Capturing our love for art, adventure and learning
We ended off summer with a massive post (A stupendous summer) in August! Summer was quite an experience and turned out so much better than we've expected. If you haven't read it, do click on the red link!
Septembers have always been special. Growing up, half my family's birthdays were in September. After my first stint in the UK, September took on even more meaning as autumn became my favourite season of all. It isn't hard to imagine why isn't it? Autumnal colours, cool weather and especially the one extra hour of sleep you get when British Summer Time (Daylight savings) ends in October....
After Matt and Gwyn were born, we started having 4 birthday cakes in a month.That brought all of us a lot of joy. When dad passed in 2021, we became even more acutely aware of our mortality which makes birthdays even more important. We don't know when we'll blow out our last candle. We've therefore made it a point to let our children know that we are celebrating their lives, and our lives together. It really isn't about how fancy the gifts or celebrations are, it is about the people we have to love and hold.
For those who are wondering if they do share the same birthday, they don't! Their birthdays are less than a week apart so for the past many years we've been letting Gwyn blow out her candle early on Matt's birthday. It has become a sort of tradition that they each get their special day out on the actual day (and get to enjoy their siblings special day out too). It is like having two birthdays.
We did a little poll on Instagram and you guys responded...
Turns out we've managed to do both a special day and a double celebration!
Before we could enjoy London, we had to do our voting duties at the polls in London at the Singapore Embassy. That meant a 2 hour drive down south and a quick Underground ride to central London.
Voting was done very quickly and we were off for a quick lunch at Shake Shack. It turned out to be really ordinary! I think that's because Debra makes way more awesome burgers at home these days. I haven't got a single picture of the meal because it was that forgettable.
We headed to a more memorable Borough Market where we experienced a whole host of smells and sights. It wasn't good planning on my part that we visited the place on a full tummy right after lunch. We didn't buy any of the food but they looked pretty amazing! There was a paella stall that had security managing its snaking queue. It was surely the most popular thing in the market. If you love your cheese, you'll find that there's no short supply of cheese shops there.
Apart from the cooked food (and raw oysters), you can also get fresh produce around the market. You can get the regular vegetables, fruits and meat to whip up a tasty meal here. You'll also find monstrous looking fish and even wood pigeons at the butcher. We were a little shocked because we have some wood pigeon friends around our neighbourhood that hang around in the trees...
After the children had a little dance to the music of the buskers, we walked across the London bridge that hasn't fallen down to catch the Underground towards Leadenhall Market.
Matt wanted to see the spots that one of the Harry Potter movie was filmed. We did manage to watch a Youtube video at the market to identify the spots. Leadenhall is a little more upmarket and consists of mainly eateries and pubs. We were a little disappointed because there wasn't much to see or experience around here. Beautiful architecture aside, I think it would be more suitable about 10 years from now when I can share a pint with my kids.
We were back on the underground and headed towards Mina Lima: the design studio behind the graphic props of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films, founded by Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima.
If you are a potter fan, this place is a must visit! It is a more sophisticated version of the platform 9 3/4 shop at Kings Cross Station. They sell more designs and art related to the film instead of movie merchandise. You'll find very beautiful prints, notebooks, frames, books and posters here. I think most fans of the potter films will find the shop decor an attraction in itself.
We must have done 10,000 steps by this point and were a little wet from the downpour but it was the time the kids were most looking forward to. It was time to buy their birthday gift from Nai Nai! I told their grandma not to send a gift over because it would be a waste of money on the freight. We would buy it on her behalf instead.
We first headed to Hamleys but the kids couldn't decide on what they wanted. They were quite focused on Lego but some Lego sets at Hamleys were priced £10 more than the Lego store itself. We decided to visit a Waterstones (Book shop) but they couldn't find books that they really wanted. As the evening drew near, it was Leicester Square's Lego store that fit the bill for the gift. I think the most wholesome thing that happens every time we head to a toy shop is that the kids never want to buy anything unless they really loved it. Choices are not made based on the price tag or size of the box. It is one of those things that warms the cockles of my heart.
Dinner was supposed to be a spectacular meal at a Malaysian restaurant serving up satay, nasi lemak and yummy fried rice but they were booked out for the night. We were sorely disappointed and settled for McDonald's because we were just too tired to keep looking.
Things didn't go exactly to plan and our plans didn't really turn out the way we expected it to be but I was a proud dad of two kids under 10 who conquered 18,291 steps, 11.8km, 32 floors and 6 Underground lines (Elizabeth, Bakerloo, Central, District, Piccadilly & Jubilee) in an afternoon! The unintended effect was that all of us slept soundly once we go back home to the midlands that evening!
We promised Gwyn that she could visit the zoo to hug the Graffalo and see the penguins on her birthday. Tickets were booked on our annual pass but the British weather had other ideas. A heat wave descended on the UK and temperatures shot up. The sun was relentless and we decided to postpone the zoo trip to avoid getting heat exhaustion/burnt. I hunted down for a replacement activity somewhere air-conditioned to escape the heat. Our cereal packet promotion finally led us to this attraction in an ornate mall in Manchester.
With two free tickets, Legoland experience centre in Manchester was more affordable and worth the 2 hour drive up north. It is effectively a Lego themed soft-play with two kiddy rides and a 4D show. The kids are huge fans of Lego and they flood my telly's Youtube history with Lego related content. Their mornings always start with building all sorts of contraptions and worlds with Lego. No surprise they really enjoyed this one!
With some time to spare after the Legoland experience (very weirdly closes at 230pm), we knew exactly where we wanted to be that afternoon. Matt and I are massive United fans and we decided to take a trip to our home stadium. It was too late to book a tour and so we did our own mini tour around the stadium and browsed the store. The walk wasn't too bad because most of the way was sheltered under the stadium itself.
It is not often that kids are quiet. But they became uncharacteristically quiet and attentive as they read the boards detailing the history of the Munich air disaster that killed 8 Manchester United players and 15 other passengers on board. I'm sure it moved them. It gets me every time when I read the part about the team being rebuilt and winning the European Cup 10 years after the crash decimated almost the entire team. I hope the kids are as inspired as I am to believe in coming back stronger, fighting against the odds and doing the impossible.
Now onto my favourite season: autumn!
We have had 3 very very different months this summer in terms of weather. June was the hottest June on record and July was 10th wettest on record. We saw storm Antoni and Betty along with a mix of rain as well as sunshine. What we've felt constantly however is a period of healing. A healing of body, mind and soul as we mindfully savour our adventures.
If you haven't been able to follow our journeys, here's a quick list and some links you can visit:
Post: Summer Bumper Post: We surrender
-North Wales (South Stack lighthouse)
-North Wales (Great Orme)
-London Leicester Square
Post: Reduced to tears
-North Wales (Gwynedd - Dolgellau)
-North Wales (Gwynedd - Cregennan Lakes)
July was basically a very restful month because of the constant rain. We took the opportunity to continue school since the kids usually take a break in September when we celebrate their birthdays. We followed the Wimbledon, watched a lot of Bluey, attended Gwyn's first ballet concert and listened to Matt's live radio show weekly. It was apparently also loose teeth season and I've had to pluck two really loose ones in a day....
The wet weather slowed down our schedules and helped us become more mindful and present. We need to realise how special these ordinary days are. The seemingly ordinary days to us are our children's memory of their childhood. We take nothing for granted because the days may seem long but the years fly by really really quickly.
I think the quiet moments also made us appreciate the community around us a lot more. We've learnt to slow down and take our time to see people as people. We're incredibly grateful that people take time to make us feel at home and that we belong to the community. Little things like a light-hearted chat after service, picnics, tea time and lunches in a backyard feel really wholesome!
Being home so much also forced us to observe our surroundings more keenly. We realised that A LOT does happen around us in the village. We've observed which birds came by, where the squirrels sat in the tree and when the foxes came by. I think I've made friends with a Pigeon...
Despite the rain, we did manage a farm shop visit in Market Harborough, a drive on the Gospel Pass (highest road pass in Wales), a stroll on a sandflat and Lavender farm in Norfolk. We've had to dodge some showers and drive in really wet conditions but it was all worthwhile. I've grown to love trips that subtly stimulate your senses and help form amazing memories. You hear the buzzing of the bees, smell the fragrance of the lavender, see the wild horses and feel the wind in your hair.
It is so easy to lose our ability to feel deeply and appreciate a moment. Doom scrolling and switching constantly from video to video have programmed our brains to be constantly demanding the next. We want entertainment that is stimulating and quick. We are never really in the moment nor have the time to appreciate what we are looking at. I cannot recommend being in the countryside more. After capturing the shots we need, we make an effort to put our devices away to stare, smell and feel. We come back refreshed. Every single time!
Healing also came in the form of food. Having to pay more than £10 for a loaf of Gluten-free bread back in Singapore is never far from our minds when we visit the supermarket and farm shops. For so many years, it was exceptionally difficult to listen to our bodies and eat food that doesn't ruin our guts and trigger allergy symptoms. It isn't just the affordability that we are grateful for, it is the labelling and ease of access that makes it much easier.
August has been pretty packed compared to July. We are well aware that that we won't be getting as much daylight. At the end of June, the sun rose at 4.41am and set at 9.32pm. Days were long and we barely used our car's headlights in the height of summer. But by the end of August, we will be losing as much as 3 hours and 40 minutes of daylight. The seasons really teach you to seize the moment. It is either now or next summer.
We wanted to maximise our time and resources and so we tried as much as possible to visit the countryside and attractions that don't require an entrance fee. We've also opted not to stay overnight for all of our trips. Hotels can cost between £60 to £100 a night for a "budget option". With two storms in a month, we gave up toying with the idea of camping.
We wake up early and get on the road early from our home, spend the whole day at a place and leave by early evening to make it back in time for the kids' bedtime. It is a lot of miles but we managed to to visit London, Bristol, Eastbourne, Twycross, Coalville and Mam Tor in the Peak District. We've got to adapt to make these travels possible and it made us many core memories!
To be really honest, we didn't manage to enjoy the British Museum properly. The place was jam packed with tourists and school groups. If you don't like queues and crowds, don't come to London in August. Wait until the 2nd week of September when school holidays are over! It is also generally cooler by then and you won't have to be cooked alive in the older Underground lines.
We got a glimpse of the mummies that the kids have been learning about in their world history curriculum. It was an eerie but intriguing sight. Although I must admit looking at dead people was a rather peculiar choice for our 11th marriage anniversary...
After a lot of walking (and some ice-cream), we tried looking for an Asian/Malaysian restaurant because I've been having Sambal cravings! (Sambal is a chili paste made by a mixture of chili peppers, shrimp, onions, garlic etc...). We had some satays, fried rice and green curry and they tasted good but still lacked the authentic taste we love. I guess we'll try again the next time we are in London...
-Twycross Zoo, Leicestershire
This was the only significant ticketed attraction we paid for this summer. Paying for the day ticket entitled us to a year pass. This was a good investment because the kids never get sick of going to a zoo and we live in the same county as the zoo! Graffalo land (a walk through experience) was also included. What I liked the most about the zoo is that children get to interact with people instead of screens. They get an activity sheet that guides them to explore the zoo and look for stations where a staff member will ask questions and share interesting facts with them. It makes the Zoo experience less of a passive one.
-Cattows Farm, Coalville
Gwyn decided she wanted to wear her bright pink dress that morning for no apparent reason. It was the dress her late-grandpa bought for her just 3 months before he passed on. It was a surprise because we didn't tell her our plans that day and we didn't know she could finally fit the dress. The blazing hot sun and clear blue skies made it a perfect day to roam the sunflower fields and take photographs that pop!
-Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
I was just unwinding at the end of the day and looking at my socials before I saw an amazing video of hot air balloons glowing in the night sky. The next moment I was all over google maps looking for the best way to get to Bristol. The next day, we left home at 4pm after Matt's radio show and headed straight for Bristol. The weather was very very unpredictable. When we arrived and parked, it started POURING. Fortunately all of us came prepared with waterproofs and boots on. As with any large scale event with rain pouring down on the fields, it was a mud fest. Somehow the clear brolly became a really fascinating toy for the kids and they thoroughly enjoyed huddling under it. We did get a few breaks between downpours to enjoy some fish/nuggets and chips before the night glow.
It was an amazing experience being in a crowd on a huge field singing to famous tunes in the rain. Keep calm and carry on indeed. We've learnt that if you are determined to have fun, not even the rain can stop you. The balloons were slowly inflated and started glowing to the rhythm of the music in the night sky. It was magic.
This boy loved it so much he had tears in his eyes. He told me he wanted to do Glastonbury next year because he loved being at a festival. I knew it was a core memory created there. We can't really put a price tag on these things in life can we?
By the time we got home it was midnight and I spent the next two hours washing muddy boots and wiping down our picnic mat and waterproofs. It was exhausting but it was worth every ounce of energy. I'll do it all over again!
-Seven Sisters, Eastbourne
This was another re-visit of a spot we visited 10 years ago. It was winter and we didn't have enough daylight to properly explore the area. It looked absolutely stunning in the summer sun.
This was one of the final spots we visited before leaving the country. I think we were seriously dreading that our holiday/honeymoon was coming to an end and we had a meeting to attend hours after our flight back. I don't think we could have ever imagined that we would be back here with two kids of our own.
After viewing the seven sisters cliff from this side, we took a short drive to the cliffs itself. The sheer height and drop is both terrifying and fascinating. Thanks to modern engineering, there was a strong and stable stairway that took us down to the pebble beach at the bottom of the cliffs. We laid our picnic mat and enjoyed the light sea breeze and comfortably warm sunshine.
I know many people say that a beach without sand isn't a real beach but I absolutely adore pebble beaches. No cleaning up necessary with pebbles. In fact, they are a source of entertainment if you enjoy stacking pebbles! That was what the kids and I did while Debra did her painting on the beach. It wasn't just about being at a stunning location that made this trip really great. It was also being able to see her do what she loves.
As the sun began to hover around the horizon over the English Channel, we soaked in the views on the white cliffs knowing it will be the last time we are seeing it this summer. We'll meet again.
-Mam Tor, Peak District
I've been eyeing these hills since winter. We just never got down to hiking the 2 hour loop. I think it is just the mental burden of hiking with two children. Debra was not exactly keen but I insisted on doing this trip. I must say it turned out so much better than our last big hiking trip in Wales. The terrain was challenging but bearable and we only had to climb an equivalent of 62 floors (haha) and walk just over 11,000 steps. I think whining reduced by 80% and enjoyment increased by the same amount.
I think I was too ambitious trying to attempt the 886m Pen y Fan back in Spring. To be fair to everyone, we did manage to reach more than 700m before heading back down. This hike was a lot more rewarding because it is quite exposed on both sides which makes it possible to see the other valleys and hills around. Despite being so exposed, the winds were much warmer on the 517m high Mam Tor. All of us were way more sure-footed this time with better hiking boots. No busted ankles or knees this time.
It felt so special and exciting to be on that tiny path along the mountain ridge. There was so much to see on either side. I took a couple wrong turns looking at a tiny topographic map on my phone trying to figure out which of the tiny paths to take. We did manage to eventually find the loop that took us down on the side of the mountain through the vegetation down into the valley. We met some sheep, birds and very prickly plants before dodging landslides and mud. That was a highlight for all of us! The abundance of ferns made the little ones think they were time-travelling. They were looking out for prehistoric creatures and naming dinosaurs I have absolutely no idea existed.
We stopped near the end of our hike at a bench overlooking the valley and enjoyed some snacks and PB&J sandwiches. Debra managed to do a quick paint where the kids ran around time-travelling again.
I think this concludes any major adventure for the summer of 2023.
I won't miss cleaning a million dead bugs off the car, hearing alarming cries for help to capture bugs at home or having difficulty sleeping because of the warm muggy nights. I'll surely miss the holidays, festivals, long days and lush greenery.
Feeling like a failure is a crushing feeling that many are familiar with.
"Look at so-and-so, they have achieved XYZ, what have you achieved?"
"This thing you are doing? You'll never amount to anything"
"Everyone has done this, why can't you?"
"Wish you could be like your sibling..."
"You MUST do this, I'll be really disappointed if you are the only one in the family that don't achieve this!"
"I will only buy you this toy/thing if you achieve THIS"
We've probably heard these things in different forms at some point of our lives. These are made of bone crushing and spirit breaking stuff. They have the power put us on course towards the excruciating abyss of a lifetime of self-pity and depression. And yet, such thoughts are found in the very heads that it traumatised. So many of us find ourselves continuing the cycle of hurt that we so detest.
We've been homeschooling for almost 8 years. It has been a highly rewarding AND reflective journey. Although it wasn't a decision taken lightly, many questioned and doubted our choice. You see, Debra and I grew up in an immensely stressful education system and culture. It is a land where success and one's value is very narrowly defined. It is a system where many children wake up from 530am and only stop school related activities at 10pm before bed time. It is a country of just over half a million school going kids (7 to 16) but they generate S$1.68 billion (£1 billion/USD1.25 billion) annually for the private tuition industry. Growing number of parents go as far as purchasing multi-million dollar properties to secure places in "better schools" to ensure success for their children. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings is almost validation of the pressure put on children. Singapore is ranked second in the world for reading literacy, mathematics, and science in 2018. Despite the stellar results, there is a shocking amount of people that grow up feeling like a failure. This extreme fear of not measuring up and not achieving enough is encapsulated in a word so famous that the Oxford dictionary incorporated it: KIASU.
One of our greatest motivation for homeschooling our children is our desire to break this cycle of trauma. We saw and experienced the pain as students and former teachers in the public education system. We didn’t want to raise unhappy children that loathed learning, loathed life and loathed themselves.
These are perhaps the 3 most salient lessons I've learnt from 8 years of teaching my own children and in that process unlearning what I've been told.
1. It is okay to fail.
Not achieving success is a highly uncomfortable experience. Nobody likes to fail. This gives us even more reasons to respond kindly when someone experiences failure. If we were to break the cycle of trauma, we have to learn to accept that failures are experienced. Failure is an experience that DOES NOT define us.
2. Don't compare, compare.
The problem is not comparison. The problem lies in the ranking and judging that follows comparison. It is intellectual indolence to define people simply by looking at their wealth, status or grades. If human life is precious, we must surely agree that its worth cannot be defined by what that life has achieved or not.
It is inevitable that parents compare their children with their siblings or other children. We compare our children too. Comparison should help you see how unique your child is. Comparison should help you understand them as an individual. Comparison should help us discover their strengths and weaknesses and inform us of the best way to facilitate learning.
Comparison is about understanding. Comparison is not for ranking or judgement.
3. Love unconditionally
I hope I'll always make my children feel loved simply because I love them. I don't want them to ever feel like they need to please me with something before they are loved. It is manipulative and narcissistic to give gifts, love and affection only when your loved one can bring a success in exchange. We've seen many instances in our culture where one's worth is based on how much "honour" and "face" value you can bring to your family/parents/loved one. One should never have to experience "love" that is dependent on their achievements.
Love is not self-seeking.
Nobody is a failure just because they experience failure. No one should be made to feel like a failure and have their worth defined by comparison. No one should have to feel like they are a failure that don't deserve love because they did not achieve something.
10 years ago, Vincent and Debra were on their honeymoon. Vincent was also on a quest to show Debra the home of his heart, mind and soul. He decided that visiting a sleepy Welsh town called Dolgellau was a great idea. He didn't even know how to pronounce the name correctly. It was a rather peculiar plan for a honeymoon considering it was in the middle of a cold dark and windy winter. There was nothing to do and only a really expensive Chinese take-out was open by 4pm. If you consider all these factors and Debra's deep disdain of the wind, Dolgellau is a poor choice.
To make up for that, Vincent took Debra on a drive down a path with many sheep and....field gates that she had to open by exiting the comforts of the car's warm heated seats. I bet she wasn't too impressed. As the windy path got really narrow and steep, Vincent fiddled with the manual gears of his rented Citroen wishing it was an automatic. At this point it could have really just ended with them not finding anything worth looking at and grumbling their way back to the hotel. It could have been one of those wasted trips that they would put behind them...
What they chanced upon at the end of the path was Cregennan Lakes. It was magical. In an instance, both Vincent and Debra fell deeply in love with the land. Apart from the wind and drizzle that cut short that magical moment, work was filling up their emails and it was time to head back to their daily grind on the equator. Ready at the gate for their 13.5 hour flight back, they were surprised that British Airways had upgraded them to business class. The bigger surprise was they were now three instead of two.
The years that follow were hectic. Debra and Vincent pushed themselves far beyond what most people would consider sane. They built a family and a business but a deep subconscious yearning for that place they can feel at home remained. Vincent would always tell Debra, "I miss home". But that didn't make sense. He had a loving home. When Vincent's dad suddenly went home to be with the Lord, nothing made sense anymore. What is home?
They embarked on a grand tour that would help them learn more about themselves, their children and what they were going to do with their lives...
7 months of travel later, they published a book, and this was one of the pages. They continued to dream of the land they would call home.
"It's been 10 years, just give up already..."
"Know when it is time to give up!"
These voices got louder and louder and it became immensely difficult to dream again.
But here is Vincent, Debra, Matthias and Gwyneth in Dolgellau. It took 10 years but here they are.
Eateries, shops and the town felt alive. 4 of them felt alive! Especially with the delicious cheese cakes and full English that filled their tummies.
Just like the previous time, Vincent wrangled a little Citroen up the really steep hills and tiny country roads. And as the lakes came into view, he played the Welsh hymn that has been playing all week at home. As Calon Lân played on the car stereo, there was silence in the car...
I don't ask for a luxurious life,
the world's gold or its fine pearls,
I ask for a happy heart,
an honest heart, a pure heart.
A pure heart full of goodness
Is fairer than the pretty lily,
None but a pure heart can sing,
Sing in the day and sing in the night.
If I wished for worldly wealth,
It would swiftly go to seed;
The riches of a virtuous, pure heart
Will bear eternal profit.
Evening and morning, my wish
Rising to heaven on the wing of song
For God, for the sake of my Saviour,
To give me a pure heart.
As Vincent parked the car in the exact spot he parked 10 years ago, nobody moved. The stillness and silence in the car was in fact a guise to the fact that Debra and Vincent were both reduced to tears looking out of the window. The stillness did not reflect the immeasurable deluge of emotions. Both of them were suddenly and unexpectedly hit with the feeling of homecoming at that moment. Without saying a word to each other, they both felt the same incredible emotions. It took a really long time, but it finally felt right and complete.
Having explored the place for themselves, the kids surprised their parents by asking them to take them there every day.
"It takes a long time to drive here you know..."
"You can look for a house and we can stay here!"
They have all found their happy place. May this be their happily ever after...
An extraordinary afternoon later, they travelled down to the estuary that Vincent chanced upon while exploring the area via Google street view. The place looked strangely familiar.
They drank in remembrance of their beloved dad and grandad.
This is our story of homecoming.
Our first British Summer is finally here. We've been out and about making the best of the dry weather and long days. Britain is GORGEOUS in summer! We hope you'll enjoy the 60 plus photos that'll come up in this bumper post. More than that I'd like to share a little of why we are surrendering. We are putting up the white flag.
Finally after 6 months, we have touched the sea again. We surrendered to the lure of the sea and being able to dress in shorts/t-shirt again. I think more than that is the fact we are back at a place we visited 10 years ago and were disappointed because it was closed. This is a recurring theme that I'll talk about in detail later.
Brighton beach is my kind of beach. Instead of the regular sand, there are pebbles instead. No messy cleanups. Just strolling down the beach and enjoying the sea breeze brought smiles to all our faces. The pier is also an amazing place if you enjoy bumper cars and old school roller-coasters. The British seaside charm is a very unique experience that you can only fully experience in summer. It comes alive in summer and hibernates in winter.
A short drive away down the Marine Parade was a series of white cliffs. The famed cliffs that inspired the song "The White Cliffs of Dover". Although this isn't dover, it still evoked a moment of deep reflection. This was one of the last things we saw before Debra and I left the UK on our honeymoon 10 years ago. It was so stunning we were speechless.
With the dry weather going strong, we planned another trip a few days after returning from the South Coast. With our snack bag and lunch packs done up, we booked tickets to a museum in London and punched in the address on google maps. 1 hour into the drive, we hit the first of several traffic jams on the motorway. A quick time check made us realise that we can't take the kids to the play area and museum anymore. "Plan B then!" I thought to myself. We parked the car and realised that the cable-car station we planned to go to wasn't where we thought it was. It was a 20 minute walk away and we decided against picking a fight with the blazing hot sun. We surrendered. We quickly consulted google maps again and decided to take the river bus down the thames towards the most central areas of London. We were ALL thrilled with the speed and power of the boat as well as the awesome views. It was a special perspective to see the city from the Thames itself.
You may be thinking...the UK can't be hotter than the tropics? Thing is, a lot of British homes and public transport aren't built to deal with the heat. At 27 celcius it can feel like you are suffocating. Fans and air-conditioners DO NOT come standard in houses, buses and Underground trains. It can be a pretty miserable experience if you are in a packed train on the London Underground without air-conditioning. House windows usually come with very small openings. It is mostly a small narrow opening at the top. So we've been flying the white flag lately hoping for the colder days to come back. Life can be SO ironic isn't it?
On this trip, we have also surrendered our money at the Leicester Square Lego store. The selection at the store is massive. If you love Lego, you'll be amazed at the Aston Martin, London bus and Harry Potter themed life sized displays. We decided to get the kids very early birthday presents. Debra got a custom Lego figure that is seriously her alter-ego. Maybe when the kids are grown up, I'll be hanging out with a wife with neon pink hair at the beach. (Scroll down for example...)
After a long day of amazing sights and shopping, we needed a good dinner. I knew Din Tai Fung would satisfy all of us. It has been 6 long months since we last had a Chinese restaurant meal. We surrendered to the "wok hey", chili oil and baos. I think that the experience is a bittersweet one because my late-father loved Din Tai Fung. It was his last birthday meal and last restaurant meal. The meal stirred up memories and we all also wished my mom was in the UK enjoying it with us. It tasted extra good after a long day of braving the jams, crowds and the heat. We did however have to surrender £75 (SGD 126.93, USD 94.60).
The ride back to our car on the Elizabeth Line was a lot quieter and air-conditioned. We were greeted by a mesmerising sunset.
I think this is the biggest and most significant part of our surrender. Earlier, I spoke about the recurring theme of surrendering. At some point, one will realise how brutal life can be. There are moments that will completely wreck havoc in our lives. Just like a traffic jam or sudden closure, it can upset our plans. 10 years ago when Debra and I felt the disappointment of not being able to see Brighton Pier and South Stack Light house, I don't think we realised 10 very hard years were before us.
Whether you call it God's plans, fate or just life, it takes a certain level of surrender to keep going. We need to realise that quite often, not everything can be planned or controlled. We dreamt and we planned in search of a homeland we would find wholesome for a family but the search was long and fruitless. The pandemic and my dad's passing rocked us real hard. The only way we could stay sane was when we surrendered and took one day at a time.
Being back in North Wales at the South Stack Lighthouse was a very special moment.
We would never imagine that we will be here 10 years later with two children. It is extra special because after our trip here 10 years ago, we found out we were pregnant with Matthias. The beauty of Wales made such a huge impact that 3 years after that, I decided name my daughter Gwyneth which is the anglicised spelling of Gwynedd. Gwynedd is the Welsh county where Snowdonia is. That's also where our love affair with mountains began. How our lives are panning out now is beyond our wildest imagination. I believe in surrendering now. This surrender can bring a lot of peace. Putting away the pride and having faith that one day, things will work for our good keeps us going.
The sea bashes the rocks and the winds assault the cliffs but seabird colonies continue to thrive. The rain lashes out but the flowers still bloom. The resilience in nature and its staggering beauty of remind us that out of the immense pressures something good will emerge! If you're facing a difficult time, don't give up.
We ended our time in Wales around Great Orme in Llandudno. Gwyn enjoyed the views so much that she asked Debra and I if we could buy a house there so she can enjoy the views every day. Perhaps darling...perhaps.
We'll see you guys round the corner for the next adventure!
It has been WARM, DRY and SUNNY! These 3 words are enough to help anyone living across the British isles break out a little smile. After a dark cold winter, we had a gloomy wet spring and now summer is finally upon us. Daytime temperatures are around 16 to 22 celcius which means we've packed away all our winter gear. It is now nice enough to head out in shorts and t-shirt. Best of all, it is still possible to enjoy the outdoors without soaking our clothes in sweat.
We've clocked several hundred miles and travelled across the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and Brecon Beacons. We've found ourselves exclaiming in immense joy and awe as we drive along tiny country roads. It is a feeling we haven't felt since we left Sapa, Vietnam and Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Click here to read about all our other travels!
Now let's get to the fun parts!
SOUTH WALES (The Big Pit Coal Mine)
We drove over 2 hours before we got to South Wales. I was telling the kids that we had entered another country in the same country. We had crossed borders without our passports! It is a very unique union we've got here in Britain. The drive into the hilly parts strained our car's little 1 litre engine and there were many sections where we had to get down to gear 2 before we could make progress.
We had never gone down a mine shaft before and we definitely knew nothing about mining. The Big pit is an amazing destination that's both educational, reflective and enjoyable. We got our free underground tickets before we headed to a waiting area.
Our guides greeted us and brought us to a room to get kitted out with a special mining headlamp. The battery was strapped to our bodies and we had to wear a hard hat too. I was pleasantly surprised that they had equipment that fit children. They do weigh quite a few KGs but it was manageable even for Matt and Gwyn. We had to surrender ALL battery operated items because they can cause a spark and set off certain gases that the remaining coal may give off. All watches, car keys, mobile phones and cameras had to be put away on the surface before we took the "cage" down the shaft.
We got down 90m underground and was led through various tunnels, shown the equipment used and told about the dangers miners faced. It was both a fascinating experience and a really reflective one. At one point, the guide instructed us to all turn off our lamps and try to see our palms in front of us to illustrate the darkness miners experienced in Victorian times. Women, children and men who couldn't afford candles (yes they had to buy their own to work the mines) worked in absolute darkness. Horses that were used to pull carts stayed underground for the rest of their lives once they entered the mine. The immense hardship and dangers they faced in that darkness is absolutely shocking.
Out of these "dark satanic mills", homes were warmed, trains had steam and ships sailed across oceans. The dirty coal as we call it today advanced civilisation. I applaud the Welsh government for preserving the coal mine and funding the museum. It is completely free to visit and I think that helps us put things into perspective. Yes, we need to care for our environment and use cleaner fuels but we also need to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us too.
We also got to ask many questions along the way and Gwyn asked the guide if she could try the tool that miners used to shovel coal into the cart. She got what she asked for! Her response was most hilarious "OH IT IS SO HEAVY! I don't think I can work here". I asked the guide how people did their "business" underground...he said "ANYWHERE!" and "sometimes they put a pile on the conveyor belts carrying coal up to the surface as a joke". Oh gosh....
We headed off to the mining simulator after we got back up to the surface. It was a light and sound show where machines from different eras come to life as miners shared their stories. A quick lunch later we headed off to scale the highest peak in South Wales.
Pen y Fan
Measuring 886m above sea level, we thought it wouldn't be that tough to scale because our starting point was somewhere around 500m above sea level. The sun was out and the place looked absolutely gorgeous.
10 minutes into the hike the burn in our quads and calves became pretty real. The incline was pretty punishing for amateur hikers like us. The sun felt pretty hot but the wind was intense and cold. It wasn't the most pleasant of climbs but we pressed on. Along the way we met the real champions: the sheep. They scale the peaks in search of the best tasting grass and hang around with their friends on perilously steep sides of the mountain. Unaffected by the wind, they graze leisurely while we huffed and puffed our way up.
At around 780m just shy of the summit, the wind became very intense and the clouds blocked off the sunshine. Our muscles were crying out for a break. The children were increasingly whiny and it became clear we've reach our limit for the climb. We popped a few sandwiches into our tummies in that crazy wind and headed back down. The view was absolutely liberating.
My ankles were sore and unstable for a few days after this climb and I realised that my boots didn't provide sufficient support. Wear proper hiking books with ankle support if you intend to climb here! The downhill is especially punishing on the joints because it very uneven and rocky on portions of the trail.
We decided the next trip was to be a little more leisurely before we attempt anything like the Scafell pike (Highest point in England)...
Once we had recovered and stopped aching, we found our way to the Lake District via the Yorkshire Dales. The Ribblehead Viaduct is one of those scenic places that you can't miss in this area! Built between 1870 and 1874, this iconic viaduct cost more than 100 men their lives to build. It is still being used today!
Windermere Lake, Brockhole on Windermere (Lake District)
Travelling with two kids also meant that we can't do much passive sight seeing for too long. They kids like to do things. These lively little ones prefer to be out there doing something that appeals to all their sense. We got to this amazing lake front destination and took a short stroll before we sat down to have a nice picnic by the waters. They also got to burn off some energy at the playground after a sugary snack and long car ride.
I mean just look at it. It is AMAZING! You don't have to pay an entrance fee to enjoy it and the kids aren't fussing about sweating buckets. If the day ended here, it would have been pretty satisfying already. Then we saw a sign "Boats, Kayaks and Paddle-boards for rent". I looked at Debra in the eye and we both agreed without a single spoken word that WE HAD TO GO ON THE LAKE IN A BOAT! I headed straight to the rental booth and asked if I needed a boat license to drive and they said I didn't need one. It was GAME ON.
We paid £40 for an hour and they fitted us with life jackets of the right size before briefing us about the health and safety rules.
The kids were a little terrified in the beginning because it was their first time on an open top boat driven by their father haha! The kids were absolutely thrilled as we cruised along the lake. We kept checking with them if they were enjoying the activity and they said they were! They even suggested I buy a boat so we can do this again...ermm....
We didn't plan to do a boat ride because we didn't know we had this option but it turned out to be one of the best change of plans ever. We manage to catch a glimpse of the Wray Castle and the beautiful hills surrounding the picturesque lake.
What are your plans this summer?
Let us know in the comments what would be fun for the kids. We are always open to new ideas! We are happy to connect via chat and social media channels too!
One year ago in April 2022, we gave up all we've known to travel for 7 months across South-East Asia. (If you're interested and want to read those, click on the blog categories at the bottom of the page to see our travels by country!) We walked on through the wind, through the rain, through the tears, had our dreams tossed and blown. We tried to find healing for our grief and a way forward but nothing seemed to work. We tried out best to walk through the storms with our heads held high.
Life can be rough. In fact, it can be rough for an excruciatingly long time. It is so easy to lose sight of it all in a storm. But I hope that whatever your circumstances may be, you'll walk on. I hope you'll walk on with hope in your heart and that you'll never walk alone.
We just said goodbye to April 2023 and it looks like we've finally seen off the worst of the storms. The shadows of the storms of life along with the gloomy bitterly cold winter has gone. We can finally see glimpses of the golden sky. We are here we are in the United Kingdom settled like we've been here forever. The kids are done with their semester of homeschooling, I've turned 12,500 words into turn-it-in while Debra has kept us all happy and alive with yummy grub.
As you will notice with the pictures below, we've shedded the layers of thick clothing because t-shirt weather is finally starting to arrive. We've been so blessed by a couple of days of amazing sunshine and balmy 16-19 celcius weather.
With the deadlines sorted, I've had a lot more time to hit the motorways in search of places we can explore and enjoy. The kids didn't get their Easter or Mid-term breaks because I was really busy and we decided to have our schedules align. But now...they get a long break with me!
We got the ball rolling with the RAF Midlands museum that really gave us great insights into the history of human conflict. Matthias and I were excited to see the Spitfires and Messerschmitts and other historic aircraft we've watched about in documentaries. I can't say the same for the ladies. They are amazed at these planes and the stories behind them but they just don't have the same fascination with machines as the boys do. I don't mean to generalise what do you think?
We had the opportunity to visit an apple orchard in Cotswold this week. No luck with the apples because apple picking season is in summer so we still have a little bit of waiting to do. Having lived our entire lives in a city, we were absolutely clueless about the times crops are sown and harvested. We'll keep learning! We did manage to buy some apple juice and enjoyed a nature trek around the property. The cool air and warm sunshine made everything look so stunning.
For a person who takes cleanliness very very seriously (wifey reckons it is OCD...), I still can't decide if I like cleaning a salty, gritty, mucky car or one that's an insect graveyard. One thing for sure, the scenery is a feast for the senses and the soul. It is worth cleaning the car for.
With an abundance of daylight nowadays (Sun rises at 530am and sets at 830pm), it is a lot easier to plan days out. It is nice that we can drive home in the evenings and still make it home with daylight to spare. What a contrast from the 230pm sunsets just a few months ago. We managed a nature walk/farm visit + Cotswold (Bourton-on-the-water) in the same day!
That's all for today's episode of our lives. We recognise that though we live pretty extraordinary lives, all we want is to savour the ordinary things. What you and l want is to experience love, our beautiful world and joy in our hearts. We hope our journey through grief, change and uncertainty resonates. We don't know when but we know there'd be better days. Press on and walk on with hope in your hearts.
家 (home) is a very peculiar mandarin character. The top part represents a roof and the bottom letter represents a pig. I'm inclined to think that the ancient Chinese person's home is where their most treasured roast pork is. There is perhaps much wisdom in this because the English speaking world would agree that home is where your heart is.
I've be raised all my life to think that Singapore is my home. Compulsory education meant that I was taught the right brand of history, learnt the national education objectives and sang the national anthem every single day for 12 years. I was conscripted by law to an elite military unit for 2 years to defend the only "home" I knew. I thought I knew where home was. When I returned to Singapore in 2010 after my stint at Loughborough University, I suffered a severe identity crisis. All that I was taught and ever knew was suddenly questioned and I did not have the answers.
Since then, I've tried explaining why I felt more at home in the UK. I was dismissed as an anglophile and a young man who doesn't know how lucky he was to be Singaporean. I've also been told many times to look at the strikes, the political "mess" and the statistics that condemn Britain as a shameful fallen empire. These people quote Singapore's GDP per capita, multi-million dollar properties, high HDB (public housing flat) ownership and highly ranked efficiency almost like a religious mantra to justify their pride of being Singaporean. The thing is, I am not questioning why you call Singapore home.
The crisis is MINE.
The questions are MINE.
Home should MINE TO DEFINE.
Home is where you thrive.
Thriving is beyond just making money.
Thriving is about growing, learning, being a better person and being emotionally healthy. Thriving is also being kind to others, encouraging others and being wholesome.
Thriving is for those with exceptional abilities that don't fit in a prescribed schedule.
Thriving is also for people with disabilities.
Thriving is for all personalities.
13 years later in spring 2023, I am still trying to answer the questions and define what home is to me and my family. Here is a little portion of my recent thoughts...
HOME IS WHERE WE LEARN AND GROW
It has taken a whole new dimension now that I see my own children thriving in the UK. I see Gwyn getting excited about dance class, loving Sunday school and asking her homeschool parents for more work. She feels heard and understood and therefore She WANTS to learn. We are so grateful that she doesn't have to feel unduly pressured to perform.
She greets me at the door when I get back to ask me, "Papa, what did you do at University today? What did you learn today?". She does it EVERYDAY. It touches my heart that she sees the importance of taking something away every time you go to class. I want our home and country to be one that protects and nurtures this attitude.
The strongest desire to learn must also be met with the opportunity to do so. We are over the moon that Matthias is being mentored by a volunteer to be a radio presenter. He ran his first live show on a community radio station here in Leicester last weekend. The beauty of it all is that there are many others who are passionate about sharing their craft with others in and around the country.
Learning is not about getting a grade or getting up a ranking table. Learning is not an unpleasant rite of passage to a job. We should learn zealously because we are infinitely curious and passionate of a certain craft/field. If it leads to a good vocation, that's a bonus. If it doesn't, the attitude itself will set us on a good path wherever we choose to venture. This is not a predominant belief where I grew up.
HOME IS WHERE THE SPACE AND CLIMATE PROMOTES GOOD HEALTH
I think it is hard to call a place home if the climate brings you an incredible amount of distress and health issues. British people moan about the rain, snow, sleet and gloomy skies all the time but we'd rather have these than being a sweaty mess in extreme humidity all day long. When the sun comes out, many like us are compelled to head out there and make the best of the sunshine. It encourages us to exercise and get outdoors.
And when we do get outdoors, we are always given a huge boost of endorphins. Being able to go trekking without being completely drenched in sweat makes us want to walk more, climb more and play more. There's trees to climb, sticks to pick and rocks to scale. We come home happy and do not have to worry about an eczema flare up.
Seeing the seasons change and flowers bloom must be one of the biggest highlights of our time here. We really don't mind a home where we are surrounded by a lively natural environment that isn't a curated concrete man-made place. In fact, this has grown our desire to learn about and appreciate the nature around us. It is such a wholesome experience!
I've also mentioned in our previous blog posts about how we are more able to find gluten-free grocery and dining options here. Allergies are taken very seriously and they never have to feel left out when snacks are given out. You can't feel at home if food around you is making you feel constantly unwell can you?
HOME IS WHERE THERE'S KINDNESS
Our kids have had crazy amount of fun playing with other children they have met for the first time. I have witnessed groups of kids readily stop their game and give a Gwyn a go at the football/ basketball. Some of them were complete strangers. Our kids don't get strange stares when they initiate play or a conversation here. It just feels so wholesome that children can be children and not grow up with a constant wall of defence against some perceived threat. They way kids play (or don't play) reflects a huge deal about the home and country they live in.
I don't want to paint the UK as some kind of heaven. It isn't.
But if I really have to compare the road cultures, it has been heavenly here.
Most people give way to others. Put on your indicators in Singapore, it is almost likely that the car behind will cut you off. People in the opposite direction use their high beams to say, I'm slowing down for you, you can go ahead and turn. In Singapore, high beam is used to maliciously blind the person in front because they have offended you in some way.
People let their hazard lights blink twice here to say thank you. In Singapore, it is quite often used when you are pretending to stop due to hazards but is fact brake checking someone. The horn is rarely used here unless there's real danger or in a very occasional moment of rage. In Singapore, it's the quintessential way of saying "f*** off" on the roads daily.
Way more patience, way more kindness, way less stressed. That's how a home should be, no?
The idea of home is a very personal one. Considering what are the most important aspects of home can be very beneficial. It could change the culture in your house, it could change the path of your family and it can start a quest like how it did for us. What's your idea of home?
Why the countryside?
Yes, it is in the middle of nowhere but it is also the center of it all. The countryside is where our food comes from and it is where we can run away to seek refuge from our stressful lives. It is food for both the soul and stomach.
More than 25 years ago, my dad brought the family for a vacation on a farm in rural South Australia. A little Singaporean city boy who knew nothing but a concrete jungle all his life was suddenly staying in a little cottage on a piece of land so vast he could see the nothing but fields stretching all the way to the horizon. I was ecstatic that I was free to run around (and not sweat because it was winter), sit around a fire and go shoot hares at night with the big boys. Yes, it was dusty, muddy, cold and we battled the houseflies. Those were worthy inconveniences for the liberation I felt. My love for the countryside deepened even further during my last stint in the UK.
Now that we're back, I try my best to do the same for my family. We jump into our little hatchback and drive out of our village into the country or farm when the weather gods are happy to bestow us a precious dry and sunny winter's day. We were so blessed to have one of those days at Stonehurst farm in Mountsorrel (A village north of Leicester City near Loughborough) yesterday.
COURAGE, KNOWLEDGE AND HEART RATE
Those who have stuck with us for the past 6 years would know that Hiro & Jack are the names of our late guinea pigs. They lived long lives (5 and 8 years) and we loved them to bits. Our human kids literally learned how to walk by holding themselves up with the guinea pig cage. They talked to the guinea pigs, stroked them and fed them. But somehow they became very fearful of animals after the piggies passed on and after two years of the pandemic madness.
We've been trying our best to help them overcome that fear. They did pick up courage to stroke cats/dogs while we traveled last year. This visit to the farm surprised us at what being outdoors can do to the confidence in kids.
We also took the opportunity to explain our relationship with animals to the kids. I think it is important to let the kids know that some of these animals work for us and others are our food. It is important that we raise, work and slaughter them humanely. It is easy in our city lives to be completely disconnected from these realities because all we see are chicken nuggets and fish fingers. People should understand that they should never waste food because the farmers work really hard and we take lives of animals to put food on the table.
A visit outdoors won't be complete without getting the heart rate up! Mine went up when I saw the amount of sand/hay stuck on their clothes and shoes (which means it will find its away into my car and house....)
Growing up in a home and city that's compulsively cleaned, it is hard to do otherwise. Keeping up obsessively with cleaning/tidying can be anxiety inducing and very unhealthy. Being in the countryside teaches me to be less compulsive with desiring a perfectly clean house and car. The cold air and calm natural surroundings takes my anxiety away. Nature teaches me that it is okay to have some mess.
THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY
A few weeks back, we took the kids on a very exciting first farm visit in the UK. Meteorological service said that there was no chance of rain or snow. The sky outside looked sunny and we decided to give it a go. We headed to Windmill farm located in the south of Leicestershire between Leicester and Market Harborough. When we arrived at the farm and checked out a few animals, it started drizzling. Oh! This is as British as it can get! So we thought....
Without warning....this happened....
People living in the tropics will ask, what's the difference between snowfall and sleet falling? Snow is frozen ice crystal, it falls as a flake or in clumps of flakes. Sleet is kinda wet and partially melted. There are many different forms of snow and it falls in a number of ways. We were so blessed to have experienced 3 in a row!
We were all smiles but it was getting colder and so we headed inside to warm up by coffee, hot chocolate and soft-play.
Once we've warmed up, we headed back out to see the animals in the barn. I like farms because we get to be up close with the animals. I even managed to observe different parenting styles among the sheep and their lambs. Some just eye-balled their lambs when the little ones walk away from them. Some just follow at a distance. It was hilarious I even managed to observe a helicopter parent sheep that made sure she followed her child's every step and pushed others out of the way to protect the lamb.
What's a visit to the farm without stepping out in the fields right? Only this time the field was rather frozen, snowy and muddy. We had a long, mindful, quiet and relaxing stroll around the fields. All we could hear was the crunching of snow and ice under our boots. Just look at how beautiful it is...
What is the farm and countryside effect you may ask? In a world of instant gratification via endless scrolling on our screens, looking beyond ourselves is a very important exercise. It really helps to have wholesome experiences out there in the fields and farms that ground us and reconnect us to nature and ourselves. Feeling stressed lately? Kids addicted to their devices? Try the countryside, nature reserve, seaside and great outdoors today!
Faster, better and newer is the only way we've been told. Life is lived by treading the narrow lane of doing only what makes you profits, gives you savings and advances your overall career or wealth. We've rejected that very early on with our odd life. We chose a line of work that allowed us to homeschool our kids and worked from home long before the pandemic happened. We chose the road, our mental health and building a core memory with our children.
The "skeletons" of the UK keep reminding us of why we've made this huge move across the globe. We chose this life so we have the freedom to preserve memories and form our identities beyond the prescribed way of life.
I recall when dad first retired, he would spend his days cycling to places around Singapore. He would take long bus rides from one end of the island to another. He would also come home and lament how the Singapore he knew is no longer around. He would tell us of the places he formed great memories at and how they have disappeared. I felt that it was his way of reconnecting with the land and his surroundings after more than 40 years of work that occupied so much of his time. But his attempt at reconnection only brought out a sad sense of disconnect. I was then only in my early 30s but his experience resonated deeply with me. So many places that defined my childhood have been torn down in favour of the newer and better. It explains my own disconnect with the supposed "home" country.
Old places, things and buildings give us a sense of stability in our identity and acts as a reference point for us. The sense of place forms our identities, sometimes personally and sometimes as a collective. When I first stepped foot in Britain and the rest of Europe, I observed how they have kept vast amounts of old buildings and archived artefacts in museums. You can find a museum for anything from transportation, space, natural history, art, science, astrology to lawnmowers. (There's really a British Lawnmower Museum in Southport!) Debra and I often laugh about how the Brits are such hoarders because they keep and preserve everything.
We visited Oxford for an afternoon last weekend and the realisation hit me like a freight train. These worthless "Skeletons" that are preserved do tell a story. That story is continuously told to generations and beyond if we preserve, display and teach about them. Museums, old buildings, old things and skeletons are important because they are depositories of our collective cultural and historical identities. They make us, us.
Preservation of heritage is not just a frivolous nostalgic exercise.
It dawned upon me that these places we visit and form memories at will still exist when I'm long dead. Matthias could be walking into Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 2083 with his grandchildren, recounting his childhood running down the hall of a building opened in 1860 with his sister Gwyn. There in an instance, an invisible thread connects 4 generations, their memories and their ties with the land.
We had a magical afternoon hearing the stories these skeletons and buildings of several hundred years speak to us. We know that we are all gaining knowledge, creating memories and forming our identities.
We were also excited to find some ancient Egyptian artefacts and other artefacts that helped us make sense of history. How did writing come about? What is embalming? It is one thing reading about it, it is another seeing, hearing, being physically present and touching something as a process of learning. Both kids were never fond of museums before we came to Britain. They are now excited about going to one because they make their books and Horrible Histories show come alive.
What are your thoughts? How important is preserving heritage to you?
We say, keep the skeletons (old buildings, places and artefacts too!) and let them speak wondrous stories to generations.
Sharing our love of art, travel and learning with you.