Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Paris En Famille, Part Deux

We had a wonderful time in Paris with our two children, aged 9 and 5. Paris in the Spring is just lovely, even if in our case the weather was unseasonably cold (read: freezing). I took this as sign that we were meant to spend a lot of time enjoying Paris' cafe culture, warming up with hot drinks and the odd pastry (or three). Thanks to budget-friendly accommodation and travel options we were able to spend three full days in the French capital, recapturing in some small way the thrill me and my other half used to feel as young, carefree 20-somethings, exploring the cities of Europe with just a backpack and Rough Guide as hand luggage. Dipping a toe back into the city break experience felt really good and proved to us that with a bit of forward planning and some careful budgeting, it is entirely possible to do it with children in tow. 

Paris seen from the Seine
Now that our kids are older everything is, of course, so much easier. You can travel relatively light, they're able to walk further distances and they'll happily fall into a laissez-faire, continental attitude to routines and mealtimes without too much fuss. My eldest in particular is a pleasure to travel with these days - he's interested in things like architecture, open to trying out new foods and is at his most happy when boarding an aeroplane. That said, it's important to always work towards a compromise when travelling. Not all of our suggestions in Paris were met with approval and you definitely need to factor in some child-friendly activities, such as trips to the toyshop or a visit to the park.

Here's my mini guide to the things we enjoyed that met our criteria for keeping in budget and keeping the kids cheerful... 

1. A trip on the Batobus

The hop-on, hop-off boat which circles the main sights on loop and is cheaper than other river boat options. A day pass for adults costs 15 euros and 7 euros for children under 16 (children under 3 are free). This offers unlimited travel within the day and you can get to all the top attractions including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame. It's a really convenient way to get around and your children will love seeing the city from the water.

2. Le Grande Arche

Seen the movie Mr Bean's Holiday? Then you'll know the Grande Arche. As big fans of Mr Bean our two were desperate to recreate the scene when Rowan Atkinson's hapless character takes the wrong taxi and ends up at this amazing piece of modern architecture rather than the Gare Du Nord. It might sound a weird place to add to your Paris itinerary but it really is quite awe-inspiring and a nice contrast to Paris' more historic landscapes. Take the metro to La Defense and exit the station to be met by a dazzling white cube structure 110 metres high that is twice the size of the Arc de Triomphe and big enough to fit the Notre Dame inside. It's stunning. Walk to the top of the steps and look out towards the Voie Triomphale and the Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

Le Grande Arche

3. The Eiffel Tower

Mais, bien-sur! No trip to Paris is complete without a trip to this iconic structure. However, a word of warning - the queues for the lifts are crazy. I have been to Paris twice in the last couple of years, both in high and low season, and both times the queues were exceptionally long. It was enough for our kids to see the tower and to play in the adjoining Trocadero gardens, which have plenty of green space and a small children's playground. You can book your tickets for the Eiffel Tower in advance - a must if you're desperate to climb to its summit. 

The Thinker at the Musee Rodin

4. The Musee Rodin

A real surprise hit. We wanted to visit at least one museum while in Paris but didn't want to shell out for the Louvre and join the lengthy queues only to find our kids thoroughly underwhelmed by its artistic splendours. Ditto the Orsay - too busy with streams of tourists and trailing kids on school trips. So we opted for the small but absolutely lovely Musee Rodin, a real haven of tranquillity near Les Invalides. The building - former home of the esteemed sculptor - is stunning, and houses world-famous sculptures such as The Kiss. Rather unexpectedly our children were quite enchanted by the place, particularly the gardens which are tranquil and filled with further Rodin masterpieces, such as The Thinker. 

It's a surprisingly un-stuffy, welcoming place for little ones, with friendly security guards that didn't bat an eyelid at the sight of two English boys playing hide and seek behind the sculptures. There's also a lovely cafe in the gardens, where we enjoyed a cafe au lait while the kids played. Tickets cost just 10 euros for a family of four.

5. Laduree

You're never too young to appreciate the French institution that is the patisserie, and there is no patisserie quite like Laduree. Famous particularly for its macaroons, this temple to indulgence had our kids' eyes popping out. It might be posh but we didn't find it particularly snobby. Granted, they don't like it when you take photos but our children were offered free macaroons and there was no sense that its genteel environs were out of bounds to little ones. I'm not sure I'd take them for a sit-down tea here, but our kids enjoyed looking at the amazing window displays and shelves piled high with sugary confections, including macaroons in a spectrum of pastel hues - we bought a box to take away and enjoyed them over a take-out coffee sitting by the boating lake in the Tuileries Gardens.
Amazing cakes at Laduree

6. The Pompidou Centre

Love it or hate it, the Pompidou Centre has one advantage for families - you can ride the outside escalators, fun in itself for a five year old, and get a ticket to the viewing area where you're rewarded with amazing views across the rooftops of Paris. A cheap way to see Paris from up high.

Writing this post has reminded me just what a wonderful time we had - perhaps it's time to start planning another sojourn in this fabulous, family-friendly city.

To read my previous blog post about Paris and how we got there and stayed their on the cheap, click here

Related post: Eurocamp holiday to Spain


Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Paris En Famille Part One

With the end of the year looming are you starting to think about planning your next family holiday? Although it can seem a bit previous to have things booked up months in advance family holidays and reckless spontaneity don't really mix. There are inconvenient things called school terms that get in the way for one, and the likes of Ryanair et al aren't really thinking 'family market' when they release those cheap flights to 'Stockholm' (by which they mean a former military airport about 50 miles from Stockholm) that leave at four in the morning and return sometime after midnight. No, those days of reckless holiday abandon are gone and careful forward planning is what's called for when holidaying en famille. Planning early even makes it much more realistic to squeeze in a mid-year mini break, too, as we found last year when we enjoyed a fantastic, bargain-busting long weekend in Paris. Here's how we did it...

You probably know that you can get all kinds of things with your Clubcard points, trips across the Channel being one of them. Tickets on the Eurotunnel are pretty reasonable at the best of times, but with a few Clubcard points in your back pocket you can cover your crossing completely free of charge - a great way to claw back some reward on all those miserable hours spent trawling the shelves of your local supermarket.

So why the tunnel and not the Eurostar? Firstly you can't use Clubcard points on the train, though obviously it is much more convenient for reaching the centre of Paris. We were doing Paris on the cheap, and by that I mean super, super cheap! Factoring in Eurostar travel for 2 adults and 2 kids, plus return train tickets from Bristol to London wouldn't have tallied with our minuscule budget. That said, getting to Folkstone is not in the least convenient - in fact the journey there from Bristol was by far the most wearisome part of our journey. We ended up booking a really early crossing (to squeeze the very most out of our sojourn) and staying at the Premier Inn right by the tunnel the night before, which I'd really recommend if you don't want travel stresses boiling over before you've even left Britain.

Once in Calais you’re looking at a three hour journey time to Paris. Part of the reason for us driving to France was that we decided to try out a Eurocamp site that had been recommended to us and which was touted on the website as making a great option for families wanting to explore the capital or Euro Disney. The International is located in a pleasant suburb to the North West of Paris and is open between April and November. We visited in April and stayed in the basic mobile home which was perfectly ample for our needs over the 3 days we were there. We paid just £120 for two nights accommodation - yep, you read that right, £120 for all four of us for two nights and three almost full days in Paris. That's why we went for this option. You'd be hard pushed to find anything in central Paris that comes close to this budget price for a family of four. 

My concern was that cheap might equal totally inconvenient, with Paris temptingly close yet annoyingly difficult to get to. But what they say on the Eurocamp website is true - you really can be in Paris in just over 20 minutes' journey time from the International. It's ten minutes to the local train station on foot and then a super-speedy train ride deposits you at the Champs-Elysee in around 20 minutes. Trains are frequent and run until late at night. It's important to work out how many trips into town you'll be making during your stay as it can work out cheaper to buy a 'carnet' of tickets instead of buying day returns for each trip. 

In terms of the site itself and local surroundings I can't give you much of an in-depth review as we used the International very much as a base rather than exploiting any of the on-site facilities. Furthemore, we stayed out of season - it was the coldest April on record for some years and we spent all our time on site huddled in our mobile home rather than exploring the site and local environs. But from what we did see, it's a well-organised, clean site, with easy access to the supermarkets and restaurants of the local town. Maison Lafitte is a fairly quiet, affluent suburb which I'm guessing would offer cheaper options for eating out than central Paris. Again, we didn't hang about much here but I'd imagine it provides some welcome calm at the end of a busy day's sightseeing in the capital. 

We had an amazing, surprisingly successful time in Paris and bolted on a few extra days in Picardy so we could make the drive to the continent a bit more worthwhile. I'm going to write a second installment about what we got up to in Paris and during rest of our trip in my next post, but in the meantime if you'd like to find out more about the Paris International site visit the Eurocamp website here. 

You can find out more about using your Clubcard points on Eurotunnel crossings here, and check out prices on the Eurotunnel here.

Related post: Paris en Famille Part Deux
Related post: Eurocamp holiday to Spain


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Opposites Attract When it Comes to Money

My other half is a kind, considerate and generous person. I love him very much. But, my God, when it comes to keeping to a budget he drives me to total distraction. Our wildly conflicting ideas around the concept of budgeting were brought into sharp focus following a recent shopping trip he made to pick up the week's groceries. I drew up a list, I supplied him with a wad of coupons, I told him not to deviate from the list. I know I'm sounding patronising here, but I have the family food shop down to a fine art and do not relinquish control of this costly exercise easily. It's not that I particularly enjoy food shopping but I do take some small pleasure in knowing I've got a few quid off here and there and there's nothing like picking up a bunch of beautiful flowers at closing time for a quarter of the normal price. It feels like a small victory over the 'Man' (or CEO of Tesco), as it were.

My other half, however, takes a much more cavalier attitude to food shopping, clothes shopping, indeed any kind of shopping. On returning from the supermarket he blithely informed me he'd forgotten to use the coupons (including a whopping £5 off voucher)and had topped up the essentials I'd written on the list with some choice items from the 'Finest' range. No bog standard chocolate digestives for him, it's all about the Belgian double-choc cookie. Branded goods are his go-tos whereas I gravitate to the 'no frills' alternatives that I reckon do the job just fine. As more and more indulgent treats stacked up on the kitchen counter I was struck by just how different we are when it comes to spending money. It's not a deal-breaker for us, as when it comes to the 'big stuff' - pensions and savings, for example - we are more in step with each other. But when it comes to the more everyday expenses we couldn't be more different. 

Unusually for a man, my other half can find a shopping opportunity literally anywhere. Not content with coughing up for his twice-yearly dental appointment he'll merrily come back from the dentist with a selection of 'dental accessories' - toothbrushes, toothpastes and floss, purchased at twice the price of the supermarket. To be fair, perhaps this is his version of 'shopping local'. He can splurge in the unlikeliest of places, from the Post Office to Pets at Home. A trip to buy a packet of screws from the hardware shop might see him return with a full compliment of power tools. You couldn't call it wild extravagance, but it doesn't exactly aid any efforts to bring down the monthly overdraft.

Clothes shopping follows a similar pattern. Men just don't seem able to entertain the idea of shopping in a mid-market shop, say Topman or Next. For women there's no stigma in flaunting an amazing top bought for a tenner from New Look while most men I know seem reluctant to show off their cheap 'n' cheerful bargains. For me, a trawl around a charity shop holds the romantic possibility of unearthing some fabulous vintage gem, while my mystified husband views the activity as nothing more than poking about in someone else's unwanted tat. He usually buys things at full price, I rarely do. Opposites attract and all that.

In fact, that is exactly the point. He's the counterpoint to my sometimes austere self, encouraging me to live a little and splash out from time to time. I have to admit I can see his point that buying cheap is sometimes false economy, particularly when I'm consigning another cheap buy to to the charity shop pile after just a few wears. But I'd also like to think my bargain-hunting helps to keep the family coffers relatively healthy, making luxuries like holidays and weekends away a little more justifiable. 

And for all his laissez-faire attitude to household expenditure, there is one area where my husband is a money-saving powerhouse - white goods and technology. Only the other day he saved us over £100 by painstakingly fixing a broken iPhone and thanks to hours of research on the net has avoided costly plumber call-outs by doing a DIY fixing job when our washer-dryer has (frequently) given up the ghost. But I think, for the time being, I'd better stick to doing the food shopping and booking the holidays...

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A Little Bit of Luxury in Bath

There won't be many posts on this blog that allude to 'luxury' but I couldn't omit to tell you about a lovely and rather luxe place I discovered courtesy of my employer last weekend. I'm lucky enough to be part of an amazing parenting organisation and once a year we get together in various corners of the country for a bit of a weekend jolly. As we're pretty much all home workers, it's a rare chance to catch up with our colleagues in the flesh, meet new colleagues we've only communicated with over Skype or email, and generally make up for all those water cooler moments and office gossip that we rarely get to share with each other in the normal course of our day to day jobs. 

This year the venue for our annual hook-up was - rather conveniently - Bath. It being just down the road, I do go to Bath quite frequently but my trips are usually confined to a scoot round Royal Victoria Bath with the kids. So I was quite happy that not only would I not have to navigate a long train journey on a Friday night, but I might actually get to wander the picturesque streets of Bath at my leisure, take in the odd shop or two, and enjoy lots of unhurried coffee breaks along the way.
The Beautiful Rennie House
I did indeed get to do all of the above, but the highlight of the weekend was staying at the beautiful Rennie House, a Georgian townhouse based just minutes' from the centre of Bath. This place really encapsulates the essence of Bath - stylish, historic and bursting with charm. It's a really handsome building on a raised promenade with views across the Bath rooftops. Once you get inside, it's all muted Farrow & Ball paints, quirky wallpapers and vintage furniture with a few unexpected touches thrown in for good measure, like the photographic Paris wallpaper emblazoned on a wall in one of the bathrooms which I fell in love with. In fact I came away with major interior design inspiration after my stay, though a lot of the refined touches that characterise Rennie House might not look quite so grand in my 1920s semi!

There are 7 bedrooms in total. I bagged the cute attic single in the eaves of the house but most of the rooms are doubles. There are plenty of bathrooms to go round including a very luxe-y master, complete with a vast, stand-alone bath. Communal living space comes in the shape of a beautiful, light-filled sitting room which huge picture windows, squishy sofas and wall-mounted chandeliers. At the bottom of the house is a cosy kitchen diner with about the best-stocked kitchen I've ever come across. We're talking TWO dishwashers, a massive fridge freezer and the full compliment of every possible piece of crockery, glassware and general kitchen paraphernalia you might need. There's a small courtyard garden and private parking, too.
The light-filled sitting room
Since I've never before stayed somewhere like Rennie House, or rented out a big property with friends I'm perhaps not best placed to quantify its value for money. In high season (based on bookings taken in 2013) a 2 night break comes in at £1850, which on doing the maths comes out at £142 per person (based on full 13 person occupancy). Taking into account we're talking Bath/tourist prices, and we're talking about a luxurious property in the heart of the city, this seems pretty darned reasonable to me.

My cute and cosy bedroom
Rennie House would make a lovely setting for a family get-together, a hen weekend or special birthday celebration. It's a real retreat but close enough to the action when you want to dip into it. To be honest, we barely left the house, so comfortable and relaxing is this place; a real treat for our gang of slightly frazzled, busy working mums. We just about managed to find the energy for a spot of shopping during our stay, but the other big highlight for me was holing up in the cosy upstairs cafe of the amazing Bertinet Bakery, drinking coffee and scoffing our own body weight in meringues and chocolate brownies. Don't miss this cute little cafe if you're in Bath anytime soon (which also serves as a bakery and stocks a mouth-watering selection of bread and cakes to take away.)

If you can get a gang together or have a special occasion coming up that you want to celebrate in style, I'd wholeheartedly recommend Rennie House. I'm hoping I'll be back sometime soon...

(PS - I was too busy being relaxed to take many photos while at Rennie House and those I did take don't really do it justice - the Rennie House website has a much better picture gallery!)

To find out more about Rennie House, including details of rates and availability by visit the website here.
And if you'd like to visit Bertinet Bakery take a look at the website here.


Thursday, 7 November 2013

Bargain Beauty - All About Oils

As I mention in the 'About Me' section of this blog, I've picked up some of my best tips from other bloggers. When it comes to beauty, there's one blogger whose recommendations I really trust: Caroline Hirons. Ms Hirons is a beauty expert of many years' standing who, in her own words, "has an unhealthy obsession for all things skin" and "dislikes brands that want to 'be famous' and aren't entirely truthful to their customers." She's also a trained facialist who has worked across the globe, consulting with leading brands and retailers in the beauty industry. So she kind of knows what she's talking about. Her blog is witty, entertaining and completely honest, and she reviews products from right across the beauty spectrum, from the prestige to the budget. Her no-holds-barred approach to testing the wide variety of products that come her way means you can get an unbiased opinion on the latest beauty must-have, something that is far less likely in a magazine spread where you rarely get a truly honest idea of the real efficacy of a certain product. What this means is you can read Caroline's blog to get a beauty insider's take on expensive products before you part with your hard-earned cash.

Caroline is something of a skincare evangelist and doesn't advocate scrimping on your skincare routine. Her policy is very much based on the principle that you should invest in your skin above things like clothes, bags or shoes, so if  you would happily spend £60 on a new bag but only £1.99 on some wipes for your face, then you can't really complain if your skin lets you down. On that basis, her recommendations are not always cheap and unfortunately some of the products she raves about the most are well out of my price range. But one thing she has turned me onto and which I've noticed have made a difference to my skin are oils - both the types you put in your body and those you apply to your skin. 

Cleansing oil by Una Brennan

Firstly, fish oils. We all know the benefits of Omega 3 for things like concentration (my kids take a supplement for this very reason) but I was unaware just how transformative they can be for stressed, problem skin. On Caroline's recommendation I now take a daily high strength supplement of fish oils which seem to help keep my skin clearer and smoother.You can buy fish oils in all good chemists and supermarkets but the higher strength versions seem harder to find; I use Boots own-brand Max Strength 1300mg capsules which cost £7.49 for 30. According to Caroline's blog, she's had a hugely positive response from sufferers of skin problems including acne, psoriasis and eczema who found taking fish oil helped them keep their skin under control.

Putting oil into my body was one thing but I took a little longer to come round to the idea of putting oil onto my face to clean it. As someone who's prone to breakouts and has sensitive, reactive skin, the concept of applying oil directly onto troublesome pores seemed to contradict all sane skincare advice. However having read Caroline's logical explanations of why oils are good for skin - as long as they are the 'right' sort of oils - I've become a convert. Contrary to what you might think oils are vital in supporting skin tissue, helping to balance skin and ward off spots while keeping skin moisturised and smooth. Conversely things like foaming cleansers or harsh acne treatments just end up stripping the skin, making it produce ever more sebum which in turn leads to more breakouts. As long as you avoid mineral oils and paraffin your skin will thank you for it. 

I was pleased to see Ms Hirons recommend a budget alternative to some of the expensive oils on the market in the shape of the Una Brennan range which you can buy at Boots for under a tenner. Caroline advocates a dual cleanse routine for evenings which might sound a faff but isn't actually too time consuming and really ensures your skin is squeaky clean at the end of the day. The Una Brennan Skin Renew cleansing oil has the added benefit of Vitamin C so I spend some time massaging this in first, then rinse before doing a final cleanse with my trusty Alpha H products. The oil has a delicious smell and seems to have a conditioning effect on skin, leaving it soft with no hint of dryness. Highly recommended.

Lastly, I thought I'd pass on a tip given to me by hairdresser. Thanks to a long-time addiction to hair straighteners and a natural propensity to dryness, my hair is often a frizzy, lack-lustre mess. I'm slowly weaning myself off daily straightener use and in the meantime have been using almond oil on the dry ends the night before a hair-wash, as suggested by my hairdresser. You can buy almond oil in chemists for less than a couple of quid and you only need a teeny amount to help keep dry ends at bay. Massage in and leave to sink in overnight, rinsing out the next day. It really does help tame dry, frizzy locks, for a fraction of the price of products like argan oil or Moroccan oil.  

To read more beauty recommendations and tips visit Caroline Hirons blog here.


Monday, 4 November 2013

Weekend at Hampton Court & The Foley Hotel

Much as I love Bristol I also love the occasional weekend away. Weekends away with kids do, unfortunately, bump up your expenditure quite considerably so any prior planning you can do to bring costs down a bit is well worth the extra legwork. I picked up the tip for our recent visit to The Foley Hotel, in Claygate, Surrey from the Times travel section which recommended it as a good value option for tying in with a visit to local attractions such as Hampton Court Palace, Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park. 

Scouring the supplements for travel tips and special offers is something I do religiously and while some newspapers and magazines don't always interpret the word 'budget' in the same way that I do, they're definitely worth a browse to find out about lesser-known accommodation options across the UK.

The Foley Hotel 

The Foley is part of the Young's hotel group, owned by the brewery of the same name and operating mainly across London and the South East (although there is also a hotel in Exeter.) Located just 3 miles from Hampton Court and just over a couple of miles from Chessington, it makes a really convenient choice if you don't want to confine yourself to a day trip. 

We travelled from Bristol first thing Saturday and headed straight to Hampton Court; it's a motorway drive that you can easily do in under two hours. Family tickets for the palace will set you back £42 - not cheap, but compared to the cost of a day at a theme park or similar attraction, and considering the educational value of the experience, it's a pretty fair price to pay. Aside from the obvious attraction of exploring the grand halls and haunted galleries of Henry VIII and co's stomping grounds, there's A LOT to see here. 

There's loads of 'history in action' and walkabouts from a stellar cast of Tudor dignitaries. We didn't, sadly, bump into Hezza himself, but we brushed past a very authentic looking Sir Walter Raleigh and you will stumble upon all sorts of other characters during your day, from ladies-in-waiting to courtiers and servants. They're not just there to make the place look pretty but to offer some historical insight, too, in a fun and child-friendly format. Your kids will absorb all sorts of interesting historical info from these lovely people, plus they'll get to live like a Tudor themselves, particularly in the kitchens where our kids helped to turn roasting meat on a spit and learnt a bit about Tudor table manners. 

Take a packed lunch and enjoy it in the lovely gardens surrounding the Palace. Don't forget to seek out the famous maze and the Great Vine, the world's longest grape vine. A wonder just outside the palace gates leads you to tranquil walks along the river front, or you could continue on to the expansive Bushy Park, former hunting ground of Henry VIII and home to a children's playground and a wealth of wildlife, including the red and fallow deer for which the park is famous.

After our busy day we were looking forward to relaxing at our hotel and we were not disappointed. Our family room was spacious, with a massive, comfy king-sized bed. There are 17 rooms at the Foley including rooms that can accommodate children on sofa beds. If I had one complaint it would be that the sofa bed in our room wasn't quite a double and it was a bit confined for our (average-sized) 9 and 5 year-olds. Despite the fact that rooms are adjacent to the restaurant and pub we had a surprisingly tranquil night's sleep. The general style of the place is comfortable chic - think textured throws, tartan armchairs and fixtures and fittings with a retro touch to them. I loved the old-school phone in our room and little touches like the vintage-style ceramic milk bottle in our mini bar and the 1950s mirror in the bathroom.

The exceptionally comfy bed

We made use of the restaurant for dinner which offers good value, gastro-pub style food and a well-priced kids menu. A highlight of our stay was the breakfast which is included in the room rate. Alongside full English and continental style breakfasts, the breakfast menu includes more imaginative choices - I opted for a delicious cinnamon-infused French toast, served with a sweet stewed apple sauce. Servings were hearty and the friendly staff were happy to top us up with extra toast and slices of bacon. 

We paid £109 for our room, which while not 'bargain basement' is good value for this standard of accommodation in what is traditionally an expensive corner of the South East. We experienced very friendly, efficient service, our room was clean and stylish and we loved its convenient, pretty setting.

Here are some other photos of our stay to give you a taste of The Foley's ambience...

If you'd like to find out more about The Foley click here, or visit the Young's Hotels website for details of similar hotels in London and the South East. 

For information about Hampton Court Palace click here. 


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Scouts - Join the Adventure

Great news for anyone trying to get their child into a local scout group - a new Bishopston group is opening very soon, which will be music to your ears if you've been trying in vain to move up the never-ending waiting lists for other groups in the BS7 area. There will be an information evening about the new group for parents and their budding scouts taking place at Cairns Road Baptist Church, BS6 7TH on Wednesday 6th November, from 6.30-7.30pm.

If you've got hazy recollections of the scouting movement or are faintly unnerved by the idea of 'uniformed organisations' I can assure you that things have moved on massively since my childhood and the Scouting movement of today is a thoroughly 21st-century operation, offering what I reckon is the best value, most educational entertainment currently out there. Their tag line (which I've borrowed for this blog post) couldn't be more apt, and since joining Beavers aged 6 my son has enjoyed one rip-roaring adventure after another. My own memories of making cups of tea and stitching on buttons for the quaintly named 'homemaker' badge don't come close to the fun stuff that kids seem to be doing these days, which encompasses everything from more traditional outward bound-y pursuits, like orienteering and knot tying, to more contemporary-based entertainment, such as trips to Alton Towers and Laser Quest. 
Be prepared...for rather a lot of sewing!
Open to children of both sexes, Beavers and Cubs offers a non-competitive environment where kids can get stuck into activities that are not just great for learning about stuff and the wider world, but which have the fantastic added function of helping to build confidence and nurture team spirit. We have found its role vital in helping to bring our child - who can be a quiet, under-confident boy at times - out of his shell. It's a great place for children who perhaps aren't hugely competitive or sporty to find other ways of being part of something by showing them there is a world beyond the football pitch. 

Each week, there's lots of running around outdoors, learning about different cultures and working towards badges which not only teach kids invaluable life skills but which give them a real sense of achievement and boost their esteem. Add in the fact that your child gets to do all that stuff (knot tying, bonfire building, rocket making etc, etc) that you either don't know how to do or don't have the time or resources to do, and it's a win-win all round. 
Bear Grylls - a thoroughly modern Chief Scout
As if that wasn't enough to get you firing off your details to the local group right now, I've happened upon some interesting research - according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, young people who join up to clubs such as beavers, cubs and scouts do better in later life. Former Scouts and Guides are 3% less likely to be depressed and 5% less likely to be single, separated or divorced by the age of 30. They are also more likely to own a home, achieve good qualifications and be earning a decent income. 

Next term, our son will take part in a night hike, participate in a Remembrance Sunday parade and go ice skating, amongst other activities, at the fantastic value price of just £35 per term. That's a lot of adventure for not very much money...


If you'd like to find out more about the 1st Bishopston Scout Group and how to get on the waiting list, click here.

You can also contact Hannah Bester on 07507 839381, hannah.bester@scouts.org.uk for more details about the new Bishopston scout group.


Monday, 21 October 2013

Easy Home-made Pizza

Saturday night is pizza night in our household. If we're feeling a bit flush we might head to a favourite local pizza joint (Acapella or Prego on North View, perhaps, though we usually reserve the latter for a Monday night when you can enjoy a wallet-friendly two for one on all pizzas.) But more often than not I use the relative calm of a Saturday evening chez nous to perfect my pizza dough and try out some new topping combinations. For anyone scared by the word 'dough' - and I admit I was till I started making it myself - don't be. It's actually pretty hard to get wrong. According to the kids, my home-made pizzas win out against shop-bought alternatives, which is high praise indeed, given how fussy the two of them are.

Easy and incredibly cheap, I guarantee once you start making your own pizzas you won't look back. Here's my fool-proof pizza dough recipe:

  • 250g plain white flour
  • 250 strong white bread flour or OO Italian flour
  • 7g sachet of fast-action yeast
  • 2 tsp flaky salt
  • 300ml warm water
  • 1 tbsp olive oil 
  • Packet of natural bread crumbs
  • Olive oil spray
The above quantity makes 4 regular sized pizzas. It's best to use proper pizza baking sheets, though regular rectangular sheets will do.


In a large bowl mix together the dry ingredients, expect the breadcrumbs. Once flour, yeast and salt is combined, slowly add your olive oil, mixing in as you go. Do the same with the water. If the dough seems a little dry add a few extra drops of water, but go carefully or your mixture will get too wet. Combine the ingredients into a dough and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Now for the kneading, a great work-out for the old bingo wings! A good dough needs at least 10 minutes kneading to get the dough aerated and elastic. Once you're happy with it, spray a clean bowl with olive oil spray, add your ball of dough and cover with cling-film and a clean tea towel. Place the dough somewhere warm, like a sunny window sill or in front of a warm oven, and leave to proof, for at least at hour, or a bit longer if possible. You're looking for the dough to double in size. 

Ready to slam in the oven...

When the dough is nearly ready heat your oven quite high and throw you pizza sheets in to warm up. In the meantime prepare your toppings. I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to pizza - no pineapple or sweetcorn for me - and I tend to stick with traditional combinations. You can't mess up a simple Margherita of ready-made passata topped with slices of mozzarella, a sprinkling of oregano, a few basil leaves and a swirl of olive oil. I might add in a few slices of Parma ham, Italian pepperoni or a few anchovies and a handful of capers. I sometimes mix things up by eschewing mozzarella for goats cheese, which I combine with some sweet red onion, slowly softened and lightly caramelised in a pan.

When you're read to start assembling your pizzas, take a sheet out of the oven and sprinkle with your dried breadcrumbs - this gives that essential crunch to your base which makes your pizzas extra authentic. Roll out your dough and position it on your sheet before adding your toppings. They take just 10 minutes or so to cook in the oven. 

Ready to wolf down with a glass of chilled white
Simple, quick and devoid of all those nasty additives hiding in manufactured pizzas - what's not to love?


Friday, 18 October 2013

The Beauty Myth of Anti-Ageing

Pick up any women's magazine or newspaper supplement these days and chances are you'll stumble on a feature about cosmetic surgery or 'aesthetic procedures'. Entire magazines are dedicated to the subject of anti ageing, their pages revealing a vast and complex world of potions, treatments and procedures that claim to hold back the onset of time. For anyone who watched the recent Channel 4 series 'How Not to Get Old' there are some truly bizarre treatments being peddled out on a high street near you, procedures that make lofty promises about keeping us looking younger for longer. The programme was interesting for several reasons. Firstly most of the procedures tested were not what you'd call 'accessible' in terms of prices with many treatments running into the thousands of pounds. It's no wonder, therefore, that the value of the cosmetic surgery industry is expected to reach £3.15 billion by 2015.

Furthermore, most of the treatments trialled didn't seem to make any long-lasting, discernible difference. Is one day of slightly plumper lips or fresher skin worth plundering your savings for, and having to hide away at home while you wait for your face to 'settle down'? Experiencing disappointing results and a bit of temporary bruising is actually a best case scenario when compared to what can happen when procedures are carried out by less experienced hands. And despite well-documented warnings about an unregulated industry where clumsily handled procedures are leaving some poor people scarred for life, the fixation with youth - an obsession that seems to pervade the female-oriented media - seems to have skewed all sense of reality when it comes to beauty. 

There's a certain madness in promoting anti-ageing creams that cost hundreds of pounds when thousands of people in the UK are struggling to feed their children, or littering a beauty article with references to botox, fillers and laser treatments, procedures that can be hugely expensive and which, despite the growing perception that they are risk-free, can cause long-term damage. For those that can afford to shell out on the latest ground-breaking treatment there's the danger of starting a process that seems to breed further dissatisfaction: improving those crows feet around your eyes suddenly makes the wrinkles on your forehead stand out even more, and so on.

A few years back I had an operation to remove a tumour on my salivary gland. Though my tumour was thankfully benign, the surgery to remove the lump was delicate. My operation involved making the very same incision that is used for standard face lifts in this country. What I hadn't considered until facing my surgery was just how many nerve branches are involved in the facial area - nerves that control movement to the eyes and mouth and which allow the face to show expression. While standard face lift surgery shouldn't compromise these nerve muscles, there is always a margin of error. My particular surgery was frightening in that it directly involved a facial nerve; a slip of the surgeon's hand and a nick of that nerve could have resulted in permanent nerve paralysis. As I came round from my operation, bruised and sore, and with a face clipped together like Frankenstein, I wondered how anyone would willingly put themselves through such an ordeal in the name of beauty. Furthermore, I experienced some temporary nerve paralysis where I couldn't blink one eye and had a slight drooping on one side of my mouth. That anyone would risk permanent damage of this nature to look younger is pure madness to me.

Like anyone else the discovery of another grey hair or a more pronounced wrinkle doesn't exactly fill me with joy, but I do worry that the promotion of aesthetic procedures is clouding our judgement when it comes to expectations around beauty. I fear for the generation of young girls growing up who already have such unrealistic imagery foisted upon them, and will continue to do so as they become women. Wouldn't it be great if ageing wasn't perceived as such a bad thing and the concept of growing old gracefully was more widely advertised? 

From my own personal experience I would never go near a surgeon's knife voluntarily, and with so many new procedures springing up on the market the long-term effects of such treatments can't, in my mind, be fully understood yet. A jar of £200 face cream isn't going to stop the inevitable creep of the years and playing around with needles and muscle relaxants might iron out a few lines but at what cost? I'll take the wrinkles, thanks...

Monday, 14 October 2013

Cairns Road Nearly New Sale

Just a quick post from me today to let you know about a don't-miss event on Saturday 19th October. It's the bi-annual Noah's Ark sale, taking place at the baptist church on Cairns Road, BS6 7TH. These sales are somewhat legendary in the local area and having been to quite a few myself over the years I can recommend a visit if you like a rummage through a variety of good quality, pre-loved items, covering everything from nursery equipment to clothing. The sale kicks off at 11am and is held in the vast hall and adjacent connecting rooms. These sales are extremely popular and it's not unusual for queues to start forming outside the door well in advance of the start time. To be armed with the best chance of nabbing a particular item get there early and go equipped with a large bag or two (those big blue Ikea bags are perfect.)

Another insider tip to bear in mind is that the rooms are arranged by item so if you're after something in particular, head to the right room the minute you get through the doors. The usual set-up is that clothing and toys are laid out in the main hall while the next room along holds everything baby-related - maternity clothes, high chairs, baby carriers, car seats, stair gates and more. The next room in is where you'll find things like trikes, bikes and bigger garden toys and pieces of equipment. Do note this is how it was arranged on my last visit, and the layout may alter from time to time, but as a rule you'll find similar items grouped together. Good stuff shifts quickly so you really need to move fast once you get inside.

On a practical level I would most definitely recommend leaving the kids at home. It can be a bit of a mad scramble plus the many trestle tables loaded with toys will provide just too much temptation for little ones. Remember to bring cash or a cheque book and some extra change for a mid-sale restorative cup of tea and slice of cake, served from the little cafe area near the front of the hall. 

Although the quality is generally very good it's important to check over anything you're interested in buying, particularly the bigger ticket items such as buggies or high chairs, as all sales are final. A good proportion of the sale's profits go to investing in new equipment and learning aides for the preschool and Cairns Road Cafe so it's a great way to see your cash put to good use. The sales are usually held twice a year, in October and March.

On a similar note, did you know that parenting website Netmums has an incredibly dynamic and busy Nearly New facility? You can sell, swap or give away pretty much anything, from your child's old school uniform to the bike they've now outgrown. It's not limited to children's items, either, and when I took a cursory glance at the current items available I came across all manner of amazing bargains, from a  John Lewis sofa, free to collector, a buggy board for £20 and a BMX scooter in great condition for £30. There's no auction process - you simply message the vendor direct with your details and take it from there. Plus it's free to advertise your goods so if you're in the market to sell this is a great place to recycle unwanted items and make a bit of pocket money on the side. All you need to do is sign up to your local site.

Find out more about Netmums Nearly New here


Friday, 11 October 2013

Doing London on the Cheap

Contrary to popular believe you can enjoy a budget weekend in the capital with kids in tow. In fact there's lots to recommend London if you're after a change of scenery on a shoestring, and despite some unavoidable costs (eg. travel, accommodation and food) the scope for low-cost and indeed free activities is surprisingly wide. Just be sure not to step anywhere near Hamleys...

First up, travel, and any self-respecting bargain hunter will already know about the Friends and Family Railcard. They cost £30 and entitle you to save a third on adult fares and 60% off kids fares for an entire year. The only thing to remember is that you have to be travelling with at least one child to get the discount on your journey. Once you get to London all children under 10 years of age can travel for free on London's transport network, including the tube, buses, DLR and overground. Bargain. Grown-ups should opt for buying an Oyster card, especially if you'll be making further trips to the capital in the future.
Soldiers at St James

If you're making a weekend of it there are numerous options for overnight accommodation but my personal recommendation comes courtesy of the basic and dependable Premier Inn chain, in particular its branch at Old Street. Located just moments from the tube station, this particular hotel makes a brilliant choice for families. We paid just £69 for a family room on our last visit at the end of the summer holidays. If you're au fait with the Premier Inn model, you'll know that rooms are functional rather than stylish, but usually clean and comfortable. Despite being at the epicentre of trendy Old Street, with all its attendant nightlife, this hotel is really quiet - our room seemed to be completely soundproofed against any late night revelry and we all enjoyed a blissfully undisturbed night's kip. Do take up the offer of breakfast - you pay around £8 per adult but kids eat completely free. We stuffed them with a full English and a variety of pastries so we could keep our lunchtime expenditure to a minimum. I might also have made off with a croissant or two in my bag to cover off any mid-morning snack requirements...

So, what to do in London that won't see you fleeced of every last penny? The free museums are a given, but be prepared to queue for entry to places like the Natural History Museum. They can also get uncomfortably busy. If you want to try something totally different and are prepared to venture out as far as Zone 4 you could visit the RAF Museum at Colindale. Entry is completely free and the place is vast - think hangars filled with everything aviation related, from WW2 fighter planes to flight simulators. There's a great interactive area where kids can get inside models, play at being pilots and have a go at low-level hang gliding. 

I should perhaps mention at this point that we have two boys so if my suggestions seem a little male-orientated I apologise. A more unisex option that we tried out on our last trip was an afternoon of outdoor play at the Princess Diana Memorial Garden in Kensington. It being the last really sunny day of the summer holidays when we visited, we had to endure a one-in-one-out queue to gain entry to this sweet little playground, but I imagine those were unusual circumstances. It's a contained space that provides a bit of sanctuary from the bustle of the West End, and it has some lovely play equipment and nice zones in which to rest and recharge before taking on the rest of the city.
Thames Barrier Park

Having been to London several times before with the kids our choices on our last visit were perhaps a little unconventional, but no less successful and budget-friendly. A ride on the DLR was a huge hit, simply because the kids can sit at the front of a driver-less train and, well, drive it...boy heaven. We rode out as far as the Thames Barrier which my elder, design-obsessed son wanted to see. It is actually pretty impressive when viewed from the tranquil surroundings of the Thames Barrier Park at Silvertown.

The biggest success, though, was a ride on the cable cars across the Greenwich Peninsula. With child returns around the £4 mark and adults at £8 this is a much cheaper way to take in the London skyline than the Eye. Granted the cable cars don't offer quite as much visual interest as the Eye, but when a family ticket on the Eye clocks up a whopping £63 that's a big dent in your spending money. 

London from above - without paying ££s

Our kids loved going on the cable cars and we barely had to queue to get on them. You could buy a single and then cruise back across the river by boat, or just pick up the tube from the 02. We did the latter, stopping off at Canary Wharf so my son could fulfil a life-long desire to see One Canada Square in all its architectural glory. He's a Richard Rogers in the making...

A quick scoot up to Buck House, followed by a climb on the lions at Trafalgar Square and a walk around the refined environs of the confectionery section at Fortnum & Mason for a bag of treats to enjoy on the train journey home, and we were all pretty much pooped. London is exhausting with children in tow. Even when travelling on the tube there are huge distances involved - just changing branch line sometimes involves a convoluted march up and down stairs and across concourses - and you can forget how tired little legs can get. That's why it sometimes pays to avoid the major tourist sights or try to cover unrealistic distances. Taking a more leftfield approach in our choices this time around made for a much less stressful, enjoyable trip, and it certainly helped to keep a handle on costs.

If you'd like to find out more about the Premier Inn at Old Street, visit the website here.

And for more information about the Emirate Airline cable cars, click here.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Broadening Our Pizza Horizons at Acapella

It is a truth universally acknowledged by parents across the land that when it comes to dining out with little 'uns sticking with what you know is the safer choice when it comes to restaurants. Children have rigid tastes with regard to eating out, and when they say they want a Margherita pizza, what they're actually saying is that they want a Pizza Express Margherita pizza. If you deviate from this request you will be in trouble. A Margherita from Zizzi, or Strada, or anywhere else, for that matter is not the same thing. They're contrary so and sos, kids. 

The good news is that just when you thought you were doomed to spend every future culinary experience in an identikit chain restaurant, staring at an unchanging menu while a white noise of '90s nu-jazz washes over you, in between emphatically checking with the waitress that the orange juice definitely does not have bits in it, your kids suddenly grow up. No longer do you have a couple of culinary dictators on your hands but rather reasonable little people who are quite open to the idea of TRYING SOMEWHERE NEW. Yes, it's great fun and happens sometime around the ages of 8-9 years old. On a less positive note, this new-found maturity will cost you. Your child will suddenly develop a huge appetite, consigning those halcyon days of children's menus and sharing a pizza to the past. So, finding good value, good quality restaurants to celebrate your new-found freedom is what it's all about.

Our personal quest to do just that led us to a lovely little restaurant called Acapella over the weekend. Located on the Wells Road, a few minutes' drive from Temple Meads station, Acapella has carved something of a reputation for itself on rewiew website Tripadvisor. Based on user reviews the website has named Acapella the UK's best independent pizzeria. It's gained lofty praise from The Guardian newspaper, too, and was voted Bristol's best cafe in the 2012 Bristol Good Food Awards. Despite being home to a large Italian community, good, independent pizzerias are surprisingly thin on the ground in Bristol, so we were interested to see if Acapella would live up to the claims touted on its website and the wider press. 
The 'Glissando' pizza. Delish.

In terms of quality and prices, it is indeed spot on. The other advantage it boasts is that it's one of the few BYO establishments operating in Bristol, charging just £1 per head corkage, a no-brainer when it comes to slashing pounds off your bill. 

The pizzas we tried were very good indeed, and come in two sizes; a 12-inch is ample for filling up kids with seemingly bottomless stomachs, but 'piccolo' child-size pizzas are also available at just £4.95 a pop. We should have probably skipped a starter of garlic pizza bread, delicious though it was, and saved room for the really flavoursome, authentic style pizzas that we'd chosen as mains. I'd opted for the 'Glissando', which combines the standard tomato and mozzarella base with caramelised onions, sun-dried tomatoes and capers, a mix of flavours and textures which works fantastically well. We shared a 'two tomato' salad and should have stopped there, had it not been our first time at Acapella which made sampling the dessert menu seem a non-negotiable. Desserts err on the cakey-side and are perhaps a little limited but the option we plumped for - the sticky ginger, orange and cinnamon cake - was delicious but not an obvious choice post-pizza when you perhaps fancy something a little lighter to offset all those carbs.
Diet? What diet? 14 inches of pizza heaven

Acapella has a lovely, intimate atmosphere. It's not big and within minutes of taking our seats the rest of the tables had been snapped up, and those remaining were already reserved. A bit of a secret to those of us living further afield, Acapella is obviously a much-loved local institution. We were served by exceptionally friendly, attentive staff and while the general vibe is perhaps more cafe than restaurant, this only adds to the genuine, unpretentious charm of the place. Our kids loved the novelty of eating somewhere beyond the confines of our usual stomping ground, and it was nice to introduce them to somewhere 'unbranded', as it were. 
Small but perfectly formed

So, our mission to find great, family-friendly eating establishments has got off to a flying start and we will definitely be back to this fab little independent in the future.

To find out more about Acapella visit the website here

And to see what other people thought of it, check out the reviews on Tripadvisor


Thursday, 3 October 2013

Is fashion in tune with the real world?

Is it just me or is there a disconnect between the world of fashion and retail and ‘normal’ consumers? Now, I like fashion quite a lot. I think it does play a role in defining identity, both on an individual level and cultural level. UK designers are amongst the most creative in the world and our high streets wipe the floor with those of our European counterparts. I ‘get’ that high fashion exists in the realm of fantasy, affordable only to a select few and attainable to the masses only when reinterpreted and reworked from cheap materials in a factory somewhere in the Far East. 

But what I don’t get is how, despite the economic downturn, the fashion press and retailers seem to think it’s quite reasonable to sell and promote ordinary, work-a-day items at quite ridiculous prices.  For example, have you tried buying jeans recently? Since when did Levi’s jeans – the epitome of 'work wear' and a byword for democratic clothing - become so expensive? An average pair of Levi's jeans will set you back £80 these days. Yes, I know you can pick up a pair of skinnies for about the same price as a sandwich in Primark, but the point is not that cheap alternatives do not exist, but that all along the fashion chain some seriously dubious pricing mechanisms are at play. Look at the ongoing fashion for 'premium' denim. Just what makes it 'premium'? How can a piece of cotton crafted into a pair of trousers justify a price tag of upwards of £150? 

Just today I was flicking through Red magazine when I came across an article about parka coats. I love a parka coat as much as the next man, but it is not a high fashion item. It is a practical, winter staple, not a feat of designer engineering. The coat featured in said article cost £676. Yes, it was made of wool, but REALLY?? The coat was teamed with a cotton shirt at £270, a pair of jeans, £148 and a bag at - wait for it - £2,410. Total cost = £3,504. Granted, the bag was by Louis Vuitton, but it was JUST A BAG. How can a bag cost £2,410? Even if made from the finest Italian leather and hand crafted by the angels themselves is there really anyone out there in full possession of their faculties who believes this pricing to be acceptable? Obviously this is perhaps an excessive example but is anyone else a bit bored of fashion mags aimed at the 30-plus demographic assuming we're all investment bankers with £70k salaries?

Over on the high street excessive pricing is equally rife with quite average brands whacking out mass produced, poor quality products at disproportionately hefty price points. The prices in the more upmarket high street retailers (French Connection and Reiss spring to mind)have been creeping up for years now and not in a way that is in line with inflation, while quality has often deteriorated. And that's the point I'm making, in a round-about way. I am quite happy to pay good money for something that is designed and made well. I am not a fan of the Primark model and hate the excessive consumption incited by the 'pile it high, sell it cheap' modus operandi. And of course there are plenty of retailers meeting a good middle ground and servicing ordinary consumers perfectly well. I just think there are also an awful lot of brands and people working in the fashion industry who have got a very skewed idea of the average person's spending power. It would be good if those working on the fashion glossies and wider fashion industry recognised this from time to time.

What do you think? Comments welcome below...

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