We've taken a lovely load of holidays this year, and they've all been within the UK - a week staying in an amazing beach house on the Isle of Wight, several camping trips including a couple to a gorgeous wild beach in Anglesey, a lovely week spent in the Lake District in a traditional stone Victorian house tucked into the fell outside Ambleside, and most recently a few days in Northumberland in a National Trust cottage on the Cragside estate.
I've never stayed in a National Trust cottage before, which is a bit daft really, as it's pretty much a guarantee that the place will be beautifully appointed, full of antiques and original features, and plentifully stocked with homemade shortbread biscuits. I haven't been up to the North East for nearly ten years - my Dad's side of the family are from South Shields, and I went to university in Newcastle, but since my beloved, tiny Geordie grandma died, I didn't really feel like going back. But I suddenly had a yearning to take my beautiful daughters to see those wild, perfect beaches and rolling heather and bracken covered hills, so we booked four nights in a little gingerbread cottage, nearby kennels for our doggies, and off we went, five humans, three dogs and a large amount of outdoor gear stuffed into our not-quite-big-enough-to-avoid-a-marital-dispute-while-packing car.
The cottage was just stunning - tucked into the southern corner of the Cragside estate, we had a view of the formal gardens from one window and green hills populated with plenty of sheep from the other side, much to the delight of not-quite-two-year-old Elodie, who bounced up and down on her bed screaming "baa baas!" and demanded to be taken to see them every morning. It was strangely satisfying to sit in our kitchen drinking tea and eating biscuits while the general public wandered around outside and peeped in through our windows - and although technically we weren't supposed to go into the gardens after hours, of course we did :-) I also went for a truly glorious run early one morning before the estate woke up, and no one seemed to mind.
First on the list was a trip to South Shields to check out my grandma's old house - the people we sold to are still living there, and after sneaking a peek through the front window I could see they have added beautiful French doors and a raised deck for watching the sea, which I think grandma would have greatly approved of. We took a bunch of photos outside the house like crazy people while passers by wondered what on earth we are doing, and then wandered down to Marsden Bay where we built dams, tried to work out if the tide was coming in or out and waited for my parents to turn up with a classic family beach picnic (ham and egg pie, crisps, cherry tomatoes, millionaire's shortbread, and a flask of tea that would taste grim under any other circumstances but on the beach miraculously took on nectar-like properties).
After the tide threatened to wash us away (I thought it was going out so clearly have lost my knack) we took the kids to the funfair and stuffed them with candy floss and spun them around on various brightly coloured rides. My brother and I used to beg to go to the fair every summer and my parents usually told us it was closed, how mean is that! It still looks exactly the same, as does the mini lake next door with the little steam engine. Memories are a funny thing - I used to absolutely love that steam train, and to my childhood mind it took us on a tour of magic and wonder - it's actually just a quick trip around the lake perimeter and was over in a couple of minutes, but the girls couldn't have been happier. Magic being passed on to the younger generation...
We visited Wallington Hall, where the girls climbed trees, rode the stone dragon heads that I used to clamber onto as a kid, raced around the mansion and marvelled at the amazing collection of dollhouses, and generally amused themselves with sticks and stones. I'm turning out to be an old-fashioned parent who believes that magic is something you create for yourself through nature - not the manufactured kind that comes with Minnie Mouse ears and expensive gizmos. The wild moors and the sound of the stream babbling over the weathered stones as opposed to the plastic countryside of Centre Parcs, if you like. Disneyland and Centre Parcs both have their place, of course, but personally I just can't get enough of seeing my beautiful girls running round a secret walled garden without a single thing to amuse them other than their own imaginations.
We spent a day at Alnwick Gardens, which I'd previously visited with my grandma when it first opened, in order that she could show off to her friends who hadn't been there yet. I loved the tour of the Poison Garden, the girls loved the super-spooky ghoul trail, and Andre loved the steak and ale pie and chips I chose for his lunch. We have clearly defined marital roles - Andre deals with the bins, I organise our paperwork. Andre loads the dishwasher (apparently the cottage had one but I didn't touch it the whole time we were there and the dishes seemed to magically clean themselves), I'm in charge of going up to the counter in cafes and ordering meals for us all. Personally I can't imagine having a random lunch chosen for me, but who am I to mess with the delicate balance of marital equilibrium.
On our last day we scooped up the doggies from their country residence (and were relieved to find they didn't smell anywhere near as grim as they smelled when they came home from the Lakes, having clearly spent their time at the latter rolling in cow pats which the kennel owner then dealt with by spraying them with canine cologne) and headed to Druridge Bay - eleven miles of unspoiled golden sand. The dogs raced around ecstatically sniffing other dogs' bottoms, the big girls amused themselves filling plastic bags with sand and then chasing each other with them, Elodie refused to be put down by her Daddy for even so much as one minute, and I had my last crab sandwich of the year along with a huge cream tea and an Oreo milkshake at the nearby cafe.
Little holidays like this are so good for the soul - I love where we live in urban Manchester, but my heart is in the countryside. Maybe one day we'll buy a little stone cottage to renovate so we can have the best of both worlds.