Family Visit to Epping Forest

It’s been a while since Mr Techno and I have both had a full day off at the same time. Which means we hadn’t been on a family day out since our visit to Winterville before Christmas. Fortunately, we both had Wednesday off, so it was time to address this terrible situation!

Our first thought was a visit to Brooks Farm in Leyton – we haven’t been yet and it is only a half-hour walk from our flat. But, just as we were about to leave, I checked the website for the opening times and found that it was closed due to staff sickness. So I guess we will have to save that for another day.

Instead, we piled into the car and headed for Epping Forest, which is a bit too far for us to walk. There are a number of visitor centres for the Forest – the one we headed to is our closest one, which is called the View. Not only is it the closest, but it is also right next to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, which I really wanted to look round.

There was a very fine drizzle when we arrived and parked the car, but we could see from the clouds that it was likely to get worse, so we decided to start our visit with a wander around part of the Forest. Being an ancient oak forest, Epping is perfect for little people – the trees are widely spaced and leave lots of room for exploring, without getting tripped up by undergrowth. We enjoyed a lovely, if rather muddy, walk through the trees. Tom handled the walking really well – he’s always been pretty confident outdoors but I’ve really noticed his balance and speed improving in the last two weeks. He did trip twice, but bearing in mind the uneven ground and the scattered leaves and sticks, that was pretty good going. He had a great time, especially when Mr Techno and I took his hands and swung him between us, which led to lots of giggling.


We came to the end of our short loop, and the rain was getting heavier, so we headed for the Hunting Lodge. Before we went in, we had to admire the view and make friends with the wooden deer statues outside.



A staff member from the View came over to let us into the Lodge and told us a bit about its history. It was actually built for Henry VIII – in his later years, Henry was too fat to easily ride, so he had a number of lodges built in his game parks. The gamekeepers would drive deer to the clear area in front of the Lodge, and Henry and his nobles would shoot at them with crossbows – all the bloodletting with none of the risk or exercise involved! However, the original Lodge was fairly basic. It was done up for Elizabeth I, which is probably how it got its name. The Lodge was then used as a farmhouse until the 19th Century, which likely helped it survive in a fairly unaltered state. A Victorian extension was built, but was torn down later so that the building could be more easily presented as a Tudor Lodge (I’m not going to get into it here, but for reasons relating to good conservation philosophy, that was a choice I don’t totally agree with).

The Lodge has been very much ‘dressed’ to highlight its Tudor origins, so is a fun visit for kids. The first room we went into had a mocked-up Tudor feast laid out, complete with rather creepy figure of a Tudor beggar.

Upstairs, there was a dress-up room on the first floor. The clothes were on the large side for our little man, but he was interested in poking the ‘tapestries’.

On the second floor, as well as an incredible view, there was a table display about how traditional timber framed buildings were built, along with a dendrochronology activity (that’s tree ring dating, for those who don’t speak archaeologist). The part of me that works in building conservation was very pleased with this part, as well as the handout we were given that explained how to ‘read’ the building, pointing out taper burns, carpenters’ marks, and apotropaic marks (to ward off evil). When Mr Techno mentioned to the staff member that I work for the SPAB, he pointed out that the Lodge also has links with William Morris, our founder, who was apparently inspired by the Tudor tapestries that used to hang in the Lodge when he was a child growing up in nearby Woodford.


After thoroughly exploring the Lodge, we headed back over to the View, which had a lovely little display about the various seasons in the forest, including sound effects. Tom was very keen to press the buttons and hear the birdsong.


By this time we were all getting hungry for our lunch. Options were fairly limited – there was a pricey coffee shop or a Brewer’s Fayre attached to the Premier Inn (which has somehow landed planning permission to be right next to the View). Needing somewhere kid-friendly, we headed to the Brewer’s Fayre to join a host of other families also in need of sustenance.

Despite the less than stellar weather, we had a lovely day out. I definitely intend to spend a lot more time in Epping Forest as it gets warmer – the View maybe our closest visitor centre but there are places to get into the Forest much closer to us. And as Tom starts sleeping less, we will have more time to explore! We’ll be back to the Hunting Lodge too when he is old enough to appreciate it.

Wander Mum

Family Visit to NT Sutton House

It’s rare for Mr Techno to have a day off at the weekend (perils of restaurant work) and there was no way we were going to waste the opportunity sitting at home. However, the torrential rain this Saturday was a bit much, even for us, so we decided that it might be a good time for a more indoor visit!

I’m ashamed to say we hadn’t yet been to our local National Trust place, despite the fact that we are members and both Mr Techno and I used to work for the National Trust (at the beautiful Greys Court near Reading). Add to that the fact that I work for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and you will see just how shocking this is! Clearly, something had to be done to remedy the situation.

There are comparatively few National Trust places in London, but we are lucky to have one not far away. Sutton House in Hackney is a Tudor house, originally built for Ralph Sadleir, who was a member of Henry VIII’s court. The house is brick built, which is unusual for the period, and deceptively large, with rooms spread over three storeys.

Some of what you find at Sutton House is what you would expect from a National Trust site; Georgian wood panelling (cleverly hinged to reveal the Tudor brickwork behind), some good insights into the conservation work done at the house, and a lovely little shop. But this is not your average historic home. Sutton House was squatted during the 1980s, and the Trust uses some of the rooms to show this fascinating stage in the house’s history. So while some rooms are more ‘typical’ and focus on the Tudor history, one is dressed as a squatter’s bedroom, complete with pairs of jeans thrown over the furniture, slogans against empty housing and a graffiti wall. Events at the property echo this past – in fact the cafe was being set up for a punk gig that evening, which was a bit of a shame because we missed out on the requisite National Trust scone and tea combo. (I’ve just read that last sentence back. I am officially old.)




Although it was a wet weekend day, we shared the house with only one other family and a handful of other visitors, giving us the chance to wander freely. We parked our sopping wet buggy up by the cafe – buggy parking space might have been an issue had there been more families visiting, but as it was the volunteers were happy for us to leave it there. The other family had a toddler roughly the same age as Tom, so the two of them enjoyed little spurts of play as we crossed over on our meanderings.

Most of the rooms were surprisingly toddler-safe, with very few breakable objects to be threatened. In fact, the whole house was very child-friendly – there were toys stashed away in some of the chests downstairs and upstairs we found tents set up in two of the rooms. One was allegedly an example of a recuperation tent from the Crimean War, complete with dress up kit and notes on herbal remedies, whilst the other had no explanation that I could see (I think it was part of an artist’s residency that is being set up currently, but couldn’t swear to it). Either way, they were perfect for little ones to explore. There was also some kind of feeling game set up in the kitchen – of the put-hand-in-box-and-guess-contents kind – bit old for Tom yet but good for older kids.




The thing we did miss out on is Breaker’s Yard – the outdoor space around the house which has been transformed from unused space into an urban garden (one of Boris Johnson’s ‘Pocket Parks’). It seemed to have been closed up for the winter – or at least for the rainy day – which is a shame as I very much want to see the caravan which has been done up as a stately home. They had some great-looking events in the space over the summer, but somehow we never quite made it to any of them. Next year maybe.

Though we did miss out on Breaker’s Yard (and cake!) we had a great afternoon at Sutton House and will definitely be going back.



Samhain + All Hallows Eve = Halloween

Yesterday was Tom’s second Halloween! Last year, we were up on Suffolk staying with Mr Techno’s family, and marked the occasion by dressing Tom as a little skeleton.

IMG-20141031-WA0001 (2)
As you can see, this was pre-discovery of RIE and natural gross motor development

This year I had failed to sort out an outfit for him, so we put him in a stripy jumper and, if anyone asked, said he was Dennis the Menace.


He’s a bit young for trick or treating, so we decided that we’d focus on the origins of the festival, the blending of the Celtic festival Samhain and the Christian All Hallows Eve. Both focus on the dead, with Samhain also having an association with the end of the harvest.

On Friday, Tom’s nursery had a feast to celebrate Black History Month and asked parents to bring a traditional food from their culture. I only discovered this when I picked him up on Thursday evening. After panicking a bit (what is traditionally English, suitable for toddlers, and can be prepared from store cupboard ingredients?) I remembered I had planned to make soul cakes for Halloween, so simply made them a day early.


These little scone-like biscuity things were traditionally prepared on All Hallows Eve and given to ‘soulers’ who went door to door, receiving the food in exchange for their prayers for the dead. This is likely the origin of the trick or treat tradition.

For Halloween itself, we honoured the Samhain association with fire and harvest by having a candle lit dinner. As we’d already taken the soul cakes to nursery, we had a seasonal feast of pumpkin cakes (similar to potato cake, but made with pumpkin, squash, carrot, lentils and sweet potato instead) and kale, with spiced stewed apple and yoghurt to finish.



I’m sure we’ll be celebrating Halloween in more ‘normal’ ways in future years, but this was a lovely gentle way of marking the day this year.

Barefoot Babies

The Laetoli Footprints, discovered in Tanzania in 1976, date to 3.7 million years ago. It is often suggested that they are the footprints of an adult and child, walking hand in hand. Source:
The Laetoli Footprints, discovered in Tanzania in 1976, date to 3.7 million years ago. It is often suggested that they are the footprints of an adult and child, walking hand in hand. Source:

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Tom is not yet walking. Really, this is a bit unfair on him. In fact, he took a few steps for the first time on his first birthday, and since then is growing in confidence, staggering between Mr Techno and I with his arms outstretched, giggling madly. He can stand pretty well by himself now, and has even begun to walk across (small) distances between items of furniture. In the park, he’ll happily push his buggy around, but it less keen to risk the wide open spaces.

Buggy pushing

standing baby

It’s great watching him gradually master this new skill, which will open a whole world to him. The appearance of the ability to walk well on two legs (bipedalism) is a key moment in human evolution. If you can walk on two legs, you have hands free to carry tools and food. If you can use tools, you can hunt, and carry greater amounts of food to a home base. With access to more highly nutritious foods (such as meat or sugary fruits), you can support greater brain function, leading to a growth in brain size (known as encephalisation). With greater thinking power, you can…well sit at a computer writing a blog (hurray!)

Okay, I may be simplifying a little bit. Causes for the appearance of evolutionary traits are rarely quite this straightforward. What is clear though is that bipedalism is the earliest ‘human’ trait to appear in the archaeological record, with fossils from as early as 3.7 million years ago already showing clear anatomical adaptations for bipedal walking. Key amongst these changes is the anatomy of the feet, including a higher arch, and changes in the position of the big toe, which tucks in close to the others, rather than being spread out to assist with balancing on branches*.

That anatomy is pretty unique. And pretty easy to damage through inappropriate footwear. Mine, for example, have sexy bunions developing on the big toe joints. After a waitressing stint as a student, I also have no feeling in one side of each big toe. Cheap, ill-fitting shoes are to blame for both. You can bet our ancestors weren’t jamming their feet into a pair of high heels (or £5 ballet pumps either). Shoes don’t survive well in the archaeological record being made from soft, organic matter that decays quickly, but the earliest foot coverings are likely to have been no more than strips of hide. Very flexible, though not very durable.

Babies’ and toddlers’ feet are even more vulnerable than adults to damage from inflexible footwear. Unlike adults, babies don’t have defined hard bones in their feet. Instead, their feet are made up of a soft bone almost like cartilage. This is very pliable, so very sensitive to distortion if confined in an inflexible shoe. The bones develop as they grow and begin to walk, but their feet will carry on developing into their mid-teens**.

Experts also believe that toddlers (and adults) walk better barefoot. It gives a better sense of balance, encourages better posture, and helps to strengthen muscles and joints. Tom has never worn shoes. In summer, he went completely barefoot. Now that the temperature has dropped, he wears socks. Sometimes, if it is especially cold outside, I’ll add a pair of soft knitted bootees (made by my lovely mother-in-law) over the top of the socks. I plan to keep it that way for as long as I can. But English weather being what it is, and with the irritating tendency of our green spaces to sprout unexpected broken glass or dog poo, I can see that a time will come when we will need an ‘emergency’ pair of footwear for use in cold weather or on sharp terrain. I’m putting off doing any research until he’s walking properly, but when the day comes I think I’ll be shelling out for a pair of those specially designed ‘barefoot’ shoes. Just to keep my little Wildling’s feet developing as naturally as possible, as long as possible.

barefoot baby

*I have references for this if anyone is interested, but thought academic journals might be a bit heavy for a post on babies’ shoes!

**Some good info on this is available from the website of East London podiatrist Tracy Byrne: