Riders and Readers

We haven’t been writing very much on the blog recently, but we have all been training through the spring and early summer with the Three Big Rides ahead of us. Our biggest effort so far was a return to the Eroica Britannia, which we also rode last year, where some of us took on 73 miles of dusty tracks through the Peak District in fierce June sunshine. Our target of three 100-mile rides in as many months is still looming, but we think we can do it.

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Rolling along the High Peak Trail at Eroica Britannia.

Our training has taken on an unexpectedly literary theme. We followed the Severn through Shropshire to get a glimpse of Apley Hall, a potential inspiration for P. G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle. Near Reading, several rides have taken us past Calleva Atrebatum (which we wrote about last year), and we’ve also visited the Vyne. This Tudor mansion lies near Sherborne St John, where Jane Austen’s brother was a vicar, and Austen attended dances at the Vyne. It also has a connection to J.R.R. Tolkien: he was invited over from Oxford to examine a Roman ring discovered there, and it’s tempting to think that this led to his famous The Lord of the Rings.

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Apley Hall (aka Blandings Castle).

 

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Sam in his reading pyjamas.

Rachael and I have always loved that book. As well as telling a good story, it has a message of hope which was, and still is, very important for us. We spent weeks reading it to Sam in the Rosie NICU, as well as some of our other childhood favourites, filling some happy times and helping us through some difficult ones. We are so lucky that Addenbrooke’s Hospital could give us that chance, and we hope that our fundraising will support them in their wonderful work.

Our first Big Ride is only a few weeks away: we’ll be cycling 100 miles in Cambridgeshire, revisiting the roads that Rachael and I used to ride when we lived there. We’ll be writing more posts as we get through our challenge, and we’d like to thank everyone who has been and is supporting us along the way.

Year 2: Three Big Rides

We’ve been a bit slower off the mark this year, but we do have plans to continue our fundraising in memory of Sam and on behalf of Rosie NICU.

Cycling together is still our main activity. Last year, we rode lots of small rides (mostly around 30-50 miles, the longest 70 miles) to a total of 500 miles. This time around we’ve decided on a different approach: we’re going to do three ‘centuries’, three 100-mile rides, which is quite a different challenge from the rides we did last year.

Magog Down.

Our first will be a ride around Cambridgeshire at the end of July, starting and ending at the beautiful Magog Down, near to Addenbrooke’s hospital, and the place where we scattered Sam’s ashes. The second will be at the end of August, around my and Uncle Hugh’s birthday, from Bristol to Reading (where each of us live). Finally, at the end of September we will be joining the Vélo Birmingham, in honour of our family’s West Midlands background.

Of course, you can’t just ride 100 miles straight off, so we’ll have a lot of training to do before our first Big Ride in July. We began yesterday with our first collective ride of the spring, with a 30-mile loop from Cirencester. The weak sun was surprisingly warm through the clouds, and so too was our pace; despite coming out of a winter break from the saddle, the rolling Cotswolds didn’t slow us down as much as I thought they might. It’s a good sign – although there’s still (literally) a long way to go.

Setting off from Cirencester

There was another sign. As Rachael and I arrived at Cirencester, Vaughan-Williams’ Lark Ascending came on the radio, one of the songs we had at Sam’s funeral. I think it means we’re not just cycling with him; he is cycling with us.

65 Miles on a Brand New Bicycle

Back in February, just after we had started our year of cycling, Granddad Stuart and I went up to Mercian Cycles in Derby. As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, our family has been into cycling and classic bicycles for a long time, and Mercian are one of the few old companies who are still producing the same style of bicycle. Stuart’s dad Fred bought one in 1962, and Stuart got his own frame in 1972 (which is pictured in the banner across the top of the blog, and is still going strong – under various riders, it’s done most of this year’s miles). So, having decided to get a frame built to fit me, for all the cycling we plan to do, Mercian was the obvious choice.

The bike was ready the week before Christmas, just in time for the last two rides of the year. It is a work of art, but it is more than that. We always knew Sam would one day get a bike – and probably as a Christmas present. We decided to base the frame colours on Sam’s favourite toy, a cuddly bluetit named Flint.

The new bike got its first proper outing on Christmas Eve, when Stuart, Rachael, Aunty Alice and I set out on a 25-mile loop. The weather report promised grey and dry, but as soon as we were outside a shower arrived to greet us – still, we didn’t let that deter us. The route avoided many of our usual country lanes, because in winter they are rather mucky, but even so the shiny new bike got a healthy bit of mud about it (and so did the not-so-shiny older ones). The gears on the bike are also a lot lower than I’m used to, which made the going much easier. With a few brief snacking stops to keep up our spirits, we rolled round at a gentle pace.

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The second ride – and the final one of the year – was on Boxing Day. This time with Uncle Hugh joining us instead of Alice, we braved the (extra-muddy) little lanes in a longer circuit to the north, through the picturesque and pleasantly-named Badger Dingle. This time the day was beautifully bright and clear, except for a few moments when the sun slipped behind a cloud and the wind suddenly became a whole lot more biting. At 30 miles we paused at Pattingham to warm up over lunch, then the last 10 miles were a smooth stretch. We had reached our target, and the new Mercian had passed the test.

Christmas is not an easy time of year; cycling together as a family helps, especially as it supports the Rosie NICU in the wonderful work that they do. This year we have ridden 500 ‘official’ miles (not counting training and so on), and raised just under £5,000 (including Gift Aid). Besides that, Sam’s Aunty Rowena did the Three Peaks Challenge and raised another £1,300 for the NICU, while Stuart’s London Marathon raised £2,800 for Bliss.  We are really, really grateful to everybody who has donated to Sam’s fund, or followed the blog, or supported us in other ways.

We have plans for more cycling and fundraising next year, and we’ll be posting about them soon. We will always be cycling with Sam. The ride goes on.

75 Miles to an Oak and a River

Winter has slowed down our cycling quite a lot, but we’ve still managed to get out a few times to add to our yearly distance. Rachael, Granddad Stuart, and I went on two short rides in December – short because of the weather and the daylight, and because none of us have done much training lately.

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Winter cycling.
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Bikes at Boscobel.

The first was in the West Midlands, and we were back on the vintage bikes, for a cold grey day; as cold as the first outings back in January. Taking a gentle pace, we rolled along north through quiet countryside with only a few hills to slow us down. The woods were a contrast of glossy evergreens and slightly faded red. It didn’t take long for us to feel the chill, but we kept up the pace towards our halfway point: Boscobel House. This old hunting lodge and farm is most famous for being the place where Charles II hid in a tree while escaping after the civil war. We paused to warm up in cafe in Boscabel’s stables, and then set out again, looping south and away from our earlier route. We got home just as evening fell, very ready to thaw out fingers and feet once again.

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Up on the Downs.

That was 40 miles; our second, a week later, set out from Reading. This time it was sunny and clear, but the day before it had rained continuously, so the roads were muddy (and soon our bikes were too). We struck out west from Reading, past the River Kennet and its old gravel-pit reservoirs. We met our first steep climb by the walls of Englefield Park, and this brought up onto the ranging slopes of the Wessex Downs. This country was cerainly hillier than our last ride and our speed slowed, but we pressed on, looping as far (the appropriately named) World’s End. After this we struck northeast across a series of ridges, slogging in our lowest gears, until finally, relieved, we crested the last one and hurtled – carefully – down a steep wooded lane that brought us to the Thames at Goring. This was our 35 mile mark, and with daylight slipping fast away we decided to hop on a train back to Reading.

These 75 miles brings our total so far to 435. We will be doing a last ride or two over the Christmas holiday to reach the round 500. We are really grateful to everyone who has followed us this far, and especially to everyone who has donated to Sam’s fund – especially all the generous guests at the wedding of Auntie Alice and Uncle Chris in September, who together gave £1,050 (and more to support other charities as well).

35 Miles to Calleva

This week is Baby Loss Awareness week; tomorrow is a year since Sam’s funeral. The theme of the week, linking the events organised by charities like Bliss and Sands, is ‘break the silence’. This is really important, but it’s also one of the most difficult things to do. We have so many happy memories of our time with Sam, but it is still so hard to speak about them. Our charity riding & this blog are one way we have tried to break the silence.

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The walls of Calleva.
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An old favourite.

We decided to do a short, special ride for this week, just Rachael & me. South of Reading, by Silchester, are the old Roman ruins of Calleva Atrebatum. This town features in the novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, and it was an archaelogical discovery there – now displayed in Reading Museum – that inspired the story. We both loved the book as children, & we read it to Sam before he was born, before we knew he would be Sam, or that we would meet him sooner than we expected. Later, we spent hours reading other old favourites to him in the NICU. Those are some of our happiest memories, so Calleva seemed a fitting place to visit today.

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By Hosehill Lake.

On the way, we detoured to Hosehill Lake nature reserve, & then cycled along the wooded ridge south of it, through small villages, along quiet lanes. Neither of us has been on a bike in a month or more, so it was good to be back out on a fine autumn day. We came east through Silchester & so to the Roman site: a wide, uneven field ringed by its old walls. We found the spot where we think Uncle Aquila’s house was, in the book. We thought about Sam. By the time we were on our way, clouds were rolling in: we raced the rain home & lost, narrowly.

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Sam.

Tonight, as part of Baby Loss Awareness week’s #WaveOfLight, we will light a candle. Thank you, everyone, for helping us to keep talking about our son.

125 Miles Round the Wrekin and Over the Chilterns

There were two weekends in July and August when a large part of Sam’s family were busy, so naturally those of us not occupied went straight for the hills. Two sets of hills – the Wrekin and its neighbours in Shropshire, close to where lots of the family live; and the Chilterns, starting from Reading, where Rachael and I have just moved (which is also why this blog post is quite delayed).

wrekinFor our first ride we chose to follow the medium route of the Round the Wrekin sportive, which ran for the first time this year in May (but which we missed), because it heads out from Kingswinford, where Grandad Stuart and Grandma Jean live. Stuart, Uncles Hugh and Chris, and I set out with 70 miles as our target for the day. To begin with we followed fairly gentle rolling country as far as Bridgnorth, but after that we were onto a more challenging series of hills. The quick succession of climbs started to sap the legs, although Hugh and Chris breezed up them. We all enjoyed a brief break when we zoomed down the steeper side of Wenlock Edge – during which it became clear that Hugh and Chris’s modern brakes were rather more effective than those on the classic bikes that Stuart and I were riding.

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After turning north and over the last of this hilly section, there is a brief respite from climbing, but nowhere for a rest stop except a bench at a crossroads where we paused for a snack. As you press on you begin to see the Wrekin looming, standing almost alone. The climb started easily enough, but having done 40 miles since breakfast and with a couple of thousand feet of hills already behind us, I certainly felt hard-pushed before I crested the saddle between the Wrekin and its northern neighbour, the Ercall. We did not pause to survey our victory, but enjoyed the view as we rolled down into Ironbridge, eager for lunch. After that there was just the climb away from the River Severn, sharp but mercifully short, and then we could take it easy as we pedalled back to our starting point. At the end, checking our various timings, we found that Chris and Hugh had spent in total about 45 minutes waiting for us on the hilltops…

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The second ride was more of an exploration, as none of us had tried out the Chilterns before; this time it was just Hugh, Stuart, and me. We set out from Reading on a fine Bank Holiday morning and, having threaded through the somewhat dazed crowds leaving the Reading Festival, were soon out into the lower southern slopes, following National Cycle Route 5 (this was handy, as it turned out we had forgotten the map). This route takes in shaded, woody country roads in its first section up towards Stoke Row, with a gradient that is rarely difficult. We continued with the 5 down the other side of the Chiltern’s wide ridge, but before it reaches Wallingford we turned off onto a branch of the Chilterns Cycleway – also signposted, also handy. This brought us along the northern flank of the range and then turned to an unexpectedly sudden and steep climb up to Swyncombe, leading us back onto the middle spine of the hills.

We followed the Cycleway signs along quiet and winding lanes, accompanied mainly by kites and buzzards, apart from briefly crossing a few main roads. After one of these – as we turned back southwest from West Wycombe – we hit the most difficult hill, though smaller than the previous two; at least it felt that way, perhaps because it caught me by surprise. Much like in the Wrekin ride, from here we were able to roll down into Henley for another riverside break, and then it was a short struggle over one last spur of the Chilterns before we returned to the path alongside the Thames and followed it back home, where the milometre read 55 miles.

The two rides together bring our total up to 325 miles, leaving us 175 for the year’s target. We plan to do a few more long days in the autumn months, and then perhaps some wintry rides over the Christmas holiday.

The Wrekin and its Shropshire fellows are old friends, having grown up in the West Midlands and often gone out into the countryside nearby. The Chilterns are new to us, but we expect to cycle them many more times. It means a lot to visit these places for Sam.

55 Miles on Good Old Steel

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The bike wagon

The last weekend of June was the Eroica Britannia, something between a village fete and a rock festival, but themed around vintage bikes and inspired by a famous Italian cycling event. Since it started three years ago, our family have gone each time, because old bikes are a passion of Sam’s granddad, Stuart, just as they were for Stuart’s father. Stuart still rides a bike that was his sixteenth birthday present, and these are the sort that we all learned to ride on. Over the last few years, he has collected (and usually fixed) old bikes – ranging from the first decades of the twentieth century right through to the 1980s – for all of us to use, and as we’re a big family, that is no mean feat.

The Eroica is a three-day celebration of cycling held in Bakewell, with food and drink stalls, music, and a big market for bicycles (old and new), clothes (same), and all manner of other bikey bits. Dressing up is a big part of it, in a costume to match your bike, and there are competitions for best in show. We have never aimed to win, but we do try to get into the spirit of it. Riding a bike from the ’80s, my get-up was based on some very dapper gentlemen of that era.

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This is something Sam would enjoy a lot. He didn’t take to clothes straight away, but once he got used to the idea, and helped by the fashion sense of his relatives who bought him presents, he cut quite a dash. Sam heard about the Eroica from all of us.

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Sam’s first try with clothes.

We spent Saturday making sure our classic bikes worked, that nothing important was about to fall off, and picking missing odds and ends in the festival’s jumble sale. Then on Sunday we got down to business. Rachael, Auntie Alice and Uncle Chris, and I chose to take on the 55 mile route, while the rest  of the family rode the shorter option, and made a very impressive parade for it (all the route details are here).

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Lining up for the ride.

Because we’re used to these old bikes, and tend to think of brakes that don’t work and unforgiving gears as pretty normal, I really wasn’t all that prepared for just how challenging the ride felt. This is the Peak District, so maybe the name and the almost 4,000 feet of climbing should have given me a clue, but the real effort came with the 21 miles of off-road riding, along disused railway lines and gravel paths. The solid old steel frames help soak up some of the bumps, but even so you soon become enormously grateful for the smooth feel of tarmac. The planners have done a fabulous job of providing a ride with spectacular views, some great sections through quiet and picturesque valleys, and food stops that come at just the right time. With so many old bikes on the road, there’s also a very friendly atmosphere all the way round.

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Bicycles of every shape and size.

Nothing untoward happened to any of our bikes, and that’s a real testament to Granddad Stuart’s mechanic skills and dedication. All along the route we passed cyclists stopped on the side of the road, fixing punctures or fiddling with parts. At one point Chris and I tried to help someone who had bravely set out with neither spares nor tools (we used a handy puddle to see the air bubbles leaking through the holes in his inner tube, and felt very much that this is how they must have done it in The Olden Days). We had to give up after fixing two punctures, finding several more, and concluding that the inner tube had become more hole than rubber.

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Rolling into Bakewell showground.

After a last, tough hill out of Chatsworth, we rolled gratefully down towards the finish and the festival. Here we found everyone else, and almost ended spectacularly when an overenthusiastic hi-five with Uncle Hugh (a moment after the picture above) nearly tipped me off my bike.

Our total is now just over 200 miles, so we are well on our way to our target for the year. We’re setting out on an even longer ride this coming weekend.

 

100 Miles Up Fell and Down Dale

At the end of May, a bunch of Sam’s family gathered at a campsite near Keswick in the Lake District; our aim was to ride 100 miles over the bank holiday weekend, to add towards our overall target of 500 miles this year. This being the Lakes, we fully expected most of those miles to be vertical, one way or another…

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The start line on Saturday.

On Saturday we set off en masse from the campsite on a loop that took us through Keswick and between Bassenthwaite Water on the one hand and the looming slopes of Skiddaw on the other. Grandad Stuart and Grandma Jean, on their tandem, and Auntie Katie came as far as Bassenthwaite village, about 12 miles, and then the five others turned northeast. Our path followed four cycle routes (although the first, local route 38, is not signposted at all on the roads), which we noticed on the Sustrans website, looping around the Northern Fells.

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North of Skiddaw.

The stretch after Bassenthwaite went up into the northern ranges of Skiddaw, a mixture of quiet lanes and open moorland with a good deal of uphill, and although most of this wasn’t too steep it certainly made an impact. By the time we started to roll down again, officially leaving the Lake District National Park for a short while, we were very ready for a lunchbreak. Following that, we joined the third cycle route of the day on a gentle southeast leg – largely flat this time, except for a few dips (going into each one, luckily, gave us enough momentum that climbing out took very little pedalling).

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The finish line (almost) on Saturday.

Then we came onto the last of the four cycle routes, part of the Coast to Coast (C2C), taking us back into the Lakes. After Greystoke we followed a turning marked ‘alternative route’, which led up over a ridge (and felt pretty tough coming late in the day), but we were rewarded with a beautiful downhill towards Mungrisdale. We had learned by now that around here what comes down must go up, and the last 10 miles or so took us around the skirts of Blencathra, which meant climbing once more. We rolled into camp after 51 miles, not as fresh as when we started but ready to get going again in the morning.

On Sunday we split up. Sam’s uncles Hugh and Chris, being Serious Cyclists, set off to conquer the passes of Wrynose and Hardknott (famous among other Serious Cyclists). The rest of us set off down along Derwent Water to Seatoller. A side note: our plan for the day was based on Grandad Stuart’s wise words: ‘if we just go around the lakes it must be flat’. This is on par with his most famous claim, ‘this boat will never go over, it’s far too stable’ (but that’s another story). From Seatoller, having decided that we would leave the fearsome Honister Pass for another day, Rachael, Auntie Alice and I set off around the west side of Derwent, which instantly led us uphill again, providing some fantastic views across the Water.

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Disappearing cycle route.

Things were reasonably straightforward as we came to Portinscale and rejoined our old companion, the C2C, which would lead us  up the west side of Bassenthwaite Water. On Saturday we had seen plenty of cyclists along this route, laden down with luggage, so we presumed it would be pretty easygoing. We had noticed that a section turned off road through some woods, but harking back to the ‘by the lake = flat’ wisdom, and disregarding the frankly baffling gap that appears at this point on Google Maps, we trusted to the C2C and followed it into the shade of the trees, reassured that our lunch stop was only two miles away.

Not only did the road immediately swap to gravel track, it kicked up steeper than anything we had seen yet (as shown in the profile above). The thought of going up or down it on a heavily-laden touring bike is staggering. We gave it a good go, but had to accept that walking was the only way. This was still tough, although the views through the trees across Bassenthwaite were certainly impressive. As soon as we could, we dropped onto a downhill track leading towards our lunch stop, while the C2C signs continued mockingly up the sheer hillside. Following lunch we unanimously decided that this effort had taken its toll, and so we looped around the top of Bassenthwaite Water onto the roads where we had begun on Saturday. By the time we got back to camp we had done 38 miles – and there we met Hugh and Chris, returned from their athletics, telling fearful tales of altitude sickness and burning legs…

It turned out that our detour the day before wasn’t such a problem, as we still had Monday to do a last 12 miles, in a short spin down to Thirlmere, a reservoir formed when the Manchester City Corporation joined two smaller lakes together. Four of us – Rachael, me, Hugh, and Stuart –  took it easy over a gentle, rolling route, and the fantastic vista across the mere was a great way to conclude the weekend.

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Thirlmere.

This brings our running total to 145 miles since the start of the year. Our next outing will be at the Eroica Britannia in a couple of weeks’ time, where we will hopefully bring this up to 200 miles. We’ve raised nearly £3,000 so far, and Auntie Rowena also gambolled successfully over the Three Peaks the week before we went to the Lakes, raising £1,300, all of it to support the incredible work done by Addenbrooke’s Hospital NICU. We are really grateful to everyone who is following the blog, or has already donated to Sam’s fund. Keep giving and we’ll keep pedalling…

Spring in the Step

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The ‘Why We Run’ wall at the London Marathon

It’s been a busy spring so far for Sam’s family and our charity efforts. Grandad Stuart got around the London marathon and has raised over £2,000 for Bliss (his fundraising page is still open). Aunty Rowena faces the Three Peaks next week, and is undaunted by rumours of snow on Ben Nevis. She has raised nearly £1,000 for the neonatal unit at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, so if you can help her reach that amount it will give the extra boost to her hiking boots. Finally, in just over a week, quite a few of us will be taking our bikes to the Lake District for the next step towards our 500 miles target for this year.

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Dutch terrain.

Rachael and I have been in the Netherlands since February, where I have been doing some research. We think Sam would have really liked Amsterdam, where we have spent most of our time in the Netherlands. He was so curious about the world around him, and loved to be surrounded by family and friends. We know he would have loved to see such a busy and welcoming city.

We have been doing our best to fit in training for the charity rides that we have planned across the summer, and we have managed to get out on the bikes quite a lot. However, the dijks and polders of Holland are well known for their flatness. The famous hills of the Lake District could well be a challenge…

 

Running with Sam

As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, the cycling plans are not the only fundraising that we are doing. In just about a month’s time, Sam’s granddad Stuart will be running the London Marathon.

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Stuart and The Badger.

He has done it twice before: on one occasion he proudly claimed to have outsprinted a fellow runner dressed as a badger – until the finish line photos arrived through the letterbox, clearly showing The Badger a few steps ahead.

This time, he is running the marathon for Bliss, and you can donate to support him here. Bliss are a charity who help the parents and families of babies needing neonatal care, whether from prematurity or illness. They publish a lot of information through their website and leaflets (we found these really helpful while we were in the neonatal unit at the Rosie), as well as running a support network and a helpline, and offering links to other organisations. They also support medical research, and work with doctors and nurses to promote best practice and family-centred care.

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Sam and his granddad Stuart.

One part of our experience with Sam was realising just how many people face that situation, even though each case is entirely unique. We learnt for the first time that old friends had been through neonatal care when they were born (and both Rachael and I spent some time in incubators ourselves), and we had a lot of sympathy and support from people who had had similar experiences to ours. Over 90,000 babies need neonatal care in the UK every year. This is why the work by Bliss and NICUs like the one in the Rosie is so important, and we were so very lucky to have it.

Thanks again to everyone who is following the blog, and especially to those of you who have donated to Sam’s memorial fund, to Stuart’s marathon for Bliss, or to Rowena’s Three Peaks fund (Row’s training is also going well, and she has already passed her first target for donations). We really, really appreciate your help.