Our £25 family holiday

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We’ve just had a lovely break in the sunny (?) South East, in a well-equipped four bedroom family house, all for the grand sum of £25… and that was just our travel costs and a bathmat (more on that later).

This wasn’t a rental property but a successful house swap with friends, who also have two young children of similar ages to ours. Whether you are being thrifty or not, a house swap is a brilliant way to have a change of scenery and an eco-friendly UK based holiday.

For a start, the second we entered the ‘new’ house, the children’s eyes lit up. There were toys galore, all different to the ones at home, and all free to be explored without awkward negotiations with the rightful owner. There were fun bedrooms, decorated for kids and all the paraphernalia you need for little ones, such as child size chairs, plastic cups, a paddling pool and bath toys.

From an adult perspective, we had everything we required to eat in without taking the whole cupboard with us. Stuff like olive oil and washing up liquid that you take for granted at home but can’t do without when self-catering. I helped myself to a can of sweetcorn from the cupboard which saved us going shopping for vegetables one evening and a coffee machine kept us perky too.

It was also very handy on the animal front. We swapped our four assorted mammals for their two friendly cats. No pet-sitters were required, and we enjoyed the regular photo updates which kept us reassured.

There were of course some negatives. It was certainly more work than rocking up at a holiday home. Before hand, I couldn’t help but see my home through the eyes of guests and had a de-clutter session. The slightly mouldy bathmat just wouldn’t do, so I replaced it. There was also the double hassle of changing all the sheets and towels before leaving and then wanting to leave the borrowed house in a fit state for our friends’ return to their home.

Halfway through, my friend sent me a panicked text saying there was a huge crack across my hob that she hadn’t noticed before, but she would buy us a new one if they’d caused it. The crack has been there six months, so all was fine, but it was a little reminder that you really would feel terrible and if you trashed something in your friend’s house.

Still, any minor inconveniences were way less annoying than paying hundreds for a holiday rental. I also feel oddly closer to my friend. I’ve lived her life for a little and slept in her bed, kissed my children goodnight where hers normally snuggle and cuddled her cats. Now when we have one of our long phone chats I’ll be able to picture everything so clearly. And all for £25.

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Glorious mud (and quicksand)

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I was fearful I had over-hyped it to the children. ‘You are going to get muckier than you’ve ever got before,’ I had told them on our way to a Muddy Harbour ramble with the National Trust at Brancaster Staithe in North Norfolk.

As we set off along the coastal path they were not impressed; ‘there is not even one centimetre of mud here!’ my demanding son complained. ‘Just wait’, I replied.

Our guide, Nita, a Senior Learning and Engagement Officer with the National Trust, took us off the well-made, totally mud free path, directly onto the salt marsh. We tasted sprigs of samphire growing there, salty and full of ozone tang. Then it was time to cross some creeks. You could jump (fun and energetic) or slip and slide into them (properly muddy).

Nita taught us how to walk through the sticky, slurpy mud, resisting its pull by keeping moving. If your boot got stuck, you had to pull on your heel to break the seal. My silly shoes wouldn’t stay on, so I was soon barefoot. Dark, black mud sludging up between my toes like custard. A rather delicious sensation when you get used to it.

At bigger creeks, you could try and stay on your feet as you made your way down them or embrace the mud. We sat on our bums and slid. Hands, legs and bottoms were soon covered with the gunkiest gloop imaginable.

I had done it; my kids were officially muckier than ever before.

Along the way, we learnt about the wildlife of the salt marsh and how the tides keep it alive. We found shells and a mermaid’s purse. Then Nita mentioned the quicksand. ‘You won’t be able to go in it,’ I warned my children. ‘It’s dangerous.’

Actually, we were allowed in. The quicksand, formed by a freshwater spring coming up under the sand, was not too deep. Or so I thought. The one I jumped into went over my waist which I had not been expecting. The children loved letting it suck them down until I looked nervous and heaved them out.

quicksand

Finally, we waded across the main creek back to the staithe. We were a group of mucky, happy kids and grown-ups ready for a shower and a cuppa back at the Activity Centre.

My childhood was full of muddy adventures like this, but as a parent today I would have felt anxious doing it alone; there are very real risks with tides and overly deep mud – and I would have been terrified to discover quicksand more than a metre deep.

I feel very lucky that we were able to do this, and am very grateful it lived up to my promises.

There is one session left this summer holidays, on 26th August. Or you could check for low tide and go it alone… beware the quicksand.

Important mission: investigating kid’s food in restaurants for the Soil Association

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I’m going undercover. Somewhere near you, I’ll be there, in sunglasses and a cap pulled low, acting like a Z-list celebrity, only with a clipboard under the table. I’m going undercover for a subject I am passionate about, the food that children eat.

I’m not the only secret agent in town. Across the country, hundreds of parents will be visiting restaurants to check out the food. This is all part of the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign, which provides children with a free meal in return for their parent carrying out a detailed survey of both the meals and service on offer by popular high street restaurants such as Jamie’s Italian and Nandos.

I’ll be looking for healthy choices on the menus, the option to have a reduced size meal from the adults’ menu (children are after all small people rather than another species that requires everything dipped in breadcrumbs and deep fried) and freshly cooked vegetables. In addition, free water should be offered to families on arrival and breastfeeding mothers should be made to feel welcome.

The campaign has been going on since 2013 now and the results so far aren’t too pretty. The majority of venues have menus dominated by the usual suspects such as chicken nuggets, burgers and sausages and nearly half don’t offer a pudding with a portion of fruit it in.

Of course, I’ve eaten plenty of naughty foods in restaurants because it is a special occasion or a treat. This isn’t the fun police saying children must only munch on lettuce leaves. Instead, it’s about addressing the systematic failure to provide good quality ingredients and choice on children’s menus – adults simply wouldn’t eat out if we only ever got offered fish fingers. Where is the creativity and the wonderful flavours that our world has to offer?

Currently top of the Soil Associations league table is Jamie’s Italian and bottom is Burger King. However, before father of four Jamie Oliver pats himself on the back, it is worth noting that Jamie’s Italian still only scores three out of five. There is clearly room for improvement across the board. I’m not sure how much I’m looking forward to eating in the two establishments I have been given, both of which are languishing in the lower reaches of the table.

However, there is hope. Some restaurants have already upped their game in response to the campaign. Earlier this year, both Harvester and Giraffe made improvements such as increasing the amount of healthy food available and providing responsible and traceable sourcing.

The Soil Association have shined a spotlight on the way society condemns children to make unhealthy and unsustainable food choices. If you want to stop this, then always ask questions when you are eating out … where did this meat come from? Is this freshly cooked? Can children have a small adult’s portion? I’d love to hear how you get on and will let you know how the league table changes in October. I’ll also keep you posted on my reviews… we’re visiting Hungry Horse and Zizzi’s.

First published in the EDP and EADT