Visiting Museums at Home


We love museums! We have our old favourites and then we also love to discover new ones. Museums these days are often interactive, welcoming, child-friendly places where we can all learn something new. But it’s not always possible to get to them. Maybe you just don’t have many nearby or perhaps transport is difficult. Often money is a concern because while many museums are free, not all are and then there is the cost of getting there, gift-shops, cafes, etc. the latter of which are not essential to a museum trip but can sometimes be hard to avoid. So,  I offer you our guide to enjoying museums at home!

  • On-line collections. Many museums now have excellent websites which have a lot of their collection available to view online. Many also have a whole host of other information, kids’ pages, games, craft and art ideas, experiments to do, and so on. Check out the education pages at The National Archives, Kew, for example; it has games, a ‘build your own Magna Carta’ project, information on different time periods, a document of the month, and more.
  • Museum publications. The larger museums often have a selection of children’s books and project-sets. The V&A in London, for example, have a great selection, as does The National Gallery which has just published its first ever children’s guide to the gallery, Picture This! We love the V&A’s Welcome to the Museum, an amazing set with a fold-out museum and a book full of stickers and press-out exhibits so you can create your own tiny museum on the dining-room table. There is also the huge book Historium (Welcome to the Museum) by Jo Nelson and Richard Wilkinson which is set out like a museum catalogue full of ancient artefacts. There are other books in the series which focus on different museum types, such as dinosaurs and natural history.DSC_0013.JPG
  • Make your own museum. You can use something like Welcome to the Museum but you don’t actually need a fancy kit to make your own museum at home. It’s a great rainy day or winter activity. Children can turn their bedroom, playroom, or Wendy house into a museum or, if you are short on space, a tray or table can become a display-area. Your own museums can reflect whatever passions your children have: dinosaurs, rocks, dolls, shells, stamps, coins, old things, family souvenirs, postcards, thimbles, badges, even fun erasers or Shopkins. How far they develop the activity is up to them. Maybe they just like to arrange the exhibits but perhaps they would like to make display labels and/or some information about each item. They might even want to make a museum guide or brochure with photos or drawing and extra information. Nina Chakrabarti’s My Collection of Collections might be a good source of inspiration if your child is a little unsure of where to start.
  • Start your own family archives. Start a family history folder or box. This could go as far back as you are able or it could just focus on your own family, including birth certificates (see if you can give them a copy rather than the real thing), birth announcements, photos and mementos of significant family events and so on. You might have items from further back in your family’s past even if this is just a coin or stamps from when you were little – to children that’s still quite a long time ago!DSC_0015.JPG
  • Museum fiction. There are quite a few books that take museums as their focus. One of the most well-known is E. L. Konigsburg’s modern classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler about two children Product Detailswho run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. I used to love how the children get to sleep in an antique four-poster bed! Robin Stevens has just published The Guggenheim Mystery, a follow-up to Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery. Siobhan Dowd passed away before she could develop the sequel to the first book so Stevens used the title as the inspiration for a story about a missing masterpiece. My younger daughter loves the ‘Violet’ books by Harriet Whitethorn and has already read the latest one several Violet and the Mummy Mystery by [Whitehorn, Harriet]times. Violet and the Mummy Mystery revolves around some sneaky thefts from the Egyptology Department of the British Museum. When a mummy thought to hold the key to locating the lost tomb of Nefertiti is stolen, Violet and her friends are determined to get it back. In a similar vein are Mike Museum Mystery Squad Books 1 to 3: The Cases of the Moving Mammoth, Hidden Hieroglyphics and Curious Coins (Young Kelpies) by [Nicholson, Mike]Nicholson’s Museum Mystery Squad books in which a team of kids solve mysterious puzzles that crop up in museums. There are The Case of the Hidden Hieroglyphics; The Case of the Moving Mammoth; and The Case of the Curious Coins.   For younger children The Museum of Me by Emma Lewis is a picture book exploring a child’s journey of discovering museums. David Lucas’ book Lost in the Toy Museum follows Bunting the Cat as he searches for his hiding friends amidst the treasures of the museum. The Museum by Susan Verde is a picture book about a little girl going to an art gallery and responding in the pictures she sees there. In The Queen and Mr Brown: A Day for Dinosaurs by James Francis Wilkins the Queen and her corgi visit the Natural History Museum and meet some dinosaurs…
  • Puzzles and activities. Maths Quest: the Museum of Mysteries by David Glover is a book that uses maths puzzles to help the reader unfold the mystery. My elder daughter spent her birthday money on Museum of Me: Curate your life with your own drawings, doodles and writing by Charlotte Farmer. It’s a fantastic book that allows you to fill a museum with your favourite things, stuff about your family, friends and hobbies and so on. It would be a great Christmas present. A similar book is Me Museum by M. H. Clark.

Testing times


This week my elder daughter was one of thousands of children who sat a ‘pre-test’ for local selective schools. This is something new to me; when I was a child and applying to secondary schools all the children automatically sat the 11+ exam. together at school unless parents opted them out (e.g. they were moving abroad or had only recently moved to the UK and had not yet learned English well enough to sit the test). This system had its own draw-backs, of course, and one advantage of the way the applications process changed over the years was that you now had to opt in to sit the 11+ on a Saturday at one of the selective schools. However, the vast numbers of children applying each year for a few hundred places meant that this system became untenable. It was not logistically possible to examine that many children. So, the ‘pre-test’ was born…

The idea is that everyone who would like to apply for a place at one of three selective boys schools, two selective girls schools or a comprehensive (co-ed and mixed ability) school with a selective stream needed to sit a ‘pre-test’ in order to qualify to take the entrance examination. Anyone can apply, provided they are the appropriate age. This means that our test in a South London suburban borough was attended by children living as far away as Hertfordshire, on the other side of London. If that child won a place at one of the schools in this borough he or she would be faced with a two and an hour plus commute in both directions each and every day. Selective grammar schools are so rare and so far between that some parents would send their child that way every day rather than send them to a local non-selective school.


So this week the local girls’ grammar school held two enormous sittings for the pre-test. Each test had four different entrances and examination sites within the campus, each accommodating a huge number of children. The morning test candidates were told to be there no later than 8.30 am and were warned that traffic and parking in the area was likely to be difficult. We live about 15 minutes drive from the school if traffic is normal; the journey includes driving through two town centres. Taking into account ordinary rush-hour traffic as well as the test traffic we left home at 7.40 am; one of my recurring nightmares had been that I was circling the area in the car, desperately searching in vain for a parking space. Yes, I was having nightmares about the pre-test and I’m certainly not the only parent who was so imagine the pressure the children were under!

Fortunately the traffic was a dream and we arrived at just before 8 am to find lots of space in one of the car parks in the park next to the school. It soon filled up, though, and by the time I returned to my car it was so packed that I had difficulty backing out of my space, despite a car park nearer to the school gate being left half empty, presumably because it wasn’t paved. We had time for my daughter to finish some of the breakfast she’d brought with her, to read the Bible and pray and to head into the school with plenty of time. We were both over-awed by the sheer numbers of girls. It was just astonishing. All these girls were taking two hour-long tests, one in maths and the other in English, just for the privilege of sitting another exam. My daughter went in at 8.30 am and, as they ran behind schedule, didn’t leave the building until 11.50 am. Children were missing school, parents were missing work, all these children (a good number of whom have only just turned ten and are nowhere near eleven years-old) were under a huge amount of pressure for a pre-test.

There is a hugely popular girls’ grammar school in a another borough close-ish to ours; the vast numbers of girls applying has led to it deciding on an eligibility zone. The zone is quite wide; it excludes us but if our daughter attended that school she would have been undertaking a bus ride of well over an hour every morning and a similar length of time in the afternoon. A slightly late bus would make her very late for school and she would be worried about getting into trouble. Yes, it’s a shame she can’t apply there but, on the whole, it is better for her physical and emotional well-being that it’s not an option for her.

If the schools in our borough would only apply a similar zoning admissions policy then the pre-test could surely be done away with and all these children spared the additional stress and anxiety of a pre-test. I can understand that in these days of league-tables schools want the very best students and can have their pick. If a child living in Hertfordshire will do even slightly better in exams than one living five minutes walk away then the Hertfordshire child is preferable despite the cost of the commute to that child’s health, family life and friendships. However, the number of children sitting the pre-test means that, in fact, it almost becomes a lottery. Virtually all of these children are likely to be intelligent and in the top learning sets in their class. How they do in the tests is largely dependent on what questions came up on the day, whether they had a cold, if they slept well, whether they were feeling anxious or panicky. On any given day and with any given paper a different group of children could well pass at the required level.

The only factor which tips the scales is the amount of preparation the children have had: tutors; summer schools; parental preparation; practice tests hosted by the same local grammar schools. As you can imagine, the desperation for places has created a completely false environment in which children are expected to know maths work from across the Year 6 curriculum and do so by being tutored. The few untutored children, unless they have a really special aptitude for maths, cannot be expected to know all of this after less than a month in the final year of primary school. Many children are encouraged to do a really astonishing amount of extra work to prepare for these tests. I met a lady who had recently moved to the area who told me her daughter would love to join Guides but would not be allowed until after the pre-test and 11+. Making friends and pursuing extra-curricula activities took a back seat way behind revision. The family are fortunate enough to be able to fall back on local private schools if the child didn’t get a place at the preferred school but in the meantime she was not allowed to do a two-hour activity on a Friday night just five minutes down the road from her house.

Next week we will hear whether my daughter has passed the pre-test. If she hasn’t then we will reassure her, comfort her, give her positive alternatives and tell her that we will love her no matter what. Hopefully other parents will do the same but it is hard to prevent the children from feeling like they have failed at ten years old.




Home school learning about the Georgian Era


Last term one of our home education topics was the English Georgian period. This covers 1714 until 1830 when the ‘last George’ died and William IV reigned briefly, ushering in the Victorian era. We had a brilliant time studying the Georges; here are some of our favourite learning experiences:

  • Get your Georges straight! My daughter did some research online to make a chart showing each of the King Georges (I, II, III and IV!), their birth and death dates, length and dates of their reign, their wives, mistresses and children, interesting facts about them and important events that took place during their reign. It is a great help getting the era ordered in your mind and reduces the George confusion. You can watch clips from the BBC documentary The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain here.
  • Read up on the period. There are not many books about the Georgians readily available, especially compared with other periods of British history, possibly because it is not part of the government primary school curriculum. The Usborne History of Britain book The Georgians by Ruth Brocklehurst is easy to buy and often available in the library. My daughter also read The Georgians 1714-18307 by Kingfisher books and Georgian Life by John Guy. The TV-tie-in book Regency House Party by Lucy Jago was a suprising addition to the list; my daughter was fascinated by the insights it gave into the period.
  • Find out about other famous Georgians. My daughter’s favourite of these was Jane Austen and we did a lot of research about her. She tried reading some of her fiction, and made a start with some biographies: Jane Austen by Carol Shields and Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley. She also absolutely loved I was Jane Austen’s Best Friend and Jane Austen Stole My Boyfriend by Cora Harrison, modern historical novels for young people about Austen’s circle of friends. Another very accessible book for younger readers is Jane Austen. Her Life, her times, her novels by Janet Todd, a beautiful sort of scrap-book-style book with documents you can take out and slot back in. We visited Austen’s cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, her tomb in Winchester Cathedral, the portrait exhbition in Winchester and the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. We also went to a lecture about Austen at the National Archives and saw her original will. Because this is the bicentenary of Austen’s death there has been a huge amount of Austen activities going on in the UK and especially in the South of England where Austen was born, lived, worked and died. You can watch clips from Lucy Worsley’s BBC documentary Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors here.IMAG2347
  • Visit some historic Georgian sites. We visited Regency Bath, Mompesson House in Salisbury, the famous Brighton Pavilion, Osterley Park and Castle Green House and Regency gardens at Cardigan Castle to name but a few. Previously we have been to the National Trust property Saltram near Plymouth which is also excellent. Visiting some Georgian properties gives you a real sense of the lives and environment of the Georgians and although this is usually mainly that of the wealthiest members of society (because theirs are usually the only houses and possessions to have been preserved) you are sometimes able to glimpse something of the lives of their servants, labourers, and so on through the kitchens and outhouses. IMAG2326
  • Research Georgian fashion and jewellery. The internet and Pinterest (my Georgians board is here) have lots of information about Georgian fashion although you could try more general books about the history of fashion or visit a fashion museum. My children really enjoyed looking at all the clothes at the Fashion Museum in Bath which had some beautiful examples from the Georgian era and is hosting a talk next week about fashion in Jane Austen’s lifetime. You could try making some Georgian-inspired jewellery of your own. We made a cameo pendant and Georgian ‘eye jewellery’ but we would have loved to try using precious stones to send secret messages in pieces of acrostic jewellery. The Jane Austen Centre website has a huge back-catalogue of posts showing you how to make different pieces of Georgian clothing and jewellery, how to try Regency hairstyles and make recipes from the era.IMAG2430_1
  • Which brings me on to… try some Georgian food! Try some of the recipes from the Jane Austen Centre or, for a more American flavour, try Colonial Williamsburg. We made Queen Cakes and browsed through my daughter’s American Girl recipe book Felicity’s Cooking Studio with the idea of throwing a full-on Georgian dinner party. Unfortunately we haven’t got round to it yet but I think it’s a great idea! We also watched the BBC documentary The Sweet-Makers (you can watch clips here) which had a whole episode about sweets in Georgian times. The impact of slavery on the business was shocking and the programme didn’t pull any punches with revealing just how brutal the sugar slave-trade was. IMAG2393_1
  • Learn about slavery. This is something we only touched upon because my daughter was only nine and not ready for the very sad and horrific details. It might be something your children are ready to explore more, however.
  • Read some fiction! Reading some fiction of the era is obviously the best place to start and can prompt some great discussions about what sort of messages and ideas were being created about and for children. My daughter loved reading Stories from Old-Fashioned Children’ Books by Andrew W. Tuer, first publsihed in 1899 but republished in 1985 and again this year which means it is readily available. Of course, what were ‘old-fashioned’ in 1899 are even more so nearly 120 years later! It is a fascinating treasury of late Georgian texts for children. The Oxford Book of Children’s Stories edited by Jan Mark (currently out of print but you may be able to find a cheap copy second-hand) also contains a selection of stories from the 1700s and early 1800s as well as Victorian and twentieth century examples. Project Gutenburg is also worth exploring for free examples of texts.  My daughter is not yet ready for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels by has enjoyed Gulliver, Chris Riddell’s graphic novel for children, and the DK Gulliver’s Travels which gives a lot of background information about the author, book, the political background and the society in which it was written.
  • Read some historic fiction. As well as the Cora Harrison books about Jane Austen mentioned above we found a few excellent books set in Georgian times. The Historical House series is a wonderful set of books by experienced writers of historic fiction; Mary Ann and Miss Mozart by Ann Turnbull focuses on Mary Ann who dreams of becoming an opera singer and has the chance to watch Mozart perform in London before her father’s failing fortunes puts her ambitions in jeopardy. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly and The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kinberly Brubaker Bradley take events across the channel in Revolutionary Frances as their focus but my daughter found them a bit too scary for her. In the same vein is The Fall of the Blade: A Young Aristrocrat’s Diary 1792-1794 by Sue Reid, part of the fantastic My Story series which also includes Australia by Goldie Alexander about a girl is is transported to Australia for a crime she did not commit. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is another obvious example of historical fiction about the 1700s; published in 1882, it is the adventure of Jim Hawkins who goes to sea in search of treasure when he gets caught up with pirates. Our common images of pirates with eye-patches, hooks, parrots and wooden legs cursing and grasping after pieces of eight owe a lot to characters imagined in this book.

Home school learning about Japan


My daughter had been fascinated with Japan since she read Rumer Godden’s books about Japanese dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and Little Plum, so when we started home-schooling we chose Japan as one of our first topics. It’s been really interesting and a lot of fun learning about Japan and I thought I would share our ideas and activities.

  • Read! Books are a great way to introduce children to a new country and lifestyle. There are quite a few lists on Pinterest listing books for younger readers, particularly picture books (like this one from Happy Brown House, for example), but I needed some for older readers. Here are some of the books we tried:

The Rumer Godden books, above. // My Awesome Japan Adventure by Rebecca Otowa, a fantastic scrap-book-style books full of little snippets of information but with the over-arching narrative of an American kid’s visit to Japan// Similar but for older readers is Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, Hi-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes by Christine Mari Inzer//  Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata about a girl of Japanese heritage living in the American Deep South. // Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi about two Japanese cousins who meet and become friends when one family moves to the US from Japan, sharing the art of rokkaku (kite-flying). // Japanese Art and Culture by Kamini Khanduri // Japan (Nations of the World) by Jen Green // Alice-Miranda in Japan by Jacqueline Harvey is a fun read // Jingu: the Hidden Princess by Ralph E. Ray, a short historical novel about a young 4th-century princess, the Japanese heroine Jingu.

  • Try some Japanese food. Sushi is readily available now in supermarkets making it a very easy way to have a taste of Japan; there are even vegetable sushi options for vegetarian children or those squeamish about fish, raw or otherwise. We tried sushi from a variety of shops and outlets and also made our own, which is very straightforward; we used this recipe and tutorial from Eats Amazing. You might be lucky enough to have a proper sushi restaurant near you so you can try a more authentic experience. We also tried mochi, a squidgy Japanese cake, which I liked but my daughter didn’t! We also tried noodles and other Japanese foods including this simple teriyaki chicken recipe from Taming Twins which my daughter could make herself. She kept a Japanese food diary to record all the things she had tried and what she thought of them.2016-up-to-september-075
  • Learn about Japanese arts and crafts. A very obvious one is origami. The internet is full of tutorials showing how to make different animals, birds and flowers of varying difficulty. Origami paper can sometimes be very expensive but you might be lucky to find some in a value craft shop. The British Museum has an exhibition of the iconic Hokusai (best known for his ‘wave’ painting) at the moment if you are able to travel to visit it but, if not, then there are are several radio and television programmes about him and his work available online. The BBC has just finished showing a Japan season so we have had the chance to watch programmes on all sorts of things on iPlayer – from pottery to kimono-making,and wildlife to nightlife. Children can have a go at trying some of these arts and crafts for themselves; my daughter painted her own ‘wave’ painting, inspired by Houksai. Another idea is to make a mon from clay or Fimo. These were heraldic symbols worn by clans or members of specific groups to announce loyalty and membership. Children can design their own symbols or pictures and then form them from clay on a circular base or boss. Children might also like to try brush painting: look up how to write their name in Japanese and then use black paint and a brush to write them out. We have also been meaning to get around to making some Japanese fans.
  • Dress-up. If you get the opportunity to dress up in kimono then it is great fun to do. My daughters had a go when we went to a Children’s Day Festival hosted at the V&A by the Japanese Society and it was probably their favourite event of the day. If a kimono isn’t possible then try some geisha make-up with facepaint!
  • Listen to some Japanese music/watch some dance or theatre. Like kimono-wearing, this is something you don’t often get a chance to do, but if you have a local Japanese Society they may well put on shows once or twice a year. When we went to the V&A day we got the chance to listen to Japanese music and try out some traditional Japanese instruments. We had the privilege of watching some Japanese dance, theatre and puppetry, including an ancient form of Japanese puppets which had never before been performed in the UK before.
  • Celebrate a Japanese festival. I have posted before about celebrating Hinamatsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival: find out a little about it and then celebrate with a tea party. This can be as simple as inviting a few friends and their favourite dolls or  you can challenge yourselves to have a go at making your own court of Japanese royal dolls. Serve your own favourite tea-time treats or try some Japanese mochi, sushi and other traditional food. 2016-up-to-september-071The Japanese Children’s Festival or Kodomo no Hi is another great one to explore with children, for obvious reasons. Make paper koinobori carp fish banners (template here, or use cardboard tubes) and tie them to a garden cane; you need one fish for each family member with the adult fishes being the largest and the children smaller. The Japanese also love the Cherry Blossom (sakura) Festival; hanami is the tradition of viewing these beautiful blossoms and is often celebrated with picnics or evening parties. The shops sell everything sakura-themed so have a go at painting your own blossoms, create some from tissue paper or try making sakura sweets from marzipan, peppermint creams or coconut ice. Tanabata, usually celebrated on 7th July, is the Star Festival and is celebrated today by writing wishes (sometimes as poems) on small pieces of paper (tanzaku) and tying them to bamboo. Have fun making up wishes and poems and there is also a Tanabata song which children might like to write out and illustrate.
  • Learn about haiku. Haiku is traditional seventeen-syllable poetry. Read some classical haiku (Matsuo Basho is one master of haiku and is widely available) and then have children write their own.
  • Write your own guide-book to Japan or Tokyo. This is great process learning and has a finished product they can be proud of. The child can choose what they feel is important to include or you can guide them to a lesser or greater extent. It’s a good opportunity to learn more about Japan’s geography, draw some maps, find out about transport systems, local culture, shopping and eating out, as well as useful phrases and information about all sorts of things like how child-friendly it is, are pets welcome, how do you contact the police force, and so on.
  • Learn about Buddhism and ShintoWe used the Dorling Kindersley book on Buddhism.IMAG2440
  • Visit a Japanese garden and/or make your own Japanese flat garden.IMAG2514
  • Do some research about Japanese wildlife. We watched Wild Japan on Netflix and discovered some really beautiful animals and birds.


We really enjoyed our Japan topic and hope you do, too!

Austen Land (aka Winchester)


Disclaimer: I apologise for the lack of photographs in this post; the camera on my mobile has broken and I really need to sort out a new one!

On Sunday I realised that the very next day was the last day of the Mysterious Miss Austen Exhibition in Winchester. This exhibition had brought together all the known and suspected portraits of Jane Austen together for the first time, offering a very rare and exciting opportunity to see them, particularly as one is in a private collection. The exhibition also had Austen’s hand-written alternative ending to Persuasion and other articles including letters to her sister Casandra, her pelisse and a tiny purse she worked herself. So far my daughter’s interest in Austen has taken us to all sorts of places including Austen’s house in Chawton, Bath and a very accessible lecture at the National Archives on the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Winchester was on our list but it seemed such a waste to delay our visit until later in the summer holidays and thereby miss the exhibition so we got up early and headed off…

Image result for portraits of jane austen

We were so glad we did! The exhibition was held in the Winchester Discovery Centre which also houses the city library. There was a suggested donation of £3 which was a wonderful contrast to the huge amount we were charged at the Jane Austen Centre, Bath for the opportunity to look at six copies of the portraits. It was a privilege to be able to see the real portraits and the rest of the exhibition and the understated and calm setting was perfect. Downstairs on the ground floor there was another exhibition about medicine and apothecary in the time of Austen, ‘Malady and Medicine’, focusing particularly on Austen and the city of Winchester. Jane had lived for many years in Chawton, a village a little way from Winchester but towards the end of her life she was moved to Winchester to take advantage of the more specialised medical care available there. It had some interesting exhibits including a sedan chair and apothecary drawers.


Image result for painting of jane austen by cassandra

We had a quick picnic lunch sitting on a Jane Austen bench in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral and then intended to go inside; partly to see Jane Austen’s grave and the various memorials to her but also because we always love a cathedral! We timed our visit just as a private memorial service was about to begin (not for Austen, I might add) and so one of the volunteers suggested we came back a little later. We went for a wander, hoping to find Austen’s last home in Winchester in College Street, but actually went in the opposite direction and serendipitiously found ourselves at the City Museum. It was £3 entry per person (again, this was the suggested contribution) and well worth it! The museum is divided into three floors, each with a different historical focus. We worked backwards, as it were, starting with Victorian Winchester, moving up through the Medieval and ending with the Roman and Anglo-Saxon. Not only was there a wealth of treasures, sometimes rivaling those on display at the Ashmolean, but there were children’s activities scattered around and, best of all in my children’s opinion, a dressing-up station on every level! Moreover, the costumes were of good quality and kept nicely. We saw an almost complete Roman mosaic discovered at Sparsholt, along with some beautifully preserved paintings; Medieval children’s toys (including a ball, toy sword and a whopping top) and whistles fashioned from goose bones; a Roman burial; a collection of Medieval ‘face jars’, vessels made with humorous faces; Anglo-Saxon jewellery; and all sorts of other things. The Museum also houses Austen memorabilia including a purse owned by her (the one she made and was on show at the Discovery Centre is also usually displayed at the museum), a monogrammed ivory spool-case with a bobbin for winding silk and a handwritten poem circa 1811.

Eventually we returned to the Cathedral where under-16s are free with an adult (£8 entry fee) and had a wonderful walk around it. My younger daughter did the children’s trail which was informative and fun without being too exhaustive. We were visiting on the bicentenary of Austen’s funeral in the Cathedral itself and we saw her grave and the memorial plaque. The Cathedral hosted a Book of Memories which is intended to be a lasting record of the impressions and reflections of visitors as well as Inspired by the Word, a collection of pieces of art by contemporary artists inspired by Austen, her work and her faith. Perhaps the most memorable of these is a portrait by Joy Pitts made entirely of name-tapes, such as you might have made to sew into school-clothes; 71 words from the opening paragraph of Pride and Prejudice form Austen’s face while 16 names of the main characters make up the backgrounds.

There is a great deal more to see in the Cathedral: the 12th-century Winchester Bible is on display there along with a very useful computer programme which allows you to explore the illustrations in greater depth; there are wonderful mortuary chests containing the bones of ancient Kings and Queens including King Cnut and his Queen, Emma; a beautiful painted ceiling in the Quire; the Lady Chapel with a reredos dedicated to the memory of the novelist Charlotte M. Yonge; and a memorial to the deep-sea diver, William Walker, who worked tirelessly six hours a day for six years in the dark underwater wearing a diving suit and helmet to help repair part of the Cathedrals’s sinking foundations!

We stopped in the Cathedral Refectory for a quick snack (the flapjacks are delicious) before going in search, again, of No. 8 College Street. En route we discovered the most fabulous book shed, more accurately known at the Deanery Bookstall, an amazing treasure-trove of second-hand books run by volunteers to raise money for the choral music and choristers of the Cathedral. Sadly for us we got there at the end of their day and the end of ours, so there wasn’t much time to rifle through their stock but my elder daughter and I could have spent hours there! We chose a couple of books but didn’t have enough change on us; the exceptionally lovely lady running the shed said it was all about being kind and let us give her what we had! I did make a run to a cashpoint and paid her back because I heard her telling someone that they need to raise £50,000 a year, and it is for charity after all, but it was indeed very kind of her! We will definitely be heading back there on our next visit!

Finally, we found Austen’s house just as a beautiful little butterfly was fluttering along its wall. Opposite is a little grassy area with plants and a bench where visitors can sit and rest for a while. We headed back to find our Park and Ride bus, admiring the enormous statue of King Alfred the Great, unveiled in 1901, as we went. We had a fantastic day out and will go back to see what else Winchester has to offer.

‘…we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.’ Northanger Abbey.


Family Fiction


Family mealtimes are one of those essential family experiences that we always seems to fail with. My husband works late and is never home in time for a family meal around the table. Sunday lunch has become complicated by church rotas and Saturdays by life generally. Instead, I always read to the children while they are eating their dinner (unless Blue Peter is on…); by bedtime things tend to be rushed and everyone is tired and I’m trying to cook for my husband and myself so a dinner-time story works well for us, instead. And my younger daughter’s favourite genre is the family saga, so I suppose we are still (sort of?) having a family dinner… Anyway, here are some of our favourite books about families:

  • The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. Although these stories are partly about the close and enduring friendship between Betsy and Tacy, two little girls growing up in Minnesota at the turn of the twentieth century, they are primarily books about family. Betsy’s experiences as she grows up and goes to school and then high school and moves into the wide world are so positive because she is grounded in a loving family. Betsy shares her highs and lows with her parents and sisters and as the books progress we follow the family as they have a new baby, move house, go on vacation and live life together.
  • The Casson Family books by Hilary McKay. Beginning with Saffy’s Angel this Product Detailsseries of books tells the story of an unconventional but happy family as they deal with the idiosyncrasies of their family, make friends, cope with bullying and difficult teachers and fall in love. The eponymous Saffy learns that she was adopted by her aunt and uncle after her mother’s death and goes on a journey to understand how she fits into the family. These books are touching and very funny!
  • The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aitken. Written over many years, these short stories fit together to form a chunky volume about the slightly magic Armitage family to whom unusual things often happen on Mondays. They live in a semi-enchanted village where they might have a witch for a neighbour or teacher or a unicorn for a pet. As the stories progress the setting becomes more modern and the two children, Mark and Harriet, become teenagers. Some of the stories are silly and carefree while a few touch on more serious topics.
  • What Katy Did and What Katy Did At School by Susan Coolidge. There are others in the Carr Family series but these are the most suitable for younger children. Although Katy is the heroine of these books her many siblings are a vital part of her life and the texture of the stories. We see how the family dynamic of Katy as rather heartless leader of the group has to shift to accommodate her fall and severe injury which results in her being bedridden for several years. As she comes to term with her disabilities she comes to newly appreciate her brothers, sisters, father and aunt while they in turn grow and blossom into confident individuals. When Katy recovers, she and her sister, Clover, are sent to boarding school but her family reach out to the exiled girls through letters and a wonderful Christmas box.
  • The Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Starting with Little House in the Big Woods these stories follow a pioneer family as they leave the Little House and move West across the nineteenth century United States. Ma and Pa work hard to provide Laura and her sisters with a comfortable, safe home in a time of upheaval and, sometimes, real danger. The stories have the big woods and wide prairies as a backdrop but are full of vignettes of domestic life: making maple candy, celebrating Christmas, going to the store, falling asleep listening to pa’s fiddle.
  • The Borrowers by Mary Norton. These books are about a family of tiny people who must cope with their size and subsequent vulnerability in a world where social change has removed the protective bubble in which they existed until now. Ultimately this is a family saga in which the family happens to be measurable in inches. The relationship between Pod, Homily and their daughter, Arietty, underpins each story and is the abiding constant that holds them together in the face of homelessness and danger.
  • The Iggy and Me books by Jenny Valentine. These funny books are in some ways a reworking of Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister books for the twenty-first century. One day, Flo’s little sister decides she isn’t called Sam any more: she is Iggy. Iggy gets up to all sorts of mischief and adventures but, again, the domestic setting roots the stories in the security of family.
  • The Milly-Molly-Mandy stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley. These are wonderful examples of safe, reassuring stories of domestic life. Milly-Molly-Mandy is an only child but lives with her parents, grandparents and uncle and aunt. Her day-day-to-day life is shored up by their love and support. When Milly-Molly-Mandy goes to a party, each member of her family help in some little way to get her ready for the special occasion. Everyone adds their own touch to her new surprise bedroom in the attic. Milly-Molly-Mandy’s adventures are all close to home – having friends to tea, blackberry picking, carol-singing, going to a wedding, getting a pen pal – and that’s the joy of them.
  • The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright. These stories about four siblings begin (The Saturdays) with a pact to pool their pocket money and give it all to each sibling in turn to afford every child a truly memorable Saturday.
  • The Penderwicks books by Jeanne Birdsall. Already ‘modern classics’, these are absolute favourites with all of us! The Penderwicks might have been a family blighted by the loss of their mother but instead their love for each other and the security provided by their father has established a close, confident and happy family. Apparently it is to be a five-book-series and in our house we are on tenterhooks for the publication of the fifth and final installment.
  • The Pea’s Book of… books by Susie Day. Starting with Pea’s Book of Best Friends these books tell the story of the Llewellyn family. Pea’s Mum finds overnight success as a famous author and she and her sisters move to a new life, and new friends, in London. The books follow Pea, Tinkerbell and Clover as they settle into a new home, make friends, plan for the future and enjoy family life. I am very excited to see (especially as my daughter has a birthday coming up!) that a fourth book in the series has been out for a while but flew beneath our radar…
  • The Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit. The classic stories of the Bastable children and their attempts to have fun and be good at the same time remain an enjoyable read. In the first books the children work together to try to restore their family’s lost fortune while in the second they form a society to try their best to be ‘good’. The scrapes they get into are something to marvel at for children of today who are never allowed out on their own and are rarely left to entertain themselves. Also, the children are sometimes very naughty…
  • Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott. We haven’t read all of these together but my elder daughter adores Little Women. We did start Good Wives but when someone told her what happens to Beth she was somewhat put off and, for now, prefers to enjoy the March family together. Little Women is full of real love and support, both within the family and as the family reaches out to friends and neighbours, but it doesn’t shy away from the squabbles, resentment and hardships that are part of most family life.


I have focused on family stories series here but, of course, there are many other books about families to enjoy. Other family-centred books we love are: The Bell Family, Ballet Shoes and A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild;  The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett; and The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. My daughter also loves the All-of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor about a Jewish family living in New York at the start of the twentieth-century but she hasn’t has a chance to read the rest of the series yet and a book I want to get for her over the summer is The Family with Two Front Doors by Anna Ciddor which is based on the author’s own Jewish family in 1920 Poland. Another series my daughter has started and is keen to read more of is The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh about a family of life-sized dolls living together in an ordinary house; a slightly different, yet fascinating, take on family life. And of course, both Enid Blyton and Jacqueline Wilson write extensively about families: try Blyton’s The Family series and the Children of Cherry-Tree Farm series and also Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum, Diamond Girls , Little Darlings, Clean Break, and Lily Alone.

Tudors, towers, turrets and dragons


Earlier this year my daughters’ school topics overlapped with the elder studying the Tudors and the younger learning about castles and fairytales. As we love an historical topic in this house we got involved at home, too. Here are some of the ways we have enjoyed learning more and some other suggestions, too:

  1. Visit some Tudor sites or castles. We are spoiled for choice here in South London, just a relatively short distance from all sorts of interesting Tudor places to visit. Both girls went on school trips to the Tower of London which were excellent although my elder daughter did not enjoy the torture and punishment tour! I am sure a fair few of her classmates did, though! The equally epic Hampton Court Palace is also nearby and we had an excellent boat-ride there along the Thames from Richmond a few years back. Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Bolyen is a fantastic day out, incorporating the historical castle with beautiful gardens, amazing play areas and a boating lake. Close to us we also have Carew Manor and Whitehall in Cheam which are much cheaper options for a Tudor-themed outing (in fact, the former is now a school and not open to the general public but can be viewed from the road). Of course, if history had turned out a little differently we might also have still had the once fabulous Nonsuch Palace on our doorstep, too! There is a very useful book called A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscombe which lists significant Tudor sites to visit all around England so you can be sure to find somewhere to go and see. A word of warning: it’s not a children’s book and some of the descriptions of the fates that befell certain unfortunate Tudor residents are very graphic and upsetting and so not for younger reads (beware the section on Chartwell in particular!). I have listed suggestions of castles to visit in my previous post on Medieval times but there will obviously be different options open to you depending on where you live. Lots of palaces, castles, houses and other sites often have family- and children’s-events going on at weekends and holidays so it is sometimes worth planning ahead to coincide your visit with one of those.
  2. Make a castle cake. Okay, this is one we haven’t done (yet) but it was one of the homework options for my daughter’s castle topic-work and lots of children (and their mums!) made some fantastic castle cakes and biscuits. It’s up to you and your child how much accurate castle information you work into your iced creations but even if you end up with something more suitable for Barbie or Mike the Knight to live in than Henry VIII it will still be fun and inspirational. You could always look at together at some of the wealth of castle books around before you start to feel like you have done some historical research.
  3. Watch TV! A quick scan of iPlayer’s history programmes usually reveal some good Tudor- and castle-related options although parental guidance is always recommended as these programmes are made for adult viewers unless they are Horrible Histories. My daughters recently enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s Six Wives on the BBC.
  4. Make Tudor jewellery or crowns. My previous post on the jewellery my daughter made tudors-009for her school project would be difficult for a much younger child but a quick glance at the internet for inspiration will give you lots of ideas for simpler pieces. Even cardboard and gem stickers should produce a beautiful crown, pendant or brooch. Time Traveller Kids has a how-to-make Tudor pomanders which gives opportunities for learning about tudors-007plague, hygiene and medicine in Tudor times.
  5. Dress up. A princess dress can fairly easily be adapted into a Tudor costume with a lot of imagination and suspension of disbelief especially if you wear some home-made Tudor jewellery. A quick search of the net shows you how to make a cardboard tabard, shield, etc. for a knight. Obviously if you are prepared to spend out a bit of money you might be able to find a slightly more authentic outfit at a party shop, historic site gift shop (these are usually really dear!) or somewhere like TX Max. You might even be able to find a second-hand one left over from some else school dressing-up day if you look on eBay or charity shops. Alternatively, many historical places to visit now have opportunities for children to dress up. My daughter was able to dress up in authentic Elizabethan costume at The National Archives and at Buckland Abbey near Plymouth, home of Sir Francis Drake, our whole family were inveigled into dressing up in Tudor costume by the National Trust Costume Group who operate from there and make Elizabethan costume with traditional methods and materials. There are also opportunities for children to dress up in the house itself and to try Elizabethan games and find out a lot more about life in that era.early-2017-066
  6. Take photos! Once you have dressed up a really fun idea is to make a photo story with your children (and maybe you?) as the stars or to write a story and use photos as the illustrations. My younger daughter chose making a book as her homework for her castles and fairytale topic. She wrote a story about a princess, a dragon, a witch and a fairy and the whole family were persuaded to join in, taking the different roles. Guess who got to be the witch?! My daughters really loved doing this project because it involved dressing-up, acting and story-telling all rolled into one. They also got to see their daddy dress up as a fire-breathing dragon and their mummy being a witch. What more could they ask for?
  7. Throw a Tudor banquet. At school my daughter’s teacher brought in vegetable soup (‘pottage’), apple juice (‘cider’) and fruit cake. You can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. Bread was a staple so an artisan loaf from a local bakers or even a supermarket might help set the scene, along with meat (unless it’s a Friday!), cooked vegetables and some sweet items. Time Traveller Kids has a tutorial on how to make Tudor marchpane sweets which looks very easy with an impressive-looking finished product and we might well have a go at half-term.
  8. Make a cardboard castle or Tudor house. Enough boxes, loo rolls and paint can produce a very satisfying castle which can then be used for playing knights and other games if you make some little paper dolls or buy some plastic toys. At school my younger daughter made Tudor houses from boxes painted white with black wooden beams.
  9. Watch a play by Shakespeare, visit The Globe Theatre and learn more about The Bard. The Globe runs a Shakespeare’s Telling Tales event every summer especially for children. We went to a fantastic A Midsummer Night’s Dream workshop last summer with Marcia Williams where the children were shown how to create comic strips to tell their own versions of the play. Marcia Williams is enthusiastic and approachable and we all enjoyed it so much. We then spent time hanging out in the Bottom’s Book Market where the were authors reading stories (we heard Polly Faber reading from her Mango and Bam-Bam books and then we ended up buying two of them…), a The Tempest story-telling tent, opportunities to colour your own characters, pop-up performances and a stall run by Tales on Moon Lane.
  10. Read! Some of our favourite books about the Tudors:
  • Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley. My daughter loves this book about a maid of honour at the court of Henry VIII and her cousin, Henry’s current, doomed wife, Katherine Howard.
  • The Lady Grace Mysteries by Grace Cavendish. These are a series of mysteries set at the Elizabethan Court and starring Elizabeth I’s favourite maid of honour. My daughter has read all of these and while they are historical fiction rather than factual books they give a flavour of the era and what it was like living in those times and circumstances.
  • Usborne Dolly Dressing Tudor Fashion and Tudors Sticker Book by Emily Bone. These are always a fun option for wet days, journeys, waiting rooms and so on.
  • I am also keen to try this Tudor Fashion to Colour by Emily Bone and Rosie Hore.
  • Usborne Tudors and Stuarts by Fiona Patchett. The Usborne history books are always informative and easy to read. My daughter has read this innumerable times.
  • The Tudors: Kings, Queens, Scribes and Ferrets by Marcia Williams. Marcia Williams’ comic strip books are very popular in this house and my daughters have both really enjoyed this new one.
  • 50 Things You Should Know About The Tudors by Rupert Matthews. The information in this book is split into fifty short sections about significant events and issues. Text is displayed in small boxes and there are lots of pictures so it’s easy to read and get an overview of the period.
  • If your child is a little older and a good reader they will soon have gleaned all the information available in children’s books. I found The Tudors: The Kings and Queens of the Golden Age by Jane Bingham in the adult history section of the library; it is readable but takes the information and knowledge on a little further.
  • There are several My Story historical fiction books about the period, inspired by real people and events. My daughter loves Elizabeth (My Royal Story) by Kathryn Laskey and there are more to choose from including Lady Jane Grey by Sue Reid; Bloody Tower by Valerie Wilding; Mary Queen of Scots by Kathryn Laskey; Katherine of Aragon by Alison Prince; Henry VIII’s Wives also by Prince; Anne Boleyn and Me by Alison Prince again; and To Kill a Queen by Valerie Wilding.
  • My younger daughter is now learning about pirates and exploration so we got her A 16th Century Galleon by Richard Humble and Mark Bergin. The illustrations are fascinating and the information given is sophisticated. She took it into class to show the other children and they really enjoyed looking at it.
  • DK Eyewitness Shakespeare: The fascinating life and times of history’s greatest playwright is a good introduction to, and overview of Shakespeare. It also comes with a free wallchart which is good quality and very large! My daughter also loves Where’s Will?: Find Shakespeare Hidden in His Plays by ‘Tilly’ and Anna Claybourne.
  • Time Travel Guide: The Renaissance by Anna Claybourne. This has lots of illustrations and good, solid information that opens up the era rather than just focusing on events in England. It provides a wider context with information about art, religion, politics and new ideas.


Dipping into Bath


It’s been over two years since our last, brilliant, visit to Bath. The girls and I stayed in a Premier Inn, having travelled down on a Friday afternoon in February, and then spent the Saturday visiting the Roman Baths, the Pump Rooms, Bath Abbey, and the Assembly Rooms. They loved the novelty of staying in the ‘hotel’ and enjoying the unlimited breakfast in the neighbouring family restaurant. We caught the Park and Ride bus into the city and arrived fairly early so there was no queue for the Baths. They were fascinating and we spent ages looking at everything before it got too crowded. The Abbey had a fantastic children’s trail and the staff were welcoming. We were too late to visit the Fashion Museum by then but we went into the Assembly Rooms and had a quick look around. We had such a lovely day-and-a-bit and were keen to return.



Last week was half-term here and my elder daughter has been very interested in the Georgian era and Jane Austen so it seemed a great time to visit again. Time and money meant that staying over near Bath wasn’t an option this time so we girded our loins and decided to do it all in one day. We live in a London Borough south of the city which means that Bath is a long drive away and, in fact, having done the trip I don’t think we’d be in a hurry to attempt to do such a long journey again in a day.

Two hours and forty-five minutes after we set off we reached Lansdown Park and Ride, the one nearest the M4, having stopped briefly for the loo at Reading Services. The Park and Ride is easy and reasonable; you just pay your return bus fare to the city and the car park is free. Children under 16 are free, too. The drive into the city is interesting, taking you down Lansdown Hill and passing Beckford’s Tower, a neo-classical folly built for the rich novelist William Beckford, a museum that exhibits furniture intended for the Tower and an historic cemetery.

Central Bath was quite a surprise. The last time we had visited it was a chilly winter Saturday. This time it was a hot, sunny day in the summer half-term holiday and, of course, peak tourist season. It was so much busier! We were glad we hadn’t been hoping to visit the Roman Baths that day because the queue was something else! We had a brief peep in at the Pump Rooms; no-one tried to seat us in the restaurant so I suspect they guessed we weren’t prospective diners!

Our first stop was the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street, a street that was one of Jane’s several homes when she and her family lodged in Bath following her father’s retirement as a vicar. That house is further up the hill from the Jane Austen Centre, a bit closer to the Circus. Lucy Worsley’s enjoyable recent BBC documentary ‘Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors’ gives the viewer a fascinating tour around the Austens’ Bath residencies, which became meaner and less fashionable with each move until they found themselves in the dreaded Trim Street, a grim haunt of prostitutes and low-lifes. My daughter had high hopes of the Jane Austen Centre because it has a fascinating website which has many recipes, crafts ideas, fashion tips and so on. Unfortunately, it was rather an expensive disappointment.

We qualified for the ‘small family’ ticket which was around £20. The very pleasant, and beautifully costumed, lady selling tickets and serving in the gift shop sent us upstairs and after about a minute we were invited (having shown our tickets) into a small lecture room for an introductory talk by another member of staff who was also wearing a smart Regency outfit and who was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. If you were a beginner in the world of Austen then you would have come away with a good grounding in her life and works but, having just watched Lucy Worsley’s documentary and having visited the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton, my daughter and I had already heard just about all of it. We were then asked to go back downstairs where we grouped in a corridor with the other members of our group and were given a short talk about the copies of different portraits, or possible portraits, of Austen. Again, the guide was a good speaker and she knew her stuff but I felt a bit silly; a quick Google would have turned up these images and I could have looked at them for free at home…

A Hare, part of the Cirencester March Hare Festival, designed to look like the famous greeter at the Centre, Martin Salter.


We were then allowed to ‘explore the rest of the Centre’ which doesn’t take long! Most of the information is displayed in little plaques around the house but there really isn’t much to see. There are some examples of fashion of the era, a window display of a milliner’s shop of the time, some copies of books, some examples of scents that people wore at the time… When we got to the dressing-up rail (my daughters were really looking forward to this bit!) we were hit with the most disgusting stench of drains. They had a big fan running to try and keep the air moving but it wasn’t very effective and the whole area was very unpleasant. My children had a bit of a try of the clothes and a play with the fans, sending each other signals by displaying the fans in different positions (there was a booklet explaining all this), but there was only one child-sized dress and the smell was so off-putting. My younger daughter had already been feeling a bit wobbly due to car-sickness and this really wasn’t helping; she asked to go the the ladies and we had a few minutes respite. On our way back to my other daughter we had to squeeze through another group of portrait-viewers. The lady who was giving them the talk asked, rather abruptly, to see our tickets, although we hadn’t left the museum at all and it really didn’t seem the sort of place to attract vast numbers of gate-crashers (especially a seven-year-old and her mother!), but perhaps I am naive.

We spun out our visit with the having a go at writing with a quill pen and then exited via the gift shop, as per usual! The entrance tickets entitle you to 10% off in the gift shop which isn’t to be sniffed at. It is only a small shop and there wasn’t a great deal to appeal to children of their age, fortunately, so we came away with a copy of the humorous history pamphlet Austen wrote and a pack of Jane Austen Top Trumps which were designed by the Centre and is definitely one of their better ideas.

The problem wasn’t that my children were too young for the Jane Austen Centre; I certainly did not get much out of the visit myself. It was just that it was too amateur and too small to be able to successfully charge such high entrance fees. It just didn’t have enough to show for itself. We were there under an hour and I really tried to make the visit last as long as I could.

After we left the Centre we had a little wander around the city centre, past the Abbey, Baths and Pump Room but it was so hot and crowded that we didn’t take very long. We headed to Pizza Express to use our precious Tesco vouchers but despite advance booking a table online we had to wait to be seated and the service was so slow that it took two hours which took a large bite out of our available time.

On our way to the Fashion Museum we visited the Royal Crescent and the Circus, just for a look. I was a little frustrated to realise that if we had been earlier we could have bought a saver ticket to the Fashion Museum and No. 1 Royal Crescent, a house that has been decorated just as it might have been in Georgian times and operates as a charity. I think we would have got a lot more fun out of this than the Jane Austen Centre and I have only myself to kick for not doing better research!

The Fashion Museum,  which is housed in the magnificent Assembly Rooms, is very good. It is also expensive (hence why the saver museum ticket would have been great) but the girls enjoyed it a lot. The clothing is fabulous and there is a fair bit to look at. The clothes are arranged historically so that you can see how fashions developed over time and how social and cultral change has been reflected in fashion. Younger children or children who are not very patient might find it a bit trying as it is mostly very much a ‘just looking’ museum but it does have a couple of hands-on areas where you have the opportunity to draw your own costumes and then to try on reproduction vintage outfits. We were visiting at the same time as two groups of French school children who raced past the historic clothes (as in, they didn’t actually stop to look at any of them) and went straight to these areas of the museum. As these areas were so busy we had to wait a bit before we could have a turn but it was worth waiting for and the girls enjoyed themselves a lot, especially with the wigs and bonnets.

Unfortunately the Ball Room was being used for a private function so we couldn’t go in there again but we had a little peek into the Great Octogon and the shop before heading back to the bus stop. We left the car park at about 5:15 and took forty-five minutes to get back to the main road that leads to the M4 because the entire route was one big uphill traffic jam. At the end of the winding country road is a right-hand turn onto a busy main road meaning that it took ages for each car reaching the head of the queue to be able to safely join the stream of traffic, resulting in a vast rush-hour tail-back. So we got home at about 8:40 pm. It was a fun day out but full of travelling. Next time we go to Bath we will be staying nearby!



Making a miniature Japanese flat garden


My daughter is very into all things Japanese at the moment. Having read a lot about Japanese gardens, one of the things she was keen to try was making a miniature Japanese flat garden. Full-sized Japanese gardens are themselves miniaturised; they are a microcosm of the macrocosm whereby rocks can represent mountains, ponds can be seas in order to create a controlled image of a perfected version of the natural world so creating a miniature version of this is merely another step in this process.



Japanese gardens are deceptively simple; they appear sparse but are full of symbolism and the working together of the different elements in the garden. We have visited the Japanese Garden at Gatton Park and are planning to return to the wonderful example at Kew Gardens, but there are others fairly nearby which we would love to see including the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park.

We used a semi-opaque plastic tray for the base of the garden because it was only £1 and because we wanted a neutral shade that wouldn’t detract from the garden itself. We weighed up using sand or gravel for the white sand traditionally used in Japanese gardens to suggest purity and the movement of water. Sand is more traditional but much messier; we wanted it to stay put, rather than encroach all over the house, and we wanted it to stay clean. We found white aquarium gravel at the garden centre (we bought Hugo Kamishi) and the 2kg bag was just enough to cover our tray.



My daughter really wanted to add a proper bonsai tree so we also bought one of these at the garden centre. It was £15, so not cheap (last time we looked they were only £12, which was annoying).



For the rocks we used pebbles we had saved from various trips to the beach and which we found particularly smooth and calming. We also used a lump of weirdly iridescent green glass we found embedded in the ground at the park. Japanese gardens traditionally have waterfalls, streams or irregular ponds but for now my daughter used the lid of a cake sprinkle jar for a small pond.


Then she used a chopstick to rake into the gravel the swirling meditative patterns typical of a Karesansui, or dry rock, garden.


There are other possibilities that she might include in the future, such as a basin of water, blossoms, a miniature tea house or a bridge. She is keen to have a bridge but so far we have not found one that we liked and could justify spending more money on so we are keeping a look-out for something suitable.



Clay Cameo Pendant for Kids


Making her own version of period jewellery has become one of my daughter’s favourite history activities but sometimes it can take a lot of time, effort and materials. We thought we would try just a quick and easy project for a bit of mid-week fun. Older children and/or those with more time and the proper tools could probably produce something with a more professional finish. We were a bit sloppy, to be honest, but it gives you an idea of what you can produce.

Cameo jewellery has been popular for thousands of years but we wanted to go for a Georgian-look. Traditionally, cameos are carvings on an object which usually produce a relief image against a negative image. They have come to be generalised into the idea of a piece in contrasting colours, often featuring a head within an oval frame.

As we have a lot of air-drying clay left over from other projects we decided to use that as the medium for our pendant.  My daughter traced the silhouette image of Jane Austen from the cover of Lucy Worsley’s new book Jane Austen at Home: A Biography for the head on the pendant. She then cut out the image and laid it on some rolled-out air drying clay and, as carefully as possible, cut around the paper. This is quite fiddly work for a nine-year-old with a kitchen knife and tracing paper; using better tools would probably produce a better result…



We had planned to use a spare oval pendant backing left over from our Eye Jewellery for the actual pendant but it was just too small. Rather than head out to the craft shop five miles away for a larger one we decided to just make the base entirely out of air-drying clay. We then had trouble finding a stencil of the right size oval and were running out of time when we found an oval pencil sharpener and made do with that. It turned out a little uneven but, again, this is a kid’s craft, just for fun rather than an adult-made piece of fine jewellery. Using the end of a fine paint brush she bored a hole through the clay for the necklace.


My daughter left the clay to dry for a day or so and then painted the head white and mixed white and blue paint to get the shade of blue she wanted for the background. It needed a couple of coats.



When it was dry she used a hot glue gun to stick the head onto the background. We considered using a finding to put through the hole in the pendant but the ones we had already were just that bit too small so she just used a darning needle to thread some ribbon through. And there it is – a quick, easy cameo pendant.