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

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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.

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Searching for Shuttle: whale-watching in Nova Scotia

As the Mega Nova fishing boat carries me and a dozen other hopeful whale-watchers into the Bay of Fundy, our chance of seeing whales feels slim. Brier Island, where we boarded, has been snarled in fog since the evening before. The narrow stretch of water left visible by the low-hanging sky looks grey and impenetrable, the crosswinds skimming over it creating hatchet lines.

If I were a whale I’d choose a day like today for moping about in the murky fathoms, rather than performing for a boatload of tourists.

Not that performing comes into it. My hosts at Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises Ltd conduct marine research in the bay, recording the behaviour of sealife and making their findings available worldwide. We are there to observe, not harass, and any close encounters will be at the discretion of the whales. Even the Mega Nova is named in their honour: megaptera novaeangliae is the scientific term for a humpback whale, meaning ‘big-winged New Englander’.

I’m already in love with Nova Scotia; its foggy mornings, torn coastlines pinned by lighthouses, and cultural diversity shaped by the native Mi’kmaq people and settlers from France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and New England. I’ve had a wonder-filled trip so far: digging for clams, learning about shipwrecks and exploring the UNESCO town of Lunenburg.

So although my enjoyment of the week doesn’t depend on seeing a whale, it would complete the experience. Sometimes they swim under the boat, I have heard. Sometimes they get so close you can smell their fishy breath.

Harold Graham, the owner of the company and our cruise captain, is optimistic.

“We always see whales – we’ll find some,” he tells me from the helm of the Mega Nova. He would know: Harold has been running whale-watching tours for 27 years, navigating the Fundy waters for many more. In the winter, when the whales migrate to the warmer shores of the Dominican Republic, Harold is a lobster fisherman. I think I can guess which role he prefers.

“This is more like a hobby to me. It’s lots of fun and it’s nice to see the whales coming back every year.”

Showing me computers tracking the depth of the seabed and our position in the bay, Harold says he is looking in particular for a humpback whale named Shuttle, so called because of the rocket-shaped markings on the underside of her tail.

“Last year she was here with a calf, so we’re just waiting to see her this time and make sure she returns.”

A finalist in the New7Wonders of Nature, the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick has the highest tides in the world. One hundred billion tonnes of seawater flow in and out twice each day, bringing nutrients to the surface and encouraging the productivity of plankton and, in turn, mackerel and herring. This makes the bay an attractive summer playground for whales, dolphins and porpoises to feed and breed – and an ideal place for us to spot them.

The marine life extends up and out of the ocean too, to migratory birds flitting at the water for its plentiful supply of fish.

“Anyone interested in birds?” asks Shelley Barnaby, the chief naturalist on board. Two boys turn up their noses: “Oh my god, no!” says the elder. Their mother looks indulgently on, telling Shelley the youngest had been studying whales at school. He nods in agreement: “I know everything about them now”.

But I’m interested in the birds. During the cruise we’ll sight puffins, greater shearwaters darting at the surface for food, and gull-like northern fulmars which Shelley says throw up when frightened. At this the boys show a little more enthusiasm, baring their teeth out to sea and growling.

As the Mega Nova powers further out of the bay, the fog lifts, the sun emerges from its grey pall and people start tying their coats and jumpers around their waists. The calmer waters are black-blue now, instead of their earlier charcoal. Having heard via a radio to another cruise boat that there are whales in the vicinity, Harold drops the engine so we can drift quietly for a while, the atmosphere tense as we listen for the slapping of flukes or the booming of a lobtailing humpback.

Suddenly: “On the right side,” says Shelley, grabbing her camera, and we scramble in the direction of her pointing finger. The younger boy bowls over to the edge of the boat, knocking people out of his path. The other boat is bobbing on the water about 30 metres away, and I hear the delighted cries from its passengers before I see them myself: three humpback whales gently surfacing in near synchronicity. It is hard to believe their enormous sleek dark bodies are real; their dorsal fins jutting out of the water like animatronics from a monster movie.

Several of our passengers shunt up the metal ladder to the top deck for a better view. I’m not surprised to see that the youngest boy is one of them; nor should I be surprised to hear a breathy blow from a whistle above.

“Please don’t do that – the captain will think you’re in trouble,” calls one of the crew members kindly.

The other boy, below deck, having upended himself into a coolbox of food supplied by his parents, is leaning over the side of the boat, cramming a sandwich into his mouth.

“Those three whales were Flash, Tusk and Urik,” Shelley says, having photographed and reviewed their tail markings. “They were logging, which means sleeping”.

Seeing the humpbacks has made my day, but there are more cetaceans to meet, more gasps of joy to be elicited from the Mega Nova. During the three-hour cruise we also encounter porpoises and, briefly, fin whales, nicknamed ‘greyhounds of the sea’ because of their speed and streamlined shape. We spy a humpback whale called Churchill (who got his name from the V-shaped notch in his tail) and Vibes, accompanied by her calf.

By far our most spectacular sighting is of Lewkos, though, a humpback whale who swims close to the boat near the ocean’s surface and gracefully flips up her flukes as she dives, droplets of saltwater cascading from her body as she honours us with a perfect view of the underside of her tail. One of the biologists tells me later that humpbacks’ tails are graded by intensity from white to black and Lewkos’s bright flukes had inspired her name (lewko means ‘white’ in Greek).

But still no Shuttle.

The elder brother, recovering from a bout of seasickness – perhaps intensified by his sandwich cramming – stands next to me and leans casually on the rail.

“Come on, when do you think we’re going in?” he asks. “We’ve been out here, like, hours.”

He is pale and I feel sympathetic. Although the waters are calmer than earlier, the irregular loppiness of the boat is making me feel queasy too and I’m hanging on to my breakfast thanks to salted crackers pocketed the night before at the Brier Island Lodge. I could watch whales all day, but my sea legs are ready for land.

I am disappointed not to have seen Shuttle. I have to remind myself that the Bay of Fundy is a natural wonder, not a theme park, and whales come and go in their own sweet time.

But a few weeks later, as Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises enters its 25th-anniversary year, an update appears on Facebook. The bay had been “flat calm” one day, it seemed, and not only had the crew added two new mother-and-calf pairs to its list of whales, but Shuttle had been spotted in amongst the waves.

I hope Harold is at the helm of the Mega Nova today, and even happier than ever in his work.

Take a look at www.novascotia.com, uk.canada.travel and www.brierislandwhalewatch.com.

Whales in the Bay of Fundy

Image courtesy of Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises.

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Legflaps

I was coming down with a cold. My throat felt raw and my forehead was burning. Determined not to miss out on a single hour in Chengdu, I dragged myself around the city alongside Steve, slurping giant bowls of hot soup noodles and watching grubby street kids playing elaborate games of hide-and-seek in glass lifts outside a gleaming shopping mall. We visited the centuries-old Wenshu Monastery, failing to spot the NO PHOTOS sign and casting disappointed frowns across the faces of two monks who were lighting incense and praying to Buddha statues. In the outdoor teahouse behind the lofty Thousand Buddha Peace Pagoda, hundreds of grey-haired people in their sixties and seventies were laughing and gossiping on bamboo chairs, clinking cups and clicking chopsticks over toy-sized plates of delicate dumplings. We passed a dingy restaurant where half a skinned white dog hung by his jaws from a butcher’s hook. His legs were stiff and bent at the knees, giving the cruel impression he was leaping for a ball.

With the autumn temperatures falling by the day, I was pleased when we found ourselves a pair of heavy coats for the onward journey – a cheap parka for me and a green communist-style army jacket for Steve. In the military surplus store where we bought Steve’s, the gentle old man with liver spots on his bald head formed a misguided impression that I could interpret Mandarin, and relied on me to translate everything to Steve. I was slumped in a chair, a little feverish, and hoping we could return to the hostel for a nap soon.

“He says do you want this hat to go with it?” I bluffed, as the man pushed a furry brown trapper with earflaps over Steve’s head. It wouldn’t go on properly and sat perched atop his hair like a cinema ice-cream tub.

“He says it looks good on you, but I disagree, I’m afraid,” I said, giggling. “Ah, now he says that the coat can button round the inside of your leg – ”

” – Woah there!” said Steve, as the old man knelt down, grabbed Steve’s inner thigh and began demonstrating the extra warmth afforded by the coat’s inner legflaps.

But then I failed to understand the next part of the conversation and my fraudulent Mandarin was uncovered. “Sorry, no,” I said, shaking my head.

Perhaps thinking I spoke a little-known dialect, the man scribbled a few Chinese characters on the back of a crumpled receipt and looked up at me questioningly. “Sorry, no,” I said again, although I had a distinct feeling he wanted to discuss the possibility of Long Johns. We paid for the green jacket and left the shop, with the man chuckling and shaking his head after us.

This is an extract from Marie Kreft’s book, Love on a Third Class Ticket, due out in the autumn.

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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?

 

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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.

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Baby on board

Vincent

Have hat, will travel: Vincent at one month

Further to my previous post, I’m overjoyed to tell you that my baby son Vincent was born in February at Birmingham Women’s Hospital. Nothing could have prepared me for the emotions that have, for me, come with motherhood: intense love, wonder, worry … the bittersweet feeling that, if my husband and I do our jobs right, Vincent will inevitably grow away from us and one day want to explore the world for himself. I hope he does. I hope he also comes home for dinner sometimes.

In the meantime I’m excited about the years of family holidays that lie ahead: the trains, planes, castles and campsites that lit up my own childhood. We’ll have adventures in buckets and spades. While getting out with a new baby felt at first like a moon mission, Steve and I are improving on the two hours it took to prepare for Vincent’s first pram ride in the park (there was explosive poo) and accepting of the fact that the amount of ‘stuff’ we must now cart around is in inverse proportion to the little man’s size.

I’ll be looking for baby-friendly travel ideas in the coming months and look forward to sharing my experiences with you.

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