Thomas and the Great Japanese Farewell

Like many small children, my son Vincent has an obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine. Or rather, he did. From his second birthday until recently, hours of our days were consumed by Thomas, Henry and James et al. Railway tracks could be found in paving stones, the TV remote was called the Fat Controller, and causing “confusion and delay” was a serious transgression indeed. My baby son’s middle name is Thomas, which was a compromise: Vincent at three had been an enthusiastic advocate for Gordon.

Thanks to Thomas Land, Vincent and I may have been two of Drayton Manor’s most frequent visitors in 2014, using our off-peak passes almost every Friday throughout the spring and summer. I probably lost count while on Winston’s Whistle Stop Tours, having deliberately banged my head against the steering wheel.

But I always knew those days were as precious and fleeting as toddlerhood itself. When we got the chance to visit Japan this summer, Thomas Land at the Fuji-Q Highland Resort came high on my wish list. Vincent would start school a few weeks later and I could already see his passion for trains making way for Star Wars and superheroes, taking with it a sweet little era in our lives.

“Wow, look at those big mountains,” Vincent said, nose squashed against the window of the coach we’d caught from Tokyo. The day was overcast but we could see far enough to realise the drama of Fuji-Q’s setting, near the foot of Mount Fuji. Unsurprisingly the air felt cooler and fresher than in the city. Gazing at the ascensions and plummets of the fierce Fujiyama, once the world’s tallest rollercoaster, I briefly wished I could view Fuji from its 79-metre peak. But today was for a little boy, and perhaps for saying goodbye to a little blue engine.

welcome-to-thomas-land

cotswolds-in-japan

Fuji-Q’s Thomas Land was laid out differently to its Drayton Manor counterpart but had a similar vibe, with eateries and bright shopfronts such as Mrs Kyndley’s Kitchen and Elsbridge Photo Studio evoking a quaint British town. Lady Topham Hatt’s Pavilion, a covered space for outdoor eating, lent an upper-class air: a theme-park Cotswolds transposed to Japan.

Vincent and I started out in a circus-styled maze, constructed from giant wooden crates. It felt confining and not remotely fun inside, with the only link to trains pressed into ink stamps that guests were encouraged to collect along the way. Hot and lost, and fed up with being nudged by similarly hot, lost people, I inwardly cheered when Vincent asked whether we could try something else.

Our next experience was, again, only loosely connected to Thomas and Friends – this time via colourful hoardings depicting some of Sodor’s engines. We borrowed a pair of Crocs-style shoes each, rented two plastic sleds and spent a happy half hour hurtling down a pile of artificial snow, occasionally blasted by a man with a snow machine. Vincent shrieked with laughter, and I hushed my inner eco-worrier who frets about the environmental cost of maintaining snow in 30-degree sunshine. We played until ice seeped into our Crocs and numbed our toes.

ready-for-the-slopes

Not wishing to miss out on valuable ride time, we grabbed hotdogs and orange juice for lunch. The food at Fuji-Q was varied and plentiful, catering to predominantly Japanese, Chinese and Korean tourists. Snacks in Thomas Land included Thomas-shaped pancakes, which we bought mid-afternoon when Vincent was flagging. Elsewhere in the park we tried ice-cream and delicious deep-fried ‘hurricane’ potatoes, twizzled around a stick.

thomas-pancake

Skipping the Harold and Bulstrode rides that are replicated at Drayton Manor, we tried Everybody Twist, a carousel featuring small versions of popular engines. We got Bill, or maybe Ben. The ride played a Thomas song as it whirled us around, and everyone sang along while bashing the tambourine that had been hooked over their train’s funnel. I found the idea cute and funny, but couldn’t imagine it catching on among cynical Brits – even tiny, Thomas-loving ones. Vincent looked confused and mildly embarrassed, although he asked to go on it again later.

We queued for Thomas and Percy’s Fun Ride which I expected to be a straightforward trip around the park, like the one-way journey at Drayton Manor which takes guests from the front of Thomas Land to the museum and zoo. This turned out to be a story ride, though, narrated in Japanese via loudspeakers and featuring Sir Topham Hatt, Winston, Cranky the Crane and – causing a small, clammy hand to find and grip my own hand – Diesel 10 flexing his dreaded claw. Worse still, as we rounded a bend, Vincent caught sight of a scene he’s always cowered from on TV: Henry bricked into a tunnel.

henry-bricked-into-a-tunnel

“Mummy!” he hissed. “I never, ever want to go on this ride again.”

I understood: the Henry episode had half-fascinated, half-terrified me as a child too. But to my frustration Vincent was now spooked and refused to board the Great Gatagoto Adventure, a party-themed ride, or Exciting Cruise, which promised not excitement exactly but a gentle boat journey ‘through Trevor’s orchard’.

“Look – those children are all younger than you and they’re not frightened,” I told Vincent. It was true: he was one of the biggest children there. The Thomas magic must wear off quickly in Japan too.

“But the Troublesome Trucks have horrible faces and they’re being really pushy,” he said, digging his sandals into the concrete platform.

Suppressing my inner mother-logue (“You don’t realise how lucky you are!”) because this was meant to be a special day, I coaxed him into the Thomas Land theatre. Although the film was in Japanese and incomprehensible to us, I felt reasonably confident it followed a similar plot to most other Thomas stories: engine causes confusion and delay; engine is bumped, decommissioned or bricked up in a tunnel; engine learns its lesson and vows to be Really Useful next time. Nevertheless I appreciated cooling down in the air-conditioned auditorium and seeing Vincent laugh at Thomas’s capers through 3D glasses.

With perfect (infuriating) four-year-old logic, Vincent chose for our final attraction a ‘blue rollercoaster’ he’d spotted from afar. The Great Fluffy Sky Adventure featured cute manga characters but was higher, faster and scarier than any ride in Thomas Land.

“Are you sure?” I asked him, as the ride attendant checked he met the minimum height requirement. We queued for the best part of two hours in exchange for a couple of minutes spent flying through the air in a car shaped like hamsters on a cloud. He yelled joyfully throughout and asked afterwards whether I had been really, really scared.

“Because I wasn’t at all. It was the best ride in the world!”

And suddenly I knew I’d no longer let myself feel sad about the Thomas pyjamas that are rapidly becoming too small, or the once-beloved wooden engines that seldom come out of their box. Although Vincent’s toddlerhood may be behind us, the biggest and best fun of his childhood stretches out like railway tracks ahead . . .

thomas

Sayonara, Thomas!

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Christmas present idea: a signed first edition of Slow Travel: Shropshire

Who set his own shirt on fire to cure a bout of hiccups?
What experience did John Betjeman describe as like “being lifted up to heaven”?
Where can you pet a llama, go down a mine, sing in an old-time music hall or stand with one leg in England and one leg in Wales?
When was Shropshire a coral reef in a tropical sea?
Why did weeping Victorian tourists flock to a ‘grave’ in Tong?

Find the answers to all these questions and more in Slow Travel: Shropshire, published by Bradt Travel Guides to a very positive reception in February this year.

Between now and the end of November 2016, I’m taking orders for signed copies – the ideal Christmas present for anyone who loves Shropshire already, or who deserves to be let in on the secrets of this quietly beautiful, unjustly overlooked, historically impSlow Travel: Shropshireortant county.

Get your signed copy directly from me, the author, for only £12 (RRP £12.99) plus £2.30 P&P*. Just send me a message with your details: I’ll forward you a link for instant payment and get the book to you right away, with the handwritten sentiment of your choice inside.

Please hurry, though, as I have only limited stock. This offer will end on Wednesday 30 November.

Read what people have been saying about the book.

*Price for UK second-class postage. Please let me know in your message if you’re overseas or need it sooner than a second-class service can deliver.

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Slow Travel: Shropshire is out now

My book for Bradt Travel Guides is available to buy now in online bookshops and some of the best real-life mainstream and indie ones too (cover price is £12.99).

Slow Travel: Shropshire

As you may know, the book came out two days before my second baby so I’ve been very busy (and awake) ever since.

Here is just some of the lovely feedback I’ve received so far:

On Instagram

“an interesting read even for a local, puts a really interesting spin on places you normally only ever drive (or ride) past”
Instagram recommendation

From Shropshire Review

. . . “an excellent guide book, packed to bursting with information and painstakingly gathered detail which will have not only visitors but also natives of the county wanting to get out there and explore.”

Shropshire Review review
Over at Amazon:

“I found myself reading it almost from cover to cover.”

Amazon reviewJust a few of many sweet tweets:

Tweet Wenlock Books

Tweet Pitchford Estate

Tweet Shrewsbury Museum

Tweet interesting and informative

You’ll also find lots of extra content at the Bradt website.

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Slow Travel: Shropshire

Slow Travel: Shropshire

At this very moment it is likely I am wearing wellies, hopping over a stile, falling in a mere, climbing a hill, testing cream tea (VERY important), scribbling down museum opening hours or waiting for a train. Or just holed up in my office writing …

Slow Travel: Shropshire will be published by Bradt Travel Guides in February 2016. Available for pre-order now.

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Read this book: Edith & I by Elizabeth Gowing

Edith & I cover imageEdith & I is a travelogue which spans time as well as distance. In 1900, an English anthropologist named Edith Durham traversed the Accursed Mountains into Kosovo, shaded from the Balkan sun by her tam o’shanter. She was honoured for her humanitarian work and for championing the unity and independence of Albania.

One hundred years later and another Englishwoman, Elizabeth Gowing, is working in Pristina, Kosovo where her local friends and students occasionally compare her to a certain AyDIT DourHAM. This is puzzling to Elizabeth – and then flattering once she learns who Edith Durham was. We are given a synopsis of the Edwardian woman’s life, neatly, through a cloze passage Elizabeth completes with a student.

Elizabeth reads Edith’s High Albania and feels “the faltering beginning of a relationship”, finding familiarity in many of Edith’s thoughts and experiences and warming to “her sense of humour, her intrepidity, her frankness”. It’s when Elizabeth finds herself back in London, out of sorts and missing Kosovo, that her journey into the past, into Edith’s life, truly starts. Empathising with a melodramatic line of Edith’s (written during her stifling years in London spent caring for her ailing mother), Elizabeth sets out to learn not about Edith the Queen of the Mountain People at first, but Edith “the rather stout lady stuck in Hampstead”.

Elizabeth’s descent into archives and museum storage is reminiscent, for me, of the academic pursuit (as both activity and action) that takes place in AS Byatt’s extraordinary novel Possession. Of course Edith & I is non-fiction and Elizabeth is racing neither against the clock nor rival scholars in her quest for information. Neverthess she maintains pace and suspense by making Edith three-dimensional to the reader as she becomes three-dimensional to Elizabeth. First there are photographs and postcards, then Elizabeth finds Edith’s traditional ‘opinga’ shoes, “which could have just been scuffed off by her while she popped in for a coffee”. The scene in the British Library when Elizabeth listens to a recording of Edith’s voice, captured on wax cylinders in Albania, gave me goosebumps.

As Elizabeth’s journey with Edith progresses, we read excerpts from old diaries, letters and notebooks; are bumped along Kosovan roads in a ‘motokultivator’ (“the most basic form of self-propulsion possible”); enter the homes and lives of people directly connected to Edith. From Elizabeth’s retracing of Edith’s steps (backwards) through the Rugova valley, to her visiting an old Serbian monastery, there is plenty to sate the appetites of readers who enjoy travel writing. We learn more about what drives Elizabeth, and see parallels between the lives of the two women, but Elizabeth always reserves centre stage for Edith.

There must come a sense of responsibility in reanimating a person from fragments, letters, objects. Elizabeth does this sensitively, speculating a little but usually allowing Edith to shine through in her own words and known actions. I empathised with Elizabeth’s desire to find a love interest for Edith, to learn whom she “shared intimacy, or adventures, with”, as this is so often the key to a person’s essence.

Through Elizabeth’s warm writing, borne from thorough research, it’s obvious how fond of her “strangely endearing” subject she becomes, treating her with tenderness and compassion; refusing to make assumptions. Even views of Edith’s that modern readers might find unpalatable, Elizabeth sets in historical context, achieving that delicate balance of neither condoning nor condemning.

Elizabeth’s writing, as always, is compelling; her narrative persona humble and likeable. For me, not a page passed in Edith & I where I didn’t smile at the beauty of a sentence or comical or wry observation: “perhaps we are all incongruous in our love letters, just as we are in our dressing gowns”. The last two chapters in particular soar and achieve something, I believe, good travel literature should do: transcend their immediate subject matter to say more about people, families and the complexities of the lives we lead.

Edith & I is travel writing, history, love, and passion for a subject all rolled into one enjoyable journey.

You can read more about Elizabeth – and Edith – at www.edith-and-i.com.

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Feature on Norfolk in Real Family Travel

I’ve got a feature in August 2013’s special coastal edition of Real Family Travel, the brilliant iPad magazine based in the US.

Real Family Travel_August 2013

My piece is on five magical things to do with your family in Norfolk, England. You can subscribe to the magazine via realfamilytravel.com or download a PDF of my article here.

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Pas-de-Calais: a cheat’s holiday

For my birthday in October Steve booked us a week’s holiday in a cottage in a rural French village called Tortefontaine, just over an hour’s drive from the ferry terminal at Calais.

Until then, the very name Calais conjured up for me memories of a miserable booze cruise, drizzle, catching a cold, and more drizzle. The only reason I’d known I was in France: the service-station waiter had picked his nose over congealed frites rather than soggy chips.

But in Steve I trust and, sure enough, I found the Pas-de-Calais region charming. Farmyards clomped across by mamies in wellies and hitched-up skirts, fallow autumn fields stretched out as invitingly as picnic blankets, and hamlets watched over by models of Jesus on a crucifix.

Jesus outside Carrefour Another Jesus Jesus on a crucifix, in a hedge

Here is Jesus again Jesus again Jesus at twilight

It was definitely not England and yet it felt like a cheat’s holiday; so easy to reach even with a little man in tow. The driving was laidback, with few other motorists around.

Crazy driver

Driving in Pas-de-Calais

The ferry crossing had been smooth. We waved at seagulls and Vincent clucked at passing women until they dutifully admired his fluffy hair and two teeth. I don’t know when to break it to him that girls will not always be so readily impressed, especially not chic European ones.

Primrose Cottage was cosy, pretty and immaculately clean. Apart from a washing machine (holidays are too precious to spend in launderettes, I think), the only amenity I missed was a bath. Showering with an eight-month-old in your arms is like trying to shower while holding a slippery pike. A screeching, red, 19lb pike with kicking legs.

Birthday welcome at Primrose Cottage

Upstairs at Primrose Cottage

Vincent laughing

But while he may hate showers, at least Vincent is too small to have developed coulrophobia …

Clown in the cottage

We didn’t need the baby monitor because we could hear every shuffle and snuffle Vincent made upstairs in his cot. The downside was that he could hear Steve and me too, scoffing crisps and drinking wine after he’d gone to bed. We watched subtitled films so we could keep the volume low; two of my favourite films of the past few years happen to be French (I’ve Loved You So Long and Tell No One) so this didn’t feel like doing homework on holiday.

The nearest commune (official town) to Tortefontaine is Hesdin (pronounced Ey-dan), with its Renaissance-style grand town hall, Thursday market and dusty bistros made stuffy from bar to bidet by old men in flat caps and corduroys. One of whom had the cheek to approach Steve while feeding Vincent his bottle and mime an embarrassingly graphic enquiry as to why I wasn’t breastfeeding. There was an inviting-looking frite van in the central square (Place d’Armes) but to Steve’s disappointment we never managed to be there when it was open.

Vincent in Hesdin

A joke with Daddy

We made day trips to the graceful walled town of Montreuil-sur-Mer (ten miles inland, despite its name) and the seaside resorts of Le Touquet and Berck which, even when wind-blown in the autumn and empty of tourists, retained a certain elegance thanks to soft expanses of beach and wide avenues lined with chocolate shops, icecream parlours and upmarket bars.

Montreuil-sur-Mer

Vincent in pushchair

Street in Montreuil-sur-Mer

Le Touquet

Café Leffe in Le Touquet was especially baby-friendly; while Steve tucked into a bowl of mussels steamed in white wine and I tore chunks from my woodfired pizza, the waiter entertained Vincent with funny faces and, unprompted, washed up his bowl, spoon and bib at the end of our dinner.

At Cafe Leffe in Le Touquet

Le Touquet after dark

During this holiday I became a lot less precious about making all of Vincent’s meals from scratch. Ready-made baby food felt easier and safer to serve during long days out and – amusingly – he preferred much of it to my cooking.

Lunch in Le Touquet

Baby self-feeding

While returning from Le Touquet we got stuck down a narrow farm track in soupe de fog. It would have felt like an adventure but, with a tired baby in the back of the car and less than a hand’s span of visibility out the front, I got nervous. I felt guilty. We crawled for over 40 minutes until two combine harvesters emerged from the gloom and flooded the night with light, unintentionally escorting us almost all the way to Primrose Cottage.

We also visited Lille, just under two hours’ drive away, where classy shops and patisserie windows piled rainbow-high with shiny macaroons temporarily sated my yen to return to Paris. I couldn’t resist buying Vincent a soft bowling set shaped like the trippy Barbapapa characters I’d loved as a tot, although I’ve hidden them away until he passes this current stage of gnawing everything he lays his hands on. Barbapapa, Barbamama and their brightly coloured Barbababies do look especially tasty. More age-appropriate for now is Sophie la Girafe, that famous teething toy whom I picked up in Carrefour for only eight euros. I suspect she will be chewed and squeaked and loved long after her spots have rubbed off.

In Lille we found a great place to eat: Chez la Vieille with its earthy cooking aromas and provincial cluttered decor served the local speciality that Steve had been hankering after: Carbonnade à la Flamande or beef cooked in Flemish beer and gingerbread. I ate a tart made with Maroilles, the local cows’ milk cheese that reeked like dog poo when we’d bought it ourselves but was transformed here into a pungent, rich warm flan filling. Vincent tried – and dropped – his first frite. The manager had been fast to find him a highchair and us a space to park his buggy in the cramped bar.

Lunch at Chez la Vieille

Nord Pas-de-Calais isn’t blessed with the sunshine and vineyards of southern France, it’s true, but its clean white sands, genteel towns and hearty, Flemish-inspired food and beer left me puzzled as to why so many Brits zoom through it en route to better-known destinations. If you have a little one and fancy holidaying overseas without flying or undertaking a painfully long drive, I definitely recommend a week of cheating.

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