Mother’s Day in Batsto

 

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Trigger Warning: This post contains a single photo of a spider.

It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and, as my Mother’s Day treat, I wanted to go and explore somewhere new.  This Spring has been totally drecih –  a good Scots word for dreary.  It has been chilly, grey, and wet, and not very conducive to getting out and about.  Between the weather and a too busy schedule, I felt like I was getting cabin fever from not getting out and about and exploring.  So Mother’s Day was the perfect day for going for a wander somewhere new.  We chose to go to Batsto, an abandoned town in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.  I learned about the existence of Batsto from Richard Lewis’ wonderful photography blog.  Rich was actually kind enough to let me pick his brains about things to do and places to explore in the Pine Barrens.  My boys are good walkers with great stamina but we have learned from experience that they enjoy themselves a lot more and whine a lot less if we provide some sort of focus to our hikes, rambles, and wanderings.  I felt that exploring Batsto Village as a prelude to hiking a trail would be a great day out.

Our first port of call was the Visitor’s Center.  This was primarily so we could use the restroom after our drive from the Philly ‘burbs but it also provided a useful introduction to the history of the town.  Interpretative boards and exhibits informed us that Batsto was founded in the mid-18th Century – though the Lenni Lenape lived in the area before.  It was a chap named Charles Read who set up the first ironworks there, using the bog ore found in the area and trees from the woodland for the smelting furnaces.  That Batsto Iron Works changed hands a few times and had a boom period during the Revolutionary War as it provided a range of products, including munitions, to the Continental Army.  Then, in the mid-19th Century, as the iron works declined, Batsto became a glassworking area, particularly renowned for its production of window glass.  The village came under state ownership in the 1950s and the last resident left in the 1980s.

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A little bit of history absorbed, we ventured outdoors to begin our explorations.  We saw a pile of bog ore and the remains of a wooden ore boat, used to transport the raw ore from the lake.  We also saw the ice house where food provisions could be stored.  Huge chunks of ice would be cut from the lake and packed with saw dust inside the ice house so that the food could be stored there without it spoiling.  I am old enough to remember some people still having cold cupboards in their houses rather than refrigerators but it was a good opportunity to explain to my kids how things were done before electricity and the advent of domestic appliances.  Another outbuilding contained carriages, some of which looked like carcasses picked clean by carrion.  Other barns would have housed different farm animals.  In the wheelwright and blacksmith workshops, the many and various tools of the trade were on display.  I could almost imagine the blacksmith and wheelwright wandering in, picking up the equipment, and setting to work.

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The younger boys enjoyed playing inside the mule barn.  Unfortunately, rather than taking inspiration from the actual setting and playing a game of old-timey farmers, they decided to turn it into a horror game in which they had to stay steps ahead of some malevolent ghosts who were tracking them down.  There were some genuine shrieks when they found themselves squeezed into thickly webbed corners with spiders.  Thankfully no other visitors were within earshot at the time.  While they spooked each other, I took my time studying the Corn Crib.  I had never seen such an agricultural structure before and its strange shape really appealed to me.  It was as if a wonky pentagon shaped barn had had a tunnel bored through its centre.  This was where corn was stored and shucked.  The machinery that did so was powered by a water turbine attached to the adjacent Gristmill.  This was another building the boys enjoyed exploring because there were multiple accessible levels within it.  The basement layer was also thick with dusty grit which enabled them to scrawl spooky messages to each other – and any visitors who followed after us.

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In the middle of all of these agricultural and industrial buildings were a mansion and a general store.  I absolutely loved the architectural design of the mansion because it was so utterly crazy.  There were a variety of shapes and angles on every facet of the house.  There were also windows of every shape and style.  Maybe I liked it because it was quirky.  Maybe it was because it was the type of house I might end up drawing with no symmetry or organised pattern to the design.  I would love to take a tour of its interior some time.  We could go inside the general store which was fun.  The interior contained a display much like customers would have encountered upon entering the store.  I am a sucker for things being stored in little drawers and little pigeonholes.  I have fond memories of selecting penny sweeties (candy) from wooden drawers when I was wee which might be part of it.  I, therefore, particularly liked seeing the drawers of spices.  Mr Pict liked the veranda outside the general store.  It put him in mind of westerns.  I think he could imagine sitting in a rocking chair watching the world go by from that veranda.

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We took the path past the lake and a weir roaring with water.  This brought us to the area where the iron furnaces once stood and the site where the glassworks would have been.  Little or no trace remains of either.  The sawmill was still standing, however, and we could see how the trees from the surrounding woodland would have been turned into lumber products, including shingles for the exterior of houses.

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Just a little way off from the sawmill were all the remaining village houses.  These were houses, built in the early 19th Century, that occupied by the village workers.  A few of them were open so that we could go in and see the rooms and some mock ups of how they would have been furnished.  I always like to imagine how people would have lived in the past, being much more interested in social history than industrial history.

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Our intention had been to take one of the nature trails that leads off from Batsto.  However, the children were getting hungry which makes them grizzlier than bears.  We knew that setting out on a trek was inviting disaster that would start with grumbles and escalate to snarls.  We, therefore, determined that we would walk through the woods to the church that once served the people of Batsto and is still in service today for the local community.  Half way down the trail, however, we discovered that the path ahead was flooded with no obvious way around.  It had rained hard all day the previous day so this was not all together surprising but it was disappointing.  Mr Pict and I decided not to push our luck with the kids and their stomachs so, with a sigh, we turned around and headed back through the woods, through the village, and back to the car.

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Rich had recommended a few places to eat in the area so we headed to one of these.  I love to eat out for Mother’s Day as it means I don’t have to cook or clean.  I love it even more if the food is especially delicious.  The Vincetown Diner did not disappoint.  It had the relaxing, laid back atmosphere and spaciousness of a diner but the food was a step up from regular diner food (though I am actually a fan of diner food).  I had crab cakes with garlic mash and lemon aoli which was packed with flavour and stuffed me to the gunnels.  My eyes were bigger than my belly and had scanned the dessert case on the way to our seats so I still went ahead and ordered the chocolate volcano cake.  I was only able to eat one mouthful of it so I boxed it up and had it the next day.  Still scrumptious.

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We had a superb day out exploring the Pine Barrens.  We will likely return to Batsto again, maybe in a different season, and we would also like to explore more of the surrounding area and trek along some of the trails.  I also hope the dreary weather has ended now so that this can be the first of many weekend wanderings.  We have been cooped up for too long.

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Battleship Sleepover

A couple of weekends ago, my two youngest children got to experience sleeping on board the USS New Jersey.  It wasn’t that I had tired of their antics and decided to ship them out to learn some military discipline; it was an event with their Scout troop.  I did not actually go with them.  I happily and wholeheartedly volunteered to stay home with the older two boys.  In the past, I have spent the night in a historic prison and an abandoned farming township but this time I felt that Mr Pict should have the sleepover experience.  This was not just because I wanted to stay home cosy in my jammies but also because I would have been the only mother on the trip and – quite frankly – because I did not fancy trying to sleep in a situation where I felt uncomfortable and claustrophobic.

The USS New Jersey is a battleship with a long and interesting history – well, interesting if you like military history which I don’t but which Mr Pict does (another reason why he was just the parent for the job).  It was launched in 1942 and not completely decommissioned until the early 1990s so it saw action in World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War.  I really cannot accurately relate any of its detailed history, however, as I was not on the tour and – though I did listen to my husband’s report – I did not absorb and retain the information.  That’s what Wikipedia is for.

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The USS New Jersey became a museum ship in 2001 and is permanently docked in Camden, New Jersey.  It can be visited during the day by members of the public but getting to stay overnight was only possible because of the kids being Scouts.  Soon after they arrived, the troop was taken on a guided tour by knowledgeable volunteers.  They got to see a wide variety of spaces on board the ship and learn about the different eras of its history.  Our youngest son even got to sit in the Captain’s chair, a position he apparently rather enjoyed.  After the tour, the group dined in the mess area.  My kids are cheese snobs so were not impressed by the box mac’n’cheese on offer but having to eat food you don’t necessarily love probably added to the whole naval experience.  They were lucky they didn’t get hard tack.  Their bunks for the night were the exact same bunks the navy personnel would have slept on when the battleship was active.  The photos of the kids slotted into the narrow beds made me feel queasy so I was very glad that we had made the choice to have Mr Pict act as chaperone.

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After breakfast the next morning, they got to have a daylight wander around the ship, look at the Philadelphia skyline from the vantage point of the deck, and then it was time to head home.  As lukewarm as I a about military history, I think it’s a pretty cool thing for them to be able to say that the slept overnight on a battleship.

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Wild in Cape May

In the Summer months, it seems like the entire of Philly and its suburbs decamps to the Jersey Shore.  I actually know plenty of people who also head to the coast at regular periods throughout the year.  It appears that the Jersey Shore is the destination of choice for most of our neighbours.  We, however, have only been a couple of times.  This is partly because I don’t like sand and partly because we are contrary besoms.  However, it is mostly because none of us find we can relax in crowded settings.  This is even more so in beach settings because of the experience of losing our youngest child on a crowded beach several years ago.  All of which preamble is to explain why it is, over three years since moving to America, we have only been to the Jersey Shore a couple of times.  Since we had an unseasonably nice day for February last weekend, we decided we should expand our explorations of New Jersey’s coastline and head to Cape May.

Suspecting the beach would still be chilly, we made the focus of our trip the Cape May County Zoo.  The zoo is free which appeals to my thrifty nature but had me concerned about the welfare standards.  Thankfully I was wrong to be cynical as the enclosures actually seemed well designed and considered.

We headed first to the reptile and amphibian house.  The kids and I always spend a lot of time in these areas at zoos so we wanted to prioritise having enough time there.  We were pleased that so many of the snakes, lizards, and frogs were on display in their tanks as quite often they are tucked away in little hollows and can barely be seen.  There were snakes large and small from places near and far; a variety of turtles, including one who was very crinkly and spiky looking; a large alligator; brightly coloured frogs and a chubby frog squashed in the corner of its tank; axolotls and newts; and an iguana riding on a tortoise’s back.

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With the exception of the tiger, which refused to put in an appearance, the mammals too were all out and about and easy for us to see.  My 9 year old was eager to see marsupials for some reason so was delighted to see wallabies lazing around in the sun, looking like they were watching Netflix on the sofa.  We also got to see a brace of black bears.  Aside from the baby black bear that ran across the road in front of us in West Virginia last summer, it was the closest any of us had been to a black bear since one of them was walking right along the fence line.  Its companion, meanwhile, was lying on its back with one leg up in the air against a fence.  In addition to seeing the lions, we heard the male roar.  It was an incredible sound, only the second time my kids have heard a real life lion roar, though the sight of the lions lolling around like large moggies was a bit less awe-inspiring.  There were also leopards – traditional and snow varieties – and a red panda, zebra, giraffes, ostriches, lemurs, and bison.

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We didn’t see all of the animals that inhabit the zoo (there are apparently over 250 species) but because admission was free we didn’t feel like we had to push things and see every last creature.  I would have kept going but the kids were rapidly escalating their hunger levels from peckish to rampagingly hangry so we decided to leave while the going was good and go in search of food.

After a very tasty sojourn in a Mediterranean diner, we headed for the actual shore.  It would have been cruel and unusual of us parents to take the kids to the Jersey Shore for the day and not actually let them anywhere near the beach.  The coast was decidedly chiller than even a short jaunt inland and the sky was darkening quickly but the kids were still determined to have fun.  We forget sometimes that these kids were used to playing on beaches year round on the west coast of Scotland and are pretty hardy and determined as a result.  They all kicked off their shoes within minutes and, while two of them did a sort of Chariots of Fire run along the sand, two of them lifted up their trouser legs to have a bit of a paddle in the Atlantic.  A bit of a paddle, however, turned into a wade and – before we could even issue a warning they would no doubt have ignored anyway – two of them ended up soaked.  Their answer was to just peel off their sodden trousers and continue playing in the surf.  Our youngest child was, therefore, frolicking in the sea with bare legs and a winter coat.  He looked hysterically ridiculous but he was having an absolute whale of a time.  Sometimes the boys just really need to be feral in the great outdoors.

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I couldn’t come to the coast and not see a lighthouse so our final destination for the day, as day slipped into night, was the Cape May Lighthouse.   The current lighthouse was built in 1859 and is the third incarnation of a lighthouse at that spot.  I guess third time was the charm.  I arrived too late to enter the lighthouse so I just had to content myself with looking at it.  Maybe some day I will return and force myself up the claustrophobic spiral staircase in order to see the view.

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Peddler’s Village

We had other plans for this weekend but between the murk and cold and my aches and pains, we decided at last minute to jettison them for something else.  We decided to go and explore Peddler’s Village because it afforded us a comfortable balance between fresh air and bursts of time spent indoors.

Peddler’s Village is essentially a shopping centre but one laid out like a small village rather than a strip mall.  The architecture is interesting and harks back to a bygone era and rural idyll but is, of course, completely faux.  I found it to be quaint and quiet and certainly preferable to the atmosphere of the average shopping mall.  It also presented us with the opportunity to pootle around in some independent retail stores as opposed to the same old chains.

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The first of these we visited was a cheese shop which tells you a lot about our family’s priorities.  I may be lactose intolerant but I am also an unrepentant cheesaholic.  I have given up all other forms of dairy except for cheese and clotted cream.  I take the hit of physical pain over the emotional pain of a life without cheese.  The cheese shop offered a wonderful array of delicious cheeses.  We all nibbled on samples and pressed our noses against the glass of the display case.  Imported and artisan cheeses aren’t cheap here in the US so we had to exercise self-restraint and limit ourselves to two wedges of cheese.  In the end we chose some Port Salut for reasons of nostalgia and a wonderfully tangy, mature cheddar that had been marinated and aged in balsamic vinegar.  On the subject of vinegars, the shop also sold bottles of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  I absolutely adored an orange and cranberry vinegar and even more so an amazing pomegranate infused one but I managed to leave the store without making a further purchase.

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The boys particularly enjoyed a store filled with geeky t-shirts and accessories and a toy store.  They spent ages in the toy store because it contained lots of items they had never seen in a chain toy store, despite the fact that most of those items were for a younger age group than them.  We also took them into an arcade where they enjoyed clambering on pieces of equipment and watching graphics.  Two of them decided to spend some money on playing a game but otherwise they weren’t really into it.  I have always hated arcades but Mr Pict has many happy childhood memories of playing in them.  Our sons seem to fall somewhere between our attitudes.

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There were lots of stores selling ceramics, housewares, a very tempting glassware shop, purveyors of jewellery and clothes.  I am not much of a shopper but I probably would have had more of a nose around in more stores had I not had the boys in tow.  Since there was nothing I needed or was looking for, I opted out of the stress and worry of taking kids into stores or listening to their whines as they were forced to wait outside for me, especially since by this juncture the boys were growing “hangry”.

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We left Peddler’s Village and crossed the river into New Jersey.  It had been ages since we had visited New Hope and Lambertville and we had never eaten there – discounting doughnuts and ice cream.  We choose to eat in the Lambertville Station and happily, despite being a party of six, there was only a brief wait for a table despite the place being very busy.  As its name suggests, the restaurant is a converted train station.  It’s interior was lovely with lots of wood and brass.  The Maitre’ d’s desk was what looked to be the old ticket booth.  We were seated in the area that had once been the platform which gave us a view over the canal and the streets outside.  The atmosphere was lovely, the staff were attentive, and the food was delicious.

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Since we were all stuffed full, we decided to get a spot of fresh air before getting back into the car and heading home.  We thought the boys would just have a bit of a wander on the shore line, watching the ducks and geese, but in the end they were there for ages, making up some game to entertain themselves, and we had to drag them into the car.  So the day might not have been remotely what we had planned but it was still a success.

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Long Island Beach, New Jersey

Every Summer there is seemingly a mass migration of the greater Philadelphia population towards the coast of New Jersey.  Most people I asked about their summer vacation plans were headed to The Shore.  As has been documented on this blog a few times before, I am not a fan of beaches because I loathe sand.  A beach based vacation, therefore, is not my idea of rest and relaxation.  However, because the rest of the Picts do enjoy the sand and surf, we do head to the beach on occasion.  We all agree, however, that we do not like crowded beaches and that rules out most of the Jersey Shore at this time of year.  Last Friday, however, we decided to experiment with a trip to Long Island Beach – or LBI as it is known.

The advantage of Long Island Beach is that, being devoid of a boardwalk, it is less touristy than many of its neighbouring beaches and is, therefore, a bit more subdued.  It was even quieter on Friday, however, because there was a damp chill in the air and a murky sea mist that never properly lifted.  As Brits brought up cowering on cold and grey beaches, however, we were unperturbed since the air temperature was perfectly pleasant for us.

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Mr Pict and the Pictlings spent a good few hours frolicking in the sea and playing on the sand.  The boys took turns burying each other, the youngest set himself a challenge of seeing how many clam shells he could find in the sea, and the middle two decided to turn seaweed into wigs.

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LBI is 18 miles long and very narrow so it is a very easy spot to explore.  After a delicious lunch at a diner and an ice cream break at Ben and Jerry’s, we went to the southern most end of the island for a snoop.  A whole fleet of heavy plant vehicles were labouring away on the wet sand to dredge and restore the sand dunes so that was interesting to watch.  The highlight of the trip, however, as far as the kids were concerned was finding the rotting carcass of a small shark.  They were even excited by the maggots wriggling beneath it.  It reeked.

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In our exploration of the island, the boys had spotted a very small amusement park type place called Fantasy Island which was opening at 4pm so we parents were persuaded to take them back there for one ride each.  There were not many rides to select from but that worked for us since we were limiting the kids.  Three of the boys elected to go on the ferris wheel accompanied by Mr Pict while the 13 year old decided to spectate with me and pocket what would have been spent on his ride.  Sensible child.

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Washington Crossing

This weekend we went to Washington Crossing, both a town in PA and a state park straddling both Pennsylvania and New Jersey on the banks of the Delaware River.  My 8 year old had to visit a local historic site in order to earn some sort of badge and the pack leader suggested Washington Crossing.  Every year, the folks of the area stage a reenactment of General George Washington’s Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware River in 1776.  Happily they don’t just stage the reenactment on Christmas Day but also on an earlier weekend because we could not have sold a Christmas Day excursion to walk some men in fancy dress row some boats to the kids.  Want to know how stoked the boys were to be attending this event?  Yup.  Correct.  Not.  At.  All.

Honestly, it was a hard sell.  On a list of a hundred trips my kids might be enthused about, standing on the banks of a river watching some historic reenactors go to and fro does not feature.  Not remotely.  In fact, it might feature on a list of things my kids will rebel against.  Which was kind of apt given it was all about a revolution.  It was also hard for me to whip them up into some sort of interest because, quite frankly, the Revolutionary War doesn’t especially engage me either.  Finally I segued from playing Devil’s Advocate with my failing and flailing attempts at persuasion and just went with threats of dire punishment to get them into the car and get the trip underway.

Washington Crossing was absolutely thronging when we arrived.  Finding parking proved to be quite a challenge.  Clearly whole vast herds of other parents had no difficulty enthusing their children about the event.  The best views were to be had from a VIP area with a marquee and ticketed entrance.  There was no way I was going to hand over cash just to hear my kids whine and gripe so we found a spot further along the bank and settled in there.  And by “settled” I mean that Mr Pict and I had to stay on hyper alert as our children picked up large sticks with which to have lightsaber fights, jumped off rocks down to the shore, gave other people palpitations as they scuttered down steep slopes at high speed, hurtling towards the water, and tried to escape.  Oh what fun.

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Finally it was time to watch the reenactment.  I then became utterly confused because the row boats pushed out from the Pennsylvania shoreline and crossed to New Jersey.  Somewhere in the dusty shelves of my memory, I thought that Washington had crossed the other way.  So, to be clear, I had dragged four unwilling and rebellious children on a trip to see a historic event reenacted when I had almost zero knowledge of the event.  This was going great.  So it transpired that what happened was that George Washington conducted a surprise maneouvre  whereby he crossed the river on Christmas night in order to attack the Hessian troops in Trenton.  They then crossed back to Pennsylvania with prisoners and some useful things they had purloined.  Washington’s troops would later cross again in order to defeat Cornwallis’ troops at Trenton.  This whole episode is the subject of Leutze’s famous painting.  So we watched the reenactors cross back and forth in the Durham boats, had our ears cleared and our ribs rattled by the boom of canon, and smelled the rotten egg of the smoke as it wafted thickly in our direction.

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It ended and the crowds clapped and cheered.  My boys yippeed because they could finally depart.  Honestly, it was not the most exciting trip I have ever taken them on but, as I explained to them, it could have been worse: I could have taken them to the Christmas Day reenactment after all.  I realised, however, that my lack of engagement and enjoyment was down to my very limited knowledge about the War of Independence.  Given that we live in an area that is so connected to, so immersed in the history and events of that era, I really must make an effort to learn more.  I think, therefore, that we may well return to Washington Crossing at some stage in order to visit the buildings and learn a bit more about the events we saw being depicted, see replicas of the boats up close, that sort of thing.  Of course, persuading my kids to return might be a whole other thing.

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Of Sharks and Super Bowls

We Picts had a very busy weekend: on Saturday we went to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, and yesterday we watched the Super Bowl – a first for the kids and I.

It was a very breezy and very chilly journey across the Delaware into New Jersey – with ice forming on the river – so we were all very glad to get through the doors of the Aquarium and into the galleries.  It has been a while since most of us visited an aquarium (Deep Sea World in North Queensferry, Fife, back in April 2012) but our 9 year old visited the Adventure Aquarium last year on a school trip and had been eager for the rest of us to see it.  I cannot say that it represented good value for money because, quite frankly, what aquarium ever is?  Along with zoos, they are always startlingly expensive for family days out.  That is one of the reasons why our visits to them are so few and far between.  However, this was a really very good aquarium and we really enjoyed our time there.

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We started off our trip with the stingray pool.  We were allowed to stick our hands into the water and feel the rays as they swam past, their wings flapping in and out of the surface.  The kids were absolutely delighted and loved experiencing the texture of the rays, enjoyed their splashing, found their smile-like expressions charming.  The little rays sped around the tank and had to be touched and petted as they darted past but the large rays – including one patterned like a leopard – were slower and were, as a result, more interactive when they approached the children.

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We had pre-booked a slot in the 4D cinema so that was where we headed next.  Normally we would not add on anything extra on top of such an expensive day out but our second grader is learning about dinosaurs at school at present so we splurged on some tickets to see a show about prehistoric sea creatures.  It was a particularly high quality 4D show.  There were puffs of air and splashes of water to co-ordinate with the film, of course, but what really made it so impressive was the rendering of the visuals and the educational content.  It followed the story of a trio of primitive dolphins – mother, daughter and son – based on the fossil record and showed their interaction with their environment and other creatures in their ecosystem.  The 3D elements were really well handled too which made it entertaining as well as absorbing.

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After the obligatory pretzel break, we wandered into the hippo area.  I have never seen hippos in an aquarium before so that was entirely new and it was interesting to see how they responded to a more aquatic environment having mainly seen them in primarily land based enclosures in zoos.  How they behaved was to laze around in the water.  One was entirely submerged, just raising its nostrils out of the water for long enough to take a breath, and the other was floating just on the surface.  We could view them from above the surface level and also descend some steps so that we could see into the tank below the water level.  Doing so enabled us to see all the fish who were nibbling at the hippos, giving them a clean up.  I wish they had been a bit more active – secretly I had hoped for a synchronised swimming routine – but it was completely cool to see them.

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Next up were jellyfish.  I have a thing for jellyfish as I find them very aesthetically pleasing and also very hypnotic to watch.  I actually draw jellyfish quite often because I find them so appealing.  Of course, I have never been stung by one.  That might change my view.  I could have stood watching the jellies in their tanks for ages but Mr Pict and the kids had moved on long before me and I had to catch up with them.  There were also tanks containing nautilises (nautilii?) and these armoured beasties that looked like giant slaters (woodlice) which were cool.  There was also an octopus who had his tentacles and their suckers pressed up against the glass so we could see how they rippled and moved.  His body was wrapped around a lidded jar.  Knowing that octopii are smart and enjoy problem-solving activities, I expect he had been given the jar to open as a stimulating exercise.  I should have a pet octopus so that he can provide assistance any time I cannot get a jar open.

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The major feature of the aquarium is a massive shark tank.  It is absolutely teeming with sharks of several varieties.  Mr Pict was initially huffing about hammerheads having been used in the advertising but not being in evidence but then an adult and a juvenile hammerhead glided past and he was proven wrong.  I think he wanted to adopt the baby one.  There were also fish and two large turtles in the tank.  There was a short tunnel that led through the tank and allowed us to see sharks swimming over the top of us but better than that were just the huge glass walls where we could stand, transfixed, watching all of the sharks swimming around.  Whereas other aquariums we have been to had several small windows for spectators to peek through, the scale of the tank windows meant that not only could dozens of people view at the same time but that we could study the same shark moving for longer rather than just catching a glimpse of it as it drifted past a smaller aperture.  It was definitely the best shark tank I have seen.

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Another area contained tanks filled with varieties of turtles and other reptiles.  The animals were all very active and we enjoyed seeing them moving around and interacting with each other.  There were also two massive alligators, one of whom was underwater and one standing on a platform out of the water.  The underwater one was right up against the glass so the kids could get up really close to it and study the detail of its skin, claws, eyes and teeth which was a pretty cool opportunity, especially so soon after seeing some alligators in the wild.  We also saw some really big lobsters, different varieties from the ones we normally see in tanks in supermarkets and restaurants.  From conversations my kids have had with the fishmongers in stores, they knew that these lobsters had to be pretty advanced in age.  There was also a tank containing seahorses.  I defy anyone to not love seahorses.  They are so peculiar, so delicate, so pretty and so adorable that it is impossible not to find them compelling and magical.  We watched transfixed as their little translucent fins vibrated to propel them from one piece of seaweed to the other, as their spiral tails grabbed and wound around the weeds as anchors and as they dangled, sometimes upside down, in the water.  Completely gorgeous.

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Another touchy-feely tank provided the boys with the opportunity to interact with small sharks (dogfish) and horseshoe crabs.  The boys got a bit irritated that the sharks were determined to loiter in the middle of the tank.  They tried to think about what might tempt the sharks to come towards the side of the tank, inspire them to quit malingering, but I am sure those sharks are used to every trick in the book.  They did not budge.  So the kids had to content themselves with touching the horseshoe crabs who, unlike their shark chums, seemed to enjoy scuttling around the circumference of the tank.  They are fascinating creatures.  Living fossils.  Their carapace is like a shield and then underneath they are full of bits and pieces.  It is like lifting the cover off of a sleek electronic device and seeing all of the messy components underneath.  They are local to the Mid Atlantic shore so I would love to encounter them in the wild some time.

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There was a final touch and feel tank on the top floor of the aquarium.  This one contained mainly invertebrates.  My 9 year old had been raving about sea apples since his school trip visit so his brothers loved finally being able to feel one for themselves.  It was more velvety than an anemone but still had that gelatinous quality to it.  The sea apple and the other sea cucumbers that formed part of the tank display were all very attractive, with bright colours and vivid patterns.  There were also shrimp and fish in the tank and our 7 year old was delighted when a fish swam onto his submerged hand and had a bit of an exploratory nibble at him.  In a separate tank, there was also a very large, powerful looking blue lobster that the kids could touch, as he had his claws banded, and another tank containing a type of lobster than just looks like a lobster tail.  Interesting evolutionary choice, to look like your cousin’s butt.  Must work though.  There was also a tank filled with scorpion fish.

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Our trip finished with amphibians.  We saw Surinam toads which are entirely weird specimens and not very bonnie.  They look as if they have been hit with a mallet and then, of course, there is the fact that the young toadlets burst out of the skin of their mother’s backs.  I have given birth in different ways, none of them genteel or relaxing, but I am glad I was spared the fate of the Surinam toad.  There were also tanks containing large frogs with bulging eyes, bright green tree frogs, tanks of brightly coloured poison dart frogs and a tank containing a bright red frog so tiny he could have fitted on a grain of rice.  Isn’t the diversity of nature just incredible?  And there were axolotl which I love partly because they are such complete weirdos and partly because I just love the word axolotl.

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While Saturday was all about going somewhere new, yesterday was all about trying something new.  The boys and I have never watched the Super Bowl so we decided to make an attempt on an American tradition.  I don’t like sport of any kind and – some Olympic events withstanding – never watch sport on the telly and it looks like our sons take after me in that regard rather than after my husband.  Nevertheless, we decided to suck it up for the sake of experiencing another slice of Americana.  For us it was all about the food.  I conducted some research among my American friends on Facebook and decided that traditional Super Bowl fare would include things like hot dogs, chips and dips and wings.  I actually made the hot dogs for lunch, except my 9 year old and I don’t eat hot dogs so we had off-theme vegetable samosas.  However, at some point during the first half of the game, our Super Bowl feast was ready to be devoured and it did indeed include chicken pieces tortilla chips and various dips.  Our telly is in the living room and I was nervous about letting the kids picnic in a carpeted room, especially given that they were drinking root beer as a treat, so warned and nagged them to be careful.  In the end, however, it was me who caused a cleaning commotion as I knocked over a bottle of beer.  Thus my kids were given the opportunity to evidence that they understood the word “irony”.

I was made to understood that part of the tradition was to watch the half-time show and commercials, that even people who stay away from the game emerge from other rooms to gather around the goggle box to watch the adverts.  I think maybe in my mind it had,  therefore, been built up to be a bigger attraction than it turned out to be.  I was underwhelmed.  I think also that I do not watch enough TV (and even when I do it tends to be streamed) so I am not familiar enough with the brands to “get” the gist of the advert or spot a recurring theme or understand an allusion.  I cannot even recall the majority of the adverts.  I know that there was an awkward Fiat advert involving a viagra pill which was witty but also challenging to explain to a gang of small children looking for an interpretation (“It’s a medicine that increases blood flow in parts of the body so it has made the car strong”.  Explanation thankfully accepted) and there was one from an insurance company I think that was all about childhood disease and death.  Bit of a buzzkill for a mob of small boys high on root beer and munching on chicken goujons.  None of us are Katy Perry fans, not at all, but I have to admit that the half time musical turn was watchable (maybe less listenable) for all its well-choreographed razzmatazz.

So that was the food and the entertainment.  As to the game …. well, it was a sports match involving kicking and throwing a ball about and trying to get more points than the other team.  I don’t understand the rules and nor did I care to engage enough to learn the rules.  My husband was able to explain to the kids that X was a good throw and Y was a bad tackle but it was all Greek to me.  Except even I could tell that it was a bad decision, in the closing minutes, for the Seahawks player to attempt a glory touchdown instead of passing off the ball.  And if even I can tell that then you can be assured it was a really terrible decision to make that play.  So I have watched a Super Bowl.  I can tick that tradition off my list now.  Done it.  I think that may have been not only my first Super Bowl but also my last.