A Lifestyle & Parenting Blog

Monday, 30 September 2013

I Like a Bit of "Bleak" on a Monday

"I think that shale may be neolithic" announced The Sybyl, prodding the rain spattered rocks with her hiking pole. It is a Monday morning and we are walking the dogs on one of The Sybyl's favourite routes. She has several routes, all with a unique mood.

There is Cosmeston (up-beat, slightly flowery, duck-filled and, always a plus, with toilets), Cwm George (beautiful, silent, noble, containing an Iron Age fort - and near toilets (my own) and Bendricks Beach (bleak, windswept, rock-pooled and moody - absolutely no toilets).

The battered red van is parked up in a hedge so tightly that I nearly have to extract a blackberry from my eye. We have brandished our poles and released the dogs, Rumpus and Bedlam, to shout excitedly at the scrubby coppice we have to traverse on our way down to the gloomy beach.

Bleakness at Bendricks Beach, Vale of Glamorgan

We pick our way cautiously down to the shore, chatting all the while. We run through our standard checklist which, since we are both around the age of 50, usually involves discussing those of our acquaintances who have suffered an untimely early demise and then a comparison of ailments. Most of the ailments are mine and most of The Sybyl's medical advice involves i) shutting up and ii) getting on with it.  

The rain, which I term a heavy shower and The Sybyl terms "light drizzle" is getting heavier. We park ourselves on an outcrop of rock down on the sand whilst Bedlam chases the ball with excitement and Rumpus sits with the expression of a dog who wishes he was back in the van with his duvet. I wish I'd brought a thermos, or a hip flask with Stones Ginger Wine laced with a nip of something Scottish and peaty. The Sybyl is yearning for tomato soup perked up by the addition of melted cheese - like a fondue for truckers.   

I wonder, not for the first time, what other women of our age talk about. We just don't look or feel our age. Next year I will be 50 and I feel about 13.  On a good day. We have the same preoccupations, the same insecurities.  Does our brain ever catch up with our body? I am reminded at this point of the great moment in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" where the doctor asks Igor where he got the brain for the monster and Igor replies, the jar said "Abbie someone". "Abbie Normal".

The rain is now what I term torrential and The Sybyl terms "a light shower". I suggest we hasten back to the van. The Sybyl looks at me as if I lack the resolve to get to Base Camp on Everest but grudgingly agrees go back.  On the way back we discuss our teenage wardrobes with a certain degree of fondness and concede that clothes shopping today is quite a chore, no matter what Carol Vorderman says. The dogs are steaming elegantly in the back of the van.

We are soaked through but quite content. There is something about bleak Bendricks beach that is, strangely, enjoyable.  As my grandfather Harry used to say "It's being so cheerful that keeps you going".  

Review: iPad with Retina Display - Still the Apple of Our Eye

Since the launch of the original iPad in 2010, the way we use and relate to technology has changed dramatically. Steve Jobs said, in 1983, "What we (Apple) want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes..." and that is exactly what the iPad is.

iPad with retina display
Apple iPad with Retina Display
Caitlin and Ieuan have been playing with my iPad since they were about two years old (with supervision, I might add!). I remember being gobsmacked at how, when we sat down with them, they both had grasped literally within minutes how a touch screen worked.

There are a wealth of brilliant educational apps too, many free as well as paid for - pictorial versions of the alphabet, numbers, songs, stories and simple games. - and of course all happily portable to restaurants, doctors' surgeries and dental waiting rooms! Used properly, I think tablets are a great way to spend time teaching and having fun with your children. They'll never completely replace the importance of reading to my children but apps like, for example "The Going To Bed Book" by Sandra Boyton make a nice change.

Of course there are also a host of fun apps like Talking Tom (and his many friends) and junior versions of adult favourites like Candy Crush.  Ieuan loves watching Toy Story videos on constant repeat.  (We are hoping the Buzz phase passes soon!).

We currently have an original iPad but we felt it was time to upgrade to take advantage of the fantastic apps which are appearing on an almost daily basis. We did consider Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy or the Microsoft Surface 8 tablet (which has Microsoft Windows 8 as its operating system), but for me the iPad remains the benchmark.

iPad with Retina Display
Even from this photo, the stunning clarity of the iPad's Retina Display is clear
We opted for the Apple iPad with retina display. We chose the 32GB Wi-Fi model which retails around the £480 mark. It is incredibly lightweight, has a 9.7" screen and the clarity of the display is stunning. It comes with a host of new features such as the 5MP iSight camera with 1080p HD video recording and the FaceTime HD camera, which we prefer to using SKYPE when The Husband is away on business.

It comes with iOS 6. (the operating system at the heart of the iPhone, iPad and iPod). iOS7 is now available and our iPad can be easily upgraded by downloading the software from Apple when we're ready.

The new iPad gives us access to over 300,000 apps so that should keep the kids quiet, especially since battery life is up to 10 hours, and of course The Husband can watch his favourite rugby via the TV apps such as iPlayer and I can start the Christmas shopping on the quiet, without little eyes watching.  

Ieuan playing with iPad
A moment's peace and quiet from Ieuan!

Yes, the iPad is still the Apple of our eye.

*A collaborative post.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Silent Sunday - 29/09/13


Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Reluctant Hotel Inspector: Apex London Wall Hotel

Billed as "a 4-star boutique hotel in central London", the Apex London Wall Hotel is situated near to the Bank of England and the Guildhall. It lies in the heart of the finance and business district and is surrounded by London landmarks such as St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London and The Gherkin.

The Apex London Wall Hotel (www.apexhotels.co.uk)

The Apex London Wall Hotel has 89 rooms and suites with free WiFi internet access and local calls. The rooms have complimentary water and tea/coffee making facilities. Bathrooms have a bath, walk-in shower and luxury Elemis toiletries.The hotel has a restaurant and bar, private dining room and a gym.

The Inspector had an accessible double room on the third floor at a cost of £330 for one night including breakfast - (not sampled again since the Inspector met a client elsewhere for breakfast).

The accessible bathroom with walk-in shower

The room was very quiet, although the Inspector turned off the in-room air conditioning at night. There was no noise from outside as the hotel is situated up a quiet side street just off London Wall.

The Inspector dined at the Off The Wall restaurant which served up a perfectly respectable steak at around £18. The restaurant, which seats 45, is close to London Wall itself and has floor-to-ceiling windows which allow natural light to pour in. In summer, the windows can be opened fully for outdoor dining.

Sirloin Steak & Chips with a tomato & basil side salad

In summary, the Inspector found the Apex London Wall Hotel to be an excellent choice for the business traveller. He has stayed there several times before and is looking forward to returning.

Apex London Wall
7-9 Copthall Avenue
London EC2R 7NJ
tel: 0845 365 0000
+44 (0)131 441 0440

Note: the Reluctant Hotel Inspector lives with me and, since I adore hotels, has to submit to my endless questioning which, I figure, you might find interesting too.

Disclosure:  this is a completely independent review and no payment was received for this post.


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Review: The Fox and Hounds Inn, Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan

There are some pubs and inns which become embedded in your consciousness as part of your history. 

In my youth, many happy Sundays were spent exploring the lovely hostelries situated in the Vale of Glamorgan, having earlier sampled chocolate fudge cake and pots of tea in the now long-gone Polly's Tea Rooms in Cowbridge. We are blessed, locally, with beautiful countryside on our doorstep, just rural enough to be wild in places and just countrified enough in others to rank as "chocolate box".    

The welcoming Fox & Hounds, Llancarfan on a rainy autumnal night

The Fox and Hounds Inn in Llancarfan (a small village some way west of Barry, near Cowbridge) falls into the latter category.  It is a 16th century inn on the banks of the Nantcarfan with a unique atmosphere. On this particular evening, The Husband and I were returning to our favourite haunt for an early wedding anniversary meal to celebrate two years of not killing one another.

It was dusky and damp and as the car navigated the tight turns approaching the village, we were ambushed by what could only be bats.  I could not imagine a more Halloween-worthy scene. As you come down into the village, you are struck by the peace and quiet - no sound except for the water of the Nantcarfan slooshing over the ford which has caught more than one driver unawares when the river runs high.

The inn is owned and run by John and Sue Millard who bought it from the villagers of Llancarfan in 2001. Both have many years experience of hotel management and the pub now offers 8 en suite bedrooms as well as a spacious and comfortable restaurant which can seat up to 50 guests.

We received a warm welcome from Sue who confirmed that rare bats had indeed been spotted nesting in the Norman church of St. Cadoc. We mused over the novelty of this whilst I sampled a decent Cabernet Sauvignon and The Husband had a beer.  The inn has a cosy 'snug' with an old fashioned settle, fireplace and grandfather clock but on this occasion, being hungry, we elected to go straight to our table.

The Spacious Restaurant

The Fox and Hounds A La Carte menu offers a satisfying selection of dishes such as "pan roasted rump of Welsh lamb with dauphinoise potatoes and port wine sauce" or "slow roast belly pork with crackling, cider jus and apple sauce" (prices ranging from £14 - £18 with vegetables as a extra order side dish) - or you can choose from the specials blackboard, which offers a selection of fish dishes and other daily specials. 

A happy husband waiting for steak

The Husband chose filet steak served medium rare with a brandy and peppercorn sauce and a side of chips (it was definitely the weather for chips). The steak was cooked to perfection.

I also chose from the specials board - pan fried pork cutlet with a blue cheese and mushroom sauce served on a bed of mashed potato.  I always think pork is a risky choice as it can be so dry and uninteresting.  The cutlet was most and tender and the sauce had just the right hint of blue cheese without being overwhelming.

Pan fried pork cutlet with a blue cheese and mushroom sauce

I also ordered a side of seasonal vegetables and as you can see, the portion size is generous enough to serve two.

On to dessert and The Husband couldn't resist Sticky Toffee Pudding and custard. This was the first item on the tempting dessert board and was chosen by The Husband in approximately 0.1 nanoseconds.

Sticky Toffee Pudding.  It would be rude not to.

I chose meringue with Chantilly cream and forest fruits, exactly the right combination of sweetness and tart fruit.  

Meringue & Chantilly Cream - a least one of my 5-a-day right there.

What can I say about the desserts except that the portion size is generous and by God, they weren't going to beat us. Absolutely delicious.

We ended our meal with a pot of filter coffee and enjoyed our last moments of child-free peace for the week, before walking back out into the hushed darkness and braving the bats and the murky drizzle once more.

Our meal, (two drinks,mains,desserts and coffee) came to approximately £60.  The Husband travels widely with his work but The Fox and Hounds Inn, Llancarfan remains at the top of his, and my list of favourite eateries.  

Fox and Hounds Inn, Llancarfan
Tel: 01446 781287 foxandhoundsllancarfan@gmail.com
Open lunchtimes:  Tues - Sat from 12 pm to 2 pm; Sunday 12 pm to 3 pm. Closed Mondays
Dinner:  Tuesday to Saturday from 6:30 pm to 9 pm.

Note:  this is a completely independent review for which no payment was received.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Tuesday Torpor And Advice From Anthea

Tuesday morning and we are late for school again.

"Mummy", says Caitlin, "I wish I was a bird". That's nice dear I said, sidestepping a recycling bin and the strange pile of furry hair clippings that creates a miniscule drift outside the local hairdressers. "Why's that?" "Because then I could poo over everything", she said winsomely.  

Ieuan was far in the distance in full flight mode wearing his Buzz Lightyear jetpack wings.  He is not currently answering to the name Ieuan. He has to be referred to as "Buzz with a belt", in reference to Buzz's utility belt, which in keeping with most of the other gadgets in the Hobbis Household (or Downton Shabby as I often call it), doesn't do much more than light up and make a noise.

Ask yourself:  What Would Anthea Do?

Back from school, I ponder what to do with the rest of the day. The Husband is back doing things with digits in the Big Smoke. Having ascertained that I have no PPI claims and am unlikely to fall off a ladder, I consider making an enormous Shepherd's Pie for tea but worry that I have not got the Right Dish. Having the Right Dish is very important in my mind. I have a selection of plastic round bowls (previously filled with microwavable Christmas puddings) and a Jane Asher Lasagne Dish. None seem fit for purpose so I dismiss the idea which will no doubt return during the post-school arsenic hours to haunt me. The Husband does not worry, of course, about having the Right Dish. Ingredients are chucked into pans with aplomb and appear steaming on plates as tasty, albeit usually spicy, meals.

I consider clothes shopping for a new winter coat with my mother. This would be a dangerous enterprise because my mother would automatically try to steer me towards anoraks and worse, in colours seemingly offered to ladies over 65 as their most likely preference, viz "eau de nil" (a strange, vapid, bluey green colour) or what I call "beigey beige" - a light to middling Cuprinol type tone. My mum loves her anoraks. To me there's something ever so slightly utilitarian about them. Who wants to go about looking as if you're about to tape up the scene of a crime?

I mull over the possibility of doing some housework. I have a natty assortment of rubber gloves and a vat of Barry Scott's finest (oh, yes, I know how to make the morning go with a Cillit Bang...sorry) so I could in theory remove limescale off anything from a tap to a BMW (although the latter might be grounds for divorce).

Instead, I make myself a coffee and select my favourite episode of "Perfect Housewife" (cough) to watch whilst asking the perenniel question I always ask myself when my lack of Domestic Goddess-ness washes over me.  "What would Anthea Turner do?"

Monday, 23 September 2013

Review: Garrett Popcorn Shops - The Original Handcrafted Gourmet Popcorn

I have a very simple way to gauge how much I'm enjoying a movie - and it's the rapidity with which my popcorn is consumed. (Anything with Daniel Craig in requires a very large bag of popcorn indeed). Since I had children though, my movie going days have been severely curtailed, so when the lovely people at Garrett Popcorn suggested we try their original handcrafted gourmet popcorn, for once I was happy to sit through re-run 2000 of Toy Story.

Garrett Original Handcrafted Gourmet Popcorn
Garrett Gourmet Popcorn
Garrett Popcorn hails from the US but will shortly be available in the UK. Garrett Popcorn Shops opened in Chicago in 1949 and today they still handcraft their popcorn in old-fashioned copper kettles. They 'hot air pop' their signature blend of kernels and mix them into secret family recipes. Each batch of popcorn is handmade daily for maximum freshness and served up in Garrett Popcorn Tins with one of several fabulous retro designs.

Garrett Popcorn comes in a range of signature and speciality flavours. We were sent some of their Chicago Mix to try.  Designed to satisfy the tastebuds of those who want sweet and salty flavours together, The Chicago Mix is a combination of "rich CheeseCorn and sweet CaramelCrisp".

Garrett Popcorn - Chicago Mix
The flavoursome connundrum that is "The Chicago Mix"
The CheeseCorn kernels gave a really satisfying 'hit' of Cheddar cheese, whilst the CaramelCrisp tasted like the topping of a Creme Brulee, sweet and buttery. I would never have previously put the two flavours together but the combination just works.

So, before I 'accidentally' chomped through the whole lot, it was over to the family taste testers.

Ieuan, contemplating the wresting manoeuvre required to get the tin off his sister
I had expected that they'd prefer the sweeter CaramelCrisp but both tucked in to the CheeseCorn with equal gusto. The Husband secreted a large bowlful and promptly vanished. Whilst my popcorn stash dwindled, I had a chance to peruse the other flavours available, Signature flavours, Plain, Buttery, CaramelCrisp and Cheesecorn are complemented by speciality flavours, Almond CaramelCrisp, Cashew CaramelCrisp and Macademia CaramelCrisp.

Thankfully, Garrett Popcorn will be coming to London soon, but in the meantime, more information is available at www.garrettpopcorn.com. Now, all I need is a home cinema system.

*PR samples were sent a sample for the purposes of this review.  

Review: Angry Birds Playground Ca-Cool Masks

I have to say Angry Birds is a bit of a mystery to me, although the rest of the family seem to be totally up to speed.  So when the lovely people at Top That Publishing sent me a copy of Angry Birds Playground Ca-Cool Masks to review, Sunday afternoon became a lot more fun.

Angry Birds Playground Ca-Cool Masks
Angry Birds Playground Ca-Cool Masks
The book brings to life, via 8 different 3D masks, not only favourite Angry Birds but also Bad Piggies characters. In addition, you can learn fun facts about them. For example, Bad Piggies don't always know what's going on but they are always happy and cheerful. (I think I'd find them highly annoying if I ever met them on that basis).

Each character masks comes with a page of specific instructions to guide you through assembling the mask. Caitlin and Ieuan were a bit too young to do the actual assembling and I'm a complete DIY duffer (although I gave it a go) so it fell to The Husband to assemble whilst I handed him the various pieces.

How to make an Angry Birds Matilda Mask
The Matilda Mask
Caitlin chose the leader of the Angry Birds, Red (no surprise there) and Ieuan chose Chuck, Red's best friend. Much like Ieuan, Chuck always wants to win and being the fastest, he often ends up in a lot of trouble.

Caitlin & Ieuan in their Angry Birds masks

You can see that the quality of the masks is excellent. Don't they both look, er, cute?

We had a lot of fun with "Angry Birds Playground Ca-Cool Masks" but younger kids may need a responsible (cough) grown-up to help them to assemble their mask.

This is one of a number of Angry Birds books by Rovio Learning (Rovio Entertainment Ltd) and is published by Top That Publishing and available on their website at www.topthatpublishing.com for £5.39.

*A PR sample was received for the writing of this post.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Reluctant Hotel Inspector - Hotel ibis London Euston St Pancras

Late September and the fashion pack are present in full force in London for London Fashion Week. Much to the Inspector's annoyance, the price of a four night stay in one of the hotels he would usually use whilst working away from home has rocketed to over £2,000. If there's one thing he hates, it's paying through the nose so it was time to try an economy hotel.

Hotel ibis London Euston St. Pancras
Billed as "an economy London hotel close to Euston Station in central London", the Hotel ibis London Euston St Pancras is, as you might guess from the name, handily situated just metres from Euston Station and a 10-minute walk from St Pancras International Station and the Eurostar terminal. Oxford Street and Covent Garden are about a 20 minute walk away or a short trip on the Tube.

The hotel has 380 rooms, all with coffee/tea making facilities and a hair dryer.The front desk is open 24 hours.There is a restaurant and a bar /lounge (although these were practically one and the same in terms of layout). Room service is available, as are laundry facilities.

The Inspector had a twin bedded room on the first floor at a cost of £753 for four nights - approximately £177 per night including breakfast (which, due to meeting times, the Inspector did not unfortunately get to sample!).

The room was clean, comfortable and perfectly serviceable. The bathroom (a shower in a bath) was adequate.

The room stayed in was close to the lifts, however the noise was minimal.There was a little noise from the nearby railway station but the Inspector sleeps heavily and rarely has any trouble falling asleep quickly.

Now, the Inspector's criteria for assessing a hotel's suitability for business use are quite different from my own search for luxury and pampering. He is not concerned with towel softness or branded freebies in the bathroom; he will not lose sleep over lack of chocolates on the pillow or a mini bar.

If I had been staying, I would have hotfooted it over to view the architectural wonder of St Pancras International railway station which is still one of the greatest Victorian buildings in London. I would also have had a peak at the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel which opened in Spring 2011. And it would be rude not to visit Searcys Champagne Bar which has the longest champagne bar in Europe.

I would take a taxi to Covent Garden to people watch and peruse shops such as Aspinal with its gorgeous handbags or The Tea House where you can buy 70 different types of tea. But the Inspector had time for none of this.

His concerns are more practical. Some of the Inspector's bugbears when working away from home include

  • desks which are too small or insufficient leg room at the designated work space
  • uncomfortable chairs
  • poor lighting
  • patchy WIFI provision

but the Hotel ibis London Euston St. Pancras scored quite well on these.The chair provided was quite hard. WIFI access was complimentary, however at low speed. High speed internet access is available for a fee. Low speed was perfectly serviceable, however, the Inspector did have problems downloading documents at one point.

Although he did not use them, the hotel has 4 meeting rooms with internet access and parking for 100 cars.

In summary, the Inspector found the Hotel ibis London Euston St Pancras perfectly adequate, clean, comfortable and fit for the purposes of a business traveller.

ibis London Euston St. Pancras

3 Cardington Street
London NW1 2LW
tel: 0207 3047712

Note: the Reluctant Hotel Inspector lives with me and, since I adore hotels, has to submit to my endless questioning which, I figure, you might find interesting too.

Disclosure:  this is a completely independent review and no payment was received for this post.

Silent Sunday - 22/09/2013


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Weekend Doldrums And The Entertainment Vacuum

What DO people with children do at the weekend?

It is mid afternoon and after the morning theatre group for Caitlin and a whizz up to Mothercare for an emergency purchase of a Buzz Lightyear gadget pack for Ieuan, the lounge resembles the X Factor waiting room. ("I'm so sorry Lizzy Maybel Lambrini Smythe but your journey to incredibly short lived pop fame and a paltry one album record deal ends here").  

After the customary fig roll and squash and in an attempt to avoid the lure of the TV, Ieuan is dressed as Buzz and Caitlin as a princess / angel / Statue of Liberty and they are drifting about with all the direction of Ed Milliband.

Instead of being sofa bound, I have visions of other families yomping across moorland, rucksacked up with flares and Kendal Mintcake, fitting in a bit of orienteering before kayaking home for a bonding session of knot tying and home made nettle soup.

We could, I suppose, have gone shopping, but that always seems such a cop-out, surrounded as we are here with so many beautiful places to explore. The Husband, though, is exhausted and can only muster approximately a third of his usual joie de vivre. In his current mood, despite our ongoing commitment to a low fat diet (our "stay alive for the kids in case you peg it at an unseasonably young age and SCAR THEM FOR LIFE diet"),  if I don't keep an eye on him he is prone to wandering off in search of jumbo packets of salted nuts.

My imaginary Supernanny / Tinkerbell advises me that I should be "arting and crafting" - (at least I think that's what she said), teaching the kids to sew, quilt, make buns. In the name of efficiency and minimal energy expenditure, I briefly consider teaching them to sew a quilted bun but as The Husband would say the idea "really hasn't got legs".

There is only one thing left to do. I will read them a story.  Something cheerful from our compendium of stories written by the Brothers Grimm in which children narrowly avoid getting eaten and the nasty witch gets shoved in the oven.

Mary Poppins would be so proud.


Friday, 20 September 2013

Review: The Tragic Tale of Dwayne The Eating Monster - A Lift-The-Flap Book By Valentina Mendicino

Just occasionally, when reading to your children, you are introduced to a character who automatically wins your heart.  

As a refreshing change to the somewhat saccharine short stories in Caitlin's latest "Princess Compendium" and Ieuan's "Guide to Train Spotting For The Under 5's", readers I bring you Dwayne in "The Tragic Tale of Dwayne, The Eating Monster", a lift the flap book written and illustrated by Valentina Mendicino published by Top That Publishing plc.

Book cover:  The Tragic Tale of Dwayne The Eating Monster
The Tragic Tale of Dwayne, The Eating Monster
Dwayne, it has to be said, has a pretty limited skill set but he does love to eat. One day, however, (and we've all been there), he finds he just can't stop. He eats... and eats... and eats everything in his path. And, of course, he gets bigger, and bigger and bigger, with catastrophic consequences. I won't spoil the ending which contains a funny twist, but suffice it to say that my children really enjoyed the story. 

The book is a 'lift the flap' book and as Dwayne eats more and grows bigger, children are able to lift the flap to discover the contents of Dwayne's latest meal - which are weird, wacky and very funny.

Like all the best children's stories, "The Tragic Tale of Dwayne The Eating Monster" contains a valuable lesson - being greedy can have unfortunate consequences.  Caitlin (5) and Ieuan (4) loved it, particularly the flaps which allow the children to join in with the story and suggest alternatives for what might be in Dwayne's tummy.

Ieuan impersonating Dwayne The Eating Monster
Ieuan, impersonating Dwayne The Eating Monster.  Nice.
The Tragic Tale of Dwayne The Eating Monster is available from the Top That Publishing website and also on Amazon.co.uk.

*A PR sample was received for the writing of this post.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

A Rumpus And Bedlam In The Countryside

My walking campaign around the local beauty spots of the Vale of Glamorgan started abruptly one afternoon when my long term friend (known since the tender age of about 16) and to be known henceforth for the purposes of this blog as The Sybyl, announced "you need to get out from behind that computer. You're going strange again".

Rumpus (L) and Bedlam (R)

I refer to her as The Sybyl not because she is one of the Greek oracular seeresses who phrophesied at holy sites (rather obviously), but because she loves to wander through the Great Outdoors and because she knows stuff.

Stuff too random and occasionally wonderful to categorise. For example, at a recent night out at our local, The Grouter & Ferret, she launched into a word perfect rendition of Chaucer's Prologue To The Canterbury Tales, complete with (unsettlingly) a 14th Century Middle English accent. Other topics of conversation included how best to cook on a Trangia (some sort of portable camping stove) and woodworking techniques. She is practical, hardy and brooks no nonsense. And she loves her dogs.  

Dogs are a bit of a mystery to me. I know that they are pack animals and that poo bags are required, but that's it. To know the Sybyl is to unconditionally love her two boys, Rumpus and Bedlam, who accompany us on our walks. A bit of a dog whisperer, The Sybyl has an excellent grasp (and possibly unique interpretation of) doggy psychology. She is a great fan of Cesar Millan. Not an Italian salad apparently but a Mexican dog trainer of repute. Many of these techniques have been used with Caitlin and Ieuan who are completely under her spell.

So we regularly wander around our local nature reserve and bleak bits of coastline braced with hiking poles with Bedlam barking excitedly at the front and Rumpus bringing up the rear. And we travel in her compact and battered red van which doubles as a portable doggy salon complete with duvets (for them). The boys are now approaching their senior years but are still capable of a sprint. They sniff me and look me up and down as if to say "oh, it's her again" so I have to assume I am accepted.

Actually, she was quite right about the strangeness. There is nothing like a brisk morning walk to clear away the cobwebs but, more importantly, to create a kind of mental space - which I need after the madness of the school run. The good thing about long term friendships (particularly when you are in what I like to think of as "late middle youth") is that you both know each other's strengths and weaknesses and can applaud and forgive these in equal measure. Weirdnesses are joked about (for example, I hate people touching my glasses and I like to measure my wine out using a Rosemary Conley yellow Portion Pot) and addressed where family members might pussy-foot about the issue.  

I think at our age (I'm 49), old friends become extended members of your family, like eccentric long lost aunts and uncles. They can also introduce your kids to another different realm of experience and skills. In The Sybyl's case, this includes gardening and, slightly more alarmingly, antique weaponry.

So I'm getting fit and a unique education at the same time. And, as they say, "an education is never a waste".

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Shouty Mummy Is In Da House

Back from the school run, I am slumped in a guilt-fest on the sofa, nursing a coffee whilst the judgemental image of Supernanny Jo Frost twirls around my head like a malevolant Tinkerbell. This morning's school run has been particularly shouty but, on reflection, I think it's all my fault.

Supernanny Jo Frost
Source:  www.telegraph.co.uk 

It went wrong from the start by my agreeing to put on Toy Story 2. The Husband is discussing digits in the Big Smoke all week with other geeky types so I am doing my single mother bit (and I've written before about my unending respect for single mothers!). The kids, sensing that I have all the strength and cunning of a wounded gazelle might, I suspect, have been taking liberties. This does absolutely nothing to assuage my guilt.

Instead of, sensibly, getting them dressed and fed before switching on anything electrical or battery powered, mornings here are decidedly slow burn starting with Channel 5's Milkshake or CBeebies with a frantic, last minute, and generally bad tempered rush as I drag the kids protesting to the bathroom.

This last stage of the process involves my constant haranguing, nagging and pleading viz "how long does it take to put a SOCK on?  You're nearly SIX YEARS OLD"  or "yes I know Woody has lost his hat but you don't need it now you are going to school, DON'T YOU DARE SLAM THAT.....(bang) DOOR!!!".

The current ratio of putting items of school uniform on is approximately 1 item to 2 dances and 3 songs at which point my voice starts to resemble machine gun fire "PUT. YOUR. SCHOOL. UNIFORM. ON. NOW, WE ARE. GOING. TO. BE. LATE AGAIN!!!".

I find myself asking myself what a child of 5 and a child of 4 should reasonably be expected to do and become extremely confused. I try to remember my own childhood but by now it's all a bit vague - aside from having a playgroup teacher called Miss Roll who we all called "Miss Swiss Roll" and getting in trouble for talking (no, really??), I can't remember much.

Arguably I am teaching them 'valuable life skills'. "Eat your Cheerios daughter and you could be the next Prime Minister", but there's a really fine line between discipline and what might be construed as punishment. The Husband in his 'remote parent counselling" sessions on SKYPE from the comfort of a nice child-free and comparatively silent hotel room, informs me I am inconsistent and need to be firmer.  Hmm.

All I know is that when I see their two innocent faces raised to mine for a kiss at the school gates I feel that I have got it all wrong and that I am (now this is a phrase that makes The Husband snort) "scarring them for life". The fact that they are generally happy, well-adjusted and have glowing school reports seems to pass me by.

Anyway, tonight sees the launch of yet another parental advice programme - "The Three Day Nanny" (8 pm Channel 4). It features professional nanny Kathryn Mewes who wants to revive the family values of the Edwardian era. In the series, Nanny Mewes will help families struggling with the old chestnuts of fussy eaters, temper tantrums and sleepless nights using her unique three day plan of action. I shall be watching closely, just in case there are some nuggets which calm the "Battle of Put Your Clothes On".

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Lib Dems Propose Free School Dinners For Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 Children in England

At today's Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, Lib Dem Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, revealed his "showstopper policy" - that the Government is proposing to offer free school dinners to children in the Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 stages of education in England from September 2014 (i.e. 5-7 year olds).

Money is being provided for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to emulate the English scheme, however, it will be up to the respective devolved governments to decide whether to spend this on free lunches.


The £600m plan is estimated to save families an average of £437 per child and, in a Coalition trade-off, the Lib Dems have given the go-ahead for the Conservatives to announce a tax break for married couples which could be worth around £3 per week.

Free school dinners will go some way to make up for what some viewed as the penalising of middle income families by recent changes to Child Benefit.  According to The Independent, some 400,000 children already receive free meals but an estimated four in 10 children living in poverty do not currently qualify.

Autumn - A Poem

My father, John Brooks, is a wonderful poet and I find his poems very relaxing and peaceful.  I thought this one, about Autumn, might bring a moment of calm to anyone who is feeling a bit frazzled this morning!

Woods in Autumn


The soft light of early evening
lit the tree whose leaves were
yellow and orange, red and brown;
a kaleidoscope of colour.

A returning crow rattled a branch
which shed a leaf that struck
another as it fell
both dropping with a lazy spin.

And then with the downing sun,
a gentle gust of quiet wind
brought down a shower of leaves,
scooping and hooping them away.

Light faded and a chilly breeze
blew whisps of cloud across
the moon, and in her wake
the line of coming night.

J. B. Oct 06.


Monday, 16 September 2013

Review: Good Night Anti-Snoring Ring

Despite the fact that snoring is usually portrayed in full comedic glory and we've all chortled at partners so desperate to get a good night's sleep, they've sewn cotton reels or (now this is a sewing challenge), tennis balls on the back of their sleeping partner's PJs, snoring is categorically NO JOKE.

The Good Night Anti-snoring Ring
The Good Night Anti-snoring Ring
Unless you are in the privileged position of having a spare room in which to decamp and a partner whose feelings won't be hurt by such an act of noctural treachery, for many, the only recourse is to lie there and try to quell any murderous urges to stifle the blighter with an anti-allergy pillow (well, you want to give them a fighting chance, don't you).

When I met The Husband, he swore blind he did not snore. This was a blatant fib. Being a long term sufferer of hay fever, depending on the pollen count, he is capable of emitting sonorous rumbles which wake me (and occasionally even him) with a start.  

We've tried nasal strips and throat sprays with little effect and now the best defence I have is wax ear plugs which manage to muffle most of the sound but not the vibration.  So it was with grudging acquiescence on his part that I managed to get him to test the Good Night Anti Snoring Ring.

The Good Night Anti-Snoring Ring is a beautifully crafted ring which uses the theory of acupressure. The ring is shaped to include "acu-activator" points which apply pressure on, uniquely, two specific points on the little finger. It is non-invasive, comfortable to wear and, more importantly, drug free.

Good Night Anti-snoring ring with 2 Acu-Activator Points
The Good Night Anti-snoring Ring has 2 Acu-Activator (acupressure) Points

Acupressure is the ancient Chinese practice dating from 3,000 BC which treats a number of ailments by applying pressure to specific points on the body.

The snorer should put the ring on about 30 minutes before retiring and it should be worn only when sleeping and for no longer than 12 hours at a time. It is suitable for adults over 18 years of age but you should not wear it if you are pregnant or suffer from sleep apnea.

How to wear the Good Night Anti-snoring ring
How to wear the ring

The Good Night Anti-Snoring Ring comes in three sizes and is supplied in its own velveteen bag for storage. It comes with a useful leaflet containing full instructions and some excellent anti-snoring advice. Best of all, the manufacturers offer a No Quibble 30 Day Money Back Guarantee - so it is a no risk purchase. It is available to purchase at Boots, local pharmacies and health shops and online at www.goodnightsnoring.com. The current retail price is £30.00.

So did it work? Although it did not stop The Husband's snoring completely over the few nights we tested it, it did make it gentler and a little quieter and on this basis I have high hopes for it. The manufacturers say that it takes the body a good 3-4 days to acclimatise to the effects of acupressure so we are going to continue using it and also incorporate some of the lifestyle changes suggested.  

For example, our favourite tipple is red wine which is implicated in increasing snoring! It is also suggested that heavy snorers may benefit from two rings and that may well be required in our case. It is likely, that since The Husband is a hayfever sufferer, we need better treatment for this problem to help address his snoring and that once this is in hand, the Good Night Anti-Snoring Ring will help us to eliminate the problem altogether.

If snoring is a problem for you or your partner, I would certainly recommend giving this product a go. You have absolutely nothing to lose and possibly a relationship to save!

*A PR sample was received for the writing of this post.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Silent Sunday - 15/09/13


Saturday, 14 September 2013

Bad Budgeting or Bad Santa?

The tribe and I have just returned from Mothercare (impromptu feet measuring and welly purchasing) and things were going relatively peacefully until the Boy spotted  his dream item - a Buzz Lightyear costume.  Cue "spooky face" and "I want it now". Cue immediate removal of the Boy back to the car to reduce our embarrassment levels and to avoid sympathetic and/or judgemental looks from other parents.

On the way back, stunned into silence by the melodious tones of Killswitch Engage and the loud sucking of Wether's Originals from the back of the car, I found myself wondering how other parents approach buying Christmas presents for their brood. What is the best approach? Do you set a budget per child, which means they simply will not receive some of the toys they have on their Christmas list, or buy them one big present supplemented by smaller stocking fillers, which is what my parents did.

I know I should be disciplined and start putting away a few bits and pieces now to avoid the nightmare that is Christmas shopping with children and the painful January credit card statement. I say every year I will have all the shopping done by 1st December. I've never managed it yet!  You can see why online shopping has grown so rapidly - at the very least you avoid 'pester power'.  

Wanted: for incomplete Christmas list fulfillment

Source:  www.spectator.co.uk

Christmas has become a time for conspicuous consumerism. I remember my mum reading Louisa May Allcot's wonderful novel "Little Women" to me when I was very young and I've never forgotten the bit where, on Christmas morning, the four March girls agree to give up their breakfast for a poor mother with a new baby and six other children to feed. Even at a young age, I could appreciate that the feeling of contribution and doing some good could outweigh the pleasure of receiving a gift. The value of charity and community is certainly something I will be teaching my kids. 

In the meantime, it's time for parents everywhere to gird their loins in preparation for the annual marketing onslaught that begins any day now on every single medium you can think of - TV, radio, press, internet, billboards, trains, buses, taxis - there truly is no escape.

Source:  Questgarden.com

And I'll be sitting down with a calculator to work out a sensible budget.

Little Women is available free for Kindle from amazon.co.uk.
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