America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

How to get a United States B2 visa for a family gap year

To go to America as a visitor, you need a visa. UK citizens are eligible to apply under the ‘Visa Waiver Program’, but this only gives you up to 90 days. We obviously wanted to get our moneys worth from our big yellow bus, so needed longer. The only option for us was the much lengthier (and more expensive) process to obtain a B2 visa.

B1/B2 visa

There are loads of visas available but if you are travelling for tourism purposes, you want a B2 visitor visa. These are specifically for non-immigrant people who are ‘travelling to the United States for tourism, pleasure or visiting’.

When you are researching and filling in the paperwork, don’t be confused if you see different B options. A B2 visa is also used by people going over for medical treatment, so you’ll see lots of people talking about medicals being required. To make it even more confusing, a B2 visa is also often grouped with a B1 visa, which is for business use. A B1 visa has it’s own list of factors that don’t necessarily seem relevant to a tourist but rest assured – this is the one you need.

You may also read about single and multiple entry visas. Don’t worry about this – it’s the same visa and the single or multiple decision is made during the interview. Chances are if you have been before, you’ll be given a multiple entry.

First Step: Complete the DS-160

The DS-160 is long and tiresome. You can save your progress along the way, which you should regularly do as it seems to like crashing. It also won’t progress unless you complete each page, so if you don’t know your address on arrival etc, be mindful of any temporary information you put in as if you forget to change it later, that is what will be submitted and they may question you at interview.

Apply here if you are ready

The photo section

passport photos for visa
Now keep a straight face…

You can load up a picture to check it is sized correctly at the start, then again at the end of the form. There seems to be a fairly common error on the confirmation page though – it tells you that they can’t ‘confirm your image’. Of course, without confirmation you cannot progress to payment, which means you cannot get the details you need to book your visa interview. Oh the frustration!

I contacted the U.S embassy but they couldn’t advise on the photo upload failure because the DS-160 form is run by the U.S, not them. The advice is to check the trouble-shooting form which helpfully advises you to bring a photo on the day if you are having trouble uploading one. Of course it doesn’t recognise the fact you can’t book that interview because the form won’t let you complete. Do I sound like I am going crazy??!!

Eventually I gave up. I went back the next morning and literally clicked through every page from the start. This time it worked. I had no problem with my kids, so perhaps it just gets busy at certain times.

The questions

The form itself is split into 15 sections. It covers everything from your personal information to your travel companions, work history, U.S. contact, previous travel and lots of security and background checks. These are asked regardless of who you are applying for, so expect to fill in a lengthy form for each member of the family.

Before you fall into a panic like I did once you’ve submitted your form past the point of return, you didn’t miss a whole section about where you have travelled in the last five years, your work and education background and whether you have worked for a charity. Men get asked loads more questions to women (how very sexist!). Even though I knew the form wouldn’t let you progress without filling in all boxes, I only felt calm again when I found the question comparison on some obscure forum. And breathe!

It’s kind of funny that they should filter out questions about work and travel for women but they still keep in all their security questions for kids. Evidently it’s more ridiculous for me to have a work history than my 6-year old to have conspired to commit human trafficking whilst taking drugs and escaping prison?!

All the visa and passport stuff is asked in this section and so be ready to fill it in with your B1/B2 request.

Visa options

There is a handy walkthrough of all the DS-160 questions on the Visa Traveller blog

Family forms

After you have filled in your own form and confirmed it is all correct, there is an option to apply for a family. You still have to complete all the forms, but I believe it just allows you to fill in a new blank form, rather than over-writing your last one. Ironically, this is the one time when over-writing is helpful as you don’t have to keep typing in your address etc. I can’t confirm this as because of all the crashing and failure to upload, I ended up having to do ours separately. It didn’t seem to matter – I still got all 4 confirmations through with separate reference numbers.


Once you have completed the form, you have to pay the disgustingly large sum of $160 per person. This is non-refundable, so you really want to make sure you got those questions right. Once you submit your form, there are options to print it out and to email it. Choose the latter so you have a copy. Make sure you also print it out / note down the number as you need this to apply for your visa interview and it can sometimes take a bit of time to get your email confirmation through.

Top tip: note down your DS-160 confirmation number as you need all of them to apply for a family interview

The visa interview

The form alone does not get you anywhere. When your DS-160 confirmation comes through, it will tell you what needs to happen next. Namely, you have to go to the embassy in which you plan to apply for a visa for an interview.

There was lots of availability for visa interviews and we scheduled one the following week. Give yourself time to prepare though as it takes a while to get everything together. Once you have confirmed, you will get another email with various bar codes and information that you need to print.

Keep in mind that unless you can return to London the following week to collect your visas from one of the designated collection points, you will have to pay a small fortune to have it couriered to your home. We went with the collection option. It’s worth noting this down as you get so many different emails it took me ages to go back and find it!

Book a visa interview here.

Taking the kids

Fingers crossed before our visa appointment at the United States Embassy
Fingers crossed before our appointment at the United States Embassy

Although we had read on the U.S . Department of State pages that children under the age of 14 do not need to apply in person, when we applied with our DS-160 reference numbers we were told that all 4 of us had to turn up in person. I checked this with the U.S. London Embassy because it meant taking the kids out of school, but they just sent back an automated style message that confirmed that if the form requests attendance then attendance is required.

Arriving for your interview

The time slot you choose isn’t necessarily when you will be seen, so don’t structure your day around it. We were given 11am and arrived at 10.40 to find lots of people waiting outside. Although we didn’t have to join that queue, we got stuck in one going through security inside and had to wait to collect our interview number. We eventually arrived in the interview bit at about 11.15 and our number was called around 11.30.

The interview is split into two sections – the first checks your documents and then second asks you questions. You have to wait in between the two but get your decision at the second. After that you are free to leave as your passports, if successful, will be sent to the collection point you specified in your application. All in all, we were there for 2 hours.

Top tip: take snacks and stuff for the kids to do. It’s dull waiting!

No laptops allowed in the U.S. Embassy

District Coffee shop near US embassy
You can store your laptops and bags at District coffee shop.

We noticed there was a sign that said that laptops were not allowed and could not be stored at the embassy, which was a pain as we had brought one.

The woman checking paperwork at the door helpfully directed us to a coffee shop around the corner called District. For £10 you get a coffee and a secure place to keep your things – while we were there 3 people came in to request the same thing, they must be making a killing!

Top tip: leave your laptop at home. If you can’t, head to District on the way over

What you need to take to your interview

  1. Current Passport that is valid for at least 6 months.
  2. DS-160 confirmation page.
  3. Confirmation and Instructions page from the embassy
  4. One 5 x 5 cm (2 x 2 inches) colour photo taken within the last 6 months.
  5. Accompanying family members marriage certificate (spouse) and/or birth certificate (for unmarried children under 21)

All of this was easy to get apart from the photo. We had submitted some online but when it came to printing them I had trouble. The criteria say the picture should be 5cm x 5cm and so I had taken photos and sorted them out on Photoshop. Our photo-printer is useless though, so I sent them to Boots and Max Spielmann at Tesco to get printed and both automatically resized them – cropping my head off. Max Spielmann said that there was nothing that they could do about this and if we wanted proper photos, we had to pay £15 per person for their visa photos. What a rip off! Worryingly, the attendant said the photos I had would not be accepted as there was a slight shadow on our youngest sons, the other son had a bit of hair over his ear and my head was too small. Panic stations! In the end we found that PhotoMe booths have a US visa option for £8 per person – still a rip off but not quite so bad. We had to suck it up and drive across town to make sure we all had a set of photos.

At the interview mine and the boys online photos were fine. Ha Max Spielmann – I’m glad we didn’t let you rip us off. Ironically the only problem was my husbands as he had used the same photo in his 2 year old passport. This was outside the 6 month photo criteria they set and so we had to provide a new one for him. We of course had it with us but I don’t even think it would be an enormous problem if you didn’t – the US embassy had two Photo-Me booths in the room.

Top tip – Photo-me booths do US visa photos if you need them and they have 2 machines actually within the US embassy interview area.

What you should take to your interview

As well as the above, the consulate recommend that you should take supporting materials with you and this is crucial for the second part of your interview.

Prepare to be asked about every aspect of your trip – who you know over there, what do they do, why you are going now, why so long, what are your plans, do you have family over there, how will you cover costs and how can you prove you want to return to the UK.

It really does seem to depend on who you get as to how severe the questioning is. We read lots of forum threads with recommendations on remembering addresses of friends, providing photos to show your life and relatives in the UK, taking as many documents as possible to show ties and coming up with budget and savings detail to prove how you will fund your trip. We did EVERYTHING.

In the end our questions focused on what we wanted to do while we were there and why did we want to go for longer than the ESTA visa allows. This was easy as it was all true – we told her that we wanted to go now and for a longer period because of our kids – once they get too old it will become harder to take them out of more serious secondary schooling. Also they won’t want to come with us then! We talked about going to see bears and going on camping adventures, visiting family and taking an RV down the coast.

She checked both boys birth certificates (the longer ones which show both parents names) and asked about the kids schooling. We talked about our plans to work with the school to follow their curriculum and to re-apply when we return as both boys loved their school. Although it was a faff taking the kids, I’m sure their smiley faces helped – they behaved beautifully and she had a laugh with them when they asked what an RV is. We told them it was an American camper-van and she commented that they would learn a whole load of new American words. First clue as to our fate.

Fun and games bit over, we got to the more serious questions. This is where they need to know you can afford to be there and also committed to returning home. We had stayed up late formulating a loose budget for a year long trip and getting our savings and funding streams in order. When she asked us about how we would fund our travels we were able to show her exactly on a spreadsheet. No supporting material was requested to prove the figures were correct, although we did have them in the file just in case.

Thumbs up outside the US embassy - we got our visa
The U.S Embassy says yes!

She approved all of our visas. Hurrah!

A day later we received a message to say they were being couriered to our collection point. We had planned to go to London a week later and so picked them up then. We had been issued multiple entry, which is fab. It means we can use the same visas going in and out of America for the next 10 years.

Top tip: Be prepared. Take as many documents as possible to back up your story.

America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

We bought an American school bus

Yes, it’s true. We now own a 37ft yellow school bus that until recently was ferrying kids to lessons in Nampa, Idaho. We plan to rip out the seats of our iconic vehicle and turn it into a motorhome, otherwise known as an RV or, to those in the know, a ‘Skoolie’. We leave this summer to travel North America and we will be gone for a year.

A family gap year

For a long time, my husband and I have felt like we wanted to do a bit more with our lives. Climbing the career ladder has never been a priority for either of us; we work to live not live to work. But when you have a family, a mortgage, school term dates to adhere to, you can’t just give up your job and your home and head off into the hills….. or can you?

Yes you can. There is a lot more planning to do, but it is possible to go travelling in your forties without (hopefully) losing all your worldly possessions in the process. We will have to be careful – indeed it won’t be so much a holiday as a time in which we will be living differently – but the benefits far outweigh the negatives, both for us and our kids.

Why take a gap year in America?

Antelope Canyon. Ridiculously gorgeous

Of all the places in the world we want to go, the U.S has never been near the top. Both my husband and I have travelled extensively and America just seems a bit too much like home. It’s not just about us though; we have two little boys to think of.

America offers deserts, mountains, plains, swamps, canyons, bears, whales, snowboarding, kayaking… cities full of great architecture, music and literary history… there’s so much to see and do for two kids that have never been any further than the Algarve. On top of all of this, the language is the same, the culture and food are recognisable and we have friends there, which makes travelling and making new friends easier. We can also get reliable WiFi; the kids can keep in touch with their grandparents and we can continue freelancing.

There was concern about whether we could get on board with a country where the current political climate honestly scares us a little. In the end we figured that we’re coming from a country where the current political climate scares us a little, a Brexit-battered Britain.

Once we decided to start in the U.S we looked into the visa situation. Whilst it may tick a lot of boxes for a family gap year, it’s not quite so easy to execute that plan – the ESTA visa gives UK citizens just 90 days. You also can’t pop in and out of Canada or Mexico to renew – you have to leave Norht America entirely. There are other, more expensive, options though and we are in the process of applying for a B1/B2 visa that will allow us to stay for longer.

Why did we buy a Skoolie?

Because they are so flippin’ cool!

Amazing camp spots: Image from

In truth, this was how we justified America. When we visualised a trip around the States from behind the wheel of a big, yellow bus, it became a totally different destination. It became the beautiful America, rather than the political one.

Of course one of the first things we found out is that ‘Chrome Yellow’, the famous particular shade for US school buses, is not allowed on converted RV’s. It’s a shame we have to change it but I guess it would be a bit awkward if you pulled over to take a call and a queue of schoolkids boarded your new home…

I plan to write a whole lot more about how we found our bus, how we learnt everything there is to know about skoolies and how we will convert it in this blog. If you fancy following our journey, sign up for blog updates.

But living in a bus for a year?

I’m sure it will be hard. Sometimes our 4 bed house doesn’t feel big enough for us all! We’ll just have to get used to it.

Family of 4 in campervan huddled together
We are used to small spaces!

I’m confident we will. I know it’s not the same, but we know we can adapt to a small space – our campervan quickly becomes home whenever we go away it it. We also know that this kind of travel works for us – heading out in Old Bill (our campers new name since it joined the Quirky Campers website for hire) we get the kind of spontaneity that is hard to find with young children. We can travel anywhere we fancy, sleep wherever we like (more or less!), discover places off the beaten track and enjoy random, unexpected adventures.

Of course a 37ft bus is not quite so manoeuvrable, we won’t be able to ‘stealth camp’, but the roads are bigger in America. The conversions are much more homely as well – proper tiny homes.

How will you convert it?

Who wouldn’t love living in this gorgeous space – photo from insta @laststopalaska

We did an enormous amount of research into the best way to convert a school bus. Buying a good bus is cheap (about $5000 USD) but the conversion process and storage of a vehicle is not.

We looked at whether my husband could fly out early to do the work himself, but without being in the US this was always going to be tough.

We looked into conversions that people were selling. There were some great value options but, again, we are not in the US so we can’t check them out and store them. We’d have to wait until the last-minute which is scary.

We looked at established companies in the US who do the conversions for you: Skoolie Homes, Colorado Custom Coachworks, Paved to Pines, Chrome Yellow and many more. Prices leaped to the $60k mark.

We even looked at whether it was do-able to bring it to the UK to convert it with a friend over here who has his own school bus conversion company. (Check out Shred & Butta for more on them). It opened up a million import and export issues. There is a whole blog piece I plan to write about our investigations if you are interested (or want something to fall asleep to!).

We’re now working with a company who build tiny homes in Salt Lake City. It’s taken us a while to work out contracts and insurance etc as he’s new to the skoolie conversion process. Everything is in place now though and the team are as excited as we are. Our bus has been collected and is currently sitting with them in SLC.

Will you have to home-school?

Award at school
No trophies and certificates at the school of mum and dad!

Yep, we plan to home school the kids. This scared me at first but it’s totally do-able. Amazingly, you don’t actually have to follow a curriculum if you teach your kids yourself. As we are only taking them out of school for a year, we will try and follow some of what their classmates are doing – just to help with continuity and to help them keep in touch.

We met with the headmaster and he thought it sounded like a great adventure. He said we should focus on maths and literacy but ‘the rest would just naturally come’ with the trip. The only minor concern he had was for the 6 year old who will be at a key learning point – at that age they get a much better sense of how they fit in the social structure of their class and how to interact with other kids. It’s important we ensure he mixes with other children. Another tick for America.

I’ve read lots of forums about schools making life tricky for families that want to home-school instead. We did not get this experience. Our headmaster was happy for us to work with the school and make it interactive and has told us he will sit with us himself to show us the school’s ‘maths philosophy’, which will help us teach the kids.

But yes, before you ask, we have to formally remove them from the school and then reapply when we want them to return. There is no guarantee that either child will be accepted – it all depends on space. Although this is a cause of concern, we won’t let it stand in the way.

How will you fund the trip?

We are going to realise our assets! That means we shall be storing our stuff and renting out our home and campervan. We’ll also continue to freelance – we both have the kind of jobs where remote working is completely acceptable. We may even look at opportunities for sponsorship. Ever fancied seeing your name on the side of a bus?!

America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Can you still go travelling in your forties?

Like lots of people our age, our twenties and thirties followed a pattern: university, backpacking, move to the city for a cool job (usually undertaken with a hangover),  find partner, do some slightly more glamorous travelling, move in together, buy a house, get married and have babies. It doesn’t have to be in that order, ours wasn’t, but we ended up ticking all those boxes in a way that felt very spontaneous and exciting.  Whoop whoop we said as we toasted our forties, we are winning at life!

Then we hit 41.

This day…

Every time Google or Facebook reminds me of where I was 8+ years ago, I feel less enchanted by my set-up.

Cool travel jobs
In my thirties my job involved photo-shoots abroad and product testing supercars and spa days

Life is very different in your forties. Here we are, tick-tocking along in suburbia with kids ensconced in the school system, a mortgage, a car that we need to take the kids to their various after school activities, careers that we’d like to rethink, the occasional night out when the grandparents are available to babysit and a campervan trip every year to France. We laugh with the kids and we try to fill our weekends with activities. It’s a nice life and we know we are very lucky. 

The problem is that we’re bored with it. We seem to spend a lot of time doing stuff that I don’t consider to be fun, particularly when the weather goes all cold and grey.  I don’t want to go to Thailand and drink buckets of Sangsom and red bull, it’s not about going back to being twenty, but I also don’t want to wile away my days on Amazon choosing plastic tat for birthday presents or comparing household appliances. I don’t want the best part of my day to be a bargain in Aldi or the right combo of wind and sun to ensure a ‘good drying day’. Surely there is more to life?

An epiphany

Lightbulb moment - new idea

After our amazing family adventures in Scotland last year. We kept talking about how great it would be to jack it all in and travel with the kids, sending each other articles about families adventuring in the world and following family travel bloggers on Instagram.

Then it hit us….. why couldn’t we? What was actually stopping us from travelling the world?

Family responsibility

When we last travelled, in our early thirties we dreamt of staying away – living in different places for 6 months at a time. We couldn’t because we felt the weight of responsibility. My father had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers and was fading away from us, bringing a whole host of logistical challenges and heartbreak to my mum, sister and I.  At the same time, my husband’s brother was seriously ill and he needed , and wanted, to be around. Being away from the UK wasn’t really an option.

Jumping into Lake Atitlan whilst travelling
Short-lived freedom

The passing of both my father and brother-in-law overlapped with the births of our two sons. Now our responsibilities are our children. We need to ensure we make their childhoods the best they can possibly be – full of happiness, learning and experience. We also need to keep them safe and provide a secure home for them.

We are achieving all of those aims with our current set-up. The big difference, we’ve realised, is that we don’t actually need to be based in the UK for that to happen. Children can go to school anywhere and if we want to keep moving, we could in theory home-school them. Given the current challenges with UK education, taking the boys out of school could be a positive rather than a negative.

Financial responsibility

Travelling the world with kids costs a lot of money – we are not blind to this – but whilst we don’t have endless savings, we do have assets that can be leveraged. This is where the freedom years of our thirties bear fruit; the flats that we kept as rentals, our trusty campervan and our house. If we can make them pay, we can potentially cover our travel costs. 

Of course when you leave your life behind, you potentially need to leave your stuff behind. But do we really need all the junk we have accumulated? Sometimes I look at all the kitchen appliances, the vases and plant pots, the nick nacks, pictures on the wall, the gifts we’ve received over the years that are not to our taste, the pinterest-inspired crafty things that I should never have tried to recreate and the bookcases full of other people’s stories and I feel weighed down by it all. How much of this do you actually need to live a good life? Very little I’m guessing.  Maybe a forced de-clutter would  be a good thing. 

Work is obviously an issue. A regular paycheck is a big reason to stay put. We can both freelance though, it just takes a bit of work to build contacts. As long as we have access to WiFi there is no reason why we couldn’t work from anywhere in the world and maybe a break would help us work out exactly what it is we want to do.  

This is starting to sound more do-able than not!

Fear of the unknown

Let’s take a reality check. Taking the kids out of school, relying on freelance  work, home-schooling selling all of our stuff, renting out our house, using up our savings to travel the world – it’s scary stuff that is not to be taken lightly. 

On the other hand, one thing I remember from times sitting in the hospital with my dad was that life is short and you can’t see what is coming. If you want to do something with your life, don’t delay it.

So what are the Travelling Chimps going to do?

Untitled-1We are going to research whether travelling in our forties with kids is actually do-able. We need to know that it is the right decision and not completely irresponsible.

We’re also going to stop buying so much unnecessary stuff, filling our house with things we don’t really need. Who knows – it might be that we need to put it all into storage so that the Travelling Chimps can go on a real adventure.

Travelling chimps

Are our kids getting a rounded education?

Sometimes it can seem a particular topic keeps appearing – some work comes your way, you spot an interesting talk or you hear something on the news… suddenly it’s everywhere. For me, the last couple of weeks have been all about education, the school system and whether our kids are learning the skills they need for the 21st Century.

I’m not going to touch on the bigger Government debate over education as it’s a minefield. Suffice to say the current system is flawed. The Guardian has claimed English schools are ‘broken‘; teachers are leaving the profession in droves because of workload and pressure to achieve high results; the number of primary children referred for specialist mental health support has risen by a third in the last 3 years and funding cuts are forcing schools to make difficult choices over how to spend their limited budgets.

Funding cuts in education

When do children start school?
When do children start school?

Recently a mail went out to parents to “Save Our Schools”. It was barely on my radar (so many messages come out of our school,  I can barely keep up!) and so we didn’t wait around after pick-up to be part of the photo and campaign. Funding cuts are never good but it’s a story that is repeated across the arts, youth services, police and fire services, NHS etc.  That’s not a reason not to campaign, I think I just partly felt that if it’s not schools then it will just impact somewhere else. I really should have looked into it a bit more though. Catherine Fisher, a founding member of Save Our Schools Brighton and Hove, quoted in the Brighton & Hove Independent that: “Last year we carried out a survey of 50 schools across Brighton and Hove to find out how they were coping with the cuts. Of those who took part, 88 per cent told us they had been forced to cut staff, two-thirds have cancelled building work and repairs, 94 per cent have cut equipment, 40 per cent have cut mental health support and 78 per cent expect the cuts to lead to poorer results.”

All of those things are going to affect what children learn at school and how ‘life-ready’ they are when they leave.

Under pressure…

It’s not just financial issues that are causing schools to change the way they educate, it’s the pressure to achieve good results. As well as a close focus on exam results, occasionally the Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) dragon rears its head at the entrance of a school, scaring the living daylights out of all the teachers as it tramples through the school looking for problems.

Ofsted Inspectors look at four main areas – pupil achievement, quality of teaching, behaviour and safety of pupils and quality of leadership/management.  A school judged as inadequate, and placed in either the ‘special measures’ or ‘serious weaknesses’ category, will be instructed to become an Academy by the Secretary of State for Education.  In the English education system, Academies are independent schools which get their funding directly from the government, rather than their local council. Although the Government try to sell it as a way to get more autonomy for schools, in reality it is just a step towards privatising education.

As an Academy, the head teacher is overseen by a Trust and as there are no restrictions on salaries or staff and you don’t have to follow the curriculum as closely, the Trust can do what they like. In January, the Perry Beeches Academy Trust was found to have paid an additional salary of £120,000 over two years to its former chief executive on top of his £80,000 annual salary. Financial mismanagement seems to crop up a lot in the failure of Trusts: The Wakefield Trust transferred millions of pounds of its schools’ reserves to its own centralised accounts before announcing, days into the new term, that new sponsors would need to be found. There’s not even any real proof they work. The UK fact-finding charity says that results are not really any different and there are plenty of articles from parents complaining about their kids getting a poorer education. It’s a big thumbs down to academies as far as I’m concerned.

What do parents want out of school?

School children
Reach for the skies

I’ve been working on a vision and mission statement for a local primary school. As part of their preparation work they spoke to parents about what they wanted for their kids as well as what they felt the school should be proud of. Unsurprisingly, parents focused on the importance of ‘less pressure’ and a broad curriculum that included the arts. They commented on the school’s great SEND support  and the outdoor space for sports and recreation.  The teachers’ focus group was the same. They wanted school to be a positive place for children and their families, a  fun, inspiring and inclusive space for all kids to engage and develop a passion for life-long learning.

Is it realistic to think they can achieve this?

No money + pressure = can schools achieve the right kind of education?

The Guardian posed a conundrum: ‘How does a school that struggles to pay for textbooks meet the increasing pressure to demonstrate high performance?’. The answer? Well, according to the article, they focus budget and time on key subjects – maths and literacy. Even Ofsted, in another Guardian article, acknowledges that schools feel pressured to gain positive results in end-of-year exams and are so are often forced to limit their curriculum in order to achieve.

In a previous job I worked with one of the top engineers in the country. He told me about the huge drive to engage young people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Some people add an A for arts in the mix too – STEAM. The Campaign for Science and Engineering has suggested the shortfall of STEM workers in the UK is as high as 40,000 each year, and in Brighton specifically demand for high level qualifications is expected to rise by 10% by 2022. So why are they having so much trouble recruiting young people? It seems kids are not given the time at school to indulge in the things that come naturally; when they are small they love nothing more than balancing on stuff, testing their weight, building brick towers – they are natural engineers – we just make them sit down and focus on filling in worksheets instead.

If we can’t afford the time or cost of things like science, arts or technology, will our kids be getting a fully rounded education? Will they be ready for the world? Will we be able to recruit for the jobs of the future?

How do we change education?
West Rise water buffalo

Last week I attended an RSA conference in Brighton called ‘Promoting Life Readiness – A Big Education Conversation’.  It promised an afternoon of discussion about how we get our young  people ready for the world and what we need to change in education so that the focus shifts from exams and paperwork to relevant learning.

There were three speakers. The one that truly stood out for me was Mike Fairclough, Headmaster of West Rise Junior School and author of ‘Playing with Fire: Embracing risk and danger in schools’ (which gives you a good idea of why he was up on the stage!). He told us the story of his school in Eastbourne, where they place an emphasis on resilience, freedom and self-expression.  The school leases 120 acres of wetland, including two lakes,  from the Council and it gives them the space they need to realise these ideas.

3000 years ago this area was the site of the second largest Bronze Age settlement in Europe and the school incorporates this into their learning. They have built replica bronze-age huts and have learnt how people of that time might have lived. Mike believes that if you expose kids to calculated risk and danger they are better able to cope. If they get cuts and splinters whilst foraging for food or building a fire to cook on, it’s put down as one of the ‘knocks of life’. Why should we mollycoddle them? After all, the average age of a Bronze Age man, a time where great leaps were made in civilisation,  was just 14.  That’s just a couple of years older than some of the kids at the junior school.

West Rise deliberately put kids outside of their comfort zone. There are a herd of water buffalo on the Marsh, dangerous creatures that need to be carefully approached; a million honey bees that need looking after in their hives and opportunities to paddle-board in the lake.  They also hold a Countryside Management day every year so children can try clay pigeon shooting, target practice, fly fishing and working with gun dogs. Some people might find the use of guns controversial but Mike feels that if they recognise their uses they normalise them; Great Britain holds the Olympic Gold Medal in this sport after all.

What’s interesting about West Rise is that all this opportunity and access to the outdoors has helped them achieve high standards not only in key subjects but also sport, music and the arts both in and outside school. “Pupils achieve well throughout the school and in a wide variety of subjects, benefiting from a rich and diverse curriculum.”  “Behaviour and safety are outstanding” Ofsted 2013.

Mike believes that one of the key things missing in the education curriculum is the chance to really ‘be’ in nature. To create free thinkers, you need to provide the freedom to think. While classroom studies are quite directive because of the curriculum, the ‘outdoor school’ set-up allows kids to have autonomy and promotes positive psychology. letting the kids build resilience, gratitude, perseverance, team work, self-discipline, self- awareness etc.

Learning from the outside in

Kids at the top of mountain
My first mountain! Outdoors is fun

The RSA event also encouraged us to join smaller debates around the room. Each table had a theme and I joined one hosted by Lucy Collins from Bee In The Woods, the first Ofsted-registered day nursery in Brighton & Hove with no roof and no walls. Lucy’s ‘forest kindergarten’ takes kids up to age 7. Everything is centred around letting children be children; they take their influence from the Forest School movement, Froebel, Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches. Kids lead the learning and the adults just help facilitate.  Just like Mike at West Rise, they give the kids power to make decisions and only get involved if they need to. Too often we jump in and take over then wonder why our kids lack the confidence to try.

I asked Lucy how they tick off all the developmental checklists required for EYFS and she said that it just happens. Without deliberately focussing on areas they naturally seem to cover topics. The hardest thing is writing down what the children say and do – they have to keep notebooks in their pockets and try not to let the recording distract them from the play.

Lucy recommended a book by Greg Bottrill “Can I Go and Play Now?”. The reviews on Amazon back her up – reader after reader thanks Bottrill for reminding them of the importance of play and how to bring it back into teaching. In an interview Greg said

“Education has a history of control, of giving children a curriculum and a narrow band of targets to achieve. Play lies beyond these. It is the ‘language’ of children, one that adults have long forgotten. It is absolutely critical that children are enabled to play. And not just in Early Years. Play has so much potential for creativity, communication, collaboration and well-bring as well as being the one thing that really engages children in periods of deeper level thinking that lies beyond table-based activities and book scrutinies.

We have a choice to my mind. We either crush play into the dirt and press on down the path towards ever increased formalised learning that sees children as empty vessels, or we try and explore ways to incorporate play and playful learning into our school day so that children can truly flourish and grow. As adults we fear play because we don’t understand it and can’t immediately see ‘learning’ – but it’s there in all its richness. We just need to start listening to children.”

Finding opportunities to inspire kids

The most inspiring practitioners are the ones that have the energy and enthusiasm to share something they love.  One of the speakers, Nick Corston, from Steam Co, is a massive advocate for connecting schools with communities and businesses to promote creativity and collaboration.  He believes these are vital skills that are at risk in our schools because of pressure to focus on maths and literacy instead of the arts.  I can well believe it – we had representatives in the room from Glyndebourne, globally recognised as one of the great opera houses, and Charleston, a home and work-space to The Bloomsbury group, and both of them said they had proactively tried to engage with schools but had no return. Back-stage tours were offered, a chance to watch shows – stuff that kids would absolutely love. The problem? We’re back to teachers again – they are too stressed, the curriculum is too restrictive and the pressure to achieve is too high.

How do we support our educators better?

The Independent interviewed a load of teachers. Half of them had been diagnosed with mental health issues and eight in 10 of their respondents (81 per cent) said “poor mental health had a negative impact on the quality of their relationships with their pupils”. If our teachers are not able to connect with children, what hope do they have of engaging them with learning? It’s a situation that has to change and there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. The support is certainly not coming from central Government. In some cases it is not coming from parents either.

Recently there has been some upset in our 8-year old’s class about how the teacher handles them. They are a group of 30 noisy kids, many with special educational needs. Whereas once we might have all just accepted the teachers knew what they were doing and left them to it (our kids aren’t saints after all), the dynamics between teachers and parents have changed. Parents shout louder, they have more demands and they take the side of the child more often.  There is just less deference to professional expertise. This isn’t always wrong, but it isn’t always right either. Messages fly around social media and before you know it, it’s a parents vs the teacher situation and it’s been escalated to the head – all without the teacher even being able to offer their side of the story.  No wonder it feels a bit stressful for the teacher.

There’s also a question about how much teachers should be responsible for. Ofsted launched an attack on lazy parents via the BBC at the weekend, saying parents need to take more responsibility for the kids and stop expecting schools and teachers to do everything for them. Perhaps we need to follow that thought and stop thinking about school as the answer to everything.

Taking education outside of school

Cities of Learning – soon to hit Brighton

Education isn’t just about school. There are also schemes bubbling away to try to help our young people city-wide and nationally. The RSA event mentioned was an attempt to get people to bring about change, One of the projects they support is Our Future City, who champion efforts to grow creativity in young people, improve well-being, develop digital skilfulness, enable routes into employment and sustain collective action and impact.  One thing they are working on together really inspires me: Cities of Learning. This ‘digital badge scheme’ allows young people to proactively go out and work with businesses to gain experience.  Not only do the badges they accrue from working in certain areas help them apply for work, it helps address the massive gap between school and starting work and teaches kids about the jobs of the future.

Stepping up

One thing we can do is support the schools’ efforts for change. Our primary does a lot to try to create a broad and balanced curriculum. It should be commended for that and supported by the parents. Whilst it takes results seriously and looks for high achievement, it places a lot of focus on creating rounded individuals and a strong parent community; a ‘snap-shot’ taken by Ofsted is not the most important thing.

Parents and carers should also realise school is not the only thing. If the  system is struggling to provide a balanced education because of funding cuts and high expectations, perhaps parents should be / need to be doing more. We should be taking our kids outside more, letting them lead the play and trying to learn from them. We can sign them up for things like Beavers or Brownies, we can take them to the theatre or, if that’s too pricey, take part in free arts events. In Brighton there is a plethora of them. These are our kids. If we want them to become world-ready and don’t believe school is providing a full education, we shouldn’t just sit there complaining about school – their hands are tied – we need to step up and teach them the things they need to learn so they become the people we want them to become.


Travelling chimps

The challenges of Brighton’s two week half-term holiday

Brighton & Hove parent’s and carers may want a cheap half-term holiday break but as we come to the end of a two-year trial, it seems the answer is not an extended October half-term.

Why did Brighton & Hove have a two-week half-term?

In 2016, Brighton & Hove ran a consultation with parents, carers and the children, young people and skills committee. Families were fed up of paying higher prices to travel during school breaks and wanted a way to reduce costs. Brighton and Hove decided to trial a new extended half-term holiday, lopping off days from Easter and Christmas, so that no educational days were missed.  I wasn’t aware of the consultation at the time, in fact only one person I know actually responded, but thought it might help support families struggling to pay for holidays.

Is travelling in school holidays much more expensive?

Campervan selfie
Summer holidays – van life!

FairFX looked at the price of family holidays for 4 (2 adults, 2 kids), comparing costs in June and July while the kids were at school against August prices, when school holidays have started. Predictably August was more expensive; out of the nine destinations they looked at, the average increase was £905 more in July and £1310 in June. We usually avoid the problem with a cheap family holiday in August to France – the van is our summer saviour – but it often isn’t super hot. I was quite up for using the extra half-term week for a sunny package holiday.

Why can’t you take kids out during term time?

In 2013 the Government issued national guidelines to head teachers about child absence. The rules state that a child can only be granted absence in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and family holidays are not in this category. You can make it as educational as you like, writing diaries, visiting sites relevant to your child’s learning or even bringing things back to school, but the headteacher’s hands are tied – if there is an absence because of holiday, they have to log it and a fine is issued.  Holiday operators rejoiced; with families no longer able to take kids out of school during term-time, they could further increase prices. What’a captive audience to do?

Pay or fight the fine?

Although the fine is a pain –  it’s £60 per child, per parent – for big holidays it often works out cheaper to travel during term time and pay the charge.  If you want a cheap family holiday though, adding a further £240 (2 kids) to the bill would prevent a lot of people booking. There’s no point fighting it – someone already tried that and failed. In 2015, father Jon Platt took his daughter out of school for seven-days and was fined by the Isle of Wight Council. He fought the charge and was initially successful but then the supreme court upheld the fine and not only did he have to pay, it cost tax payers £140,000.

So was the the two-week half-term holiday a success?

No. Although on paper it sounds like a fine idea, at the end of the trial a survey was sent out to see how people felt. Almost 4,500 people responded to say they wanted to revert to the existing pattern of school holidays. 

What went wrong?

Cyprus - empty, beautiful and hot in October
Cyprus – empty, beautiful and hot in October

I think that a lot of parents liked the idea but didn’t think it worked in October / November:

  1. It’s too soon: they’ve only just gone back to school after 6 long weeks of summer. As a working parent that meant 6 weeks of juggling childcare , followed by a month playing catch-up. It’s even worse for new reception starters, who joined the school later – they have barely been in the classroom for a month. I have a lot of pals that just don’t really want to go another family holiday and have been really struggling to cope with an additional cold, wet-weather week off school. Yuck!
  2. Money is tight: After 6 weeks of haemorrhaging money on summer activities and Christmas on the horizon, a family holiday is tough to justify for lots of families.
  3. The sun is further away:  Holiday brochures and websites would have you believe that Europe has a wealth of sunshine, beaches and swimming pools and they do, as long as you go before the end of September. If you want that same kind of holiday in October / November, Europe is cooling down rapidly. You need to go much further south if you want the sun. We had friends that went to Italy (cool), the Canaries (stormy) and Florida (lovely).  It’s hit and miss – we were in Cyprus last year and it was gorgeous.
  4. Longer flights = higher prices: If you want to go on a big holiday to America or Africa etc. an extra week at the end of October / November is ideal as you can make some real savings. If you wanted to get a last-minute cheap deal though, it’s tough. Cyprus was pricey last year and we had friends that had to pay out £2k+ for a trip to Lanzarote this half-term.
  5. Family and friends: Lots of our friends spend their holidays with family but unless they live in Sussex, that doesn’t work.
  6. Teaching parents: A few of our pals are teachers in West Sussex – we live close to the border – and they don’t have the same holidays as their children.
  7. School friends at the buffet: It seemed that half of our school were going to the Canaries for the additional week. We love our school friends but there is a reason why we all book our own holidays and don’t book as a massive group – we all like to get away from our Brighton & Hove life when we holiday. We want to hang out with our own kids, do our own thing. If you bump into school pals on the beach or in the restaurant, it feels weird to not join up.  It’s also impossible if the kids all spot each other!

What about switching to the February or May half-term holiday?

February would be just as expensive for sunny holidays but May would have been lovely. The Mediterranean is great at that time of year and you wouldn’t have to go far. We spent the last May half-term holiday cycling through Northern France to Paris and it was gorgeous. The one before that we had a cheap villa in the Algarve and it was glorious sunshine everyday. The problem is SATS. It’s a bad time of year for the year 6’s and the teachers, so May appears to have been vetoed.

Did the Travelling Chimps make use of the extra week?

Of course we did! We wanted to book a cheap overseas break but, for a few of the reasons above, decided it wouldn’t work for us. We didn’t fancy the van in the cold, so booked a last-minute cottage in Kingsand, Cornwall through Coolstays. We lucked out with the weather and had sunshine most days. It was cold but as we weren’t in Fuerteventura expecting it to be bikini weather, that was fine. This was more a log-fire and cosy blanket holiday!

We spent much of the week pottering. Kingsand and Cawsand are two quintessentially Cornish villages, joined together via a selection of narrow windy streets with just a few pubs and cafes and one shop. Because the roads are so narrow, there is no space for cars to park, which really made me want to live in a place where traffic does not exist. It was lovely just to wander around the multi-coloured, car-free streets, deciding which of the crooked houses we’d most like to live in. We went down to the beach every day – just a couple of minutes from our cottage – it was perfect for rock-pooling but it also had a wonderful old pub on the beach with a log fire and local craft beers.

In terms of location, Kingsand is perfectly placed for a family holiday. You get the quaintness of a perfect Cornish village plus easy access to family activities. On day one we trekked for 5 miles to Rame Head, day 3 we managed a 3 mile walk to Edgecombe House, timed to coincide with a Halloween treasure hunt, and on day 6 we took the ferry from Cawsand Beach to Plymouth. The little boat takes just 30 minutes (an activity in itself) and gives you access to the city. We went to the National Marine Aquarium and made a little google movie of our day out.

Travelling chimps

Snailspace – is it is as good as Snowdogs by the Sea?

This summer Brighton has been invaded by snails. Not the slimy type, but the arty, fibre-glass sculpture type. There are 50 giant ‘Snailspace’ molluscs at locations across the city, all hand-painted by local artists, community groups and schools. It is the second time the Martlets, a Brighton palliative-care charity, have created a giant sculpture trail to fundraise. After the success of Snowdogs by the Sea, it was hotly anticipated.  But is it as good?

Snail spotting

Snail space Hove Park
Our most expensive snail. We got a parking ticket trying to tag this one. Grrrr

The boys, particularly our youngest, was snail-mad from the moment they brought a junior snail into school for the kids to decorate. Soren, 5 and a half, could remember the Snowdogs but was a bit too young to really take part in the trail. Kit had been involved in creating the schools Snowpup, the schools version of the Snowdog, and it was Kit who is in all our Snowdog photos (sometimes with Soren strapped into a bike seat in the background!). This time Soren clearly decided it was his turn to lead the charge.

For the past few weeks we have been incorporating the art trail into our weekends, often choosing where to go based on where we can spot new snails. We’ve taken our bikes out on the seafront, hiked around Stanmer Park, gone for a family meal at the Marina on a Friday night, trekked around the Laines and been to the Duke of Yorks for Saturday morning kids club.  I have to admit, it’s been lovely exploring the city with an aim. I hate it when we get to weekends and end up lolling around the house because we’ve done all the free activity options to death. The snails do make you see the city in a new way and I’ve enjoyed seeing new art by the local community.  We’ve seen some amazingly decorated shells – some by artists we know, who have loved the opportunity to showcase their work as part of a city-wide project, which is wonderful.

What wasn’t very wonderful was getting a parking ticket for £100 at Goldstone Retail Park for leaving our vehicle in the car park while we dashed across the road to see the Hove Park snail and take part in Hove Junior Park Run. They watched us leave and even though the shops were closed, we were only 20 minutes and we didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, they have been targeting the junior park run and trying to catch out parents between 9 and 9.30. So devious.

What do the kids think of Snailspace?

So why does Soren like Snailspace?  I asked and the verdict was “I really like the name snail trail. I like finding new ones – it’s fun. The best one so far is one that I haven’t seen yet”. I’m not sure whether his answer is confusing or enlightening but either way he is enjoying it. I love it when he scoots at super-speed because he’s spotted a new one or shouts out of the car window at people ‘there! there!’ , assuming everyone’s focus is on finding giant gastropods!

Kit, at 8, seems less interested. Although he loved the first trail and was super keen to download the app for this one, he lost interest quickly. If we spot one while we are out and about he’ll go and look but if he has a better offer (a chance to go to Smiggle for example), or tracking one down means a detour and a longer walk, he doesn’t want to do it. I was surprised when he said that he thinks Snailspace is better than the Snowdogs, when I grilled him on it though it was because  “the snails have funnier names like ‘I ain’t no slug’ and ‘Gary’.  

What was the first art trail in Brighton?

Disco Dog Snowdogs by the Sea
Kit’s favourite was Disco Dog

In October 2016 the Martlett’s launched The Snowdogs by the Sea – a whole new thing for Brighton. There were 44 giant Snowdog sculptures placed all around the city and everyone was full joy about Brighton’s claim on Raymond Briggs, author of the Snowman™ and The Snowdog. I was working for Brighton i360 at the time and the owners had sponsored a dog, which we named Belle, so we were part of the huge build up to the launch. I’d heard about similar art trails in Bristol and the ensuing public enthusiasm, so was thrilled that Brighton & Hove had fallen under the same spell. I also thought it was brilliant that the schools were also getting involved, creating Snowpups that would also be displayed. Well done Brighton!

When I quizzed Kit as to why he enjoyed Snowdogs by the Sea so much and he said:  “I liked that there was loads of different art pieces and none of them had a mistake on it. And I loved finding them. My favourite was disco dog”. 

Much as we have done with Soren this time round, we traipsed across the city on Kit’s command, looking for Snowdogs and scanning QR codes to add them to our app. We met up with friends and explored the city, we even paid to go to an extra date of a ‘sell-out’ event to see all the Snowdogs in one room.  At that point, 2 months after launch, it started to feel a bit like the Martlets had done as much as they could with it – it was rammed in there, underwhelming (we had already seen them all on the street), they were selling tons of Snowdog merchandise that we didn’t want (but of course the kids did) and you couldn’t even get a drink. We left feeling quite sick of the sight of those pesky pups and must have had the ‘at least it was for charity’ conversation with about 10 other similarly frazzled parents on the way home.

Why have they done another art trail in Brighton?

The whole Snowdogs by the Sea event was phenomenally successful for the Martlets and so it is not surprising they wanted another bite at the cherry. Not only did it raise £310,000 for the Martlets but it also contributed £10.1 million to the local economy, with 42% of people visiting somewhere new in the city because of the trail. In the end, over 350,000 people went hunting for the Snowdogs and shared their photos and stories online (#BrightonSnowdogs made 14.6 million impressions!).

Brighton charities like to share learning and whilst working for TDC (Trust for Developing Communities), I went to a talk by the Martlets about the impact of the trail. Along with the above info they told us that they were planning a new trail for 2018. I, along with many others in the room, questioned whether this was foolhardy – like winning at the casino and then staking your winnings on another go. Wasn’t it risky? Would people really want to do another trail? Apparently yes. They confidently told us that it takes 2 years for people to reach a point where they are ready to go again – enough time to remember the first time fondly but not feel as if they are out of pocket from the last round of fundraising.

I didn’t wholly believe I would engage with another trail it but it’s true – I wasn’t as excited by the arrival of the snails but I’ve definitely enjoyed searching the city for them.

So why the Martlets and not another charity?

Hove Seafront racing snail
Escaping the norm – one of the snails with more than just a paint job.

At the Martlets talk, the fundraising team talked about the gamble they took by setting up Snowdogs by the Sea.  They told us how much it cost to run and although I can’t recall it now, I remember being absolutely gobsmacked. It was far more than the majority of local charities could have spent on an event – a massive gamble.

If the Martlets had not had success getting the £5k sponsorship for each sculpture then it may have been a very different story for them. As it turned out, it was the right move – they are well established in the city and have loyal supporters including several major donors. Once a couple of businesses and individuals had invested all the others followed suit – how could they not, it was so public. I’m sure a few of them felt like they didn’t really have a choice – I was working for BAi360 at the time and we had to spend a huge chunk of our minuscule marketing budget on our dog for fear of losing public and business support if we didn’t. In a way they had us over a barrel.

When so many people have invested in an event (both financially but also physically – the Snowdogs were painted by artists and then businesses got to choose which one they wanted to sponsor at an event on the Pier. At the sound of the whistle you had to run and put your sticker on the one you chose… there were raised voices, people on the floor – it sounded like carnage!) everyone wants it to be a success. It launched to adoration; Brighton & Hove fell in love with Snowdogs. Even when the trail finished up people were bidding huge amounts at auction to keep them forever. The Martlets even told us people who weren’t regular supporters were paying thousands for dogs to keep in their gardens at home. What a shame that GDPR means that you can’t ever look into who those people are and whether they’d like to carry on donating

But why snails this time?

The Martlets work with Wild in Art, the company behind most of the pop-up public art trails in UK cities. This year alone they have had GoGoHares in NorwichBee in the City in Manchester, Maggie’s Penguin Parade in Dundee, Hoodwinked: A Twist on the Tale in Nottingham, Worcester Stands Tall in Worcester, Elmer’s Big Parade in both Suffolk and Plymouth, Go Wild Gorillas in Jersey, Wallabies gone Wild on the Isle of Man and even another Snowdogs Trail in Ashford.  They have the concept nailed – you can either pick from a portfolio of animals that make a good ‘blank canvas’ or work with their team to design something that fits your city.

According to the Martlets site, the choice of snails was suggested by Charlie Langhorne, Director of Wild in Art,. He said it was because they thought Brighton needed ‘something unexpected’ after the Snowdogs. Imelda Glackin, CEO of Martlets, felt that the snail was a perfect emblem for the work the Martlets do – it encourages people to slow down and enjoy their time with loved ones. I’m not entirely convinced the concept was reached before the list of sculpture options arrived – snails to me do not conjure up images of quality time – but I don’t think it really matters what they chose. It’s the trail and the art that are important, not the canvas on which it is displayed.

So will Snailspace be as popular as the Snowdogs by the Sea?

Prisnailla – our first snail, decorated by my friend’s wife Francesca Grace Mcleod. Very talented and very alone at Brighton Marina.

I seem to remember from the Martlets talk that Wild in Art had predicted they would make even more money on the second trail. So far it’s looking positive – there are more 6 more snails than there were Snowdogs and it doesn’t seem as if they had trouble filling the corporate sponsor slots. I’m sure most of the previous sponsors were approached again; it would seem churlish to decline participating this time around. That said, there is a definite lack at the Black Rock end of town – just the one hidden in a square at the Marina. Instead they’ve been replaced by new sponsors, keen to get in on the citywide action.

In terms of popularity it’s hard to judge. The trail is still on the streets and whenever you pass one there are people are going crazy for the critters – photographing and uploading their snaps. Kit thinks that  it won’t be as popular as ‘Snowdogs was the first’. I’m inclined to agree. The Snowdogs were more exciting and interesting because they were the first of their type. I also think that whilst the snail art has been wonderful, there isn’t the variety in texture / style that we had with the Snowdogs. Most of them are just brightly painted – albeit beautifully – whereas the kids loved the Snowdogs with mirror tiles and fur.

There are a couple of snails that have veered away from the norm – I love the one on Hove seafront which is styled to look like a car and has seats inside the shell – that one will definitely sell at auction. I do think they are missing a trick with snails climbing up walls though and I’d like to have seen a different take on the idea – something new for 2018… BAi360’s snail in graffiti on top of a rooftop perhaps?

It will be interesting to see what happens at the end – I don’t think the auction element will be as popular as before – for all those people who bought a Snowdog, you rarely see them displayed. When you do, they seem big and slightly out-of-place.  I would have guessed that a lot of them are now sitting in store rooms but the Martlets did a follow-up article that showed lots of them in their new homes. I’m not sure it’s a selling point that one of them – Dave the Dog – helps to keep seagulls away from the pub garden at Hove Place. That’s one expensive scarecrow! Perhaps the Martlets predicted the evolution of interest though – 2018 has other revenue streams; tiered sponsorship and an app you have to pay for.

Whatever happens. whichever is best, we’ve enjoyed Snailspace. It’s engaged us, got us travelling on foot and by bike across the city, helped the kids learn about art, shown us new parts of Brighton & Hove and it’s raised a bit of money for a good cause. So maybe the auction won’t be as successful as 2016 but I’m sure the Martlets will be overall. Good luck to them – even if I do end up sick of snails

Travelling chimps

Family driving – passenger or driver?

I almost always take the passenger seat when we go away as a family in the campervan. Hubby doesn’t stake his claim on the driver’s chair because it’s ‘his domain as the man of the house’ any more than I take the passenger seat because I’m not confident driving a huge yellow monster.

The truth of the matter is we both make the same gamble every time we strap in – the kids. The other half doesn’t risk it – if you are the driver you have a legitimate reason to ignore the shouting from the back. You can’t dish out the snacks, sort out the iPads, pick up the teddy that fell on the floor or prop up a head that is lolling around at a freakish angle as they sleep (how is that comfy?!). It’s over to your co-pilot.

If you are the co-pilot, you  regularly have to unbuckle, wobble towards the back of the campervan and sort out the issues. This usually results in getting shouted at for doing something wrong and getting covered in various spillages and sticky stuff because lids were not on bottles, apple cores and banana skins are stuck to chairs and when we went round a bend they ‘forgot’ that stuff might roll off the table and now there are crisps everywhere and bottles rattling around. It’s not a relaxing time.

As a driver, this point of chaos is a perfect time to set your driving arena. While your co-pilot is busy timing 60 second intervals so that a one-position clip on fan can be moved between each overheating child, the radio can be set to your listening pleasure. For him this means the cricket – even better, he can put it on headphones because I don’t like to listen to it, further drowning out the kids.

But wait, a traffic jam.

This is about the time the gamble pays off. Children cooled,  tablets on and some kind of snack successfully launched at their mouths, it’s time to sit down and justifiably, relax. There is no foot ache by pressing up and down on the brake every few seconds, just coffee, a podcast and, because you are in a van and higher than most other cars, some nice views.  There are usually even some snacks that you accidentally forgot to give the kids still in your hand.

Of course we can’t always rely on our devices to alleviate the boredom of the road. Here’s a poem I wrote about the campervan whilst stuck on some particularly long and dull toll roads in France. Take that driver – you just got to the look at the concrete.

Poem about a campervan full of recycled objects


Travelling chimps

Le campervan holiday in France – our top tips

We’ve just come back from our 5th campervan holiday to France. This was our longest yet – 10 days, 9 nights – and so we headed further south than we’ve been before, with the beaches and seafood of Ile de Re on our minds. So was the big road trip worth it? Did it beat the shorter trips to the Opal Coast, Normandy, Brittany and The Loire around Saumur? What lessons have we learned? Here are 10 thoughts on campervanning in France:

Lesson 1: Westende-Bad news

Belgium road signs
Belgian signs

We bought ‘Yellow Peril’ in April and having missed the early bird cheap seats, managed to book on to a ferry from Dover to Dunkirk that summer. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we’d built the beds, bought a portable toilet, gas stove and an All the Aires book, so figured we’d learn how to have a campervan holiday on the job. Although we love France, we had heard the Belgium beaches were gorgeous and so we turned left off the ferry and drove alongside the coast to Westende-Bad. It turns out that Belgium does indeed have beautiful beaches but beware – we had barely strayed from the car before Kit cut his foot on glass in the dunes. When we went back to the van to find plasters, the police were bolting a lock on the van for parking in the wrong place (there were no signs) and in all the confusion Soren fell out of the van and cut his head. We then went into the town and had a dull meal that cost a packet. Lesson learned – stick with France.

Lesson 2: Opal Coast – the perfect first-timers campervan holiday

Oysters by the river
The cost is the best for seafood. Oysters from Île de Ré were perfect for Guido 

We drove back to France and spent the rest of the week on the Opal Coast, driving from Bray-Dunes along beaches and dunes to Le Touquet-Paris-Plage and Wimereux. There was plenty of lovely wandering around fishing villages, good seafood and some incredible aires – one in the field of a farm overlooking the coast, another next door to a local brewery. They cost barely 5-10 euro for a night and in almost all of them a Boulangerie van would turn up in the morning with the most delicious croissants and pain au chocolat.

As we don’t have a shower, every couple of nights we’d book into the municipal campsites. They were always clean, had a park for the kids and again, took your boulangerie order for the morning. Why on earth do we not have this in the UK??!!

It was a chilled week with short driving distances and minimal costs – definitely the cheapest of our trips.  Calais would have been a better port to sail into and out of, but Dunkirk is not that much further.

Lesson 3: Take your own sandwiches and take cover

Mille Feuille Patisserie and Beer
Mille feuille fights. Patisserie is finer in Brittany and Normandy. 

In our second year of vanning we took the Newhaven – Dieppe ferry and drove to Brittany to spend a week on the Crozon peninsula. It was a longer drive but as we left earlier in the year (end of May), we hoped the drive would help secure slightly warmer weather.

We had a good stopover in Mont St Michel, which was fun to explore for the kids. Top tip – take your own sandwiches and eat them away from the gulls….. my 8 euro cheese baguette was snapped up as soon as I put it on the wall to help the kids open theirs, plastic and all.

Lesson 4: The beaches of Brittany – perfect for wild campervan holidays

Wild camping in Brittany is hard to beat

We had booked our first site – a recommendation from friends – at La Pointe in Chateaulin. It was a lovely leafy spot and a 20 minute walk into the town for beers and patisserie.  They still have the award for best breakfast Pain au Raisin and I’ve tested many!

From Chateaulin we drove around the edge of the Crozon peninsula and although we stayed at a couple of lovely sites, the best nights were those where we parked up on the coast for free. Brittany’s rugged coastline means there are endless coves with winding roads leading to empty beaches. Although I don’t think you are officially supposed to stop on the road, my personal opinion is that it’s ok to stop for a night if you are not a nuisance to anyone and you move on in the morning. We found a gorgeous layby that overlooked two beaches either side of a headland – aside from one dog walker the next morning we didn’t see a soul. I had my birthday there and it was magical.

Lesson 5: Aires rock

St Valery en Caux
Aires pop up everywhere – often in the best spots in town. This one in St Valery-en-Caux was close to Dieppe. Aires make a campervan holiday very cost-effective.

We were, and often still are, struck at how much more accommodating the French are with campervans. They encourage you to stop on your campervan holiday and enjoy the area, rather than refusing you access because you are staying in mobile accommodation. On the way back from Brittany we stopped in a place called Dinan. There was an incredible aire, again costing a pittance, that was next to a scenic river and within an easy walk of a beautiful little town. We had the most gorgeous stroll through cobbled streets, eating some of the finest patisserie and drinking cocktails at a bar overlooking the river.  If this was England then there would definitely have been a height barrier stopping us parking and we’d probably have driven right on past, missing the experience.

Lesson 5: Are you a museum type??

Canons and boys
Normandy was a fairly intense history lesson for a campervan holiday

Our third trip was to Normandy.  Although the additional hours to drive to Brittany were definitely worth it, the beaches and food in Normandy are renowned. We booked the Newhaven – Dieppe ferry for the summer holidays and as it was likely to be hot in August in Normandy, it was a good time to try it out.

Top aire tip – St Valery en Caux is a great spot to park up. It’s close enough to Dieppe to make the journey to the ferry but is far more interesting than the one in Dieppe town. It’s next to the water and a short walk to restaurants etc.

Beaches good, wine good, cheese good, patisserie good, level of war talk – not so good. Of course I agree we must remember the enormous impact of war and the tragedies that occurred all along the Normandy coastline, but it did make for a different holiday. We had based ourselves around the sites of the 5 famous landings – UtahOmaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. For the most part the stories of the different nations involved is both interesting and humbling, but it was hard to get past the idea that we were sunbathing on a beach and swimming in a sea in which thousands of men were killed. I also felt as if we should visit the various museums and sights as we were there, which wouldn’t normally be something we do on holiday. I can’t recall any other trip in which we went to one museum, let alone several.  If the historical angle works for you, Normandy is great. For us, it was a tad too much.

Lesson 6: There’s more to France than the beach

towing a rubber dinghy
We have a three man kayak, so Kit gets to captain his own dinghy, which we then tow!

As well as a big yellow van, we also own a big yellow kayak. We decided to head inland on our 2017 trip to France to check out life on the Loire. Saumur had come recommended, so we headed inland and camped near the city itself. This was our first experience of a proper touristy campsite – it was packed, with a million children in the pool and a massive wait at the bar for pizzas and beer.  It was an amazing spot – the river and Saumur castle were a fantastic  backdrop, but we were keen to head out. We preferred the municipal site at Chinon – again sitting under a big castle and next to a river, but much quieter.

We did two kayak trips in one week – one down the Vienne river from Chinon to St-Germain-sur-Vienne and another on the Loire itself. Both were beautifully scenic with easy paddling down stream and quiet banks in which to moor up and picnic. We barely saw a soul and there were dragonflies, butterflies… even a coypu (Ragondin in French), a giant rodent that was introduced from Latin America. I am not a rat fan and this was not a happy sighting for me… ugggghhhh!

Lesson 7: Normandy trumps the Loire for patisserie and cheese

It’s true – Normandy does the food bit best. Even on our recent campervan holiday to La Rochelle we did not find treats quite as good as those served up north.  The oysters were plentiful but our dinners out were a bit disappointing. Unfortunately for Guy, he is such a good cook that we prefer to let him create magic in the van. On one night he turned out four different pasta dishes, including vongole. On a two-hob burner that is impressive!

Lesson 8: Peage through the nose

Everyone we spoke to in the Saumur area recommended the Vendee – the part of the Loire closest to the coast. We decided to do that on this holiday, heading to La Rochelle and Île de Ré. As with last year, we were stung by the peage to get down there. You really have to factor it into your holiday costs overall – it easily cost us 150 euros to travel on the toll roads. If you have more time then you can go off route a bit. We calculated a 2 hour time saving sticking to the tolls though and so we figured it was worthwhile.

Rockpooling was great on the coast around St Marie de Re

It’s also worth factoring that if you want to keep your campervan holiday cheap, you also have to pay to go to Ile de Re across the bridge. It wasn’t enormously expensive but when you’ve been whipping out your card every couple of hours on the toll roads, it feels like another hit. It’s also a lot pricier to stay at campsites on Ile de Re because it’s a popular tourist destination. We later read in forums that Ile de Oleron is just as lovely as Ile de Re, has less people and no bridge toll.  Perhaps that would have been a better bet.

Lesson 9: Bikes not scooters in Ile de Re

We almost got a bike rack installed on the van but figured it was not worth the expense (apparently an expensive tow bar is needed to make it compatible… yawn). Instead we took the kid’s scooters. If you are thinking of getting a bike rack installed for your campervan holiday, do it before you visit this part of France as everybody uses bikes to get around Ile de Re. There are plenty of great bike paths all over the island.

St Martin de Re
Beautiful towns are easily explored by bike on Ile de Re

We decided to hire bikes – there are lots of shops with all sorts of bike configurations to suit the family. The popularity of biking is a problem though – they had run out of kids bikes by the time we reached the front of the queue in St Marie de Vincent bike shop and we had to go with two tow-along bikes that fixed to our bikes.  It was great for the kids as they could be lazy, but the heavy loads were tough for us! We cycled from St Marie de Vincent to La Flotte and then on to St Martin de Vincent – both of which were lovely, like mini La Rochelles.

Lesson 10: More southerly = more touristy

Ile de Re’s popularity was a down-side for us as campsites were busy, restaurants packed out and there seemed to be queues for everything. I also didn’t think the beaches warranted the adoration they received – they were good for rockpooling but not so much for swimming.

We decided to leave the tourists behind and head to La Tranche sur Mer for a quiet few days on the beach. It was described as ‘reminiscent of Mediterranean towns’ and so I was expecting whitewash and shutters. Instead it was reminiscent of places like Paphos – absolutely rammed with people and ‘expat style’ restaurants.  We chose to stay further into the forest to escape – at relaxed campsite called Las Ramiers. There was a 20 minute walk through the forest to a glorious, empty and unsupervised beach. Beautiful, but perhaps not worth the additional cost and time of getting there.  Brittany had just as lovely beaches and were much easier to reach.

Have we learnt from our lessons?

Campervan holiday selfie
Family travels in the van – the last summer for a while…

Of course! If we came back for another campervan holiday we would do more of Brittany – it was cheap, full of wild camp opportunities and great food.


Well yes, we have another holiday on wheels planned for next summer. More on that another day!


Travelling chimps

Cherry Picking and what to do with the crop

What do you buy as a wedding gift for a couple who have been together for 10 years and have everything they need…. a cherry tree of course!

Renting a cherry tree

For one year only we are the proud renters of a Colney cherry tree on Bentinck farm, a small, independent fruit and nut farm in Kent.  The farm does all the boring bits – bug sprays and wotnot – and we just get to go and visit at the two most relevant part of a cherry tree’s cycle – the blossom and the fruit.

Cherry blossom

Boys running cherry blossom
Running through the cherry blossom

The trees blossomed in April and so we headed down to Kent for the day to frolic. It was an instagrammers paradise with blue skies and white flowers stretching for miles. Alright, so it wasn’t quite on the scale of the Japan blossoms – the trees were perhaps a little more squat that I was imagining – but we still had a lovely time and the pics must have been ok as our insta was ‘followed’ by lots of Japanese cherry blossom fanatics when he posted up a shot of the boys running through the trees.

The farm is just outside Tunbridge Wells and we had planned to see the blossoms, grab a bite to eat at a local eaterie and spend the weekend in our van in a quiet Kentish spot. Heads up – the outskirts of Tunbridge is not lovely or quiet in anyway. As we were late to get to the cherries, the boys  lasted 20 minutes before they were starving. We couldn’t find a pub that had a parking space and ended up stuck on a horrible ring road failing to find the entrance to a Tesco for emergency stores. Eventually we picked up pre-packaged sandwiches for the grumpsters and found a nearby park for a picnic and a quick game of cricket. It was hot and overcrowded and everyone was grumpy so, after a search on various campervan forums showed that there was no good wild camp spots in the area, we packed up and headed back to the beach at Newhaven. Results of the weekend: cherries 1, Kent 0.

Bring on the berries

Colney cherries in tree
Come here my pretties!

I was more excited about the cherries themselves than the flowers. I LOVE cherries and spend a fortune on them at the shops. I guess they are expensive because they have a short season – late June to August – and this year the weather has been so crazy it was tough to predict when the darn things would fruit.  We get updates from Mark the owner and, give or take a couple of weeks, he got the dates right and we managed to keep our diary free enough to drop everything and head back to Kent.

This time we were prepared. We took a picnic with us, gave Tunbridge and it’s Tesco a wide berth and brought games to play with the kids. The weather was a scorcher and so we rigged up shade, set up chairs and settled in for the day.

The Cherry harvest

And mega it was – our Colney (and the edges of the neighbouring trees, which Mark said was fine as he leaves a tree spare between each rental in case crops are low!) yielded absolutely loads. Colneys are dark and sweet and we gorged our way through our picking session – 1 for me, 1 for the trug! The trees are low, which meant the kids could pick just as well as we could, and we ended up carting three trugs back to our picnic spot.


Full of cherries we barely touched our picnic, but It’s a lovely setting and we just lolled about for a couple of hours. Mark the owner is super chatty, sitting down to pass on top tips for how to best use a mega crop of cherries. However much you love them, you’ll be sick of eating them at some point and they won’t last long enough for you to build up another appetite!

Booze fest

Cherry drips
Cherry coloured casualties as we pit the cherries and put them into booze

Mark’s top tip was booze and so we stocked up on vodka and brandy and went into production. Each 1 litre vodka bottle needed twenty five cherries. The suggestion for the brandy was to cram in as many cherries into a kilner jar as you possibly could, then pour brandy over to fill the gaps. We ended up with 7 bottles of vodka and 2 jars of brandy. The vodka will be ready in a month – still good for summer boozing – and the cherries will be perfect for Christmas.

cherry vodka and cherry brandy
One month to wait until these babies are good to go

Grandma’s top tip was a cherry clafoutis, which looks gorgeous. Based on my cooking skills though, I think we should leave the baking for her and the bottles to me – with those handmade labels I think Chimps Cherry Vodka might be a good contender for the next Sussex Food and Drink awards – we’ll keep you posted!

How to rent your own tree

Bentinck Farm’s website makes it all very easy.  You purchase rental on their website for a single season (March to October). You will get a certificate showing the type of tree and the individual number. As mentioned, Mark emails to let you know when the blossom and the harvest are and will give more specific dates as they become apparent. The farm does all the management alongside their commercial trees, so your tree gets a high standard of treatment.  They “aim to provide a memorable and enjoyable experience which brings people closer to the way their food is produced, and the ability to see exactly where it comes from.” and I would say that they achieve this. Thanks Mark!

Travelling chimps

Travelling Chimps meet Steve Backshall

When the email subject flashed up in the corner of my screen #meetsteveb, I had a little flutter… could it be??? Could it possibly be???? Yes it could! The boys had won a competition to meet the king of kids TV – the super cool, super adventurous… drum roll please….  Steve Backshall!

Watch our fab video of the Steve Backshall day


How did we win the Steve Backshall competition?

Boys on mountain with Steve Backshall competition
The winning photo

It was back in January when we were shopping for warm clothes for our Highland mountain-top wedding in Mountain Warehouse. The boys were deep into the Deadly 60 series and when we spotted Steve B clothing, they dumped all of the ski clothes I told them to hold and picked up animal-themed t-shirts instead. We convinced Kit a fleece would be more useful but Soren was resolute – it was the tiger top or nothing (except probably a tantrum!). As if to prove his dedication to winning, he didn’t even seem to regret his choice when I made him strip off his ski-suit on the top of an icy Stac Pollaidh in gale force winds, to stand and smile in his tiger tee! He saved his tag and reminded me to send in the picture when we got home.

Fast forward a few months and we got the email – the boys were winners!


We were invited to go to the Living Rainforest in Newbury to join 3 other winners for a private tour of the centre with Steve Backshall.  I was expecting something fairly formal – a tour and then a Q&A with Steve, but it was a really friendly, relaxed morning in which Steve spent the whole time with us – chatting to the kids and parents about whatever they / we were interested in.  The kids were all given Mountain Warehouse goodies – a bag, water bottle and new Steve Backshall outfits, which they immediately put on, and then before the doors opened to the public, we set off on our expedition through the rainforest!

Lucia, one of the Living Rainforest’s guides, walked us around the two large greenhouses and introduced us to the animals and plants that we met along the way.  I didn’t envy her job – the official site describes Steve as ‘one of TV’s best-known wildlife presenters, naturalists, writers, public speakers and adventurer’ – which I imagine is a bit off-putting for anyone who has to lead a wildlife tour, but she did a fantastic job, engaging all the kids and answering all sorts of questions. Steve interjected with his own knowledge and personal experience, talking to us about armadillos, water dragons, toucans, snakes etc, they made a good double-act.

Meeting the animals at the Living Rainforest

Steve Backshall and Soren posing for the camera's feeding monkeys
Steve and Soren flash smiles for the camera

As a surprise treat, the kids were invited to feed the toucan and the monkeys. Steve had talked about how the toucan’s beak looked large and vicious but was amazingly dainty when it came to picking up berries etc, so it was great to witness first-hand the bird gently pluck half a grape out of Kit’s hand.

Steve took the boys to feed the Goeldi’s monkeys, showing them how to hold the little wriggly bugs in their palm so the monkeys could grab them. There were three monkeys and the Soren (and the press photographer) was in his element watching them come bounding forward to grab their treat. It was an incredible opportunity and I was very jealous watching from outside the cage!

What was Steve Backshall like?

Steve Backshall and Kit and Soren
Steve let Kit and Soren interview him for their classmates

He was really normal – a genuinely friendly chap who is passionate about wildlife and nature. It was easy to forget he was famous until he was invited by Lucia to contribute. Watching him launch into his spiel about whichever animal we were with, face and body animated, making direct eye contact and rarely stumbling on his words, was weirdly like watching him on television; I kept forgetting to actually listen as I was so fascinated by the way he could switch between normal, part of our tour-group, Steve and the famous TV personality, Steve Backshall.  When the press photographer would ask him to pose for a shot, that twinkly grin would instantly appear and wouldn’t drop until the camera was put down – I decided his jaw muscles must be as strong as the rest of his body. He is incredibly muscley – his arms were huge!

What was the Living Rainforest like?

Boy feeding toucan
Big beak precision

The Living Rainforest was lovely; small enough to feel like a local attraction, rather than some soul-less big commercial operation, but with plenty of animals for the kids to see. They have blue dart frogs, emerald green boas, Goeldi’s monkeys, sloths, marmosets and a host of plants. It’s run by the charity The Trust for Sustainable Living and their aim is to help visitors explore how plants, animals, human needs, economies and cultures are all linked. Where possible, animals are allowed to live as they would in the wild and so although many of them have to be kept contained in tanks / cages, everything was very spacious. Lots of the creatures roam free, so little birds were scurrying about and the Asiatic Water Dragon was just perched on a branch as we walked around. The sloth was hidden away – eventually spotted tucked on top of a little hut sleeping. If you enter the world as a captive animal or are rescued and can’t go back to the wild, this is probably the loveliest place to live your life.  It’s also great value – if you buy a ticket you can visit any time for a year.