Monday, 14 April 2014

Strange Day at Strangers' Hall

     If you are a parent, then you will have been there. The day that dawns so brightly, so full of promise, your family bubbly and excited, ready for your day out… that quickly descends into A Bad Day Out. Just off the top of my head, there was the afternoon at Norwich Cathedral that The Boy was an unrelenting arse for. The day we spent at the Muckleburgh Collection, Alistair and The Boy in heaven, drooling over tanks and military displays, whilst I lagged behind, cold, grumpy, and yearning for gin, The Girl not yet a year old and not happy about being confined to her pushchair. The trip to a museum a few weeks ago that was overrun with a group of Swedish schoolchildren seemingly off their tits on sugar.

     You know you should just give up. Cut your losses and say ‘Ok, this isn’t working, no one is having fun, let’s go and have a drink and some cake, then go home.’ But you never do. Instead, you grit your teeth, gird your loins and determinedly drag the children along behind you, hellbent on Having Fun and Learning New Things. This will be fun, because I said it would be several hours ago! The children whine and dawdle, you run out of patience, and if you happen to be with your other half, there is guaranteed to be an argument over whose stupid idea was this anyway, you said it would be fun, for god’s sake, don’t speak to the children like that, FINE, have it your way then…

     Last Wednesday had all the hallmarks of looming disaster. A beautiful sunny day, me and The Blondies off on a jaunt to Strangers' Hallmuseum. I was excited to the point of hyperventilation when I found out there was a free craft activity happening – Middle Class Parenting Observation Opportunity! Be still, my beating heart! It started  well, as things tend to. We caught the bus in – still considered a charming novelty by The Blondies – and I suggested that, as we’d arrived later than planned, we had lunch first. Another massive treat – let’s have chips from the market! Ooh, no, wait, there’s a fish and chip shop nearby, we can get food there, then eat it outside on the grass outside St Gregory. We pointed ourselves in the direction of the Norwich Lanes and set off, except that I was immediately grabbed by a chugger, who seemed oblivious to the fact that I had two young children with me and suggested he might ‘grab hold of me, you look like you’d give good grab, know what I mean?’

     After I’d stepped over his cooling corpse, my mood had darkened somewhat. But, no! This is going to to be fun! In fact, it’s going to be FUN!! And then we got to the chippy. At lunchtime. No obvious method of queuing, just a press of customers shouting to make themselves heard over the radio and everyone else. The Blondies shrank into themselves, silenced by such high volumes that they hadn’t created. I parked them in a corner, ordered… and waited. And waited. And w-a-i-t-e-d… Twenty minutes later, we were handed the wrong food, I grabbed it, and we made good our escape.

     Bitter experience warned me that this was shaping up to be An Absolute Horror Of A Bad Day Out. Both Blondies were now quiet, withdrawn, all excitement wrung out of them. They picked at their chips without interest. I tried, too hard, to be happy! And excited! And inspiring! Isn’t this lovely?! Sitting on the grass with chips! In the sunshine! And isn’t the church beautiful?! Aren’t we lucky to live in such a wonderful city like Norwich?! I managed to get a few halfhearted smiles in response, but the mood of happy expectation had evaporated. I dickered with myself over whether or not to proceed. Sod it, we’ve made it this far. And besides, I hadn’t been to Strangers' Hall for at least 25 years. I was curious.

     Approaching the entrance, The Girl made a sudden diversion into the toilet. Whispering, I managed to elicit from her that she was feeling scared. The Boy confirmed that he seconded this emotion. Oh god, this is going to be awful… Nevertheless, I pushed open the door… and there we were, in the Great Hall of a Tudor merchants house. Actual gasps of awe from The Blondies. And within three seconds, they fell in love. So did I.

     It is such a perfect museum, and for the ages of The Blondies (nine and five) just ideal. Each room is set up so you can see how the house would have looked at various times in history, the people who lived there, worked there, what they filled their lives with… The guides in the rooms who were full of interesting facts about the things to look out for, from the details of a cushion to initials on a fireplace to where the word penknife comes from. The Boy giggled until he nearly fell over when he heard me squeal ‘An UNDERCROFT! I’d forgotten about the 14th century UNDERCROFT!’. The Girl was in raptures over the dolls houses in the toy room (bit of a long pause in that room, so they could play with the big box of toys provided by the museum, and I could sit down). 

     Then the final part of the day… The garden. I didn’t even know that Strangers' Hall had a garden. But it does. A beautiful, tranquil oasis in the heart of medieval Norwich, part of it laid out as a knot garden, the rest lawn. And a basket of toys – traditional toys like quoits, diablos, bilbos, with laminated cards telling you a little about the history of various games. The Blondies went loopy. I did a fair amount of loopiness too. Not only had we discovered Our New Favourite Place, but we had wrested victory from the jaws of Bad Day Out defeat. I should have taken a lot more photos of our visit than I did, but to be honest we were so into everything, that I just didn't think to. Also, if you are ever in Norwich or Norfolk, then you must visit Strangers' Hall yourself, and I don't want to spoil the surprise by telling you too much about what you'll find there. And if I haven't convinced you with that explanation, I have at least convinced myself. I did get this shot though. Yeah, just your average garden wall, really.

     And then… I had an experience so unprecedented that I know I will never do it again. I outmummed another middle class mum. Yeah. I know. The Blondies decided they wanted to play Grandmas Footsteps and roped me in. It was a stupid amount of fun, especially because The Girl was being bonkersly competitive, and every time I turned round, she was sneaking up, looking like this.

But unable to hide her delight and high spirits. We giggled like we’ve never giggled before. Giggled so much in fact, that we drew the attention of two other children in the garden, a boy and a girl. They were a few years younger than The Blondies respectively, probably seven and three. I was just about to ask them if they wanted to play with us, when they asked their mum if she would play the same game with them, right next to us. Errr… it got a bit awkward. I think her children were just a bit too young to play. The 7yo boy refused to let anyone else win. The 3yo girl started crying because she wasn’t winning. The mum tried to mediate between them. No budging from either side. Meanwhile, the three of us were romping and giggling and chasing and generally behaving like a family on a National Trust poster (minus the Boden outfits, obviously). We projected wholesome family fun like an aura, whilst she dealt with the fallout of A Bad Day Out. It was the one and only time I’ve felt like I was kicking the arse of parenting.

     But I felt so very awkward. If I were her, I would hate me. So we made a diplomatic exit, bought ice creams from the market, and sat up at the top, looking at the landmarks of this fine city. Then rounded it off with a purchase of soft fruit from a stall. Turning homewards, The Boy commented ‘I smell quiche.’ Bugger me, we were every cliché ticked. Perhaps... perhaps this marks a change in our lives as a family. Perhaps... I might be learning how to be like Other Parents.

     Right up until we walked through a churchyard and I had to bellow at them ‘NO, WE DON’T STEP ON THE DEAD PEOPLE, THE BOY! THE GIRL! STOP SAYING ‘DAMMIT’! ’ That’s better. Back to normal. Normal for Norfolk. Normal for us.


Sam said...

Ah! I'm so glad you managed to turn it around (or Stranger's Hall did - what a great name for a house!). I spent some time telling my two to come out of the flower beds at Hampton Court the other day... We are now bona fide members of the middle classes though as bought our National Trust membership today! I should probably start listening to classical music and Radio 4 now...

Lucy Benedict said...

It's called Stranger's Hall because it was home to Dutch weavers fleeing persecution - - it's a brilliant name (very Norfolk)!

And now you're members of the NT, it's mandatory to say hello to strangers you meet when on NT land. If they don't say hello back, they're not National Trust members ;-)

Sam said...

Me and my worse half have a running joke about NT as I once saw the sticker in someone's car window and made the Freudian Slip of referring to it as the National Front. Now I have to remember not to go round telling people that we are signed up member of the National Front...I will have to test your theory about hello-ing strangers from now on...