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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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.

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.

Three travel articles in Motherhood magazine

I’m delighted to have been commissioned by Motherhood magazine to write three articles for its ‘Travel with Kids Guide’ this month – about flying in pregnancy and holidays with small children. Did you know all Singapore Airlines’ cabin crew are trained to help deliver babies? I found out some other interesting things while researching these features: take a look at my published work page

Herefordshire with a babe in arms

Me, my husband and our baby on a self-catering week in Aylton, near Ledbury. It wasn’t the most ambitious of holidays. One of the leaflets in our rented cottage was for the Birmingham Botanical Gardens … less than five miles from our house. Steve and I joked about popping home for a cheap day out.

But Herefordshire was radiant after a record-breakingly rainy July; hedgerows sang with foxgloves and wiry lupins, and the orchards were fecund with apples and pears. This is the land of honesty boxes: eggs, jam, perennial plants and runner beans may be picked up for pence – unless you’re enjoying the Roman roads too much to stop. Steve sang along to the radio. Vincent discovered happy screeching and cut a milk tooth. I felt my tiredness lifting.

The Kiln, a converted oasthouse, is part of White House Cottages, run by Marianne and Nick Hills. It felt strangely fun to lie in bed at night and imagine the furnace that once blazed there. Upstairs in what is now a cosy living area and kitchen, hops would have been dried, ready for brewing.

Marianne and Nick have thought of everything – The Kiln even has kitchen scales, mixing bowl and a loaf tin, should you feel inclined to bake a cake. (I preferred curling up in an armchair under the sloping ceiling with a glass of wine and the Olympics on the telly.) A cot and highchair are available on request and there’s a communal laundry room with tumble dryer.

The Kiln may not be ideal for an older child or even a baby on the move – you’d probably need a stairgate and would have to be cooped up in one bedroom together. Although a gleeful entry in the visitors’ book said:

“It was calld the Kiln and I went down stairs to bed! Love Owyn, aged 6.”

Aylton is a rural hamlet, so a car is almost essential for this holiday. Aylton church, with origins in the 12th century, is always open and, unsurprisingly, contains no obvious reference to the spooky story told by Rupert Matthews in Haunted Herefordshire.

Matthews states, without apparent doubt, that the churchyard is haunted by the ghost of one 14-year-old Emma Foulger, whose body was presumed stolen by resurrectionists: “macabre villains” who sold freshly buried corpses to unscrupulous doctors for anatomy studies.

Bearing in mind many of mine and Steve’s usual holiday activities – long walks, tipsy picnics, galleries, pubs and restaurants – are out now we have Vincent, here are my Herefordshire (and Welsh border) heroes …

* Ross on Wheels: a buggy-friendly walk around Ross-on-Wye, devised by Sam Phillips of Ross Ramblers

* The Court Café at the genteel Broadfield Court, home of Bodenham English Wines


* Old Grove cider tasting and homemade scones at CJ’s Old Grove Farm Shop

* Scrumptious and generously sized cakes made by Audrey at The Hop Pocket craft centre

* Veggie scotch eggs from the Handmade Scotch Egg Company (check for stockists)

* The delightfully cluttered Old Stable Tea Rooms in Hay-on-Wye (and their homemade Chef on the Run Strawberry & Rose Jam)

* The cavernous Hay Cinema Bookshop

* Once Upon a Tree cider from Dragon Orchard – I liked Putley Gold 2010

* Baby-friendly dining at The Trumpet Inn (there’s a campsite if you’re less encumbered than we were)

* The airy and welcoming (much like a fanfare!) Trumpet Corner Art Studios and Tea Room

* Tea and brownies at The Pocket Bakery in Monmouth

* Picnicking at Queenswood Country Park

* The black and white buildings of Eardisland – a pixel-perfect English village.

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Steve’s just sent away for Vincent’s first passport, so perhaps we’ll be more intrepid next time. But sometimes, as a new parent, just to escape is all the adventure you need.

Prey

As I pushed Vincent’s pram towards the bus stop for the 11C to Harborne, all kinds of horrific scenarios were running through my mind. Pram wheels get trapped between bus and kerb, baby falls out, driver pulls away … I know other parents manage with pushchairs the size of moon buggies, a weekly shop swinging from the handles, and wriggling toddlers who have to be yanked up the steps by their armpits, but they’re not me, with my remarkable capacity for ineptitude. I haven’t been shopping with Vincent yet without crashing his pram into an aisle of dry goods or, more memorably, running over someone’s toe.

Fortunately, now we were about to embark first ever bus journey together, there was a kind-looking man in a baseball cap also waiting at the bus stop.

“The bus is only one minute away!” he said and I smiled. He would help us!

“That’s good,” I said, falling back on that ever-reliable topic of British conversation: “Don’t want to be standing in the rain for too long, do we?”

“This rain portends a very bad event,” he said and I thought, Oh God. Please let him help us onto the bus and then make him go away.

“There was rain like this in the days before nine-eleven,” he said, launching into an anti-semitic tirade about Jewish bankers and how they brought the rain before they brought down the World Trade Center.

Scrap that … just make him go away.

He didn’t help us onto the bus; didn’t even let us go first. I turned the pram around and bumped Vincent up the steps backwards, his eyes squeezed shut (this boy’s got the measure of me already) and tiny arms flailing out with every thud. I paid the fare (I hadn’t even known babies in prams travelled for free) and made for the buggy space.

The bus driver didn’t wait for us to get settled before pulling out onto the Watford Road and Vincent’s pram lurched a full 45 degrees. The woman opposite visibly shuddered: was she shuddering at me, useless mother, or at the bus driver’s lack of patience? I regained control, stamped on the pram brake and positioned myself where Vincent and I could see each other.

Bollocks, the man was back. He’d decided not to sit down but instead stand directly in front of me, twirl his fat fingers around the grab pole and make me his captive audience. He was muttering something about the East being red and the West being blue, and how a very, very big event was going to shake the whole world up at the end of this year. It had been predicted by the Star of David, or the Wingdings font, or … something. I wasn’t listening.

“Oh really?” I said, pointedly turning my head away and watching the rain slipping like tears down the window in Selly Oak, falling on the terraced student houses with their To Let boards. I felt like crying myself. I didn’t know why I was being polite because he was a weird, deluded racist. “I’m not interested, to be honest.”

He continued. The number 11 was significant apparently: the date of the attack (oh, really?), the emergency phone number in the US (no, really?), the flight number being American Airlines Flight 11 …

I took out my phone and pretended to text someone. I wondered whether I could justify sneaking a hand into Vincent’s pram and pinching him ever so gently – just enough to make him squeak – so I would need to tend to him. But he looked so content there, batting at his dangly owl toy.

…The World Trade Center towers collapsed to a height of 11 storeys …

I’ve put up with a lot from strangers on public transport in the past (hello suspected scientologist with the PowerPoint presentation on solute particles and water memory that lasted all the way from Marylebone to Birmingham New Street). But this was intolerable and, besides, I’m a mum now. I have a duty to protect my baby son from weirdos.

“Please leave me alone. I’m not interested.”

“After September 11th there are 111 days left to the end of the year … are you sure? Something very bad will happen to the world soon.”

“I’m quite sure.”

“OK,” he said, looking around for an available seat. Then, in anger: “But you mothers of small babies, you aren’t looking around at what’s happening in the world. This is a big problem!”

He was right, in some ways. My world has become smaller lately. I’m less interested in watching the news than on focusing on the little character unfurling in front of me, on seeing his tiny fingers clasping mine, on the smile that grows bigger and gummier each week. And it was because of my small baby that I’d made myself prey to a complete nutbag like this man; by being scared of getting the pram on the damn bus and looking around for help, I’d made myself open and vulnerable.

When we reached our stop the driver lowered the floor to kerb height so Vincent and I could alight easily. Why the hell can’t they do that every time?

 

Vincent’s first holiday: the motherland

Vincent was six weeks old when we bundled him up on his first road trip: to my home city of Norwich, three-and-a-half-hours’ drive away, for the Easter weekend. It was a bit of a cheat – a holiday ‘lite’ – as we stayed at my mum’s house, complete with washing machine, homecooked dinners and round-the-clock relatives to hold him. Also, Vincent’s fairly easygoing: after a halfhearted fuss about being strapped into his Maxi-Cosi, his baby weir-pig snores lasted all the way to the A11.

Vincent in his car seat
Let’s get this baby on the road

There’s no packing light with a little one. The car got jammed from foot to roof with Vincent’s things and, having been told by a grumpy Steve there was strictly no space for anything non-essential, I was wedged into the passenger seat with my feet hovering above Easter contraband: daffodils, a bottle of prosecco and a paper bag full of rhubarb. By the time we stopped for a break my calves ached from their unnatural suspension in mid-air.

We were the only diners in the echoey hotel where we ate lunch – East Anglia’s answer to The Shining. The tall nervy housekeeper made a convincing Shelley Duvall, as she hovered over our table admiring Vincent and reminiscing about her grown-up son’s babyhood; how she would stroke his cheek until he fell asleep. It made me sad to think how much she must miss those days.

When Vincent started squawking and I said it was lucky no one else was around to be disturbed, she looked horrified. “Oh no!” she said, smiling at him. “Don’t ever apologise for things that children naturally do. You’ll spend the next fifteen years saying sorry.”

We arrived safely. April showers and runny noses prevented us from showing Vincent the big skies and sandy beaches of my childhood Norfolk; instead we visited old friends, drank tea and scoffed my mum’s hot cross-less buns. (Our family’s Easter celebrations are almost entirely pagan.) It was perfect. And, most importantly, we had succeeded in taking the little man away on what I hope was his first of many happy holidays.

I learned: Never underestimate the amount of ‘stuff’ you need to pack for a baby (consider buying a roofrack). Never apologise for your baby crying: babies cry.