Thursday, 17 November 2016

A real eye-opener: Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre

My daughter has a new friend who is visually impaired. She is easy and comfortable with him. Puts herself in his shoes. At least, knows to read him out the descriptions of the different flavours of Quality Street, not just pass him the box. She’s also started asking me to lead her while she walks all the way home from school with her eyes closed.

So when I recently found out you could visit (for free) the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre near Leamington Spa – which includes a ‘sensory tunnel’ where you briefly experience life without sight – it couldn’t have been better timing.

Our tour guides are Mary, from Cumbria, full of warmth, humour, snippets and stories...
...and Holly, a gentle brood bitch labrador-retriever, pregnant with her third litter of future guide dogs. My daughter and her friend can’t keep their hands off her! And she doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
They are going to take us around the centre and show us the whole Guide Dog ‘production line’ (output: up to 1,500 dogs a year!) – from pre-whelping (ante-natal in human terms) to the seven-week-old puppies who are ready to leave the centre and begin their socialization programme.

We do, however, politely bypass the “honeymoon suite” where the stud dogs and brood bitches do their thing – though Mary gives us an Adult Only aside: “They can choose whether to do it indoors or al fresco, and there’s a special rubber grippy floor and a grass mound – you know, for optimum positoning!” she winks.

Now I am itching to take you on a step-by-step blog post tour of the centre and blurt out every single fascinating fact we learnt – but as that would spoil your visit should you go, I will just give you a little taster and limit myself to: 

FIVE FUN FACTS!

1. A pregnant bitch spends the week before giving birth in a luxury suite with hydrotherapy and a 24-hour personal nurse in a bedsit next to her. (Note to self: In my next life, have my babies here!)

2. Each newborn puppy is marked with a splodge of pink nail varnish on a different part of its body so the carers can tell them apart.

3. Guide Dogs are trained to be spacially aware UPWARDS as well as forwards and sideways – so they will warn their owner, for example, if they are going to hit their head on the ceiling!

4.Guide Dogs are trained to obey their owner but DISOBEY if they think they know better than their owner. e.g. they can see a car is coming!

5.It costs 50p to get a Guide Dog (a token amount for paperworky reasons) but the cost of a Guide Dog from birth to retirement is £50,000!

And one unfun fact: 
By 2050 there will be twice as many visually impaired people because of the rise of macular degeneration.

When we get to have a go in the sensory tunnel, we are given special blindfolds to put on. “They allow you to open your eyes behind them,” explains Mary, “to make your brain think you should be able to see.” 
Then we go, alone, one by one, through the tunnel in total darkness. There are traffic noises and different surfaces underfoot. 
“That was fun!” says my daughter as she emerges from the other end. “But scary. It makes you realize how utterly difficult life is if you can’t see.”

An educational day out, for sure, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that a huge part of the appeal for the girls was the Cuteness Factor.
“Even if you didn’t like dogs,” I overhear my daughter’s friend saying, “There’s no way you could look at those puppies and not think they were adorable.” She’s not wrong. I’m no dog lover and my heart’s turned to mushy peas.

And there’s a final bonus: Complimentary tea or squash and home-made cake – donations welcome, but no pressure to do so (the cynic in me had expected we might be pushed into signing up for a monthly direct debit!).
We leave full of red velvet cake, knowledge, empathy, appreciation of our sight – and awe for these very special creatures.

“I used to think when I saw a Guide Dog, you just put a harness on them and off they go,” said my daughter on the way home.”I didn’t know how much intense time and effort and money went into them.”

Then she reverts to a more basic side of herself. “Mummy, PLEEEEEASE can I have a puppy?”

Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre's website here. You can also do a tour of the National Guide Dog Training School in Leamington Spa. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

Guest interview: "We ran away from crocodiles!"


This time, brothers Quinn (6), Aiden (9) and Luca (7) tell me all about their trip to Crocodiles of the World in Oxfordshire, run by Shaun Fogget of the Channel 5 series The Croc Man.

What did you think when your mum told you she was taking you to Crocodiles of the World?
Aiden: It was MY idea, actually. I went to my friend’s birthday party there a couple of years ago, so I said to mum let’s all go there and she said yes!
Luca: [can’t hold back any longer!]: Me and Aiden were running so fast because there was a crocodile coming near us! There were two of them!
Aiden: [annoyed with brother for jumping ahead] Can I tell you the unexpected bit?

Yes, go ahead.
Aiden: Well, when I was in the crocodile house we went to see the Siamese crocodiles, and we looked at them and when we turned our back they jumped at us – both of them – and we ran away because we were so scared!

But they couldn’t actually get at you, could they?!
Quinn: No, the glass was there.

But it was still scarey?
Aiden: Yes, and after that, we went over to the saltwater crocodiles and we noticed their teeth and we were like NOPE! So we ran away again.
Luca: One of them was really really hooooge. It was so hooooge.
Aiden: The biggest one was about 15 foot.

So these crocodiles can actually kill people in real life, right?
Aiden: Yes. They do something called a crocodile death roll. They grab onto their prey or person and spin it around and drag whatever they’ve got under water to drown it.
Luca [just to clarify]: And kill it.
Quinn: And then it’s gonna die and die and die until it’s put to sleep.
Did you get to hold a crocodile?
Aiden: No, just touch them. You CAN hold them but we weren’t there at the right time.
Quinn: I stroked a baby crocodile. It felt so weird. Kind of like really soft, and like a fish, but it was a crocodile.
Luca: Yes, it was so slimy. And when I was touching its tail, it tickled.
The man told us that if you put your hand near a baby crocodile or you swim near a baby crocodile, the mum or the dad keep chasing you and if it’s a Nile one it’s gonna be really speedy.

Did you see them being fed?
Aiden: Yeah. Dead birds. Chicken.

Did you learn the difference between a crocodile and an alligator?
Aiden: Yes, one of them has a small snout, and the other one I think is a different colour. They had both there. They had like a 100 crocodiles and alligators and caimans.
Luca: There were load and loads and loads. 

Did they have any other types of animals there?
Luca: Yes, parrots and...and...and...what else Aiden?
Quinn: Meerkats, and there was a hole you can go through and there was glass...
Aiden: ...like a glass dome...
Luca: ...and you put your head up in it and everyone can see you and the meerkat come and they’re running around your head.

What was your favourite animal there?
Luca: Meerkat.
Aiden: Black caiman.
Quinn: Black caiman.
Aiden: Cause it’s camouflaged.
Quinn: Cause it looks so awesome.
Aiden: Cause if I was a crocodile I would probably BE a black caiman.

Well maybe you’ll be a black caiman in your next life!
Aiden [stops, looks at me]: Do we actually HAVE a next life?

I don’t know, but some people believe we do.
Aiden: [making his mind up]: I think we do.
Would you like to have a pet crocodile?
Aiden: No!
Luca and Quinn: Yes!
Luca: Can you even GET a pet crocodile?
Quinn: [getting excited]: We can put it into a cage and we need some meat for it.
Luca: And it needs water. That would be MY BEST PET. And I’m gonna have that crocodile. It gonna be MINE.

What name would you give it?
Quinn: Nuke
Luca: No, Bobby.
Quinn: No, Duke.
Luca: Duke of Marlborough! [laughs]

Finally, what do you give Crocodiles of the World out of 10?
Aiden: 10
Quinn: 100.
Luca: 159 out of 10.

Visit Crocodiles of the World's website here. They are holding their first CrocFest UK on Saturday 15th October 2016.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Can they pull it out of the bag? The ‘Lucky dip dessert’ challenge

School holidays and it was my turn on the child-care swap rota: Four girls. Six hours. Wet weather. Small town. No car. Tight budget. I was going to need more than a smile and a tube of Smarties to sail through this one. I screwed up my brain really tight and squeezed an idea out just in time. “We’re going to have a 'Lucky dip dessert' competition,” I told the girls...

Two teams of two. Each team has to choose and buy a random selection of sweet items in the supermarket for the other team. The challenge is to make the best desserts you can from the items you're given! Then I’ll put photos of the desserts on my Facebook page for a ‘live’ vote. Whoever’s desserts get the most ‘Likes’ is the winning team!

The rules
You can spend up to £3.50.
● You must buy at least 5 items.
● Include something SOLID (e.g. biscuits, cake, chocolate bar), something SOFT (e.g. mousse, cream, mousse) and at least one FRUIT (fresh or other). Don’t include anything that has to be cooked or prepared (e.g. get a pot of jelly, not squares of jelly) or that will melt (i.e. ice-cream!).
● Don't let the other team see what you're buying – keep it as a surprise for them!
● You must use some of EVERY item in the bag you're given to make your desserts.
● Think up names for your desserts .


I nudged them into pairing up so that there was a younger and older girl on each team to make it fair and jiggle friendship dynamics a bit. Then they gave themselves names – Team Awesome and Team Terrific – and we set off for the supermarket.

I watched them from a distance.Dodging each other in the aisles to keep their buys secret. Totting up prices in their heads with scrunched-up faces. Slavering over the sprinkles shelf. Swapping and switching items to get the most they could with their £3.50.Their delight at the price of Basics biscuits. Their shock at the price of squirty cream.
And finally, queuing up at the checkout and paying ever-so-politely like mini-housewives on a serious mission.
“That was really nerve-wracking!” said one of the younger girls afterwards. “I’ve never paid on my own before.”

Back at home, it was time to swap shopping bags. “Ooh...argh...good...nooo...” they squeaked as they examined the contents.
Here were the items Team Awesome had to work with.
And these were Team Terrific's. "Tic-tacs?!” they said, not sure whether to be pleased or peeved.
To prevent them plunging straight into a sugary gunge, I suggested they design their desserts on paper first. “Think of it as food art,” I told them. “You want your desserts to look good.”
And then they got stuck in, snapping, grating, bashing, layering...
Although there was lots of aesthetics and ingenuity going on (who knew cutting chocolate biscuits with a star-shaped cookie cutter would work?!), I also sensed the same, simple, sensual pleasure a toddler gets from making mud-cakes in the garden!
And the ideas just kept coming, until each team had a range of desserts, ready to be named, labelled and arranged for a photo shoot.

So, let me introduce to you the creations of Team Terrific...
...versus the creations of Team Awesome...
I put the pictures on Facebook with the heading VOTE NOW! (with 'vote closes at 4pm', the time the girls were going home) and we watched, excitedly, as the votes immediately started coming in.
Ooh, green was taking an early lead...but would purple catch up?

While we waited, we all picked one dessert to try... erm, let's just say, the pleasure was in the making rather than the eating. Turns out bashed-up ginger biscuits in chocolate mousse with jelly tots on top isn't such a great combo after all.

Incredibly, the final score was a tie: 10:10. But what do you think? Which is your favourite?!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Guest interview: “I learnt to drive when I was 11!”

This time I talk to Laura, now 18, who started driving when she was only eleven years old at the Under 17 Car Club!

I can’t believe you started driving when you were still at primary school!
You can join the club the year you’re going to turn 12, so I was in Year 6. I was quite a small Year 6 too, driving this powerful machine! It thought it was the coolest thing ever, especially being able to go back to my class on Monday and say, “This weekend I drove a car!” – and show them the pictures and videos to prove it! 

But how did you even reach the pedals?!
At first I could barely see over the windscreen! I tried sitting on a cushion but that wasn’t quite right, so for several years it was a case of moving the seat as far forward as it would go and having the wing-mirrors pushed right in.

You have to drive your parent’s car at the club, right?
Yes, it’s your parent who actually teaches you to drive. But there are lots of instructors who hop in and out of the cars and sit in the back and give you advice.
So was it a bonding thing for you or your dad – or did you argue?!
It was definitely a ‘me and dad’ thing. It was really nice. But of course there was frustration. There were bits where he was like, “Why are you still not getting that right?” or he'd say, “That’s it! I need a break!” You know that thing when you get out the car and both go your separate ways...!

Was driving harder or easier than you thought?
Harder! As a kid you sit in the car and you see your parents driving but you don’t really think about it. I remember at first I just couldn’t comprehend why you had to put your foot on the accelerator and take your foot off the clutch at the same time. I was like, “Why can’t I just do one after the other?”

Tell me about the different levels and tests you take at the club.
You usually take the Grade 5 test on your first day – it’s the absolute basics – how to move forward, stop, reverse, simple turning skills. I got Grade 2 when I’d just turned 13, and then it took me another two years to get Grade 1. After that, you can drive solo without a parent and you can drive with your friends and go out in each other’s cars. But they expect very high standards at Grade 1 – I failed two or three times. There were tears of happiness the day I passed!
 
The club’s every Sunday, isn’t it?
There’s a meeting at a different venue every Sunday, but you choose which ones you go – you can just go to the ones nearest you or can go to them all. It starts around 9.30 or 10 and you drive for 2 ½ hours in the morning, then stop for lunch, then drive again until 3.

What are the venues like? Is it like driving on real roads?
They vary a lot but the aim is to make it as life-like as possible with roundabouts, junctions, traffic lights and things like parallel parking bays and reverse slaloms to practice maneouvres. There’s one venue called Bovington which is miles and miles of roads and there used to be a venue that was genuinely like a small town, with pavements, kerbs, trees and really crazy hill starts!

So what’s the speed limit?
Generally it’s 60 miles an hour. But the Castle Combe venue is a race circuit so sometimes the cones are taken away and you can do 70.

You got to drive lorries and buses too, right?
Yes, I drove a 7 ½ ton articulated lorry when I was 13 and I’ve driven coaches and buses. Plus some people at Car Club have very nice cars, so I’ve driven Lamborghinis and Porsches, and some proper old cars too.
What was your favourite?
My grandad’s Bentley! I thought “I can imagine escorting the Queen in this!” I went to my Year 11 prom in it actually.

What’s the funnest thing you did at Car Club?
Skid Pan sessions is top of the list! That’s where they put oil and water on the road, as if it was icy, and you learn how to handle a car in those conditions. It’s really fun!

Are there ever any crashes?
No! It’s a very safe environment. There’s no insurance you see – it’s at your own risk. Perhaps a few close shaves with the Grade 5s sometimes!
Did you make a lot of friends at Car Club?
Amazing friends! And there’s lots of social events like BBQs and things.

And how much did it help you when you took your real driving test at age 17?
Unbelievably! I only had two driving lessons and some of my friends didn’t even bother having lessons and they passed. But I think the greater impact is that it’s made me a generally safer driver ... it’s just ingrained in you when you do it for a few years rather than a couple of months. 

The next Under 17 Car Club's Open Day is this Sunday 25th September. Visit the club's website here.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Rrrrip-roaring fun: Make an altered book

I love how creative ideas can bounce unexpectedly out of random conversations. One minute I was chatting to a friend about the pros and cons of being a perfectionist, the next minute me and my daughter were immersed in a pile of paper, paint and masking tape and having a whole lot of fun.

My friend had been telling me about how her daughter had done her Year 9 Spanish project with so much care – and flair – that it had made her teacher cry. Instead of handing in a few A4 sheets like the other students, she had created this, an 'altered book'...
Turning an old book into a 'new' book, beautifully designed and crafted...
It even had a box-shaped space carved out of the last pages...
 ...to put in the cassette of the oral part of her project.

I couldn’t wait to have a go at making ‘altered books’ ourselves.

Not that it’s an easy process. Emotionally, that is. Because the first step is to rip pages out of a book. Yep. Rip pages out of a bookThere is something about this that feels instinctively, intensely, insanely wrong. “Are you sure it’s okay to do this?” asked my daughter, tentatively tugging at a page. 

I guess, without registering it, we are brought up with some kind of deep reverence for books. I mean, a friend of mine recently told me that a book cries when you turn down the corner of a page to mark your place. 

“Let’s think of it as rescuing them, rather than ruining them,” I said. After all, they were second-hand books that I’d seen sitting unwanted on the charity donation table in our local supermarket for at least a week. Big gulp of air. Rrrrrrrrrip...

So, onto the practical bit:

Step one: Take an old hardback book. 
Step two: Go through the book ripping several consecutive pages out together at even intervals e.g. turn over 3 pages, rip out 3 pages, turn over 3 pages, rip out 3... 
Step three: Take two to four pages at a time and bandage them up together in masking tape, covering all the text, to create lovely, thick, satisfying-to-turn, blank pages, with the text peeping through the tape in a very appealing way.
Step four: Now think of a theme or story and write, draw, paint, collage on the pages as you wish to create a 'new' book. (You can cut out and stick on words from the pages you ripped out if you like.)

My daughter had a very clear idea that she wanted to do a treasure hunt story. After a couple of totally-absorbed hours, humming away to herself, she produced this.
 
  
  
Who knew she’d squirrelled away these gold chocolate coin wrappers since Christmas?!

I decided I’d make mine a present for my sister’s upcoming birthday. It took more than a couple of hours, that's for sure, but I got it posted off just in time. I won't show you the whole story but here are just a few of the pages.
  

  
 
On the morning of her birthday, I received this email.

Flippin' Nora. I have only just finished crying. The best present I have ever had in my life!!!!

Seems I'd created a tear-jerker too, just like the Spanish project – the creator of which, now 20, is a perfectly superb cook with her own perfectly enticing food blog. Check it out here for a different kind of inspiration. 

Friday, 5 August 2016

10 quirky things to do with the kids this summer holidays


#1 Open a pop-up cafe   Read more...


#2 Let them choose you an outfit   Read more...


#3 Visit a crop circle   Read more...


#4 Set them a shopkeeper's treasure hunt   Read more...


#5 Make a mini-garden   Read more...


#6 Be food critics    Read more...


#7 Grow your own butterflies   Read more...


#8 Give a doll a make-under   Read more...


#9 Go googly-eyeing   Read more...


#10 Turn trash to treasure   Read more...