An unexpected palace

You know when you’ve lived down the road from a local attraction for years but never visited? Safely home from France we awoke to a glorious sunny Sunday, the last “official” day of our holidays. Out of nowhere we decided to hit Eltham Palace, an arduous six miles away and 15min drive in Bernice.

I sternly instructed Scott not to let them sucker us into joining English Heritage. We had been at the place less than four minutes before we were signing the direct debit form. It seems very good value and SC does love a castle you know….

Eltham Palace was absolutely fabulous and splendid for the short trippers. I knew shamefully little before we left and was expecting a “standard” stately home, four poster beds, oil portraits, ponderous commentary etc.

The original palace was built in the 14th century and was where Henry VIII spent his childhood.  The only remaining part of the original palace is the Great Hall built in 1470. I had no idea that the majority of the building is a perfectly restored 1930s Art Deco mansion.

Stephen and Virginia Courtauld bought the shell of Eltham Palace in 1933. They were filthy rich and spared no expense on all the mod cons of the period and an extremely understated bathroom…. I’m not much of a design buff but it is literally jaw-on-the-floor stuff and controversial at the time. They incorporated the stunning Tudor Great Hall into the design (which had been used as a stable, a barn and a tennis court in the interim) .

Very similar to our washing facilities in Bernice….

The Great Hall

Highlights for SC included seeing the luxury quarters for Mah-Jong, the Courtauld’s pet lemur and trying on 1930s frocks. There’s a free audio tour of the house and garden with a family tour option. The family tour is actually very good, fun but informative with a game for each room.

The palace has jazz on the lawn on a Sunday afternoon and listening to it floating up while in such a beautiful setting was pretty magical. We’d bought an austerity picnic so we abandoned the tour as it returned to the entrance hall and hurried out to listen.

The grounds are equally lovely but quite disorientating over a number of different levels. If you blindfolded me and span me round I’d probably still be there now.

Eltham Palace features on English Heritage’s list of most haunted properties. A staff member who died the week after his retirement is said to give tours to visitors. There’s a fun article here about spooky occurrences in Eltham and other EH properties (sorry about the link to the Daily Torygraph).

By the time we’d completed the tour, investigated the giant fish in the moat, played in the playground (all tasteful English Heritage wood, not a garish piece of plastic in sight…) and had an ice cream it was getting on for 4pm. It’s not a cheap day out at nearly £40 for a family but I guess it takes more than a few quid to keep it running. It was great to visit somewhere so local and I’m sure we’ll be back soon.

A small château and a giant telescope

Camping fatigue is setting in, I can feel it. The rules are slipping.  Yesterday I ate a meal with broccoli in and I’m not sure how many more rounds of Junior Monopoly I can take.

The weather has turned a bit. Intermittent torrential rain with dazzling hot sun has meant that we’ve done a few more trips. Here are the highlights…..

Château de la Ferté St-Aubin

You can’t come to France and not take in a chateau or two. A castle has stood in this spot since the11th  century and has had bits added on ever since.

The entrance fee seems a bit steep until you read that it only covers the cost of five new roof slates. 400,000 have been replaced so far with many more to go.

The rooms in the castle are suitably impressive and furnished in an 18th century style. For children (or childish adults….) there are loads of different parlour games to try.

I took this opportunity to try and teach SC to play chess. With my chess skills she was a worthy opponent until she had a total meltdown claiming I had moved my king two spaces….. (I hadn’t, I swear!!). I blame a lack of lunch so we headed to the park adjoining the castle.

We spent the afternoon in the “Parcours des poisons” which is a terrific treasure hunt style game in the grounds of the castle.

As “Madeleine d’Egennes” you have to follow clues through the woods, collect the names of poisonous plants, traverse obstacles and solve riddles in order to find the witch La Voisin to assist you to poison your husband.

Completing the barefoot section of the hunt….

Now I’ve written that down it doesn’t sound very suitable but it was really good fun and the weather  was lovely. If you return to the apothecary with all the clues completed they give you a vial of “poison” which has been a highlight of the trip for SC 😀

Pôle des Etoiles

The weather was due to be awful on Tuesday so we headed to this space research centre and planetarium in Nançay.

It’s pleasantly creepy in a vast, middle-of-nowhere space research centre Dr Who-y kind of way. The English commentary is not for beginners: “The radiographic heliotrope was installed in a decametric quandrant in 1958….” but the exhibition was interesting and had enough buttons to keep SC mainly happy until her end goal – the gift shop.

You can walk out from the car park to see the awesome radio telescope which monitors the activity of the sun.

It’s 40m high – Scott & SC for scale!

As always there are loads of other enticing things to see and do in the region, there’ll  never be quite enough time.

We’d like to come back…but there’s so many other places to go! Soon we’ll be heading back to Greenwich but we’ve already got a couple of shorter trips in the diary.

I’d love to hear about your summer trips, leave me a comment below!!


Busy doing nothing

It’s been a tough few days. We’ve been very busy enjoying the view…

The little white hut is a glamping pod on the lake. It’s tethered on a long rope so when you want to go to bed you have to find it and then row there. Very cool and good entertainment.

Between swimming, napping, trampolining and spending time at the kids club it’s been hard to fit in much else.

The swimming pool is the local municipal pool adjacent to the campsite. You get free entry but, boy, does everything about it scream municipal pool. It’s a bare, square, industrial joyless affair. No sun loungers, no umbrellas, no ice cream stall….

SC, with her slavish devotion to all things waterbased still thinks it’s amazing. We arrived on the first morning to find it’s compulsory for men to wear the teeny tiny Speedos that the French are so fond of. Scott, more of a board shorts man, left muttering regretful noises clearly delighted at the prospect of a coffee and his book by the lake.

It’s also pretty nippy. After 30 min of SC barking out orders (“catch me”, “carry me”, “push me” etc) I felt more like I’d had a stint in a 1950s Swiss therapy pool having rehabilitation for TB than a relaxing dip.

I digress, pool aside, the campsite is awesome and the village is only about 200m walk through a beautifully maintained park for croissants and essentials.

We’ve planned to take the train to Orleans tomorrow. Will we get there or will the power of doing nothing keep up sat by the lake?  We’ll see…..

Going Dutch at Camping Grande Sologne

One of my good friends is Dutch and is keen for her kids to speak the language. For Dutch tuition you could do worse than to stay at Camping Grande Sologne. I reckon 80% of the people here are Dutch as are the songs at the kids mini disco at 7pm every night. You know that song you sang when you were in the girl guides, in English the lyrics went “a Pizza Hut, a Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut”? I’ve had the Dutch version of that circling my head for nearly 48hrs and we only arrived two days ago…..

After an uneventful drive down the campsite is absolutely splendid. Even I liked it straight away so it must be good…! We smiled sweetly at the lovely reception staff and they  kindly (albeit slightly exasperatedly) let us switch from our nice-but-nothing-special pitch to a fab spot overlooking the lake.

Spot the Bongo

The facilities are good without being scary, in-your-face holiday campish. There’s a shop, a little snack bar open in the evening, mini golf, ping pong and activities for kids (in Dutch) throughout the day 😀

The mini golf has seen better days with twigs, sticks and uneven paving causing your ball to ping off at all angles. I did wonder if it would be less painful to club myself in the head at one point as SC insisted on completing every obstacle…..

10 days here will be just the job, more to follow…..

Giving up in epic Epping

At 6000 acres Epping Forest is the largest open space in the London area. Once a royal hunting ground it is now managed by the Corporation of London despite being 20km from the city (and only 15 miles from our house).

It was the last day of term and we picked up a jubilant SC replete with face paint (and a massive stack of school work which we will lovingly…..recycle) flung her bike into Bernice and headed straight off to Debden House campsite. The traffic was, as always, awful but at least it was only a 50 minute schlep rather than a couple of hours.

Debden House is a really big site. It’s hard to believe you’re inside the M25 (just) and still on the central line as it feels so quiet and rural. There’s more than 300 pitches over seven fields. There’s electric hook up, play equipment and, best of all, you’re allowed campfires in fields 2,5,6 and 7. There’s an eclectic patchwork of pitches of varying sizes, ours was pretty snug with a tight width restriction in the form of two trees at the entrance. Good thing we didn’t bring the Coleman Event Shelter….*

Before long we were all set up with a lovely fire going.

It’s hard to explain why but the site, although has much to commend it, feels a bit rough round the edges. The pitches are close together and it’s noisy in the day time. The facilities are really basic and functional (although the washing up water is hot enough to strip the skin from your hands at first contact…) and there never seemed to be quite enough of them. I think we’d been ruined by the amazing spa toilets at Whitlingham Broad….. such middle class Cool Camping softies.

The rain battered down all night but the morning emerged in that post rain way, all drippy and dazzling. More rain was forecast so we headed to the forest for the classic “lovely family walk”. The campsite couldn’t provide any guidance for where to go (surely they must get that query 10 times a day??!) so we headed off following our noses and stumbled onto a path at the end of the field 2.

SC insisted on bringing her bike despite dire warnings that we WERE NOT going to carry it. It will astonish you to know that a monumentally heavy £29.99 Argos bike decorated with purple hearts and flowers did not cope well with the forest floor after heavy rain. Of course, we ended up carrying it which did not add to the progress of the walk. About an hour later we were back at Bernice having spent 20 mins of that playing on a rope swing.

After a bit more bike riding, Junior Monopoly and I-Spy camping (it’s strangely addictive, try it!) the rain set in again with a vengeance. We planned to go to Waltham Abbey but took the easy small-child owner option and headed to Ashlyns Farm in Epping instead. I have to say we made the right choice, the food in the lovely, cosy cafe at Ashlyns was absolutely splendid. It takes quite a salad to tempt me away from a jacket potato (or a massive plate of chips) but their super food salad with grilled chicken was (almost) Instagrammable.

Oh, alright, here it is….

The weather meant the farm was pretty much out of bounds so, with a grim sense of rainy day inevitability, we headed to the soft play. It was pretty standard stuff, ball pit, slides, smell of dirty nappies but it did have surprisingly good quality of hot beverages. SC found a new friend to tear about with and I had a book and a decent hot chocolate, not so bleak. The complex also has a giant farm shop, a beauty salon (spa camping!) and water park. Definitely one to return to on a sunnier day.

The rain beat down mercilessly and was forecast the same until 1am. Having a camper van is so much easier than a tent in many ways, with passing showers you can shut the door, pop the kettle on and crack open the Snap. Constant heavy rain for prolonged period with a six year old is another matter. With a quarter of a mile trek to the loo up a muddy track and only 15 miles from home we threw in the towel and, with a quick stop for sausages, headed home.

This is not the view I am expecting on our summer hols which is only ONE WEEK AWAY! Ten days at the Camping la Grande Sologne, the countdown starts now!

* the Coleman Event Shelter is a giant gazebo that I bought jointly on a whim with a friend. It’s big enough to host an international scouting jamboree (joke credit to her) and we’ve never camped anywhere roomy enough to take it yet but there’s time….

Camping with kid(s)

I came across a nice little article in the Telegraph about camping with kids here. I like the way it didn’t over romanticise it, kids or not, we’ve all been in a camping situation where we wondered if we actually got a wink of real sleep in between the brief surreal dreams and misbehaving sleeping bags trying to strangle us.

It bought our first camping trip with SC to mind when we were still using Quentin (the tent-in). We camped at Debden House Campsite in Epping Forest in June 2013. It was generally a disaster with SC falling off the same chair twice, burning her hand on the stove and forgetting a range of slightly essential equipment including the tin opener. It didn’t put us off though and here we are four years later 😀.

Teeny weeny SC camping with Quentin in the background

I am not even slightly a parenting blogger, a parenting expert (sounds of laughter) or a camping expert but here are my top tips for camping with kid (I can’t really comment on the plural….).

  •  Let them pack a bag of their own stuff to take away even if it means arriving with a single duplo block, a headless Barbie and a felt tip pen with the lid left off
  • Allow all rules and routines to slide, this includes bed times, nutritional content of meals and the need for washing (obviously, its camping).
  • Encourage gangs. Never mind family time, your aim is for your kid to run barefoot and feral with their new pals while you read your book in the sun and sip a G&T regardless of the time of day.
  • Don’t be too precious about screens. Yes, you want lovely, wholesome quality time enjoying the great outdoors, playing board games and bonding as a family but if two episodes of Dora the Explorer on the iPad gets you a mini lie in then do yourself a favour.
  • Don’t try and do too much in the day. One organised activity per day is ample allowing time for general “sitting”, “watching the world go by”, admiring other Bongos, talking to your neighbours and having a beer or two.

Hope this helps! Coincidentally we’re heading back to Debden House a week on Friday for the weekend so expect an update soon.

Have a great week.

A spin round a Great Broad

I’ve singularly failed to put together my final Highlights of the Isle of Wight blog post and for that I apologise. I’m sure it’ll pop up at some point (gotta wait for the muse, man….).

I can tell you about the great stay we had at Whitlingham Broad Campsite this weekend instead. With our usual forward planning and attention to detail we booked up last Wednesday. The staff kindly agreed we could arrive at 8.30pm, an hour after the normal check in time but traffic out of London so bad it was a nerve shredding schlep (with a record breaking speed toilet stop) to get there with only minutes to spare. Fergus on the reception desk was lovely and welcoming however and whizzed us through the check in, the facilities and the fire policy.

The campsite is easy enough to find and astonishingly close to Norwich city centre for such a peaceful site. It’s within the Whitlingham Broad Country Park and is just over the road from the Broad itself, woodland, a ruined manor house, an outdoor adventure centre and play area.

The Saturday dawned bright and breezy and we headed to the Flint Barn visitors centre (pictured) to enquire about a wildlife boat trip on the Broad. Unfortunately the boat, which is solar powered, was awaiting a part and not running. It’s a 50 min trip which might be a bit long for short campers but the lady in the Tourist Information Centre was super friendly and helpful so we left full of ideas for things to do.

Bernice on a bright and breezy morning on Whitlingham Broad (Flint Barn over the road)

We decided to walk the path all the way round Whitlingham Great Broad (there’s a Little Broad as well). It’s 2.3 miles, a bit borderline for SC and her short legs so we devised a scavenger hunt of things to find and see to keep her occupied and minimise complaining of the “are we nearly there?” variety. It is a pretty walk but the view of the water is mainly obscured by trees so, in some ways, you could be anywhere.

Stroll around the Great Broad with scavenger hunt

Constitutional complete and many treasures later (although I’m still slightly sceptical of SC’s claim that she saw a frog on a lily pad…) we arrived back in the blazing sun. The cafe at the visitors centre looked very tempting but we headed back to Bernice for lunch.

The site has been recently refurbished and it shows. It’s beautifully kept with a great little shop and good waste recycling. The toilets are super swish, you feel like you’re in a spa with wooden doors, square sinks and posh hand wash (for the record I am NOT complaining!). Watch out for the light sensors in the toilet at night though, they turn off after about twelve and a half seconds if you’re in the shower and leave you bumbling around in the dark. The site also has a range of glamping accommodation if you don’t have a Bongo in your life…..

We had a range of ambitious plans for the afternoon including walking into Trowse, going to the pub, exploring the woods and the low ropes play area. In the end we plumped for doing…..nothing. It was very hot, SC picked up some pals staying in the Toyota Regis opposite, we played junior Monopoly and naps were taken. But there is loads to do without needing to drive if the weather’s not so good or you’re more actively inclined.

I’m a big fan of doing not much however and camping is ideal for that. There’s a limit to the chores you can do in a Mazda Bongo and the internet reception is normally bugger all. We whiled away the afternoon then ordered pizza from the visiting chefs (get in quick, they only make 30!). The evening featured a short walk to the ruined manor house in the woods, chat with the neighbours and more….not much.

The building was inhabited in the 18th century by an eccentric named William Money, best known for his experimental but ultimately unsuccessful hot air balloon travel 🎈 

Norfolk never lets us down!