Tuesday, 8 January 2013

London - part 1 - Legoland

This post got stuck in draft, so I am posting it now - slightly too late!  I suspect part 2 won't ever get written!

Our second summer holiday of the year (the first being a bargain week in Corfu in July) was a short visit to London in August with one of my best friends, her husband and their three kids.  Their son is just a few weeks younger than the small Scottish boy, although they'd not seen each other since they were three years old as my friend lives in Ireland.  We shared a 3 bedroom apartment near the centre of London and whilst the apartment was lovely, I have learnt a lesson - just because a place says it has a lift, don't assume there's not a dozen steep steps before you get to the lift!

I was a bit nervous about the travelling around in London, because my memories of it (I lived there in late 90s) was of a place which was not at all disabled friendly.  When I checked things out I was surprised to find that there was no lift access to far more tube stations than had been the case - including all the platforms at Kings Cross, which was a good start since that was near where we were staying.  This meant I was able to get the tube in from Heathrow (we flew down as the boy had a hospital appointment - nothing serious - that day).  The nice man from BAA collected me at the plane door in a nifty wheelchair which had room for our carry-on case, which saved the boy from having to pull it and escorted me all the way onto the tube train itself.

Our first stop was Legoland.  I'd been once before - in 1991 and in Denmark - and the rest were newbies. All the kids were big Lego fans though!

First off.  Do not think it will be "easy enough" to get to Legoland from central London.  It took ages.  Stay near the park.  If you are travelling from outside southern or central England and don't have a car, this is easier said than done.  There's the park hotel, but that was full when we booked.  Much scouring of websites failed to find anywhere close and accessible by public transport, but we got to Slough and discovered there is a Holiday Inn by the station.

Anyway, we survived our public transport journey and hit the park.  It seems much more real than Disney, and that's a big plus for me.  As I described it to my friend's husband: "you see that hedge there, it's just an ordinary, slightly scrappy looking hedge.  At Disney, it would be perfectly manicured and there would be a fountain making it look like a single drop of water was bouncing along the top of it".   It's also better value.  Entrance fees were reasonable (as a group of 7 we paid about £22 each) and the food was as well.  After 4pm, there was an all you could eat buffet deal for I think £20 per adult.  Since we got one kid free for each adult, we ended up paying £10 a head.  For £6 you could buy a refillable drink bottle, with free refills all day long, so we shared a couple of those.

The problem is that it's also really not designed with mobility in mind.  It's built on a steep hill.  Most of the attractions are at the bottom and there is a funicular railway down the hill, but it's still far from level.  As a result I stuck with my crutches, which made me tired and sore by the end of the day.  It would be good if they could hire out scooters.  They do have a priority entry system for disabled people, but as a group of 7 there were too many of us to use it.  I could only bring 3 people with me and we had 4 kids with us.  Can you imagine the fights! What the staff were happy with, however, was for the rest of the group to queue and for me to join them at the front.  It meant I still waited just as long, but could sit down while doing so.

Our first day was damp.  The couple of times rain threatened we were able to duck into indoor rides so no one got drenched.  Like Disney, each area is themed - Lego City, Lego Castles, Lego Pirates, Vikings.  The rides are a great mix of tamer ones for little kids and wilder ones for older kids, for example in the Castle section were three rollercoasters - each suitable for different age groups.  The youngest member of our group (4 year old M) went on all of them.  Lego theme is not over powering.  Our second day turned out to be the start of a heatwave (which left me wishing we were staying longer).  The kids accidentally discovered the splash pad, which meant an hours wasted while they ran about in their knickers getting soaked.  Then we dashed around catching up on the rides we had missed the day before - ending up with the wet rides.  I was thoroughly teased for insisting on wearing my raincoat. We may have even forgotten to feed the children!

The small Scottish boy is not, it turns out, a big thrillseeker, but still enjoyed most of the rides.  Since the park is aimed at 4-12 year olds, nothing was too hard on my back, except perhaps the pirate ship.   He loved panning for gold (well, fool's gold) and some of the tamer rides, but his absolute favourite was the driving school.  I think I am still disappointed that I was too old for that when I was at Legoland in 1991.  My favourite was Miniland, of course.  Isn't it everyone's?

Update on Barney

We went up to the local Cat's Protection League shelter just before Christmas, to take some food up to them and see how Barney was getting on.  He wasn't there, because he had just been rehomed with a family about 15 miles from here, who have sons aged 4 and 7.

They told me that he very quickly turned into a loving cat, who enjoyed sitting on the table and getting fuss.  I suspected he would, but was very pleased everything had worked out and surprised it had taken them less than two months to get him healthy, used to being with people again and to home him.  One of the volunteers commented that it's cats like Barney that make the job really worthwhile.

I still feel a bit guilty that I couldn't look after him myself, but I'm pleased everything worked out.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Now a two-cat household once more.

For most of the year this has been, at least to some extent, a three-cat household.  The chap on the left turned up in March, at first just hanging around and looking plaintively in the window at us, but eventually very actively trying to move in.  Since I already have two cats, a third cat was really not an option.  A third cat that was semi-feral and an intact Tom was definitely not a good idea in a household with two neutered males.  As a result I tried to discourage him  from coming in and when that didn't work, I started trying to rehome him.   

I contacted our local branch of the Cats Protection League for advice and was told that unfortunately they have a fairly long waiting list for rehoming, especially for adult cats in no immediate danger, which was the case with this guy.   They provided me with a supply of paper collars, which I put my phone number on, in the hope that if he did live somewhere they would contact me.  No one responded.  A quick visit to the vet confirmed that he was not microchipped, un-neutered and in good health, if a bit skinny.  I treated him for fleas and ticks and wormed him, then let him go again.

It turns out he was not only quite determined to move in with me (and mark his territory accordingly - I can recommend Urine Off) he was also trying to move into another house three doors along - but with three cats they could not take him on either.  My neighbour found him upstairs, curled up on her spare bed looking like he owned the place.  Likewise, he once tried to climb up on my bed to sleep in the middle of the night - to the surprise of both me and my other cats, who were already there.  He's clearly a cat who has known a home at some point.

Over the summer he continued to hang around and I provided a bowl of food at the back doorstep when I saw him.  So that we had no more marking issues and to provide my own cats with some peace, I kept the cat flat closed.  A few weeks ago the Cats Protection League called me back to say they had a space available and inevitably he was nowhere to be seen for several weeks.  Last Monday morning, however, he was waiting at the back doorstep with my two, asking to be fed.

So this week, I have taken my life (or at least my soft furnishings) into my hand and left the catflap open again for the first time since spring.  Sure enough we started getting through a lot more food again, so on Friday night I left the catflap so that the cats could get in, but not out.  Yesterday at lunchtime I was sitting at the table when our friend here sauntered out from under the futon in the family room.  Here he is looking a bit annoyed at having discovered he couldn't get out (I'd also just treated him for fleas and ticks, which was easier than it is with one of my permanent cats).

He spent the rest of Saturday locked in the bathroom, to keep him in and away from the others (and there was nothing he could mark in there).  He had food, water and an old rug tucked by the radiator.  On Sunday morning he happily climbed into the carrier when I put him in front of it (again, not like my own cats!) and I took him off to the wonderfully appropriately named town of Fishcross.  He's settled into Cats Protection League's rehoming centre there, and they'll make sure he has his vaccinations, is neutered and get him back to health.

We never named him, so yesterday he acquired the name Barney.  It's appropriate in a way - I've just about had a barney with one of the neighbours over feeding him a couple of times!  It's been worth it, he'll need someone with a bit of patience, but he shows all the signs of wanting to be someone's pet.  Hopefully he will have a home sometime soon.  

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Maps. And Volcanoes

I've always been a bit in love with maps.  As a child I used to spend holidays away with my grandparents on their yacht (no, we're not that posh, it was a cramped sailing yacht with really basic facilities) and I remember spending hours looking at the charts with my grandfather.  I still credit him with instilling a near infallible sense of direction in me.  I could navigate with a chart by the age of 8, yet somehow the maps and charts part of the Girl Guide syllabus prevented me getting my silver award at 12, but that was because our leader couldn't assess it.  But I digress.

Last week I took a night off from studying to go to a talk by Mike Parker, who used to present Radio 4's On the Map (which I wish they would repeat).  The topic was national identity and mapping, which obviously links into the independence debate which is raging here at the moment.  It was a really entertaining talk and as a result I have bought Mike's book, Map Addict: a tale of obsession, fudge and the Ordnance Survey.  He even used a few of my favourite maps.  If he's speaking near you, I recommend him, although I suspect the subject matter was tailored to a Scottish audience.

Inevitably it got me thinking about my favourite maps and I have finally decided what to do with the vast bare wall of my hall.  Maps.  First up was one I have been looking for for ages.  As it happened I was telling my friend Morag (another Scottish-Kiwi) about it as we waited for Mike's talk and googled it on my phone.  There it was at the National Library of Australia - I'd been looking for it in NZ libraries and archives.  I now have a poster sized one ready to go on my wall.  It's German geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter's map of the volcanoes of the Auckland Isthmus.   Drawn in 1859, the map shows the extent of all the cones, craters and lava flows of the Auckland field before they were quarried and built on.

It's a fairly frightening thought that almost a million people now live in the area covered by the map (the city now extends further to the north and west, away from the volcanic field.  That's the city centre in the middle and I grew up near the three crater lakes/basins on the northern shore of the northern of the two harbours.

The Auckland Volcanic Field consists of at least 50 volcanoes, either as cones or craters, and it's monogenetic, meaning each volcano usually erupts once (they did find a second eruption site in the Panmure basin, which is the large basin to the right of the centre of the map, a few years ago).    The most recent eruption was only 600 or so year ago and created Rangitoto the large island at the top of the map.  It was apparently bigger than all the previous eruptions put together.

The Auckland volcanic field is active, just dormant.

Oh and thumbs down to the University of Edinburgh, for closing the accessible entrance to the building Mike's lecture was held in.

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Open University

One of my current time sinks and the reason I haven't been the world's most prolific blogger is that I have been doing an MA in Social Sciences via the Open University. The OU, as it's known, is a rather wonderful institution which was set up to enable those who missed out on higher education first time round a chance to study at home. It was immortalised in the film Educating Rita and one of its famous alumni is the British comedian Lenny Henry. In the early years, it used a mix of printed materials and middle of the night TV  broadcasts. The latter have largely been replaced by DVDs and online resources but their TV and radio presence remains in the many excellent programmes they co-produce for BBC TV and radio.

 Having had a fairly directionless experience of higher education (three and a half years of study, mostly in Scandinavian Studies, at three different universities and an FE College), I enrolled as an OU student in 2002 and started my first course in early 2003. Five years on, I graduated with BSc in Social Sciences with Social Policy with first class honours. It was a turbulent five years - my older son was born and then died that first year and the small Scottish boy came along in my third year.  Here we are at my graduation in 2008.   He'd just recovered from chicken pox and we both needed haircuts.

I'd caught the OU bug and 18 months later I signed up for the MA in Social Sciences.  It's been a bit tougher than the BSc  The work is more challenging, of course and life through some more curve-balls at me (in a case of history does repeat, my mother died, four months into the first course), but here I am, something approximating two-thirds of the way through.  Perhaps a bit more.  I've passed three courses and have the exam for the fourth on Monday.

My last course is a double credit one, so it will complete the MA.  It's Understanding Children's Development and Learning - officially part of the MA in Education and a bit of a new topic but the materials I have so far look very interesting and hopefully it will be useful to me at work.  My current course has been a bit of a hectic one - three assessments due within 8 weeks over the summer holidays, so the slightly slower pace of an 11 month long course (6 assessments including the final one - no exam) is a bit of a relief.

One of the things that I like about the OU is that there are intermediate qualifications along the way.  I've already gathered up a Post Graduate Certificate and if I pass the exam on Monday I'll have the Post Graduate Diploma in Social Sciences.  I can't quite figure out if the last course will give me a PG Cert in Education (as well as counting towards the MA) but if I do one more course, I will definitely qualify for a PG Diploma in Education.

But I won't be doing that.  No, I won't.  This is it.  No more studying.  I'll be glad to get my life back.

Although, some undergrad modules, just for fun, might appeal.  Maybe some French.  Or history.

Be warned.  The OU is addictive.

Now, I'd better get on with studying and stop procrastinating!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Those breast cancer "awareness raising" memes

It's that time of year again and the breast cancer memes are coming out. Your shoe size, the colour of your bra or how long it takes to do your hair are not going to raise anything other than a snigger. If you want to raise awareness of breast cancer, link to something informative, that increases women's knowledge of the signs of breast cancer (or other cancers). 

I'm going to start with this ad by Elaine C Smith which is running on Scottish TV at the moment. The message is to look for more than a lump - and that's a very important one. Oh and for non-Scots, she says "three kids later ones", not freaky...

Friday, 21 September 2012

Sometimes, this disability thing feels expensive

This post is brought to you, mostly, by the ominous squeak coming from one of my crutches.

I've blogged before about my crutches. Before I could buy the whizzy spotted ones, one of my first pair of folding crutches, the fetching red ones from the picture with my son, had it's elastic cable overstretched and rattled as a result. This was hard on my wrists, so I ended up replacing them. The replacements are 20 months old now and it looks like their time is up. I have another pair that are fine - a pair of fixed red ones - and they're actually the most comfortable. But the folding ones are my day to day crutches because it's hand to be able to tuck them away and folding helps that. They're essential for travelling as well. Although they only fold in half, if I shorten them as well they're short enough to strap to a bag (for example, it means I can use one crutch, attach the other to the front of a wheeled suitcase and walk short distances like that). It looks like there's a few choices. I've noticed that the range of crutches available here is improving although the prices still don't compare well with what they pay in France. My first two pairs were Vilgo ones from Chic Aid Crutches.

They seem to have another brand for sale now (on the left there), which I have to say look great but are expensive (£145 EACH) and I am not sure I fancy having to adjust them, both, to the same length, in two different places, every time I need to stow them somewhere. Even if they would hang on a table, which looks very nifty indeed.  Maybe when I am feeling a bit richer!

I am a bit perplexed by the picture of one on a bike. Bike-riding crutches user seems a niche market!

So, I think I'll give these OPO ones a try.  That's them on the right, and they are similarly priced to the Vilgos. That's another £80-ish quid but at least I'll get the VAT back. Just as well I'm gainfully employed. Meanwhile, a bad experience with an awful borrowed wheelchair at the SECC (who also charged me £6 to use the disabled car park, as it happens) in Glasgow has left me contemplating buying a lightweight folding wheelchair for occasional use. I don't think that's going to be cheap, somehow.

Meanwhile, if anyone knows someone who uses just one crutch, I have a growing collection of quite expensive single crutches I am happy to pass on.  On top of all those mentioned here, I am down to one burgundy (same as the grey in the previous post on the matter) the other has cracked.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

I'm on a diet - can I still be a feminist?

I've been on a diet, WeightWatchers specifically, for about 6 weeks now.  I've done WW before, before I had the small Scottish boy, and it worked well for me. I've now lost 4kg (that's almost 9lb) so clearly it still works for me.  I like their system and they've made some good tweaks to it since I last did it.  And if I am realistic, I need the discipline of turning up once a week and getting my card stamped in order to stick with it.

The basics are, you get a set number of points per day, in my case that was 28 until this week, it's now 27 (and will drop again to the minimum 26 at some point).  You also get 49 weekly points, which you can use for extras during the week (that's new).  If you do exercise, you earn additional points.  I've mostly used no more than my daily points and any exercise points I earn, but last week I went a bit mad and had a Domino's pizza one night so dipped into a big chunk of my weekly points.  In the old system I would have spent the week feeling dreadful because I'd gone over my limit.  Now, it was a case of "oh well, there go the weekly points" and no guilt.  I like that.  I should maybe splurge more often - I lost 1kg.

Foods have a point value, the formula calculates that based on the protein, fat, fibre and carbohydrate content.  Almost all fruit and vegetables have 0 points, so you're encouraged to fill up on those.  Nothing is off limits, but that Domino's pizza was a whole day's points, on it's own.  And that was with the low fat cheese.   Back in the old days you jotted points down in a notebook and looked foods up in wee notebooks.  Inevitably, there's an app for it now.
That's the main screen you use - click on Add to Tracker and you can look up the food and add the required quantity.  I don't usually bother to add 0 point vegetables - so that green Thai curry also had a whole load of green beans in it.  The yogurt is for dessert.
It also has a pretty graph to show what you've lost - that 7 there means I've passed 7lbs.  Although the app and website accommodate those of us who use metric, the reward system is still using imperial.  

I'm happy to be losing weight, mostly because I was aware that carrying extra was not helping my mobility.  Or indeed my hypermobility - extra weight puts extra strain on joints.  It's not really about looking slim and my target of 75kg won't make me slim.  It's just about making myself a bit healthier. There's also the fact that I was going to have to replace most of my trousers if I didn't lose a bit!  

Weight loss and in particular "the diet industry" is hotly contested amongst feminists.  So for some of my friends, I know, I am a bad feminist for not only dieting but also for paying my £19.99 a month to an American-based multinational diet company.  I don't think the fact I buy very few of their products redeems me much*.  Kate Harding's Shapely Prose is just one example of many fat acceptance sites.  She makes some very good points and since my aim is to end up a plump size 14-16 at the end of this I'll probably continue to agree with them then.  

But I don't buy that trying to lose some weight necessarily makes you a traitor to the sisterhood.  Even for people whose motivation is to look a bit better in a swimsuit.  There must be some middle ground where we can say "hey, we don't all need to be a size 10" (or 8, or 6, or 0), where we acknowledge that you can be happy and beautiful and yes, healthy, at a whole range of weights but can also be supportive of people who want to be a size or two smaller than they currently are, for whatever reason, rather than publicly castigating them for it.  

Replacing an inflexible hegemony about being slim with an equally rigid hegemony about being fat doesn't do anyone any good.  

*I do admit to rather liking WW's  Chocolate Caramel Wafers, £1 for a pack of 5 at Tesco right now.  They're pretty close to Tunnocks' version but 2 points rather than 4. .