Tuesday, 1 November 2016

This is all your fault, Mummy

Today we lunched at home and took our walk at the far end of the beautiful Breamish valley. It must have been getting on for 20 years since I paid my last (and only) visit to the waterfall called Linhope Spout, but I was conscious that it was pretty and, more importantly, that the three-mile round trip there and back should be within the walking abilities of both the children and our 15-year-old Border terrier.

Though, to be honest, I seriously doubted whether we would actually make it to our intended destination.


These doubts seemed well-founded when we reached the bridge in the little hamlet of Linhope, about 20 minutes after starting our walk, and the boys noted the water tumbling over a few rocks in the stream below.

“That’s it. We’ve seen the waterfall! Let’s go back!” they announced.

But Mummy was made of sterner stuff than that, and insisted on persevering. So we secured their reluctant agreement to walk up the grassy hill on the path that led away from the tarmac road. Towards the top of this we came to a well-worn sign that read “Linhope Spout ¼”. The inaccuracy of this became clear some way further on, when we passed another sign pointing in the opposite direction that read “Hartside 1”, Hartside being the place where we had parked the car, close to a sign that correctly declared the total distance to Linhope Spout to be 1½.

“Come on, team Hann!” said Mummy, enthusiastically. “It’s only a quarter of a mile! We can do this!”

So we set off, with the expedition naturally dividing into two parts. The first, or pathfinder, group comprised me, my seven-year-old son and heir, and our three-year-old Border terrier. The second consisted of Mummy, the four-year-old child and the aforementioned geriatric dog, who has the turn of speed you might expect from a 105-year-old blind human.

As the ground descended on the approach to the Spout the boy lost sight of me and began to doubt his mother’s sense of direction.

“Mummy, we need to go straight on!”

“No, we turn right. I saw Daddy go this way.”

“No, it’s straight on!”

“Look, there’s a sign. It’s pointing this way.”

“No, no, no! You’re going the wrong way! We’re lost! Lost in the hills! I’ll never see Charlie or my house ever again! Ring Daddy!”

“I can’t ring Daddy.”

“Oh for God’s sake don’t tell me you’ve forgotten to bring your phone!”

“No, it's just that the reception isn't very good here and ...”

“This is all your fault! If you hadn’t walked so slowly we wouldn’t have lost them in the first place!” 

And so on and so forth until the Spout finally hove into view with an elderly man and a small boy standing beside it, and a smaller boy started trying to hurl himself down a rocky slope to join them.


We took a commemorative photograph and made our way back to the car shortly before nightfall, with approximately half of us moaning all the way as we went.


Monday, 31 October 2016

Pining for the truant catcher

The rural local authorities of Cheshire, in an act of collective madness, decided that this week would be their school half term. A week after everyone else’s. Which was no doubt good news for those teachers and parents looking to secure cut-price tickets to jet off to somewhere slightly warmer than the UK. But it was decidedly bad news for those of us who had elected to stay here, given that pretty much all the preserved railways, castles, country houses, petting farms and other child-friendly tourist attractions that had been enthusiastically touting for business all last week put up their shutters and closed for the winter at dusk on Sunday.

This left us with two main options to keep our little darlings entertained during our holiday break in Northumberland: pub lunches and healthy walks. A key objective of the latter being to tire them out in the hope that they might sleep slightly later than their traditional 6am BST (or, as it became yesterday, 5am GMT).

Today we went to an establishment in Newton-by-the-Sea that bills itself as a “gastropub”, something I have always found more than a little off-putting. Many years ago I observed from the top deck of my bus to and from school the opening of a modest little shop by the Cradlewell in Jesmond that billed itself as a “high class tailor”. Even as a schoolboy, I harboured grave doubts about that business. Would an establishment that really was “high class” need to proclaim the fact on its fascia? I was very surprised when, years later, a friend from a more prosperous family than mine told me that his father had all his suits made there, and it was actually pretty good.

The “gastropub” had its pretensions quite effectively deflated by my friend The Secret Diner (food critic of The Journal in Newcastle) more than a year ago.  At the time I thought he was being frightfully unfair as I only ever ordered the fish and chips or seafood chowder, both of which were ace. I also appreciated the reliably prompt and efficient service, which becomes of critical importance when one is in charge of two small human beings who will become “hangry” if their needs are not satisfied at high speed.

Considerable disappointment thus ensued when the pub proved to have seriously downgraded both its signature dishes, and I ended up paying £16.95 for an absurd (and dangerously hot) “bin lid” thinly smeared with a “chowder” in which the main ingredients appeared to be flour and undercooked, sliced potatoes.


Perhaps it wise, in the circumstances, that the staff had also developed new skills in the avoidance of eye contact.

Still, no one has yet managed to spoil the beach at Low Newton and we spent a pleasant and surprisingly clement afternoon watching the children running around and getting as much of the North Sea as possible inside their wellies.


Though it was a little disappointing that we did not receive a visit from the uniformed individual who featured with such regularity in the comics of my childhood: the Truant Catcher. I could, of course, have patiently explained that my children were enjoying a legitimate holiday, in much the same way as I explain nearly every day that I am not, in fact, their grandfather. On the other hand if he had come all that way with a big net and a van with barred windows, it might have been cruel to deprive them of an educational experience of unjustified incarceration.

Tonight, for the first time in my life, I carved a pumpkin lantern. It took about ten minutes, compared with the couple of evenings I used to spend attacking a turnip (as we call swedes on Tyneside) with a blunt kitchen knife 50-odd years ago. We lit the candle and awaited callers, having armed ourselves with a couple of bags of fun-size chocolate bars from Iceland in Alnwick.


Unsurprisingly, in the middle of nowhere in rural Northumberland, absolutely no one came.

Monday, 17 October 2016

In training

I can’t explain how I acquired my love of trains. It certainly wasn’t nurtured by my parents, who most definitely preferred cars. Understandably enough, as my mother’s father had been a champion cyclist whose Alnwick cycle shop gradually developed into a small chain of north Northumberland garages; and who, as a pioneer motorist, could proudly claim to have driven the first car to reach a number of valleys in the Cheviots (I forget exactly which).

Ford's Garage in Alnwick; grandfather in straw boater
My father, meanwhile, had earnestly saved the earnings from his first job until the glad day when he was able to walk into a garage on Northumberland Road in Newcastle city centre, and drive back to Philip Street in the West End in his first car. No driving lessons or test in those days. Just hand over the cash and get on with it. I don’t know exactly when that was, but I can remember him telling me that the price of gallon of petrol at the time was 1s (5p), and that the nation came close to rioting when it shot up to an eye-watering 1s 1½d (5.6p).

We simply never travelled by train. My first ever journey by rail was with my father on a third rail electric train from Newcastle to the coast when I was eight or so, secured after much nagging by me. For a main line trip I had to wait for my mother to take me on a day trip from Newcastle to York. From the fact that I can distinctly remember one of British Railway’s very last steam locomotives pottering around the station while we were waiting for our return train home, I guess that was in the summer of 1967 when I was 13.

Once they indulged me by obtaining a brochure to satisfy my rail obsession by spending a summer holiday in a camping coach on a rural branch line, but the plan collapsed when my father grasped that they were only made available to those who reached them by train.

Still, they did buy me train sets (first Hornby O-gauge, then second-hand three-rail Hornby Dublo) and take me for walks. From the start, my favourite outings were always to the East Coast Main Line, a mile or so from our house. Particularly to the sidings at Little Benton, where there were usually steam engines to be observed chuntering up and down sort coal waggons and hoppers as the expresses between London and Edinburgh thundered past. My mother was fond of trying to convince me that the clangs of shunting were rumbles of distant thunder, requiring us to head for home without delay.


I loved the sound and smell of steam locomotives from my first encounter with them. As I grew a little older, I also came to appreciate the living history they represented, with a fair part of the motive power in the Northumberland coalfield having been designed and built before the First World War, yet still gamely plodding on into the 1960s.

Against that background, it is easy enough to understand how my seven-year-old son comes to be something of a rail enthusiast. Though perhaps not a particularly well-informed one. Over-exposure to Thomas the Tank Engine led to a certain amount of devastation when he finally grasped, just over a year ago, that regular main line express trains are not still customarily powered by steam.

The seeds do not always take root, either. My four-year-old has been subjected to exactly the same drip of pro-train propaganda, but still prefers cars. Particularly racing cars.

Even so, having two die-hard rail enthusiasts in a family of four certainly constitutes a quorum, and permits me to indulge my own fancies while pretending that I am doing something nice to please the children.

Two weekends ago we spent a most agreeable day in the National Railway Museum in York, which I can heartily recommend to any parent. Unlike the national museums in London it is not what Jeremy Corbyn would doubtless call ram-packed. Even though entry is – rather bizarrely to my mind – completely free.


The exhibits and attractions kept the boys’ boredom at bay for several hours, which is frankly one hell of an achievement, and the cafeteria does a very decent pork and black pudding sausage roll. What’s not to like? They were also very nice about retrieving my younger son’s souvenir sticker book from the roof of a carriage when he dropped it there from a footbridge, remarking as they did so that it was a remarkable achievement to have got it to lodge where he did. Minutes after the man with the grab on the end of a long pole had gone away, another child managed precisely the same feat.

The next day, after a comfortable night in a friendly pub in Kirbymoorside, we took steam trains from Pickering to Whitby and back on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, spending long enough at the seaside to enjoy fish and chips in the Magpie Café and take a bracing walk on the beach.


I have been a member of the NYMR preservation society since 1973, when the best it could offer was a diesel multiple unit ride from Grosmont to a little way beyond Goathland, but I had not visited the line for well over a decade. It was a most enjoyable experience, particularly on the outward journey. Because my sons have the compressed attention span of the internet generation and their view of return journeys tends to be “been there, seen that”. Or, as the elder wearily put when I tried to encourage him to take another look out of the window somewhere in Newtondale, “Trees, bracken, bracken, trees, trees, trees.”

An image from the outward journey
A latter-day camping coach on the NYMR. Next summer's holiday sorted?
Perhaps the single most annoying thing about the elder boy is that he is even more observant than I am, and virtually impossible to catch out. Because even the things I feel sure he cannot possibly have seen because he has been, at best, half paying attention, have all been clocked, absorbed and stored away in his capacious memory banks. “I told you so” is fast becoming one of his favourite phrases or sayings.

We had one bit of unfinished business at the end of that weekend in Yorkshire. Although we had duly seen and admired the fastest steam engine of all time, Mallard, we had not encountered what has become the most famous locomotive of them all.


So it was lucky that I had also managed to secure perhaps the last four tickets on the final train of Flying Scotsman’s weekend stint on the East Lancashire Railway late yesterday afternoon.

It would be fair to say that even the child who prefers racing cars was highly excited.

We counted the minutes on the platform at Bury Bolton Street station until the legend drifted into view, and we were the first to take our booked seats on its train, the best part of half an hour before it departed.


The boys admired the scenery of the Irwell Valley – both industrial and rustic – all the way to Rawtenstall, where they wisely did not join me and the rest of the passengers in disembarking to try to take identical photographs of the locomotive.


On the way back, as ever, ennui set in, alleviated a little by an iPad. But then Mummy went to stand by an open window at the end of the carriage, where the boys joined her. And as the shadows lengthened, the elder boy was heard to say, “Mummy we’re on the actual Flying Scotsman and it's getting dark, could this day get any better?” On the strength of which, I feel entitled to mark the day down as a success.


Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Correct

I had an enlightening conversation with the four-year-old over breakfast this morning. First he imparted a great deal of information about dinosaurs, including several that I had never even heard of; then he gave me a run-down of the main categories of animal classed as reptiles.

“Do you know, Daddy, what is the largest lizard?”

“Is it a Komodo dragon?”

Apologies if these aren't actually Komodo dragons, but they're definitely lizards and definitely in Chester Zoo

He gave me a look of shocked surprise and said, “Correct!”

Then added helpfully, “That means you were right, Daddy.”

“I’ve seen a Komodo dragon. They have them at Chester zoo.”

He looked surprised again, then changed the subject to his best friend at the pre-school he has just left. He loves playing with his best friend but sometimes another boy comes along that his best friend prefers to play with. But this other boy is going to a different school in September so my son’s best friend will have to “stick together” with him in future.

It’s nice when life works out like that, isn’t it? I wish it had happened to me more often.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Having to make one's own bed

I have now cunningly wangled two peaceful weekends in Northumberland constructing a bunk bed. The first, to be fair to me, was utter hell: seven solid hours of unremitting toil bolting, gluing and screwing the individual beds together. I returned to Cheshire exhausted and with a large bandage on the second finger of my right hand, to compensate for the skin still adhering to my screwdriver.

I showed the following picture to a so-called friend who said, “Oh, you’ve just been assembling a flat-pack! I thought you meant that you’d actually made the things yourself!”


Yes, because I am exactly the sort of chap who would know how to go about cutting and planing virgin timber to make a bed.

Anyone who is so blithely dismissive of the effort involved in building flat-pack furniture has clearly not spent long enough doing it. Though in truth, any time is too long. I would much prefer to have bought a ready-made bunk but could not find one. Which may be just as well, as it would have need disassembling to get it up the stairs and into the bedroom, thereby taking us roughly back to square one.

The instructions did specify that putting the thing together was a two person job. In fact, the only small but critical phase that required any support was lifting the upper bunk on top of the lower one. By an immense stroke of luck two friends proposed calling in for tea yesterday and were able to help me do this. They even brought a top class lemon drizzle cake with them.



We needed the bunk because our sons’ bedroom is too small for two full size single beds, and they have outgrown their cot beds. We do have another bedroom already equipped with two full size single beds, but it is downstairs, right next to the sitting room, and we assessed that there would be zero chance of their actually going to sleep there until we went to bed ourselves.

Now everyone warns me that we have set ourselves up for a nightly battle over who is going to sleep in the top bunk. The manufacturer’s instructions specify that the top bunk must never be occupied by a child under the age of six. My four-year-old thinks he has agreed a rota with his seven-year-old brother. So it is Elfin Safety versus Democracy. I wonder which of those will come out on top?

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trains in the garden

It all started with the Boy complaining that the train table in his bedroom was too small. He wants more tracks and, to be fair, I can see his point. Two ovals and three sidings on a 6’ x 4’ sheet of plywood afford limited opportunities for creative play in 00 gauge. We could buy him a bigger baseboard but there isn’t room for anything much bigger than 8’ x 4’, and with the best will in the world I can’t see that making a massive amount of difference towards fulfilling his ambitions for a locomotive roundhouse, turntable, marshalling yards, tunnels, bridges and so forth.

So in a moment of madness I said, “We could always build a railway in the garden.”

In truth, this has been a not particularly secret ambition of mine since I was a small boy myself. At my parents’ house in Longbenton it got no further than constructing an embankment through the rose bed, which I had to keep explaining away as a novel decorative feature. The tracklaying gang never materialised owing to pocket money budgetary constraints.

In my own house in Northumberland I went as far as to design the back garden with raised flower beds specifically intended to accommodate model railway tracks. There is even a hatch into the conservatory, through which trains were intended to steam to an indoor station complex. But as with so many grand Victorian railway schemes, progress rapidly ground to a halt owing to a critical lack of funds. Combined, in my case, with indolence and technical incompetence.

Back then I also lacked the wonderful excuse of having children to play with the trains. Now that that gap in my life has been filled, it is surely now or never for a garden railway.

But what sort? The Boy’s first thought was simply to extend his 00 gauge network outside. Which would be handy in terms of the capital outlay required, but seems slightly impractical when every falling leaf would carry with it the risk of a catastrophic derailment. Something chunkier, perhaps with the possibility of using actual steam motive power, would surely be preferable. Though sadly neither the length of the garden or the depth of my pockets are compatible with building the sort of thing on which even small boys can ride.

As a starter for ten, I bought a book and a set of DVDs from a garden railway specialist shop (yes, there are such things) in Buckinghamshire. Those DVDs have now been watched so many times that I know every scene, and every word of the commentary, off by heart.

The Boy is wildly enthusiastic. His younger brother, who usually claims only to be interested in cars and animals, has discovered that he quite likes trains after all. Even more remarkably, Mrs H has started making positive noises about how we could run the trains along a dwarf wall around the lawn that would blend nicely with the garden, and stable them in the shed when they are not in use.

As an incentive to get started, I received from the boys a £100 gift voucher from the garden railway shop for my birthday last month. And serendipitously this week Mrs H and I found ourselves attending the opera at Garsington and staying with friends who live only about five miles from the shop. After a long and fruitful conversation with the proprietors we came away with an LGB starter set, some extra track and a supply of steam oil, and we are now the proud owners and operators of a small oval railway on the lawn.


The Boy is eagerly telling his friends that we will soon have five, six or seven tracks heading all over the garden, and stations representing different countries.

I think this is highly unlikely. But given time and perhaps a lottery win I think we may reasonably aspire to have a garden railway worthy of the name within the next year or two. Watch this space for further reports.