Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Almost Free Things To Do With The Kids

Living a life of sufficiency is tough when you have children: they want stuff, attention and what their peers have got. Here are a few suggested places for almost free days out.

When the weather is: Dry

Norman’s Bay – this is a pebble beach between Pevensey Bay and Cooden beach at Bexhill. It is never busy and is good for tiring the kids out with a long walk; it is also usually good for kite flying. The best thing about it, though, is there are no shops. Once the children know that, they realise that their pester-power is worthless and they just get on with having fun.

Fairlight – east of Hastings, the coast here has boulders fallen from the cliff at Pett Level and huge imported rocks to form sea defences at Fairlight Cove. These are great for clambering over and there are fossil hunting and rock-pooling opportunities. Again, there are no shops but be aware that Fairlight Cove does have a tradition of naturism.

Ashdown Forest – home to the original Hundred Acre Wood. Plenty of free parking and you can wander for miles. Take an old white sheet, spread it under a tree and give the branches a shake. Investigating what falls out will keep the kids busy. No shops but usually a few ice cream vans.

When the weather is: Wet

Towner Art Gallery – next to the Congress Theatre in Eastbourne, the big gallery spaces are very exciting for young kids; best of all is the Art Box room upstairs where children can draw, paint, shape and stick depending on the theme for that day.

Saturday morning pictures – not strictly free, but Cineworld at Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne shows mostly major feature-length animated films a couple of months after release for £1. Adults and kids pay the same and there is usually a choice of three films. As long as you take your own snacks, it’s a cheap morning out.

De La Warr Pavilion – the dominance of installation art here makes this an interesting place for kids. Mine loved Anthony Gormley’s Critical Mass of 60 life-size sculptures, especially imitating the poses for photos; but they got into trouble for trying to rummage through Tamoko Takahashi’s collection of skip-found, everyday objects.

That's Your Allotment!

In 2006, a group of friends who would become the nucleus of the Herstmonceux Allotment Association (HAA), wanted to be able to grow vegetables beyond the limits of their back gardens. The one significant problem they were faced with was that the village had no allotments. When it became clear that there was no publicly-owned land available, the HAA enlisted the support of Herstmonceux Parish Council in trying to find some local land that would fit the purpose. They also contacted the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardens (NSALG) for advice and guidance.
The parish council approached local landowners to see if any would be willing to lease land for use as allotments. Several possibilities were explored but poor soil, public access or potential legal difficulties meant these opportunities did not come to fruition.
Then a local fruit farmer came forward; he was keen to support local people involving themselves in food production, he had a two acre orchard of apple trees coming to the end of their natural life and was willing to make the site available. The parish council entered into a lease of the site and in July 2008, the HAA held an open day at the site to begin recruiting members and potential plot-holders.
In February 2009, after the trees had been removed and the parish council had provided fencing to enclose the site, Root Collecting Day was held when HAA members carried out a ‘forensic sweep’ to remove the last traces of apple production. Fifty-two plots were subsequently marked out and allotmenteers took possession the following month. All-important water tanks were also installed at key points on the site. In the summer, there was an official opening on a gloriously sunny day with allotment-holders, parish councillors, the NSALG, a barbecue and a barrel of cider all present.
Plots are rented from the parish council at a cost of £25 a year, with some allotmenteers renting double plots. The site was fully occupied for the first growing season; a lot of digging was taking place but everybody got some food out of the ground. According to the NSALG, 30% of new allotment-holders give in after the first year; at Herstmonceux, only one person hung up their trowel. Two years on, some double plot-holders have downsized to single plots but the site is still fully occupied and there is a waiting list.
Although the parish council manages the site, the HAA takes responsibility on the ground. The site needs to be tidy and plots need to be within the terms of tenancy agreements. But it’s not all about regulation: there is an Apple Day every October where members pick juice apples elsewhere on the fruit farm to raise funds for the HAA and the barbecue and cider barrel appear again. Membership of the HAA is not compulsory for plot-holders but £5 a year provides discounts with local nurseries and seed merchants and involvement in the way the site is run.
What is most impressive about the Herstmonceux allotments is the sense of togetherness. There are no competitions to intimidate you over the size of your carrots and cucumbers. And the variety is incredible, in terms of people, plots and produce: mature, experienced growers to young families and everyone in between; symmetrical order to ramshackle chaos; spuds to salsify and onions to okra.
An allotment requires a bit of hard work, though. When I was there one freezing cold Sunday morning in late February, there were quite a few hardy souls bent to the soil, like peasants on the Russian steppes, in a chill east wind; but such dedicated preparation brings rewards in abundance later on. So, if you wish you had an allotment but there is not even a site where you live, don’t be put off. It might take a bit of time but remember: growing veg is not just a one-off, it’s for life.

Near Pavilions

Built in the first half of the twentieth century, reclaimed from physical decline at the start of the twenty-first and providing independent entertainment in an inspiring setting today. That opening sentence perfectly describes both the Hailsham and De La Warr Pavilions: two venues, 10 miles apart in East Sussex, that are worth visiting for the buildings, let alone the high standard of art, live music and film they make locally available.

The Hailsham Pavilion was built as a cinema in 1921 and opened with a packed performance of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’. It was a cinema until 1965, when it began twenty dismal bingo years that were ended with purchase by developers (oh, how very 1980s) who left the building empty and decaying. Rescued by determined campaigners and councillors, it reopened as a cinema in 2000. Ninety years on from that Chaplin picture, it is a joy to watch a film here today.
The elaborate classical fa├žade gives way to a plush, warm interior that transports you back to the days of the music hall and the picture palace. Staffed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers, the 200-seat capacity is small enough to be intimate but large enough to provide the communal experience very often missing in the ‘viewing booths’ that good films are relegated to in multi-screen cinemas. New releases are a couple of weeks behind the greedy, soulless multiplexes but with cheaper seats and better ethics and aesthetics, this local independent cinema is the one to support.
Its regular music performances have made the Hailsham Pavilion something of a staple of the folk music diet. Folk royalty such as Peggy Seeger, Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy have performed in recent years, as have the Oysterband and Fairport Convention; and Sussex legends the Copper family gave a memorable performance in the run-up to last Christmas that left me warm, festive and fuzzy.

The De La Warr (pronounced Delaware) Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea was built in 1935 to a design by leading modernist architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. Commissioned by Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr and socialist Mayor of Bexhill (sounds very incongruous), the building is a stunning beacon of sweeping art deco lines and industrial concrete, steel and glass. A major regeneration project in 2005 rescued the building from neglect and inappropriate alterations and established it as a contemporary arts centre.
The large gallery spaces have attracted exhibitions by high profile artists such as Grayson Perry, Joseph Beuys and Anthony Gormley, as well as lesser lights and emerging talents. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair’s 2009 film installation was a particular highlight: a 12-screen musing on another south coast slice of art deco 5 miles east along the coast at St. Leonards, ‘Marine Court Rendezvous’ was a dream-like surveillance of life in a modernist behemoth.
The highlight of the De La Warr though, is the 1,000+ capacity performance space that is increasingly attracting popular and/or leftfield musical acts. I have been to excellent gigs by Band of Horses, Richard Hawley and The Fall (twice) here; what makes it so good is the sound and size of the auditorium and also the enthusiastic response of the performers and the audience to the quality of the venue. Any venue that brings the mighty Fall to my doorstep must be good; for Mark E. Smith to come back, it must be incredible. Don’t go to gigs in Brighton or London, just go here.

Rural Rebellion

It is a late summer afternoon, the dog days of August; I am cycling up to Cade Street to pay homage at the monument to Jack Cade. It is a windless day and the earth is baking beneath a raging sun. I have half a mind to turn back; my water is already low and I still have the steepness of the road after Marklye. I fleetingly consider Flitterbrook Lane - a more graduated climb – but stay with my course. When I begin the steep climb, I know I have chosen wisely. The trees forming a dense canopy over the road, the sunlight penetrates only enough for the lightest dappling; and, of course, the air is cool. Halfway up, the canopy becomes sparser, so before I emerge into the heat again, I dismount and drag the bike up onto the bank. I sit in the shade and look back down the tunnel of trees, as occasional stray vehicles materialise, camouflaged by sun and shade, to disturb the drowsy, hazy hum of the afternoon. They don’t see me, in the hazel and blackthorn; Jack Cade should have hidden here. Cade had raised a rebel army that attacked London and the reign of Henry VI; double-crossed by the King, his fatal wounding as a fugitive near Heathfield inspired the revolts of Sussex men. The monument, looking down from the Weald to the sea, stands as a reminder: the city is the seat of authority, the rural landscape is where the spirit of rebellion resides.

Now Grow Some Food

When ‘Sideburns’ fanzine famously drew three guitar chords and then exhorted their readers to “now form a band”, they were part of a mindset that launched a movement that saw music made independently. It might not have overthrown the music industry but it did make many realise that you don’t have to accept what big business offers, you can do it yourself. I’m not going to claim that growing vegetables is the new rock ‘n’ roll, but it is the most punk thing that I do these days. Rejecting the food industry and doing it yourself is a radical act.
If my Dad was alive today and came to our house, he would think rationing had returned. Our small back garden has a modest vegetable patch brimming with beans, courgettes, lettuces and radishes. The greenhouse squashed into one corner houses tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. In the small chicken run in the other corner, three hens peck around in the dirt. If I took him up to our allotment, he would see more beans, peas, rows of potatoes and onions, cabbages and cauliflowers, carrots, turnips, parsnips, swedes and sweet corn (I should really stop now because even I’m bored but I can’t leave out the marrows, squashes, pumpkins, artichokes and fennel). By the time we got back home to the smell of baking bread he would be convinced it was life during wartime.
When I was young, I tired of my dad’s stories of how the back garden of his 1930s and 40s south London terrace where he grew up was an arcadia of fruit and veg for the table and chickens for eggs and/or the pot. I tired of his tales of resourcefulness and thrift, how nothing was wasted and everything was re-used. And now? And now I take it all back.
We don’t do all this as some sort of nostalgia trip, a nod to my dad’s generation that they were right. We do all this because we want to and we need to: our family wants to eat well and healthily, but we need to because we can’t afford to do that if we don’t grow some good food ourselves. We could buy the cheapest supermarket food but that would be a false economy: ‘value’ food is the lowest quality. We eat what is available from our own production and we buy fruit and veg from local honesty tables or farm shops – that is real value food – before we resort to supermarkets. We don’t claim to be holier than thou or self sufficient; we just want to do this for ourselves. We want to take some responsibility for how we live, and live in a way that has a low impact.
I have also gone back to my dad’s model of resourcefulness. If there is any uneaten food, it becomes another meal or the dog/cat/ chickens will get a look in; food never gets thrown away. And we throw away little else to landfill: if it can’t be recycled or passed on, it can be re-used. If there isn’t an obvious use for it immediately, it can stay in the shed until a use makes itself apparent. Bits of old fencing become a wood store roof; an old vacuum cleaner becomes a scarecrow (you have to imagine).
Before we got an allotment from the Herstmonceux Allotment Association we devoted more space in our garden to veg. That still wasn’t enough for our needs, so we were considering renting part of a relative’s garden to cultivate for vegetables. I still think this is a good idea if you don’t have space or an allotment. Getting the allotment meant that we could then use some space at home to keep chickens.
Over the last few years we have learnt quite a bit about growing fruit and veg, mostly from talking to the more experienced allotmenteers. We still make mistakes but these things, if a little obvious, might be worth passing on:
• If space is limited, grow the veg that is more expensive to buy
• Grow from seed where possible – we buy brassica and squash plants though, because we have not had much luck with these from seed.
• Don’t buy plants from chain stores; go to independents like Flowers Green in Herstmonceux or Wallace Plants in Laughton – cheaper and better.
• Dig well before planting.
• Water sparingly – plants get used to lots of water and it can become laborious.
• Don’t be suckered into buying loads of useless and expensive accessories. Even growing your own is becoming commodified – you can buy a nice seed chest for £40(!) in one chain.
• Enjoy it!