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.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Birthdays: the things my children have taught me...

Alongside Halloween, October holds one extra treat for me. Yep, it’s my birthday month – and I do like to celebrate (anything, at all, at any time). But having kids has opened my eyes to a whole new approach to that most special of days…

A minute on the lips, but a lifetime on the hips Babs...

Make your demands clear

A bit like Christmas once there’s just a heap of wrapping paper on the floor and you’ve eaten too many mince pies, birthdays can be a bit of a disappointment. Maybe all you got was a tea towel and a card with a joke about getting old. To avoid this scenario, you have to make your expectations of the big day clear to your nearest and dearest – CRYSTAL CLEAR. If you don’t, you’ve only yourself to blame. So, if you’re scared of clowns, balloons or birthday candles, tell your birthday slave/s before the big day, and if you want to eat off a Tinkerbell plate tell that special someone (maybe even right after your previous birthday finishes so they have plenty of time to organise it) in a loud, demanding voice.

Age is just a number

For a child each and every birthday means they are older, bigger, better. I’m not sure when that stops for an adult, but it’s too late for me to pretend I’m the right side of 40 (I was silly enough to have a big party, so everyone remembers – well remembers the start of the evening anyhow…). So, just like my kids I don’t make a secret of my age – and would willingly wear a princess-fairy-Peppa Pig birthday badge for all to see (if only they made them for my age!). Without that badge, how is anyone going to know I’m special??????

Stop pretending to be 'down with the kids' Barbie, you're 54 for goodness sake!

Let everyone else do the work

From watching my children I have learnt that when it’s your birthday, to prove their enduring love everyone precious in your life must work hard to ensure your day is perfect. In fact they should make sure your ACTUAL day is special – and ideally also make sure the weekend located closest to your birthday is ALSO special – maybe by throwing a party. Other things that your nearest and dearest may want to do to show you how special you are include: baking and decorating an extravagant cake to exacting specifications, showering you with gifts, inviting all your friends round to trash the house – and then tidy all the mess away, decorating the house inside and out with tokens of affection, collating a gift registry, filling the cupboards with your favourite foods. Really the list is endless. There are so many ways to show a person you love them. And you should expect to witness them all.

Come out of the ice bucket NOW!

Eat cake

Yes, birthdays are not exactly healthy days. Alongside the cake you have specified (exactly), birthdays must also include five varieties of crisps, jammy dodgers, popcorn, ice cream and sweets. You and your friends needn’t eat all the food provided, but it must be there in case you fancy just eating a bit of it – or piling it all onto your plate to look at. When you have tired of eating/not eating these birthday delicacies, have birthday slaves tidy it away into a dustbin sack (but not while you are watching, since that can be upsetting).

Clear your schedule

Birthdays are mega important. And arrangements can change, the weather can be unpredictable and illnesses such as chicken pox can devastate guest lists. If you want to achieve other things around the same time as your birthday – or if those people lucky enough to be celebrating your birthday with you have anything else to do other than care for you and your needs – it’s best to get it done before the actual birthday, so that if plans go awry there is plenty of room to maneuverer. For example, on your birthday, you might have planned to drop the kids at school, head off to the gym, take a daytime bath, cruise around a luxury supermarket and purchase your day’s delights, perhaps have a chilled glass of chilled bubbly with your lunch and generally relax. And then you might find that instead your youngest is off school and you are stuck trying to write a blog with CBeebies on in the background…

Seriously life? Seriously?
How do you like to spend your birthday? What have countless kiddie parties taught you about celebrating that special day? If you have a birthday story please share it below (think of it as your present to me). Or just blow me a virtual birthday kiss. Cheers!!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

Every now and again the parenting planets align perfectly. And so it was last Sunday, when having seen the weekend weather forecast, we dutifully completed the autumn scavenger hunt homework on a lovely sunny Saturday – and then had a fabulous time dodging the downpour that was Sunday at The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre
Find out the stories behind the stories...

Both my girls love books and writing. And of course, mummy has a bit of a vested interest in making sure that love continues at the very least as a hobby, if not into something more as they grow older (no pressure girls). And rather co-incidentally they are both being read Dahl stories in class at the moment (Matilda for the Year 3 child, and The Twits for the Year 1 kiddo). Since this award-winning venue had been in the back of my mind for a while, and I knew that heading outdoors would not be much fun, Sunday seemed the perfect time to head over to Great Missenden and explore.
Not sure Roald would have fitted in around here...
For us it was a 40 minute drive, and perhaps we were rather lucky to get a parking spot on the High Street right outside the museum. We arrived a little earlier than the 11am (Sunday) opening time but the very lovely staff were happy to let us in from the cold – and seemed genuinely interested in why we had come along. The same helpful people popped up here and there as we made our way around the museum – pointing out some of the things to see and do. At that point it hadn’t occurred to me that I would blog about the Museum, but I basically felt like we had been mistaken for VIPs (I should probably take off that fake press pass I made myself…).
Making up a boss

The museum’s website suggests that a visit will usually last up to 90 minutes, but I’m not sure why, as we managed 4 hours… As well as some well-illustrated information about Roald’s early life (he was a bit of a handful by all accounts!) and his time in the RAF, there are plenty of things to touch and explore in the two main galleries of the museum (plus they smell of chocolate!). You’ll learn about the inspiration for many of Dahl’s well-loved stories and characters. Quentin Blake illustrations abound!
Hands on

And then you arrive at the Story Centre – where it all gets hands-on crazy! As well as story sacks containing all you need to re-enact favourite tales such as Fantastic Mr Fox, there are interactive video screens and some very imaginative story-prompting ideas. There’s also a mock-up of the writing space Dahl crafted for himself, and you can sit in his chair and see if inspiration strikes!!
The man himself
At the back of the story centre was a well-equipped and brightly-decorated crafts area – modelled on George’s Marvellous Medicine. Kids were literally being dragged out of there kicking and screaming as there was so much to do! And I’m not sure I’d like to be the one to tidy up at the end of the day – let’s just say there were sequins, lots of sequins, and lots of children playing with those sequins. 
Before the kids got there...

The other main highlight of the visit was the regular story-telling that went on in Miss Honey’s Classroom. Our youngest went to listen to the impressively dramatic staff (drama school anyone?) three, yes three, times. Audience participation was also encouraged, if you feel your inner-thespian calling…

We had our lunch in the Café Twit, while we pondered exactly why the wall illustrations were upside down (you need to know what the monkeys did…) – which offered freshly-made food but was overcrowded because the weather meant the lovely courtyard tables were out of use. And of course we also spent some time in the gift shop, where I did get a bit of Xmas shopping done (and we were all allowed a bar of Wonka chocolate due to good behaviour).
I am the size of a 'complete Wonka' (I looked it up on their chart...)
All in all, I can’t recommend this Museum enough. I think kids do need to be above 5 to really appreciate it (under that age and they actually get in free) – and familiar with the stories too. Dry weather would also mean you can have lunch in the courtyard and go off on one of the nearby trails that take you around the pretty village of Great Missenden and through the stunning Chiltern countryside that Dahl grew up in (including a visit to his graveside where you’ll find the footprints of a certain BFG…).

Have you been to the Museum – and did your family enjoy it? Are you down with Dahl – and if so, which is your favourite title? Let me know in the comment box below – and it would be great if you could recommend other places to dodge the upcoming winter weather!

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Halloween Party Giveaway!

Yay! It’s October. I like October. As well as half term (or as I like to think of it, a whole week of lie-ins), this month I get to indulge my penchant for fancy dress with that spookiest time of the year – Halloween. Years ago, Halloween came and went without much fuss, but now you can throw a kiddie shindig that all the little devils in your life will love – and go that little bit crazy with costumes, decorating the house and other party fun.

Dressing for the part

Wanna look freaky for trick or treating? Well, the good news is that Seven Year Hitch has some ghoulish giveaways to help you have a very Happy Halloween indeed! First up, let me introduce you to ‘Snot The Zombie’ – the world’s first interactive backpack aimed at children aged three to seven (£34.99). Pop Snot on your back then get him to pull funny faces using the remote control – ideal for doorstop treat stops.
'Snot' could be yours!!

And for those wanting to look fabulously scary? How about a tutu pettiskirt from brand leader Angel’s Face? These fluffy, frilly skirts come in new-born to teen sizes – with the jet black or anthracite being the obvious colour choices for this night and many parties beyond. See below for your chance to win an Angel’s Face pettiskirt or ‘Snot’ backpack of your very own.

 Is 'too cool for ghoul' a thing? (It should be!)


And Halloween costumes needn’t break the bank either. Aldi (it won the Which? Award for best Supermarket of the year in 2013) has a ‘wicked’ range of costumes for kids (including witches, cats, pumpkins, vampires and skeletons) and grown-ups (check out the ‘killer’ skeleton dress!). Adult outfits start at just £7.99, and kids at £3.99, which, by my reckoning, leaves plenty in the pot for yet more candy (or some glowsticks - £2.99 for packet of six at Aldi)!!

Setting the scene

If you want to go that little bit further than a few cobwebs in the corners (I actually have authentic ones ready and waiting for that Halloween party, or in fact, any party…) take advantage of the 3-for-2 offer Hobby Craft is running across its Halloween range. The store has everything you need to create your own fantastic decorations (not least a paper mache pumpkin) as well as ready-made products to give your house that most-haunted look. I love the ‘fangtastic’ tableware and ‘shocktails’ bottle labels!
Open wide!

Party Packs does a great range of themed decorations – including blood splats to add to your windows and complete door covers and curtains. And why not jazz up the inside of all your rooms with ‘Monster Mood Lighting’ stickers that create creepy glowing faces where once there were just light switches? Boo!

Things to do

Alongside bobbing apples and a fancy dress competition why not play ‘wrap the mummy’. All you need is two teams and lots of toilet paper! Identify two good sports to become the ‘mummy’ (best check they don’t suffer from claustrophobia first). Then race to be the first team to encase that volunteer in toilet roll in the style of a Scooby Doo villain. Messy but hilarious!

My girls try out the Aldi range

To keep your mini monsters amused, provide some creepy crafts such as scratch art bookmarks and colour-in masks from Yellow Moon – or get your guests to decorate their own trick or treat bags. And as an alternative to spooky sweets why not try the themed treats and toys from Baker Ross (the dentist will thank you!) to pop inside?

And have a frighteningly good time!

Four ways to WIN!!!!

To be in with a chance to win either an Angel’s Face pettiskirt or a ‘Snot’ backpack, you can do one (or all) of these things:

1. Simply leave a comment on this blog below – stating ‘I want Snot’ or ‘I want an Angel’s Face’.

2. Follow me on Twitter @VanessaSH and tweet me with ‘I want Snot’ or ‘I want an Angel’s Face’.

3. Find my Halloween competition board on Pinterest and comment ‘I want Snot’ or ‘I want an Angel’s Face’ on the relevant image Pin.

4. Like the Seven Year Hitch Facebook page and post ‘I want Snot’ or ‘I want an Angel’s Face’ on the wall.

Each comment, tweet or post you leave will give you once chance to win the item - so the more you do the more likely you are to win. Good luck! (Sorry the competition is for UK residents only). Winners will be chosen at random and announced here on Friday 18th October.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Is your wardrobe ready to POP?!

It’s not easy being a SMOG. What is a SMOG I hear you cry? Well, um, actually it is a 'smug mother of girls’. My mum told me about the phrase after reading it in The Daily Mail (so it must be true). I assume it means that typically girls are perceived as being less trouble than boys – after all ‘boys will be boys’ (whatever that means!).

Jo and George from 'POP'
Of course it’s a load of rubbish. I might not have to regularly break up Star Wars re-enactments that have got woefully out of hand – or visit A&E with broken bones from tree climbing, skate boarding and roughhousing (again, whatever that means), but girls come with their own foibles and challenges. And a lot of girls also break bones, love Star Wars and can throw a punch like a heavyweight (I include myself in that last category, so leave a comment on this blog or I’ll send myself round!!!).

One of the major issues with raising my girls has been clothes. It’s fair to say that my younger daughter was known far and wide for her love of tutus. It didn’t matter if it was cold, if we were knee-deep in mud or actually at a ballet class, a certain ‘Hello Kitty’ tutu was always part of her outfit. I had to wash it nearly every day to keep up. Her elder sister can be just as obsessive – she has been through phases of only wearing pink, only wearing t-shirts that don’t cover her tummy, refusing to wear long-sleeved items unless they are under a shorter sleeved one (?) and is currently a trousers-only girl on the basis that tights are annoying (yes, they are).

Apparently boys wear clothes too...
So perhaps unsurprisingly, our wardrobes tend to have items that are well-loved-but-way-too-small-that-cannot-ever-be-thrown-out and items that have been rejected completely because of colour, fit, fabric, sleeve-length or some such nonsense. This means a lot of clothes that still have plenty of life left in them are grown out of  – and that I’m not keen on buying new clothes unless I know my girls are going to wear (and wear and wear) them.

Well, a girl can never have too many shoes - am I right?

The solution? Decent second hand clothes sales! And specifically the ‘POP’ ones run by local mums Jo and George (sales take place in Hare Hatch and Wargrave). Before the sale I take along my barely worn but lovely children’s clothes to be priced up and hung on the rails – and during the sale I take along my two little angels to select items to their own (albeit peculiar) tastes. At the end I get a little money and I spend a little money. My girls get clothes they’ll wear – and someone else’s children get to wear the items mine have spurned. It’s a win/win situation!

Girls Rule and Boys Drool!!
And while you have just missed the last children’s sale (silly moo, like it on Facebook now so you don’t slip up again) – you can take advantage of the duo’s first sale of Ladies clothes and accessories on October 15th. I’ll be taking along some items that still have the price tag on (oh, I’ve just realised where my girls get their ridiculous behaviour from) – and hoping to nab a few new winter wardrobe pieces at purse-friendly prices!!

Were you at POP this time round? Or was your wardrobe?! Show these local lovelies your support by commenting below...

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Henley Literary Festival - running on empty!

Why does the petrol light always go on when you are in a bit of a rush? And why is it that I’m always in a bit of a rush anyway? Well it did, and so it was that I drove in a mild state of panic to Bix Manor – a rather lovely llama-inhabited (seriously, this is my serious face) 17th century brick and flint barn – for the Henley Literary Festival's ‘From Blog to Book’ event. Two celebrated bloggers Maggy Woodley and Helen McGinn were there to talk the audience through how their enormously popular blogs jumped off the screen and into the covers of real-world books.

From Blog to Book

Maggy Woodley is the author of Red Ted Art - Cute and Easy Crafts for Kids. And boy, she knows how to ‘upcycle’. The book gives the reader inspiration and practical tips on how to get down and dirty with kids as they craft everything from lavender wands to salt dough beads. Sections cover Halloween and Christmas, paper crafts, edible goodies, sewing and everything in between. Many of the crafts are environmentally friendly and fall into the ‘thrifty’ category too.

Helen McGinn meanwhile made it quite clear her talents lie closer to the wine cellar than the sewing box. A former supermarket wine buyer her unpretentious blog has now become The Knackered Mother’s Wine Club: Everything you need to know about wine and much, much more. The book gives golden-rules and tips on wine buying bypassing sniffy snobbery and industry jargon. Helen also writes a column in the Daily Mail and appears on Alan Titchmarsh Show giving advice on how to choose that perfect bottle.

So how exactly did these passions end up published?

The two lovely bloggers turned authors

The easy way
Helen’s blog started after a ‘light bulb moment’ while googling breastfeeding advice. She happened upon a blog that helped her in an entirely new way and she didn’t feel intimidated or overwhelmed – unlike official sources of advice she had previously struggled with. And that’s when it hit her – choosing wine could be just as scary for the uninitiated. So instead of just passing her knowledge onto friends and family in a weekly email, she started to blog about which bottles she was buying. Pretty soon the Knackered Mother’s Wine Club had attracted a legion of fans – and even had one fan give up a less-than-fulfilling day job and open up a wine bar! It wasn’t long before her blog caught the eye of a publisher. Six months later her book was written (using comments on her blog as a guide to what readers wanted to know).

And what if you are hoping to follow in her footsteps? Helen advises that you write on a topic you feel passionately about (for her they’ll always be more wine to try…) and find a good online community to support you (she recommends Britmums). And then, just maybe, a book might be born!

The not-so-easy way
For Maggy Woodley, Her Red Ted Art blog began as a way to relive her happy childhood memories of crafting with her own children. She found being creative also gave her the extra outlet many Stay At Home Mums need to recharge their batteries. As her blog grew in popularity she found she was often asked to review craft books – and it wasn’t long before she knew she wanted to pen one herself. After building up her ‘blogging CV’ with pieces in the national press and creating a dedicated social media presence on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, her perseverance paid off and a publisher said yes it had been considering her as a potential author. From there she nabbed herself an agent, used the blog to see which crafts were most popular and those that people were generally more apprehensive about and set about putting her passion into publication.

Looking back, Maggie realises she had tremendous support from her family and feels she’s found the perfect way to integrate what is now her job with her family. Her children are included in her crafting – and appear throughout the pages of her book. For her, the personal connection and identity a blog makes is the all important factor for getting the book deal – because it’s that sparkle that will make the title shine out from the bookshelf.

Do you have a book inside you that’s fighting to get out? And what kind of blog do you think would make a best seller? Comments below please!

Monday, 23 September 2013

The 2013 MAD Blog Awards – my top 5 highlights

Now it could be said that bloggers don’t get out much – and that’s why you’ll find them tippy tapping on their keyboards late into the night. Well, let me tell you that is a misconception. MAD (Mummy and Daddy) bloggers can party – I know, because I’ve seen faces being licked and ladies with red petticoats ‘surfboarding’ well past Cinderella’s bedtime. Yes, I was lucky enough to be at the 2013 MAD Blog Awards ceremony. It was quite some night – and here’s why:


I got to meet a CBeebies celeb

When I prized open my mascara-caked eyes on Saturday morning, I had the ultimate trophy for my kids; a picture of me and Dr Ranj from Get Well Soon.  Dr Singh is actually a real-life paediatrician, and a bloody good live presenter too – he wasn’t flummoxed by the autocue when it went too fast (or stopped completely), missing presenters or even when he said ‘breast’ instead of ‘best in a room that was 95% female. Oh how we laughed. He even let me take a selfie with him. And when I showed my disbelieving youngest the snap she said ‘He has the same smile as on TV, and now I’m smiling too’. Awwwwww.

The doctor will see you now...
There were some shit hot bloggers there
I enjoy writing my blog, and some kind people have told me they enjoy reading it. The finalists (and the winners natch) in the MAD Blog Awards however, take it up to a level I can barely dream of. They run web sites that inspire, educate, entertain, help and support other parents. I was lucky enough to meet the lovely Hannah Smith from Mama Bear With Me in the lift. She was a finalist in the Most Entertaining Blog category and writes about her life with her two small boys. Like me she has a poor sense of direction (instead of going to the basement we ended up on the 9thfloor) – I can only hope she got home okay! Then there was the rather stunning Louise Turner from All The Camping Gear, who was up for the Best Family Travel Blog, and the powerhouse that is Fi Star-Stone of Childcare is Fun, who picked up an Award for Outstanding Contribution.  And finally I had a brief, but entertaining, exchange with Annie from Mammasaurus, who won the Most Innovative Blog Award. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me ladies.
Where the best of the bloggers come to meet

There was an awesome goody bag!
The event had some serious sponsorship – companies like JohnLewis, Mothercare, Puffin Books, TK Maxx and HomeAway sponsored individual awards, while some of the lovely frocks bloggers were rocking were supplied by WishWantWear. And then there was Mr Mozzarella – from Just Eat. A little bit strange, but hey, everyone loves a takeaway! But when all’s said and done, nothing, but nothing, replaces the thrill of a goody bag – and what a goody bag it was – full of lovely treats to dish out to my long-suffering hubby and neglected kiddos. A Horrid Henry book, sparkly Kids Stuff bubble bath, Brabantia stickers, badges, magnets and mirrors from Camaloon, chocolate From Seagate UK, Start-rite vouchers and Oriflame lippy – all presented in a lovely Parentdish (the headline sponsors) tote. Riffling through it gave me something to do on the train home too!

I met the Tots100 Team
I got to help out at the MADs courtesy of Tots100, the UK’s network for Mum and Dad bloggers, which has more than 5,000 members. It produces a directory of parent blogs, and analyses and ranks all of the blogs in its community, measuring popularity, engagement and influence. And boy, do the people from the Tots team work hard at the MADs! Scurrying around, setting things up, taking things down, ushering peeps to make up, running a live blog to cover the event, taking photos, operating a surf simulator, making sure the presenters, finalists and winners are all where they should be and generally putting everyone at ease. Imagine life without the MADs. Hats off to them (and particularly Sally Whittle, the founder of the MAD Blog Awards and Tots100, who I hope is under a large gin somewhere)!

I spent the evening at a plush London hotel
The awards took place in Kensington’s fabulous (and family-friendly) Royal Garden Hotel. The night kicked off with a drinks reception (I do like to be offered bubbly from a shiny tray) and was followed by a scrumptious three-course dinner (I sat next to the dewy-complexioned Yolanda Barker from Totz2teens). They even made a swan out of chocolate. I’m not sure how. And I got to do all this 5-star wining and dining without having to load the dishwasher afterwards. That, my dear friends, is a true treat. Thank you Tots100!
A chocolate swan - but how????
What's the most fabulous event you've been to? And did you get a snap with a celeb? Let me know in the comment box below!