Sunday, 26 June 2016

Open house

We spent a lovely weekend down in Norfolk, VA with the Murnanes, where we discovered that Jack owns a house from his pre-married days!  He claims the neighbours only complained about the non-stop party a handful of times, and then he met Amanda, and she went to Berkeley...and the rest is history.

The house is almost history too, as they're getting ready to sell it, hence the trip.  Amanda warned us that the place was empty and she wasn't joking.  It was also somewhat in pieces as contractors were in getting it fixed up to sell.  We took our camping stuff - a night under a roof is still better than a night under canvas.

The drive down almost broke my golden rule of staying longer in a place than it takes to travel there.  Norfolk (and next-door Virginia Beach) is a bit of a tourist trap, and Saturday is changeover day when one holidaying population leaves and another arrives, at the same time.  The road system doesn't really support this so we enjoyed plenty of Pete's story CDs.

The afternoon was spent on the beach, but an early exit was made the next day to avoid the traffic back.  We reconvened in Washington DC for a barbecue, and as the four children ran screaming around me I wondered if I couldn't convince Jack to keep the house as a holiday home, somewhere we could escape to for a lads' weekend of crazy fun.  Crazy fun like sitting quietly, having a conversation, reading a book uninterrupted, etc.

Off to the beach.

Amanda decides it's fine to sit under my personal sunshade.  I don't much like sunshine.  Or salt water.  Or sand.

Pete escapes the Atlantic waves.

Isabella is a girl after my own heart and insists on being carried everywhere and placed on blankets while on a beach.  She'll go far.

Oscar is introduced to the sea by his naval father.

Sandcastle building (note: Izzie sensibly on a blanket).

The boys disappear into the dunes.

Peas in a trailer.

Families photo.

The trouble with the beach is there are no computer games on it.  Luckily a local restaurant was able to oblige.

Back in DC, and the party continues in the pool.

Ah Jack - remember when you were young and carefree?  So do your neighbours, so well done for selling up.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Letting the train take the strain

"When is school starting again?" asked Pete on the second morning of his holidays, "I miss my friends."  Even though I've allowed him to play computer games and eat crisps non-stop, it seems spending time with Daddy is officially boring.  I needed a plan.

Trains!  How could any 3-yr-old resist, and up the road we're blessed with the B&O Railroad Museum.  The place is a treasure trove of retired engines and coaches, many of which are housed in the impressive roundhouse and many more in sheds outside or sitting in sidings.  They have hundreds of the things, from early steam engines to hand-me-downs from the local MARC commuter system.  They also offer a ride on the first mile of commercial track ever laid in the USA - a ride, I have to say, somewhat smoother than taking the Metro into DC and almost as slow.

You can climb into the cab of many of the steam engines and enter a metal-scented world of levers, dials and switches, all pleasingly grimy and heavy.  We spent hours pretending to be engineers and firemen, choo-chooing here and there, avoiding crashes with other trains.  Sometimes I even let Pete have a go.

I asked him on the way home if he had fun, desperate to know if I'd reclaimed a modicum of parenting coolness.  "Yes," Pete told me.  "When is school starting again?"  Ah well.  I bought us a membership so that we can come back as much as we like, and if Pete's happens to be at school when I return I guess I just won't have to share the train cab with anyone...

All aboard!

Better than computer games.  Maybe.

The lovely, and huge, roundhouse, with a working turntable in the middle.

Pete quickly found the cinema car that had Thomas on repeat.  But (scandal!) with an American narrator rather than our own Ringo Starr.  That's just not right.

Burn oil!

Pete in control of the C&O No. 1604 "Allegheny" - the most powerful steam locomotive ever made.  It was also going to be the largest, until they realised they didn't have any turntables on the East Coast that could turn it around.

Safety first.

Pete eventually found a train I wasn't allowed on.  So unfair.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Dog's dinner

I'm a big animal lover.  Beefburgers, sausages-and-mash, lamb curry - we'd have none of these if it weren't for our furry friends, so when Hannah told me that Chevron was sponsoring a table at a dinner for animal enthusiasts I jumped at the chance.  Besides, this wasn't my first time at something like this - at the ARF dinner some years ago I came away with my father's favourite photo of me.  Seriously!  He's got it in a frame in the house.

With great glee and some yapping we descended on the Washington Hilton with 1,000 other guests and 600+ dogs for the annual Bark Ball.  This was certainly not an event for the allergic.  Nor was it quite the event I had anticipated, which I discovered when reading that the dinner menu was completely vegan.  The whole thing is run by The Humane Society who specialise in not eating tasty things, although there was some irony in seeing so many dogs dressed "humanely" in leotards and dinner jackets.

It was a fabulous evening nonetheless; we sat on the table next to ex-presidential candidate Bob Dole (and his three dogs), and although much of the food was something called "salad" there was a rather good banana split for dessert.  Then - as happens at these things - there was an auction and pledge drive.  Incredibly, many people are happy to throw thousands of dollars at their four-legged friends' welfare, and even attribute human characteristics like "love" and "loyalty" to them!  Who knew?  I sat there contemplating why people love animals more than they love other people, sipping a gin-and-tonic and patting the head of a Boston Terrier that was wearing a tutu.  Maybe it's because I'm a cat person...

Pedigree breeding pair.

Obedience test.

Obstacle course.

Mmmm, tasty!  What?  They're for the dogs?!  Hang on...

I think now I've seen it all...

The silent auction was certainly weighted towards the dog lover.

OK, I thought I'd seen it all...

Seems like there are lots of dog lovers out there.

Consider the heartstrings tugged.

"If only I could dress up as a human more often!"

Mmmm, dessert!

You can't escape presidential politics in this town.

Hannah loves dogs, but she couldn't eat a whole one.  Well, this one she might.

Me and my new best friend, Molly the Boston Terrier.  Pink is her colour.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Underground, overground

Hannah recently found out she has a lot of hotel points from all the times she traveled to the northern wastes of Canada looking for oil.  Hotel points sound great - every time you stay at a hotel they give you points so you can stay at a hotel again!  For free!  And who doesn't like staying at hotels, apart from people who have to stay at hotels for work, like Hannah.

Luckily her points could be spent in a range of places, including some quite close by, which is good as spending thousands of dollars to fly to the north of Canada so we could stay at a hotel for free didn't sound like the best economics, even to a card-carrying bargain hunter like myself.

So we went to a nice place in the Shenandoah Valley, an hour west of DC.  It's a shockingly rural part of the world; drive an hour from the centre of London and you're still in London, but out here it's rolling meadows and wooded mountains (albeit smaller-than-Canadian ones).

As we were celebrating oil-related perks we decided to venture underground.  This is where oil comes from, Hannah tells me, although I haven't looked into the details myself.  Luckily for Shenandoah my wife wasn't out here prospecting (or was she?) so we took a more touristy route down, into Shenandoah Caverns, which extend for a mile some 250ft below the surface.  There are lots of caves in the area but these are the only ones that you can take an elevator down to.  We're so American now.

We wandered the breathtaking stygian depths looking at the hundreds of diverse and various rock formations, including some that our guide Tasha told us had formed over 50 million years, which is odd given that the Earth is only 6000 years old.  There are lots of signs threatening grievous consequences from the state of Virginia if you touch or break any formations, but seeing that the whole place has an immaculately flat, graveled floor for ease of tourist access I have a feeling that such laws weren't in place when the caverns were opened.  Given the choice, I'd rather be a stalactite than a stalagmite.

The whole subterrestrial smorgasbord is magical and, as this is an American roadside destination, above-ground is equally surreal.  The man who owns the caverns is the person who organises the Presidential inauguration parades (of course!) and so, next to his caves, there's an aircraft hangar full of floats, trains, giant cars, etc.  He also dressed shop windows, so there's that too.  And then across the road are some goats and his tractor collection in a huge barn.

Well, after all that we decided to commune with nature to calm us down so drove the Skyline Drive of Shenandoah National Park.  This weaves for 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains but we only did the top third.  The views might have been fantastic if the rain hadn't swept in.  We managed a quick hike during a break in the downpours only to bump into a baby bear!  He was of the "Yogi" variety, snuffling around some picnic tables.  Hannah spotted two more as we drove, so now we call her Goldilocks.

We finished the weekend with a wander around Winchester, VA, a gorgeous little town with a long history during the so-called revolutionary war and the civil war that followed.  They seem very proud of their association with "Stonewall" Jackson, although I believe that he was on the wrong side.  Anyway, the town boasts a beautiful centre, an office that George Washington once used, and a fantastic kids museum.  We've been searching for one since bidding farewell to Science World in Vancouver, and Pete was very happy with an afternoon driving in an ambulance, crawling through an intestine, and painting with water.

So a very fun weekend!  We passed a real estate office, and the prices out here make those around DC look ridiculous.  Maybe it's finally time for me to become a horse farmer and settle out in Shenandoah.  I may even take up the banjo.  Of course, if they strike oil out here, a move like that would be a lot easier...

Security at the caverns.


It's a tight squeeze down here.

Famous "bacon" formations, which have been in National Geographic!  Does licking count as touching?

This bit is known as the "tea gardens" (may contain artificial colours).

Cathedral cavern...

...which boasts it's own "bishop".  It's not exactly "witch of Wookey Hole" standard - the Mendip Hills' largest cave system and Somerset's #1 tourist attraction, where you can now buy cave-aged cheese - but what is?

More crazy formations.

Cave trolls.

If you see this you're either 250ft underground or need to visit a doctor.

We're going deeper underground.

Mirror lake.

Cave selfie!

Exiting through the gift shop.

Huge bears from a window display.

More window displays, because why not?

Oh yeah, there's also a 50s-style diner, complete with soda fountain and vinyl jukebox.  25c for six records!  I couldn't argue with that.

Pete getting licked by a giant concrete bug.

The Statue of Liberty because...I've given up trying to work out why.

You shall go to the ball!

Calling Grandma.


More floats.

Future President.  Hey, if Trump can do it!

Model trains, of course.

A large agricultural frog.

And a tractor.

OK, off into the woods.

It's a bear cub!  Can we keep him?

Oh, he's leaving, probably in search of a picnic basket.

The somewhat rain-obscured view from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Next morning, down in Winchester.


Pete gets to drive an ambulance.

I receive triage in the back.  The prognosis is not good, especially as I've just given birth to two plastic babies.

While Hannah and Pete wasted their time on water play...

...I built me a super-sweet Lego spaceship!


Modern art.