Archive for July, 2010

Catford to Watford – only one letter but worlds apart

July 31, 2010 5 comments

This time last year we lived in Catford, south east London. Given that Jules had lived in that house for 20 years, I’d been there for 10, and it was plenty big enough to bring up a whole parade of children in, there’s been a fair amount of curiosity about why we moved house, and how on earth we decided on Watford, of all places. We’re 52 miles away from where we were, at the total opposite side of London and it’s definitely made it more difficult to see the friends we left behind – but believe me, there were a raft of very good reasons.

Firstly, our daughter Eleanor is now two, and even last summer we were (or rather I was) thinking about the future in terms of where we wanted to bring her up, and how we were going to deal with London’s famous supply/demand issues with decent state schools.

It may seem slightly forward to be worrying about schools before she’d even turned two, but during the previous couple of years I had been occasionally checking into our catchment area and what the future might look like, and it sent shivers down my spine. Seriously.

Most local primary schools were relatively OK, and this wasn’t the issue – my worry about schools is more about secondary level. Hormones can turn any normal teenager into a sullen freak, so they really need as much help as they can get to not go off the rails if at all possible (or just maintain it to slightly off the rails and keeping a vague hold on their education.) On checking the Ofsted website I found out two things:

1) The nearest excellent state secondary school was Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross. 3rd best 16+ exam results in London – OK, sounds good. We also seemed to be in the official catchment area, so we could be looking good ……. or then again it could have

“the distinction of being the most over-subscribed state school in the country, with on average 2,500 applications for its annual intake of approximately 200 year 7 students

source: Wikipedia


2) Our closest secondary, Catford Girls School (now mixed sex, and also renamed after what the system calls “Special Measures” which sounds ominous enough) left a lot to be desired.
To give some context, on average 47% of state school leavers achieve 5+ A-Cs at GCSE level.
Catford school managed 19%. 19%!

Call me judgemental (I was the last year of O-levels after all), but I don’t see GCSEs as being the most stretching of exams, so in my book that means 81% of the schools’ 16 year olds are near functionally illiterate. Puberty is hard enough without dealing with a school that’s struggling, for whatever reason, and yes, I know that I am contributing to the unfair situation by emulating middle class flight and leaving the poor sods who don’t have the choice to suffer. In all conscience I just can’t risk my daughter’s future to make a stand for the ideal of a truly socially representative comprehensive system.

[Note: If you’re wondering how to get information on local schools yourself, I use Upmystreet, you just put in your postcode, it tells you what the neighbourhood’s, like, schools, your local shops etc – even whether you’re likely to be Guardian reader and own shares (From Mosaic and ACORN data – the marketers amongst you will recognise this, but for those who don’t – yes, big brother knows, or assumes a lot about you and your consumption habits – sorry!).]

So, the choice was – go private or move house to try to be closer to a good secondary school.

Now I’m a state school girl and am proud of it. We definitely had the view growing up that only thick people needed to pay for school (probably because the only person I knew who left our middle school to go to Leeds Girls High wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box). It’s been a painful realisation that it’s totally different in London, so I’ve had to be more open minded about the concept of private schooling, whilst still underneath being thoroughly uncomfortable with Eleanor potentially experiencing an education that ensures she never meets a poor person.

Massively aware that I sound like a pompous rich bitch for saying all this – I have a full appreciation of how spawny we are to even be able to consider it. In case there’s any suspicion that this was ever thus, it wasn’t. I was the first member of my family to ever stay on at school for A-levels, never mind get a degree, so we are far from being the tabloid’s hated self-perpetuating middle classes.

The reality was that it was probably going to cost us an extra £1,000 a month on mortgage or school fees one way or the other, so with a bit of pressure from me (I’m definitely reverting to suburban type now I’m a mum) we plumped for moving house. That way we would *all* get the benefit of a nicer area, rather than Eleanor being the only kid from our street at that school/feeling embarrassed to bring her friends home.

So where on earth to live? When we first had Eleanor we had a core of friends who lived close by, including my brother Lee and sister-in-law Nic (with handy nephew only two months older than Eleanor) but this local gang was gradually reducing in size as people moved away/made plans to do so for similar reasons as us, so we embarked on researching a pretty wide potential area, with the following criteria:

1) Commuting distance to central London, and easy access to train station.
The plan was to have a train journey of 30 mins or less, and to be within 10 mins walk/drive of the station so that the door to door journey would be an hour-ish. This is dictated not by our desire to sleep in, but the fact that most nurseries/childminders open around 7.30am and close by 6.30pm at the latest, so the drop off/pick up rush was going to be a factor even with a relatively short commute.

2) Within the catchment area of good/excellent secondary school that we had a sporting chance of getting into.
There are clearly lots of decent schools out there, but judging by the over-subscription rates of most within the inner London boroughs, it seemed you would have to be practically next door in order to be guaranteed a place.

3) Within budget.
We are very lucky in that we had a lot of equity in our Catford house, so were able to stretch a lot further than many people at this stage in their lives, but in usual London style, it was looking like the going rate for a family sized house near a decent school was getting on for £750,000!!. This was *way* more than anyone without some independent means/help/a silly salary could ever expect, so we clearly had to find another solution.

Schools, commute and money- we were in competition with every other family with London commuter parents, and without an unlimited budget- No pressure then 🙂

Priority 1 – schools.
Since this is what had kicked off the whole search, this was the bit we had to get right. You can find out about your local schools in various ways (Dept for Children, schools & families, Oftsed) but if you don’t have a specific search area then something like the Good Schools Guide is the best bet. Predominantly about independent schools, it does cover good state schools also, and you can do a wider county-level search to give you a general idea of where to look. £35 for a year’s access, but I signed up for a month online at £9.99. Bargain.

I searched across all London boroughs, plus the Home Counties, for good secondary schools. There were about 17, as I remember, so then began the process of checking each of these for catchment area, and how over-subscribed they were. Some were just pointless even looking at – The Tiffin School in Kingston, for instance (10:1 applications to places ratio).

While I was at it, I made a point of checking that the nearest primary schools were also good or excellent, and the shortlist began to take shape.

This I then cross referenced with house prices (aaargh). The shortlist got ever smaller.. Being near to a decent school obviously impacts house prices (estimates are from 5 to 15% of the value, depending on the area), and since we were looking for a house to live in for the next 20 years (otherwise why bother with the secondary school yet?) we were aiming for a nice big pad. 4 bed detached, of preference – greedy yes, but we thought we may as well go all out as we wanted to stay put – this was to be our forever house – or as near as possible to it.

Where I grew up (in a relatively nice bit of Leeds) I had a lot of the same friends throughout my school career, and a couple of them are very close friends still, so I was hoping for a house that would see us through Eleanor’s entire school years and possibly beyond. I’ve also come to appreciate the benefits of nice neighbours who say hello and feed your cat when you’re away on holiday.

So, the dwindling shortlist of where we could afford was further cross checked for train times, and after all of this, there remained two possibilities at the opposite sides of London- Orpington in Kent (south east) and Watford, Hertfordshire (north west).

Both have lots in common in terms of being commuter towns and close to the M25, and the thing that probably kept them both vaguely within financial reach was the fact that the schools involved were partially selective – which means that there wasn’t a total guarantee of your child getting in no matter how rich you were.

Orpington was much closer to where we lived, being a few miles further south east of London- and is coincidentally where Jules grew up, but his family no longer lived anywhere close, and in fact were now clustered around Cheltenham, around 100 miles west.

Add to this the fact that my extended family were still in Leeds (north, for anyone who didn’t already know that); my dad by now lived in Chesham, Buckinghamshire (north west, 20 mins from Watford) and Lee was planning to move away from south east London as soon as finances allowed, the decision became a lot easier.

So Watford it was. It took all sorts of further effort to choose and find the best area, find the house and then compete to get our offer accepted (7 offers in one day, of which at least 2 were over the asking price – what housing bust?) but we did it, we’re in, and it’s everything we hoped for.

I just hope Eleanor doesn’t spend her teenage years saying it’s boring and she wishes she lived somewhere more urban and cool. 😉


How dare you get in my way, you breeder!

July 27, 2010 2 comments

I’ve just read an article by Jenny Colgan on the Guardian website and I don’t know whether to shout or cry.

Phil and Teds Pushchair

The Ubiquitous Phil and Teds

The basic premise of the article is that the author is glad that 3 wheeled pushchairs are apparently going out of fashion, and she launches into a diatribe about how annoying they are – taking up room on the pavement; and assuming everyone who owns one is a selfish celebrity fad-obsessed moron.

Now I’m not mad keen on 3 wheelers myself (I find 4 wheelers easier to get up & down kerbs, but that’s me – my trips are mainly urban – I compromised with a Quinny Buzz 4 which has nice big tyres but 4 wheels), but I find the aggressive tone totally unnecessary and bullying.

Quite apart from the fact that mums get so much gyp for *any* decision they make (slings make them clingy, forward facing pushchairs damage their communication skills) Jenny has clearly not considered any of the reasons why a mum would buy a 3 wheeler – expensive or not.

The Phil & Teds shown in the article is the most popular for parents with two kids for good reason – the fact that it’s slimmer than a side-by-side double buggy (which I’m sure would attract her ire if they ever got in the way too, heaven forbid that someone may dare to have *twins*!!). Even if you haven’t tried it yourself – just imagine negotiating doorways and shop aisles with a double buggy. Sounds hard? You bet.

Pneumatic tyres (what? progress?) are also a joy over bumpy roads/terrain compared to the solid ones found on most umbrella fold pushchairs, both for the pusher and pushee. A soundly sleeping baby is preferable to all of us than a crying one – or maybe Jenny sadistically wants them to be upset and not able to sleep so that she has something else to bully parents about if it happens in public?

To me this article is an example of how it seems perfectly socially acceptable to be anti-kids/parents (How dare you get in my way, you breeder, you?), rather than consider that we’re also tax paying, economically active people going through a logistically, financially and emotionally difficult part of our lives. A little consideration, nay empathy, wouldn’t go amiss. Yes we chose to have kids, but eventually 80% of us do, so think before you get on your “brought it on yourself” high horse – you may eat your words one day.

Since a) we’ve all been kids and b) most of us have them, it’s counter-intuitive to assume that being child-free is the norm and therefore we all ought to sod off to our toddler groups and keep out of the way. No-one’s saying we should be anti-child-free either, but if something is suitable/easy for parents and pushchairs it a) tends to make it disabled friendly, which is surely a bonus and b) doesn’t preclude the use by those without kids, so surely kid-friendly should be the norm, rather than the exception?

What I’m asking for is a little slack, we are not evil, or selfish, or any different to those without kids, through choice or not.

If we’re all more than willing to make allowances on the pavement for someone in a wheelchair due to a skiing accident (which is a lifestyle choice), then why whinge about a pushchair (having kids is a much more common lifestyle choice)?

For those who haven’t thought about it, or have tutted in the past – please remember, it’s much easier for you to move over a little bit than it is for them, especially if you’re standing right in the middle of the only slanted part of the kerb. They’re not being rude on purpose, and may also be operating on 3 hours sleep a night.

Have a heart.

Random Acts of Kindness Part 2

July 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Those of you who know me, and know the random adventures I spent my youth getting into won’t be surprised to know that I have had several bizarre experiences during which I’ve been the lucky recipient of amazing help from other people, which have both made enormous differences to my life at the time, and also served to confirm my overwhelming faith in the basic goodness of other people.

I like thinking well of other people, it makes me smile, and often makes them smile too when they realise that it’s absolutely heartfelt.

I’ve already told the story about one amazingly kind lady I met on a long train ride in the US. The second example that springs to mind is during a weekend trip with one of my oldest friends Caroline to the Champagne region of northern France. With visions of shopping, tasting the eponymous drink and catching up on the gossip, we planned to drive to Dover, catch the mid afternoon ferry to Calais, drive the 2.5 hours to Rheims and be in our room by the evening, ready for a hard day of fizz tasting the next day.

We were pretty confident things would go smoothly as I can speak conversational French pretty well, I’d booked a hotel in the centre of Rheims and told them about our arrival time, I’d done plenty of driving on the right hand side of the road on previous holidays, and it was basically one motorway, the A26, from Calais to Rheims – so the most serious consideration to worry about were the ratings of the dozens of Champagne houses within a few miles of our hotel, and how we were going to decide which ones to visit.

So off we drove, and for the sharper readers amongst you, the only clue to the later farce would be this part of the constant conversation between myself and Caroline not long after we set off;

Me: “We’ve got about a quarter of a tank of petrol, but we can fill up in France, it’s cheaper on the other side of the channel.”

If this was a B movie at this point you’d expect an ominous musical interlude and a close up of the offending petrol gauge to ensure you hadn’t missed it.

Needless to say, for the first and only time in my life, I forgot to stop for petrol, and we carried merrily on, chatting away.

It was late autumn, as I remember, so it was getting dark by the time I finally had a stroke of memory and checked the petrol gauge.

deer crossing sign Already practically running on fumes, the only thing for it seemed to be to come off the motorway at the very next exit, to see if there was a town/village we could fill up in. Sadly the next exit turned out to be a filter onto the A29 west to Amiens, with no more exits to be seen, huge pine forests pressing in from both sides and deer crossing signs at regular intervals. Hardly encouraging when we were looking for signs of nearby civilisation.

Yes, we ran out of petrol. It was dark. There were barely any other cars and we were more than a little worried about the next steps. Without many options on offer, we thought we may as well walk to see what we could find. Some rummaging in the boot revealed my trusty camping torch, and we wrapped ourselves up for a trudge to the nearest emergency phone, presuming we’d be able to call *someone* to come and bring us petrol, or if it was closer, find a petrol station where we could buy a canister and enough petrol to get us back there to fill up properly. This was, I may add, before the days of iPhones and 3G and the instant ability to see the closest place that sold marmite or wedding hats or whatever necessity of which you suddenly found yourself in urgent need.

Spookily within about 30 seconds of starting to walk, a lone car passed us, slowed down and pulled up not far ahead of us. Looking at each other we figured it was either a rapist or a saviour, and we’d just have to be careful to not get in the car and trust our instincts. A solo male driver, looking like he was aged about 50,, with a big smile on his face didn’t seem like a safe option, until he explained that he was having a conversation on the handsfree mobile phone to his wife at the same time, and it had been her who had insisted that he stopped to see if we needed help. She was still on the line as we got into the car, and we haltingly explained what had happened, and they described their teenage daughter who they had nightmares of the same thing happening to one day.

He drove us to the next service station, about 15km away, where we thanked him effusively, bought him a coffee, offered him petrol money (which he refused, insulted). We thanked our lucky stars too, bought a canister and filled it with petrol.

The poor chap had almost made a clean getaway when he heard our conversation with the petrol station staff.

Us: Can we order a cab please to take us back to our car

Them: You won’t get a cab out here, we’re miles from anywhere

He turned around, slowly, came back to us, smiled and offered to take us back to our car. We couldn’t quite believe our luck. Up until this point he had done us a massive favour by picking us up, but as the service station was still at least another 15 km from the next junction west where we could turn east again; he was offering to drive us a further 15km towards his own destination, then turn around, double back 30km to the junction where we had originally joined the A29 at St Quentin, and then back to our car.

A 60km detour for people he had never met before, who had got into this situation by sheer stupidity, not bad fortune.

He was true to his word – sure enough he took us all the way back to car, wished us well and carried on his original journey back from a working visit selling double insulated cardboard boxes for use in Champagne houses. They needed stronger walls due to the extra pressure from the second fermentation, he explained – so we even got a bit of early inside knowledge about the places we were to visit. We stayed in a hotel in Amiens that night instead – shattered and relieved, and had a wonderful weekend after all, courtesy of Tattinger et al.

Calais to Rheims map

Our route (north to south) with minor detour

Trying to explain the concept of a Knight in Shining Armour to him was quite difficult without specific French vocabulary, but I think he got the message. I sent flowers to the work address on his business card after we got back, but I don’t think we went even part of the way to repaying such an enormous favour.

Categories: travel Tags: , , , ,

Letter to myself at 16

July 22, 2010 6 comments
Mel aged 16, astride a pantomime horse

Me aged 16, astride a pantomime horse on school non-uniform day

Having come across a few mentions of what you’d say to your younger self – from Ellyn Spraggins (only the Americans have names like this and don’t have to laugh when they say them) to a blog post by a friend of mine who’s now a Conservative politician (of all things!) James Cleverly, and it got me thinking about what I’d say to myself at 16 if I had the glorious chance of benefiting from hindsight.

It is a bit narcissistic and self indulgent of course, but quite therapeutic.

What would you write?

Dear Mel

Firstly, stop obsessing with that boy at school. Yes one day you’ll snog him, but it won’t lead to everlasting joy and you’ll waste far too much of your time thinking about him that just isn’t worth it (and miss spending time with a couple of really nice potential boyfriends as a result).

Secondly, you are NOT fat. You are curvy, yes, and your boobs are far too big which makes you feel self conscious (and believe it or not, other people jealous) but if you carry on sticking your fingers down your throat, yo-yo dieting and being needlessly worried about what you look like doing exercise, you’ll create such an unhealthy attitude to food and activity that it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Go back to dancing lessons, treat food as fuel and try not to think about it so much.

Despite this you are about to enter the time of your life when you are at your most popular with the opposite sex. Enjoy it, but don’t shag them all: crap sex really isn’t worth it.

I almost don’t want to tell you in advance, but I think it may help to be prepared for the fact that in two years mum will leave dad for someone she meets at Open University. It’ll be devastating at the time, and you’ll feel like the carpet’s been pulled out from under your feet, but I promise that it will get better over time. Once you have experienced a long term relationship yourself you’ll understand how rarely decisions are as black and white as they may seem at first. You will also eventually realise that 20 years of marriage is still a success, and be glad that your formative years were all spent within a lovely bubble of security.

While you’re at University (which you will *love*) you need to make a decision about where you want your future to go – is it music, or is it marketing. Whichever one you choose, you need to put everything into it, instead of “making do” at both, in case singing doesn’t work out and you have to have a profession to fall back on.

I now know that the people who do best financially at anything are the ones who love it, and would do it anyway for free. If you really want to sing for a living, then go for it – go to piano or guitar lessons so you can accompany yourself, learn how to read and write music, and give it a proper shot. Glorified karaoke is *not* particularly creatively satisfying, and you may wish you’d given it your all so at least you would have known what would have happened – even if you didn’t succeed.

For Pete’s sake, PLEASE do some revision before your finals.

You will never move back to Leeds, but you’ll be glad you’re a Yorkshire girl. You will end up living in London, finally married to a man who you knew immediately was the right one, and eventually with a daughter who you fall head over heels with. In the meantime don’t get down on yourself about not finding the right bloke – he is there, and you will one day gladly forget what it was like to be out there looking.

You will also still be very close to many of the friends that you have right now – with a few notable lovely additions. Treasure them, they will see you through a lot.

You will reach a place where you’re happy to not be rich and famous; your family and friends will give you a massive amount of joy and love, and the only things you’ll regret are the things you didn’t do.

So do them.

Recession? Sorted.

July 20, 2010 2 comments

If I said that I could, in one fell swoop

  • improve work/life balance for those people who’d like it
  • reduce congestion at rush hour
  • prevent layoffs
  • decrease the need for dependents to be farmed out to childcare/old people’s homes
  • increase staff loyalty & reduce churn
  • make it easier to retain experienced staff nearing retirement age

would you be interested in finding out how?

The answer is simple – flexible working, offered to all – men and women, parents or not, at all ages.

I know I’m biased, due to having a toddler, and also about to be made redundant due to financial issues, but I do think if we reconsider the 9-6 commuter presentee-ism rat race there are many benefits that people would appreciate, and would often be more than happy to sacrifice a portion of their salary for.

Many people during the recession have been offered the chance of /coerced into working shorter hours in order to save the company money – often on the premise that this is a way to retain the jobs’ existence. I’d be really interested to hear if this has been met with enthusiasm where it’s been offered. I know that when I returned after maternity leave on 3 days a week, then increased to 4 days a week, many people – not just fellow parents were envious of this flexibility.

Add to this the man hours lost to rush hour traffic, the difficulty in juggling school opening times and holidays, the fact that many jobs can be done sitting at a computer almost anywhere rather than having to be in an office in an urban centre, and there are clear reasons that it should be considered, not just for parents (yes, of both sexes) but for all employed people.

Many people have outside interests, education, social commitments, transport issues that would make working a full 40 hour week difficult or impossible, or frankly – just not worth the constant juggling. If we’re all going to have to work till we’re 70 anyway then why not make as much of it bearable as you can, and prevent ourselves burning out.

I’d be mad to not see the difficulties of course – there would need to be a massive shift in the lack of trust and presentee-ism attitude amongst some employers, that assumes that staff are shirking if they’re not under a watchful eye. Also the logistics of ensuring coverage for clients/critical issues may be hard, but no harder than organising the rota of a supermarket with a few hundred staff with differing hours, surely? A bit of give and take can solve most problems I’m sure.

Some jobs require face to face meetings, and for staff to be contactable at expected hours – all this is possible within a flexible framework; and even jobs that would be difficult to fulfill in a short week can be shared between more than one person, with the understanding that they work together to make sure the job is done, and flex around each others’ needs if necessary.

Most worries about staff performance can surely be addressed with a combination of performance/delivery based targets and guidelines; and management who are willing to delegate responsibility to the employee themselves to get the job done, within a reasonable limit.

Please let me know if you’ve come across this in your workplace – I’m intrigued to see if I’m being over-optimistic (which I am wont to be) or not.

Random acts of kindness part 1

July 14, 2010 3 comments

I’m a great believer in the fundamental goodness of most people, under most circumstances. I know the more inflammatory sectors of the media will sell zillions more copies when covering stories about people taking part in seemingly amoral acts, but I for one am glad that we do get so worried about them, because that simple reaction means that they remain outside the imagination of most people and therefore are not accepted as the norm.

I am also a humanist, and think that having a moral compass does not require the input of any imaginary being to reward or punish, but that’s another story entirely. I have had many experiences of people going beyond any call of duty or pity to help me out, of which two bear the telling.

The first was in the summer of 1991. I was in my summer break from university, and for some unknown reason decided that selling books door-to-door, commission only in the States was a good way of passing the time. There were plenty of adventures during that summer in Michigan, but this particular story starts on my journey home, which involved a 24 hour+ train journey from Jackson, Michigan to Newark, New Jersey, via Detroit, Toledo, and eventually New York City. I was skint (as seemed par for the course during uni, and for that matter for the next 6 years of working), so had bought my train ticket, but had around $20 left to my name, to last me for the entire journey, and get me from Manhattan to Newark airport, and give me walking around money until I got to Caroline’s student house in Hounslow (handy for Heathrow, phew).

Throughout my time in the States that summer I had been either awed or bemused by the American’s famous welcoming nature, and the extra special treatment for the Brits. The further from the coasts you went, the more surprised, hospitable and truly interested people were to find you were from England. It’s arrogant to jump on the anti-American bandwagon and sneer that the fascination stems from the fact that few Americans travel abroad – given the vast size and geographical diversity of the US compared to any single country within Europe; I’m pretty sure that if we didn’t need a passport to travel within Europe the number of British citizens holding passports would fall from the current 80% to nearer the American’s 30%. Nevertheless, I did have to deal with various nonsense questions like “How do you speak such good English?” and “So, is Disney World Paris in England?”, so there were unflattering moments of my smug self satisfaction amongst the general welcome from everyone else.

On this occasion the lady I sat next to for the majority of the train journey was gratifyingly interested in everything I had to say, an unashamed Anglophile and even understood British English slang (must have picked it up from Monty Python, as the only English things on the telly at the time seemed to be either our favourite Oxbridge boys and Benny Hill). During the journey we swapped life stories and she told me about her teenage boys, and her husband with a huge postcard collection, who was meeting her at New York to drive her to their upstate home.

During the journey it became obvious to her that I was little prepared for the logistics of getting from Manhattan to Newark, on the now considerably less than $20 that I had on me. Now it seems there’s a spanking new monorail that would get me there no problem, but at the time it seemed like the public transport options were limited, and so I just threw in the thought that “Maybe I’d hitch”. The poor woman  practically hyperventilated at this and after shooing me along the platform when we finally arrived, whispered in her husbands’s ear, then turned round and gave me $50 for a cab, with a thanks for being good company on the journey, and a request for a postcard addressed to her husband when I got back to London. She didn’t even hang around for long enough for me to express my immense thanks, but I still wonder now what horrible alternative fate she saved me from, in my moment of madness.

I sent them about 25 postcards, by the way, from every new city I went to in the British Isles for the next two years. I hope it put a smile on their faces like they did on  mine.

Travel with tots – how to enjoy it!

July 8, 2010 1 comment
Eleanor sunning herself in Cape Town 2008

Eleanor sunning herself in Cape Town Nov 2008, aged 6 months

One of the major pastimes me and Jules didn’t want to miss out on by having children was being able to go on decent holidays abroad, and before Eleanor was two we managed to take her to South Africa twice, Antigua once and several times to southern France to visit her grandparents. As in all things baby, there were tribulations & logistical hurdles to get over along the way, but rest assured that not only is it possible, but it can also be great fun and a relaxing (yes, I really did say that) experience, as long as you bear a few things in mind – and most importantly of all, plan ahead!

Ready for our first visit to France to see my mum, we dutifully sent off for Eleanor’s first passport when she was a month old.

The process of getting a passport photo in the first place at first seemed like a bit of a hurdle – I had visions of us cramming into a photo booth (leaving the pushchair outside to get stolen), me having to squat on the floor and hold her up at arms length as I stayed out of sight; or pay a fortune to the many predatory photo studios that stalk you from the minute that you procreate. Happily I found a website on which you could upload a digital photo of your baby, and they would crop and edit it to fit the strict criteria for acceptable passport photos (which include such near impossibilities for a tiny one as facing straight on, no smiling, no other people, plain background, no accompanying toys etc) and send you a set of four within two days in the post. This was a huge find, and made us marginally less daunted about the whole process.

On the subject of kids passports – they’re valid at first for 5 years, and anyone who’s seen at close hand how much a baby changes between birth and the age of 2, never mind 5, can’t fail to find this slightly ridiculous. Pity the customs workers (I never thought I’d be in a position to say that) who having let through an entirely different child has to try to describe the other wailing bundle that got smuggled out in front of them
Even this is arguably better than the situation when I was a kid, with mine and my brother’s names just written in our parents’ passports and not needing any ID of our own at all.

Interestingly, my mum remembers her mum, my uncle Colin and herself being refused entry to a cross channel ferry once whilst trying to go on a family holiday in the 50s, because at this point even the wife didn’t have to have her own passport – and was just another piece of chattel on the list on her husbands’ identification. My grandad hadn’t come on this holiday, and while my nan had brought his passport with them, it wasn’t valid for them unless the passport holder was there, so they had to travel back from Dover all the way home to Leeds, to add further to the disappointment, and embarrassment.

What to take.
Not as much as you think! Unless you’re going to outer Mongolia, believe it or not, most places sell nappies, jars of baby food and formula. Usually it’s exactly the same brand you buy at home, and often cheaper – and it won’t kill you (or your baby) if they have to compromise a little bit. Take enough for max 3 days, and go shopping on your 2nd day and stock up for the rest of the hols.

Driving to the airports and checking in
Whatever you do, don’t get your kids in the car until everything else is packed. If it’s still possible to leave them in a bouncer chair/cot/playpen while you pack the car & get everything ready, then do. If not, then get them dressed and let them play in their room/run around and get rid of some energy before they’re strapped in. Travelling inevitably involves too much sitting around in one place, and I don’t know any mobile kid who doesn’t prefer moving around when it’s possible.
On long haul journeys where we know we’ll have tons of luggage we’ve often paid extra for the valet parking service which is an absolute godsend. You drive to the drop off point, a nice chap in a waistcoat helps you unload onto a trolley and then drives your car off to be parked. Much nicer than trailing through a long stay car park 10 miles from the airport whilst paranoid about getting to the flight on time. It’s even better on the way home from an early morning long haul landing – a nice purring warm car to meet you, and no 6am stumble to find the car and defrost yourself and the windows with a crying baby in the back, and the beginning of post-holiday blues.

Security and baby food/milk
The last few years of added restrictions taking liquids on planes have caused endless issues for those with babies, but again, there is a knack.
Option 1: check whether the airport has a Boots after check in. Ring them and reserve a few cartons of ready made milk and jars of baby food, pick them up after check in and hey presto – all sorted for the flight.
Option 2: boil & cool water for formula, and put more than you need in each bottle sealing each tightly afterwards to keep sterile. Do enough bottles for your entire journey (including an extra one just in case of delays before you get on board/leave the airport). Take the milk powder in pre-measured portions with you so you can mix it in at a moment’s notice, and take a straw so that you can taste the water in each bottle to show customs that it’s not liquid explosive (or whatever they think it might be. The straw is important so that your saliva doesn’t touch the water and stop it being sterile, and the extra water in each bottle is important so that there’s the right amount left for your pre-measured milk powder when you need to mix it. Better to pour a little water away than not have enough – too much milk powder:water ratio can make your little one ill.

On the plane
Long haul flights are surprisingly much easier than short haul, as long as you’ve booked a bassinet. That way you get the bulkhead seats, and with luck your baby will sleep for the majority of the journey. Have everything they may need handy – toys, milk, snacks, and a dummy for take off and landing – really important as the pressure can hurt their ears and a dummy helps to equalise the pressure as it changes.
Remember you will need to keep the baby on your lap during take-off and landing, so plan for a bit of disruption & them getting bored sitting still – if they’re mobile let them sit/play with toys on the floor until the very last moment, and if tiny a sling can do wonders.

If you’re doing a night flight get them changed into the PJs and preferably a travel sleeping bag (genius inventions – with holes for a 5 point harness – I’ve got this one). If possible do it after check in & before getting on the plane, so they’re snug & you can get them in the bassinet & off to sleep with the minimum of fuss once you’ve taken off.

The car seat/pushchair/travel cot dilemma
Most airlines let you take a pushchair (normally to the steps of the plane, which is brilliant), a travel cot and a car seat (in the hold) for free on top of your baggage allowance. For tiny tots you can get pop up travel cots which are brilliant and take up barely any room/weight in the car/suitcase/trolley.

Think hard about the car seat. If you’re struggling with a lot of luggage it can be a pain, but if you have *any* doubts about the availability or safety of car seats in your destination country, take it with you. Many countries have lower safety standards than the UK and this is a risk not worth taking. *Do* practise putting it in/taking it out of the car a few times so you’re not cursing yourself and the whole world whilst figuring out how to do it for the first time in a year after a red eye flight. Not fun, I promise.

We figured out all of the above through trial and error, with a bit of advice from other people – and by the return from the 2nd of the 10 or so trips we’ve done with her we were like old hands. Eleanor slept from practically the moment she got on the flight till we landed, and we even got to see a film or two, and have a Bloody Mary to start the holiday feeling.

Enjoy, and let me know of any other tips you find!