Gromit hunting!

A couple of summers ago, Bristol gave us an amazing gift: Gromits all over the city, and beyond. If you don’t know who Wallace and Gromit are, please google them now; you’re missing out. Aardman Animations is based here in Bristol, and they agreed to using Gromit’s image in statue form – 80 of the large ones, and many half sized. Gromits were painted by artists, musicians, writers, charity groups, and beyond.

We spent much of that summer clutching maps in our hand, hiking around to find different Gromits.

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Gromit hunting led us to explore places we’d never been before – and to appreciate ones we had.

We marched around the city centre in swimming costumes after finding many Gromits and playing in the fountains. And then we found a suitably themed one in the aquarium!

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We were thrilled to find a ‘mystery’ Gromit in a well established, quirky market (that sells nut free vegan chocolate cake! Hurrah!)

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We got to board a boat we’ve admired many times from shore.

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While we had a fun and colourful summer looking for these amazing statues, they served an even more astonishing purpose: every person involved in the project did so with the knowledge that at the end of the summer, the statues would be auctioned to raise money for our local Children’s Hospital.

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Each Gromit sold for unbelievable sums of money – some over fifty thousand British pounds. These eighty sales, plus sales of half sized Gromits and assorted memorabilia, raised millions for the hospital. We have personal links to the hospital, and know firsthand how wonderful it is. The outpatients waiting room is one giant play area! Downstairs features an art gallery of things made by patients. They have dedicated play workers who bring joy and light into little lives.

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We spent that summer dancing in the front hall of a music venue to the jazz music built into one Gromit. We were lucky enough to have my parents visiting and get to see some Gromits with us – including a very early morning viewing of the one in the airport, before we flew to Italy. We met people we wouldn’t have met otherwise.

We watched YouTube videos on the project, including movies on individual statues being painted. We visited Aardman Animations to peek at all the mini replicated Gromits. We waited five hours in a queue to visit all eighty Gromits in a grand museum exhibition at the end of the summer. We printed many copies of Gromit outlines and coloured our own designs. We even painted our own:

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All in all, it was one of the best summer experiences of my life.

We get to do it all again this year, with another Aardman character: Shaun the Sheep. We got our map of locations last night, and I can’t wait for another summer of sunset visits to huge old parks, people walking all over the city with huge smiles on their faces, and the thrill of seeing giant colourful sheep everywhere we go! Best of all, the money raised this summer goes to Children’s Hospitals around the country.

If you live near Bristol, I cannot recommend coming to hunt down a few of these statues enough. We’ve not yet got around to making a huge picture collage to commemorate our summer of Gromit hunting, but I know the memories will stick around, anyway.

Brave and free.

I was born in America, land of the free, home of the brave.

Fifteen years ago is when I realized I wasn’t free. I packed a few bags, boarded a plane, and moved across the globe to be with the woman I loved. It was bittersweet. I left behind my family, my friends, my career, my home. I stepped into the unknown – except it wasn’t unknown. It was my wife.

We both wanted to live in America, but there wasn’t a way for me to bring her there as my wife or partner. Even that long ago, the UK had just passed provision to allow me to apply for a same sex partner visa, after my initial two years living with Suzy while I completed a graduate degree. I couldn’t bring her to my home, and actually, the fact that she loved me could bar her entry from the very place I’d always thought was so progressive and powerful.

This is the face of who marriage equality protects:

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You can barely see me. I’m the one with glasses, the one who came out as queer at nineteen to her mother. The one who was told she’d go to hell, was told how abnormal she was, who grew up with a legacy of fag jokes and classmates who played Smear the Queer. I’m not dangerous. I love reading, I’m quite gregarious, I laugh a lot, I love my family.

You see my wife? She’s the one with tears in her eyes, as she holds one of our newborn children almost six years ago. She’s smart and creative, she has a beautiful singing voice. She works hard to help young people with additional challenges blossom, believe in themselves, and achieve. She doesn’t earn much money, but she loves her job and she recognizes how important it is to fight for people who sometimes can’t fight for themselves.

One of those babies is now a small boy. He does martial arts with painted nails. He is rough and tumble, he is sensitive, kind hearted, and gifted with a talent for befriending people. He exudes an easy confidence and is joyful. He’s a storyteller and a comedian.

The other baby is now a small girl. She’s musical, she’s a perfectionist. She’s funny and dramatic and strong. She is very athletic, she has a fierce love for her friends, she is learning to ride her bike without stabilizers. She has a small Bunny she loves deeply.

This is our family. We try each day the best we can to love each other, to appreciate ordinary life. To my kids, this is their normal life. We are lucky enough to be blessed with friends, children and adult, from all walks of life – including various religions who may have traditionally been against same sex couples. My children have never experienced anything but respect and friendship from the wonderful community here in Bristol.

To live freely and safely, I’ve had to be brave and leave one life behind, rebuilding another.

Because of the ruling today in America, marriage equality becomes a federal fact. Now millions of children won’t have to grow up and be forced to become an immigrant if they happen to fall in love with someone from another country. Same sex parents will be able to jointly adopt their children. Spouses can visit their lifelong loves in hospital. Insurance companies will have to recognize and include families like mine.

I’ve been crying on and off all afternoon. When I told M about the ruling on marriage equality, he threw his arms into the air and shouted, ‘Woohoo!’ When I told S, she gave me a look of disdain and said, ‘They already had that in England.’

What a marvel to have children who see marriage equality both as a given, and as a joyful thing to celebrate. What a wonder for them to have all the opportunities in the future to live such an ordinary, happy life as the one I’ve fought for.

Marriage equality strengthens individuals, couples, families. It gives us all a chance to recognize how beautiful the ordinary is and will continue to be, to finally be free and happy without having to be quite so brave.

At her own pace.

When S was a baby, she spent most of her time upside down. I think even before she was rolling – or if she was rolling, it was only to flip herself onto her back. She got around by arching her back. The only things touching the floor were the top of her head and the bottoms of her feet. She’d do this mega arch and push herself around like an upside down caterpillar.

I can’t find pics of her doing it, though I’ve got a killer video of her moving across the whole lounge, but here’s a similarly themed pic from the same era:

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Around the time of her first birthday, before she was walking, she taught herself to do a neat little flip. I accidentally called it a forward roll the other day, and she haughtily gave me a demo of a flip versus a forward roll. We knew this was a kid who would probably adore gymnastics.

I think she’d just turned three when we took her to a local(ish) gym. It. Was. Amazing. It has everything from toddler classes to training elite athletes who compete (and win) international elite competitions. One of the young people there at the moment will probably be in the next Olympics. I say all this to contrast it with my childhood experiences of gym – namely a dusty mat spread on the floor of a school hall. S and M’s gym has all the actual apparatus. They are training on the same stuff the elite adult athletes use.

It is like the world’s biggest, most best, most dangerous soft play.

After about a year in the toddler classes (and a broken arm suffered at the hands of a giant hanging rope), I mentioned the ‘big kid classes.’ Namely, the after school classes adults are not allowed to accompany children to. She went CRAZY. Insisted she would not do it.

I was confused, as this was a child who happily jumped into an eight foot pit onto a mattress without blinking. She loved the full height balance beam.

Silly me. It wasn’t about her actual athletic ability; it was about her feeling secure and confident. And those are the most important things, despite my crazy urges to push her into the older classes. I held myself back and she did another year in the toddler and parent classes. Late last autumn, she started the big kid classes. It was when she wanted to do it, and M signed up with her. A couple of months later, their best friend also joined in.

It’s been interesting. While adults aren’t allowed in the gym any longer, we are allowed to cram into a small room with smaller windows that overlooks the gym. Every week my friend and I watch S. She GRABS M and their friend and does not let go. During warm ups, if she finds herself slightly moved from their side during stretches, she quickly scootches back. When they sit on the side and get put into smaller groups, she clutches their hands and none of them volunteer, so they can all be together in the last group.

A couple of months ago M asked to do a second class of martial arts. I asked S if she wanted to, and she said she wanted a second gym class. It was established that she’d be doing it without her brother or friend, and was she really sure? She shrugged and said, ‘Yep.’

Yesterday was the first class with her flying solo. I think I was more nervous than she was. Because more than her continuing to develop her gymnastics, this class had her confidence in the palm of its hands. If she went up, I knew she’d be fine. If she didn’t, I thought it would put her off any future solo things. She said she was scared, she didn’t want to do it. But when the coach came down and announced it was time to go up, she ran and joined the group without looking back.

And she volunteered (and was selected!) to be the group leader of the first group.

She chatted a lot with the boy in her group, and afterward pragmatically said that while she’d made a friend, they might be in different groups next week. She was really proud and happy.

So was I.

What would have happened if I’d pushed her when she wasn’t ready? Made her leave her safety and forced her to do a class she would probably grow to fear and dislike?

I don’t know. But now she’s learned she can do this. She’s had the opportunity to choose when she was ready, and have this huge accomplishment of training with thirty nine strangers. And being so confident and strong she was the leader.

All those things aside, I think I’ve learned a lot more than she has. This morning over breakfast when she announced she was going to be a gymnastic Olympian, I didn’t start planning how to make that happen. I smiled at her, we kept eating, and it was simple. We are who we are, we are who and what we choose to be and do, and this upside down baby of my heart can do anything she pleases. I just want her to be happy.

Rules for life…I mean, the treasure hunt.

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This morning M brought me paper and a marker. He wanted me to write rules for a treasure hunt. Now, I like a nice metaphor. I didn’t elect to start a PhD in a weirdly specialised area of English Literature for no reason, folks. But two items in on his list of rules, and it seemed to be jumping off the page. Look…

1. Have fun and learn.

That’s hopefully what we are doing, all the time. It doesn’t matter the hour of the day or the location of our bodies, we are exploring and playing and learning.

2. It’s not about racing and getting the most treasures.

AMEN. It’s not about that, not at all. Everyone develops at their own pace. Everyone considers different things a treasure. There is enough to go around.

3. Some treasure will hide super good.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where your heart lies. Sometimes even once you figure it out, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to achieve. That’s okay. It’s just hiding…super good.

4. After you get all the treasure (chocolate coins), eat it.

Accomplishments are to be celebrated with joy. No use in searching for that treasure then just reburying it. It needs to be integrated into who you are, enjoyed, and then perhaps shared with the world.

5. Hope you have great fun and come back again and again. Treasure is always out!

There is always more treasure available. New levels of treasure on old themes, or even totally new stuff. You normally like diamonds, fine. Excellent. But look! You can like emeralds, too. You can expand and change your mind, and maybe even branch into rubies. You can find treasures most anywhere, and it’s always worth looking.

Because, really, it’s great fun.

I love that little guy. Such a kind hearted, wise person.

Best of (the areas surrounding) Bristol! Jet Age museum, Gloucester.

We’ve been talking a lot about World War 2 recently, mainly sparked by M’s interest in fighter jets. I asked on our local Facebook home ed group about places to go see jets, and Jet Age Museum was recommended by a few people. It is only open weekends and bank holidays, though it apparently will open for booked visits of home ed groups during the week! Admission and parking are both free.

It’s worth mentioning that this place is right next to an airport – the sort of airport with loads of small planes and helicopters constantly taking off and landing. We accidentally found the airport first and hung out there for a few minutes, which was one of the happiest mistakes we’ve made in awhile!

Parking at Jet Age also borders airport fields, albeit from a bit further away. There’s a nice vantage point and picnic tables!

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This is another smallish museum…though it’s worth noting it’s only a ten minute drive from Gloucester City Museum!

It features old jet planes….mostly indoors, but a few outdoors. A couple of the cockpits are open for children to sit in – and it’s here I must say that half of the charm of this place are the volunteers running it. They are on hand to discuss each jet in detail…and in our case, to tease the kids about backwards helmets, provide a hunt for letters, give out fantastic posters, etc. Just so friendly and knowledgeable, which might really appeal to someone with an older child very into old fighter jets.

The highlight (which sadly I missed, as I can’t climb ladders!) was Suzy and the kids going up for a tour of a Vulcan – a 28 foot climb from ground to cockpit. They sat in the various seats of the five in the plane, learned what job corresponded to each seat, and spent a good ten or fifteen minutes exploring the cockpit in detail. As such, there was a bit of a wait for this – and a minimum height restriction. Both kids and Suzy adored it.

All in all, I’d recommend this place. But if you have an hour drive to get there, do google other local things as I don’t think you could spend more than a couple of hours here. (Unless you went to the little on site cafe, which we didn’t on this occasion.) I’d also recommend a donation….this place is a local labour of love, and I like supporting that.

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Best of (the areas surrounding) Bristol – Gloucester Museums times three!

We’ve been away from blogging for awhile – namely because we are saving money to buy a proper desktop, and until that thing enters our lives, typing with two fingers on an iPad mini leaves a bit to be desired!

In the last couple of weeks, though, we’ve been to some new to us localish places….all of which were so good, I wanted to share in case other local families might want to visit.

First up, Gloucester! There is a LOT there.

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We first visited Gloucester City Museum, which was a small yet fabulous museum. It also has the best ever gift shop – good stuff for very reasonable prices…and a gorgeous cafe in situ. The museum is largely focused on the Romans. There’s access to see part of the real Roman wall surrounding the area (you can see more in the pedestrianised high street), a Roman kitchen, Roman coins, etc.

There’s a photography exhibition on the second floor with some excellent pictures from around the world, a smallish dinosaur area with skeletons (and ore, if your kid likes Minecraft!) and play dinosaurs. There’s a toddler play area with a few soft toys, as well as the star attraction – this tiny wall thing with windows. Kids shine torches in to see what sorts of animals prowl on the night, and it makes scary ass noises. This was a major hit with our little group, comprised of 2-7 year olds.

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It also had an exhibition of ‘caveman art’ made by local children. I only mention this as S recently made a spectacular piece of similar art in her pottery class very recently, and she was concerned the museum would want it.

Now, this museum is fab but the day only entrance price isn’t great. We ended up paying £14 for a two adult, five children year membership to this museum and Gloucester folk museum, which was more than fair!

The folk museum is crammed with trails your kids can do – worksheets covering various areas of the museum. S did the ground floor one, which involved drawing a cow, and writing the answers to some questions based on exhibits. M chose to complete a spot the difference on old fashioned motorbikes one once he realised a cool, free button for his backpack was the reward. This museum was great. Again, small, but fun. Bits on the war, loads and loads of brass plate rubbings to do, local Gloucester stuff largely revolving around a taxidermy cow (I jest not!), etc. Lots of little exhibits of particular interest – swords, old dress, a retro kitchen, etc.

The real draw here was the back garden, which had an unobtrusive little shed filled with ye olde fashioned children’s toys. We were in the garden for over an hour playing with steel hoops, skittles, hobby horses, etc. There was also an Anderson bomb shelter, weirdly enchanting owl statues, and little nooks filled with benches for the worn out adults to rest on. Ha.

The other museum, situated between the two mentioned above and down the most painfully picturesque alley was the Beatrix Potter shop and museum – shop downstairs, museum upstairs. The staff were super friendly; the museum, really consisting only of one small room, but full of stuff Beatrix Potter fans would like to see – old books, figurines, memorabilia, etc.

Next time we want to visit the Cathedral, and perhaps some crystal shops….there were a few dotted around, and to be honest, I’d love to have a little adult only time in some of the more esoteric shops. The whole city was much nicer than I anticipated – and even when mentally beating my sat nav up as it tried to force me to drive across bridges cars were not allowed on, we ended up at the docks as our turnaround spot and got a fantastic look at all kinds of large boats.

Gloucester is definitely a place we will return to!