Corona-diary 1: Miss Honey and the biscuit experiment

Do we all remember the world’s loveliest teacher, Miss Honey? A compassionate, nurturing educator who never raised her voice and was loved by every child in her care. She was the perfect foil to Roald Dahl’s tyrannical headteacher Agatha Trunchbull who terrified pupils with her violent outbursts and militant approach to learning. Miss Honey was the light in Matilda’s day, and Miss Trunchbull was the monster hiding in the shadows!

Today the husband and I are opening the Ballantyne School. I like to think that I am Miss Honey and he is Miss Trunchbull. As if to prove me right immediately Norm started the PE lesson, or to be more accurate beasting the kids in the garden. They are doing burpees, mountain climbers, squats, jumping jacks, shuttle runs, planks. I am EXHAUSTED just from watching…..

If he gets too bossy we will have to put a newt in his coffee.

But for today the most important thing that we have learned is you can drink tea through a chocolate finger which then melts from the inside and it is AMAZING.

And that got me thinking about physics. Biscuits are starch and sugar, and when heated the sugar melts, which scientists say releases more flavour. They also say that the reason the tea flows through the biscuit is down to the fluid sticking to the walls of the narrow channels in the baked treat, a phenomenon also known as CAPILLARY ACTION. This is the same action that flowers use to suck up water from a vase, or how kitchen roll absorbs the many, many spillages we have in our house.

You can test this yourself, and here is a lovely simple explanation.

We did our own experiment which involved testing a couple of different biscuits to failure. We (Archie, Georgie and Dahlia via messenger video) made our tea with a splash of milk, left it to cool for 5 minutes, then dipped our digestives in to half way and timed how long they took to break off. We used Custard Creams, Lotus Biscuits and Chocolate Fingers. We would love to include some others in our biscuit league table! So if you have any other biscuits at home…. (don’t go shopping for this. STAY AT HOME. As much as I believe biscuits are a necessity the sad truth is that they are not) ….Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 16.38.04try the experiment and tell us how long they lasted. If you get any super tough ones then stop at 5 minutes!

You can tell us your results on Insta @bernadetteballantyne, where you can also see Archie inhaling chocolate fingers…..or post as a comment to this on Facebook…..

We will share our results (and any you send) in another post.

Finally here is a more in depth explanation by a very clever scientist called Len Fisher who described this using the Washburn equation for capillary flow.

You’re welcome…!



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Budgie Smugglers in Brittany

We were all really ready for a holiday. Waiting until the last week of the summer to go away has advantages and disadvantages.The biggest advantage being that at some French campsites the end of the summer is considered off-peak and the prices fall dramatically but the activities and kids clubs always stay open until August 31st so there is still lots to do – at the good ones anyway.

This year we were holidaying in a group. My parents, their three daughters with husbands and five children. So imagine the domino effect of hilarity that burst forth from the females in the group when my observant sister posted one of the rules that she had astutely observed from the campsite booking forms:


“Have you all got budgie smugglers packed?” she asked laughingly.

My concerns about how exposed I would look in my bikini totally evaporated. The husband would have to wear speedos. This was the best news I had heard all year.

In response to the post about the compulsory budgie smugglers, the exchange went like this:

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 19.12.34

Before I ordered neon yellow speedos with budgies on the front for the boys I needed to know if this rule was actually upheld, so I called the campsite Yelloh Village L”Ocean Breton.

Answering the phone the person at the end of the line confirmed that yes this rule was true.  Men had to wear tight lycra shorts. It was a hygiene issue. It was not a joke and that it was upheld at all times.

I immediately called my sister to share the good news. We proceeded to laugh uncontrollably, without breathing, for around five minutes.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 21.15.37

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to place an order for 7 pairs of bespoke briefs and lycra swimwear was not that easy to find, fortunately Decathlon turned out to be a winner, which made sense when I realised that it is French owned. Not only did it have all manner of tight lycra for the boys, it had swimsuits for £1.99 and amazing microfibre towels that were so small I could fit about 25 of them in my handbag*.

We opted for the Daniel Craig style square short brief and as my son was trying his on he told me he wouldn’t wear them. He didn’t want everyone to see his big thighs.

I was shocked. He is nine. With nine year old thighs. “Your legs are amazing. They are the reason you can run so fast,” I said.

“Can we get these long ones?” he asked. They looked more like cycling shorts. I decided not to let him in a bid to try and encourage him to lose the self-consciousness. “No. But we can get Dad the same shorts as you.” I said, which cheered him up a bit. But I think what really made him get over it was his Grandpa who proudly wore his speedos and didn’t give a flying truck what anyone thought. I think this really helped my nine year old get over his initial wariness. As did the pool, which was brilliant. It was heated,  had four slides, a lazy river, two indoor areas with a little VW camper van to play in. Ironically as everyone adjusted and proudly sported their lycra, the rule did not seem to be strictly enforced. But most of the boys wore their budgie smugglers anyway. I think they preferred them.

*We stayed at Yelloh Village campsite L’Ocean Breton and it was FANTASTIC. We have stayed in quite a few French sites and this is by far the best so far. I’ll write a blog about that soon.

The beaches in Brittany are perfect

*I did not steal 25 towels. Honestly

Goodbye Messi, you were a superstar

“He was definitely alive yesterday,” I said to the husband as we both looked down upon the rictus corpse of Messi, the 2 year old gerbil who had mysteriously perished overnight. Next to Messi, curled on the floor sobbing heartily was my 9 year old son who had just discovered the tiny motionless body of his first ever pet. He had found him sleeping forever in front of the coconut shell house that my son had used his pocket money to pay for.

Hearing the commotion little sister ran upstairs and burst into her brother’s room. “Has Messi died?” She asked incredulously. Death has been a popular conversation topic for my 6yr old lately. As I was kissing her goodbye before I went to a wedding in Italy a few weeks ago she looked at me intensely and said: “Don’t die Mummy.” Fortunately I made it, but here we were facing an actual death in the household.

My six year old erupted into tears (which were more theatrical and ten times louder than her brother’s): “You never let me play with him and now he is dead,” she yelled and then held her head in her hands as she let the feelings of self pity and injustice wash over her.

I took the hands of both children and suggested that they both say something nice to Messi.”He might not have got to heaven yet so he might still be able to hear you,” I said. The 9 yr old told Messi how brave he was, especially when he had escaped certain death following the sustained attack from his domineering cannibalistic brother Ronaldo. The six year old said she wished she had played with him more, while shooting a dirty look at her heartbroken brother.

Meanwhile the 9yr old had dried his eyes and had begun creating a coffin for his little pet. His rugby boot box was tipped open and gerbil bedding was lovingly spread around. Messi’s red ceramic food bowl was placed next to his corpse. The box was then gently carried into the garden while we began a discussion about where he would be buried.

As we sat around the table the six year old marched into the kitchen wearing her Doc McStuffins medical kit. “I’m going to fix him and make him alive again.” she declared brandishing a pretend blood pressure monitor that was going to “puff air back into him”

I could see where she was coming from. Messi in eternal life did look a bit deflated. We gently explained that this would not work, so she turned her attention to Grandpa instead and started fixing him.

After much consideration Messi’s final resting place is now a large ceramic pot containing a white and orange Port Sunlight rose bush, which Messi will feed as he decomposes. He was also white and orange so my son declared this most appropriate. Messi may be dead but the circle of life continues.





The back seat strawberry monster

It was a normal Thursday evening and we were sitting in the car waiting for my 8 year old to finish football training. “Have you got any food Mum?” said my five year old daughter who despite having demolished two bowls of pasta and a pot of trifle was complaining of being hungry.

“Only the shopping but you have had your tea so you’ll have to wait until we get home,” I said.

She glared at me, but  accepted my decree and went back to watching Lego Batman on her Amazon Fire.

At he end of the session I went to collect big brother. I could see the car from the pitch so let little sister stay in the warmth. We were not gone for long. But it was long enough for trouble. I opened the back door and realised that something wasn’t quite right. The car stank of strawberries. And bananas. I looked at my daughter. Her hair was hanging in front of her face like a curtain and her cheeks were shining with sticky, dewy liquid. She was lolling in her car seat drowsily like a baby in a milk coma.

“What have you done?” I asked even though it was obvious. She had climbed into the boot and gone through the shopping, eating two bananas and a punnet of strawberries.

“I told you not to eat any of this.” I said trying to be outraged. Her brother burst into hysterical laughter.

“I was going to make you some strawberries and ice cream at home, but its too late, you have eaten them all.”

“On no Mummy. I didn’t know,” she wailed and immediately started to cry.  Her brother enjoyed this immensely – then realised he wouldn’t be having strawberries either. “You are the worst sister ever,” he yelled and began to cry because he was tired, he didn’t score any goals and as it was the end of term and he was generally exhausted. They both cried all the way home. Sigh.


Taking anti-depressants

“You need to press the reset button,” said the doctor. “I’m prescribing  Citalopram. On a low dose it acts as an anti-anxiety medication. On a high dose it is an anti-depressant. It takes about a month to start working.”

It has been over a year since I first wrote about my panic attacks and struggle with anxiety and exhaustion. There were lots of things that I did  to help myself get better and if I learned anything it is that there is not a simple, “one size fits all” solution for anyone. But something that did work, and people don’t really talk about, was using an anti depressant called Citalopram. 

At the time I saw it as a last resort. I had been offered it several times until I finally relented. I had already reduced my workload, taken up yoga, changed my diet, slept more and redistributed household responsibilities. Unfortunately I still couldn’t quite stop the panic attacks which began whenever I experienced anything mildly stressful including every day activities such as running late for school drop-off, watching the kids play sports, drinking caffeine or alcohol, making decisions,  interviewing people for articles, socialising. Despite months of trying I knew I wasn’t going to crack this nut on my own.

“How often is this happening?” said the doctor, the fourth in my regular surgery that I had seen about these issues since they had begun. “Anywhere from once a day to ten times I day,” I said, my voice wobbling, like it does when you don’t want it to.

“You need to press the reset button,” said the doctor. “I’m prescribing Citalopram. On a low dose it acts as an anti-anxiety medication. On a high dose it is an anti-depressant. It takes about a month to start working.”

“OK,” I said noting that the dose for anxiety issues is 10mg per day. It is higher for treating depression. She also gave me a referral to the charity “Healthy Minds” which offers support for panic disorders and depression.

Within a month of taking the Citalopram the panic attacks had stopped. The reset button had been pressed. It worked. It seemed to generally desensitise me to what I had perceived to be stressful situations. I was not overreacting like I used to. I also felt a bit sick and had headaches. But these passed after the first few weeks. I wondered what side effects other people had. The desensitisation aspect didn’t only apply to stress, EVERYTHING was a bit less intense. In some ways that was great. Goodbye panic. In other ways, like in the bedroom, it was really not great, but like the headaches things got back to normal after a couple of months.

The referral to the Healthy Minds service turned out to be a postcode lottery. Because of the location of my doctors surgery (Buckingham) the nearest support groups were an hour away (Aylesbury) and had a waiting list of two months. The waiting list for a therapist for one to one support was even longer and would be in the same location. So I chose the third option, an online cognitive behavioural therapy system called “Silver Cloud”. I worked through a module every week and at the end of it a trainee psychologist called me to read out the answers and provide no insight or counselling. It was rubbish. The only positive thing I took away from this was that it helped me to label my trigger for stress: “excessive responsibilities”

As time went by and I felt like my old self again I found that I was pregnant and I stopped taking the Citalopram. I did not seek medical advice, which was stupid, I just stopped taking it. This was a mistake. A black cloud hung over me and despite being delighted at the idea of another child, I was so miserable I couldn’t even laugh at Ron Swanson’s pyramid of greatness in Parks & Recreation.


If you don’t watch Parks & Recreation then I urge you to download it.


When the pregnancy failed I felt even worse. “It is normal to have suicidal thoughts if you stop taking Citalopram too quickly. You need to wean yourself off it,” said my brother who is a mental health nurse. Shit. I was miserable because I was no longer pregnant and because I had inadvertently plunged myself into a chemical depression. So I started taking it again.

The following summer I had been feeling better for months and decided that it was time to wean myself off the medicine.  I hoped that I had made enough changes for the symptoms of stress to no longer exist when I came off the medicine. This is something that people should really be given more advice about. Honestly I think it just depends on the doctor that you see. Some will insist on reviews every six months to monitor your progress. Others will see you as fixed as soon as the Citalopram starts to work and keep the repeat prescription going forever. But anyone taking this sort of medicine should definitely see their doctor if they feel they want to stop. Don’t plunge yourself into a pit of misery like I did the first time around!

But less of the misery – it is Friday. Happy weekend everyone! If you have experience of these medicines then it would be great to hear about it. No-one talks about these things. Let’s compare notes. You never know, it might help someone.

Update: These are a few of the things that I did that really helped me manage anxiety and prevent panic attacks.


A broken car, 12,000 acts of kindness, and no tumble dryer

“You know nothing Norm Snow,” I said and called the RAC

Tonight I was driving along the A5 on my way to Milton Keynes to collect my son and his friend from a laser quest party when the lights on the dashboard systematically began to flash

Flash: The ABS is broken

Flash: The VSA light is on (I don’t know what that is)

Flash: The yellow triangle with an exclamation mark on it is flashing. Emergency, emergency it shouted silently.

Flash: The wierd yellow jug thing is alight.

Flash: Flash: Flash: All the lights are flickering.

Excellent. Just what I needed when the mechanic husband was 500 miles away. I checked the dashboard again. The temperature read as normal and there was no smoke coming from the engine so I kept going because I was only about 5 minutes away from the party. As soon as I arrived and parked the car the battery light came on and once the engine was turned off, it would not turn back on.


I called the mechanic husband who talked me though a diagnostic electrical fault finder using an ap on my phone called Torque (Lite). “No Fault Detected” it said. Well that was no help at all. “You know nothing Norm Snow,” I said and called the RAC.

But then I had a brainwave. The party was at the Daytona go-karting track. Where there are cars, there are mechanics and sure enough there was a trainee mechanic on duty (Sam) who kindly came out to take a look.  He and fellow parent Paul, quickly worked out that the alternator was failing to charge the battery. This was confirmed 45 minutes later by the RAC mechanic and his gadgets.

I’d complained about the £200 Norm had made me spend on full RAC membership but alas he was right. Maybe he did know something about cars after all…….

By this time there had been approximately 12,000 acts of kindness bestowed upon me by friends from the wonderful Deba who took my 8 year old home with her and her lovely  boys; Jorge who waited with me for the RAC to arrive – and put his life at risk as I drove home  with just sidelights on to keep the battery going (the RAC van was close behind); Paul who pulled out his jump leads and diagnosed the problem, and Paula who took home my son’s friend (because I was supposed to). The wonderful Wendy who kept my daughter for 18 hours longer than she originally planned to and the lovely Sam who went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that the RAC were able to sort out the car.

So despite the fact that this is the second car failure I’ve had this month I feel lucky. Lucky to have a lot of lovely friends and a car that might break sometimes but I still have one. Unfortunately I don’t have a tumble dryer and the cash that I had ready to buy a heat pump condenser dryer (more efficient, no vent required), is going to be spent on an alternator and a battery. My dreams of a laundry free living room are on hold.

It’s time for a glass of wine…….

Drinking, no driving!




Norm rips out the bathroom

DIY with Norm launched into action again last week. He is replacing the upstairs bathroom. If my children and I smell at the moment then I can only apologise. Last night he ripped out all of the existing fittings so we cannot bathe. Luckily we have lovely neighbours who have been letting us use their shower.

The previous bathroom was fitted by someone with dubious DIY skills. Even I would not put in a wastewater pipe running uphill. No wonder the shower didn’t drain properly. It also leaked because the walls were not sealed and the bathroom floor tile grout was not flexible so the tiles moved and there were holes between them. If the kids had a little water flight at bath time the water would seep through to the ceiling below. This was unacceptable. Everyone needs a good water fight in the bath once in a while.

The paint on the walls was mouldy because they didn’t use bathroom paint and the bath was a miniature one because they crammed in a separate shower meaning that there wasn’t room for a full sized bath.

Spot the uphill drainage pipe…..

So Norm is on the case. Our brown, leaking, cramped, mouldy bathroom is going to be a masterpiece in modern living. Victorian fittings, Farrow and Ball paint (mizzle – thanks Cat), antique vanity units (cheap from a reclamation yard) and white brick style tiles will hopefully make me feel like I am in a fancy hotel spa luxuriating rather than having a splash and dash in my poky brown bathroom in a semi-detached house in Finmere.

In the style of Ideal Home magazine I am going to tell you what everything cost and how Norm did it. Our first purchase cost £150. It was an old sideboard. I am going to paint it and Norm is going to fit a basin on top. Taaaa Daaaaa.

Before pic – undercoat applied and basin stacked on top so you can get an idea of how it will look

Sideboard: £150 Burgess Reclaimation (You are welcome. Actually my Mum discovered this gem of a place)

Basin: £50 Better Bathrooms

Paint: £24 Farrow & Ball – Mizzle Eggshell





Playground Business

Once upon a time there was a (very) small village in Oxfordshire called Finmere. It had a teeny tiny school, a lovely pub, and a great village hall but the children’s playground was old, rotten, secluded and dangerous.  So the parents of the village got together to try and sort out somewhere safe for their children to play, but unsurprisingly there was no money available from the local council.

“Can’t we invite DIY SOS?” said one of the Mums (who has a secret crush on Nick Knowles).

“I think they only do houses,” said another Mum.

“Won’t there be a lot of competition to get DIY SOS to come?” said another.

“We will just have to do it ourselves,” they decided and Operation Playground was born.

In the absence of any government money, the group started investigating grants and were advised by the Parish Council to try the Landfill Communities Fund. The village has a landfill site on its periphery and operators are forced to put a percentage of their profits into a pot for local community projects. There was just one problem. A fire at the landfill site had forced it to close and the operator Opes had gone into administration (update here).

But the committee was not deterred and called the landfill site anyway. It transpired that once a firm has paid into the Landfill Communities Fund it cannot take the money back. Opes explained that it had paid £36,500 in the pot held by an organisation called GrantScape and they encouraged Operation Playground to apply for it.

After several hundred cups of tea and many nights spent filling in forms, Operation Playground sent in its application and a few weeks later found out that their attempt to secure the cash was successful. But there was a catch. The group had to raise 11% of the grant total in match funding within six months of the offer being made. They needed £4170 and the clock was ticking.

The parents worked very hard to convince the people of Finmere (and beyond) to part with their money. There was a village Bake-Off, a fireworks night sweet stall, Christmas carol singing, collection tins in the pub, leaflets that shamelessly begged for donations, an online funding site, contributions from local businesses and a share of the £1000 gained by collecting green tokens in Brackley’s Waitrose. The Village Hall and Playing Fields Management Committee had already raised £1300 towards a new park so by January 2017 the mission was accomplished. Operation Playground and the villagers of Finmere had raised the cash to secure the grant.

But what should the playground have in it? Operation Playground consulted with the children of the village to find out.

Survey 2

The results were crystal clear. The kids wanted a zip wire, a fully stocked bar, and a roundabout. There were also requests for rock climbing walls, water fountains, a swimming pool and a trampoline (OK perhaps the kids didn’t ask for a bar. But it was a popular suggestion among the parents).

After assessing several options Wicksteed were chosen to supply and fit the new park. Apart from ensuring that the village would get the best park for its budget, a big part of the decision to work with them was that they could install it quickly. The grant had to be used within 12 months of the award confirmation or Operation Playground would lose the money.



Construction began in April and by early May Finmere had a new play area. Operation Playground may subsequently have had a few beers, proseccos and vodkas at the village hall fundraising night and tried out the equipment, just to be sure that it was safe for the kids. This may or may not have been hilarious.

But the best thing about Finmere’s new playground is not the bar (it would be if there was one), or the zip wire, or the pirate ship climbing frame with cargo nets, a slide and balance beams. It is the sense of community that has been developed as neighbours that in some cases barely knew each other spent many hours together doing something to make their village better. It is the sense of collaboration that has emerged as the different village organisations such as the Parish Council, the Parochial Church Council and the Village Hall and Playing Fields Management Committee all supported the efforts of a group of parents with no experience but lots of enthusiasm. Finally it is the friendships that have been created as Operation Playground pulled together over endless glasses of wine and meetings held at the end of very long days.

As the sun sets over Finmere Village Green the laughter of children can be heard as they zip between climbing frame, tunnel, swing and slide.

And like in all good stories the villagers lived happily every after.

The village volunteers putting up fences  to protect the new play area.

Finmere playground will officially open on 17th June at 3pm with afternoon tea in the park. Operation Playground is searching for an inspirational person to open it for us. Some of the committee have expressed significant interest in Brad Pitt and Nick Knowles. No need to fight over it gents. You are both welcome.

  • There are too many people to thank here for their help in making the park happen. You know who you are. See you on the 17th for a celebration.





Training Bella: part 1

When you get a rescue dog from the RSPCA they don’t tell you that she might freak out at ironing boards and lawnmowers. They don’t tell you that she tends to choke on biscuit treats or that she will love your existing dog so much that she tries to sleep on top of him. They don’t tell you that the dog has never seen a cow so when she does it must be barked at constantly. We live next to a field. A field full of cows.

Continue reading “Training Bella: part 1”