to a Fairy Fair in woods nearby. They were given wings to help them fly around, fairy cakes to keep them magically energised and lots of elfin fun. The first thing we did was to make the fairies each a wand.

 The workshops were beautifully thought out with the young fairies choosing the wood their wands were made from by spinning a pointer to a season, then smelling the leaves of two trees and choosing the one they liked best. (The cousins both chose hawthorn - very appropriate as hawthorn is the tree traditionally associated with May Day and they were both born in May.) Having sneakily had a smell myself, I was amazed at the strength and variety of the different leaf odours.

The wands were then decorated and finished off by the tree fairy who sprinkled magic fairy dust on to each wand, before trainee spell casters were let loose to cast spells on all those who crossed their path. The fairies then made crowns from willow hoops woven with different greenery finished off with a tissue flower.

After the making we all made our way through the forest to see the fairy queen, following the glittering dust and hiding from some noisy blue and green trolls who were also going to ask the queen if they could have some wings. As ever their request was denied and they left empty ‘winged’.  But all was not just flowers and glitter: one favourite activity was the compost fairy who had wickedly black boxes of earth wriggling with creepy crawlies to catch and view.

Then with not much time left we dashed to the elf post where postcards were written and enquiries made into whether the elves would be able to find Scotland (they would) and the cards were placed in a giant toadstool to await delivery. 

The event was enchanting and made all the more so because it gently introduced the idea of conservation to the very young, in a fun and subtle way. If the fairies ever make their way to your neck of the woods then I would definitely suggest you magic yourself over to fairyland for a few hours. You can find out more from



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4th Jul 2007

Scream for Ice Cream

Tamsin: We are busy in different rooms of the house. Suddenly the sound of the chimes breaks into our concentration – is it coming our way? Confirmation is given as the tune gets louder and louder and all hell breaks loose. We converge on the front door shouting, ‘Quick, quick, outside, where’s my purse, shoes, quick.’ It’s as if we are all possessed. I have no intention of eating an ice cream but whenever an ice-cream van comes to our residential road I feel I have to make everyone else participate in this glorious activity.

It takes me right back to my childhood and the thrill is just the same. As you stand on the verge, staring at the choice of lollies before you and raising your head to talk to the ice-cream man who stares down at you from a great height, I forget about healthy eating. This is about the excitement, the surprise, the tradition, the sheer pleasure of getting to the van before it pulls away. Ice-cream vans, like milkmen, should be appreciated and supported. They give you something very important in life which is getting rarer nowadays – they deliver pleasure to your doorstep. 


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9th Apr 2007

Curtis and Kids

Curtis Stigers is a well-known jazz singer and friend of my mum's friends Carol and Alan, and yesterday we went to see him play in Perth Concert Hall.

The other members of the band were Matthew Fries, Keith Hall, and Phil Palombi, and we met them all backstage before the concert. They offered us juice, milk or water and some fruit. We had a brief chat before taking our seats in the theatre. Curtis not only sang, but also played the saxophone! The other members of the band played piano, bass and drums. Keith played the drums, and did an amazingly fast drum solo, Matthew played the piano, and he did some very complicated, fast notes. And Phil played the bass, and his fingers moved like lightning across the strings.

Curtis has a seven-year-old daughter called Ruby, whom he adores. Also Keith has three daughters, one of whom is two months old. They are on tour for weeks and are missing their kids so much that they wanted a big hug from Edie and me. We really enjoyed the night, and got a signed copy of his new album. Also, we didn't get to bed until 12.15 in the morning.



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