Hidden in plain sight.

Often when we plan a family cycle somewhere new, the time seems to dissolve, leaving the husband unable to fit roof bars to the car and load up the bikes and accessories before we are due to be somewhere else. Today we were in a race to get out before the rain arrived and having been up most of the night with a baby who woke up at least six times. As a result, our plans to revisit the Meon Valley were shelved in favour of a local cycle.

Knowing we’d be cycling in the Cowplain area, a quick ‘google’ took us to this useful website pdf: http://www.horndeanpc-hants.gov.uk/_UserFiles/Files/Cycle_Havant_Brochure-191105.pdf

We clocked a solid blue line we’d yet to investigate and a plan began to form.

Having previously explored the Queens Enclosure and Havant Thicket on multiple occasions, the new found bike path led us to Hurst Wood – a place I’d been totally unaware even existed until today.

The area was very pretty and tranquil despite its close proximity to the A3(M). There was a map board to navigate through the pathways, the odd tree roots to hop over and an exciting subway under the road to echo our voices. We found a little bridge across a stream – perfect for pooh sticks. Perhaps the most exciting find was a tree balance branch acting as an access to a rope swing.

Middle son amusing himself on the swing above the stream.

Overall an enjoyable little cycle during which two things occurred to me:

1) Eldest son’s dungaree trousers seem to get shorter on the leg every time he wears them. They fitted last week now they are barely past his knee. My first tip: Never go cycling in dungarees.

Eldest son crosses the stream by balancing along convenient tree trunks.

2) How was I unaware of this pleasant little track when I’ve lived in the area for 10 years? My second tip: Adventure locally, you might surprise yourself.

It wouldn’t be a family outing without one of my boys doing something a bit silly. Middle son obliged. He decided to dramatically tip himself sideways off his bike halfway up a hill to ensure that we had realised he found the incline exhausting. Now to find a way to remove the blackberry stains from his clothing…

Wetsuits are for wimps

My audacious offspring and I fancied exploring a new part of the Meon Valley trail so picked one of Hampshire’s beautiful little villages that appeared to be located nearby. I made several attempts to find a friend to join the boys. We found someone, who apparently likes to partake in traditional, but wacky outdoor activities as much as my children do.

Upon arrival I realised that my phone battery had only 4% charge left. The phone can be very unpredictable at times, it has been known to last an entire evening on 1% but is just as likely to randomly turn itself off when opening an app to meet up with the husband. Navigation would need to be completed the old fashioned way. Conveniently, we discovered a map at the village church. As a result, we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, until our friends arrived – equipped with a professional looking Ordinance Survey map.

How to navigate when google maps is draining your phone battery.

One dead end and two downpours later, we found a route onto the disused railway line and began our adventure. Middle son reached new levels of speed on his bicycle with a new face to compete against; while eldest son tried to cover up the fact he couldn’t keep up, by attempting to cycle up a ridiculous steep bank – a challenge I’m sure even superman would struggle with. This was the first of many pit stops before the discovery of some stairs leading down to the river and its crystal clear waters.

Making a splash.

The boys gradually shed clothing as assorted items were splashed or walked on by pesky siblings. I attempted to tidy them under the pushchair to salvage them from from future unfortunate events. What I achieved, was a a forehead full of stinging nettle as I bent down to retrieve them.

Youngest son contemplating how best to fall in head first without mummy noticing.

Having enjoyed our lunch sat in a muddy puddle (where the water was churned up against the bank then splashed onto the walkway), a lady passing by enquired why we weren’t sat at the picnic area. As it turns out, this was only a stones throw away. It was our next destination. Middle son managed to slip on the way. His only remaining item of clothing was now both wet and muddy! Tip of the day: always carry a towel.

The Quarry

The hardest part of taking the boys out on an adventure is often finding a starting point – somewhere we haven’t been before. With two infant school aged boys, the activities often plan themselves once you arrive somewhere new (as long as it is outdoor and has ample opportunities to get mucky). If there are arrows to follow, even better.

Today we decided to tackle the Hangars Way. This is fairly local and I was delighted to find that it’s divided into eight different trails. We elected to explore the section between Buriton and Butser Hill, knowing that there’s still at least 7 more adventures to try another time. I say “at least” given that we didn’t complete the route, we were too busy discovering exciting distractions.

We nearly didn’t even make it past the pond that we’d parked next to. The boys got a little over excited when they saw the ducks and appeared to be on the verge of jumping in, while I was still getting youngest son out of the car. They selected our route around the pond, opting to go clockwise over a mini walkway – barely wide enough for feet let alone a pushchair. So I decided to improvise and pushed the pram through the shallow stream in order to join them. Once on the other side, my intrepid children began testing out some stepping stones. I had visions of them slipping in and coating themselves in the stagnant looking pond water. Knowing we were close by to the car and armed with an old towel (for situations such as this), I let them take the opportunity to practise their balance. Only one wobble from eldest son meant getting a foot in the water. Although this was so uneventful, none of the duck community even noticed. Persuading him not to wander off back up the stream was a little trickier, because as he put it, “One of my shoes is actually wet anyway.”

Despite the odds, only 1 out of 4 feet fell in.

Only at this point, did we begin the trail itself. Within minutes the boys had found three steep paths to convert to slides and a railway bridge. Middle son was thoroughly amused when two trains passed over the bridge. We also saw the old quarry path and an obsolete mine cart. Mario Karts is a current favourite of my big two. They love the Wario gold mine track, so this rusty, disused transporter was always going to capture their attention. The steps down to it meant we continued south along the same path.

The quarry path.

On this occasion, Grandma had joined us on our adventure; she requested that we took a circular route, coming off the Hangars way and circling around the Buriton chalk pits instead. Not only did this route seem practically vertical in places but the multiple tree roots and rock hazards made pushing the buggy was similar to an army assault course training facility. We began running parallel to a hard surfaced road path and established from passing hikers that this was part of the South Downs way. Having an extra adult to hold the baby, meant I could lift the pushchair up and over a number of tripping hazards, brambles and undergrowth to reach it. Eldest and middle son followed and we reunited on flatter ground, beginning our descent and stopping only for a snack in the sunshine. Adventure incomplete on this occasion but I’m already planning to returning with the husband and Littlelife baby backpack.

While we were still on the ‘sensible’ path.

The full route and individual sections can be found here: https://www.hants.gov.uk/thingstodo/countryside/walking/hangersway

Converting a standard outing to an adventure

My children love to explore. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re just not keen on walking any distance in order begin an exploration. Yesterday, we were only going to the nearby woodland, but ended up having to begin a scavenger hunt outside the front door to motivate them enough for the ‘long’ 400 yard trek.

Walking on its own is “just boring.” All walks must be converted to an adventure. Perhaps the simplest type of conversion is by adding an object hunt. I’m often feeling lazy and choose a nature one from online (but equally you can make your own seasonal one themed to the area you are visiting).

When going for a coastal walk, I find myself appreciating the scenery far more when I’m half looking out for random boats, benches, seagulls and ferries sailing towards the horizon. Eldest son is quite inquisitive so we often end up discussing some items from the list at length – such as the black lighthouse (that isn’t actually a lighthouse but an old mill). There have been other conversations such as the one about sea barriers and flooding; it only occurs to you later that your child is likely to announce something along the lines of, “I know what a dyke is.” It’s then you cross your fingers and hope that this happens when looking at a picture of sea defences and not as a random announcement.

Another favourite of ours is a number hunt. For this, you need nothing but a sheet of paper with numbers on, although a pre prepared hundred square is even more convenient. This is suitable for any walk around town or simply when you are trying to get from A to B in a suburban area. In the words of the CBeebies show, ‘Numberblocks’, numbers really are everywhere: telegraph poles, road signs, houses and bus stops are all excellent places to start searching.

If you have a bit more time, or walk the same route often, you can generate clues for the children on the way. This is quickly becoming a hobby of mine and now I can’t help but spot different shapes or coloured mini landmarks to become part of a treasure trail.

Water magnets.

I’ve deduced that my children have magnetic properties. They naturally repel any activity that is calm, slow paced and results in them staying clean and dry. In contrast, they attract to water. The muddier it is; the stronger the allure. We’ve only reached day four of the summer holidays and they’ve found themselves soaking wet every day so far. First there was the outdoor pool that beckoned to them, then there was the enticing sea waves, yesterday was a rainy day complete with multiple puddle splashing opportunities. Finally there was today…

The Meon Valley Trail

We’d gone for a family adventure down the Meon Valley trail. This beautiful trail was perfect for us to explore on our bicycles, because not only was the setting pretty idyllic (when you’re in need of a bit of freedom), but also fairly flat: eldest likes to whine about not being able to keep up with his brother, if faced with the slightest of inclines. As steam train enthusiasts, my boys were also excited to learn that this path was actually an old railway line and we did a little detective work, searching for evidence of this. We found two original sleepers at the end of the track and an unidentifiable metallic structure suspected to be from a set of old ‘points’.

The damaged archway

Husband expressed mild agitation at the amount of times the boys felt the need to dismount, abandon their bikes (usually in the middle of the path) and explore something new. It would seem there was a lot to explore. Points of interest included a new ‘humps and bumps’ discovery, the collapsing arch held together with wire, picture clues from one of their books at home, and a path to nowhere. Every bridge we passed underneath immediately turned into a quest to find the way up onto it, leaving mummy waiting below with the deserted two wheeled transport.

Finding a route up onto the top of a bridge.

At one point, middle son found an interesting looking slope and was eager to see what he might find at the top, so he set off with husband in pursuit. I stayed watching eldest son, who was in the process of disappearing behind a tree up the opposite bank. Unable to follow him as youngest son was sharing my bike with me (and unsurprisingly his legs don’t reach the ground), I asked my first born to go slightly higher up the bank past the tree – so I could see him. His response: ‘I can’t’. Upon further inspection, I become aware that the ground he’s standing in was not nearly as solid as the rest of the vicinity and significantly boggier – unlike anywhere else we’d passed (give or take the odd muddy puddle). Except this was no puddle, it was a vast quagmire! Eldest son was fairly centrally placed, doing his best flamingo impression. By the time it had dawned on me that the mud had pulled his shoe off and he was probably not far away from toppling and obtaining a face full of sludge, husband and middle son were back on the scene. Obviously middle son’s instinct was to try and join him – this predicament looked ‘fun’ apparently. We persuaded him to stay on the path, while Daddy began the rescue mission. He maneuvered several solid sticks into stepping stones to prevent meeting a similar fate himself and retrieved eldest son minus a shoe. A return to the incident epicentre and accuracy with another stick ensured the remaining, elusive piece of footwear could be returned to its rightful owner.

Spot the shoe which, at one point, was completely submerged in mud.

Our next discovery was a clear, running stream. It caught the boys’ attention and they were quickly down the bank investigating. Middle son requested a turn on the rope swing, while eldest gently threw pebbles to make ripples. He’d discovered a little beach type section where he could be level with the water. Of course the temptation was too great and it wasn’t long before he was paddling. His theory was that this was essential in order to clean the mud off his shoes. This small section of water was so exciting the boys didn’t want to leave. I find it peculiar that my child, who removes his T shirt or trousers completely if they have a tiny splash of water on them, was content to plunge his feet into this stream while his shoes and socks were still on. Middle son managed not to fall in but he did manage to pedal through all five of the sparse puddles scattered throughout the whole route we covered. In doing so, he got stuck in one of them and took the opportunity to spray mud splatters right up his back in the others.

Fun by the stream

The trip ended with both of my bigger boys caked in mud and with exceptionally soggy feet – just what you expect when you go for a cycle on a gravel path on a sunny, dry day.

The search for the underground house.

With the husband working shifts, I’ve found that adventures during lock down are like buses. You haven’t been on one for a while, then they all come together. Being able to use the car to visit to new places has really made a difference. We are exploring different locations again and it’s exciting. Driving somewhere pretty to avoid people is much more fun than simply ignoring the locals!

On this occasion we went to Catherington Downs – as a child this doubled up as my ‘extended’ back garden. It would appear to be a happy place for my children too. There was joy on their faces as they ran around in circles. Also, many possible directions to explore in: bumpy tracks, steep slopes, narrow twisty paths and overgrown walkways. I let the boys choose our route. After releasing an initial bout of energy, eldest son made reference to ‘going home’ so we opted for a tactic that my parents had deployed when I was young. I had a rainbow striped teddy bear when I was very small. Prior to my gorilla obsession, it was probably the stuffed animal that I’d loved the most. Therefore any talk of ‘Rainbow Ted’ was automatically of interest to me. Like my son, I also refused to walk anywhere ‘for fun’. The point of going for a walk was to get somewhere and on so many occasions we’d just end up back where we started. My parents introduced a neverending search for ‘Teddys Mummy’s house’. What had previously been a boring walk was now a vitally important quest! Being close by to where I grew up prompted this memory and like so many previously adopted parenting strategies, I stole this one too.

Eldest son has had two bunny rabbit plush toys since he was tiny (one blue and one white), imaginatively named ‘Blue Bunny’ and ‘White Bunny’. So our adventure became a search for Bunnies Mummy’s house. Luckily for us, rabbits are native to the English countryside, unlike Grizzly, Polar, American Black or even rainbow bears. This meant we were able to convert our adventure into a nature trail too, hunting for plants Bunny’s Mummy may have eaten, examining partially dug out areas of the hill and investigating the position of perfectly spherical rabbit droppings. I felt like I was trying to track something on the ‘Lost’ island – if you remember that television series. The excitement was back! Who’d have thought that a detailed examination of grass, dirt and excrement could be so much fun?

Our search led us to a wooded area where we encountered a strange looking tree that appeared to point across a lane and up another field. After establishing that it had a public footpath through the middle we set off in that direction, assuming that Bunny’s Mummy had left a clue for us. Every time we reached a gate we also had the added thrill of ‘getting into the airlock’ using only Mummy’s feet to open it. This made an excellent disguise from the standard response of avoiding touching due to the threat of Covid-19. Upon reaching the meadow, we quickly established that this was triggering the husband’s hayfever. (Interestingly, when we were out driving the day afterwards, middle son would ask “Daddy, are you going to sneeze?” every time we drove past a yellow field.) At the top, there was much to be discovered and a beautiful view but we still hadn’t found what we were searching for.

It was all a bit too much halfway through the return journey and between us, the husband and I ended up carrying all three small people back up the incline on the other side. Then Daddy made a momentous discovery! Below a lonely bush the ground had been disturbed. But this was was not like previous sightings. Here, the divot led to a burrow, which let to a potential warren and the home of Blue Bunny’s Mummy. We’d found it! A good job too given that this unexpected discovery led to the boys suddenly being empowered to motor up the final bank, renewing their energy levels just enough to forget they’d insisted on being carried only 5 minutes before. In fact, holding Mummy’s hand for that last section of the walk was all middle son needed to get him back to the car.

If you go down to the woods today…

The exercise of choice for my boys at the moment appears to be cycling around the block. Ours is not a very big block. As much as I love fresh air, it can get monotonous. The boys seem to like perfecting their route though. Add in the extra fun ‘social distancing’ element – when you see someone and call out ‘person coming’, then you all turn around and go around the block in the other direction – you can find yourself roaming the same four corners at least ten times in quick succession. The house on the corner has a flagpost. The excitement about which flag might be flying is surpassed only by the discussion on the subject every time we pass.

With Daddy not at work yesterday, we decided to go for an adventure at our local wooded area instead – a welcome change. We looked a bit odd. We’d all worn shorts but the sunshine had been deceptive, so grabbing the jumpers nearest the front door seemed sensible. Except eldest son had found a jacket that clashed impressively with his shorts and middle son and I had selected long woollen cardigans – not the best choice to complement the rest of our outfits. Perhaps what completed the image was our footwear. I’d just washed the boys shoes, so only their wellies were available. I elected to wear fluffy walking boots, after all we were walking. Husband was thoroughly embarrassed by us but luckily slightly reassured knowing that we wouldn’t be going close enough to anyone else for them to notice our bizarre mix of garments.

Within a few minutes of wandering we’d found a stream. Disgruntled that their game of pooh sticks had been unsuccessful (due to the water level being so shallow), they played at finding different ways to cross it instead. When they both ended up in the water, I silently commended myself on taking their normal shoes out of the equation. That was until husband pointed out that at least one of the Wellington boots leaked! I was fully expecting eldest son to want to leave immediately, as he can’t bear wearing damp clothing. Thankfully, he was distracted by a fairytale character that he’d found pinned to a tree. Onwards we ventured.

The area isn’t that large. Normally when we visit, we stick to the paths but on this occasion we ‘off-roaded’. As a result, it seemed a lot larger. We even lost track of where we were, before identifying the sound of the main road to reestablish our position. Each time a new person was in sight, we’d hide behind trees and trek through the undergrowth in order to make a secret pathway where no one else would be. Although at one point we were spotted – need to work on the camouflage.

Daily exercise complete. Fallen trees climbed on. Childhood unplugged.

New found appreciation for our garden.

I’m not a gardener. Plants have a habit of dying on me. Whenever I’ve been given flowers or seeds as gifts in the past, I’ve had instant guilt. It’s like I’ve let them down, like they deserve a better life. Therefore my idea of gardening has primarily been removing weeds from our “picturesque” patio (think large slabs of uneven concrete). The larger, more destructive jobs in our garden, such as kicking down a wall or two, shearing the large bramble bushes back to nothing and taking a sledgehammer to the old rotten shed were completed, but general maintenance not so much!

It used to be my little gardening friend who inspired me to at least try, However, these efforts saw me getting no further than the garden centre, where eldest son was promptly distracted by the soft play. Then the boys got older and started taking an interest. Both eldest and middle son have previously come home excited from preschool, with their homemade bird feeders. We lovingly positioned them on the plum tree. They were quickly abandoned (really hoping we made at least one bird happy in the meantime). The boys’ grandparents live in a flat – with no garden – so last year they started an allotment in ours instead (growing raspberries, rhubarb and blueberries). Suddenly, we had two avid gardeners in our midst, as the boys insisted on going out to pick fruit daily. I would be presented with a bowl containing five and a half berries and I’d be expected to bake something instantly! Then reminded to buy ice cream. That was last summer.

Now we find ourselves in strange times. The weather has been beautiful, yet the only outdoor space we can go is our own garden. I told eldest boy about food shortages in shops, so he is dutifully watering the bare raspberry plants. Middle son also joined in – his input was to share his water with the plum tree by pouring half his cup on to its trunk. Further learning about how trees take in water is required; in the meantime the tree in our garden looked like a passing dog has had a wee up against it!

We’ve also got the boys a climbing frame as they are missing the park already. Their Nanny has been very generous. She knows how active they are. The frame itself is pretty much going to take up the entire garden (minus the allotment). First it requires assembling though. The guide time is 6 hours for construction so I’m aiming for completion in 6 days. That said, 6 weeks is probably a more accurate target for us! The husband likes to procrastinate and the children like to make frequent interruptions. First job: level the garden area it will be stood on.

So despite looking like something the Groundforce team could make a week’s worth of episodes out of, we’ve spent a lot of time in the garden this week. I get out a few garden toys, some chalk and their old bikes and the big ones seem to amuse themselves far better than they ever do playing indoors! Even youngest son seems content enough to sit on a picnic blanket and play. A combination of helping level the soil in the corner and a rock hunt led to an idea for this morning’s project: an Easter garden. Middle son found some sticks, which I tied together using an old daffodil leaf to make the crosses. Youngest son kindly lent us the large toy lorry that he’d been eating, to transport stones and mud across the garden to our masterpiece. Middle son had already began selecting flowers by the handful. (In this respect it’s probably a good thing that the only ones growing in our backyard are wild flowers.) Eldest son took the construction process seriously, he even went to the trouble of running inside to get his children’s bible. He considered it essential that we pay attention to detail when selecting a suitable stone for the front of the empty tomb.

Garden now complete. It would appear I am capable of gardening after all – when the garden in question is no more than 12 inches square.

We just forgot one thing…

We are one of those families who always forget something. Even before children, we’d remember to pack all kinds of random items (some of which we never actually had a use for), yet we would neglect that one useful item. Toothpaste and pyjamas were common offenders. Since having the boys, we’ve come to expect that ‘forgotten’ item. I recall one Christmas we were going to my parents for the day and managed to forget all of eldest son’s milk (who at the time was 6 months old and a formula fed baby). Then there’s the annual trip to my Uncle’s house, where we are exceptionally prepared for the outbound journey but have a tendency to leave a toy or rogue item of clothing when we come home again. A more recent occurrence was when youngest son was only a few days old. I’d picked up a few select items for him. Carelessly, a spare pair of pampers was not one of them! My newborn ended up wearing a stylish size 5 nappy. There’s always a way round these things.

This morning our arrangements changed twice at the last minute. With the plan changing, the required items also changed accordingly. The revised arrangements were to go from school to the library (in order to both run an errand and enjoy some music and songs whilst there), before visiting a local fort for our main outing. I was feeling pretty industrious, gathering everything together during the usual morning chaos. I’d loaded the car because (as with most things in my life) it was now a pretty tight schedule so transport would be required, breaking the regular school run routine. I’d managed to remember a whole host of items: eldest son’s school bag and water bottle; middle son’s packed lunch, hat and spare clothing; youngest son’s usual changing bag, pushchair, baby sling and my kangaroo jumper. I’d even got the library books ready to return. Middle son’s behaviour at the library was exemplary. He loved scanning in the old items, made a careful selection of new books and audio tapes and then sat sensibly doing the actions during rhyme time. Watching middle son and youngest son performing ‘Row, row, row the boat’ together was a beautiful reminder that all the exhausting ‘parenting stuff’ is worth it. By lunchtime middle boy wasn’t quite maintaining his earlier high standard, culminating in a heated debate between a biscuit and a banana. I’m pleased to report that team banana were triumphant.

When we returned home later that afternoon, I made the unfortunate mistake of assuming that, despite our earlier tightly packed schedule, we’d conquered the day without overlooking anything. But we hadn’t collected eldest son from school yet!

When the time came, middle son wanted to take his bike – no surprises there. Predicting that my eldest would want to at least contest his brother’s speed, I’d also need a set of wheels for him – drop off by car meant his preferred transport was still at home. I found a new and flashy way of loading a scooter onto the pushchair, however in my excitement I failed to notice the lack of rain cover. I hadn’t even thought to look for it, after all the sun had been shining. I was to discover this to my cost when the rain descended upon us on the school playground. We sheltered by the chickens for a little while but the weather didn’t look like easing up so I was forced to surrender my coat to the baby. Next time I need to check the weather forecast multiple times in one day – lesson learnt!

NB: To clarify, I have never forgotten one of my children. I am proud of this.

Photo credit to eldest son.

See you later, slow coaches.

Lately, it feels like I’m forever running after bicycles. I’m sure this has some advantages, like being able to eat more calories in preparation for burning them off again. However on the whole, I probably look a bit silly. Even youngest son is likely laughing at me as I jog up the road with his pushchair, wearing completely inappropriate clothing for such dynamic enterprises.

Things I have observed while chasing them:

1) They are so competitive. My boys aren’t especially ‘sporty’ types. This is clear from the way in which eldest son wobbles impressively whilst riding. Yet, they always want to win. They’ll race each other, school friends they’ve spotted, random cars, even a passing dog on the other side of the road. Their attempts to hide the fact that they are racing can be quite humorous. You have the announcement method – where one will loudly proclaim to the other one “It’s not a race!” before whizzing off down the road while this information is still being processed. Then there’s the creeping forward (ever so subtly), while Mummy gets everything sorted – to ensure a pole position. Finally, you have the ‘tortoise and the hare method’. Eldest son will elect to use this one when he can’t keep up with his younger brother – particularly on hills. He tells me that he needs a rest and sits down for a bit. Middle son then turns round and cycles back down the hill to us. It’s at that point when eldest son instantly recovers and off he goes, while his brother is still trying to turn his bike around.

2) They know a cul-de-sac when they see one and use it to their advantage. As I’ve said before, my boys do love a good rule to follow. The ‘getting off your bike before you cross’ rule is no exception. They obviously feel that dismounting too often is a bit too much effort, so they’ve discovered a way to avoid it. Eldest son likes looking out for road signs with the blue, white and red sign. He knows this means dead end and will disappear down such roads at speed. The first time he did it, I thought he must know of an alleyway or shortcut that I was unaware of. No. He just wanted to avoid having to cross the road. Now both boys regularly ride right to the end of these streets, round the bottom and back up again – just to maintain contact with the pavement. It’s left me wondering if this will remain a habit right up until they take their ‘Bikeability’ course and begin riding on the roads. I recommend this method to families who enjoy walking long distances unnecessarily.