Wednesday 18 December 2013

Great gifts for your seasonal host

I am well and truly over the school run, after-school activities and sensible bed times. With just a week to go to the Big Day, I’m already dreaming of mornings spent in my PJs surrounded by wrapping paper and slightly hazy afternoons filled with family and friends.

Since this year I don’t need to be basting a turkey and wrapping pigs in blankets on Xmas morning, I’m feeling rather relaxed about the whole affair (although it is true that my Christmas cards are still sitting stamp-less on the sofa, and there’s unwrapped presents shoved in every hidey-hole I could think of). My main concern now is to source some rather lovely gifts to give to the hosts of the yuletide and New Year gatherings that I’m lucky enough to be invited to. And since, in true relaxed style, I’ve left it too late to order online, I’m heading off to the Great British High Street to do some last minute shopping…
Literally drooling at my keyboard Hotel Chocolat!

If there’s one place I can’t pass by without drooling it is British cocoa grower and chocolatier Hotel Chocolat. And have you seen its range of Xmassy gifts? (Look away now if you have no willpower…). As well as the best type of Christmas cracker I’ve even seen (contains 40 chocolates rather than plastic moustaches and dubious fortune-telling fish), it also offers a Festive Wreath with cookies and Florentines embedded into its chocolaty circle and a dark chocolate gianduja log studded with hazelnuts and pistachios. For a New Year gathering you might want to consider the Chocolate Dipping Adventure, a selection box of its tantalising chocs – or even cocoa gin (right now, I’m pretty much considering all of those things…mmmmmm).

If there’ll be plenty of corks popping when you’re partying, why not consider some gifts to help out your bubbly host? Lakeland offers a champagne opener, a ‘bubbly bung’ (in case you leave any bottles unfinished??), as well as Caviar d'Arôme and Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup (to add to the fizz and give it that little bit extra). And if you’re up for a bit of fun, why not take along a bottle of Blue Nun Sparkling Gold, a glitzy white wine with flecks of 22 Carat gold leaves to get the party started (available from Rhythm & Booze stores nationwide or in mini-bottles from ASDA).

Christmas cheer in a glass!

If your host is more tea and cakes than champers and canapés, perhaps a trip to Cath Kidston might be in order (the brand has been with us for 20 years now, how did that happen)? With china ranges including 3-tier cake stands and ‘proper’ tea cups and saucer sets, you can’t fail to impress any hostess with the mostess (plus you can buy some ‘Stanley’ shortbread biscuits – yum!). Joules also offers some lovely kitchenware – with the badger and fox designs bringing a touch of tongue-in-cheek country to any home.

If you want to pamper the lady of the house that you’ve checked into, head to John Lewis. The store is awash with luxury gifts, not least its selection of candles, which includes Jo Malone, Dipytique and Cochine offerings. In the beauty hall you can choose from the top brands which will help melt away hostess stress – everything from Liz Earle, Elemis, Rodial and Bare Minerals. Swoon! If you want to take your beauty gift to cult level, head to Space NK – something like the Georgia Louise Lift and Sculpt Butterfly Stone will set your gift apart from any other. I dare you to get in and out of that shop without buying something for yourself too!!
You will be invited back

So with all this shopping to do, I should probably stop blogging and get buying! If you have time to comment in the box below, I’d love to know which gift you’d choose! Right now, I’m off to the shops – and probably the post box too…

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Does your Christmas tree have the balls?

This week I have mostly been teaching my two girls what testicles are. Why on earth…? I hear you cry. Well, for a start it stops any more awkward questions about how Santa makes it around the world in just one night, how he monitors nice/naughty behaviour and why there are just soooo many look-a-likes about the place (they are his cousins, in case you were wondering). But more importantly, it is because a shiny, red pair of testicles came through my front door last weekend.

C'mon, who wouldn't want a pair of balls for their tree?

Fret not, I was expecting them! These very special ‘Bauballs’ are part of a seasonal campaign by Orchid, the UK’s leading charity focussed exclusively on male specific cancers. Once out of their presentation box, the Bauballs can take pride of place on your tree – and serve as a little reminder that a quick self-exam can help catch testicular cancer in the early stages (98% of men that are treated in this stage will make a full recovery). The boxed balls make an ideal stocking filler for your man – and a great Secret Santa gift. With a suggested donation  of £5, the Bauballs are available from House of Fraser stores and online. One hundred per cent of the donations go to Orchid.

This pose requires a Barbie with bendy knees

But where does Mummy come into this equation you may ask? Well, I think we all know the stats about how men with partners are generally healthier, and that men tend to leave serious health issues for too long (and yet are quite happy to go to town on the Man Flu thing). So, inside the Bauball box you will also find a little leaflet with some info on how to check for signs of testicular cancer (lumps, swelling, firmness, pain, fluid accumulation, a dull ache or heaviness). And it includes a paragraph about making the check that bit more fun. Just make sure the kids are in bed first.

It's more fun with a friend

And I understand that lots of kiddies are only too happy to get into bed on Christmas Eve...

There's a space for your comments below of course (don't leave me dangling!).

Thursday 5 December 2013

Santa doesn't always ride a sleigh...

Unbelievably my first Christmas outing was not the BritMums do I wrote about last week (despite the fact that it was still only November then!). Just the day before, I took part in a charity Santa Dash. Yes, I ran 5k dressed in a full Father Christmas suit (beard and all) – and then afterwards ate a mince pie as festive tunes played in the background. I have to say, it was a perfect way to start the season and I can only hope (and yet think it is unlikely) that the rest of my Yuletide is as virtuous!

The Thames Hospice Santa Dash with Bracknell Forest mayor Councillor Jan Angel

The tradition of Santa Dashes (and sometimes accompanying Reindeer Runs for children) is alive and well up and down the country. On any given weekend in November and December you are likely to see a sack (the best collective noun I could come up with...) of Santas pounding pavements and braving the elements in big cities like London, Liverpool, Brighton, Exeter and Glasgow as well as more low-key locations like the one I did in Swinley Forest, Bracknell. The Santa runs do all have one thing in common though – they raise much-needed funds for deserving charities through sponsorship. The one I attended was in aid of Thames Hospice, which provides treatment and support for terminally-ill adults, and those that love and care for them.

A warm welcome

If you’ve ever had a loved one die from a serious illness, you know that is can be a long and painful process – for the patient and their friends and family. My paternal Aunt died from cancer when she was in her early fifties. For many patients facing the end of their life, like she did, simple things like male and female wards and private rooms can make a difference. People want to retain their dignity and independence as far as they can, and often have concerns about how and where they will spend those last precious days. The NHS is sometimes unable to provide the type of care desired to everyone that needs it.

Santa's little helper ready for his run

Thames Hospice runs a 17-bed unit in Windsor, with consultants, doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers, and a Community Therapy Unit for day services including social and support programmes and clinics. It also offers its free-of-charge and vital services in people’s homes – and is available 365 days of the year. But expert nursing and medical care – and supporting the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of patients during their illness – does not come cheap. Fundraisers and donors raise the £5.5m each year to ensure this compassionate approach to palliative care can continue. It makes running for half an hour in beautiful surroundings seem very much like the easy option.

My support team

Christmas is an ideal time to think about how we might help others, and a Santa run, while helping to fundraise for a worthy cause, is a fun festive event that allows those of us in good health to make the most of it. The way I look at it, everyone’s a winner!

If you’d like to donate to Thames Hospice, my JustGiving fundraising page is still open.

My medal doubles as a tree decoration too

Have you recently taken part in a charity event? Want to get up off the Christmas couch and do something more strenuous than pull a cracker? Leave a comment and let me know which charity events are important to you.

Monday 2 December 2013

It’s 5pm shomewhere…

Yay to me – it’s only November and I have been to my first Christmas party of the year. And there was wine even though it was barely 11am (but shurely it’s 5pm shomewhere right?). And excuse me while I hashtag all over the place, but this was blogger central – the #BritMumsXmasDo – a jolly affair where bloggers could come out from behind their keyboards (touchscreens?) and enjoy the festivities courtesy of Morrisons.

Barbie gets right into introducing herself
Maybe it was the cosy lighting, maybe it was the wine and the good company – or maybe it was a Christmas combo of all these things – but it was a great way to kick off the festive season, not least because I overhead the following funnies…

‘Bloggers don't eat anything they haven’t photographed first’

These little biscuits wore their disco pants...

When I walked into the event – it was as if someone had screamed ‘don’t touch the food’ a few moments before I’d got there (they didn’t – in fact they were saying quite the opposite!!). The room was awash with appreciative ‘ooos’ and ‘aaahs’ as bloggers carefully circled the Christmassy treats enticingly laid out on central tables. But no one touched a thing until all the required images had been captured (and in some cases immediately uploaded to Twitter), because Bloggers like to look real hard – and take pictures. The star attractions included Ronnie The Reindeer Cake (£7.99), the already erected Make Your Own Gingerbread House kits (£4.99), the Super-Sized CandyCanes (£3) and the cute little Disco Pants biscuits (£2). Not that I stopped there, as there was also goodies like a Yule log, pretzels, ‘Pigs & Blankets’ and Panettone loaf that needed a good sampling (for research purposes I tell ya). I even snaffled some chocolate coins for my kids.

The Barbies do love an ice bucket

‘Butter and turkey should be married’

The man main attraction of the day was Neil Nugent, Morrisons’ Executive Chef and Head of Product Development. Nugent personally signed off 972 Xmas products this year, and was on hand to tell us how to cook a perfect Christmas meal. The biggest blunder is overcooking the turkey he said. To avoid this, get your bird out of the fridge a few hours before cooking so it doesn’t go into the oven cold, shake your turkey to open it up and to ensure even cooking, then get some soft (but not melted) butter under the skin (access should be from the neck end). Rather controversially he then went on to say don’t stuff it, and don’t truss it and NEVER use foil (because that steams it silly). Allow 20 minutes then 20 minutes per kg after that for cooking time and when its stretch is up use a basic probe to check for cold spots (like the armpits next to the bone).If all’s well, let your turkey rest, and the juices will make it easier to carve.

'Ronnie' didn't stand a chance against a hoard of hungry bloggers
Nugent was similarly provocative with his views on spuds, declaring ‘never boil a potato’ to the room (on the basis that the outside cooks quicker than the inside).You can’t go wrong with a Maris Piper apparently, and when you are ready to roast, dust a bit of semolina on your part-cooked potatoes for that professional edge. He was happy to recommend preparing accompaniments like veg, bread sauce and gravy base ahead of the day itself. And finally, I must add, that Nugent was ‘poached’ from Waitrose (seriously, who doesn’t love a foodie pun?).

‘That’s actually not for eating’

 After a few glasses of a rather smooth Saint-Veran, I felt even more relaxed about testing the tables teeming with festive food. That is when I spied the three different types of Christmas pud from the M Signature line on display. That’s interesting I thought to myself, I’ve never really compared different types of those, I wonder if I’d prefer the Candy Apple-encrusted one – or the Jewelled Fruit? So, locating a rather large fork, I dug in. I was just savouring said desserts when one of the food stylists (who were lovely incidentally) subtly informed me that the puds weren’t cooked and that I probably wouldn’t want to eat them. MY BAD! Of course I knew you have to cook Christmas pudding, of course I did… (it tasted good and I’m fine by the way, so in case of a zombie apocalypse and all you’ve got to eat is Morrisons uncooked Christmas pudding, dig in).
Barbie...putting the 'no' into Noel


Well, all’s well that ends well, and indeed I left armed with a goodie bag of tasty treats, feeling like this Christmas party thing is rather fun. I met some lovely bloggers I’d not come across before – like Mummy Endeavours, who has 4 children including twins, Steph’s Two Girls, who started her blog as a diary after a diagnosis of autism for her younger daughter, and Ali Clifford from Kids Chaos (every parent knows how that blog got that name!). I hope I’ll bump into them again on and off line!

The Barbies made time to try out some new Morrisons outfits
So, have you started to party yet? Did you hang your decorations this weekend – or do you prefer to wait until we are well into December before you get that Christmas jumper out (come on you know you want to)?

Wednesday 20 November 2013

All dogs go to heaven

This week my mum’s old dog died. In his prime, he was a handsome Show Champion with the world at his paws. But lately he hadn’t been too steady on those paws, and while his golden heart and his spirit were still strong, Merkel could no longer stand long enough to get himself to the garden when he needed to. Drugs were no longer keeping his aches and pains from arthritis at bay and it was time to let him go.

Merkel was my eldest daughter’s favourite dog. She has a large printout of a photo of her proudly walking him (recall whistle around her neck) on her bedroom door. Telling her he had been put to sleep broke my heart a little – and the news naturally made her bury her head in her pillow too. She is sad that his is gone – but accepting that he had got older and weaker, and that sometimes the kinder thing is to say goodbye before a loved pet suffers.

Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware, Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
The Power of the Dog - Kipling
Behind him, however, he leaves a legacy. As well as children, grandchildren and great, great grandchildren (!) across the countryside he will always be the first dog my daughter loved. Although as a Hungarian Vizsla, Merkel was medium to large build, he was very gentle and biddable. When he curled up in front of the fire he took his blankie with him, and sucked either that or his toe. He always had a soft toy with him too – which he displayed proudly to anyone he could. He thoroughly enjoyed playing with the puppies born in his house – and offered whelping bitches respite as their offspring tested out their teeth on his ears. He was always pleased to see two-legged guests too and let my children walk, lead and play with him, sitting, fetching and returning as they commanded.

It is often said that alongside health benefits, such as reducing allergies and stress and increasing time spent outdoors, pets offer children the opportunity to learn about responsibility and nurturing – and ultimately about loss too. These lessons are life skills that will prove invaluable as they grow older. But Merkel taught my girls so much more than that. He taught them to be generous with both enthusiasm and love – and for that alone, he will always be cherished.

Rest in peace you fine old man.

Friday 15 November 2013

It’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas

Anyone else feeling it yet? Trying to hold back from getting up in the loft for those decorations? Spotting the perfect presents for your nearest and dearest? Feeling just slightly overwhelmed by juggling family, school and work commitments as you write festive dates in your diary? Well thanks to Yellow Moon, Holburn House has well and truly kicked off Christmas with some Yuletide crafting.

In our house, we have two Christmas trees. The one I control, which must be themed, co-ordinated and PERFECT – and the one the kids are allowed to touch. I’m not usually such an interiors Nazi (one look at the new porch will tell you that, it’s just a dumping ground), so to avoid tears (and let’s be clear about this, I mean mine) a little while ago I invested in a kid-sized tree that the girls could easily reach and hang their own ‘decorations’ on, any way they want (usually all on one side, with no thought to colour or co-ordination – there I go again…). Ideally it would have two points – so that they can both choose exactly what goes on the top – but it mostly allows them free reign and independence.

Some finished items - for their tree...

At the start of December, we always head off to The Tree Barn at the aptly-named Christmas Common. This local haunt is the stuff of Xmas dreams – the sort of place where you actually see families walking out carrying huge trees fresh from the farm, Dad at the front, kids at the rear, all bundled up in winter woollies and wellies. Inside you will find huge trees decorated in themes (as it should be) – with everything you need to recreate the look beneath. Alongside the real trees, wreaths and mistletoe offered outside, the barn itself also has tinsel, baubles, twinkly lights, stockings, cards, nativity scenes, novelty Christmas gifts, crackers – basically the whole shebang! I love it. The kids get to choose a decoration each, and I slowly but surely add to my haul of festive embellishments. This year, I will mostly be buying lights for outside the new porch...

The Tree Barn - where the trees are themed (because there is no other way).

As well as these carefully chosen pieces however, this year my children will also unleash upon the tree some rather impressive ceramic decorations they have crafted themselves. Using special porcelain pens (some pearlised, others with glitter) from Yellow Moon, the girls were able to beautify some ceramic tree decorations and baubles – with rather impressive results (bar the pen marks on the leggings, my bad!).

The plain tree ornaments arrived safely-packaged among boxes and polystyrene (which I will re-use to pack them away for years to come) – and were met with squeals of delight as I revealed each design. Negotiations quickly commenced about who got to decorate what (but at £4.99 for 6, you could easily get a couple of packs). The plain baubles sent the older one into a flurry of paper-design ideas (I think pre-planning is something school is teaching her) – and had me itching to demand a turn. I seriously think adults would enjoy decorating them – like going to those kiddie pottery places in the evening and painting a plate while sipping on Sauvignon…

The Yellow Moon baubles

Anyway, messy fun soon commenced and the decorations and baubles are now fully (FULLY!) festooned with pictures, blocks of colour and wiggly writing. I look forward to getting them out each year – especially when the girls are older and splodgy hand prints and glitter are well behind them – when all I'll have left is my memories (sob).
All in all, it was a great way to spend a winters afternoon warming up for Christmas – and triggered an immediate need for mince pies! The girls have made some lovely additions to our haul of Yuletide trimmings, and it really got me in the mood for festive fun. How many sleeps ‘til Santa?

Are you counting down the days - or are you saying bah humbug to it all? Let me know in the comment box below.

The nice people at Yellow Moon provided my kids with the sample items used in this blog. I mention The Tree Barn because it's my happy place.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Dubai gets the seal of approval...

My younger daughter has two defining characteristics: she will not walk if she can convince someone to carry her (enter stage left Daddy) and she likes a clean toilet. She REALLY likes a clean toilet. She will not use a loo if the previous occupant has not flushed, if there’s debris on the floor (paper, empty loo rolls), if it is dark, cold or wet, if there is any chance of spiders inhabiting it or it is a compost loo (found that one out while we were ‘wild’ camping).

Princesses don't have to walk when there's a camel around...

As such, you might think that travelling with her would prove difficult. Well not if you happen to be going to spend a week with family in Dubai. Because Dubai has the poshest, most plentiful public WCs I’ve happened across. And I’ve happened across a lot – and can claim to have used what is thought to be the ‘highest toilet in the world’ in Potala, Lhasa (I might add it is three hundred years old!!).

But of course, that’s not a reason in itself to take the kids to Dubai…there’s lots of other ways to entertain them in one of the fastest growing cities on earth.

Let’s go to the mall
The average kid would not opt to spend a holiday shopping – but in Dubai a mall is so much more that a collection of glittering shops (that mummy would dearly loved to have gone in – sob). In fact in Dubai, these impressive air-conditioned feats of architecture don’t just offer an impressive range of shops and eateries, but compete to keep you entertained for the whole day – with everything from huge aquariums, ski slopes, ice rinks, cinemas, theatres and gyms. Dubai Mall is the world’s largest (they are big on world records over there) but each and every one has something to entice you in. The Malls are also a meeting place for the locals – and for the expat community – so offer great people-watching potential too, when your legs (or those smaller ones accompanying you) have tired and you need to take respite in say, Starbucks, Costa, Carluccio’s or Baskin Robbins (yes, every single brand you can think of has a presence in Dubai!).

Candylicious is the one shop the kids were happy to go in...

Water, water everywhere

Hot weather is great and so is sand, but a dessert climate without water is no fun at all, so I can see why everywhere you go in Dubai you happen across impressive fountains and water features (there’s a massive one in the airport for a start). There are also a ton of swimming pools and acres and acres of beautiful beaches with soft white sand and sunsets to die for.

If you want to see the crème de la crème of fountains, head to the Dubai Fountain (watch them here) located in front of the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world obvs), and set on a 30-acre manmade lake. Several times a day (and every 30 minutes in the evening) the illuminated fountains will ‘dance’ to music, shooting water up as high as 500 ft (150 metres). It’s like fireworks without the loud bangs and chance you might need eye surgery.

And if you want to soak up some sun but also like a decent shower afterwards and more privacy than a poorly-placed towel affords head to the Jumeirah Beach Park (part beach, part park), which offers clean toilets (!) and dressing rooms, a swimming pool, volleyball courts, play areas, picnic tables, a barbecue area and food outlets, as well as a jetty area fronting on to the lifeguarded beach (check which days are ladies-only though – unless you are an all-female group of course). And the sea there is warmer than some baths I’ve had…

Playing in the sand at sunset...

Up the Creek

Another great place to spend a day with kids is The Dubai Creek Park. This historic focal point is now a large, open space with plenty of room for children to roam (if it’s not too hot). There are plenty of picnic areas, bikes to rent, a train and a cable car. You can also take a boat ride to see some more authentic sights. Within the park you can also visit the Dolphinarium for regular shows or even to swim with the dolphins, and Children’s City – a hands-on museum come discovery centre where children can investigate and learn about the world in various galleries and a planetarium.

Toilet-humour aside, what would your child’s ideal holiday location be? Disneyland? Somewhere with a beach? Up a mountain? Up in space? And how does that differ from what you would choose? Let me know in the comment box below.