Author Archives: hattie

Kids party hell

This morning, this press release dropped into my inbox:

In a new consumer report looking at spend on children’s birthdays it has been revealed that across the nation mothers are spending up to £808 million solely on the traditional party bag gesture. 

Mothers spend as much as £5 on each bag and children invite, on average, 21 friends. This equates to a sizeable spend of £105 per party – just to keep their place in the league of best party hosts, as rated by parents in the playground.

It’s no secret that parents feel a level of competitiveness to surpass each other when it comes to who does it best, and this research shows that the party bag is playing a big part in the competition. But, so big is the trend to make birthdays an occasion to remember that generous mothers are also spending as much as £355 on gifts, cakes, party entertainment and a family day out.

The study, carried out with 2,000 mothers to mark the launch of a new campaign by charity World Bicycle Relief UK, verified this trend as almost half (43%) of mothers admit they feel social pressure to spend a lot of money on their child’s birthday but it didn’t necessarily increase the enjoyment of the occasion for the child.   

Arghhhhhhhhh…. What am I going to do?! We’ve been to a thousand kids parties in the last few months (possibly an exaggeration but that is how it feels…) All but one has been in a hired venue, with an entertainer, little lunchboxes, party bags… And this year, Johnny has wised up. He knows what a birthday party is ‘supposed’ to look like.  And it’s ‘supposed’ to look… expensive. We are already getting requests. “Will there be an Octonaut’s cake like at X’s party?” “Will our clown have a creepy face like Y’s did?” “Can we have a tattoo tent and football and soft play and magnums of Moet and caviar on a bed of gold dusted with diamonds?”

What will we do?! We can’t do it outside, because it will be December. Can we have it in the house? Or will twenty four year olds trash the place irreversibly? Is it one of those situations where it would be so hideously painful to organise, run and then tidy it ourselves that it is just insanity NOT to shell out on a venue? HELP?!

P.S Please don’t tell me to do something brilliant like craft my own soft play out of recycling. As you know, my ingenuity and patience are EXTREMELY limited…!

What happens when you leave a city slicker family in the forest?

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I’m been trying to start this post for a while now and, for the first time since I started this blog, I’m truly stumped. Our week at Tinkers’ Bubble  - an experimental, eco-community living completely off grid in the forest outside Yeovil – was pretty wild. Extraordinary. Hard, beautiful, fascinating, infuriating and inspiring.

We worked all day. For a week I dug, forked, lifted and heaved with a baby on my back while J tagged along, helping, kicking fallen fruit, climbing trees and complaining in equal measure. No fossil fuels meant no lawnmower – so blisters on the palms of my hands after hours of scything a field of long grass and bramble – and no tractor, so Johnny falling in love with Jim the carthorse, who heaved loads of logs and gravel up the forested hillside, or ploughed the potato field with us running behind, shaking his treasure into buckets.

No shop bought food meant eating communally for every meal, vegetables that had been grown and, occasionally, meat that had been caught. It meant working hard to keep enough food on everyone’s plates, which meant – for the first time since I can remember – eating every meal because my body was hungry for it. It meant Johnny refusing nearly every meal (vegetable stew, again) and living almost entirely off bread and jam. But it also meant fruit trees and hedgerows at every turn, laden with ripe fruit to pick and milk on the table five minutes after the goats had been milked.

No telly and only basic, off-grid electricity meant being outside from the moment we woke, to the moment we went to sleep. It meant Johnny playing with old, scruffy wooden toys, trees and whatever recycled materials he could get his hands on. It meant the toddlers who lived there permanently could jump, run and climb like children five years older than them. It meant seeing deer flitting between the trees as they played. It meant Johnny didn’t ask for TV for 14 days after we’d left.

No conventional building materials meant a beautiful but basic wooden structure for us to sleep in. No conventional heating meant a wood burning stove, cosy in the early evening, infuriating when taking an hour to boil a kettle. It meant a boiling pot and a mangle instead of a washer-dryer. It meant going to sleep staring up through the window at swaying trees and the stars, listening to the sounds of cows and the snuffles and shuffles of the family we were sharing with. It meant sleep without the background noise of traffic. It meant early nights and early mornings and all night wakings shushing the baby so she didn’t wake the others.

One bath hut to share between fifteen people, lit by a stove that took three hours to heat up, meant real tears of happiness the first time I lowered myself into hot water. It meant being forced to look properly at the casualness with which we use resources in our home, how we fill our homes and our time. It meant I didn’t look in a mirror for a week.

Long drop loos meant a beautiful view across the hillside but an awkward balancing act with a baby on your back. Oh, and the loos could only be used for, arm, solids. ‘Fluids’ made the compost smell bad so were dealt with at any secluded spot of your choosing.

It meant the families who live there permanently (not the tourists passing through, like us) actually doing something about climate change and consumerism, not just talking about it over the weekly Ocado shop.

It was an adventure. An inspiration. It showed us what we were really capable of, and it showed us what we are simply too wimpy and city-slicker to handle.

And I’d love to go back every year. For a week.

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Kids’ suncream – is it a must?

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Okay, I know, the time for this has almost passed. I did mean to do this in early July but time kind of, well, not so much ran as concord-ed away from me. So here we are, in mid August and in the vain hope that the sun will reappear, or that you’ll be back to find this when the sun comes out from behind the clouds again in, say, twelve months time, I’ve finally done a bit of digging into the question of children’s suncream.

Just how different are the ones designed for kids? It is really important to buy separate bottles for the children? Or is it a marketing scam? I got back in touch with Dr Chris Flower, Director General of The Cosmetics, Toiletries and Perfumeries Association (and the man who gave us the low down on kids shampoo and toothpaste last year). I left aside the question of organic brands – if you choose organic it’s probably based on a personally held set of values that apply to your whole family – children and adults. I wanted to know what, if any, differences there were between the kids and adult versions of the major brands – Nivea, Soltan and the like. Here’s what he said:

“There are probably two main points to make.

First, they are made to exactly the same high safety and efficacy standard so they will work exactly as described and they will be safe to use on children (and on adults too).

Second, they are often formulated slightly differently to take account of the fact that children are usually more active than adults and, in spite of the advice, less likely to re-apply the product or have it re-applied. So, the formula will be a little heavier and stickier (probably not the right terms that a formulator would use!) since children will be less bothered by the aesthetics of the product whereas adults generally prefer products that feel lighter and appear to rub in rather than leave what feels like a layer of product on the skin. Of course, both do leave a layer on the skin surface because that is where the protective ingredients must be in order to be effective. So a children’s product will be less likely to run when they get hot, less likely to rub off as they play and less likely to wash away as they run in and out of the water.

Some children’s sun protection products are coloured or may remain slightly white on the skin so you can see whether you have missed any bits when applying them. The fragrance is also likely to be less ‘adult’ and may just be enough to mask the background smell of the ingredients and the packaging is likely to be more attractive for children and indicating it is for them to use.

Of course, adults can use children’s product and vice versa and still get the protection necessary but, to adults, the children’s products might not feel so pleasant and, for children, adult products need to be applied carefully and re-applied diligently to maintain protection. However, if you find you have run out of one or the other when out and about, it is better to use what you have rather than nothing at all.”

The one where I go too far… maybe?

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Oh god, I think I’ve tipped over the edge. Remember I mentioned that we’d gone on holiday to Devon in June? No, of course not. Well we DID. And it was amazing. We were stupidly, hallucinogenically lucky with the weather. It was like Saint Tropez but with cockles and rock pools and without the need to wax and starve yourself within an inch of extinction before arrival.

We went with a big group of families, which was great too since the kids played and punched without much need of intervention, leaving us time to doze and pretend to read impressive books. What was really amazing, though, was the family we stayed with. They moved there in the seventies, when the house was just a leaky barn. They were proper hippies (though they might loathe the word – so sorry if you’re reading) not the trustafarian, macrobiotic kind, the real deal. They built the house themselves and by hand, had their babies amid the rubble and the fields, and were, pretty much, entirely separate from the money economy for a while – growing, tending and baking their own food; building, fixing and sewing their own things; trading skills and goods with neighbours.

Which was, in itself, enough to make me self-consciously shuffle my own, ‘made in China’ shoes. But what I really noticed where the kids. Born and raised with all this (and completely without the usual piles of plastic toys or telly) they’re now in their twenties. You might expect them to be a little… eccentric. But they’re absurdly cool and kind. And  - this is what struck me – extraordinarily, almost unbelievably resourceful.

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One day, as we were driving to the beach, their son was digging up clay in the lane as we passed. By the time we came back in the afternoon, he’d built a pizza oven with it. The next day, we made our own pizzas, cooked them in the oven, and ate them while watching the sun set over the fields. He makes his own clothes, even his own spectacles. He travels the world, paying his way and surfing. And yeah, I’m sure it’s not perfect and has its own irritations but it all looked so… free. Not to need the stuff or services most of us (especially me) rely on routinely. It looked (under the sun and a liberal dose of gin) so liberating.

Even with the gin I was dimly aware that I’d be a bit rubbish at living like that full time. Nevertheless, I blame that holiday for what came next. I booked a very weird kind of break for August. And since August is now upon us, and the gin has long since worn off I’m beginning to feel a bit nervous.

Next week, me, Tom, Johnny and the baby are all going to life in the forest for a week, working as volunteers in an eco-community that described itself thus:

“We’re currently a group of 11 adults, spanning a wide age range, and 2 young children. We are … a small woodland community which uses environmentally sound methods of working the land without fossil fuels.

We have planning permission for self-built houses on the condition that we make a living from the land. We make our monetary incomes mainly through forestry, apple work and gardening. As a result we’re money poor but otherwise rich!

We manage about 28 acres of douglas fir, larch, and mixed broadleaf woodland using horses, two person saws, and a wood-fired steam-powered sawmill.

Our pastures, orchards, and gardens are organically certified, and no-dig methods are commonly used. We press apple juice for sale, grow most of our own vegetables, keep chickens and bees, and sell our produce at farmers markets. We make loads of jam, chutney, pickles, cider, and wine.

We have solar powered 12v electricity, spring water on tap, and use compost toilets. We burn wood for cooking, heating, and for hot water in the bathouse. We eat little meat (mostly game), and try to cater for all diets. Though some of us would consider ourselves to be spiritual, we have no shared spirituality. Most people wash their clothes by hand. Life is lived mostly outdoors, so it’s cold in the winter, but we live on the top of a steep hill, so there’s plenty of chances to get warm! There’s loads of wildlife on site, particularly badgers, deer and ticks!”

We get our own guest house (built by the community from purely natural materials) with a wood burner. Apparently, the only things we need to bring are: “a torch, warm clothes, practical footwear, and any fresh looking roadkill you find en-route.”

It’ll be an adventure… Right?!