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.

The Swamp

The start of February half term, renowned for being wet and cold, is also when you expect all indoor places to be incredibly over crowded. So instead we opted to invite some friends over, with a view to going outside (regardless of the weather) after lunch. After several games of dressing up, hide and seek and an indoor picnic; eldest boy, middle boy, youngest boy, mummy, her friend and her friend’s 2.5 children were ready to go. If your offspring have a tendency to become slightly feral in the afternoons then there is nowhere better than the great outdoors. We took the 5 boys to explore the heath near our home. Somehow I’d ended up sending both sets of eldest child’s wellington boots into his school. So, in the aftermath of Storm Dennis, we were prepared to get wet. The friend I was with was forest school trained so nothing could possibly go wrong. She was equipped with welly boots and a backpack. I was possibly a little less prepared with a baby strapped to my front and a packet of wet wipes.

We had great fun on our exploration: chopping through the brambles, splashing in puddles and investigating which items float and sink. Assorted feet had already slipped into the mud and youngest boy had a rather well placed splash mark on the centre of his forehead. We also learnt something new from our knowledgeable companion. The knopper gall wasp produces knobbly brown galls on acorns – if you’re interested. Next, we opted to follow a raised footpath, mimicking trains as we did so, until we came across a large mass of muddy water. Too wet for a bog, I’d like to call it a puddle but given the enormous size of it, ‘pond’ might have been a more accurate term, except for the absence of the ‘token duck’ swimming in it. So perhaps the word ‘swamp’ is a better descriptor. It was at this point that eldest boy made the single, fateful decision to push middle boy in. Only a gentle push, but that was all it took. Stumbling forwards, away from the safety of the raised pathway, he initially landed on his feet. There was no time to consider any form of relief, as he continued to slip in the murky slime, eventually landing up to his armpits in muddy water. I’m incredibly grateful to my friend who promptly returned him to solid ground. Now dripping a mixture of tears, bog particles and rogue bits of rotten grass; he stood there wailing. We were able to distract him by another stick search and a passing puppy dog. He made a swift recovery and continued to play ‘sticks in the mud’, that was until it came to walking back. He refused. Point blank.

Trying to persuade him to head back seemed to take decades. This would have been fine, if at the end of them he’d actually been closer to home. In reality, he’d managed a 180 degreee turn only. Diversionary attempts (including finding larger sticks, having races, looking for other puddles etc) all failed. He just kept whimpering “I don’t want to walk!” on repeat. His comments weren’t entirely accurate because he didn’t want to hop, skip, run or crawl either! I know this because I attempted to try and persuade him to try any of these methods. Of course, what he actually meant was that he wanted to be carried. Now weighing over 20kg – probably significantly more if you count the galleons of water his clothing must have absorbed – I contemplated the feasibility of trying to carry him and youngest son home from here. I thought about putting him on my shoulders but couldn’t bring myself to allow his saturated shoes to drip foul smelling, dirty water over his baby brother’s face as the little dude snoozed innocently in his sling. On spying a conveniently placed bench, I came up with a new plan: removing middle son’s rancid shoes and socks and using this seat as a means to allow my soggy child to climb onto my back. When he couldn’t even lift his own leg halfway to bench height (primarily because he was refusing to bend his knees) I also aborted this plan.

The minutes that followed involved various attempts to take his hand and coax and encourage him forwards. Although I expect to the casual observer, it might have looked more like I was just dragging a crying boy along. Mirroring the paralysis caused by a venomous bite, his movements decreased and decreased. At one point I was holding one of his hands, while my friend took his other hand and his feet stopped moving altogether. We called it ice skating – his shoes glided across the pavement. Except there was no ice, just friction. Then he lost the ability to support his own weight and crumbled himself into a little ball by the kerb. He felt cold and his protesting got louder. It was at this point it began to rain again.

Youngest son was snuggled in his baby carrier under our kangaroo jumper. Removing all three of these items meant I could pass this precious bundle to my friend – who had offered to carry the little one the remainder of the way. So now down to my short sleeved shirt, I lifted my heavy, drenched preschooler in my arms and struggled the remaining distance to home. I really wished I had some kind of upper body strength. Middle boy got a kilogram heavier with every step I took and the lactic acid was building up. I’m pleased to report we did make it back, with all 5.5 children still in tow. Once inside, I’m ever grateful to my smallest boy for being so happy and smiley when I left him (still snuggled in a cosy bundle) in the lounge doorway while I sorted a warm bath for medium sized boy. Biggest boy had now begun crying, as it dawned on him that his friends were leaving earlier than planned. Washing load on, eldest boy entertained with lego, middle boy thoroughly cleaned and youngest boy attended to, we were all feeling a bit happier and the four of us snuggled up to read a Tinga Tinga Tale. Our verdict on this adventure was a unanimous – “Let’s do it again soon!”