Thursday, 16 August 2012

Planet Little People at....Pontins! Mini breaks explored....Ps

With the promise of a mini heatwave in the offing and the resultant brain strain of trying to think of things that I could do with the kids, I made an executive decision to search for a mini break, which I figured would cost me only marginally more than a couple of day trips out to the usual attractions.  With Juliet and her little people also on board, I set about searching for something suitable (and essentially child friendly).
My preference initially was to stay in a hotel, somewhere on the coast and a stones throw from the beach.  What I did not give due consideration to was the fact my 2 year old, Master Grumpalot, does not like to stay in one place for very long, so pitching up at the beach might only work for an hour at most before he would be looking for the next instalment of this particular adventure.  With only a beach at my disposal, this was clearly going to be a struggle.  There is also the fact that there is no damn place to hide those wired-in hairdryers found in hotel bathrooms.  Its a constant battle to stop my daughter wielding one like a weapon of mass destruction much like the Terminator crossed with Vidal Sassoon.
Juliet suggests hiring a caravan for the weekend, somewhere with some facilities on site.  Great idea but the shortest booking I can get is a week and nothing at all for under £500. 
Butlins, Hoseasons and Haven were all obvious choices if you're happy with a booking at the start of the week or end of it. I guess no one told them that some people work Monday through Wednesday and sometimes get the mad urge to down domestic tools and high-tail it to the coast for two days of flying by the seat of ones pants (but have to be back early Saturday because Auntie Maud is having an 80th birthday lunch).  Damn them.
When my search of "cheap, midweek, Thursday to Saturday, child friendly breaks" returned an answer of COMPUTER SAYS NO, I type in "Camber Sands" (mentioned earlier by Juliet as being ideally located) and up pops the word "Pontins" (but not just any old Pontins, this is new look Pontins, following major refurbishment after being brought out by Britannia).  I'm taken back in time to permed hair and day-glo towelling socks but beggars can't be choosers and rather than key in my requirements I decide to call them.  I found myself talking to a very pleasant chap who didn't pummel me with endless questions but instead noted my requirements and said if I would be happy with an upstairs apartment, they had something for those dates, inclusive all passes for the billy bargain bucket sum of £128??!!!  Woo hoo!!  Camber Sands here we come (and not a cagoul in sight).


Camber Sands is a stones throw from Rye which is the most gorgeous little seaside town, very quaint and picturesque.  The local beach is spotlessly clean, not a shingle in sight, just miles and miles of glorious sand.  I cannot recommend the local area enough.....however.........

I think the head honchos at Britannia need a map (or a quick study of the word "refurbishment" in the English Oxford) because Pontins, Camber Sands, looks like it has not seen a makeover, much less major refurbishment, since the days of, actually, come to think of it, permed hair and day-glo towelling socks?

The main building, painted blue and peeling like a British tourist on the third day of their foreign holiday, is an eyesore on the otherwise scenic road on which it sits.  Some poor, hapless teenager is reluctantly dressed as a crocodile and waves us in with all the welcome of the grey, overcast sky. 

Juliet and I exchange glances as we park up at reception only to be greeted by another reluctant teenager, this time telling us that we can't check in till 4pm.  Its 10.30am.  With four toddlers and one baby looking for some chow, we head to the restaurant for a late breakfast.

I have to be honest, this is where the complex truly fell short.  The dining area was a minefield of high chairs caked in discarded egg and beans, sausages and toast crusts scattered across the floor and one lone cleaner, who approached the job in hand with all the enthusiasm of a man, just one brush stroke away from botulism.  Clearly the time to arrive for your meal is not when 3000 people have just departed (yes, that was the amount of people on site according to an unusually forthcoming member of staff).  
While further experiences of the restaurant proved no more inspiring, I have to say that a full English breakfast at Pontins is well worth a gander, lunch and dinner was very reminiscent of food served up in your school canteen but the breakfast was first class, if you don't mind parking your behind in someone elses egg yolk or bacon rind.

Next stop was the adventure playground, a wooden shipwreck parked in a sea of sand.  This is where the kids really let of some steam and had the greatest time, the average age of children was probably ten and under but there was enough space that everyone could move quite freely without collision.  A pub, The Queen Victoria, was situated adjacent to the playground and offered a relatively small seating area outside and GREAT coffee.  I think this is where I had the most fun people watching and Pontins has no shortage of characters.  I think it is fair to say that everyone was friendly and helpful if not overtly curious about your goings on?!

When we finally got into the apartment I was relieved that there was enough room for us all to manoeuvre although we had to put the swinging cat back in the suitcase.  Everything appeared clean but my feet quite literally stuck to the floor when I kicked off my sandals and by the end of that evening I had furballs for soles.  However, the water was hot, the electricity meter economic and sheets were clean.  Its fair to say that your basic needs were catered for though why they don't advertise those complimentary fur lined feet is quite beyond me?!

Further exploration the following day revealed an amusement arcade, pool, go-karting and best of all, a kind of day creche where you can face paint or just draw, play giant connect 4 or just use the soft play area.  I think this was the best facility on offer for kids of a toddler age as it lacked appeal to the wealth of older kids and was also very secure (and didn't involve the faff of water or sand).  The member of staff running that end of things did look in need of a hit of prozac after spending the day keeping the troops amused though....

The evening entertainment promised us Sooty but the venue (based upstairs) was filled with much older kids, an incredibly loud PA system (and just one rattling lift in operation for all the pushchair and wheelchair users on site).  Not the chance to chill out and kick back that we had hoped for...

So, all in all, I'd say two days is more than enough to explore all that is on offer at Pontins and you may struggle to entertain children of a toddler age on site for any length of time.  I'm not even sure I can say it felt like such a bargain at £128 for what was on offer for us but the local beach and town made it well worth the trip for me and I can say without doubt the kids had a great time.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

CONFUSED about USED....When is it fine or time to draw the line?

I have never been a snob when it comes to buying second hand.  In my late teens I was a great fan of all things vintage and spent many a Saturday morning rummaging around in jumble sales and charity shops looking for that elusively unique outfit.  It wasn't a financial choice, I was working at the time and earning good money but there was nothing quite as triumphant as finding a great outfit that no one else would have and that only cost me the kind of currency that jingles, rather than rustles....

My outlook altered slightly when my son was born, just after I turned 21.  As a single parent, I was determined he would never want for anything and would always have the best of what was on offer.  I physically baulked at the idea of dressing him in anything second hand or buying any of his toys in charity shops. To me (somewhat ironically, given my previous form), this was like an admission of pauperdom.  Of course the fact that his father had married someone else and had a child just six months younger than my son had quite a bearing on my attitude!

Years later I met Matt and went on to have two more children.  By the time my youngest, Olly, came along, we were struggling financially and made some major purchases on ebay to help ease the burden. There was an element of guilt that our 4 year old daughter had enjoyed everything brand new but it appeared to be quite the trend with families in similar positions to use such tools as ebay and Netmums/Mumsnet noticeboards - and, after all, what difference could it possibly make to a baby where their cot or pushchair came from so long as it adequately and safely served its purpose?

Its entirely possible to purchase something new or hardly worn (and we all know how easily kids clothes can have the shortest shelf life with the rate that they grow) from ebay and I feel completely at ease making such transactions because, its practically new stuff, right?

So, and herein lies my conundrum, since it is entirely possible to buy clothes and toys and baby equipment that is in extraordinarily good nick, for a reasonable price, where do we draw the line and buying second hand?  Should we be wracked with guilt for buying, say,  Christmas or birthday presents  this way?

My son has become quite the fan of Happyland toys, the farm, school and fire engine playsets etc.  To buy these new you are looking at a tidy sum and to create a little town out of all these figures you are looking at some serious bucks.  Then, in all probability, you will lose bits (only to find them buried in the garden or hiding in the back of the freezer) when the toy has long since been abandoned.  Therefore is it so very wrong to purchase somebody's preloved Happyland empire and still have enough in the post for some wrapping paper and a tag?!

I should add that I realise there are families who have no choice but to take that route and this is in no way a slur on their actions - my question relates to whether its worth saving all year for the ultimate new, shiny toy, or using a credit card to pay for Christmas presents (and theres a lot of us guilty of that) - or do we take a frugal attitude to present expenditure?

What do you think because this is my pre-Christmas conundrum and I genuinely don't have the answer?


You’ve heard about the round peg and the square hole? 

Yes, i cant emphasise enough how this euphemism represents a day at work for me.  Every day, in fact.

I’m a secretary (an admission I still find slightly embarrassing – for me it conjures up images of a power dressed nerd herd) and I’ve discovered, through the company’s new programme of annual tests and appraisals, not only do I not really like what I do, I’m actually quite crap at it. 

When the latest round of testing and appraisals failed to produce a pay rise or promotion, I demanded a meeting with my supervisor flaunting the three paragraphs of positive comments in my appraisal, skilfully layering paper over the less complimentary remarks….  My supervisor patiently explained that the company pay a salary superior to its competitors (grudgingly true) and that everyone was having to “up their game” and “reach outside their comfort levels” in order to perform to their absolute optimum (oh, and just so one does not become complacent and continues to stretch oneself, each year the bar will be raised).  

But what if you peaked on in month three of your employment (roughly about the time your probation period is up) and were quite happy plodding along in the shadows of this bright new era?  I mean, I get the job done, I show glimpses of pro-activity at a push (well, more a hefty shove).

Clearly this is no longer enough.  Its a jungle out there and monkeying around is no longer tolerated.  My years of blagging a career at this lark are over because its only a matter of time before I’m rumbled as the fraud that I am.  I have been playing at dressing-up secretary for 15 years my costume is threadbare.  But, enough about me because it seems I am in great company – I mean – I don’t actually know a single soul who enjoys their job, for whom Monday morning does not bring the most immense dread (until that large skinny latte and commiserative croissant at least). 

So, what exactly is stopping us from getting off the career carousel from hell?  For me its twofold: I have always wanted to be a writer but the fear of failure is crippling, not least because the competition is immense.  There is also the fact that this is a dream I have nurtured since my teens and if I discover I’m also crap at this then what dreams do I have left (apart from a lotto win, natch)?  

Finances are also a contender, I have a family and debt and don’t think my partner would be delighted if I were to throw the office suits, 5000 denier tights and polished shoes in the rubbish in exchange for a boho penniless neurotic writer get-up.

I’ve thought of a third, so we are now on threefold and this is possibly the clincher which will resonate with you all. I guess this is the professional equivalent of a biological clock.  I don’t want to look back at my life when I’m 65, on the cusp of retirement and think……what an utter waste of life, when you knew what you really wanted and you never even tried.  Why didn’t you take that leap of faith and follow your dream?

So………why didn’t you?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Broke.....a trip to the Hairdressers

In the days preceding a rare girls night out, I book a hair appointment that includes all the trimmings (except a blow dry.  Why is it that whatever you ask for is replaced in your hairdresser's mind with either more bouffant than Bon Jovi in the 80s or a poker straight blow dry that essentially looks about as natural as Ambre Solaire fake tan (also from the 80s - and no, I am not Evver from Eastenders, reincarnate).

I text best friend, Juliet, who, as it turns out, is also in the hairdressers (you know you're getting older when a night out is such an unusual occurrence that you book in for the full monty at the hairdressers - and also because age maintenance quite simply demands it).....sigh.

I start by lamenting the quality of reading material there - why is it that every hairdressers has a plethora of mags with the cast of TOWIE and Kelly Brook (to name but a few) in varying states of undress?  Going to the hairdressers is supposed to be a treat, a psychological boost and you spend half your visit comparing the size of your thighs to the tanned pipe cleaners on show at the turn of every page.  Pass me that Good Housekeeping guide....  Having said that all that, when reading anything in the hairdressers you are inevitably going to catch a glimpse of yourself, looking down at your trashy mag in the mirror, and realise that, actually, all reading material should be banned because where the hell did those chins come from????

Juliet is less distracted by that and more concerned with her outbreak of spots that won't quit and her under-eye bags (only a woman could have the skin of a teenager and the eyes of someone in their 40s).....I'm guessing that hair salons shop in the same place as high street clothes outlets for their mirrors for sheer "hag factor".

I mention that this week I am being "done" by Sara, one of the senior stylists and I am bracing myself for a cardiac arrest when I get to the till.  Juliet agrees, adding that on her last visit, when asked who should do her hair she stated "whoever was the cheapest".  The financial rewards may have been gratifying but her blonde was the shade of Ambrosia when she left the salon that day, so shes sucking it up and existing on stale bread and water for the rest of the month.  (I just find it baffling that I can actually never book the junior stylist to do my hair (who, incidentally, is just as good as her superiors) but, wouldn't you know, someone senior is always available.....)

I have to be fair, the finished result is well worth it.  Even my "rough dry" looks pretty damn spectacular, and grey, what grey?  Inevitably she tries to flog me the styling product she has used on my hair (which will morph into lank stringiness in the next twelve hours).  I politely decline.

With my 10% discount for a rough dry, I am presented with a bill of £80.  I send up a silent prayer of gratitude that Sara leaves me with the receptionist to settle up and find the walk of shame out the door is slightly less profound for having handed over my significantly scant tip to her instead.

No one told you that the Timotei Babe had to sell her horse after getting her hairdressers bill.

On my way home I remember my I need to buy something for dinner that evening and head straight for the economy brand.  Its all about getting the balance right, non?

Meet Olly Grumpalot (my not so adorable 2 year old)

I wrote this post on a day that I was being emotionally pummelled by my 2 year old son, Olly.  This is not a unique situation for me - read on for the big picture - but I decided rather than responding with the usual range of  unsuccessful tactics, I would try something cathartic, and this is it.

I’ve no doubt that parenting is a voyage of self-discovery, constantly taunting us with our limitations, as people.  I mean, having been in the midst of an utterly crappy cold, I am expected to function as normal, when all I want to do is tell my kids to bugger off and leave me alone for five minutes.  I know how awful that sounds and I’m really not a bad mum, I am quite simply human.  The tale of Olly below will attest to that and will hopefully help anyone in a similar situation because you won’t hear anyone at mother and toddler saying, actually, what a miserable sod my child is.  But I digress…..

With due date imminent, I took myself off to my local beauty salon for a well earned (and desperately needed) pedicure.  While joking with the owner that immaculate toenails seemed somewhat pointless given I’d have little chance to admire them (my feet, last seen at the five month stage), we got on to the subject of babies in general.  She had a son, toddler age, who had been (in her own words) a “nightmare baby” until the time he could walk.  She put it down to frustration at his limitations and confided that he had grizzled and gurned his way through year one of his life.  I was completely taken aback and secretly horrified.  How awful for her that her only experience of motherhood had been so trying.  Of course, she went on to say, he was like a different child now and had been since he took his first steps, striding into independence with a beam of triumph.

If only I had known that my own experience would be remarkably similar.

Olly was born without incident and weighed it at a healthy 8lb6.  He fed beautifully (for the first two weeks) and slept well.  Then came the projectile vomiting.  I consulted with my health visitor followed swiftly by my GP and a locum and the word “reflux” became like a mantra. Gaviscon was prescribed but the effects were barely noticeable and Olly began to vomit the entire contents of his bottle after almost every feed. Once in a while, my many internet searches had thrown up (pardon the pun) “pyloric stenosis” (followed swiftly by the promise of its relatively rare diagnosis).  It never occurred to me this was the culprit and it was only when I made a last minute, desperate dash to the A&E in complete despair that he was diagnosed, at just four weeks old.

Olly was admitted immediately and put on a drip.  We were to wait on an appointment at the London Royal where he would have the operation, which was completely curative.  I’ve no idea how I functioned those few days on the children ward.  I was witness to cases far worse than my son’s and was constantly humbled by those children and their parents.

Olly’s operation was a success and in the seven hours preceding his op I cradled him in my arms while he slept.  I think it was right there that we formed a special bond - together we had endured - just Olly and I (my partner had been absent for much of the time looking after our two year old daughter).

I thought of nothing else but going home and settling Olly into a routine but in doing just that, my previously peaceful and contented baby had all but vanished, replaced by a cranky grizzly chap that I barely recognised.  Once we ruled out post-op discomfort and sheer hunger, suggestions for his behaviour were few and far between and when his dalliance with PS was a distant (if not unpleasant) memory, I was faced with the awful possibility that my child might just be…..miserable.

I ask you, how many adverts feature a baby with his face screwed up in disgust, a constant whine escaping his lips?  No chuckling or gurgling for our Olly, he was permanently tuned into grumpy mode.

You might be wondering if there was a medical or psychological reason that we hadn’t explored but according to the specialists, no.  Call it a phase or a magnitude of frustrations (on both sides), but don’t call it a health issue.

How the impact of Olly's misery was far reaching….  My usually accommodating parents were less keen to babysit because he was even grumpier when left with someone else, so getting a break was not at all easy.  My partner Matt and I bickered about our situation constantly because, in his mind, Olly was just a constant source of annoyance as his grizzling and grumbling hit varying notes throughout the entire course of every weekend (when Matt was at home).  Somewhat predictably, I would jump to Olly's defence whenever Matt would make a negative comment, regardless of whether I had been doing the exact same thing only moments before (he's my son and I look after him so I have carte blance to moan!!)  Our daughter Jess was perhaps the only person to enjoy all the negativity surrounding Olly because she was held up as a shining example to aspire to and Matt took much more pleasure in her company so, competitively speaking, Olly was a non-starter.

Teething was my main argument for Olly's discontent (yes, I needed to find an argument, a reason for his behaviour, no way was he Victor Meldrew in a babygro!)  Both Olly and his sister were late starters with teeth, both sprouting their first at around the ten month stage so consequently he would have a growth spurt of several teeth at the same time (with red cheeks and drool to prove it!)  Then, when he started part-time nursery at one year of age, he picked up all sorts of bugs (which proved to be quite an education for us - slap cheek syndrome - I mean, who knew?!) and these ailments were also just cause for a healthy dose of moaning on Olly's part.

But, unlike my nail technician, whose son had blossomed into a cheery chap once he established his somewhat wobbly independence, Olly's attitude only marginally impoved with the onset of toddling.  But I was prepared to take any improvement as a massive bonus, if it meant that my ears stopped ringing for just a few less hours each day, it was progress.

As his ability to communicate improved, so too, did his overall demeanour.  Having only uttered the words "mama" or "dada" on occasion (eschewing further expansion of his vocab), he was able to express his needs through pointing and some vigorous head nodding (or shaking!) and we muddled along quite nicely.  His temper, when roused, was pretty explosive but he changed beyond all recognition in a matter of months and became an absolute joy to behold, to my daughter's digust!

Oh don't get me wrong, she was happy to have a willing participant to play with, someone who wasn't constantly primed for a moanfest, but with "New Olly" came perhaps (and somewhat unfairly) her fiercest competition.

You see, seeing Olly smile and laugh and play in good humour, quite literally made my spirits dance. My face would light up and I would be enraptured with whatever he was doing, however seemingly insignificant.  I had endured over a year of complete despair, grappling with feelings of frustration, helplessness and (inevitably) guilt for feeling such emotions in relation to my own child but that bond I mentioned a while ago had never faltered, good days or bad and here was my reward (finally!) 

There was quite simply no way for my daughter to compete because I felt like I was seeing my son for the first time, getting to know him all over again as this happier character emerged and it was an all consuming affair.  Don't get me wrong, I tried desperately not to show how enamoured I was with New Olly, or make her feel any less loved as a result, but she was aware he had morphed into an entirely different child and was at odds to cope with that.  However, these days she takes advantage of his good mood too by enticing him to play games that will inevitably end in battle!

But when isn’t parenting a series of conflicting emotions – and why is it that when one child is on good form, their sibling seems to be slap, bang in the middle of a crap stage?