30 May 2011

On yer bike!

I am so proud of my little girl. She managed to ride 7.5 miles of trails around Dalby Forest yesterday, and came home covered in mud and with a grin from ear to ear. At age 5, that's not bad going.

As a family, we've really got into the whole cycling business over the last year. At first, it was just a way to make sure we all got a bit of fresh air and some exercise. But it's been brilliant on so many other levels:
  • it's something we can all do together
  • it's given M a huge confidence boost (and a skill that will be useful for the rest of her life)
  • we've got out into the countryside almost every weekend, seen the seasons change, and experienced a whole lot of wildlife that you just don't get in suburban Gateshead
The other thing we like is that cycling is (mostly) free once you've got a bit of basic kit (ie a bike). We've paid for the odd trip into forests (Dalby being a case in point), but for the most part all we've had to shell out for is petrol.

Here's our top tips for getting kids out riding:

1. Buy a decent bike for them to learn on. We bought M an Islabike, and can't recommend them highly enough. Sadly, there weren't any around second hand (they're like gold dust), so we cobbled together enough Christmas and birthday money to buy one. Once M's grown out of it, we'll either trade it in for a new one with Islabikes themselves, or sell it on ebay, thereby funding the next size up... Why are they so great? They're designed with kids in mind - the bikes are incredibly lightweight (which is brilliant if (a) your child is on the small side like M and (b) you yourself end up having to carry/tow the thing), they have child-sized (and easy to operate) brakes, and they are tough as old boots.

2. Have patience. It took a while for M to learn to ride her bike - she's not the most fearless of kids - but we persevered. What really caught her imagination, and made her determined to do it was what she could potentially do if she learned to ride. We talked about cycling holidays, and said we'd take our bikes to Denmark this summer if she could ride along with us.

The other thing we found was that pottering up and down the street wasn't the most exciting way to learn. What did it for M was heading out into the woods - especially some of the long, straight, relatively smooth paths at Dalby Forest and the riverside route at Newburn - and the cycle routes along the Quayside in Newcastle. There, she could build up some momentum and learn to balance, with us walking/running alongside to give her some confidence if necessary (we did a lot of running...). It took a good couple of months before we got our bikes out too - and even now, we have to be prepared to hop off and push if we're going up a particularly steep bit!

3. Make the rides fun. We've explored Hamsterley Forest, Dalby Forest, Chopwell Woods and the Derwent Valley, as well as done some more urban cycle rides along the rivers in Sunderland and Newcastle/Gateshead. There's been lots to see along the way - we've taken photos, chased butterflies, smelled wild garlic, ridden through puddles and up streams, talked about railways/coal mining/weather, looked at maps, played on adventure playgrounds...the list is endless. One of the most useful things we've recently acquired has been a trip computer (£4.99 from Aldi), which has given M a real sense of achievement about how far we've ridden/how fast we've gone, and which also accurately answers the 'are we nearly there yet?' question...

4. Take lots of snacks/drinks. It's amazing how small children who complain that they are on their last legs can be revived by chocolate or cake. We make 'explorer mix': dried fruit like raisins, apricots or dates chucked into a pot with a few nuts and smarties or bits of chocolate left over from Easter. Flapjack is also popular, and doesn't melt.

5. Let them have some 'bike kit'. You don't have to go out and buy fancy stuff for riding bikes (apart from a decent helmet that's the right size and won't fall off), but M is very proud of her designated 'bike clothes'. That's a pair of leggings (so if she falls off her knees don't get too scraped), a long-sleeved moisture-wicking top (very pink), and a lightweight windproof raincoat - all of which we already owned. What we have gone out and bought her is a pair of kids cycling gloves (£3.99), because (a) she's one of those who grips the handles quite hard downhill, and complained about her hands being sore and (b) after a couple of falls we wanted to protect her hands - grit everywhere is no fun, and can ruin your nice cycle ride.

I should point out that any encouragement/bribes are just what work for us and a five-year-old girl obsessed with kittens, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third and chocolate chip brioche. Yours may be wildly different.

19 May 2011


The box scheme continues....it's amazing what you can fit into quite a small space. Here's the sweetcorn/beetroot/radish box (with a rogue french bean). I'm not completely convinced there's enough room for the sweetcorn...they might end up being rather tiny.

Up next, potatoes. Plus several of the many onions dotted around the place (this is what happens when you buy an enormous bag at the allotment shop) and some mint.

And finally, the bean/salad fest. To be honest, I've forgotten what I actually planted in here. I think there's carrots, rocket, lettuce, beetroot and peas, as well as the french/borlotti beans at the back. That'll teach me to write things down.

15 May 2011


Even in the rain, Rievaulx Abbey is still a lovely place to visit. There's atmospheric ruins to scramble about over (our favourite game was 'spot the fireplace'), a small exhibition about the lives of the monks (M was fascinated by the information about all the animals they kept) and a pretty good tea shop. It's all very low key, which together with the drizzle, made for a very English day out.

08 May 2011

Derwent valley explorations

Stage 2: Rowlands Gill to Hamsterley Mill and back (about 4.5 miles), still on the path of the old railway. We crossed two amazing viaducts, met some very nice, inquisitive horses, saw lots of butterflies, and generally had a lovely time. No garlic in this section (the bit between Swalwell and Rowlands Gill is plastered with the wild stuff), which M was very pleased about.

04 May 2011

Book review: Annabel's Kitchen

I was sent an Annabel Karmel cookbook to review a couple of weeks ago by the lovely people at Random House. It's the newest in her extensive series (you might remember I went to the launch of the Top 100 Pasta Dishes last year, which turned out to be a really useful compendium of family recipes).

Annabel's Kitchen: My first cookbook ties in with a TV series of the same name, currently running on ITV. We aren't big TV watchers, so I must confess we've not seen the programme - and to be honest, I'm not sure the book works very well without it. Out of context, it's all a bit over-the-top 1980s zany, with some very stagy photographs, whereas it might make a bit more sense if you'd seen what went on in the studio.

The idea's great - "discover the importance of food and its ingredients" - and as a cookbook for kids, the recipes are nice enough, but the emphasis on turning your food into animals, faces or whatever does pall after a while. I might be turning into a grumpy middle-aged lady, but food's far too important to mess about with. The pig melon (p72) has to be seen to be believed (although anything that gets fruit/vegetables into small children should be applauded, I suppose, and if you were making it as a one-off for a party, it might be worth it).

But for me, it doesn't hit the spot. The book's not simple enough for the age group targeted by the programme to read/engage with/use - there's a lot of recipes, a lot of small text if you've got a just-starting-to-read small person, and not quite enough step-by-step pictures. If you're a bit older, you'll probably be turned off by all the penguin shenanigans (and anyway, should really be using the bible of children's cookbooks, the River Cottage Family Cookbook).

Sorry Annabel. Better luck next time, in this household at least.