Monday, 29 July 2013

Review: Haven Holiday Park, Doniford Bay

I'm toying with a new section for the blog, reviewing family 'stuff' we have/use/experience. It might be awful or I might get bored of it, but bear with me while I muck around and experiment. 

Let's start off this one by saying that caravans are COOL, mmkay. I love them, always have. There are many happy memories of family holidays in caravans in Wales, Clacton-on-Sea, Skeg-Vegas and now Somerset. Last year I tried to persuade my husband of their virtues, but he looked horrified at the suggestion we try such a getaway and later confessed that his only experience of caravan holidays was a certain episode of Father Ted:

Nevertheless, in April this year we found ourselves in a pickle with our house (you don't want me to go there, trust me) and needed a break. We found a 4 night stay for the following week at the Haven caravan site in Doniford Bay, near Watchet, Somerset for £124 and booked it (husband feeling very brave at this point). After looking at all the different types of caravan available (they range from Standard to Deluxe through to Prestige!) we settled on "Deluxe Plus" as it seemed to suit our requirements and budget best. Dvd player, check. Three bedrooms, check. Oven, fridge-freezer, microwave, shower, kettle. Done. The park looked small enough that regardless of where the caravan was located, we wouldn't be too far a walk from the entertainment area or the beach. Sorted. 

Excitement tempered with apprehension best describes our mood on the journey down. We were desperate for a seaside break but more than a little nervous about what the park would be like and who we might encounter whilst staying there. Graham Norton "riverdancing" round our kitchen/lounge for 4 days did not sound terribly relaxing. My husband has a limited tolerance for naff cabaret style entertainment and I hadn't really dared to explain what Rory the Tiger is or the potential scope for parents being dragged onto the dance floor to "Agadoo" at the evening disco. 

First impressions of the park were good. It was clean, green, spacious, right by the sea and very easy to find. The reception area was well sign-posted and the staff who booked us in were smiley and friendly. We discovered, to our delight, that we had received a free upgrade to a Prestige caravan complete with 'un vue de la mer'. We travelled over to our van to inspect our home for the next few days - WOW! It was gorgeous! Much posher than our house, in fact. 

Our view. There is the sea right in the background. Honest.
The family settle in with a game of Monopoly

The journey had taken longer than expected (Milton Keynes to Watchet isn't that far as the seagull flies, but the majority of the journey is country lanes) so we decided to chill for the first evening and went for a gentle stroll down to the beach before picking up fish 'n' chips from the onsite cafe. 

The beach was a little disappointing. Haven markets Doniford Bay as a "sandy shingle beach". Sandy. We found no sand. Lots of muddy rocks though! It wasn't what I'd call a pebble beach either. Just sort of... muddy and rocky. You couldn't spend an afternoon sunbathing there or splooshing around in the surf. Certainly no sandcastles! 

Munchkins at the beach

Our supper was very tasty, though. We managed to feed all 6 of us for around £20 (not counting the ketchup I picked up at the onsite Spar shop, which was a further £2.50!), so it really wasn't bad value at all. 

Having decided that the local beach wasn't going to do for sandcastling, we drove along to Minehead, which is about 20 minutes away by car. We picked up a picnic at the local Tesco and spent the day on the beach. I did find out from a lady in the local nik-nak shop that the sand had been shipped in a few years previously specifically to make the beach more appealing to tourists! It worked, and we had a wonderful time. Minehead is a lovely little town with all the predictable seaside amenities - amusement arcades, ice cream cafes, a multitude of shops selling buckets, spades and assorted beach paraphernalia. 


Sandcastles are cool.

We decided to be brave that evening and check out the entertainment in the Live Lounge back at the holiday park. Braced for an absolutely disastrous cheesefest of unforgivable proportions, I reminded the husband that regardless of how hellish he found it, the children would love running about, dancing to terrible music and mixing with the other overexcited children. I wasn't wrong... well, not about the kids. They loved it. I was very wrong about my husband hating it. I think he maybe enjoyed it even more than I did! That's saying something, given my weakness for cheesey music and penchant for a bit of dodgy dancing (Agadoo, anyone?). There was a moment I wish I had caught on film of him on the dance floor, bopping along to Gangnam Style at the behest of our son. 

I don't know if it's the sea air, the holiday spirit or the infectious merriment of the entertainment staff but you just can't NOT enjoy all the singing, dancing and daft games they put on. The entertainers weren't in the least bit phased by the small audience and performed absolutely 100%.  The audience was divided into teams - yellow or blue, depending on whether your caravan number was even or odd - and games played throughout the evening earned each team points. Around 9:30pm the points were totalled up and the winning team (ours!) awarded 20% off at the bar. Excellent! We pottered home about an hour later, exhausted but in a brilliant mood.

Ethan showing off the flips flops and sticker he won

Unlike Haven holidays of my youth, you can now sign up for lots of activities on site. They vary from water sports, orienteering, club breakfasts and lunch, to archery, wall climbing and - our favourite - the bungee trampoline. The timetable of activities included a guide to age recommendations as well as prices. Some were free, others cost between £4 and £8 per child. We opted for archery (age 6+) for the boys and a ride on the bungee trampoline (age 3+) for each of the children. The archery class was super. Because we had travelled off-peak and the park was pretty quiet, there were no other children there. The instructor was still very much on form, chatted and joked with the boys and gave them lots of turns shooting the bow and arrow. He figured out their strengths and weaknesses and really helped them get to grips with it. 

The bungee trampoline was the hero of the holiday as far as the children were concerned. If you haven't tried one, you just have to. The squeals and giggles from the children are testament to how much fun it was, and as the contraption overlooked the sea, I can imagine the view they got up there was pretty amazing.

For the rest of the day, we played in the amusement arcade before going for a swim at the indoor pool. The arcade was very fun, very kid-oriented. Lots of 2p machines and games, a few 10p games. If you like loud noises, bright lights and squealing kids, this is the place for you! The pool was a little less enjoyable. It's smaller than we expected and the outdoor section was closed (this was the end of April so still not peak season though). There are no slides in the indoor part, but there is a shallow splash pool for babies. There are a few cubicles at the poolside for changing and a small number of tables if you want to sit and watch. We didn't spend long there... It just wasn't the sort of pool where you could really kick back and enjoy. I'm glad we tried it but I wouldn't make a huge effort to try again unless the outdoor bit was open and turns out to be much better. 

We had a quiet evening in sampling a couple of local ciders (just us, not for the kids!) and watched a spot of telly with the balcony doors open, taking in the sea breeze and sunset:

On Thursday, our final full day, we invited my mum and stepdad (who live locally) to join us for a picnic. We went back to the clifftop area by the sports section and settled down at one of the lovely picnic tables. There was a small playground nearby and lots of grassy area for the kids to run around. The weather was amazing, so we just spent the day taking in the sea air and relaxing. I can certainly say that Doniford Bay is one of the more peaceful caravan parks I have visited, though that may be in no small part due to the time of year and low number of guests!

We were sad to leave on Friday. The checkout process was painless enough. The only requirement was that we returned the keys to reception by 10am, so we packed up the car, washed and dried our dishes, gave the van a quick once over to tidy up and were on our way. All the way home, we talked about how much we wanted to stay longer and started planning our next trip back. 

That my husband - the British seaside caravan holiday virgin - would happily go to Doniford Bay again tells you what a super family holiday it is. It's not glamorous or brimming with culture. It is a brilliantly friendly family holiday, and if you go out of season it can be a great budget option too. Perhaps if the week had cost us more than £124, we wouldn't have been as pleased overall but for what it did cost us, the caravan was beautiful, the park was clean and quiet, the entertainment was first class and the food available on site was tasty and reasonably priced.

Caravans ARE cool. Got it?

Friday, 26 July 2013

On being a woman.

I've been trying to write a piece on body image for over a year now but it just never seems to come out the way I want it to. I don't know any women who have lived their lives without worrying about the way they look at some stage or other. For some, it's an all-consuming anxiety. For others it's a more casual awareness, perhaps just the occasional urge to lose a few pounds for summer or to get into a particular outfit for a special occasion. Society is saturated with opinions on women's figures, faces, fashion and hair styles (I couldn't think of an 'f' for that last one!). Even the Duchess of Cambridge was exposed to this, courtesy of OK! magazine's spectacularly vile front cover this week, one day after she had given birth:


I've since read that OK! magazine have apologised for this feature in the wake of thousands of complaints via Twitter and Facebook. The damage has been done, however. Quite how they explain their comments on Twitter remains to be seen:

Of course, Kate Middleton isn't the only woman to find herself under this manner of postnatal weight loss scrutiny. Magazines and tabloid newspapers of this ilk have long stalked celebrity mothers, commenting on their figures before and after having had children. It's not just post-baby belly and weight gain/loss that comes under fire. Cellulite, stretch marks, lack of attention to make-up and hair - there have been entire "articles" dedicated to coverage of each and every one of these, and not complimentary ones. The overarching theme seems to be that it is not OK to 'let yourself go' just because you've become a mother. You might well have made a tiny person and taken on 24/7 care of said tiny person, but that's no excuse to not look your best. 

The effect on the average female can't be underestimated. There is a ridiculous social construct of what constitutes an acceptable appearance for females, and along with that goes the view that women who don't conform to this ideal are somehow deviant and worthy of disdain. In order to be interesting, we must first be attractive. 

Last month, Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon Women's Championship with an absolutely smashing performance. The news coverage of her victory, however, didn't talk about her talent or her journey to the top. It didn't speak of how she could inspire a generation of youngsters to pick up a tennis racket. There was no mention of her home town's pride or how her family would celebrate. What dominated the coverage instead was a mindblowingly misogynistic remark from commentator John Inverdale. 

"Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little, 'you're never going to be a looker, you'll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight?'"

What relevance her appearance has to her ability to play damn good tennis, I cannot figure out. Why Maria Sharapova's looks should have given her an edge is another mystery. How sad that a fantastic achievement by a brilliantly talented woman should be sidelined in favour of discussion on her looks. 

Yesterday I watched a short but powerful interview with Dustin Hoffman in which he speaks of the moment he realised the extent to which he had bought into all the crap about women needing to be beautiful in order to be worthy of consideration. It's only 3 minutes long, so do watch it. You won't regret it:

It speaks volumes to me that this treatment of women is entirely subconscious to most people, and that women ourselves perpetuate it unknowingly. It tells me that our social consciousness is so entrenched in having a fixed definition of "beauty" that we have lost the ability to see value and worth in talent & brilliance on its own.

Look to the music industry: find me a female vocalist or musician who is not beautiful by commonly accepted standards. There are very few, if any. It seems that you can't be a successful artist if you're not marketable, and you can't market ugly chicks.

Sidelining women isn't new. Science is full of amazing, brilliant women and their achievements, but they're not household names like Einstein, Newton or Freud. Ever heard of Rosalind Franklin? Without her input, Crick and Watson couldn't have made their discovery of the structure of DNA. How about Nettie Stevens, who made critical discoveries about chromosomes determining the sex of an organism? Mathematics, literature, science, engineering, medicine, entertainment - countless industries and disciplines where the work of women has been marginalised or credited to their male counterparts. Even today the representation of women is unbalanced against that of men. The Bank of England recently announced the inclusion of Jane Austen on the £10 note, but only after a powerful campaign and backlash against the removal of Elizabeth Fry from the £5 note and her replacement with Winston Churchill. Left alone, this would have meant that there was NO female representation on our currency (aside from the Queen, obviously!). 

It all comes back to the same thing. Women face an uphill battle to achieve the same recognition and status as men, at the same time being judged for the way we look and the effort we put in to making the best of ourselves. Young girls and women are trained from an early age to worry about their appearances through exposure to the mass media and the ever increasing abundance of vanity products aimed at children. You can now buy high heels, make-up, clothing with the Playboy logo emblazoned across it - PLAYBOY, for heaven's sake! - all aimed at girls under the age of 10. 

This has turned into a longer post than I intended, and I still don't feel I've got my teeth into the subject. There is just so much surrounding this issue. The No More Page 3 campaign, Mumsnet Let Girls Be Girls campaign, every bit of feminist writing out there - all of it very much needed. The couple of examples of sexism I've picked out for this piece all relate to incidents from the last month or so. If I was to delve further back, we could be here all day discussing instances of everyday sexism and misogyny.

I think I'll have to come back to this topic when I've organised my feelings on it a little more!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The long road to diagnosis

When I came back to my blog a couple of months ago, I briefly mentioned that my middle son had recently begun the assessment process for Autism Spectrum Disorder and dyspraxia. The last few months have been quite the emotional rollercoaster while the family adjusts to this, and the most intense hard work hasn't even started yet.

I wanted to start documenting our journey with this because it's something that you just can't imagine unless you have a child with some degree of special needs. Over the years of meeting parents in real life or getting to know them through online forums, I've encountered quite a range of special needs among children but nothing - nothing - prepares you for someone pointing to your child and saying you're going to be joining that club too.

In a way I feel awkward and embarrassed to talk about 'coming to terms' with a diagnosis for Autism. I know people whose children have serious physical and mental disabilities, people who've lost their children and others who have struggled to have children at all. To speak about 'coming to terms' with a comparatively tame issue like this seems almost disrespectful to the other parents going through heart wrenching turmoil. But then again it isn't a competition, and there isn't really any way of comparing one family's experience to another. Everything is relative, and for us this journey is really bloody tough.

Ethan has just turned 7, and since he was a baby we've known he was a bit different. He never did 'terrible 2s', didn't really have a proper tantrum until he was gone 4 years old. He's always been a bit fluffy and dippy, smiley and just away with the fairies. We said that was just his way and when his nursery teachers suggested to me in 2009 that he may be Autistic, I laughed them off and said they were getting carried away with themselves. It didn't matter that he barely spoke until he was 3, and then had a series of non-words that he repeated over and over and over. I brushed off his refusal to engage with other children and aversion to group activities, saying he was just comfortable with his own company and preferred to play alone. That it took until way past his 4th birthday to get him completely out of nappies didn't even occur to me as an issue! I'm not lazy about it, far from it  - come on, who realistically would prefer to keep buying and changing nappies over teaching a kid to take charge of their own toiletting?!

My experience of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) up to that point was of a close family member who has Asperger's Syndrome (often known as high functioning autism). Somewhere in my mind I had kept an eye out for behavioural traits that mirrored what I had seen in this relative as a youngster, but seeing nothing of him reflected in Ethan, it seemed absurd for his teachers to suggest there was anything neurologically atypical about him.

The word spectrum is the key, however. Autism isn't just one set of traits; there's a vast range of behaviours that fit the bill, and people with Autism present with a complex cocktail of them. Two different people each with a diagnosis of Autism may actually have no overlap whatsoever in their traits, the spectrum is THAT diverse.

Ethan's behaviour fits in with the less well known aspects of ASD. He has no issues with making eye contact and isn't withdrawn at all (these are the stereotypical traits most people associate with Autism). He's actually completely opposite to that. If he wants to have a conversation with you, he will. If he wants to climb all over you, lift up your jumper and blow raspberries on your stomach, he will. He cannot judge people's moods by looking at their facial expressions or the tone of a voice. He flaps, squeaks, spins round in circles, and takes everything absolutely literally. I have an arsenal of stories about things he's done that seem superficially very funny, but having taken a step back to look at the bigger picture, I see now that it's all part of the suspected Autistic behaviour.

There's so much to learn as a parent with an autistic child. For one, I don't actually know if it's ok to say "autistic child" or if I should stick with "child with Autism". I don't want to define my son by his needs or difficulties. He is first and foremost a wonderful little person. The extra stuff is just one bit of him. I didn't know that it takes SO long to get a diagnosis! We started gathering evidence and speaking to professionals last December, and it looks like it will take until December this year before we have a firm diagnosis in hand. A whole entire year! Did you know it takes that long? We've seen the Special Educational Needs Coordinator at school, the school nurse, the GP, a Developmental Paediatrician and next we're on to Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy and the Child Psychologist. All these people have or will spend time with Ethan, take his history from me, watch him "perform" as it were and decide what diagnosis fits him best.

As we carry on down this path, I would like to continue sharing our experience in the hope that other parents starting out will find something useful or comforting here. It's SO huge, SO complicated and frightening - and that's just for me. I couldn't begin to tell you what Ethan makes of it all. If I ask him, he usually beams at me and asks if I'd like to play Skylanders with him. I think that means he's ok.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Oh Mr. Cameron...

So this morning I flicked on to the BBC News app on my phone to peruse the headlines, as I do every morning. On the "Top Stories" section, three headlines in particular caught my eye as they sat side-by-side in a pool of irony. Firstly: Benefits cap of £500 a week rolls out across Britain, closely followed by Rent 'unaffordable' for low-income families in third of UK, and finally - laughably PM urged to tighten teenage mum benefit rules.

Wow! That's a lot of demonisation of the poor to digest on a Monday morning at 6am. I'm used to finding right-wing rhetoric saturating the likes of the Daily Heil and the Torygraph, but it seems to be encroaching on all walks of news media now. But what's wrong with these stories?! I hear you cry. Isn't it better for the country for us to discourage the workshy and stop rewarding laziness? Ah! If only that was the truth of what is happening to the low earners and non-earners in Great Britain today.

Here's some figures and facts to digest before we really get stuck into this one:

The UK government spending figure for 2013 stands at £509.4billion, of which £138.1billion is spent on pensions - that's 27.11% - and £62.3billion (12.23%, less than half that of pensions) on the entire welfare budget. To clarify, the welfare budget encompasses in-work as well as out of work benefits and disability benefits.

Here's a pretty bar chart:

Of that £62.3billion welfare budget, just £9.8billion - a measly 1.9% of the entire government expenditure- comprises unemployment benefits. The rest covers top-ups for low income families, disability, and so on, so forth. This means that the vast majority of welfare expenditure actually goes towards topping up the income of families who are WORKING but whose wages are not enough to meet the ever-increasing cost of living. 

Let's just dwell on that for a moment, shall we; Mr. Cameron would like us all to believe that his government's focus is on "making work pay", that the desperate state of the country's economy is down to years of the workshy poor committing the cardinal sins of greed and sloth, while inadequate previous governments hand them wads of cash to sit around in the lap of luxury. It is a lie we've been spun by politicians and the media over the years, conditioned to accept it all with the aim of demonising the undeserving poor and pitying the deserving poor. Thanks to ATOS, we now have a nifty method of disposing of those pesky disabled types, too unwell to be churned through industry but stamped with a "FIT TO WORK" badge and thrown out to fend for themselves anyway. The rate of suicide and attempted suicide amongst those deemed 'fit to work' by ATOS is frightening. What's even more frightening is how little attention these tragic deaths receive in the daily press. We can't risk undermining the government's stance, after all! 

And now look at the latest scapegoat: teenage mothers. Hardly new; they have been a favourite target for the red tops and sensationalised television shows for some time now. But now it seems the government may take a more official position against them. The article on the BBC website cites the oft-repeated myth that a young girl need only have a baby and she will be housed, fed, clothed and entertained all at the expense of the long-suffering tax payer. Those who have first hand experience of the welfare state, particularly those who have been young and/or single mothers, will know that this is a far cry from the truth. The papers would have us believe that faith in this myth has urged a generation of young women to become parents solely for the purpose of setting them up in life without having spent a day in paid employment. Yes, there are some girls out there who feel this way. I've met some; I'm sure many of you have as well. But rather than lambast them and bring in legislation that states they will only receive benefits if they live in a hostel or with parents - which is what the article states Mr. Cameron is being urged to do - why not look to the root of the problem? Why punish all young mothers for the tragic ignorance of the few? Where is the focus on education? Why not bring in more transparency about the welfare system and how hard it is to be housed even if you DO have children and no job, or about just how degrading and demoralising it is to live at the handouts of the state?

Practically, legislation like this wouldn't work let alone how morally abhorrent it is. Not all teenage mothers HAVE parents they can live with. The refuges and hostels that already exist are over-subscribed and under-funded. How can they take in a tidal wave of young parents and their babies too? I've got it! Just bring back the workhouses. We can shove all those disabled types and these damnable young parents into there and maybe get industry back on its feet too, if we get all these undesirables put to good use making stuff for the privileged bourgeoisie. 

The simple facts of the matter are that teenage mothers, the disabled, the unemployed and the low wage earners are NOT the cause of this country's troubles. Plunging them into further poverty and misery by capping benefits, imposing sanctions, forcing them into unpaid work and diabolical living conditions WILL NOT restore Great Britain to a position of prosperity. It will not "pay to work" until the cost of living is brought into line with the typical take-home pay of the average family. It is so expensive to put a roof over your head, feed yourself, cloth yourself and keep up with the basic utility bills even on what may appear to be a healthy wage. In this day and age, we should not see scores of families struggling to feed themselves on £14 a week, or men and women taking their own lives out of desperation and fear. 

Monday, 8 July 2013

Fat girl wants to wear a dress!

It's reeeaaaally hot here at the moment. Well, by British summer standards anyway. I think it must be about 28 - 29 degrees Celsius just now, which is freakin' WARM in my book. I am wearing cropped jeans and a flowery top. What I would really like to do is dig out the short-shorts and don a little vest to go with them. Nice and cool, easy to move around in - good times! Only... I can't. Because I'm overweight and according to internet memes there are RULES about how much flesh you're allowed to expose.

This has done the rounds recently on Facebook:

I hate it. Hate hate hate it. How anyone wants to dress should be their own choice, not subject to nasty jokes that basically suggest fatties should cover up. 

I much prefer this:

Fuck it. I'm getting out the shorts. Sorry, world, you'll just have to tolerate my wobbly thighs and pudgy belly. This fat bird isn't melting for anyone!

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

So no-one told you life was gonna be this way....

Friendships are strange things when you really think about it. How do you decide to align yourself with this person and not another? How many of us have friends that we've known since we were children, people we would trust with our deepest, darkest secrets or could turn to in a heartbeat over a crisis? Or people who feel they have no friends at all? Acquaintances, yes, but not friends. How do you even go about making friends as an adult?! You can't just walk up to someone in the street and say "hey! Wanna be my friend?". It works when you're 8 years old; not so much when you're 28.

What about when friendships turn sour? This week I reached five years since speaking to the person who, for 20 years, had been almost a sister to me. I don't want to dwell on the whys and wherefores of the relationship breaking down, but it occurred to me that five years on from when we stopped being friends, I still feel as raw and hurt as I did when it happened. Isn't that strange? I've gotten over romantic encounters more easily! Heck, one year after leaving my eldest son's father, I was free of any residual hurt or feelings towards him! A friendship breaking down feels somehow more.... I don't know. More something.

ETA: how's this for ironic. I write about this friendship for the first time, and as I log into Facebook for a cheeky break, wham! there's a load of photos of her with a mutual friend. Ha. 

The realisation that I miss this friendship so much got me thinking about what friends actually mean to each other. It's taken me a long time to let my guard down and really open up to other friends but I'm getting there. For a long time I kept the defences up just in case any one of those friendships broke down for whatever reason; I've deliberately distanced myself emotionally from new people and avoided investing too much in the hope that someone might want to be my friend. Don't get me wrong, I have friends! I'm not a loner at all. But it's that difference between having friends you would grab a coffee with and having friends who know you inside-out, with whom you can relax entirely and just be. That's what I miss; that closeness and familiarity. I see groups of friends who've known each other for years and I'm so envious, like I'm standing on the periphery silently howling "LIKE ME! BE MY FRIEND TOO!".

Maybe it's about time I get a grip and just start trusting people. I know some really amazing folk who are great to spend time with and I'm honoured to call my friends. I shall have a stern word with myself and stop pushing people away.

Wish me luck!