And so the last days of August are slipping away. The light already seems more autumnal and everyone’s thoughts are surely turning now from the salad days of summer holidays to the first weeks of the new term. For many, this will be the last week of the holidays, so, bearing in mind budgets are tightening towards the end of the month, this is a something that will fill a day but the activities are all free.

I am re-capping some of the things we have enjoyed doing in a series for The Little Pip novelly entitled Things to do in the school holidays Sometimes I find even routine ideas can slip the mind, so I’ve been compiling a series of posts of ideas and things to do over the summer, or indeed, all the myriad half terms that will soon be on our radar.

MBNA Thames Clipper - The Little Pip

Take a boat trip with MBNA Thames Clippers

Forget about the tourist boats – beat the queues at the various wharfs and catch one of the MBNA Thames Clippers. We boarded at Blackfriars and sailed east to The O2, returning later in the day to Bankside for the Tate Modern. The boat we caught had a bar/cafe on board and plenty of interior seating, as well as some seats outside at the stern of the boat (rear) and all of the boats had a toilet on board.

MBNA Thames Clipper 2- The Little Pip

We were given a River Roamer ticket (£14.70 for an adult, under 5s travel free) which allowed us to get on and off as much as we liked between Vauxhall and Woolwich however you can also use your Oyster or contactless card to pay for a single fare too. We enjoyed the boat so much that we actually went the other way along the river as well during the evening after we’d collected Dad from work – we bought a picnic and ate it as we floated in the evening sun down the river to Putney.

The Little Pip | MBNA Thames Clippers Putney

Sky Studios and Nissan Innovation Station at the O2

After pretending we were on the boat David Beckham drove during the London 2012 opening ceremony, going along the river under Tower Bridge and passing Greenwich, we reached  almost the far end of the Eastern zone of the MBNA Thames Clippers and the O2, where we disembarked and spent a few hours exploring their free exhibits. I’d not really given The O2 much thought beyond it being a venue, but, if you’re looking for some interesting but free things to do, you could do worse than spending a couple of hours at The O2. If you head to Sky Studios when it opens at 11am and then head to the Nissan Innovation Station for 12pm you’d likely find them pretty empty. We were first into Sky Studios and had the pick of the experiences – and it wasn’t specially put on for bloggers.

I particularly liked the use of technology at both experiences – Sky and Nissan are both sponsors of The O2 so these are essentially experiential marketing techniques for them both, but don’t let that put you off if you’re looking for free but vaguely interesting/educational things to do with your kids this week. Sign up with your smart phone at Sky Studios and swipe the QR code at each activity and at Nissan, you register on the way in with a pass which you swipe to get things emailed directly to you. Both have a good sports focus which we particularly enjoyed in the Rio 2016 excitement – Pip rode a Sky bike, we played several famous golf holes, signed for the Liverpool team and even presented Sky News with a real camera and teleprompter.

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I love how funny I look in the photo above with Little Baby in a sling which is then covered in the Liverpool top. We both loved all of the green screen experiences, and I particularly loved that each experience had a member of staff to operate the camera and help you out.

At the Nissan Innovation Centre, we test drove an actual electric car (on rollers with a computer screen over the windscreen, Pip sat in the back and was very impressed), played Gran Turismo and Pip particularly enjoyed colouring a car which she then brought to life using a scanner on an iPad. The Nissan Innovation Centre is probably better if you have slightly older children, as there were a number of enticing sports/technology/body related things to try which looked fun, but Pip was too young and I couldn’t leave them!

02 Nissan Innovation- The Little Pip

02 Nissan 1- The Little Pip

We ate lunch at Ask Italian which was really nice as it was so child friendly. One of the staff even served my lasagne for me as I was nursing Little Baby and was struggling with one hand, and there were lovely clean easy to access baby facilities (although I’m not sure I want to remember my least finest moments of the day which included some interesting nappy changes and a suit which I had to throw away as I’d run out of nappy bags).

I’d forgotten that there is almost every chain restaurant known to London to be found in The O2, and during the day you really are spoilt for choice in a way that you couldn’t imagine if you’d only been there for an event. There is also a cinema, so you could pop along to the free exhibits in the morning, have lunch and then while away the afternoon in the cinema – totally perfect for a grey day.

We were guests of The O2 for the day

During our first school holidays (and my first time looking after 2 children all day every day for 8 weeks until Pip starts school in September) I am re-capping in a series for The Little Pip novelly entitled Things to do in the school holidays Sometimes I find even routine ideas can slip the mind, so I’ve been compiling a series of posts of ideas and things to do over the summer, or indeed, all the myriad half terms that will soon be on our radar.

Relive your childhood and watch Swallows and Amazons

Swallows & Amazons | Studio Canal 2 An exciting parcel arrived for me one day from England. It contained Swallows and Amazons and was from my grandmother. I was 6, living in California for a bit and from the moment I started reading, a life long Arthur Ransome relationship was started.

I have been often asked how I came to write Swallows and Amazons. The answer is that it had its beginnings long, long ago when, as children, my brothers, my sisters and I spent most of our holidays on a farm at the south end of Coniston … We adored the place. Coming to it we used to run down to the lake, dip our hands in and wish, as if we had just seen the new moon. Going away from it we were half drowned in tears. While away from it, as children and as grown-ups, we dreamt about it… Swallows and Amazons grew out of those old memories. I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.” Arthur Ransome, 1958



Throughout my entire childhood, Arthur Ransome’s books were a constant back drop. Reading them, listening to my grandmother reading Pigeon Post to me on tape, playing games inspired by them, dressing up for Book Day competitions, and finally, back in England, learning to sail and spending time trekking round the Lake District looking for possible Wild Cat Islands and Swallowdales.

So it was with great excitement that I booked tickets for Pip and I to watch a special preview at the BFI, which also included a q&a with the director and script writer. I was absolutely desperate for Pip to enjoy the film and, at 4 and a bit, she is a little on the young side, but, I am pleased to report that it was a winning choice. We both loved the experience.

Swallows & Amazons | Studio Canal

Why to watch the film…

As an appealing family adventure film, I thought it was excellent. Ransome had a way of turning the ordinary into an adventure, and Philippa Lowthorpe has certainly captured this in a heart warming film. I actually really liked the upscaling of the robbery storyline into a spy story, although I doubt any spy of Ransome’s calibre would have been quite so careless as Rafe Spall’s Captain Flint appeared to be, and it added an element of danger such as would never have been so explicitly articulated by Ransome. As a mechanism for the film though, I thought it worked well if elements seemed slightly forced and super unrealistic. Spall did make a compelling Captain Flint though, if somewhat younger, far less rotund and much more attractive than his character ever read to me as a young child! Kelly Macdonald made a good Mother and I thought Seren Hawkes was an excellent Nancy.

Set in 1935 as opposed to the 1929 of the book, (Andrea Gibb says that they moved the date forward 6 years to be closer to WW2 and therefore make the spy line fit a little better – although I’m not sure that was really necessary) this is in some ways a period piece, which makes for a nice piece of wholesome escapism, albeit perhaps much more along the lines of the times Brexiters harker for than canny observations. I doubt any child watching it would have noticed but at times I felt there was a bit of jarring between the more modern children seeming more worldly than their 1935 characters should have been, yet also oddly incapable in ways that children of that age used to being in the countryside wouldn’t have been.

Pip, when asked which her favourite bit was says “all of it” (although I should note that whilst watching she found the spy climax scene a little scary) and thoroughly enjoyed the outing.

(& some notes for the adults – particularly any fans)

If, like me, you first read Swallows and Amazons as a child and love the novel so much, bear in mind that this is not a faithful representation of either the plot line or the essence of the book. Without spoiling anything of the plot that you wouldn’t get from watching the trailer, you can tell that the script writer, Andrea Gibb, only read the book for the first time when she was asked to write the screen play. She is unable to craft the childhood magic in the way that Ransome could, having experienced himself as a child his subject matter. That is not to say that it is a poor film per se, just that for me something substantial was missing – Ransome’s Walkers do not fall out with each other or berate each other for their failings. They are nuanced where Gibb’s Walkers are flat, albeit with reasonable acting particularly from the two youngest. (Don’t get me started on the changing of Tatty’s name – I suspect it is less about giggling potential as Gibb and Lowthorpe maintain and more about wanting to get it past strident American censorship). Her Blacketts fare better I thought, but for me the beauty of the book as a child were that the adults were far less present than they seem to be in the film. With only an hour and 40 minutes into which to condense the entire storyline there is obviously not much time to scene set but the vast majority of the book is unaccompanied, which is not reflected in the film.

If one of the things you like about the book is that things are always done properly, including all the sailing details, you will have to suspend this for the film and enjoy it first as a film and remember that your children probably won’t notice… Whilst I can sail both dinghies and bigger boats, I don’t personally know much about lug rigged sailing boats but even I probably wouldn’t think it wise to leave the dinghy at the end of a shingle spit with the sail still fully up.

Don’t let these details put you off though, I still thought it was a very enjoyable stand alone entertaining family film that I would recommend watching if you have children aged 5 upwards. I just wish they hadn’t named it after the book!

In cinemas from August 19 – look here for tickets

Images from Studio Canal.

What glorious weather it’s been this last couple of days, and I think set to stay like this for the weekend too. We’ve now survived two whole weeks of the school holidays (and my first time looking after 2 children all day every day for 8 weeks until Pip starts school in September) and been up to lots of things, which I am re-capping in a series for The Little Pip novelly entitled Things to do in the school holidays…  Sometimes I find even routine ideas can slip the mind, so I’ve been compiling a series of posts of ideas and things to do over the summer, or indeed, all the myriad half terms that will soon be on our radar.

Whilst we went to the ZSL London Zoo there are of course many other zoo/animal options all over the country

Pack an animal themed picnic and eat it at the zoo!

We were invited by Greggs to spend the day at the zoo and meet them at lunch time for a zoo themed picnic. Such a simple idea for a day out but we had a great time, and I would highly recommend this. I know the zoo is expensive, but Pip is still talking about it weeks later and we have had a great time since the trip playing with animal masks and also printing out the photographs and sticking them in our scrapbooks (I have got involved and am making her little brother one of his own!) printing out the photos using our Epson Eco-tank printer.

One of the things that I found daunting about a trip out to the zoo, particularly with 2 children in tow, was the logistics. Bringing your own picnic of course means extra packing, but it also means you can eat wherever suits you around the place. I was particularly impressed at the zoo at the number of benches and areas to eat your own food as well as water fountains to refill drinks bottles. Of course, there was plenty of food available too, but no-one makes you feel uncomfortable for bringing or eating your own, which does makes it a much cheaper proposition.

Because I was there on my own with Pip and LB, without another adult, I decided that I would let Pip choose what we saw when we needed to have a decision made, and base the day around that. I also roughly let her guide how long we spent looking at things – hence we spent a lot of time in the butterfly house (my photos didn’t really come out because my lens steamed up and with LB in the sling and pushing the car seat on the wheels loaded with our rucksack etc, I didn’t really have the opportunity to get a lens cloth out).

We both loved the penguins…

zoo picnic- The Little Pip

We also loved the new lion enclosure, Land of the Lions, in particular how child friendly it was. As we went in, a ranger approached Pip, inviting her to be a trainee ranger and gave her a worksheet and giving her a tag for her wrist (which I think signalled to the other rangers throughout the enclosure, as they greeted her as a trainee ranger throughout). We stuck to the lower walkways only as Pip wasn’t interested in getting closer and I didn’t want to drag her to places she wasn’t keen on – but she loved helping the rangers spot the lions through binoculars and answering the phone to a lion emergency (which rang as she stepped into the rangers hut). She also enjoyed stamping her card with her observations.
London Zoo Greggs picnic 2- The Little Pip

What to bring for your picnic

I usually take a small cool bag when we head out anywhere at the moment, with a couple of small ice packs wrapped in a tea towel in the bottom to keep everything cool. I love that all of these new bits from Greggs would easily fit in there. I particularly liked the old school picnic theme to the items we tried – I had a Honey Roast Ham and Free Range Egg Salad (although Pip immediately snaffled the egg) which came with a honey mustard dressing, and Pip had a simple ham filled milk roll (calcium & protein). As did I, having coveted hers – I know they are aimed at kids, but sometimes, nothing beats a plain ham roll. At £3 for the salad and 95p for the kids rolls, I thought these were really reasonably priced and would make the job of packing a picnic really easy. We also tried the fruit pots which were filled with ready to eat slices of fruit, again making things super easy. Pip loved the gingerbread that she had for pudding, and the cookies were also surprisingly delicious.

I have to say that I hadn’t thought of Greggs as an obvious picnic choice option before but having tried it, I do really recommend it for simple, uncomplicated picnic food. I do enjoy a fancy sandwich (and they have some of those too including a Cajun Chicken Flatbread which looked pretty tasty, and got a thumbs up from the other bloggers there) but for me, a picnic tastes best with simple tasty things which travel easily, and I think Greggs have got that down well.

I always pack napkins for a picnic, and even sometimes a tablecloth, and the zoo themed ones we used for this picnic were an easy addition to the theme. I think that this might also be a nice idea for a birthday party – Greggs had put out the picnic using zoo themed plates and tablecloths and it looked really effective. It wasn’t a private area though, so anyone could replicate the idea, and the kids loved it. The masks were also really popular (Pip has a tiger one and wears it pretty much every day at the moment).
London Zoo Greggs picnic 3- The Little Pip

Learning it is ok not to see everything & some things will end up being a highlight when you didn’t even know you wanted to see them …

In the afternoon we looked at some more of Pip’s choices – specifically gorillas, tigers and owls. I couldn’t leave without seeing the giraffes (we actually spent quite a lot of time peacefully watching them eat, as it also coincided with one of LB’s naps) but we also looked at some of the animals we saw in between walking to the various parts. I was delighted by an armadillo and Pip couldn’t stop exclaiming about the fascinating meerkats.

I usually want to make sure I’ve seen everything to get the most out of the day, or the best value from the ticket, but as I was on my own with the two of them, I knew that was never going to be possible. Making peace with that was such a good idea as it made me much less stressed.

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Remember some pocket money for a souvenir

The other thing that really impressed me about the ZSL London Zoo was the items for sale. I knew Pip was going to want to buy things, because (a) I love shopping and so does she and (b) she loves pencils, notebooks, soft toys – as do most little kids, and usually places capitalise on that. As we went around, I noticed that most of the animals were available in soft toy form, with the smallest ones being darling little bean bag type toys, modestly priced at £2. I let Pip choose one and I bought a baby gorilla for LB (both Pip and I enjoyed watching the baby gorilla being taught to climb and thought her little brother was somewhat reminiscent of the gorilla baby!) and I also let Pip choose a Land of the Lions notebook and lion topped pencil and was pleasantly surprised when the bill was less than £10 for them all.

Timings & other things to consider

We arrived at 10.30am on a Wednesday morning at the start of the school holidays and there was no queue – something to bear in mind if you are wondering about fast track entry. It probably helped that the weather wasn’t super nice in the morning (but it picked up to glorious sunshine later that afternoon) but it was still much more empty in the morning than the afternoon when it noticeably filled up and was more difficult to get around easily – although we never felt we were in a constant queue, and there was plenty of less popular enclosures that were free from crowds even mid afternoon. Buying tickets online in advance looks to be cheaper, and the place was actually pleasantly empty with no lines for food or drinks that I could see during the first part of the morning.

Talks & feedings – these were all available at the enclosures and online which could be used to guide you around if you want more information. We caught the 3pm feeding & talk in the rainforest part and it was chatty and informative and meant that some of the shyer animals had come out into the middle for the feeding which allowed us a better view. Pip also asked some of the rangers a million questions (particularly the poor lady in the butterfly house) and there wasn’t anything Pip asked that she didn’t have an answer for.

Ethics of zoos – I was hesitant to touch on this because obviously the real focus of the day and the piece was the zoo themed picnic, but, I am also recommending the zoo as a day out. I know that the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) which runs London Zoo is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity whose mission is to promote and achieve the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats, and that animal welfare is a priority. Indeed, all the enclosures were clean and large and the animals all looked (so much as it is possible to tell) well cared for and ‘happy’. I haven’t included any photos of the gorillas because I found it hard to take any – the dad was sat there a little sad/angry at the front guarding his baby who was at the back top corner from a wall of humans taking photos – but by and large I felt that it was a worthwhile experience for Pip to be able to learn and mostly the animals were either away from the viewing platforms (lions and tigers were really only properly visible through binoculars) or not at all bothered by the human viewers. Obviously I know other zoos won’t always be like this but I was happy enough with our experience of a fantastic day out, learning lots, to recommend as a location.
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We were guests of Greggs at the zoo which included entrance and lunch.