I think that keeping myself and the children busy and active, doing lovely things and making lovely memories, is one of the best ways that I’ve dealt with the difficulties of the past eighteen months and helped myself and the children to settle and move on from the trauma of the separation: by doing things we love and spending time together. Living in our beautiful county of North Yorkshire, we’re spoilt for choice for beautiful places to visit and lovely things to do. And of course, it depends what your style is. But as I particularly appreciate aesthetic things, local history and heritage and lovely places, and hope to install such ideas in my children too, National Trust properties tend to naturally fit the bill.
Becoming a member of the National Trust is one of the first things I did when I arrived back in Yorkshire a single mum, about eighteen months ago. I was moving to a village 5 miles from both Brimham Rocks and Fountains Abbey, and knowing I’d be likely to visit both frequently, I did a little bit of maths. I have two children, aged 7 and 3. The standard rate for a single parent family (yes, the National Trust thoughtfully have a rate for us!) is £58 at the moment, although I paid much less with a direct debit special offer. I reckoned that for that money, I could visit Fountains three times and Brimham twice – which I’d be likely to do anyway with them being so close – and also get into Beningbrough Hall, Nostell Priory, the Treasurer’s House, not to mention other places with special partnerships allowing free entry, such as Mount Grace Priory.
(As it turns out, I have made my NT membership work for its keep, so much so that I just wasn’t getting enough gardens and heritage, so decided to add another string to our bow and joined the Royal Horticultural Society as well, just before last Christmas. With Harlow Carr in Harrogate just down the road (and its fantastic school holiday workshops for children) as well as off-season entry to Newby Hall and Harewood House (£16.70 and £28 respectively, full price for a one parent family), I’m in my element – although I appreciate that may be garden overkill for some.)
In fact, I became so fond of the National Trust that early in 2012 I started volunteering at Brimham Rocks in communications (press releases, web content, and social media). It’s been great professional experience, of course, but it’s lovely work with lovely people and genuine fun, too. So I have a special fondness for Brimham as my NT ‘home’.
October half term came upon us. For some single parents, balancing work and childcare can make holidays a real source of stress. I’m still flexible, as I’m not yet working and the small amount of work I do is freelance, which gives me the freedom to plan days out. But not working means we’re very hard up. I can’t take them anywhere exotic – I can’t even risk driving too far afield and using up petrol. So Yorkshire it was to be, and entry fees are out of the question. So this week, pleasure and circumstance combined, and we had three National Trust visits planned.
On the 31st October, Halloween, I took them to Brimham Rocks Halloween Trail. We all dressed up for the occasion (yes, even me, although there aren’t any photos to prove it!)
I didn’t know what to expect – except that the rocks themselves can certainly be creepy enough on their own, depending on the light, the time of day and the season. So creating atmosphere wouldn’t be a problem. What I did expect, though, knowing the staff as I do because of my volunteering, was a lot of care, thought and enthusiasm. That’s exactly what I found.
We arrived in the car park to be met by a bright orange witch (who my three year old was quick to reassure me was “really just Lisa”). We had to follow the path, and at every ‘station’, cross off one spooky item from the list before finally arriving in the visitor centre at the top of the moor to the ‘witch’s kitchen’, where the children would get a prize.
It really was endearingly well done. Lots of loving care had gone into every ‘scene’, from the Wizard-of-Oz-like witch’s legs sticking out from under a fallen rock, to the hanging skeletons in gibbets, to the home-made bedsheet ghost fluttering from a tree (…in the bleak moor setting, and with looming black rocks all around, a multitude of sins were forgiveable). The signage was witty and the home-made feel very much in keeping with Brimham Rocks as a rustic, wild site. All the little tableaux, from the spooky raggedy scarecrows with skull faces to the cats in the oak tree, all drew a smile. All the staff were costumed for the occasion, too, with a vampire on duty in the car park good-humouredly growling at visitors, and perhaps incongruously friendly witches in the shop and kiosk.
While the all-too-realistic zombie struggling to burrow up from a freshly dug grave was a little too much for my little ones (though teenagers would have been delighted), they loved the cute spiders and spotty toadstools and I appreciated the fact that even a little pre-reader could fill in what was basically a spooky bingo sheet with ease.
In the witch’s kitchen was where I really felt a surge of affection for my colleagues at Brimham Rocks and the time and care and genuine fun that had been had creating the scary ingredients and creepy props. I don’t think it’s possible to produce such a nice thing without everybody getting along; without everybody actually caring about what they do; without people putting in their own time.
After they’d examined the horrible jars full of who-knows-what, and after a coven of witches (“Don’t worry Mummy, it’s just Sophie!”) had guided them through and helped them to say a magic spell, my children were beside themselves with delight at stirring centipede soup and sniffing mouldy porridge.
Each child got a gift for having completed the trail, and there was colouring in the visitor centre where some of the history and geology of Brimham Rocks is explained. It’s also a warm place to have your picnic, and as the sky started to darken in the autumn afternoon we headed home.
We had three pumpkins of varying sizes at home that we’d carved the day before (a single parent family, of course!) and family came round for a spooky dinner complete with a profoundly punning menu designed by my son (glass of whine and some garlic dread, anyone?). A really lovely family day.
Then came 1st November and with nothing else planned, and beautiful sunshine forecast, we decided to squeeze in our second National Trust outing of the week and went to Fountains Abbey. I’d been planning this trip for a year, really, because I didn’t want to miss the display of autumn colours in the water garden of Studley Royal just beyond the abbey, which we’d seen in sunlight the year before. Staff at Fountains had been tantalisingly posting pictures of the evolving view on social media for several weeks beforehand but half term week, for me, signals the most impressive time, when the whole range of colours can be seen.
I decided to treat us for a change, and after the play area we had lunch in the restaurant (I also wanted to make sure the children were fully fuelled with warm food, as it was a cold day; also, last year the three year old had been in a pushchair but I was really hoping she’d manage to walk the whole way round, this time, and she did).
Being a single parent and taking two children on a quiet country walk can be risky. It can go wrong. If they bicker or whine then disciplining them while attempting to have your ‘quality time’ can be amazingly frustrating. If they are both tired, you can only carry one (or take it in turns – either way is exhausting). And even if they are getting on really well and chatting and playing with each other, that can be lonely for the parent. Who do you talk to – the sheer lack of anybody to talk to is one of the toughest things about being a single parent, anyway, but especially on a day trip when the children are occupied.
I deliberately hadn’t asked any friends along (except my parents who sadly couldn’t join us) – not because of inherent anti-socialness but really because I just felt that I was in the mood to be with family. And I did begin to doubt the wisdom of this over lunch (when both children are eating it is very hard to have a conversation with them, as children can’t pace their eating around a conversation in the same way adults do – and I started to really feel the lack of another adult). As it happens, though, on the rest of the walk I was lucky. Both children talked, laughed, joked and even sang with me all the way round, and I didn’t get the chance to sink into pointless introspection – they were good company.
And as for Fountains Abbey, it was stunning. I knew it would be, but the sun did its thing, and the colours were glorious. Scarlet leaves licking up branches like flame, rainbow bursts across the whole spectrum of greens, yellows, oranges, browns and reds. The still pools and calm streams throwing back the colour from below so that the whole scale is experienceable in depth as well as height and breadth. The orange heat of the trees warming up and invigorating the weak northern sunlight – it got me wondering whether an artist could capture in paint that combination of heat and cold (- it was a freezing cold day with a bitter wind, despite the sunshine).
There was a semblance of a Halloween trail, where small pumpkins were hidden around the grounds, but it didn’t capture their attention much. For the most part, they were very happy to kick through leaves and chat.
They even found the energy to explore the abbey ruins at the end of the walk. We know it well and as children are, within reason, allowed to clamber on the stones it functions as a ‘natural’ playground in a similar way to Brimham Rocks.
Here, a staircase leading to a mysterious room seemed to give them both a second wind and they were up it frighteningly quickly – I wasn’t even sure whether it might lead to a sheer drop so hared up after them. (As a single parent you have to constantly watch for dangers for both of them – there’s no backup!)
It was only on the final hill back up to the car park that the going started to get tough – but the tough got going, in the shape of Mummy the engine, and two small children carriages (I actually pulled them by their coats the last few hundred yards. But we made it.)
Fountains is immaculate and beautiful at any time of year, thanks to an enormous team of staff and volunteers. It’s also a World Heritage site which adds an extra degree of responsibility to the care that has to be taken to protect and preserve it, as the cliche goes, for future generations. I don’t see why that should be a hackneyed concept, though. “For ever, for everyone” is the National Trust’s motto, which has generosity of spirit running right through its sentiment. We could just selfishly enjoy it – but we want it to be around and to be beautiful for generations and generations to come. We’ll be back at Fountains in winter (I like to see it in all seasons).
So on Saturday we embarked on our final half-term outing, to Beningbrough Hall. Although a little further afield (about a half-hour drive, just north of York) I’m often in York anyway so we tend to visit every holiday. And today there was a special reason to visit – an animal workshop called ‘Up Close Encounters’ provided by Mags from Animal In-Tuition, promising the opportunity to touch tarantulas and snakes!
While I’d really planned this for the 7 year old, who loves Deadly 60 and all types of scary reptiles… he was scared and didn’t want to touch most of the creatures, whereas the three year old was in her element! She ended up handling a snake, a giant snail, a lizard, she had a rat climbing down her arm and even a tarantula sitting on her fingers, and loved every minute of it.
The children also found some of the pumpkins in the gardens, and we warmed up with a hot chocolate in the Walled Garden restaurant. I love the view of Beningbrough in the dusk as we drove away. It has an amazing presence, but it doesn’t have the pretensions of some of the grander stately homes and has an attractive, peaceful solidity about it, architecturally speaking. We never seem to spend much time actually inside the house (last time we came was for the big Jubilee garden party in June) so perhaps over the winter we’ll have to come for an indoor event or children’s tour (there are Christmas crafts throughout December, or we might wait till February and come to the Victorian weekend).
We’ve been to three very different National Trust properties – one wild and dramatic natural environment, one ancient ruin in beautiful formal gardens, and one formal house and grounds. They represent a pretty good cross-section of what the National Trust does, and I definitely think we’re lucky to have easy and regular access to them all, and be able to plan visits to those further afield.
Mainly, though, I think it’s important as single parents to continue giving children access to lovely places; not to feel limited by the trials and difficulties of everyday life and to make our day trips as fun and memorable as we can… not just for the children, but for us too. We matter, single parents… we deserve to be happy.
I certainly think that both my children, all the time, are making memories that will stay with them all their lives. And so am I.