Coventry Reviewed

Coventry Reviewed

I was born in and spent the first 21 years of my life in Coventry. Over the past 12 years I’ve made frequent visits to my family who still reside there, yet I’ve barely had a good thing to say about the place itself. In fact, I must admit to being downright scathing. I now live but 2 minutes from the seaside on a UNESCO World Heritage Site and am spoilt for beautiful locations to visit; the familiarity of my birthplace seemed dull and dingy in comparison to my adopted town in Dorset.

However, much has changed over the past decade and what was once urban decay is now urban development, with a good portion of Coventry City Centre enjoying a long overdue makeover and dose of modernisation. With its central location, manufacturing industry, multiculturalism and large student population, there are things that always made Coventry a very practical place to live – but I never once saw it as a tourist stopping point.

Until today.

On the suggestion of a friend, we decided to take time to peruse a display about children’s television in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. This was to be a brief point of interest en route to the outdoor store in order to buy tent pegs and guy ropes, the initial reason for a trip into town.

Serendipity had other ideas, and we ended up whiling away half the day following our whims . . .

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

It had been years upon years since I’d set foot in this place – it was great to see the museum revamped, complete with a plentiful supply of hands-on activities for the kids.

We began in the Story of Children’s Television display, FreeToBeP aptly sporting a ‘Button Moon’ t-shirt in order to get his photo with Mr Spoon.

Mr Spoon

Between dressing up as a dalek and a teletubby, puppeteering with Sooty, Sweep and Sue, and being bemused by mummy’s reminiscences, the kids got their morning-time energy out in this bright and noisy display.

Teletubbies

Yet FreeToBeP surprised me by being most fascinated with the art gallery, even engaging in the suggested activities supplied by the museum which included something of a ‘PSHE through art’ lesson:

Blind art

We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with video footage of Durdle Door in the ‘Elements’ gallery, a section of the museum exploring natural history through the concept of the four elements. Full of crystals, fossils, shells and taxidermy specimens, this was packed with interesting sights and sounds. Even the driftwood and beach stones got a look-in from my coastal-bred children – I did wonder if the artefacts had also made their way up from dear Dorset.

Durdle Door

And the main item of intrigue – narwhal tusks:

Narwhal

My personal favourite in the museum was the ‘History of Us’ display by street artist Pahnl. This funky, visual history of humankind was really captivating – from the work of art itself (fully stencilled), to the supporting information, to the video of the installation in progress. Further information and snapshots of the work can be found on the artist’s website – but I urge you to visit if you can to take in the detail of the artwork and the laugh-out-loud content of the supporting text.

History of Us

Thumbs up to the museum café too – definitely not the worst place you could choose to have lunch if you’ve got slightly ‘hangry’ children (I recommend the salad bar), and they sold off their chicken kebabs to the kids for 50p each due to lack of chips for the full meal on the menu.

After lunch we intended to make our way to the shops, but Coventry had other ideas . . .

Coventry Cathedral

We cut through town via Coventry Cathedral. FreeToBeP wasn’t interested in going into the new cathedral to enjoy/endure the lunchtime organ recital, but he was taken with the idea of visiting the ruins of the old cathedral.

Coventry Cathedral

Bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, the shell of Coventry’s old cathedral remains. This is actually the second of three cathedrals that the city has had. It is still a popular place for visitors of Coventry to seek out, with remnants of its former glory clear to see – not least the surviving tower which is open to the public to climb.

Coventry Cathedral tower

Tourist Information is also housed at the base of the tower, and what a friendly reception we had – free boiled sweets for the kids while the lady on duty and I chatted about the sights of Coventry (newly appreciated from my point of view) as I purchased postcards for our Postcrossing habit.

FreeToBeP also took interest in the Traidcraft shop which shares premises with the cathedral’s souvenir shop – cue discussion on Fair Trade products plus a useful information leaflet for his home education folder.

Upon the recommendation of the Tourist Information receptionist, our feet next led us not to the shops (plan scuppered again) but to the Guildhall next door . . .

St Mary’s Guildhall

Apart from a precarious spiral staircase if you’re wearing a baby and supervising a 3 year old (gulp!), St. Mary’s Guildhall proved a great family attraction.

With its decorative ceilings, chambers to explore, carved furniture, slanting floors and collection of armour, it was intriguing enough for both adults and children alike. Whilst I admired the stained glass, they wowed at the ancient furnishings – huge door bolts, mysterious storage chests and imposing wooden chairs. I even managed to hold their attention on The Coventry Tapestry for all of two minutes, thanks in part to the laminated information sheets provided by the Guildhall.

Guildhall bolts

And, of course, there was the token children’s activity courtesy of replica armour:

Armour

 

Eventually, we made our way through the cobbled back streets to the main shopping precinct, albeit still in ‘tourist’ mode with camera at the ready . . .

IMG_1382

Times really do a-change – fifteen years ago you could have found me at the pub above, much more interested in the beverages and giant Jenga than the City Centre Trail signage. I might just have to find out what that City Centre Trail entails now!

The penultimate item on our spontaneous itinerary was a typical tourist shot – the local celebrity of olde, Lady Godiva! After taking such things for granted for many years as a born and bred Coventrian, it had to be done. For the first time in all our visits to my family home, I stood beside the statue excitedly telling FreeToBeP the story of Lady Godiva, Earl Leofric and Peeping Tom.

IMG_1383

To use a Marcel Proust quotation that I have utilised before for my 10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips post, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Coventry, I apologise for my less-than-complimentary remarks about you in recent years. You are not the city I remember.

And, yes, I did finally purchase my tent pegs and guy ropes.

(At the time of publishing this post, all the attractions we visited were free admission – donations welcome.)

 

Travelling with Children in Morocco: 5 Things To Know Before You Go

Travelling with Children in MoroccoIt’s exactly four years to the day since my very first excursion to Morocco, which was also my first trek abroad as a mother and my first time travelling beyond the borders of Europe.

Ten trips later, I now have my share of embodied experience about travelling with children in Morocco to convert into well-meaning advice.

For those considering or looking forward to a family holiday in Morocco, I hope the following will help you to prepare in a way that travel sales sites might not – it is not intended to put you off (and I’m not trying to sell you travel insurance either!).

1) That’s Entertainment

Morocco is extremely family-friendly, yet not in the way we’re now conditioned to consider the term ‘family-friendly’ in the UK.

Children revolve around day to day community life there (sometimes even going to work with their mothers rather than being put into childcare), but life does not revolve around children. You will not find restaurants with children’s menus and play areas or themed parks and farms designed with children in mind.

Children are allowed into the domain of adults in a way we’ve divorced them from in our own society, yet the domain of children – which has largely been developed for commercial purposes in places such as the UK and US – is not taken for granted in Morocco.

Generally, most Moroccan people seem accepting of kids being kids. However, I have always been well aware that I’m often the only woman sat in the cafés – ergo, the only person with kids in tow (the gender division is stark here, with women unquestionably being those who stay with the children whilst their menfolk sit in the cafes with their cigarettes and espressos).

Thus, in the cafés, the children have often been expected to sit like mini-adults. The café culture in Morocco can be very appealing, but this obviously comes with the same issues as sitting in restaurants and cafés with kids in the UK.

A rare sight: a children's play area on the beach outside a café in Essaouira.
A rare sight: a children’s play area on the beach outside a café in Essaouira.

Sometimes a street café will be next to a wide pavement or large square where, if you sit outside, the kids can have a bit of a run-around, often mixing in with the local youngsters who may be playing football or gathered at the roadside socialising.

Yet this can’t always be relied upon, and providing entertainment for them becomes a priority. FreeToBeP’s preferences of things to do are suitably compact for our outings – playing games such as Minecraft or Angry Birds on my smartphone, or taking out his pencil case full of random Lego pieces to create with.

You can find lots of lovely souvenirs that make do as affordable objects of interest. A lot of the toys found here are really cheap, plastic tat that are a waste of money and a waste in general. A lot of rubbish here ends up strewn across the streets rather than being dealt with properly (quite apart from any recycling), and I have no desire to add to the mess by adding a pile of broken, plastic toys at the end of my stays.

Thus, it’s really useful to bring a small supply of good quality, inspiring toys such as Lego to keep the kids happy.

Lego Morocco
Lego. Enough said.

You could also set up little games using coins or other ‘somethings’ you might carry in your day bag. During our latest trip to Morocco, FreeToBeZ ended up with a stash of low value money we’d collected – some British coppers, some Moroccan half dirham and one dirham coins, as well as 5 Euro cents we found on the plane. These kept her well amused for a good portion of time and she was very possessive of it (I lost count of the times she wandered our apartment asking “Where’s my money?!” over the ten days we were out there!).

2) Cats & Dogs

Feral Feeders
Street litter.

There are many stray and feral animals in the streets of Morocco, including some very cute kittens. Understandably, the kids love to chase them around and stroke them – yet this is best avoided if you have young children who may not be aware of and understand the associated dangers.

The street cats and dogs in Morocco may well be infected with rabies, with 90% of human cases of the disease in the country caused by dog bites and most of the victims being children. At night, the stray dogs roam the streets in packs and can be quite an intimidating sight for those who are not used to seeing groups of strays congregating together.

Another street litter.
Another street litter.

FreeToBeP suffered a minor cat scratch on our very first trip out there not long before his 3rd birthday. I was unaware of the rabies risk at the time and thinking back to it makes me feel physically sick. The general advice is that you must seek medical attention within 24 hours of exposure to a potentially rabid animal to avoid going down with this (almost always) fatal virus.

Whilst there is a pre-exposure vaccine for rabies which travellers can pay for (it isn’t available on the NHS for a trip to Morocco), this just buys you a bit of time in case you do get bitten or scratched – and in an emergency situation in Morocco you’re unlikely to be over 24 hours away from the nearest clinic or hospital (all of which are apparently well-stocked with the post-exposure rabies antidote).

3) Clean, Cool, Content

Just before my tenth trip to Morocco (yes, this one took me a while to figure out!), I finally came up with a “kill three birds with one stone” solution for bath-time: a small, inflatable paddling pool. (The three birds being cleanliness, temperature control and entertainment.)

Unless you stay in a more expensive hotel (and I have no idea what the facilities are in such places in Morocco), there is unlikely to be a European-style bath to make use of when it comes to bath-time. Yet a proper bath is often the only way by which young children who are used to growing up with ‘bath-time’ can enjoy a wash (at least this is true of my kids, who will scream blue murder under a shower).

The shower or bucket option usually available in Morocco is not a pleasing option to my children (although FreeToBeZ is still small enough that we can make a shallow makeshift bath in the shower basin by blocking up the plughole with something).

FreeToBeZ enjoying her 'bath'
FreeToBeZ enjoying her ‘bath’

I’ve had one bad experience too many with trying to get FreeToBeP (who is extremely sensitive when it comes to water and temperature) to take a wash in the small shower rooms of most Moroccan apartments. Add to this equation ultra-hygiene-conscious FreeToBeB who grew up in a home without running water, without a toilet, without a washroom: he finds it difficult to grasp why a young child doesn’t want to remove the daily, dusty grime under the luxury of a warm shower. I’ve been party to too many heightened emotions about this topic!

Another bonus is that I’ve seen many a Moroccan person casually tip whole buckets of water through their homes to clean the floors. Apart from the slip hazard, the splash zone can be tolerated much more than the same would in my damp-prone home in Britain (if you don’t believe me, read this).

So, next time – a mini paddling pool. Compact enough to easily fit in the luggage, small enough to inflate using just lung power if need be, versatile enough to serve a multitude of purposes.

The kids will get clean. The kids will cool off. The kids will have fun.

4) Risk Assessment

From daring scooter riders to mad dashes across busy roads; from things jutting out of the pavements to numerous potholes and rocky landscapes: there are many hazards in Morocco and it’s not a country known for its adherence to strict health and safety regulations.

Where there would be "No Climbing" signs in the UK, this was a public thoroughfare for exploring below the land bridge near Demnate. Heart in mouth as I took this shot.
Where there would be “No Climbing” signs in the UK, this was a public thoroughfare for exploring below the land bridge near Demnate. Heart in mouth as I took this shot.

While I think we’ve gone too far with some health and safety rules in the UK (no coffee break at toddler groups? Why else do some new mums even go along to toddler groups but for the joy of someone else making them a mug of steaming brew?!), there is definitely a happy medium to be had. Morocco actually makes me grateful for many of our regulations in the UK.

Driving through Morocco is a risky business and my preference is to hire a car that we can check over and drive ourselves rather than trust an unknown, over-confident taxi or bus driver. The state of many of the public transport vehicles themselves does not inspire confidence. Between myself and FreeToBeB, we are both cautious drivers who can generally relax as passengers to one another.

I’ve had trouble finding suitable child safety seats for FreeToBeZ and some laughable moments with the car hire companies. Children’s car seats are generally not used in Morocco (this is a place where you see entire families riding, helmet-less, on a single scooter!). The hire companies have tried to pass me off with some really dodgy, aging contraptions with broken straps and even entire base units missing that have left me feeling like my own grip would be more trustworthy in an accident.

If you’re planning to embark on some road tripping around Morocco and have the option and ability to take your own car seat along with you, it may save a lot of stress and worry to do so. The last time I checked, Easyjet had a policy of allowing up to two bulky infant items (per each child under 2) in the hold for free.

For older children, you could try the Bumblebum inflatable booster seat.

On some occasions we’ve done without – and on others my mother’s intuition (or plain old fear?) has led me to cancel trips rather than travel somewhere without suitable child safety seats.

FreeToBeZ with her Moroccan car restraint - her dad.
FreeToBeZ with her Moroccan car restraint – her dad.

5) Comfort Zones

If you have a child who is particularly sensitive about their personal space and being touched, you may want to forewarn them about how damn affectionate Moroccan people can be.

There seems to be an unspoken rule that everyone who wishes to comment on your child’s beauty has to do so with at least a ruffle of their hair – and even an unsolicited kiss for a baby. (I suppose a baby doesn’t consciously solicit any kisses, yet our own cultural rule seems to be ‘family only’ for such gestures of love – even friends don’t tend to shower one another’s babies in kisses, let alone strangers in the street!)

I’ve also had people plant kisses on FreeToBeZ’s head as she breastfeeds – after my initial shock, I was glad at the acceptance that she was ‘just’ feeding (compared to the sometimes enforced privacy many women in the UK contend with), but not every breastfeeding mother would be comfortable with this close proximity to her bosom.

There are cultural differences in both bodily autonomy and accepted social mores. Affectionate advances from anyone other than close family members can be confusing and difficult for some children to deal with, especially if they’ve had the ‘stranger danger’ mantra drilled into them back home.

Quite apart from different social etiquette, after one random stranger too many had kissed and pawed FreeToBeZ as a young baby, I began grimacing at the thought of infectious diseases (and I’m not one to worry unnecessarily about such things).

As with the issue of health and safety, I think there’s a balance to be had between the stiff upper lip associated with British folk and the (over?)familiarity displayed by the people of Morocco – between the reserve of suspicion and the open-hearted trust (although I know which one feels best!).

You certainly can’t complain of a lack of warmth in Morocco, and that’s not just the climate.


So, there you have it – forewarned is forearmed!

The good thing is that these 5 things are just 5 and I have already documented many more positives about exploring Morocco.

There are other things to be aware of if you choose to stay in a rural location with your children but I shall hang fire on these for another time.

There are also numerous cultural differences which may seem as irking/worrisome as some of the above to many people, yet many of these are dealt with in some depth in standard travel guides (e.g. this is not the post for learning about how to deal with persistent street vendors!).

Have you visited Morocco with your children? Would you add anything to the above that the travel guides don’t always tell you about? Tell me what you loved too!

Want to read more family travel tips? Read my other articles:

10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips

The Quiet Zone: Tranquil Travel with a High-Spirited Child

Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly