Category Archives: DIY

So we threw a street party (how to meet your neighbours)


I got an email last week to this effect: it’s all very well you rabbiting on about how getting to know your local community is key to recycling clothes and toys and doing without classes and playgroups and blah blah blah but in God’s name HOW???? (Only it was a really very polite email and not worded like that at all)

She (the woman writing far more politely than the above) had broken into the habit of using local facebook groups and parenting sites to swap stuff. She was doing everything right but she hadn’t really made any friends that way. None that she could sink half a bottle of red with while the kids drew in felt-tip on the walls and tried to ram bits of lego up each others’ noses. Which is sort of the whole point of the Free our Kids exercise, and how I spend most of my later afternoons these days (joking… half joking…)


Anyway it got me thinking. And I realised I never wrote about the best thing we ever did, which (when you put it like that) seems like a bit of an oversight. I haven’t yet written about the time we threw the street party.

It went like this: we live on a street where a hundred different languages are spoken, a hundred different religions practiced, a hundred different ways of life and sets of values are going on behind closed doors. It’s the archetypal city street: a handful of East Enders who’ve lived here since the beginning of time, remembering when horses pulled carts up and down the street and the road surface was loose; some middle class ‘early adopters’ of the area, preying fervently for the fabled regeneration to arrive and bring flat whites and artisan breads to the front line; eastern european migrants working so hard they’re barely home long enough to turn the key in the front door; immigrants from further afield, sending money to beloved relatives in far flung lands and housing a dozen nephews in the spare room… We live next to each other, but not with each other. In the same community but not of the same community. We sleep separated by thin walls but don’t know each others names. Or that’s how it was, anyway.


A couple of months ago, we got a few houses together and decided to lobby the council to let us close the street. The plan was pretty unambitious. We’d shut the street to traffic for two hours so that kids could play, out, in their own neighbourhood for the first time in decades. We didn’t hold out much hope. We thought maybe a dozen people would show. We’d make a couple of cakes, meet a couple of people. Start small.

So we filled out the forms, printed out some posters and stuck flyers through everyone’s front door, explaining what it was about and inviting them to make a cake, or something, if they wanted to. On the morning, we swept the road of cigarettes, beer bottles and fried chicken boxes. Big, red, ‘ROAD AHEAD CLOSED’ signs arrived. And then we waited.


Two hundred people came. With cakes, samosas, thermoses of tea and coffee, boxes of chocolates and baclava. They brought chalk, bicycles, space hoppers and scooters. The council brought a ping pong table. Two boys who were playing realised they’d lived almost next door to one another for five years. It was the first time they’d met.

We met more of our neighbours in those two hours than we had in the three years preceding it. And it turned out that we’re not different at all. We all wanted somewhere nice for our kids to play, for free, without fear and surrounded by familiar faces. Now we just need to make it a regular thing…


[We got all the info we needed on how to set the party up here - - It's a BRILLIANT website, go and see!]


Confessions and pleas (please!)


I realise I haven’t said much about my ‘free pass’ purchases this year. I’ve been thinking about writing about them, honestly I have. I just can’t find a way to do it because… well because they’re so, appallingly, mind-numbingly DULL.

If you remember (or not, it’s cool if you don’t have every single post etched onto your subconscious, I won’t hold it against you, really, not much) at the beginning of this year I was looking for a way to extend the ‘No Spend’ project into another year and update it – make it a bit shiny and new, and also make it a bit less scary, a bit more friendly, a bit more ‘this project won’t bite, honest’ but mostly, a bit more sustainable and practical for our future as a family.

A number of you suggested that I should allow myself a few ‘free pass’ purchases a year and so The New Rule was written up – 12 purchases allowed this year (6 per kid, for those of you for whom maths is not your strong suit or who have yet to have their morning coffee). Six of these can be new, but six have to be second hand and from either a charity shop or bought direct from another family so I know the cash is going to a good place.

So here we are in April. Four purchases down. And I’m ready for the big reveal. Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, so far this year our glamorous shopping opportunities have extended to:

January: a pants and socks set for Johnny (new)

February: a MASSIVE pack of size three nappies (new)

March: The uniform J needed for his new pre-school (new)

April: A very tatty old rocking horse (second-hand)

I’M SORRY. Really I am. I tried to be more exciting. But the reality is, these are the kinds of things that were a massive pain in the backside last year. From experience I feel qualified to tell you that you do NOT want to spend hours scrolling through Facebook forums and Freecycle groups begging for toddlers’ underwear. It makes you look, well… odd. And when you know you could pop down to Tesco instead, spend a fiver, and be home in time for Under the Hammer and a bourbon biscuit, it’s less rewarding than, say, using a plant pot to catch a child’s sick (yep, I’ve done this, and yep, I realised too late that it had massive holes in the bottom).

So after a year of the above, it was actually, sadly thrilling to stick some pants and socks on the online supermarket order. Does that make sense?


Oh and the uniform: well, there’s no decent story there. We needed it. That’s all. J started a new nursery and though getting it second-hand was totally doable, it was quite nice to be able to hand over some cash for it and tick it promptly off the long list of boring bureaucracy rather than cobble it slowly and painfully together for free. Oh, and look: here he is on first day. We hid Fireman Sam* secretly in his pocket in case he needed a brave sidekick to help him out with an attack of the wobbles midway through the day.


The rocking horse IS cool though, see?


It’s quite little, perfect for a small toddler, and I bought it off a local mum for a bargain five pounds. I’ve totally got into the swing of swapping instead of handing over cash. And mostly, it’s great. At the start of last year, I was a little intimidated and scared of asking strangers on online selling forums whether they minded taking a cake or a home-made ready meal or some jam instead of cash. I don’t know why but… perhaps it’s just not very British. We don’t really do that, do we? Talk about money or stand out from the crowd and expose ourselves like that in public… I guess I also didn’t want to put pressure on anyone, does that sound silly?

Well, anyway, it proved an empty concern. Because 9 times out of 10, people were thrilled, really thrilled, to get a cake or a wholesome meal for their family when they themselves are so busy. And I really enjoyed putting thought and care into cooking something for a stranger. It was a strange thing. Almost intimate, yet usually for someone I’d never met before.

BUT… I did the maths last night and I think, over the course of a year and a bit, I’ve baked 21 cakes, cooked 9 shepherds pies and handed over 12 jars of homemade jam in exchange for kids’ bits and bobs. And trust me, somewhere around your 18th cook-up, baking fatigue sets in HARD. So handing over some cash for once was an absolute joy. I’m not done with baking swaps, not at all, but now and again… phew.

It’s hiding in the car boot because I’m planning to give it a little TLC and jazz it up before giving it to Frida for Christmas (pimp my ride?) It needs some new dowling for its crossbar and, I think, a little colour. Maybe some bright ribbon in its mane? Any ideas?

Last but not least… the nappies. Since our free trial of the reusable nappy laundry service ended, I’ve been really happy using (and washing) our own reusables every day, all day. At the beginning of 2013 I would never, ever, have imagined myself saying that.

Instead of wipes, I mostly use the same cotton wool pads I use on my face (not EXACTLY the same ones! Eurghhh… Just out of the same packet…)

But one last hurdle remains: nights. I’ve yet to man-up to using cloth nappies at night. She needs changing every three hours (roughly) during the day. Surely she’d never make it through the night in them? And I just cannot bear the thought of going back to those dark (in all senses) nights of multiple wakings. So we’ve been using one disposable every 24 hours, to get her through. Am I being a (wee) weed? Are there nappies that would see her through the night? Really?

So. Eight months to go. Three new purchases and five second-hand ones left. Bet you’re holding your breath with excitement.

*Sam comes from a sticker book J got as a gift from his grandparents on his birthday…

How to have a free Easter (if you have BAGS of time)


I’m not going to do it. Tempting as it might be. I could just leave these pictures to speak for themselves and if I did, what would they say? Something like, “What, these old Easter celebrations? I just flung them together, no big deal, with a baby on my hip, because grace and ease just come naturally to me, you see. My baby? She’s one of those self-cleaning, silent ones. My toddler? Just likes to entertain himself – quietly, in an educational and mess-free manner – while I get on with the crafting that just flows from my creative mind out into the world like raindrops on rose and whiskers on kittens…”

There are quite a few parenting blogs like that, aren’t there? Mostly American, mind. At best they make me feel a bit deflated, at worst pretty stabby. You?

Anyway, setting aside the question of whether their lives are really like that or whether these women are surfing on a wave of prozac and temazepan or whether it’s all a complete fantasy - it should be obvious by now that graceful ease is just… not me.

So instead, this blog post comes with a big health warning: if you do not have a week off, with lots of extra people to grapple with the baby and the toddler for you, and a father-in-law with superhuman powers of patience and helpfulness, and at least two nieces on hand who are more creative and sensible than you and remember things like the need to boil the egg shells in order to avoid giving all the children salmonella… If you DON’T have those things then DO NOT, whatever you do, attempt to blow ten chicken eggs and five quail eggs, paint them in different designs, varnish them, fill them with sherbet and sweets and then plug them with a chocolate stopper. And then, DEFINITELY do not use any remaining downtime to construct one Spring Crown from chicken wire and seasonal blossom and  then another from card and staples. Just step away from the kitchen, get in the car, drive to the garage and buy some mini eggs. Believe me, £4.99 is a small price to pay for your sanity, marriage and the preservation of all your kitchen utensils.

If the above DOES apply to you, however, then read on. You’ll find you actually get a weird kick out of it. And the kick will hang about for way longer than the sugar rush from a petrol station easter egg. And it’ll turn out to be a better use of your time than most of the things you usually do (even the marathon reruns of Grand Designs).





photo 2

Funnelling sherbet and little sweets into the blown, painted eggs, after knocking a sizeable hole in their tops. After this, we melted some milk chocolate to a thickish consistency and blobbed it over the top of the holes before sticking them into the fridge so the chocolate solidified and plugged the hole.


Start of the egg hunt…


Following the daffs…


Woah! The chickens laid a golden egg!



Hidden dragons eggs (sherbet-filled quail eggs covered in colourful glitter)




Egg folk having a chat in the shrubbery (get the Mr Printables free template here)


Found you!


… then cracked you in half and ate you.


And the final crown…


For an easter breakfast.

That’s all folks! Except for one final thought…

We bought the sweets and sherbet. The eggs were free, but only because we were staying with the in-laws and they have their own chickens. If we’d had to buy those, and buy in new paints for the eggs too, would this really have been any cheaper than buying ordinary easter eggs? Honestly, I think probably not. But it was nice, either way, that the eggs didn’t come branded with some famous cartoon character. It was a welcome respite from a world COMPLETELY dominated by Fireman Sam (yup, the obsession endures…) And I got some real satisfaction from doing it. I’m still a long way from a Domestic Goddess, but I’m beginning to see the appeal. In small doses. And thankfully, Easter only comes once a year….

7 free ways to stop strops and save your sanity on car journeys


You know those lists about the most traumatic events in life? Moving house, death divorce… With every passing public holiday it is becoming increasingly clear to me that whoever wrote them has never travelled in a car with kids for more than two hours on a bank holiday.

This year (and, who am I kidding, probably every year henceforth until they leave home/we win the lottery/we find a way to monetise them that doesn’t involve having to give birth twice more for the sole purpose of creating the world’s shortest and creepiest barbershop quartet) we’ll be holidaying in the UK. To Norfolk and the parents-in-law for Easter, to a friend’s aunt’s place in Devon in the summer.

So the news that 96% of parents have at some point been unable to concentrate on the job in hand – i.e driving, actually keeping everyone on the road and, crucially, alive – because of the noise their kids are making doesn’t surprise me. The figure comes from a survey by called Driven to Distraction. And while I admire their optimistic attempt to pun their way out of a sombre situation, if you’re likely to spend every holiday for the next eighteen years staring at a bumper sticker somewhere on the M25, it’s not the sort of reading that leaves you whistling ‘we’re all going on a summer holiday’.

They are at least decent enough to leave you with some strategies for tackling the worst offenders – take regular breaks to avoid car sickness, or take handheld devices away from the particularly puke-prone child as they exacerbate motion sickness.

And, apparently, handing kids a tablet computer or handheld device is now almost twice as popular as the old-time car classic I Spy. I know, I know. Uggg. But desperate times call for desperate measures and I’m not averse to using iPad hypnosis in moments of need. There are some good apps for toddlers that you can download for free, too.

I’ve been thinking, though, of other free ways to distract kids in cars. So here, in time for Easter, are my favourites. Tried and tested by the shortest attention span ever held by a three year old.

Scavenger hunt – draw (or steal from google images) pictures of things your kids are likely to be able to spot out of the car window (pylons, articulated lorries, petrol stations, tail backs, AA vehicles… the beautiful scenery that characteristically marks the great British car journey) Put these images onto one sheet of paper for them to tick off as they spot them. The first to tick off all the objects is the winner.

Snacks – these are, of course, essential. But not just any snacks. Pick ones with as little capability as possible to smear, crumble or leave sticky residue. Otherwise your car seat will look like a crime scene for the rest of time.

Avoid the croissant like the plague. The humble carrot stick is your friend, or homemade popcorn. We also make smoothies and stick them in some REVOLUTIONARY reusable ‘ella’s kitchen’ style pouches that we were sent a month or so back (more on this later).

Don’t, whatever you do, present them all at once. Hold them back and whip them out triumphantly one by one as each desperate moment arises.

Drinks – non-spill cups. Not too much sugar – EXTREEEEEEMELY watered down juice if your kid insists he is “too grown up” for water (ahem…) And not too much of ANYTHING if your next service station is over an hour away.

DIY story tapes - when Johnny turned three we got his nearest and dearest to record themselves reading their favourite children’s stories. The CD we put them onto is now a firm car-journey favourite. But for future, particularly tortuous-looking journeys, I’m going to make new ones and simply record them on the voice memo app on my phone.

The cloud game - what shapes can you spot in the sky? Warning: this game has the tendency to get Freudian with cloud-objects becoming increasingly murderous in direct correlation with the length of time spent in a cramped car with your family. On previous journeys of 3 hours and more we have spotted axes, tanks and swords.

Shoebox surprises - the trouble with kids is they simply cannot be trusted not to drop things. And the thing about a) car seats and b) motorway driving and c) cars in general and d) the pitch of toddlers voices is that a) make it impossible for kids to reach the stuff dropped into the inconceivably tiny crevices of c) while b) means you really shouldn’t  help but d) means you’ll probably try nonetheless otherwise you will go crazy at the wheel.

Solution? Take the lid off a shoebox and draw a dolls house/small town/racing track/whatever-landscape your-kid’s-into on the inside. Then supply relevant small toys (mini cars, mini people…) from the kids’ collections at home. The toys are played with inside the box. No spillages. Fewer nervous breakdowns from everyone.

My favourite tactic, though, is sill this, from mumsnet’s advice on travelling with kids:

“Pack EVERYTHING a week before, then get the whole family in the car and set off. At the first argument (around 1 mile away), say to them all ‘Right, if that’s how you’re going to behave, we’re not going.’ Then drive home and unpack!” – StarlightMcKenzie
Any more ideas would be tremendously gratefully received. Especially if they come before Easter. Got any? PLEASE? Thank you…
Thanks very much!