A Holiday Weekend without the Expense

I felt the urge to get out of Belfast last week, so I decided to book a nearby trip for myself and the kids to the countryside. Sometimes I just need to remove myself from my current environment, even if it’s only twenty miles away. I felt like everything was becoming too frantic and we needed some time in nature. So, I booked a little cottage in the middle of nowhere and we went there on Friday.

The drive there was along one of those windy roads that gives you the best views over the hills. We passed the Mournes and they looked blue against the misty sky. I love the evershifting skies in that area. They look like they’re painted in watercolours and even when they’re grey they aren’t just bleak, heavy grey; they are swirled with every shade of it. I think fields in south Down have a special shade of green too, and looking at them calms my mind.

When we got to the cottage, it was already growing dark and the hosts had lit the fire in the wood burning stove for us. One benefit to being a single parent is being able to rent tiny one bedroom places to stay and space not being an issue 🙂 (apart from when hyperactivity takes hold of my kids.)

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There were fields surrounding the cottage and the only sound outside was the bleating of sheep. My kids went to befriend the sheep and lambs and ran around in the grass. Afterwards, they watched a film and I had brought pizza so they could have their pizza and a movie Friday tradition 🙂 When they went to sleep, I had some wine and wrote for hours in pure peace. A fire is on my wish list now; I think it was my favourite thing about the whole trip 🙂

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The next day, we went into Newcastle and the kids collected rocks to paint at home. I want to start rock painting with them and hiding them for people to find 🙂 They played in the playground and had ice cream. It was strangely quiet for a Saturday. Maybe the cold weather put people off, or we just get up earlier than sensible people do, but it was the best time of the year for a holiday there.

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Afterwards, we went to Tollymore forest park. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and the girls enjoyed doing the trail and “map reading.” 🙂 We brought a picnic so we didn’t have to buy food. The kids were building their own dens with branches, climbing on fallen trees and making “wishes” by throwing pine cones into the river 🙂 The stepping stones arrived at just the right moment, when everyone was starting to complain. Climbing across them was interesting since I had to carry one child whilst helping the other one across 😀 Surprisingly, we didn’t fall in, which is something that typically happens to me in such situations.

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I love how tranquil it is there and how you can just get lost in the woods. Those tall, lean trees really remind me of Northern Michigan too 🙂 The girls went to the adventure playground and played with their new friends, climbed trees and chatted about their lives. The day felt the same as it did the last time I was there in the nineties 🙂

When it was getting dark, I took the girls back into Newcastle and we went to a chip shop. When we eat out, I try not to order more than I know the kids will eat. You can always order more if you need to and it cuts back on the expense of eating out. Afterwards, we went to the old fashioned sweet shop where they measure out sweets in paper bags. The girls discovered their love for midget gems and slept the soundest that night that they had in a long time. I think the miles we walked and the sea air cured their insomniac tendencies 🙂

On Sunday, we to Castlewellan Forest Park. They charge five pounds to park in the car park, but you could spend the whole day there if you wanted to. They have lots of outdoor activities you can do if you are that way inclined. We went to the peace maze and got lost in it. (I have a terrible sense of direction even on non-mazelike trails.) The kids enjoyed trying to find their way out. Apparently if you make it to the centre of it, there is a bell to ring, but we were in it for half an hour and ended up back at the entrance 😀 There is a wooden playground next to it where the girls climbed and burned off some energy. The grounds seem to be very expansive. There are mountain bike trails and different long walks you can follow. We walked part of the way around the lake, before we surrendered to the cold and had our picnic back at the car 🙂

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On the way home, we stopped for a Brennan’s ice cream. I’m not even a fan of vanilla ice-cream, but it might be my favourite ice-cream in Northern Ireland. They sell it in a couple of service stations near Newcastle and it is better value than most ice-cream shops in the town. We used to go there when I was a kid so the nostalgia probably makes it taste better too 🙂

It’s strange how a couple of days in a different place can reset your brain and make everything at home look fresh again. I’m almost not even dreading tackling the laundry.

A Busy Weekend of Budget Activities

This weekend, I decided to try a spending freeze. I managed to find a few things to do with the kids that weren’t costly. After I picked them up from school, we went to the Gruffalo trail at Colin Glen Forest Park. It was a grey afternoon that felt like it was bordering on twilight at three pm, so apart from a few lone dog walkers we were the only ones there. The girls enjoyed searching for all the characters from the Gruffalo and that was the first time we’d been there together.

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When we go for a walk in the cold, I tend to bring coffee and snacks with us, so we had a biscuits picnic on a bench we found. It was a strange outing. My kids loved uncovering all the hidden creatures and playing Pooh sticks at the riverside with twigs we had no hope of spotting further downstream. It had a spooky kind of feel to the place that reminded me of the opening scene of Rebecca with the drive to Manderley. But gladly, the rain stayed off until the moment we got into the car. There was a memorial for someone that had died there and that prompted a discussion about death with my kids. I don’t shy away from such conversations with them but it all turned a bit moody and morbid 🙂 But everyone cheered up when we found the Gruffalo at the end of the trail and some painted rocks that someone had hidden there. The girls took them so they could hide them elsewhere for someone else to find 🙂 When we were leaving, my daughter discovered a nut and decided to make a shelter for it to keep it safe for a squirrel we had spotted 🙂

I took the girls to a screening of Paddington 2 at a local cinema. It was free as it is part of the kids’ club. I brought some snacks and got to enjoy warm coffee, seated 🙂 Afterwards, I had hoped to take the girls to the park, but the weather was against that idea, so we went to a board game cafe instead.

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They have a good range of adults’ and children‘s games. The kids’ food is reasonably priced and the girls had sandwiches while I had tea and got to eat a traybake without having it snatched from my hand 🙂 We tried to work out a few games with complex rules and my kids aren’t fans of patiently waiting while I read the instructions, so we settled on one with penguins you balance on a rocking pirate ship and a fish-eating shark game 🙂 It was a good way to spend a dreary afternoon and my kids were begging me to go back.

Today, we set out to Rowallane. I think getting to scan National Trust cards at the machine is one of my kids’ favourite things to do in life. They had some crafts indoors, so my daughter set to work colouring a robin, before cutting it out and making wings. My other daughter followed the paw print trail on the floor and roamed after doing a couple of squiggles on a page. I have one crafter and one wanderer and sometimes it’s hard to contain them in the one space 🙂

We walked through the Walled Garden and my kids looked for an appropriate place to hide the rocks they had found on Friday. The weather was cool and sunny, with a low, blinding sun hanging like a bare lightbulb 🙂 But I was glad of the brightness and fresh air after a number of hours indoors with my kids dismantling the furniture. We walked to the stile they love to climb over and the spring ground. They enjoy running down the hill and climbing on the rocks. I grew up near Rowallane and showed them the trees I used to make dens under. They found some especially muddy puddles to jump in and were using giant leaves to clean their wellies off afterwards. I love seeing their creativity coming out and how much they enjoy the simple things we do. We had some snacks and I got to sneak into the secondhand bookshop before we left. I never come out empty-handed, so I have some more books to add to my ever-increasing to-read pile.


We didn’t spend much money this weekend but got to have rich experiences. I’ve realised that my kids need to be allowed to run freely in open spaces or their excess energy is directed towards our living environment instead. But the fresh air and space does my head as much good as it does their limbs. One of the biggest struggles I have with parenting is being mentally present all the time. I can be emotionally present, but mentally, in a daydream, thinking of all the other creative things I want to cram into my day. Stopping to look at nature with them definitely helps to root me in the present.

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Finding Quiet Moments in a Busy World

Now that the madness of Christmas has been replaced by the madness of the school run, I find it just as necessary to find moments of tranquility around us. It feels like the world is always hurrying along, and I want to intentionally take time outside the rush to observe things and stop us missing what is important.

Based on my  mum’s recommendation, on my daughter’s last day off preschool, I took her to an asian supermarket. It has a cafe upstairs that serves bubble tea. This is a drink I search far and wide for, and every time I finally locate a premises that sells it, it closes down. I must be one of the few people for whom tapioca floating in tea sounds appetising (or other people haven’t discovered how much fun it is to drink – it’s like tea and chewing gum in one.) I had one of these while my daughter was adventurous and tried guava juice (before loudly expressing her distaste for it, but at least she tried it :)) We also tried a green scone that was coated in coconut. I always like to try new foods and purposely choose whatever sounds the weirdest to see if I like it. It was a drizzly and depressing Monday that epitomised the January feeling for me, and finding the cafe with all its interesting decor and wall hangings brightened the day up. We sat at the window, overlooking what was likely-a queue of enraged road users, chatting and enjoying our last Christmas holiday moments together. Afterwards, we looked around the supermarket to see what unusual items we could find. I didn’t know how to cook half of them, but my daughter enjoyed trying to identify them all and making me aware of where the sweets were, in case I had failed to notice.

I’ve been trying to spend plenty of time outdoors with the girls, even in lower temperatures. We went to a local park and followed it with a walk on a woodland trail they have there. They have little wooden animals hidden in the woods for children to find, fairy houses, wishing trees and wood carvings. I got an intro to the joys of the teenage years when my daughter complained about us having to go for a walk for the first time, but sitting on a throne and riding on the back of a pretend badger soon cured that. I like the message on the throne – it reads “when it rains, look for rainbows, when it’s dark, looks for stars.”

 

There is a library near our house that I make a point of visiting every week with my kids. It has a whole downstairs dedicated to children’s books, a miniature soft play-type area and a colouring table. It seems to be underused, but the staff are so friendly and the librarian often has coffee, juice and biscuits for the adults and kids. I like the fact that we don’t feel any pressure to hurry up and get out and that there is such a warm welcome every time we go in. My kids also enjoy their bedtime story event, they hold lego mornings and other craft activities. I love finding hidden and underpopulated events that are creative and cheap to attend 🙂

Apart from that, I have been making a point of finding writing time, lighting candles, listening to music and allowing creativity to come at its own pace.

Ways to Keep Christmas Calm

Like most introverts, I find the build-up to Christmas a bit overwhelming. Once you have kids it seems to quadruple the number of events you can’t talk your way out of. Sometimes I just need to hear the quiet and calm down the frenzied festivities. Last weekend, I made a point of not signing up for any Santa-themed, city-centre based activities and we just did our own things before my head exploded like a Christmas cracker 🙂

I’d planned on staying in for most of the weekend, but as always, the idea of that was easier than the execution of it. I stopped at the pound shop before collecting the girls and picked up some Christmas activity packs, DVDs and baking things.

When my kids got home, they painted ceramic snowmen, did scratch pictures, coloured and played with stickers. My friend had sent me some hot chocolate bombes as a gift and we used those. My kids were amazed when they erupted in the cup, producing mini marshmallows. I put on calm music and they didn’t even ask to watch TV (which is rare!)

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My daughter decided she wanted to write Christmas cards for her class. I usually avoid this tradition but watching her do it made me realise how it could be therapeutic and a good way to focus your attention on something less brash and materialistic. I always saw the obligation side to writing cards before and thought it was just a box ticking exercise, but watching how attentively she did it slowed my mind down and helped me see the thoughtful side to it.

We baked some Christmas cupcakes. They had orange zest and juice inside them and cinnamon for a Christmassy flavour 🙂 They turned into mermaid cupcakes when my kids plastered them with icing and sprinkles but they still tasted good 🙂

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Once the cabin fever set in, we went to the beach. It was bitterly cold and we seemed to be the only ones there, apart from a few dog walkers passing through, but I like going to the sea even more when it’s a wild than when it’s like a holiday scene. The air tired the girls out and they had the playground to themselves 🙂 I brought tea with us and some snacks. The tide was in and we spent a long time sitting watching the seagulls “surfing” on the waves. It reminded me that I need to allow myself more time to stare into space and watch things and tune out. I think it’s important for your mental health, plus that’s when the ideas usually come to you 🙂 The girls were really interested in watching the seagulls bobbing over the waves and it showed me how little time there is for stillness nowadays. But just because it isn’t popular or right in front of us, doesn’t mean we can’t claim it. After a weekend away from the Christmas rush, I felt (almost) refreshed enough to face it again.

Cheerfully Cheap Days with Children

I’ve been saving money for a trip we are going on early next year, so I’ve been trying to take advantage of every free activity we can find. Sometimes it’s easy to fill days with costly activities with kids, especially if it’s cold or the rain puts limits on the what you can do. I try to regularly check local papers, NI for kids and Facebook for upcoming events. If you plan them out and think about ways around extra costs, it’s easy to avoid unnecessary spending. Here are a few examples of what we have been doing recently.

I took my kids to a lantern workshop, where they made lanterns in a local cinema for a nearby parade. Correction: I made two lanterns while they ran wild and climbed on other kids. The idea was nicer than the execution of it but I still found it strangely therapeutic sticking tissue paper to willow. We had to book it in advance, but it didn’t cost anything and the girls will enjoy walking with their lanterns and seeing the fireworks.

I’ve started taking the girls to the busiest park in the area. Now the temperature is dropping, it seems that people are put off doing outdoor activities with their kids. But if you get wrapped up, sometimes I think the cool air is more refreshing and the wind wipes your worries away. I brought a flask of hot chocolate with us to keep everyone warm and kept walking so I didn’t notice the cold 🙂

I took the girls to a twilight market at a farm. It was hard to find, but the tents that were set up in the dark helped to awaken my Christmas spirit. It was deathly cold, but the exhibitors prices were great and it’s hard to feel unhappy when you’re looking at coloured, twinkling lights. The girls found some unusual crocheted hats for ten pounds and less and I picked up a couple of handmade Christmas presents. I also bought a head sculpture from an artist called Chronic Crafts. They are really unique and cute and I want to own the whole collection. I like small scale events like that too because they feel more personal and you get talking to people you wouldn’t have the chance to interact with at busier markets. There was a stall with light up fairies in jars and fairy houses that made the place look cheerful and festive. My kids are like magpies and love a bargain as much as I do, so they enjoyed the lucky dip and picked out a couple of small items each.

On Saturdays, we have started going to the minors’ club at a local cinema. They have a free screening on Saturdays for kids and an optional workshop for an extra three pounds. We saw 101 Dalmatians and Homeward Bound recently. The films are a good length for kids, with no trailers and the snacks are inexpensive/you can bring your own. I think having a quiet coffee in the cinema is my new favourite thing to do on what would typically have been a frantic Saturday.

I’m going to keep looking out for local events that we can enjoy without paying extortionate prices. I think Christmas can be extra costly now because it has become such a commercial event, but if you’re creative and look out for smaller events that aren’t as well advertised, it is easy to find things to do that don’t eat up your whole Christmas budget.

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Easy Kids’ Crafts – Tea Box Houses

This is one of those crafts that don’t look impressive but that kids love making. They are quick to make, don’t involve any paint or messy glue/waiting for anything to dry and lead to hours of play. Every time we make something like this, my kids play with it for ten times as long as they ever play with their real dolls house!

Materials

Empty tea boxes/pretty patterned boxes

Coloured card/wrapping paper

Scissors

Cellotape

Glue Stick

Method

Make the roof for the house by diagonally cutting off the extra bits on the two sides that fold down to close the lid. Tape the front flap to the side flaps to make the roof. I find cellotape works better for this. Cut the back flap of the lid off so you can put toys inside. Poke a small hole with scissors and cut out squares for windows. Do the same for the door but leave one side of the rectangle attached. Fold back sharply so it can open and close like a door. Cut out little features to add from coloured card/wrapping paper. Cover door, make blinds, make a letter box, plants, door numbers – whatever you like and attach with glue.

My daughter insisted on adding her own numbers to the roof – don’t ask me why. She likes using them for her shopkins and they fit well through the door, but any small toys would do.

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