A weekend away

I am currently enjoying the cosy warmth of a small, woodland lodge with my elder two children. Outside our window is a lake where a number of ducks appear to be revelling in the rain. They are the only ones doing so. Since we set off from our home yesterday morning the weather has been utterly foul.

Thankfully we are on a site where there is plenty to do whatever the weather. Our current inactivity is the result of a need to prepare for exams rather than a lack of attractive alternatives. As I write this my children are discussing ‘A’ level physics, not a conversation I am capable of usefully contributing to. My husband and younger son have escaped to the swimming complex for the afternoon.

As well as the lake and the ducks I can admire our very wet bicycles, securely locked up outside our lodge. Early last week my husband suggested that, given the unfriendly weather forecast for the time we were planning on being away, we should leave our bicycles at home. The children were having none of it. Since they were toddlers we have been coming to Center Parcs for regular, family holidays and we have always travelled around the site on our bicycles. It is a part of the holiday that they enjoy.

Thus, yesterday morning, my husband was up bright and early attaching racks and bicycles to the roof of our car. He then faced the challenge of driving a much heightened vehicle through the increasingly wet and windy conditions to get us to our destination. On arrival we where greeted by a thunderstorm and hailstones the size of golf balls. I kid you not. I have never seen anything like it.

We beat a hasty retreat to the swimming complex and had a most enjoyable few hours making good use of the various flumes and pools. Well, the rest of the family did this. I sat and read my book with a warming cup of coffee. Much as I like to swim I am not a leisure pool person. I prefer to swim up and down, counting length after length, before relaxing in a hot jacuzzi. Such things are not possible here where the pools are filled with families having fun with floats and other water toys.

I was, however, happy with my book and my coffee; watching the rain through the glass domed roof; handing out snacks as hungry family members randomly appeared in need of nourishment. It was dark by the time we were ready to make our way to the accommodation.

While I unpacked our belongings and prepared our lodge for a few days stay my husband unloaded the sodden bikes, slipping down a hidden gully as he wrestled them off the high roof of our MPV. Of the two pairs of trousers that he brought for the weekend, one pair is now impressively coated in mud. The air was less impressively filled with his exclamations at this turn of events. I hope that no young children were within earshot at the time.

The bikes are now likely to remain locked outside our lodge until it is time to load them onto the roof of the car again at the end of our short stay. The rain is not forecast to stop. I think perhaps we should have left them at home as was suggested.

One of the down sides of bad weather on a site like this is that it drives everyone inside. The sports hall was packed this morning when we walked down to book some activities; perhaps it is as well that there is school work to complete this afternoon. Tomorrow we will enjoy an afternoon of table tennis, badminton and squash, but there are only so many of these sports that we wish to play in the short space of time available.

It is interesting to note how the demands of the family change over time. When they were little we would book the children into craft workshops. As they got older they tried the challenge activities available such as archery, climbing and abseiling. These days they are more interested in racquet sports or, if the weather would only allow, walks and cycle rides. They are just as capable as they ever were of growing bored.

Personally I do not consider boredom to be a bad thing. If entertainment is constantly provided by others then one never learns how to explore alternatives for oneself. My children are certainly old enough to be working out what they enjoy. I have so many things that I wish to do that free time is never wasted.

For me then a good holiday is one where we can spend time doing things together, where we can enjoy the camaraderie as much as the activity; and some time when we can simply relax and enjoy whatever we choose to do as individuals. It will be unfortunate if the weather restricts our options too much. It is also rather a shame that the WiFi connections available are so limited; I think that is proving to be frustrating for us all.

When they were younger I would severely restrict my children’s screen time, but these days I am much more lax. They have been offered the option to try a huge variety of sports and activities over the years. If what they now choose to do when on holiday requires electronic equipment then I feel I must, to a certain degree, accept that decision. I can hardly complain when I too choose to log on. Holidays are a time to indulge in the things which we enjoy, and I am as much an internet addict as anyone.

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People watching

Yesterday I attended the final day of a CIC*** International Eventing show that is held annually close to where I live. Basking in glorious sunshine, I spent the morning watching show jumping and the afternoon watching the cross country event. The horses and riders were magnificent.

As well as the main competition, there were a number of smaller entertainments going on around the site. These included a relay challenge for local Hunts, birds of prey and working dog displays, and an It’s a Knockout Competition to raise money for the local air ambulance. There was also a Festival of Food with a number of ‘celebrity chef’ cookery demonstrations that I did not explore.

I was there to watch the skill and beauty of the horses. They are amazing creatures and, being live animals, can behave in unpredictable ways at times. There were plenty of thrills and spills but, thankfully, no serious injuries to either horses or riders. The weather was hot and sunny with just a light, cooling breeze on the exposed hillside; I had a fabulous day out.

Like most of the vast crowd attending the event, I took a camping chair and a picnic which I set up on a slope overlooking the course to view the cross country event. For the show jumping I sat on the grass by the side of the arena. For those who chose to pay considerably more for their entrance ticket, there were hospitality tents that offered refreshments, seats and the shelter of a couple of massive marquees. These people may have been able to sit in more comfort than the main crowd, but they did not get as good a view of the arena and course. What they did get though was a large screen TV which, later in the afternoon, showed the tennis from Wimbledon.

I do not understand why people would choose to attend an event where some of the best riders in the world are competing and then spend much of the exciting finale watching television. If their interest was in the tennis then why did they not stay home and watch it there? Mind you, these people did seem quite different to the main crowd. Their floaty dresses and smart suits contrasted notably with the casual shorts and light tops of the majority of the attendees. High heels are impractical if one wishes to walk the rough, cross country course in order to get up close to the action; I even saw one sensibly clad supporter in crocs.

What struck me most about the event though was the contrast between the behaviour of the crowd on this site and the pictures that I had seen in the media of the Glastonbury Festival that is also staged not too far from where I live. The horse trials will not have drawn anything like the crowds that Glastonbury attracts, but it had many of the same elements: camping, food outlets, portaloos and transient visitors.

I did not come across any bins yet there was no loose rubbish anywhere to be seen. Despite the copious quantities of food and drink being consumed throughout the day, all debris was carefully packed away and removed from the site by those who attended. I saw a small number of empty bags blowing in the wind and all were caught by whoever had inadvertently let them go, or simply picked up and stowed away by someone else. The site remained immaculate throughout.

I wonder what it is about the mindset of music festival goers that makes them so uncaring of the mess that they leave behind. Horsey people would be considered by many to be posh and privileged; it is a very expensive sport. It is notable that the top eventers seem to come from families that have established ties to the horse world as well as personal wealth. From yesterday’s experience it would seem that, however many silver spoons they may have been born with, they do not expect others to clean up after them.

I am unlikely ever to wish to attend Glastonbury whereas this is the fourth or fifth time that I have enjoyed a day out at the horse trials. Whatever it is that draws a particular type of crowd I feel more at ease with the horsey people than the festival supporters, despite the fact that I do not ride and will never own a horse. Their attitude to all their animals appears to chime more closely with my own views. They do not, generally, look on their pets as fluffy accessories to be pampered but rather as useful companions. The animals are trained to work with their owner and are valued for their contribution to rural life. The displays by the sheep and gun dogs were impressive; they served a purpose beyond being something to love.

I was grateful that the dogs that attended yesterday’s event with their owners were kept on leads and prevented from sniffing any passing person. The owners seemed to realise that their much loved pooch was not going to be equally adored by everyone; I wish that all dog owners had this attitude.

I dislike being judged and pigeon holed based on the behaviour of a particular crowd that I may choose to mingle with from time to time. I dare say there are music festival regulars who do not abandon rubbish wherever they go as well as horsey people who can be haughty and conceited. I will try not to judge those I have little experience of based on newspaper reports. After all, I have already stated how little I trust the mainstream media.

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Active kids

Newspapers often carry articles discussing ‘studies’ into methods of parenting. These are generally written in a critical style and will, over time, offer contradictory advice. This weekend there were reports of a government advisor who believes that children whose parents enrol them in too many organised activities lose the ability to think for themselves and are therefore unable to cope with living independently when they are older. I sometimes wonder if these advisors have children themselves. I can see that, taken to extremes, any method of parenting could be detrimental. However, most parents listen to what their kids want and offer gentle encouragement or admonishment. If a child is active, whether through organisations or free play, it is likely to be because this is what the child wants.

Over the years my three children have tried so many different sports and activities that it can be hard to remember all the things that they have done. They have attended regular training sessions for ballet, gymnastics, swimming, football, horse riding, hockey, cricket, golf, taekwondo, judo and archery, They have joined rainbows, brownies, guides, beavers, cubs, scouts and explorers. They have attended weekend drama schools, taken piano lessons and joined badminton and ping pong clubs. There have been activity camps with climbing, kayaking, raft building and caving. They have even chosen to go on week long residentials where they could race karts and quad bikes. Some of the regular activities were enjoyed for a year or two before the time was needed to fit in the next interest, others they still attend regularly.

There have been periods when they were younger when it did feel as if we had no time to sit down and just relax. The logistics of getting each child from school to activity after activity meant packed teas eaten in the car and homework being done as they waited for a sibling to complete a lesson. I did not, however, insist on them doing any of these things apart from the swimming lessons (they had to keep these up until they could swim a good distance with a strong stroke). All activities were started because they heard about how amazing it was from a friend. They would try a couple of classes and, if they wanted to continue, would be enrolled for a term. Once paid for I insisted that classes were attended regularly, but when the bill for the next term came in they were always given the choice of continuing or leaving. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of uniforms, kit and sports equipment that is no longer used.

Alongside these organised activities we did a lot of walking and cycling as a family. We also went swimming together each weekend for many years. Our village abuts the estate of a large house with grounds open to the paying public and a large, exciting adventure playground. We would buy season tickets for this each year and the children would regularly meet up with friends to play. They were always free to go out around the village but more often chose to have friends back to our garden which we had turned into a mini playground for them. Quiet moments were rare.

Far from taking away their independence the experiences they have gained from taking part  in so much has given them the confidence to face new situations and challenges. They know that they can have a reasonable attempt at most sports and are used to going to new places and working with people they do not know. It has not always been logistically possible (or necessary!) to drive them everywhere so they have got used to travelling under their own steam and, as they have got older, have learnt to use public transport. My eldest child is now capable of organising herself.

I do not hover over my children constantly but I do like to know where they are and what they are doing. I also like to support them in their interests and encourage active participation in support of clubs they belong to. I take an interest in their lives and feel they will be happier if they leave their laptops regularly and participate in something more active and sociable. They are of an age where this cannot be forced and they value free time so it is particularly pleasing that they still choose to take part in a good number of activities.

To suggest that parents should organise less for their children and allow them to play free or get bored ignores the alternatives available to the modern child. When the majority of houses contain multiple computers and televisions a child is as likely to switch on and tune out rather than run around outside. There are also fewer and fewer parents who are happy to have their child run free. I have lost count of the number of parents who have voiced concern to me over the years that I have expected my eight or nine year old to walk the few hundred metres home from school or the village hall unattended (even in the dark!), or who has complained that my child was being noisy, boisterous or engaging in rough play whilst out with friends. When my son fell out of a tree he learnt a valuable lesson. Yes, he could have broken his neck, but that could happen on the stairs at home.

My hackles will always be raised when unasked for criticism and advise are offered. If parents are to do their job then they must be allowed to make decisions based on how their kids are and how best to encourage them to be good citizens. There will always be extremes – parents who ignore their children almost entirely and those who make every decision for them – but most parents that I know encourage but do not force. I think that my kids are amazing. I hope that most parents think that of their kids. They are also individuals and will react in different ways to the same treatment, just as adults will. If the government is trying to parent the nation then I would advise them to learn a few lessons in parenting themselves.

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