Month: April 2016

Sun, Cycle, Study…

…With a little bit of laundry in between!

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Hey there Mr Blue

What a glorious few days we have had. After weeks of April showers (and hail) the blue skies and shining sun are bringing some welcome relief and everyone seems much happier!

The only downside to such beautiful weather is that it is so distracting. With two assignments due in the next month I am struggling to focus on what I have to do because I would much rather be outdoors than sitting with my head in a book about the politics of the English Language.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully enjoying my course with the Open University, but I am also a big lover of the great outdoors and will use any opportunity to go for a hike or cycle. So, mid-way through this week, after spending time pottering about in the garden and then feeling guilty about it, I made a list of what it was I needed to prioritize over the coming month until the end of my module.

Three things emerged. This is a very personal list, although I am sure it will resonate with others in similar circumstances. How we choose to spend our time and what is important to us as individuals changes dramatically from person to person, but for me in my current situation here’s what came out top of my list:

  1. Laundry – ok, might seem daft, but for me this is the one domestic job that stresses me out. With 3 children involved in football, rugby, swimming and general messy outdoor play the laundry basket is forever threatening to cascade down the stairs in smelly waterfall fashion. It is relentless and that’s not even taking into account the school uniforms, bedding, towels and mine and my husband’s clothes! I like to know that everyone has what they need the day before any activity so there’s not a mad panic in the mornings. Laundry had to make the top 3 for me to keep my sanity in one piece!
  2. Exercise – daily exercise is extremely important to me for so many reasons. This coupled with eating well makes me feel so much happier both physically and mentally. Because I only have a small window of opportunity when the children are at school I like to make the most of my time and get out on the bike. I can cover a good distance, really exert myself and still have time to do the laundry!
  3. Study – for the next month this has to be central to my day’s objectives. I have worked so hard on my previous assignments and am on target for a good overall score in this module, I don’t want to let it go now because the sun has decided to come out and play!

So, with these 3 things my main priorities for each day I am not at work and while the children are at school I have been wondering how to fit them all in in a way that is interesting and fun. I get bored with routine and sitting at home for hours on end studying is not appealing. This life is short, and I believe that each day we should try to find joy and do something that makes us happy.

With that in mind, I’ve been putting on the laundry in the mornings before walking the boys to school, then on my return, I hang it out to dry, quickly put on another load, then head out on the bike taking my study books with me.

Within a short distance from my home there are lots of nice places to go for a coffee and get the books out. I took to the Lagan Towpath this week and rode to the Lock Keeper’s Cottage to sit in the sun and get some work done.

Within 10 minutes of leaving home I was riding alongside the river, listening to the birds, watching the baby ducklings follow their mother and generally unwinding. Just getting away from the house for a while de-stressed me and the burst of fairly strenuous exercise helped me to focus on my reading material.

The more I cycle around Belfast the more I realise what a great city it is. Viewed from a bike seat the city takes on a different persona than when seen from behind the wheel of a car. While cycling by the river, looking in one direction I could see the Belfast hills in the distance, the famous Harland and Wolff cranes and the taller buildings in the town centre and yet I was still connecting with nature.

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Belfast has a lot to offer in terms of culture, with fantastic music events, beautiful restaurants and I personally think some of the architecture in the town is magnificent. Yet, there is a quieter, gentler side of Belfast that can so easily be overlooked if we simply journey place to place via car or bus. Off the main roads there are green spaces to explore, nature reserves, plants and wildlife – there is beauty on our doorstep to be admired if we but take snippet of time from our busy lives to notice it. I certainly feel all the richer for choosing to.

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This week has been a good one. The sun has dried the football kits and school shirts. I have managed to make headway with my study notes and I’ve also gotten some good exercise while getting to appreciate some more of Belfast’s cycle paths and nature.

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Cycling in the city with kids

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The thought of cycling around any city with kids in tow can be a daunting prospect for parents. However, by planning a trip at quieter times of the week and by doing a little research into traffic-free cycle ways it is entirely possible! The main thing that concerns me as parent  when out cycling with my children is not their ability, but their safety. That is paramount at all times!

Today, I used the Sustrans website ( http://www.sustrans.org.uk ) to plot out a safe route for a family cycle from Belfast to the Lough Shore Park in Whiteabbey and off we headed to see if it really was suitable for a safe, stress-free family bike-ride.

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A short stop for a minor repair

We are planning to take the kids on a cycle touring holiday next year because being active as a family is something we are passionate about. We are therefore attempting to increase the whole family’s stamina over the next while. The route we took today was perfect for this, it was a 20-mile round trip on a fairly flat surface with a play park at the destination point to give the children a goal to focus on.

Some of the paths we used were for cyclists only and some were shared paths for pedestrians and cyclists, and even though the paths were busy with lots of people enjoying a dry Sunday it wasn’t at all stressful cycling with 3 children.

We have taught the kids to be courteous, to slow down when passing people walking and to try and cycle in a straight line when we see other path users approaching and they were great at following these few simple guidelines so making the journey enjoyable for all. It actually was a lot of fun and everyone was proud of their achievement. It was great to hear the children encouraging one another too when the going got tough.

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Picnic time!

Belfast is a city that is seeing some good improvements being made to cycling infrastructure. There is a battle being fought for safer, segregated cycle lanes and I personally am seeing more and more people cycling as part of their everyday lives. There  is certainly a long way to go in terms of making Belfast into a completely safe cycling city but it is exciting to witness the changes occurring, both in the urban landscape and in attitudes towards cycling.

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It is a dream of mine to see more and more families out cycling together in Belfast and for more and more cycle paths to be introduced across the city. However, in the meantime I plan to make the most of the cycle routes that are already in place – some of them are pretty great!

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Perfect Sunday cycle!

 

 

Great weather for ducks and muddy puddles!

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Splish Splash Splosh!

With school pick-ups at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 4 o’clock, I spend a lot of my afternoon waiting around! While it’s sometimes nice to have a chat in the playground with some of the other parents and let the kids have a run around, it’s also nice to try and get a bit of quality one-to-one time with my youngest while I am waiting for his older brothers to finish their school day.

Instead of me sitting in the playground nattering while he gets all the beneficial exercise we decided recently that we would instead go on a 1-hour adventure together. We are so fortunate to have a great park close to the school which has a great playground, lots of trees and squirrels to watch as well as a river with lots of wildlife to spy.

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‘Just walking in the rain!’

True to form, April has to date been abundant with showers but instead of diving for shelter in the school canteen and passing the hour in a haze of noise and trying to keep my energetic 5-year old from slide tackling his friends and causing someone an injury, we got on our raincoats and headed in the direction of the park!

With muddy puddles galore to jump in and wide open spaces to leap, hop and skip about freely he was totally in his element. He ran and jumped and splashed and got dirty, but what was really nice and unexpected was that he kept running back to tell me snippets of information about his day at school! As I’m sure any parent will testify, getting details out of little ones after school is virtually impossible at times!

On another afternoon we took some bread to feed the ducks in the park. It was lovely to stand back and listen to the giggles as my son threw little chunks of bread for the hungry ducks and so funny to hear him scolding mother duck for being too greedy. We had a jog along the river and read the newly installed information signs about the trees and wildlife that could be spotted in the park.

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What’s fond of the pond?

My son read the signs out to me so not only was he benefitting from being outdoors but he was learning new facts and getting in some reading practice too – great! Kids are learning all the time.

It has been a really fun week spending some time with my youngest child. The years seem to go by so quickly and it is only when I spend some time with each of my kids alone that I realise how much they have grown up and what interesting people they are to be around.

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Another benefit of this time spent together in nature is that I am seeing my son’s ability to focus on homework much better. Also, the afternoon dramas and general reluctance to do as he is asked have more or less disappeared! The difficult behaviour comes from tiredness after a busy day at school and so the hour to just run, be free and let off some steam seems to help increase energy levels, attention span and improve overall mood.

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I am no parenting expert (who is really?). I am just a normal mum trying to do my best and respond to each of my children as individuals. A method of parenting that works for one child doesn’t necessarily seem to work for another, even if they are all brought up in the same home. I can testify however, that with a little planning (ie: remembering to bring bread for the ducks / or wellies to change into!) a short afternoon adventure can improve the remainder of the day! Just something simple like a stroll together hand-in-hand has has so many rewards both for my son, me and our relationship.

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Greedy mother duck!

HIKING WITH KIDS – Fossil hunting on the Causeway Coast

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Enjoying the view through ‘mad-man’s window’

With a budding palaeontologist in the family and a sunny Sunday forecast we decided to pack up a picnic and take a trip around the Causeway Coast in search of fossils.

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Whitebay – the perfect spot to look for fossils!

My husband hails from this beautiful coastal area of Northern Ireland, and after a hectic week driving all over the country with his work this is his go-to happy place where he can take a deep breath, look out over the sea and refocus his mind.

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Deep breath – and relax!

Our 3 energetic boys love nothing more than climbing over rocks and having a good old get-dirty session, so with that all in mind we headed for Whitebay – a quiet spot along the coast, where there are plenty of good boulders to navigate and it is also an area where the rocks are rich with fossils.

We got lucky! We had some great finds and our middle child, the dinosaur lover, was in awe. He was quite happy to spend a few hours looking through his magnifying glass at the rocks with prints and pieces of fossil in them. His enthusiasm was also rather contagious and we all had a great time seeing who could find the best fossil!

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After lunch, we meandered on around the spectacular coast road, admiring the clear view across to the mountains in Scotland and talking about taking a trip over there for some hiking. We then stopped at Layd Church ruins and graveyard – a friend brought us here last year for the first time and we were totally astonished at how peaceful and beautiful it was, not to mention the view out across the sea!

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Layd church ruins and graveyard

We spent some time wandering about there, chatting and learning more about the Church ruins before taking a walk around the cliff path which offers the most stunning views. We also took a mental note of some of the little coves we want to go back to explore further. There were so many!

The drive home was quiet and relaxing, with everyone tired from the sea air. Cheeks were rosy red from the exertion and everyone was happy. We had spent a really interesting day out in the most beautiful area without spending a penny. We had learned new things, spent quality time together and got some good exercise.

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I would highly recommend fossil hunting to anyone with a budding archaeologist in the family – I found my own curiosity piqued too! Great fun! And you never know what you might discover!

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The find of the day – a Belemnite (between 65-140 million years old! Wow!)

One hour mini-adventure #1: Cycle in the city

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Bike all ready for a mini-adventure

THE CHALLENGE: We have all seen the memes circulating on social media:

Do more of what makes you happy.

But in the busyness of our lives, how many of us actually take some time out on a regular basis to do something that we truly enjoy? I’m not talking about a full day of pre-planned fun, but a spur of the moment decision to just do something (or nothing perhaps) that gives us pleasure.

So, at the start of this week I set myself the challenge to make a 1 hour window of opportunity to do something I wouldn’t ordinarily do in the routine of my week that would bring me joy.

I crawled out of bed early this morning (it is Friday!), fuelled up on coffee and a light breakfast, stuck on a load of washing, made the kids’ packed lunches and got them all off to school.

There was still a list of household chores to be caught up on and I have an essay to write for my studies with the Open University, but on this occasion I decided to turn a blind eye to the rice krispies littering the floor, and hopped in the shower to ready myself for my 1 hour of fun. I had been on a very intense training course with work yesterday and knew that the time out away from screens and housework would do me good.

My happy place is being close to nature. I am most contented when I am sweating a bucket load while hiking in the mountains, and we do endeavour to get down to the Mourne Mountains as often as possible. I love nothing more than roaming through a forest or being near water as it is always relaxing and I believe it is good for the soul!

However, I am a city dweller and with my 1 hour window time-challenge I decided that staying within the environs of my home was the best way to make the most of my time – I didn’t want to waste half an hour driving somewhere picturesque only to have 5 minutes to appreciate it! Also, Belfast is a fantastic city with so much to see that it made perfect sense for my first mini-adventure to have a cycle in the city.

Adventure, in my opinion, can be doing anything you love to do, that pushes you a little and challenges you. It doesn’t have to involve zip-lining across a vast expanse or doing a Steve Backshall and scaling the sheer face of a Venezuelan Tepui (although that would be awesome!) Just find something you like and do it! Adventure is a very personal thing – for some people it can mean extreme sports, for others it is exploring nature and for others it might mean something totally different – that’s all ok, just find your passion and pursue it! For me, it’s being physically active in the everyday and going to new places.

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St. George’s Market

So, first stop on my 1 hour mini-adventure was the world-famous St. George’s Market in Belfast city centre where I bought fresh vegetables to make a curry for tea (useful to have a basket on the bike!) I had a lovely chat with a local jewellery designer and had a great time wandering around the many stalls sampling some produce and admiring the many wonderful products on display. I only stayed for about 15 minutes, bearing in mind my time-challenge and the time it had taken me to cycle into town, but because I had gone early on a Friday morning the market wasn’t as busy as it would normally be on a Saturday or Sunday, so I could move around quickly.

 

From the market, I cycled on around the outskirts of the city centre to enjoy the cycleways and take in a few of the local sights.

 

The key to mini-adventure is to keep on moving, while remembering to pause every so often to appreciate your surroundings.

 

So, with that in mind, I cycled onwards towards the Titanic Quarter while staying alongside the water. This gives you a great vantage point for taking in the dockside of Belfast, with views across to the famous Harland and Wolff cranes and on a clear day, Cave Hill.

 

I stopped off at The Belfast Bakery Company in the Titanic Quarter for a coffee and something delicious to eat, I used my time there to do a little writing, fulfilling another one of my passions.

 

My 1 hour was up! Time well spent I think. And, as I mentioned earlier, Belfast is a super city with lots to see and do. There are museums, city tours, great restaurants and markets to explore but even just taking 1 hour to cycle around and admire the buildings, sculptures, harbour and coffee shops I had great fun and got some exercise too.

I had some lovely conversations, great food and coffee, all the while supporting local businesses which can only be a good thing. I am truly fed up with looking at my bank statement each month and seeing that big supermarkets have taken the bulk of my money – enough is enough!

I have discovered that it is possible to fit in 1 hour of doing something I love into my everyday. I am off home feeling happy and energised, ready to cram in a few hours of study prior to the school pick-ups. The rice krispies on the floor may have to stay where they are that little bit longer but I can cope with than in the name of mini-adventure!

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Happy adventuring!

HIKING WITH KIDS – Nature’s Playground

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On top of Cave Hill – Belfast

So, Twitter informed me that today is World Physical Activity Day and that got me thinking about an article I read recently on The Wild Network website ( http://www.thewildnetwork.com ) about how a recent study commissioned by Persil showed that children today spend less time outdoors than prisoners. That made me really sad.

When I think back to my own childhood, my siblings and I spent so much time playing out in the street with our friends, organising games, climbing trees, jumping over streams and going to the park. My knees were permanently covered in plasters and scrapes and bruises from our adventures were just the norm.

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First one to the tree gets to make a wish!

When I first became a mother I was a bit over the top about keeping baby clean, spraying everything with anti-bacterial cleaner, and babywipes were always at hand should the little one get any dirt on his hands. With each new addition to the family I have relaxed a little more, and now, I don’t mind so much if muddy shoes are walked through the house as they go scavenging in the fridge for another snack. Nor do I mind clothes getting dirtied or hands getting grimy. It’s perfectly ok to roll down grassy hills, to rip your jeans while climbing trees and to mix up a mucky potion on the patio – I learned that the world kept on spinning and that my kids are having a grand old time exploring nature and are benefitting massively from time spent playing outdoors.

Some of the time is just spend in the garden – pitching a tent, toasting marshmallows and camping out for the night. Playing football with the neighbours’ kids. Hammering nails into an old piece of wood. Whatever, they’re outside and they’re happy!

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Wild camping in the garden!

And, most weekends as a family we either head to the Mourne mountains or a forest and spend some wild time as a family, hiking, rock-climbing, bouldering down a river or just meandering through trees and taking time out from our busy lives in the city.

These times are priceless and we are so fortunate here in Northern Ireland to have so many great natural places to enjoy. With such a varied landscape and forever changing weather the scenery is always different and there is always somewhere new to investigate.

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View from Hen Mountain in the Mournes

It has taken me a while to accept that getting a little bit grubby is part of childhood. Now, we just keep a rucksack of spare clothes in the boot of our car along with our hiking shoes, that way we are always prepared to get outdoors and enjoy nature’s playground! We can’t make excuses that we’ve no dry socks to put on should we get a little wet!

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Nature’s climbing frame

I recently asked my 5-year old what he would like to do for his birthday next month. His response: ‘Go hiking!’. Kids are naturally eager to be outside, we just need to give them opportunity and stop making excuses about the weather or whatever it is that stop us.

We all know of the benefits of being outside and of exercise. We all know about the rise in childhood obesity. We all know about the downside of too much screen time. We all know about the dangers that there are in the world for children. However, as parents, grandparents and carers it is our responsibility to our children to enable them to spend more time outside than they are currently. It is our job to encourage them to connect with the natural world around them.

We, as humans are part of nature and to not spend time outdoors is to deny ourselves so much. With increasingly busy lives, time outside away from the hustle, bustle and noise can reenergise and help us to focus on our goals. Good clean air and physical activity benefits our health, both in mind and body.

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The Mourne Mountains

For kids, the chance to climb trees, run freely, spot wildlife, dig in mud and just delve into nature and its vast array of treats is time well spent. It has so many positive effects on children both in the here and now and for their lives in the future.

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Who can make the stinkiest potion?

We owe it to ourselves and to our kids to allow them to play outside and enjoy the innocence and magic of childhood. Just recently we were having a family walk through Tollymore Forest Park when I turned around to see my middle son poking in a heap of horse poop with a stick. I felt the words: ‘Ew, gross, stop!’ forming in my throat, but instead of letting them escape I just took a deep breath and thought ‘It’s ok’. Eventually, after he had finished his investigation, he caught up with us and said: ‘That was good practice for when I’m a palaeontologist because in Jurassic Park they had to dig in dinosaur poo’. All was well, it was only research (and there was anti-bacterial handwash in the car)!

Family Adventure: Dutch Style

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Windmills at Kinderdijk

Welcome to my latest blog post, it’s been a while!

A few months ago I managed to book inexpensive flights to Amsterdam for the Easter holidays. It took us a while to decide on accommodation for our family but we finally picked an apartment on a dairy farm in Polsbroek about and hour’s drive south of Amsterdam. We rented a car so we could explore the ‘Groene Hart’ (Green Heart) of the Netherlands and not centre our trip around the capital.

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Apud nos Domi – the dairy farm where we stayed

We were made to feel so welcome at the farm by owners Pieter and Saskia and I cannot recommend their accommodation highly enough. If you would like to find out more about staying in their self-catering apartments you can find all the information on their website http://www.boerderijlogeren.nl/. I am so glad we chose this place to stay as it gave us a feel for life in rural Holland and was the perfect base to explore the large cities and also the smaller villages nearby. If you like wakening up to the sound of nothing but birds cheeping and a view that stretches over acres of lush green fields and canals then this is the ideal spot for you!

The weather was incredibly kind to us, despite it being the end of March! It was cold, so make sure you bring plenty of layers if travelling at this time of year, but, it was dry, so we were able to get out and about every day.

On our first day out we visited the Kinderdijk windmills (pictured at the top of this article). It’s free to walk around the miles and miles of pathways and you can pay a small fee to go inside the windmill museum. Thankfully it was fairly quiet on the day we were there so we more or less had to place to ourselves and afterwards walked into the little village nearby and bought lunch from the bakery which we enjoyed while gazing over the fields of windmills.

In the afternoon we journeyed into urban Holland with a trip into Rotterdam. This is a huge city with a beautiful harbour and is famous for its cube houses and market hall so of course that’s where we visited.

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The cube houses in Rotterdam

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The kids were mesmerized by the cube houses and couldn’t quite work out how you would manage to live in them without falling out of the windows! Great fun watching their imaginations run wild. This was also the day they learned the lyrics to ‘Rotterdam’ by the Beautiful South, and haven’t stopped singing it since!

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The market hall is an incredible building filled with stalls selling Dutch delicacies as well as different foods from around the world. The ceiling itself is a work of art – designed with a spectacular array of colourful flowers and fruit.

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Ceiling of the Market Hall in Rotterdam

We enjoyed a really nice dinner in Jamie’s Italian – one of the many restaurants which lines the outside walls of the market hall which was a real treat.

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Market Hall in Rotterdam

The following day we drove to the outskirts of Amsterdam and parked beneath Ajax Stadium, much to the delight of our football mad sons! From here we used the Park and Ride, which is so reasonably priced – the entire day’s parking plus our train tickets to the city centre cost just 8 Euros, which is such good value for a family of five.

Once in the city centre, the obvious thing to do was walk along the streets famous for their canals and tall houses and soak up the atmosphere of this buzzing hub of creative living.

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Bicycle storage near Central Station in Amsterdam

Every which way you turn there are bicycles, thousands of them! Everyone here seems to own a bicycle and it seems to be the best way to get around no matter what your age. The cycle network is remarkable and pedestrians, cyclists, people on mopeds and cars all share the streets in harmony. Everyone has their own space and so there is no conflict. I knew Amsterdam was a city of bikes, but actually seeing it in reality was enlightening. It is possible to have cities where every person can move about safely in their own way and it comes down to good city planning and respect for fellow citizens.

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Amsterdam
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Family on the move in Amsterdam
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Amsterdam

After a long day spent in Amsterdam we decided the following day to visit some of the villages near to where we were staying. Oudewater and Montfoort are within a ten minute drive and although small are well worth checking out. The beautiful streets are lined with gorgeous houses and shops, including a quaint little chocolate shop in Oudewater which of course the kids just had to go to! We ate lunch in a small café and basically whiled away a few hours roaming along the canal lined streets and enjoying ice cream. It was so peaceful and even though there were no attractions for the kids they were happy to walk around and just spend time together chatting and exploring somewhere totally different from home. This was probably my favourite day of the whole trip because it was just so relaxed and everyone was happy despite having tired legs from all the walking.

Later that day we ventured on to Gouda – of course, famous for its cheese! This is a beautiful city and home to the oldest pancake restaurant in the Netherlands, so that was dinner sorted. Wow! Biggest pancakes we had ever seen and only our 10-year old could finish! Impressive.

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Pannenkoe-oldest pancake restaurant in the Netherlands
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Outside the cheese shop in Gouda!

While in Gouda we visited the longest church in the Netherlands, Sint Janskerk. It is well worth going inside to admire the stunningly detailed stained glass windows and religious artwork on display.

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Gouda’s Stadhuis

We decided while in Holland to treat the kids to a trip to Eftling, especially seeing as they had been so good walking everywhere. Eftling is a massive theme park, much like Disneyland, but with shorter queues! There are daredevil rollercoasters, water rapid rides, a bobsleigh, a fairy-tale forest and a million things to keep children of all ages entertained for hours. Site map in hand we managed to tour the entire park and get on all of the rides we wanted, some of them twice, in one day. We had bought the luxe family ticket which meant all of our snacks and lunch were included as well as our parking fee and I would definitely recommend doing it this way. The Octopus café is apparently the coolest café ever, set out like an underwater cave and full of slides and climbing frames.

The rollercoaster rides are most definitely not for the faint-hearted and the swinging pirate ship is so frightening that we had to go on again, and again! It was an expensive enough day out, but my boys do save their pocket-money and we rarely have a big splurge on something like this and we all had a really fun time.

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The double track wooden rollercoaster at Eftling – very very fast and scary!

On our final day we had a lazy(ish) morning enjoying the go-karts and trampoline at the farm as well as checking up on the newly born lambs. The kids would have happily spent the entire day there but our hosts recommended we use the Park and Ride Westraven and take a trip into Utrecht. So glad we did! Utrecht is another beautiful city with lots of interesting architecture and home to the Dom Tower.

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The Dom Tower in Utrecht

After a great walk around the city we enjoyed traditional apple tart and coffee in the sunshine alongside the canal. It was a lovely way to bring our days of exploring the Netherlands a little to a close. We had early flights the next day so we just sat back awhile and watched the world go by. It was truly lovely. Simple yet perfect.

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Canal in Utrecht
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Traditional thatched country house.

Visiting Holland was a wonderful experience. We as a family took home some great memories of time spent together laughing and talking, of walking around hand in hand and just enjoying being together.

 

As a country Holland really impressed us. It’s not in your face and loud, it is calm and collected – understated yet confident. The people we met were so warm and friendly. The way of life in the country is simple and honest. The landscape is rich a green and there is wildlife to be spotted. The quality and efficiency of the roads is of such a high standard. The commitment to living sustainably and self-sufficiently was evident everywhere we journeyed and was oh so attractive and thought-provoking! I take home with me personally a desire to be more mindful of how I live. To consider mine and my family’s impact on the environment and to just enjoy the simple things in life. That’s a valuable life lesson.

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The street we stayed on in Polsbroek – with a faint rainbow in the distance.