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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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!

The Disney Dream

I was a little under three and a half when I first went to Walt Disney World in Florida.

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And what a very different “World” it was then. The Magic Kingdom was there, of course and EPCOT (then EPCOT Center) was newly opened. But there were no other Disney parks. No Studios or Animal Kingdom. The water parks were Wet’n’Wild and Water Mania rather than the themed Disney extravaganzas that now exist. SeaWorld was there, as was Gatorland Zoo and of course the Kennedy Space Center, but there was no Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure. We visited CircusWorld instead. The scale of things was big, of course it was, but it was nothing on how big it all is now.

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It still made an absolutely massive impact on me though, despite that fact that I was younger than Thomas is now.

In fact, I count a number of specific moments as amongst my very earliest conscious memories. Waking up in our hire car en route from the airport, but stopped by the side of the road, by the noise of rain hammering on the roof as a terrific Florida storm unfurled above us. Staring out in to the darkness in our beach-front Gulf Coast hotel, unable to comprehend jet-lag or why it was dark when my body was telling me the day was already many hours old. Riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with my Dad as my Mum and my brother, too chicken to try it, waved from the bridge. I still remember exactly how that very first roller coaster ride felt, with my Dad’s arm wrapped around me. I feel the grin on my face.

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I’m on there somewhere!

I may not remember every detail. And some of my memories are possibly fabricated a little from the photographs – comparatively few though they were in the pre-digital era – and family stories. But I know it was absolute magic from the moment we arrived. It was completely detached from reality, brimming with the incredible, the improbable and the impossible. It’s absolutely fair to say that no other place on earth has ever had quite the same effect on me again. Different – wonderful, awe-inspiring – yes, but pure immersive magic, not even close.

It’s for that reason that I so often tell people that you can’t really be “too young” to go to Disney, and that anytime from the age three onwards even the “they won’t remember a thing” excuse doesn’t necessarily hold true. I’ve always maintained that kids need something big to hang the first memory they’ll retain to adulthood on. And it doesn’t come much bigger than Walt Disney World.

It’s also the reason that I’ve been dreaming of Thomas’s first trip since the moment I knew we were expecting him.

I remember looking forward, during my pregnancy, to being a family and doing things as a family. Introducing our child to the world and to all the fun things it holds and taking part in activities where a child is a necessary pre-requisite to participation. And whilst the latter isn’t true for Disney, recreating those moments of magic with my own child, being the one to make them happen was always something I just couldn’t wait to do.

This is a dream that I’ve always known I would eventually realise for my child. Quite possibly the very first dream I ever had for him, long before he was conceived.

And next year, it’s happening.

The intention was always next year, before he starts school and whilst we have more flexibility on dates. It was always meant to be next year, rather than this, because I’d hoped that baby number two would be approaching the age of three, and there would even have been time for baby number three to join us (sometime about now) and tag-along as a bit more than a newborn.

Yeah. None of that worked out, of course.

But we’ve stuck to the plan for next year anyway, despite my heart screaming to take Thomas this year instead. I hope the extra time will give him the crucial few centimetres of growth he needs to meet the height restrictions for some iconic rides (I was obviously taller than my son, or the height restrictions were lower in 1983, as he currently wouldn’t make it on to Big Thunder Mountain).

And in the mean time my dreams keep on growing. The more I read and the more I research, the more I can’t wait. For the moment that he sees the Cinderella Castle for the first time and recognises it as “The Dis-in-nee castle” from the introduction to every Disney film we’ve watched. For the moment he gets to meet his favourite characters and have their enormous character hands envelope his tiny one. For his excitement at the simplest things like the Magic Kingdom Railroad and the monorail system.

It’s hard to put Disney magic in to words, and I guess that if you haven’t felt it yourself, you’re quite possibly rolling your eyes at what I’ve built this up to be. And of course, by setting the bar of my expectations so high, I’m setting myself up for crushing disappointment if the reality doesn’t live up to the dream.

I know that it won’t exactly, because nothing ever does go quite how we imagine it. But I’m still confident that the realisation of such a long held dream will be magical, in new ways that I haven’t even dreamed.

And perhaps in 32 years time Thomas will still be reflecting on it, as he prepares to take his own child or children for the very first time too.

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