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.

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 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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Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the Arcelor Mittal Orbit

On the afternoon of the day we visited the Discover Story Centre, Thomas and I meandered our way over to the Olympic Park for our very first visit since we were there for the games themselves. Thomas was less than a year old at the time, so he surprised me last week by musing out loud “We’ve been here before”. I can only conclude he’s seen the pictures or something – any other alternative is a bit freaky!

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The best part of visiting the Olympic Park this time for Thomas was almost certainly the journey across Stratford, which offers the opportunity to see almost every type of train – and bus – that he could wish for. He was delighted by our journey to Stratford on board the HS1 Javelin Train from Ebbsfleet, and equally as delighted by “driving” the DLR to Stratford High Street and back. To be honest, if that had been our entire day out, I think he’d have been completely happy.

As it was, however, it was a beautiful day, so we did go for a walk through the park. The site is so vast that we traversed only one corner, and did not make it to much of what is on offer, including the large outdoor playground. We did have a lot of fun exploring the Year of the Bus Trail, with all 60 painted Routemaster models on display at the park prior to being auctioned off for charity. The exhibition has already been extended but is now due to finish next week. Thomas picked out some definite favourites, including one painted with a steam train, and another dressed as a Coldstream Guard in a bearskin hat!

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Thomas was also absolutely overjoyed to spy a good old fashioned helter skelter. He first rode one at Carter’s Steam Fair last June, and still talks about it now, so when he saw this one in all it’s glory in the sunshine, I knew I was unlikely to get away without a ride! And as helter skelters go, it was a good one, even if carrying Thomas up to the top, along with my bags, did nearly kill me! he’s getting pretty heavy these days!

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The main reason for our trip to the park, however, was a ride up the Arcelor Mittal Orbit – a first for both of us. The Orbit is Britain’s largest sculpture and on a clear day offers views over London reaching twenty miles in each direction. It may not be as high as the Shard, but it still offers a unique perspective – and is considerably cheaper to boot. There are good discounts for booking online in advance (which is what we did) and you can then exchange your tickets free of charge for one which is valid for a full year. I’ve no doubt that we’ll go back with Ian as a consequence. (This fact also meant that we came down in the lift rather than walking, as we’d already had a long day and I could imagine I’d end up having to carry Thomas most of the way down on my own. It’s good to know we can go back and do the walk without paying again.)

Whilst we were there, the “Bricks in the sky” exhibition was still on, showcasing miniature Lego models of the Olympic venues and other London icons. In addition there were plenty of Lego bricks available for free building, which captivated our budding Lego enthusiast almost as much as the skyline views.

 

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It was a very full and exciting day, despite barely scratching the surface of what the area has to offer. Thomas still had enough energy for a good run around the park on our way home, and I’ve no doubt at all that we will be back, as it’s firmly on our list of good places to go in London.

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The Discover Children’s Story Centre, Stratford

Half-term is a funny old time for us at this stage in Thomas’s life. He attends pre-school at a private nursery which provides year-round care. It closes for Bank Holidays and a week at Christmas only. This means that half-term doesn’t really affect us yet. I still go to work, Thomas still goes to pre-school and it’s all hunky dory. Except… anywhere that we might choose to go for a day on the days I’m not at work is FULL of older kids on their half-term holidays. I almost feel guilty for taking Thomas out to places because we have all the other weeks of the year to do these things, and everywhere is quite crowded enough without adding us to the mix. But, Thomas’s usual weekly classes are not in session, which, particularly on a Tuesday, gives us a lot more scope for a whole day activity. And with the good weather this week, I didn’t want to pass that up.

I thought carefully about what we might do that wouldn’t involve too many crowds. And settled on a trip to the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford (combined with a trip to the Olympic Park, but that’s a story for another post). It’s a place that’s been on my list to check out for quite a while, and it seemed like a good place as much of its content is aimed at younger children anyway, so I thought it was unlikely to suffer from an influx of older children and teenagers. Plus, during “term-time” I know that it’s popular with nursery and school groups, and choosing the holiday avoids these large groups. As it turned out, it was busy but not unbearably so. The good weather helped, because the outdoor garden was being well utilised.

The Discover Centre bills itself as the UK’s first hand’s on creative literary centre. From their website:

“Discover’s overarching mission is to spark children and adults’ imagination, curiosity and creativity in a magical and stimulating environment.”

And I think they certainly achieve that. The space is laid out in various sections. The main floor is a bit like a themed play area, but with numerous imaginative triggers. There is a large central area where stepping on the lights triggers musical sounds that correlate to the image of an instrument projected on the wall. In one corner there is a craft activity station.  In another an area with tents and a slide with a cubby hole underneath. Elsewhere is a trip trap bridge, a lion tunnel and mountain, and a climbing wall. There are dressing up costumes and a miniature theatre to perform your own tales. Thomas’s favourite place of all was the “Lollipopter” – a flying machine that might have been a spaceship, but might have been a boat. Thomas spent a good deal of time here, spinning the wheel and changing the speed settings. I asked him what he was doing.

“Going to find treasure Mummy!”

“Where are you going to find it?” I probed

“On a pirate treasure island. You can bring the map. It’s in the sea. We’re sailing in the sea. Oh look. We’ve arrived”

“How are we going to find the treasure?”

“On the map, silly. Look. ” [Hands me an imaginary map] “X marks the spot! We need to dig the treasure. We need shovels.”

And so it went on. With him describing what needed to do, and how we were going to do it. I prompted him every so often to ask him where, how and why, or to describe something to me, such as the chest the treasure would be hidden in. What would it look like, and feel like. We began to talk about different words to say the things he wanted to express. It was lovely to just sit listening to all these things pouring out of him and exciting him.

Can you see what was happening here? Just being in this different environment inspired me to encourage Thomas’s imagination and storytelling. It’s certainly given me pause for thought in how I deal with games he plays at home in order to nuture this raw and budding creativity. And that, I suppose, is the very point of the Discover Centre.

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They also hold various sessions, for different age groups. There is currently an Oliver Jeffers exhibition on in the basement section and there are daily story readings. We attended a reading of Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile. We bought a copy of this for Thomas for Christmas – his very first introduction to Roald Dahl. He has loved the book at home, and really seemed to enjoy hearing it in a different environment where the children where encouraged to contribute thoughts, actions and sounds. He asked to read it again before bed last night, and provided sound effect throughout for the snapping of teeth and evil laugh of the eponymous croc.

The Discover Centre also has a story garden with various themed play station, including a dragon slide, a pirate boat, space ship and taxi cab as well as various outdoor musical instruments. We were so lucky with the weather yesterday, given that we’re still mid February, and enjoying a packed lunch sitting in the garden I got so hot that I had to take my coat off. (Thomas kept his on. “No Mummy. It’s winter silly. You need to wear your coat!”)

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If you have young children, particularly if they love story telling or imaginative play (or perhaps especially if they don’t, but you want to encourage it) I’d highly recommend at least a few hours spent here. It was not only part of a fantastic day out, but it will definitely influence how I assist Thomas at home in developing his ideas, story telling and vocabulary. For a few hours that’s what we focused on, and it made me realise how simple it can be.

For a full programme of event, check out the website. We paid for our own tickets to the Discover Centre and all thoughts, opinions (and bad iPhone photos) are our own.