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Brighton Festival and Fringe – May’s annual circus

May is a great month to live in Brighton. The launch of the Brighton Festival and Fringe on the bank holiday weekend signify the end of the winter slumber and the beginning of a season of bonkers creativity and non-stop outdoor celebrations.  This year it was even better, with proper summer temperatures and a sense of euphoria about the streets. Summer is here, lets get out and experience it!

Experience what exactly? 

Choosing what to see with your kids during Brighton Festival and Fringe is impossible. There is so much going on that you just get lost in it all. I was well-intentioned,  I think every parent is, and I got the brochures when they first came out and created a complicated highlighted he calendar with all the good sounding shows, the 241 offers and the free stuff. I then earnestly went online to buy tickets and massively failed – it’s expensive as a family of 4 and whilst we’ve seen some great things over the years (acrobatic pirates and the amazing bubble man) there were also some shockers (Christopher Nibble, which was aimed at far younger kids than was advertised). Then there are the 241 deals, which seem great but you have to be a member and I can never remember whether things I’ve liked the look of are to do with the Fringe or the Brighton Festival. So much cross-referencing. So much confusion. So much failing to get to see anything because of it! In the end I booked tickets to Lexicon – we’ve seen No Fit State before and I hoped that they would strike a good balance between the acrobatics and clowning around that appeals to kids but doesn’t make the grown-ups cringe. More about our thoughts later…

It all begins with a launch

The Children’s parade

I kick-started the Fringe at The Warren launch party. The fireworks and festival beer were both rather underwhelming, but it was a night out without the kids and everyone was in a celebratory mood so good fun was had. We then did the child-friendly Brighton Festival launch with the Children’s Parade. –  the largest annual outdoor event for young people in this country. This year was ‘Red-Faced and Grumpy…. particularly schools above number 33’. I jest, they were actually marching with models and costumes made to support the theme of ‘Paintings’, but it was boiling and it must have been hard getting the later school kids walking with smiles when they had to wait so long to start.  It is a great start to the month though and I love that all the schools come together to celebrate – about 5000 kids took part this year and it’s more than just the parade. Same Sky work with each school to help them create a willow structure to carry through the streets and some of them were incredible. I loved the Frida Kahlo – particularly as all the kids had mini monobrows! Kit wasn’t keen on joining the parade because ‘the drums make (his) heart feel funny’, but he loved watching and I think next year I can convince him – I’m definitely going to get my monobrow on and join in anyway!

It was a scorcher and so we dipped our toes into the Spiegeltent beer garden – a quick cool down after the parade. They have ‘done-up’ the back bar with loads of rugs and comfy sofas. There is even a bath??! Whereas the regular bar bit was packed, the comfy section was empty and the kids took their shoes and socks off (they are programmed by years of me shouting ‘don’t get your feet on the sofa!’ ) and kicked back. We were there for an hour – we would have been happy to stay longer as the beer was cold and the sun was just right, but I think the designer of the cosy tee-pee might have assumed a cooler setting. Velvety sofas and heavy rugs do not make for the coolest environment for two little boys and we caved in to their sweaty faces and took them home.

Lexicon – the melting circus

Bank holiday Monday, the hottest day of the year. You can imagine what a stifling sweat pit Lexicon at the big top was – a black tent in a city bathed in a haze of disposable bbq heat and sunburnt bodies. We took a cool bag and hugged the cool packs, which kept the kids from complaining. Top tip though, if it’s a hot day take lots of cold water as it is roasting in there. It might also be worth taking a snifter of wine. They have a bar, which appeals to the British need to booze in the sunshine, but you have to pay a deposit for a plastic glass which you can’t take it in with you. By the time you’ve queued, paid and re-queued for the deposit, there’s a very small window in which to enjoy your bar-bought drink.

Anywho, on to the show. Hats off to the troupe for their energy. We were melting in our seats and didn’t, nay couldn’t, have run around in suits and dresses as they did. It was impressive – lots going on at once and people and props flying in all directions. I wasn’t quite sure the write-up was relevant – the Brighton Festival brochure and website describe Lexicon as  “Drawing inspiration from history, heritage and traditions, this show digs into the underground of memory and celebrates the past, present and future of this much-loved artform.” – but it did ‘dazzle’ as the reviews suggested. The group were full of energy and each routine was an incredible performance of strength, balance and skill. They make it look easy and I wondered whether I would need to explain to the kids how incredibly hard it is to hold yourself parallel to the floor from a vertical pole, to balance two sticks or balance on a piece of rope so they could properly appreciate it. They were gripped though and there was lots of ‘wooooowwwww’ going on – particularly with the trapeze and, rather randomly, the diablos (although Kit has one of these and now wants to learn to juggle three at once). They also loved the clowing around. Maybe I should get them to help me understand that as I’ve never particularly liked all the silly voices and slapstick. Why the fake language?? I did laugh along with them though when the fire juggler set himself on fire.

Before we were told about the no camera rule!

What I really liked about the performance was the drama of it all. No Fit State use light and shadows as well as music to create atmosphere. It also feels very much like a group piece of work -a community in which they all rely on each other and no-one is the star. An accordion player might put down her instrument and suddenly get on a bike and take a turn of the room, while someone who has just performed an incredible balancing act will next be seen scaling up the scaffolding to winch up a trapeze. In fact watching the dance of all the pulleys was theatre in itself – It is so well coordinated that you don’t notice people or objects ‘getting clipped on’ and they seem to just fly up in the air.  They all trust each other to get the job done and to be there to catch them when they are thrown backwards across the room. It’s a magical piece of choreography.

We’d recommend Lexicon – here for a few more weeks. I have no idea of the top of my head if it is on as part of the Brighton Festival or the Fringe but who cares – it’s a great part of Brighton’s May celebrations!

 

 

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Ullapool, the Coigach Peninsula and hooray for grandparents!

When preparing for a wedding, the first thing you want to do is get rid of your kids! Bring on the Grandparents!

Whoop, whoop Noni, Lou and John are spending a week with us in Scotland so we hired a cottage on Rhue peninsula, just a few miles outside of Ullapool, for them all to share. We stayed a couple of minutes away in a B&B, allowing us to be close by for the first few days then head to Ullapool to party child-free when our guests arrived. It was a winning solution!

Get your ‘nockers’ out

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View from the cottage

The cottage – Seascape – was an amazing find that ticked every box; just 3 miles to shops and restaurants but a million miles in terms of atmosphere. It felt remote and cosy, with a big window looking out over nothing but the sea, mountains and Rhue lighthouse. It had easy access to the beach (although not quite the amazing beaches of Kinlochbervie and Cape Wrath), rock pools and fishing spots – it was a paradise for nature-lovers and ideal for the Grandparents and kids for a week. We had our ‘nockers’ or ‘bins’ (or, as most people call them, binoculars) at the ready and spotted buzzards, seals, all sorts of smaller birds. The kids did not ask to watch television all week.

Where we walked: Rhue

Rhue walk

This was a super easy ‘potter about’ kind of walk for everyone from kids to grandparents. From Ullapool, follow signs to Rhue – just a few miles outside of town.

Drive to the end of the track and park up in the car parking area (watch out for stray sheep!)

Pick your way down to the beach and skim stones or boulder jump across the headland (you can walk higher if you are scared of slipping) to the lighthouse.

You can walk further around the headland but it was a bit boggy when we were there. Very pretty though.

There is nowhere for food and drink on Rhue so take it with you!

Cheeseboard for breakfast

If you find you are in that part of the world, Suilven Vegetarian B&B is a fantastic place to stay. In part this is for all the reasons Seascape was a great find – Rhue is a fab spot – but Barry and Irene have designed and built their house themselves and it was beautifully cosy whilst architecturally making the best use of space and location. There are big windows on the mezzanine that look out to Loch Broom (from where they have spotted whales) and they have kept the whole upstairs open plan so that you can look out at views in every direction: mountains, sheep, water – it’s all there for you.

Barry served the most incredible breakfast of homemade yoghurt and jams, fruit, freshly baked soda bread and a veggie cheeseboard with locally made oatcakes. I love a cheeseboard but had never had one for breakfast… turns out it works. Watch out waistline as I’m swapping weetabix for slabs of Cornish yarg and Scottish blue!

When Irene heard it was our wedding, out came the champagne and our family was invited in to share a glass (my mum) and play with the cats (the boys!). We almost always self cater and what I loved about the b&b was the chance to chat to locals. Barry and Irene are bird lovers, mountain and nature enthusiasts and both owners of flocks of sheep, so it was fascinating to talk to them about the area – we jumped from tractor rallying in Skye to the perils of prawn boat fishing.

Taking the Grandparents for a spin around the Coigach

This was our second trip to this part of Scotland – we came up in January for a recce, staying in Lochinver. While we there we drove to the Coigach Penisula and were blown away by how beautiful and desolate it was. We decided to take the team for a visit as from Ullapool it also meant we could drive past Stac Polly – Saturday’s spot for the wedding – and check out timings and parking.

The Achnahaird Beach was a good kids walk – a narrow, long strip of sand with plenty of stones and shells to collect (and subsequently empty from Soren’s pockets – he is our hoarder and is regularly stopped by airport scanners or is the cause of a clogged up the washing machine. This time I found a whole crab claw in his coat!)

Where we walked

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To reach the beach, drive to the Coigach Peninsula and take the right turn towards ‘the beach’ and Am Fuaran Bar.

Drive past the beach and you’ll spot a turning to the parking area.

It’s an easy walk to the beach with some mini dunes.

Watch out for muddy / sinking sand – sometimes this area can be more of a knee-high wade.

 

Remote bars are brilliant

When you leave the beach, take the route to the right and drive round the headland to the Am Fuaran bar. It’s a gorgeous spot and as you round the tip the view of the Summer Isles is car-swervingly good. It’s lucky it’s such a quiet road or this would be a crash hotspot as people drift around mesmerised by what’s in front of them.

The Am Fuaran is nothing exciting on the outside but it is the epitome of an old pub inside – dark wood panels, fireplaces and various ancient tools on the wall. A surprisingly good butternut squash soup was on the menu for lunch – maybe it was just me but this place felt so remote and old-fashioned, I was transported back to the days when lasagne sounded exotic and all pub food was beige and accompanied by chips! Of course, chips were on the menu, which is good because, let’s face it, we all secretly want them!

Happy kids, happy grandparents, happy us.

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Cape Wrath – dune surfing and hot chocolate

We plugged the kids into their MP3 players for some peace as we drove the stunning 45 minute journey to Durness for some family adventures at Cape Wrath. Of course that just meant we were accompanied by two slightly out of time and two definitely out of tune versions of the SING soundtrack coming from the backseat, but it did mean we could enjoy the view without too many questions about when we would be going to get hot chocolate (just wait and you’ll find out!)

Top of the country

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There is something cool about getting to the furthest edge of a country. Cape Wrath lighthouse is the most north-westerly point and we thought this, plus the Avengers style name might appeal to the boys. It’s a faff to get to the lighthouse though – a boat and a minibus – and so we just walked along Balnakiel Beach – following the Path across a short section of cliff top to a second gorgeous beach – and looked out at Cape Wrath and the wild seas. Balnakiel is a great beach for family adventures. It has massive sand dunes to climb up and hurl yourself down. We all had sand in our shoes (and pants) by the time the snow set in and we had to make a dash to the car.

The best hot chocolate ever

Balnakiel Craft Village, is just up the road from the beach and I’d seen a Guardian article suggesting there was a hot chocolate shop there with the best cup of ho’cho’ in the country. Cape Wrath may have been a faff but nothing was going to stop us finding the chocolate shop. I’m pleased to report it was amazing. I had a regular size and it had drippy melted chocolate all over the cup so every time you sipped there was real chocolate to kickstart your mouthful. Warning to parents though – the kids version is espresso cup sized and whilst it may have marshmallows on it, the size difference between theirs and mine was a bone of contention!

We had a look around a couple of the galleries and one in particular was great. A guy finds old pieces of washed up junk on the beach and turns them into pieces of art using their shape or the colours, each enhanced with charcoal or some kind of stain. There were old saucepans with faces marked into the rust and pieces of metal turned into shimmering fish. The boys were really interested in the fact all the materials were recycled and the owner was great with them, explaining his materials – apparently instant coffee makes a great paint!

The secret of Smoo Cave

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That has got to be a title out of a Famous Five or Secret Seven book surely? Smoo Cave is really close to Durness and although there are deeper, more exploratory trips into the dark recesses on boat, you can just pop into the first part for free. I’m not a cave fan (claustrophobia alert!) but this was very open – the first section has a blowhole at the top and the second section, along the walk way, is pretty cavernous.

Soren, a massive animal lover, found it hilarious when we spotted two dead rabbits in the blowhole cave. They must have been hopping along the top and fallen straight down the hole. He re-enacted it for us as he chuckled away. Odd child!

Seven seals a’ swimming

On the way home to our ice box, I mean caravan, we spotted something in a loch. We were quite far inland but this was a sea loch, so fed by the ocean. We stopped and saw a seal, then another and then five more. They were all playing around the edge of the water and so we hopped out the car to watch them. They were popping up and down all over the place – an amazing way for the boys to get up close to nature. A big tick off of our family adventures list.

Kit got a bit grumpy that they would disappear as soon as one of us cracked a twig or dared to breathe – I think he thought they would get closer to him. I suppose when you are young it is hard to know the difference between tame creatures that are just a bit shy and wild creatures. I suspect he’ll realise later on how amazing it was to see seven so close.

All too soon we had to pack up and return to our odd little caravan.

Where we walked on our family adventures: Balnakiel Beach

Our walk (in blue)

Follow signs to Durness (and then spend a while wondering why there is a John Lennon memorial garden!) and then head towards Balnakiel Craft Village.

Drive past the village even if the chocolate shop calling is strong.

Park at the end of the road by the beach.

Walk the first beach and then cross over the cliff area to the second, even more deserted beach.

Climb up and hurl yourself down the sand dunes or get lost in the ‘sand dune maze’ (seriously – watch where your kids head because it is very disorientating!!).

Walk as far as you want along the coast and then head back to the car for the trip to the chocolate shop and the arty bits and bobs.

There is a cafe in the craft village but it was closed. The kids were delighted they got to have chocolate for lunch but perhaps it is sensible to feed them up first.