Category Archives: Cowley

Nick Cope

The Baberoo has owned one of the CDs by Nick Cope, the Oxford-based children’s singer-songwriter, for quite a while now, and we have always enjoyed listening to his music. But we had never been to see one of his concerts (£3 per child, £1 per adult) until last month. We accompanied some friends who are regular attendees to a performance at the St Albans Church Hall in East Oxford (corner of Charles and Catherine Streets), and as soon as he started playing I kicked myself for not attending a live show before.

There’s a reason Nick Cope has such a strong following. He is beloved by both children and parents because his songs are delightful and catchy. We’ve all had the irritating ‘Wheels on the Bus’ earworm follow us around for days at a time, but Nick Cope’s songs are so funny and tuneful that it’s actually a pleasure to catch yourself humming, oh, say, a song about a witch that lived in a forest with a pet dragon named Keith.

It’s his unusual and inventive songwriting that’ll charm you first, and if you’ve got his CDs (he’s got three so far and a fourth to be released for Christmas 2014) then it’s fun to sing along to his indie-pop-sounding songs with your little one at home. But when you see him performing live, you’ll realize what you’ve been missing. It is brilliant live entertainment. He’s got an incredible talent for relating to both children and adults at the same time. He gets the audience clapping, stomping, making faces, and jumping up and down with gusto. His act is a perfect balance of over-the-top gurning and deadpan patter. And his impressions are spot-on; when he does one of his animal songs you actually believe that what you are seeing in front of you is a meerkat.

Nick Cope plays weekly family music sessions at several locations in Oxford and Abingdon, and also performs at festivals and events in and around Oxfordshire. The session we have attended most frequently runs from 10:45-11:45 on Fridays at St Albans Church Hall in East Oxford (although it’s a bit of a trek for us; I wish there was a concert location in Headington!). We’ve also been to see him in Wantage at the Beacon, and he’s a regular at the Story Museum during school holidays. Check Nick’s site for details of locations and times for upcoming sessions. The following details about space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (as per my usual ratings system) refer specifically to the St Albans Church Hall location.

Space: The space at St Albans Church Hall isn’t huge, but it’s got enough room for about 30-40 families, including enough space for everyone’s baby carriage to be parked at the back. A half-circle of about 30 chairs provides a seating space, and there’s plenty more space to sit on the floor. Many children love to go right up to the front to watch Nick play, all the better to watch his hilarious facial expressions.

Ambiance: The feeling when you walk into a Nick Cope concert couldn’t be more wonderful. The music puts you in such a good mood that you feel like you’re friends with everyone in the room. To watch the gyrating toddlers throwing themselves around in gleeful abandon takes you back to your own childhood, lifting your spirits and temporarily banishing all your worries. There’s a reason I’ve never seen a kid cry at a Nick Cope concert (unless they’ve fallen and bonked themselves, in which case the crying only lasts a couple of seconds). It’s like magic. Yes, it’s that good.

Facilities: St Albans Church Hall, unfortunately, does not have any baby-changing facilities. However, there would be ample space on the floor (not in the bathroom itself, but in the concert area) if you needed to change a diaper. But I’m guessing most people who attend live close enough to be able to get home fairly quickly (perhaps while even humming Nick’s song ‘The Baby’s Done a Poo’) in the event of a diaper emergency. I can’t speak for the facilities at the other locations where Nick does concerts, but again, it may be that many attendees live close by and can get home for diaper changes.

Feeding: I’ve seen mothers happily breastfeeding their younger babies as their toddler joins the ranks of dancing children. And although food is not available to buy, eating in the hall is permitted and there are plenty of rice cakes, raisins, and other snacks strewn on the floor by the time the concert is over.

In total, the Nick Cope concerts at St Albans Church Hall get a 6 out of 8 on my baby- and toddler-friendliness scale, the mark lowered only because there is no baby-changing facility available at that location (not his fault, of course!). But Nick Cope himself gets a 10 out of 10 in my book. Go and see his concerts; you and your young children will love them.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Magdalen Arms

From the reviews I’ve read of the Magdalen Arms (243 Iffley Road, OX4 1SJ), the foodies of Oxford (and beyond) think it’s either the best gastropub in the city or completely overrated. I had been looking forward to both trying the food and seeing whether it was a good place to take a baby. So the Baberoo, her Gran, and I recently dropped in for a weekday lunch.

We had the place nearly to ourselves – always nice when you have a baby carriage to manoeuvre, and also really handy when your baby is the impatient type and doesn’t like waiting too long for a meal to arrive. During the short wait I tried the homemade quinceade (£3); it had a nice sharp tang to it but tasted so much of lemon that I thought they might have misheard me and brought me a homemade lemonade by mistake. They hadn’t. Our server asked if I wanted more quince syrup added. I did, and the drink turned out sweeter and faintly quincey – but still tasted like (very good) lemonade.

For my meal I ordered the wild rabbit with chorizo, fennel, chickpeas, and aioli (£14), as well as a side of chips (£4.50). Although the chorizo/fennel sauce was flavourful it didn’t help tenderize the rabbit, which was too tough. The Baberoo was having none of it. She didn’t want the chips either, even though they were pleasingly fluffy on the inside with a delightful crispy exterior.

Magdalen Arms rabbit and chips

What, you say? You tried to feed your baby a dish containing wild rabbit and chorizo? Yes, we’ve done baby-led weaning with the Baberoo so she is a very adventurous eater; she will usually eat (or at least try) just about anything. That’s why I sometimes order a dish and share it with her – yes, even rabbit – rather than bring food from home for her or order from a baby menu (although I’m happy to do that too). If she doesn’t like it, we always have a back-up snack bag, which I had to pull out on this occasion. But when she does like a dish, it goes up in my estimation at having been pretty darn good. Unfortunately, I’d say the rabbit didn’t reach that level and I’d call it an OK but not great meal. I wished that I had saved room for dessert; their long list of offerings all looked fantastic.

So, now that I’ve come down somewhere in the middle (not loving it, not hating it) about the food, what did we think of the establishment’s baby-friendliness? I rate eateries against five factors: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. For more about these, please see my About page.

Menu: There’s a lot of meat on the menu and most of it comes in big hunks, so you’ll need both hands free for those dishes. On the day we visited there was a pasta dish and a few starters (soup and tapas) that could be eaten with one hand if your other arm needed to be free to hold a baby. The cod also would have worked. The menu changes daily and it’s not posted on the website, so you’ll have to go along and take your chances on there being something you can eat one-handed if that’s a necessity for you.

Space: The entrance to the pub isn’t terribly baby-friendly; there are three stone steps and then two sets of doors, so if you have a baby carriage you might need some help getting in. Once inside, you’ll have to manoeuvre through a space that’s quite full of (quaintly mismatched) tables and chairs. If the place had been full we might have had some trouble getting to a table.

Magdalen Arms interior

Ambiance: The walls are painted such a dark and sombre colour that the overall effect is somewhat dreary; I’m guessing it comes into its own and is much more animated in the evening. The staff, though, were very friendly and helpful, and enjoyed chatting to the Baberoo. Our server was happy to get us extra napkins and direct us to the baby-changing facility. They also have high chairs available (the Ikea kind, which I find more secure than the usual restaurant model).

Magdalen Arms interior

Facilities: The baby-changing facility is a pull-down table in the ladies’ loo, which is down a flight of four stairs. There’s a mini-lift for wheelchair users that I guess you could also use with a baby carriage if you wanted to bring it into the loo with you; I just held the Baberoo and left the carriage at our table. The pull-down table is in the main area of the loo, while toilets are in separate cubicles. Some chairs were set up underneath the pull-down table, which was really handy for putting the diaper bag down and organizing our things. The whole ladies’ room was clean and tidy.

Magdalen Arms baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding, choose a table that has comfortable-looking chairs. There are so many different kinds that there’s sure to be one that suits you; my personal choice, if I’d needed to breastfeed, would have been one of the padded armchairs of different vintages near the front of the pub. I was hoping the Baberoo would eat part of my regular-food lunch, but we resorted to the snack bag; I would say that the menu at the Magdalen Arms isn’t particularly kid-friendly (unless your child’s sophisticated palate is attuned to the tastes of, say, rabbit and pork rillettes, blue cheese souffle, or potted shrimps).

The final score for baby-friendliness for the Magdalen Arms is 6.25 out of 10. I would say this is a gastropub for the grown-ups to enjoy on their own rather than with their little darlings.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Aqua Babies at Temple Cowley Pool

(Updated August 2015: Temple Cowley Pool has now closed. All operations have been transferred to Leys Pools and Leisure Centre.)

I am not a born swimmer. I hate getting my face wet. I hate being under water. And even though I managed to make it through years of swimming classes as a child and finally ended up being a pretty good swimmer, I still have a primal fear of being submerged. I want my kid to feel better about being in the water than I did when I was young, so I started her early with Aqua Babies, a swimming programme for little ones from 4 to 18 months old at Temple Cowley Pool (Temple Road, OX4 2EZ)

Temple Cowley Pool sign

Aqua Babies (£5.50 per session) runs four times a week (Monday 10:15, Tuesday 11:15, Friday 11:15 and 14:00) and is bookable by phone on 01865 467124 or online. The 45-minute class includes both serious learning and fun time: the first part teaches babies essential skills such as going under water, finding the side of the pool and holding on, and kicking on both the stomach and the back. Then there are songs, splashing about, and time to play with toys. It’s a great way to get your baby used to the water, and the teachers (Carol and Brenda) are both excellent with little ones.

One of the best things about Aqua Babies is that you don’t have to sign up for a whole course. You just book an individual session each time, so you can choose different days of the week or skip some weeks or even call in to cancel a session if your baby happens to be taking an extra-long nap and you don’t want to wake them up. Compared to baby swimming lessons elsewhere, this is fantastic (I have friends in different cities who are literally hovering over their computers hitting the refresh button on the morning that swimming class bookings open). The freedom of choice is great, but do make sure that you book in advance because the classes sometimes are fully booked and they take a maximum of 12 babies.

Here’s how Aqua Babies at Temple Cowley Pool rates for baby-friendliness, based on my 8-point rating scale for activities. In my reviews I look at space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding; see my About page for more information on my ratings system.

Space: Before you enter the changing rooms, you’ll have to park your baby carriage in the designated space under the stairs in the lobby. There are usually several carriages under there, although I have seen parents take them into the changing rooms as well (there is a small fenced-off area in the changing room where you can put a lightweight foldable umbrella-type stroller, but nothing bigger). The changing rooms at Temple Cowley Pool have quite a lot of space and you will always find an area where you can spread out your swimming paraphernalia. However, the lockers (for which you need a pound coin) must be the worst lockers in the history of fitness facilities; usually I have to try three before I get one with a working key, which is hard to do while holding a baby and about five bags of necessities. They are clean, though, as is the rest of the changing room. There are two areas with a baby-changing table in each of them and a further four cubbyhole-type private changing rooms. Certainly, there is lots of space for you to navigate the seemingly-impossible task of getting a baby’s swimming costume on and off. There is also a Family changing room for parents who come together with their baby.

Temple Cowley Pool women's changing room

Ambiance: The learning pool is a very welcoming space and the teachers are lovely. Other parents are friendly. It feels like a fun place to be, an ambiance which other pools I’ve been to definitely lack. Everything revolves around the babies during a session, so it is very baby-friendly.

Facilities: There are two areas in the women’s changing room with baby-changing tables. They’re in high demand after an Aqua Babies session, so be prepared to wait for one if you need to use it. There’s also a regular pull-down baby-changing table in the regular women’s toilets, but you wouldn’t use it for changing into or out of a swimming costume.

Temple Cowley Pool baby-changing facilities

Feeding: I’ve seen mothers breastfeed their babies right in the changing room, and there’s also a space in the lobby with tables that are sometimes full of mothers breastfeeding or bottle-feeding their babies after a session. It has a very welcoming community-type feel to it. The benches in the changing room might be more comfortable than the non-adjustable bucket-seat chairs at the lobby tables, though.

Temple Cowley Pool tables in lobby

In total, Aquababies at Temple Cowley Pool rates a 6.75 out of 8. If you are looking for a way to get your little one used to the water at a very young age, I highly recommend it. And it is so much fun to watch your baby splash about in the pool!

I’d like to end this post with a shout-out to the Save Temple Cowley Pools & Fitness Centre campaign. Temple Cowley Pools (and the fitness centre, and Blackbird Leys pool as well) are currently under threat of closure by Oxford City Council. If you’d like to know more and sign the petition to keep it open, please visit the Save Temple Cowley Pools & Fitness Centre website and follow them on Twitter at @SaveTCP.  The pool is such an important resource for Cowley and surrounding areas that it would be a shame if it were to close.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Big Society

Last night I saw a tweeted picture of a pulled pork burger from Big Society (95 Cowley Road, OX4 1HR) and nearly dragged my husband out to get it right then and there. Then I remembered that there was a baby sleeping upstairs and that I hadn’t been out past six pm for nearly seven months. Crestfallen, I hung onto the thought of succulent pulled pork and promised myself I’d get it for lunch the next day.

After the Baberoo’s first swimming lesson this morning, I bundled her into the baby carriage and set off for Big Society. The place is relatively new (it opened in February this year) but has been getting a lot of buzz for its nightlife. It opens at noon, serving food all day before the night-time crowds begin to queue out the door. Famished from the swimming lesson and having forgotten to eat breakfast beforehand (which happens surprisingly often when you have a baby), I ordered the pulled pork burger with fries (this week’s special, £6.25) and, whimpering with hunger, parked myself at one of the cafeteria-style tables with the Baberoo sleeping in her carriage.

Pulled pork burger and fries

My pulled pork and fries arrived on a metal cafeteria tray with a side of mustardy coleslaw and a pickle on top, a nice touch. The pulled pork burger (I’d call it a sandwich myself, although it was in a burger bun) was overpowered by BBQ sauce; it needed less in order to let the flavour of the pork itself stand out. The fries were your standard shoestring fry in a hugely generous portion. I enjoyed the meal, but from what I’ve read in other reviews I’ll go for one of their regular burgers next time.

So how did Big Society stack up against my five criteria for baby-friendliness? The criteria, further explained on my About page, are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: Well, a pulled pork burger is just about the hardest thing to eat with only one hand, but I wanted it so badly that I ordered it anyway, hoping that the Baberoo would keep sleeping.  She didn’t.  But I bribed her with a toy and she was quiet in her carriage for long enough for me to finish most of it. If I’d needed to order a one-handed meal, though, I’d have had to stick to the sides or salads. Most of the food on the menu (hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken) is meant to be savoured with both hands free and lots of paper towels in the vicinity.

Space: There are lots of wide-open spaces at Big Society, which I’m sure are packed with people in the evening but were totally free at 1 pm (although this is summertime and I’m told that during term time it’s hopping with university students at lunch).  The space inside could have handled about ten baby carriages without blocking anyone’s path and the garden could have taken the same. There were a couple of steps outside the front entrance that were a bit hard to handle with the pram (I’m sure that night-time revellers wearing stilettos also have trouble with them), but out of nowhere a helpful member of staff materialized and helped me get in.

Big Society interior

Ambiance: Retro hipster meets caff, with lots of natural light and a sunny garden that I didn’t realize was so huge until I looked around the corner and saw that all the other patrons were sitting outside. The music – which I probably should have recognized but didn’t, because I am old now and cranky and have a baby so I don’t know who anyone is any more – had enough of a beat to wake the Baberoo up, but she was just finishing her nap anyway. It was a nice, relatively quiet, calm, neighbourhood hangout type of ambiance. I wished I’d brought a book so I could stay and read in the garden.

Big Society interior

Facilities: No baby-changing facilities, which doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, this place’s main evening clientele won’t be bringing their babies. But with all the space available in there during the day, it could be a great hangout for parents who live close enough to be confident that they could get home quickly enough in case of a diaper emergency.

Feeding: I don’t think more than one patron walked by as I was breastfeeding the Baberoo, and I think the only person who noticed that I was feeding her was the server behind the bar. There are a few bench seats if that’s more comfortable than a chair for you and your baby.

My final score for Big Society is a 6.25 for baby-friendliness; it loses points on my ratings scale because of the lack of baby-changing facilities and the menu of deliciously sloppy foods that require both hands to eat. However, if you live close by and you know your baby is going to sleep for a while in their pram before you have to go home for a diaper change, head on down there and revel in the quiet atmosphere before the university term starts again.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,