Arbroath Abbey

Tuesday 5 April: Day 4 of the Easter Holidays

Have Historic Scotland membership; will use it! The Boss and I compared the properties on the Historic Scotland website that we could drive to, alongside their forecast weather, in a demented game of Top Trumps. We settled on Arbroath Abbey. I vaguely remembered visiting it when I was around Maxi’s age and thought it might be quite interesting, so off we drove.

It was empty bar 3 or 4 other people. Maybe they’d heard we were visiting..? We started by touring the indoor visitor centre, whose displays and panels listed the Abbey’s historical timeline, described its links in the 1950s with the Stone of Destiny, and explained why the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 – signed at the Abbey – was so significant in Scottish history. Upstairs in the visitor centre is a model of the finished abbey and a wall of glass through which you can see the Abbey, presumably for when it’s too wet to go out and explore yourself.

Minxes being minxes, they needed to get outside and explore and touch and see and compare. So they did. With much glee. I’m still surprised when they enjoy visiting old crumbly ruins, but I think they each get something out of it: 6 year old Mini likes the freedom of being able to run around; Midi is fascinated by sculpture and carving; at nearly 10, Maxi’s imagination lets her picture what life was like hundreds of years ago, and she’s curious about the differences.

The red sandstone of Arbroath Abbey hasn’t stood up to the elements as well as that at Melrose Abbey, so there wasn’t so much stonework for Midi to study. However, the intact Abbot’s House had some exhibits and replicas inside that took all the hard work out of Maxi’s imaginings and brought the building to life.

We paused for quite a while trying out the very long echo of the sacristy. Even still, it didn’t take too long to explore every opening door and climb every accessible staircase, so decided to have a look further afield.

We’ve been to the town centre of Arbroath a few times, so decided to explore the walk along Seaton cliffs at the very end of the seafront esplanade before going home. It starts beside the public toilets and follows a tarmac path along the edge of the cliffs. It felt safe enough, but we didn’t venture too far – just as we started spotting the sand martins and were looking out for arches and stacks, Mini suddenly was very glad that the public toilets were so close. By the time we’d walked back, it really was time to go home. Perhaps we’ll finish the walk in the summer.

Monday Morning Holiday Blues – Not!

Monday 4 April: Day 3 of the Easter Holidays

After a very eventful weekend abandoning the tent and then making the most of it, you’d think we’d sleep in on Monday morning back at home, still on holiday. Well, we probably WOULD have done, had The Boss not set his alarm clock to his normal 0645hrs. Meh!

We didn’t unpack because we still harboured hopes of grabbing the little 3-man tent and heading off for a night or 2 camping locally. In the meantime, we spoke again to Kim at Waren Mills campsite, scene of our tent catastrophe, and the lady who tried so hard to help us out at the time. She did an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing and talking to other people on our behalf, out of the goodness of her heart. The end result is that our booking has been transferred entirely to another date. As we won’t be able to afford a replacement family tent anytime soon, she suggested we stay in one of their wigwams instead. Wow! I’ve never seriously considered glamping, but the prospect of being able to drive down to Northumberland after work on a Friday night, drop the sleeping bags in and get our heads down, and even have a kettle and fridge there, is just amazingly luxurious! We prefer to sleep in one big huddle anyway, so the one-big-bed approach is just perfect. Even better, we *will* get to explore that beautiful campsite and heavenly location after all – driving away on Saturday with the site and beach unexplored hurt so much.

So, I’ve gone from being distraught at losing lots of money with no holiday week to show for it, to now having a weekend in August to seriously look forward to. I absolutely cannot wait and The Boss and the minxes are very excited too. And all because someone at the campsite cares very much about how their customers feel. I’m looking forward to meeting her and saying thank you again in person.

On a high, then, we were inspired by the freezing cold rain and sleet outside to go swimming in our local pool. The minxes have swimming lessons there every week, and I’ve noticed finally (finally!) how independent they’ve become. Gone are my days of having to do absolutely everything for all 3 of them, and usually all at the same time. At worst, now, I just need to be on-hand to be an extra pair of hands juggling towels, wash-kit and clothes.

Cat in the Hat pink cat ring

Pink cat ring, from The Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr Seuss

I’ve not been swimming in over a year, so one 4-bladed razor head, a clogged drain and half a pound in hair later, and I was ready! My hair is currently bright red so I brought Midi’s fetching blue swim cap to avoid a Cat in the Hat pink bath ring around the pool. I looked like a blue baked bean. Still, I’m glad I wore it – after 15 minutes of fun, we were all ordered out of the little pool and told to shower with soap before going into the big pool. Someone had blown chunks and the vomit needed to be cleaned up. Poor soul and ewwww in equal measures!

Mini seriously impressed me. For the past 6 months I’ve not watched any of the girls swimming because of the timings of their lessons – I spend the entire time moving bags and kit from locker to locker and to and from each girl, and feeding them. Maxi goes straight to Cubs afterwards, too, so that’s a LOT of kit to juggle. Last time I saw Mini swim, she’d been moved back down from Level 3 swim lessons to Level 2 because she refused to get her face wet, even in the shower. So you can imagine my expression when I watched my baby girl happily doggy paddle on a swim-noodle by herself, happily chatting away to me through constant splashes and mouthfuls of water. What a girl! She even asked for help with her current terror: jumping into the pool herself. Channelling her tenacity for good – fantastic!

Midi has just moved from Level 4 to Level 5 (after around 2 years of trying hard); Maxi is still in Level 7. They happily rolled in the water, did handstands, showed their proud Daddy how many lengths they could swim, and generally had a brilliant time.

Me and The Boss? We got to bob around in the cool water, watching our offspring with pride. But the best bit? Getting out was an absolute breeze. Six solid years of weekly trauma shepherd’s crooking kids out of showers and ushering damp minxes around finally paid off. Have I got across to you yet how smug and satisfied that made me feel?! Crikey, we might even go swimming as a family again soon!

After swimming we did a quick and cheeky Lidl run for some savoury pastries from the in-store bakery, then a seriously big shop. The Boss and I finally accepted that the weather within a 4 hour drive of home was just not good enough for us to take little kids camping, so we had a home DVD evening, with homemade popcorn and Daddy’s super hotdogs (they’re super because they include a free onion-chopping and cooking lesson for the kids). Fun and free. Well, we’ve got to start saving those pennies for a replacement Vango next year.

Melrose on a Sunday Afternoon

Sunday 3 April: Day 2 of the Easter Holidays

grunmpy children

We no wan’ no steenkeeng treep out inna rain

We woke early on Sunday in the Musselburgh Premier Inn after a disastrous start to the Easter Holidays. I’m not sure whether The Boss or I actually slept much, with Mini punching and kicking and karate chopping through the night.

The very first thing we did was check the weather forecast. Rain. With extra rain on top. So we changed our plans yet again and hit the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast instead of heading straight out to explore locally. The service was cheerful and friendly, and the food was fine (apart from the sausages that were hot on the outside, stone cold and pink on the inside, and allegedly not under-cooked, but rather ‘it’s the food colouring’). The girls ate prodigious amounts of everything and we all waddled out to the car to explore the Scottish Borders a little bit before doing the Drive of Shame back home.

Butterfly Girl - day made

Butterfly Girl – day made

I’d have liked to have explored Musselburgh and Portobello at least a bit, but the forecast was for the fog and rain to hang around all day. It looked driest south-west of there, so we drove to Melrose.

“What’s in Melrose?” asked The Boss.

“Dunno. An abbey? Maybe?”, I replied, fountain of all knowledge as usual.

A 40 minute tootle through rolling countryside later and we got out into more drizzle. We broke out the waterproofs so we could properly stretch our legs without worrying about the rain getting heavier. Mini was delighted at spotting a shop called Butterfly. It was shut, like everything else in Melrose. I thought that the north of Scotland would observe Sunday closing and that the south would have more of an English attitude, but my experiences have definitely been the reverse! Never mind, Melrose’s main attraction was certainly open: its beautiful Abbey.

And we had such a brilliant time at Melrose Abbey that I’ve written it a post all of its own.

bulb bed at Harmony Garden MelroseEmerging into the sudden sunshine a few hours later, we decided to push the kids’ hunger levels a little more with a quick run through the small but beautiful Harmony Garden. The beds and walled gardens look like they’ll be incredible in the summer; the bulb lawn, crocuses and fritillaries made me feel very Spring-like.

Lunch! Get me to some lunch!

Lunch! Get me to some lunch!

Tired and hungry, we finally agreed to go seek some food. That was going to be interesting on a Sunday with everything shut! Luckily, I spotted a line of people coming from near a banner advertising The Abbey Mill, proclaiming that it sold woollen goods and had a coffee shop.

And what a find it was! The bottom floor sold touristy cashmere and wool clothes, rugs, scarves and so on; the entire top floor was a large coffee shop. We ordered a cream tea for 4 to be split 5 ways. To boost the spirits of the flagging minxes, we made a big deal out of letting them try some very milky, watered-down tea for the first and possibly last time ever. Properly hyped-up, they washed their hands and sat nicely until the staff swiftly brought a huge platter of goodies. Oh my! Colourful, tasty fresh salad; egg mayo and ham sandwiches, on both white and brown bread; 4 iced cupcakes; 4 enormous warm, freshly-baked fruit scones with strawberry jam and cream. The staff thoughtfully put the teabags by our cups so that we could control the strength of tea for the kids, brought some extra water, then stood well back in safety as the troughing commenced…

Within 20 minutes, all that was left was a small half-ring of onion, a single egg mayo sarnie and half a cupcake. It was absolutely delicious, completely filled us up, and at £6 a head was brilliant value for such high quality food. Midi laughed when I blushed at the praise meted out to the minxes for their good behaviour and pleasant table manners. I tell you, I basked in it, savouring every word. It might tide me over next time we’re slinking out on the Walk of Shame from another cafe on a different day.

We ambled over towards the River Tweed to the chain bridge. We walked over it just for the sheer hell of it, though poor rule-abiding Maxi got herself in a right state waiting for there to be less than 8 people on the bridge at any one time so she could walk over. We didn’t tarry too long on the other side – the path was one long dog poo obstacle course. So we walked back again in the direction of the town centre, via a bit of parachuting off a fallen tree, in search of a play park.

We found a fantastic and very busy playground past the rugby ground and over beside a busy caravan park. The minxes wore themselves out over a one hour thrash around. The bark chippings underfoot were very thick, the play equipment wonderfully varied, Midi made a new friend, and all 3 tried hard to wrench their arms out their sockets on the monkey bars especially.

Around 5pm it was time to call it quits and finally head for home. We paused at Leaderfoot Viaduct to have a good look around and for The Boss to boil a kettle for hot chocolate and coffee. We saw plenty of cyclists zoom down the cycle path from the viaduct and onto Drygrange bridge – maybe that’ll be us in a few years? – but the sheer number of dog poo deposits left on the grass verges, cobbles and paths around that area mean that I honestly can’t recommend it as a stop-off. Unless you’re wearing footwear that can be easily hosed down. It’s pretty disgusting. We’re talking 2 dog poos per A4 paper-sized area of grass. Bleurgh! So a quick coffee and back on the road.

The drive home over the Forth Road Bridge took maybe 4 hours of steady driving. The sun flirted with us, giving us beautiful views over Edinburgh. We finally got home in the darkness and fog and rain that’s been forecast to last until May. I can only hope the Met Office mean May 2016…

Melrose Abbey

3 stoogesSo, we unexpectedly arrived at 900 year old Melrose Abbey, all ready to spend an hour or so running around the grounds in the drizzle.

There was an entrance fee. Of course there was. But the friendly and knowledgeable David explained that if we were likely to visit 3 or 4 Historic Scotland sites in a year, then we’d be better off with an annual ticket. And best of all, paying by monthly direct debit would cost the same overall as paying in one installment, and would mean paying less today than a one-off ticket. A quick look at the list of Historic Scotland sites convinced us both that we’d be visiting an awful lot more than 3 or 4 sites this year – perfect!

heart of Robert the Bruce Melrose Abbey

Heart of Robert the Bruce – perhaps

Tooled up with a free audio guide for Midi, a quiz-sheet for Maxi, and undivided parental attention for Mini, off we set to learn more about the monks who’d set up and lived in the abbey. Mini was obviously listening to me explain who Robert The Bruce was and why his heart was allegedly interred here – she merrily explained who King Robert was later when we visited Arbroath Abbey and talked about how he’d organised the writing of the Declaration of Arbroath.

3 little gargoyles on the south wall

3 little gargoyles on the south wall

I got distracted by the beautiful and still-intricate stonework. I liked the crouching demon and bagpipe-playing pig gargoyles best, and helped Mini spot the telltale zigzags on walls where old staircases used to be.

We 4 eldest all trekked to the top of a spiral stairwell to the very top of the abbey. Such a beautiful view! But I made the mistake of looking over the barrier, down a 25m sheer drop to the ground. I instantly lost my ability to focus, so trotted down the stairs to rescue a scared Mini and take her to ground level. Meanwhile Maxi and Midi impersonated another gargoyle very well. I’m glad that The Boss’s (far fitter) thighs burned as much as mine on the return to ground level. Made me feel like less of a loser.

Maxi reckons this must be a pirate's grave, lol

Maxi reckons this must be a pirate’s grave, lol

After answering all the questions on Maxi’s sheet, reading all the excellent information boards and counting stone-mason marks, we walked over the medieval drains to the 16th century Commendator’s house, which is now a museum. Midi tried on one of the monk habits and looked for all the world like a cream-coloured ghost. The girls spent some time colouring-in and having their imaginations fired by the little dolls while The Boss and I looked at the stones and exhibits and sniggered like teenagers at the unearthed piss pots.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the visit as thoroughly as I did; it was worth making the journey (had we not found ourselves there by accident). The rest of our day in Melrose was just as fabulous.

Camp Fail

Saturday 2 April: Day 1 of the Easter Holidays

The Boss and I had spent since Friday lunch-time packing, stuffing and loading and finally shoe-horned the kids into the car just before midday Saturday. One last check of the long, long list and off we set for 6 days camping in Northumberland! We’ve never been there and were looking forward to exploring it and hopefully enjoying the driest and mildest weather around. Except us being us, it never quite happens like that, does it…?

Princess Daffodil

Princess Daffodil

We arrived at the campsite, Waren Mill, around 4.30pm. The rain had stopped for a little bit but the fog hung in curtains over the sea, so undistracted by the hopefully gorgeous views, we got our pitch allocation, drove round to the wonderfully empty field, released the delighted and squealing minxes into their natural habitat, and quickly set to work erecting the behemoth tent (Vango Maritsa 500).

The little puddle in the bottom of the tent bag was a bit out of place, but as we unfurled the tent and poles and pegs, everything seemed fine: well, it had started to rain again. Like a well-oiled machine, The Boss and I took opposing sides and slotted the heavy poles into place. A bit of heaving and juggling and wishing we’d another 3 pairs of hands to hoist it (as yet too short and not strong enough to meaningfully help), and the tent was up. Hooray! Just as the rain really started to come down. We ordered the girls away from their daisy chains and daffodil crown-making and temporarily into the car while we painstakingly pegged out the tent, re-centred it on the placement as instructed, untied and retied the guy-lines, pegged them, meticulously opened and pegged the vents… Och, you get the picture. We know from long experience that time spent at the beginning getting it right pays dividends when the heavens open in the middle of the night. As forecast throughout the week ahead. Along with the hovering-just-above-zero temperatures.

As the rain decided to go from steady to heavy, I grabbed the tent inners and nipped inside to get them hooked up so that we could quickly all loll around our lovely, light, airy tent. The zip into the tent was jammed. I tugged. I teased. I yanked. I pulled steadily. I threatened. I shouted. I yelled. I growled. Nothing. I looked more closely: the zip seemed to be gummed up with what looked like wet silvery salt. Oh-oh…

I called The Boss over for reinforcements / moral support / possibility of blaming him. He tried everything I had (except for the shouting – he doesn’t really do Drama Queen). We remembered the tent has 2 other entrances, so he unpegged one and tried to unzip that. No go. With a “grrrrrRRRRR!” he finally managed to open it. I ran round, shielding the inners from the rain with my wet head and tumbled inside.

Dear goodness, the place stank! And the floor was wet. Very wet. This didn’t bode well at all. I called for the cloth we’d packed to mop up condensation in the morning. It just smeared the water around. I considered sacrificing a towel. The Boss came back with a penknife, so we left the puddles and prioritised taking turns to chip away the salt around the zip of the front door from either side. Chip, chip, chip, pull. Chip, chip, tug. Chip, yank. Like a pair of archaeologists we painstakingly dug out the zip. Finally, finally, we got it to open! We brushed off all the detritus and zipped back and forth, back and forth, freeing the teeth. It worked. Ish. Hooray! Right, now to investigate the water. And the smell.

Well, the smell was easy – every single seam was mouldy. All the once-clear windows were now entirely opaque. The zips at all the windows were jammed shut with similar powdery gunk to the front door zip. Ew!!! Maybe if the rain stopped and the wind started up, we could air the tent…? I looked at the rear ‘rib’ that the bedroom inners hook onto. Sodden. How could I get that dry? No new drips on the floor – good, at least it’s not leaking. Hopefully. I looked at the central ‘tower’ that the inners also hook onto and where we store our clothes in. Mouldy, wet through and actually disintegrating. Was I really going to connect the bedroom inners to this? Was I really going to sleep in here? Were we really going to subject our little kids to this?

I called The Boss indoors for an emergency conference. His wee face fell as he looked around: I didn’t need to explain. He suddenly frowned at me and asked if I was wheezing. Yes, my chest did feel very tight, but was that because I wanted to cry…? We looked again at the main sticking zip. Still sticking. I worded what we were both thinking: “What if we need to get out the tent tonight in a hurry and the zip sticks? That’s so dangerous.” We knew what we had to do, but decided to sit in the car with the over-excited minxes and discuss it in front of them, reluctant to actually make the final decision.

Maxi showing her happiness not 20 minutes before

Maxi showing her happiness not 20 minutes before

In 100% humidity, it wouldn’t dry out. We couldn’t sleep there overnight. We probably couldn’t sleep there ever again. We couldn’t clean it and we couldn’t replace the zips. And not being able to get out was too unsafe. We’d have to junk the tent and abandon the camping holiday.

“Can we salvage anything?” I asked The Boss, over the sound of 3 bitterly disappointed children howling. “Guylines? Tent poles? Inners? Pegs?”

“Just the pegs. The unbent ones”, he said sadly.

Right. No time for hysterics. It was already after 6.30pm (why, oh why, oh why could we not have discovered this before we’d spent 90 minutes setting the tent up?!). We were undoubtedly not the first campers this had ever happened to. Perhaps the campsite staff could suggest a cunning plan while we were still reeling in shock? The Boss called the Emergency Warden, who suggested staying in one of their wigwams or caravans overnight and sorting ourselves out in the morning. Brilliant! She promised to call back with the details.

Goodbye lovely tent

Goodbye lovely tent

In the meantime, The Boss and I set to work dismantling the tent and taking it to the skip. The girls cried and hugged each other. I felt a terrible heart-pang myself, remembering some of the fantastic holidays we’d spent in it: camping in the garden and horrifying the neighbours with the kids’ screaming and shrieking; our first family-of-5 camping trips; the camping that kept our family together 2.5 years ago (no-one was coping with The Boss commuting at weekends with his new job, so we spent the summer holidays camping at the campsite closest to his work).

Had it really been 2.5 years since we’d last used The Behemoth? We’d camped lots since. Right enough, we’d used the little 3-man tent instead each time. The Boss sheepishly admitted that he vaguely remembered putting the big tent away with a wet groundsheet that last time and waiting in vain for a dry day to put the tent out in the garden and dry it off properly. Normally I’d have screamed like a banshee at him, but the error was 3 years ago. Could I have promised back then to sort it out instead? A dim memory stirred in me, too. We were probably equally culpable. Why had we not got the tent out and aired and checked it before booking the trip? We normally would have. Oh yes – because it’s barely stopped raining since last August. Meh. How would we ever be able to afford to replace this? We said goodbye and thank you to the tent as we stuffed it in the skip.

unhappy kidsThe Warden called back as we sat in the car sheltering from the rain. Unfortunately they were fully booked. She was ready with details of how to get to the nearest Argos and outdoor kit shop and their closing times so we could nip off and buy an emergency tent. We thought about it as a family. Maxi immediately said that it would be daft to buy a little tent when we already had a 3-man one at home. I pointed out that a cheap tent wouldn’t cope with the forecast daily rain over the next week. Midi asked whether we’d get any money back at all. The Boss said no, it wasn’t their fault at all and they were only being helpful because they were kind people – we’d lost our money. Mini cried anew over her forgotten giraffe stuffed toy.

Damn. No tent. Bad weather. Upset family. I calmed the kids down and explained that things in life didn’t always go the way we’d planned. We could either sit and be miserable about it forever, or we could choose to make the most of it. The Boss and I agreed that we should eat first, discuss it all over dinner, then make a move, whatever that move was. The campsite had a restaurant on-site that we’d planned to eat at on the first evening anyway, so we did just that.

Over the next hour, we sat waiting on dinner, fielding ideas. Mini suggested that we go home that night to get Giraffe. We agreed that would be the most sensible and cheapest thing to do. But we didn’t want to. And the longer dinner took to arrive (the restaurant was very busy), the less likely we’d be able to make the 4 hour drive – The Boss and I were exhausted. Midi suggested that we stay in a hotel overnight then spend tomorrow having fun somewhere and going home tomorrow night. Aha, now that’s more likely! Then we could stop stressing about getting home at 1am. But we only had our budgeted spending money left. We sat watching the painfully slow wi-fi load pages onto The Boss’s phone every 4 – 12 minutes (yes, I timed it).

LateRooms turned up nothing. The problem of having 3 children and not being able to afford 2 hotel rooms! We called the nearest Premier Inn. No, they absolutely would not let us share one room. Please? No. Pretty please? No. We tried a few other websites. Nothing. The phone signal waxed and waned and the wi-fi ground to a halt as the restaurant got busier.

We ate our fish and chip dinner and decided to set off before it got any later (it was 8pm) and just hope for the best. We let the Warden know we were leaving and thanked her profusely for trying so hard to help us out. As we approached the A1, The Boss’s phone picked up 3G signal, so he checked out the Edinburgh Premier Inns. He phoned the Musselburgh one direct. The lady on the other end said the same as her colleague in the more southerly hotel: that we couldn’t share, and that she only had one room left anyway. Voice cracking, The Boss explained that we were actually quite desperate, and told her our tale of woe. The lady sympathised. She talked to her boss. She relented and said she’d do her very best to get the room ready for the 5 of us before we arrived.

An hour and a half later, after a slow and difficult drive through thick haar fog, we arrived looking like red-eyed survivors from the rainforest. The lovely receptionist made us feel safe and welcome and commiserated with our bad luck. She even apologised that Mini would have to share with one of us. We didn’t care – we had a place to sleep that didn’t drip, creep, splosh,smell or give us asthma!

Don't care where you lot are sleeping - this is MY big bed!

Don’t care where you lot are sleeping – this is MY big bed!

Well, I say sleep – the kids slept well. Mini slept like a whirling dervish. Occasionally she’d punch me in the kidneys, slap The Boss, kick me in the stomach, rouse and demand that she be handed Midi’s Heffalump to cuddle, then kick the covers off and snore and splutter in The Boss’s ear. The Boss and I just clung to the edges of the bed either side of Mini and felt thankful for a room!

So, Pop Kids, what have we learned from this sorry tale?

  1. Always, always, always dry your tent. Somehow. Find a way. Just do it. Don’t ever leave it for 3 years.
  2. Always get your tent out to check it before you set off on holiday. Even better, get it out and check it before you pay for your booking.
  3. Always have a back-up plan; a proper if-all-else-fails plan. That doesn’t involve driving through the night in haar fog when you’re tired.
  4. Involve the kids when you have to make tough and upsetting decisions – they’ll feel less helpless and will burst with pride if you use one of ‘their’ (cleverly-planted and set-up) ideas.
  5. Bar one single person, everyone we asked for help and advice gave us it gladly. It was humbling and heart-warming. And I’ll tell you just how brilliant the kind Waren Mill Warden was in another post…