When Thomas Met the Flying Scotsman

I can pinpoint the moment that Thomas fell utterly in love with trains. He was 18 months and 2 days old. I remember  it that exactly because we took him to meet Thomas the Tank Engine at the Spa Valley Railway in Kent. (Tickets were free for children up to 18 months of age. I classed 18 months and 2 days as close enough to 18 months to be free!)

He was mesmerised by all of the trains, not just his namesake. Steam and diesel alike, they all lit his little face up. It was that day that we bought him his first wooden Thomas train (Thomas, naturally) which was the start of what is now a simply vast collection. The wooden train, and its track, quickly became his favourite toy, one that he would not go anywhere without. To this day, train tracks still criss-cross the floor of playroom on a semi-permanent basis.

The love developed to encompass the trains that run through the local station just a few minutes from our house. For the longest time he referred to the Class 475 Southeastern trains as “Seventy-Two train” and we never did get to understand why! But the sight of these very ordinary commuter services rushing through the station filled him with a joy that literally made him jump up and down. We’d make daily stops to watch them, supplemented by endless You Tube videos. Riding a train was his favourite thing to do, eve if we just rode to the next town, got out and came back. Downtime was filled with train books, both fiction and non.

Thomas the Tank Engine was his biggest love for a long time. Each morning started with an episode (or four!) and we worked our way through the entire library of stories. But gradually the obsession has expanded. He has a particular fondness for the Shinkansen Bullet trains and can tell you in great depth about how they were engineered (as a result we’re off to Japan next year to ride them). Other favourites include the Eurostar, Virgin Pendolinos and the old Intercity 125 HSTs. He doesn’t just love to watch and to ride on trains, he loves to know how they work. He can tell you about everything from pantographs to Pandrol clips, how a steam engine works to how the wheels stay on the rails. He rates the standard of his day by how many trains he has been able to see. When he says that he wants to be a train driver, I completely and utterly believe him.

He doesn’t just like trains. It is an obsession. A love affair.

One of his favourite trains in the last 18 months or so has been the Flying Scotsman. We’ve watched endless documentaries about her most recent restoration and he is a walking encylopedia of facts about LNER Gresley Class A3 4472 (aka Flying Scotsman). He even asked for the Flying Scotsman in cake for his fifth birthday (I obliged, as best I could).

When we heard that the Scotsman was coming to the Bluebell Railway, close enough to home for an easy day out, we knew that we had to take Thomas. Unfortunately both Ian and I were at work on the day tickets were released, but it was Grandpa to the rescue as he painstakingly refreshed the page and kept his patience, finally securing us tickets to ride behind Scotsman between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead in the very first carriage.

It wasn’t Thomas’s first visit to the Bluebell Railway, but it was definitely the most exciting. We kept it as a secret until the day before, which was probably just as well because I think he’d have been beside himself having to wait much longer.



We were booked on the second service of the day, and the Scotsman had already left Sheffield Park on her first run by the time we arrived. However there was plenty more to explore.

Typhoon – a one third scale model of the Flying Scotsman, normally found at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent, was at Sheffield Park. The two engines were last together at Kings Cross in 1927, where they were described as ‘The Giant and the Dwarf’. We weren’t able to stay right to the end of the day when they were drawn up alongside one another, but Thomas had a good chance to explore Typhoon, even sitting in the cab.





We also had the opportunity to walk underneath a steam train and get up close with all the pipes, springs and wheels. It was hard hat territory! And there was plenty to explore in the engine sheds outside too.


We then got to visit the cab of one of Bluebell’s permanent Southern Railway steam engines, and Thomas even allowed to stoke up the fire with coal and wear the drivers cap!


We were back with Typhoon when Thomas spotted what he had been waiting so patiently for…

… the Flying Scotsman herself!







We crossed over to the platform and climbed aboard for our trip to East Grinstead and back.





Thomas (as all of us) spent a fair amount of time with our heads out of the window, enjoying that beautiful steam train smell and trying to avoid smuts of soot in the eye. The route was lined with people waving at tis iconic engine puffing her way past. (We waved back, or course!)

Thomas could not wipe the grin off his face. He turned to look at me, as we pulled out of the station, and said “I can’t believe we’re on the Flying Scotsman!” His joy was utterly infectious!

All too soon we were back at Sheffield Park. There was still plenty more to look at, including the permanent Southern Railway exhibition. Thomas had a chance to move the signal levers, ad learn how they worked, as well as dressing up in a drivers outfit.


(We need this sign for people entering our house – the trains are everywhere!)

All too soon it was the end of our day.

Thomas’s verdict?

“That was the best day ever. I loved it so much.”

Can’t say more than that!

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

Running in Sunflowers

Earlier on this week we took a trip to a local farm that has a Sunflower Trail. It’s the same local farm that has a Pick-Your-Own Pumpkin Patch in October, but I found out about the Suflower Trail completely by accident on Facebook. It’s a working farm, so aside from a picnic area with an old digger to climb on and a couple of small sandpits, there aren’t any other attractions or animals to see. It seemed like the perfect activity to do on a day which was sunny yet also threatened rain at any moment, as it was short enough and cheap enough to be easy to abandon if the need arose.

It didn’t disappoint. The sunflowers, all nodding away in the same direction (did you know that whilst sunflowers are heliotrophic and “follow the sun” they only do so whilst actively growing? Once they have fully bloomed the fix facing east! One of several facts we learned on the trail!) were almost glowing in the sunlight. Thomas and I were both completely dwarfed by the wall of flowers around us.


 

Thomas took charge of the map. It wasn’t really a maze, as it wasn’t particularly difficult to find the way, but there were a couple of wrong turns and dead ends and Thomas took great delight in navigating us away from them (although he had to double back when he realised he’s missed some “Sunflower Facts” in the dead ends!




We also had fu searching out various bugs within the trail and spotted various flies, caterpillars and butterflys before making it first to the “centre” and then to the exit.

Visiting lavender seems to have become a popular activity recently, but I can recommend searching out a local sunflower field too!

Country Kids
 

 

A Week in Yorkshire: Part One – A Day in Whitby

We recently spent a week staying in the beautiful North York Moors area. Thomas’s school broke up about 10 days before the main school holidays for most English schools, so we took advantage of going away during the week before most schools had broken up for the summer. We stayed in a lovely self catering cottage about 4 miles outside of Pickering.

Our first full day in Yorkshire was one of bright sunshine and we decided to drive across the moors to Whitby. It’s a town that has somehow captured a special place in my heart. I grew up with a beautiful watercolour painting of the Abbey on the wall in our hall. In my mind’s eye it’s always frozen in time, a combination of memories of childhood visits 30 years ago, plus – I’m sure – the influence of Heartbeat having been standard Sunday night television viewing in my house back in the nineties!

Of course, Whitby has moved on, but I was pleased to rediscover all of it’s beauty and charm that persists even if it isn’t quite in the time warp I like to imagine!

We parked on the harbour-side by the station, which is the terminus for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway – an adventure which was not to be missed with our train obsessed boy and will be coming up on another day.




Our first target was the Abbey itself, perched atop the East Cliff. We wandered up through the town and rather than climb the 199 steps at the front, we took the slightly longer but more sloping route which seemed a little easier for the ascent, plus it gives lovely views back over the town.


Whitby Abbey is owned by English Heritage. Along with the National Trust, this is an organisation that I’m quite happy to belong to not just for the benefit of free entry to such beautiful properties, but also because I value the work that they to do and am happy to support them in preserving England’s rich history. That said, it is good value too, especially as kids are free with adult membership!















We spent a good chunk of time exploring the ruins of the Abbey before descending the 199 steps back in to the town for Fish and Chips, swiftly followed by ice cream on the small beach by the harbour. Of course there was time for skimming stones and climbing the rocks too.










We then climbed up the West Cliff to take in the classic view of the Abbey that I remember from that painting in my childhood home and which also inspired Bram Stoker in the creation of Dracula more than 125 years ago!



We had a very chilled out few hours and of course there is plenty to do that we simply didn’t have the time for, including the Whitby Museum, the Whitby Brewery, coastal cruises and whale watching. Whitby is definitely on our list for a return visit though, perhaps spending a couple of nights in the town itself.

For more information see Whitby Online, Visit Whitby and Discover Yorkshire Coast

This post does not contain any sponsored content.

Oh Deer

I’ve written before about how much we love the National Trust’s Knole Park, so when a friend and her boys invited us to join her for a picnic a couple of weeks ago we obviously accepted.

One of the things Knole is known for is the large number of deer that roam the grounds and whenever we visit it can almost be guaranteed that we’ll come across plenty of them wandering and grazing. For the most part they are used to the presence of humans and are largely aloof as they pass by.

But last week, as we sat in the shade of a tree enjoying our picnic, a mixed group appeared over the hill towards us, looking every bit as though Father Christmas might follow on his sleigh at any moment. Rather than skirting around us and continuing on their way, they were quite interested in who we were and what we were doing. I just couldn’t resist sharing some of the shots that I captured.

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They really are magnificent creatures, especially the more mature bucks with their stunning antlers. The majority of the Knole deer are Fallow deer, but they exist in a number of different colourways, some almost white and others with a really beautiful coat of spots.

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Thomas has always been fascinated by the deer, especially at a distance, and for the last couple of years has liked to mimic them, trotting around with his hands by his head in lieu of antlers. Interestingly it’s the exact same thing that my brother and I used to do on our own childhood visits to Knole. Because these deer came a lot closer and seemed to be paying us specific attention, he was a little more unsure. It may have been the idea that they might try to steal his food (they didn’t) or simply that up so close they seemed much bigger and more intimidating, but it was a good opportunity to teach him that as long as you are quiet and calm and respect these wild animals, they will respect you back.

And of course, once the deer had moved on, there were plenty of fallen tree trunks to explore, sticks to find and swish and, unfortunately, Thomas’s first encounter with a stinging nettle sting. A day of learning all round then!

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Linking up to Animal Tales
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Aliens Love Underpants, Live on Stage

It’s no secret that I love the theatre and that Thomas appears to be growing to love it too, so it should come as no surprise that I didn’t want to miss out on Ticketmaster’s Kid’s Week promotion, which now actually runs for the entire month of August. Offering a free children’s ticket with every full price adult ticket (plus up to two further half price kids’ tickets) to a wide variety of theatrical events it’s a fantastic way to cut the cost of introducing children to the theatre.

I struggled to choose from the shows that were available this year on dates we could do, but finally settled on a couple of productions, the first of which was one we missed out on last year: Aliens Love Underpants.

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Thomas has a couple of the books from the Underpants series by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort. With bright illusions, quirky and amusing rhymes and lots and lots of underpants, they are a sure fire winner for almost any toddler or preschooler. I was intrigued to see how the fairly short rhyming verse with minimal plot line would be adapted in to an hour long live stage performance. In fact, this is one of the things I love about children’s theatre that is based on books – seeing just how the, invariably short, stories are interpreted. We’ve seen everything from a literal, word-for-word faithful adaptation (Not Now Bernard, is a good example) to shows which deviate only slightly, usually with the addition of songs (such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea) through to some shows which simply share the story, but tell it in their own way (including Room on the Broom and The Gruffalo).

Aliens Love Underpants did not disappoint. In this case the text from the books was padded out with an additional story line revolving around a boy called Tim discovering just what is is that happens to all the underpants his mum is pegging out on the line. In contrast to other reviews I had read, I actually think this show had a fair amount to please the adults in the audience, from jokes about who the various pants in the aliens’ Underpants Hall of Fame belonged to, to the interpretation of washing symbols. There was also an interactive element to the show with cast members coming in to the audience to ask little ones what their favourite types of pants were. Thomas was thrilled to be asked. (His response, for the record, was “starry pants”. Which is true. He does rather like to wear pants with stars on them!) Additionally there were a few catchy songs to tap along to. It was cleverly staged with a minimal cast each taking more than one role, and the skilful use of lovable alien puppets.

Thomas certainly had a ball, and has already asked if we can see it again – if that is nit a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is!

UnderpantsHe may not look that happy here, but I promise that he was! And that flag has been following him around the house!

Aliens Love Underpants is on at The Dominion Theatre on Charing Cross Road until the 5th September. Kid’s Week Tickets are still available for certain dates through Ticketmaster. We paid for our own tickets and this is not a sponsored or compensated post – we just really love theatre for children!

A Trip to Legoland

We all have aspirations for our children. To be healthy, happy and fulfilled are the usual suspects that head the list. But we can all admit to having a few other secret wishes for our offspring, even if we can acknowledge their lesser importance. Like hoping that they, too, will love the little plastic bricks that click together to create whatever your imagination can dream!

Fortunately for these Lego-loving parents (we own a very impressive collection of Lego from both of our own childhoods, but a not insignificant amount acquired once adulthood was reached too – I bought Ian a Lego Death Star for his thirtieth birthday some five years ago, and it now takes pride of place on a high shelf in the (Thomas’s) playroom) Thomas is following in our footsteps. It began as surely every Lego collection does with a massive pile of Duplo and has now progressed through to Lego Juniors models. Whilst he can’t quite follow the instructions to build a specific model without help, his ability to locate and fit together pieces is growing day by day. And a whole year later Thomas still talks about, amongst other things, the Lego Discovery Centre in Berlin.

With our first family trip to Florida planned for the early part of next year, we wanted to do some gentle introduction to the idea of theme parks before the Magic Kingdom blows his mind. So given the passion for Lego, and the fact that Legoland is designed for and aimed at children from two to twelve years of age, it seemed like an obvious choice for our first proper family theme park visit. And last week presented the day of choice, with my (also Lego-mad) brother on a flying visit from the West Coast of the US. So we set off around the M25 for a day of fun.

And it didn’t disappoint.

Thomas was captivated from the moment we entered. The Hill Train helped with that, of course as the train obsession remains as strong as ever. “There is Lego everywhere” Thomas declared with glee. Within moments he’d spotted The Aero Nomad balloon carousel, and any concerns about a fit of timidity in the face of rides were immediately quashed. We subsequently ducked inside to avoid a short rain shower and discovered the Scarab Bouncers, which elicited a continuous fit of giggles from start to stop, and even the darkness of the Laser Raiders ride was no match for our little man. (Sadly my brother was a match for me, roundly beating me in the shoot out competition. I may have stuck my bottom lip out in a recreation of our childhood.) The Train ride around the park was another must for Thomas too.

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We headed inside for lunch as the sky took on an ominous blackish hue. We managed to secure window seats overlooking the pirate show and catch some of the stunts whilst avoiding an absolutely torrential – and I mean skin soaking – downpour. We may have lingered over lunch a little longer than was strictly necessary….

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The afternoon brought plenty more adventures from a Submarine ride to rediscover Atlantis, driving a Duplo train and flying a Duplo Helicopter. “It went up and up and up “ shouted Thomas afterwards, jumping up and down. “And then it went round and round and round” he added, spinning on the spot for effect!

Thomas also wanted to have a go at driving a car in the Mini Driving School, which is a smaller version of the bigger attraction, and aimed specifically at 3-5 year olds. And it was whilst standing in the queue here that we had a moment-in-a-million real life blogger spot! As it began to drip with rain again, I asked my brother to pass over Thomas’s rain coat. As I edged slightly back down to queue to grab it I recognised first the child a couple of people behind us, and then her mummy as Carie from Space for the Butterflies. It was one of those moments where I’m glad that I had no time to think, or to be shy or nervous and simply said that I’d just recognised her! I can be very shy about meeting people “in real life”, but I’m so glad that there wasn’t time for nerves to get the better of me! It was so lovely to put a real person to the blogger and have a quick chat as we waited and watched.

Thomas and Kitty were in the same driving group (fortunately no accidents, because if my son had run her daughter off the road, that may have been embarrassing). As with everything, Thomas was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. When the staff told his group that it was their turn, he literally jumped up and down saying “Hooray, it’s finally our turn!”

And watching him drive that car was one of those moments that makes you smile and feel a bit tearful all at once. Because he tried so hard. And to begin with he had a couple of crashes in the curb and has to be put back on track. But then, all of a sudden, something clicked and he got the hand go steering to go exactly where he wanted to go. Of course, it was all over far too quickly, but once again he hasn’t stopped talking about it. (He thinks he’s a better driver than me now. Ahem.)

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As the afternoon wore on, we headed over to the Knight’s Kingdom area for Thomas’s first real roller coaster experience. Bold as he may be, Thomas can sometimes be reluctant to try new things, but fortunately this wasn’t one that phased him. In fact, he loved it so much that he wanted to go straight back on! (We sent Grandpa on for this one!)

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We finished up the day in the Miniland section of the park. This was absolute heaven for Thomas who spent over an hour following the trains around and working out where they all ran. I definitely forsee a Lego train set in our future. In fact, when we went in to the shop at the very end of the day, he gravitated straight towards one said with a pleading look in his eye. Not just yet, kiddo. Maybe when you’re a bit older!

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There is so much that we didn’t get to do. The park is absolutely vast, and the opening hours of 10-5 relatively short (although to be fair, Thomas was flagging by the time we left at past 5 o’clock anyway). You could easily spend the day just looking at Miniland and the other Lego exhibits and building in the Imagination Centre without even looking at any rides. We missed out the Splash Safari and Drench Towers entirely as well as a couple of other whole areas of the park. No matter, of course. It’s just all the more reason to go back!

If you are wondering about a trip to Legoland with your own preschooler, I can highly recommend it. The park is truly designed for children of this age. The height restriction for the majority of rides that have one is just 90cm (even my very short three year old is well over this) and many have no restrictions at all, so long as you accompany your child. The rides are all designed with young children in mind. There is nothing too thrilling or scary (with the possible exception of the new Riding Adventure, which also has the tallest height restriction at 1.2m) The only drawback if you have only one child is that all going on the rides together can feel bit awkward, as one of you obviously has to sit on your own, but I probably think about things like this more than average, because I’m vary aware of that empty seat and how very much I’d like it to be occupied!

And of course there is plenty that isn’t a traditional “ride”. There is lots of Lego to build with and a couple of large play areas. You can pan for gold. You ride the submarine which takes you through an aquarium filled with real fish to spot, or wander the park finding Lego animals.

It is big, though. We no longer own a buggy, so Thomas was walking the whole day. He did get tired, and so did catch a couple of lifts of shoulders, and the lack of buggy meant we didn’t have anywhere to put bags, so was instrumental in our decision to buy lunch rather than take it with us. I would recommend taking a pushchair if you have one, even if you don’t usually use it much. And there is plenty of space for picnicking if you choose to do so.

I will leave the final words of the day to Thomas. This was his face when we told him we had to go home.

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And when we asked what his favourite bit of the day had been, he responded emphatically “All of it!”

A Walk in Knole Park

I’ve written before about how much I love our National Trust membership, but now that I’m able to drive again, I’m loving it even more. With driving comes the freedom to nip to any one of the glorious spaces close to our home here in Kent. I no longer have to wait for the weekend, or someone else to give me lift to some of the more inaccessible sites. If the mood takes us, we can simply hop in the car and go.

So last week, we did just that. I needed to be in Sevenoaks in the afternoon anyway and it was a beautifully bright, if cold, day. So we decided to pop in Knole park for run around in the mud and a chance to spot some deer. (And, if I’m honest, to get Thomas to burn off some energy after some nightmare behaviour the previous day from too much pent up steam!) Thomas has been to Knole countless times since he was born, just as I went countless times as a child before him. It’s an amazing open space and something about the air and the light means I never fail to catch at least one photo that I love.

Thomas had a fantastic couple of hours racing up hills and through puddles, peering through cracks in the wall and the keyhole in a gate he spied. Armed with paper and crayon, I attempted to teach the idea of bark and leaf rubbing, with some fun results. We ate our lunch outdoors (as the tearoom and restaurant here is currently undergoing drastic rebuilding and refurbishment). Thomas climbed inside an old tree stump, and balanced his way along logs, tightrope style. When it was time to leave he begged to stay “just a bit longer” racing away from amongst the trees and inviting me to chase him. We took away a considerable amount of mud, both on our boots and on our car but Thomas was suitably worn out and promptly fell asleep during my afternoon errands!

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