Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas Shopping Ideas

Christmas shopping - it's a hideous experience, no point glossing over it. But, alas, it has to be done eventually. Thankfully we have the internet to help us avoid unnecessarily trips to the shops, but I'm not sure you can entirely rely on online shopping, especially if you want to buy something a bit different. Plus, with virtually limitless choice available online, it can be a wearying experience trawling the net for a gift, especially when most retailers' search tools don't really help to refine your options too well. I tried searching for a 'star necklace' on notonthehighstreet.com and was presented with just 18,648 options to consider...there is such a thing as 'too much choice', I reckon. 

So, where you can you buy original, stylish, good value gifts on the real, actual high street? Here's where I've found some brilliant stuff so far this year...

Hit or miss for a lot the year, TX Maxx really comes into its own ahead of Christmas. This year its shelves seem to be particularly bounteous and filled with premium products at a fraction of the RRP. Bristol has several outlets, but I usually visit the Cribbs Causeway branch which is a little less stress inducing than the one in the Galleries. Its homeware and beauty department is, at the moment, a veritable goldmine, whether you're after One Direction perfume for the tween in your family, or some new mugs for your mum. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll find goodies such as Miller Harris candles (£20, half the RRP) and Neom Organics bath and body oils. On my visit I spotted shower gels from Space NK's own brand range for just £3.99, as well as Cath Kidston soaps and a pretty comprehensive range of perfumes from brands such as Prada and Marc Jacobs, as well as more niche beauty houses, such as Annick Goutal.

Up in homeware, I stumbled on lovely bird mugs by Emma Bridgewater, as well as beautiful calendars from arty publishing house Taschen. The book selection is also fantastic at the moment - I picked up a massive hardback Lego Architecture book for £12.99 (it retails elsewhere at around the £15-£20 mark.) You'll find amazing cookbooks amongst the range, and unusual titles that you might miss in a normal bookshop - a DK book on computer coding for kids for £5.99 will make the perfect stocking filler for my 10-year-old.

If you're brave enough to buy clothes as presents you need to delve a little more closely into the racks for the gems to reveal themselves. There's a lot of tat on the hangers, too, but you might spot a pair of J Brand jeans (a present to myself - perfect fit skinny jeans for just £49) or a cute Clements Ribeiro jumper. Socks might be classed as a boring gift but dads and hard-to-buy for uncles are usually happy to receive a new intake for their sock drawer, and there are some quirky, boxed sets from brands such as Original Penguin and William Hunt in the menswear department.

For something a little more original, visit the Made in Bristol fair, which takes place at the Colston Hall on 13th December. The antithesis of high street mayhem, things are relatively calm here, where you'll find a range of independent sellers showcasing everything from ceramics and prints to soaps and jewellery. It's a great place to pick up something unusual and support small businesses. I bought a lovely necklace from Jules & Clem - handmade, beautifully boxed and considerably cheaper than something similar from TopShop. Be sure to whizz by the 'Tash & Bow' stall, where you'll find cool perspex jewellery made by pupils at Hanham High School. The after-school jewellery club has been set up to encourage more girls to get involved in Design & Technology, and receives support from Rolls Royce. The girls were manning a stall laden with lovely pieces, featuring both their trademark 'tash and bow designs and retro-style initial necklaces, the perfect presents for my teenage nieces. Priced at just £4 and lovingly packaged in smart brown boxes, secured with funky washi tape, they look exactly like something you'd pick up for three times the price in Hoxton.

There's nothing like supporting a charity while shopping for pressies for giving you a festive warm glow so why not stop by the fantastic Gromit Unleashed shop while you're trawling the Mall? Having got to know a little more about the charity it supports - Wallace & Gromit's Children's Charity - through my job at Aardman Animations, I've stocked up on a few pressies here, happy to know my money is going to a charity that does amazing work for poorly babies and children across the region. You'll find the famous collection of Gromit figurines, soft toys, tea towels and even a special Gromit Unleashed edition of Monopoly, featuring locations from the trail. There are good value stocking fillers, too - Gromit Top Trumps, mugs, books and giant Gromit chocolate coins. You can also buy online if you really can't face the crowds.

Finally, who wouldn't love some fresh flowers popping through their letterbox as a Christmas treat? Literally fitting through your letterbox, the flowers at Bloom & Wild don't require their recipient to be at home at the time of delivery - brilliant. The flowers are supplied in a slimline box and include instructions on how to arrange them for a professional-looking display. You can choose from a variety of seasonal flowers, and prices start at just £20 for a simple bouquet. A great idea if you're totally stuck for ideas and running short on shopping time. Check out fantastic blog The Frugality where you can read more about Bloom & Wild, plus enjoy a special discount on your order. 


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Friday Night Pizza at Flour & Ash

Like pizzas? Looking for something along the lines of the much celebrated Acapella but live north of the river? Then you'll be pleased to know that there's a newcomer to the Gloucester Road/Stokes Croft restaurant scene in the shape of Flour & Ash which opened at the beginning of the month, and - judging by the reserved tables when we visited - is already proving a hit with the locals. 

Having seen the place take shape over the previous months on my walk to work, I was looking forward to sampling what sounded like an authentic proposition - proper pizzas from an wood-fired oven, but using sourdough rather than traditional pizza dough. So myself and my 10-year-old son and pizza aficionado took ourselves there for an impromptu Friday supper...and immediately realised that it's getting harder and harder to do 'impromptu' these days. Everywhere seems to get booked up, and as the waiter went off to consult his reservations book I had a feeling we were probably going to end up in Pizza Express after all. As it was, it was early enough for us to get a table though you should obviously bear this in mind if you want to visit on a Friday or Saturday, and eat a bit later than 6pm. 

The restaurant is a smart, compact place with that industrial, functional look that's the style du jour. In a space this small, it works, with the main focus being the cavernous pizza oven at the back of the restaurant. There are few things that excite me as much as the sight of a flame-filled oven...I would love to have a go at sliding a pizza into one of those babies very much. It's also a reassuring sight, honouring a tradition that began in the backstreets of Naples back in the 1800s, meaning that if your pizza has been cooked in a wood-fired oven you're getting something as close to the real thing as possible.

Thankfully the pizzas at Flour & Ash didn't disappoint. What really works about this restaurant is a commitment to keeping the menu concise, with just a handful of enticing-sounding starters (wood roast queen scallops with herb butter or crispy ox tongue with salsa verde, for example, though we didn't have starters) and just pizzas for mains and ice cream and sorbet to finish.  You can choose from imaginative toppings on bases covered with tomato sauce or without. The choice of a sourdough base makes for a nice, light base that crisps up a treat in the oven, plus it's a 'pure' dough, a better choice for those with intolerances, and is made from three simple ingredients: locally milled flour, salt and water. I found it hard to choose from the delicious-sounding options which include a good mix of meat and veggie toppings, and which are a bit different to the ubiquitous Margherita or Pepperoni. My fennel salami with roasted peppers was divine - a great mix of flavoursome meat and sweet peppers - while my son devoured his chorizo, pickled chilies and rocket pizza in moments, not even bothering to painstakingly pick off the 'green stuff' as he would normally do. The fact that Flour & Dough's pizzas managed to get something green inside my child is no mean feat, and on that basis alone we'll be coming back...

My son found room for an ice-cream which, as well as sorbets, are handmade on the premises and include standards such as vanilla and chocolate, as well as more exotic choices such as caramel stracciatella (chocolate chip) and buttermilk and passion fruit ripple. My son opted for a scoop of pistachio which I 'helped' him out with and it was out of this world - proper, Italian-style ice cream, bursting with natural flavours. I would have liked a coffee but our waiter told us the restaurant hadn't procured a machine, though one was on the way. 

In terms of prices, Flour & Ash offers a competitive alternative to the high street chains; a Margherita costs £ 6.75, something more exotic is around the £10 mark and the luxurious-sounding aged beef fillet comes in at £15. You can buy good wines by the glass, and there's a kids menu at £4, including a small pizza, scoop of ice cream and glass of squash. If I had one complaint it would be that perhaps the pizzas could be just an teensy bit bigger...I could have accommodated another inch, I reckon, or perhaps I was just exceptionally hungry that day.

Find out all the details on on the Flour & Ash website. And if you fancy checking out Bristol pizza institution Acapella, read my review here. 


Friday, 21 November 2014

Four Perfect Winter Reads

My dial's firmly set to hibernation mode at the moment and I possibly won't be leaving the house of an evening this side of Christmas. Snuggling up on the sofa with a book is my current activity of choice, but I've been labouring away at a bit of a 'difficult' book for the past couple of weeks, a timely reminder that it doesn't make sense to keep going with a book that is a penance rather than a pleasure -  it anyone can suggest an alternative I can squeeze in before Christmas, I'd appreciate it. If you're stuck in a similarly frustrating book rut, perhaps you might like to consider the following four books I reckon are perfect for getting lost in on a cold winter's day...

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Subtitled 'A Ghost Story' this chilling tale transports readers to the remote wilds of the Arctic, where Jack and his fellow explorers set up base on a remote ice-cap to further their scientific pursuits. But from the very outset the group's expedition seems jinxed and Jack cannot shake off the sense that some ominous presence isn't pleased by their arrival. As the Arctic winter sets in and the group's isolation becomes ever more apparent, Jack's unease grows, but he persists in staying alone in the remote cabin when injury forces his travel companions to leave. The book conveys a hugely strong sense of place, from the infinite, unknown landscapes of the Arctic ice cap to the limited, claustrophobic confines of the cabin, a place where Jack must confront fears both imaginary and real. A gripping chiller of a book that you'll struggle not to devour in one sitting.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The book describes the central characters of this mystery as 'untamed twins', which was enough to reel me in. Thankfully, the blurb didn't disappoint in this case; The Thirteenth Tale is a book in the classic Gothic mould, partly set in the faded environs of the once grand Angelfield House, a place rampant with secrets, where parental neglect has left two mysterious sisters, Emmeline and Adeline to grow feral. Switching between the past and present day, the twins' story is told through the eyes of enigmatic author Vida Winter, who - close to death - slowly reveals the dark secrets of Angelfield, and the dysfunctional March family, so that her 'Thirteenth Tale' can finally emerge. 

The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

The misty ambiance of 16th-century Holland is the setting for this slim novel, a vivid imagining of the story behind Vermeer's enigmatic painting. The novel has the spare writing style that I like and realistic characterisation, bringing to life a cast that includes the shy, dutiful Griet, the unreadable, sometimes tempestuous painter, his distant, cold wife and the all-seeing, steely-eyed matriarch of the house, Vermeer's mother-in-law. As Vermeer's fascination with Griet becomes evident to the other members of the household, tensions rise and small but not insignificant power battles ensue. While the housemaids gossip and the mother-in-law curries favour with Vermeer's wealthy patron, the impenetrable artist gives his muse his wife's pearl earrings and sets to work on his masterpiece...

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

Susan Hill really knows how to give her readers a short, sharp burst of the shivers. If you've read or seen the film adaptation of The Woman In Black, you'll know her brand of horror is of the traditional sort, played out against a backdrop rich with Gothic motifs - remote landscapes, crumbling old houses and mysterious characters patently carrying some dreadful burden of past tragedies. When antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow takes a wrong turning on a routine visit to a client and stumbles upon an abandoned house, he feels compelled to explore. And then he feels a little hand take his but when he looks down, there's no child there. Adam's subsequent 'haunting' and attempt to unravel the story behind the 'White House' leads the reader on spine-tingling journey as he grapples with a presence that slowly becomes more and more sinister.

If you're heading off for some winter sun, you might like to take a look at my summer reading suggestions, perfect for sunny climes. On that note, I recently discovered TripFiction, a clever website that lets you search books set in different locations, so if you're going on holiday in, say, Italy, you can find a definitive list of books with an Italian setting, from literary classics to contemporary crime. Take a look here. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Mustela Mother & Baby Products - Review & Giveaway!

There are lots of things the French do well - wine, cheese and pharmacies are my favourites. Yes, pharmacies. French ones are so much better than ours. With their beautifully merchandised windows (the French can make even orthopaedic sandals and pile cream look chic) and ordered, tranquil interiors, a French pharmacy is, for me, a truly exciting proposition. Unlike my local branch of Boots - which is poorly stocked, dimly lit and generally a bit dull - French pharmacies ooze efficiency and efficacy, with shelves stocked with creams and potions for every skin need and every ailment. I could spend considerable amounts of time in a French pharmacy and while I've yet to find that magical product that will transform me into a gamine left-bank beauty, I do consider this time well spent as I've picked up some amazing products that have become stalwarts of my beauty cupboard over the years.

Basically, the French really know their toiletries. It's not for nothing that cult pharmacy brands such as Bioderma and Biafine are held in such high esteem by beauty insiders. They really do tend to do what they say on the tin (and I can vouch for this as a longtime user of products from ranges such as La Roche Posay, Vichy and Avene.) Furthermore, they're usually very reasonably priced and - thankfully - now widely available in the UK, via larger branches of Boots and online beauty retailers. So, when I was informed about a new name on the block - Mustela - I was naturally excited to hear more (and I'm delighted to be offering my first giveaway on the blog, offering a fantastic product from the range - read on for details!)

Mustela recently launched in the UK but has been a cult name across the channel since the 1950s. It's a range specifically for mothers to be, babies and young children, providing nurturing, safe products that are completely free of chemical nasties. Products contain 92% ingredients of natural origin on average, and they are completely free of parabens, phthalates and phenoxyethanol. Now, I have to admit at this stage that I'm not the company's target audience, being neither pregnant or in possession of a small baby. However, I did trial a couple of the products on myself and my kids as there's no reason why you shouldn't use this range if you're looking for effective, natural products that won't aggravate your skin - it's particularly worth checking out if you or your child suffer from excessively dry or eczema-prone skin. 

Having spent much of the half term getting battered by cold northern winds on bracing walks up steep hills, my skin was feeling a bit drier and more aggravated than normal so I thought it would benefit from a touch of the 'Cold Cream nutri protective', a rich, soothing cream that really helped to soothe dry areas. I have to be careful what I put on my skin and wasn't sure if this would be too rich, but I used a thin layer for a couple of days as a night cream and found it restored my dry bits without bringing me out in spots. It's really designed for babies and is suitable for use right from birth. The formula is also available in a very handy stick which would be perfect for keeping in your changing bag and applying on the go if your baby's skin gets irritated by the wind or cold. 

I hate overly-perfumed toiletries and tend to associate them with aggravating skin, so I was pleased to find that Mustela's products have a very subtle,'clean' smell. We also used the '2 in 1 Hair and Body Wash' which we particularly liked - it's got a lovely, fresh, light fragrance and silky consistency that doesn't dry out skin and is ideal for use at home by all the family, particularly if any adults or older children have reactive skin that doesn't respond well to fragranced, soap-based products. The wash is soap-free and contains Avocado Perseose®, a patented ingredient of natural origin. It would also be especially convenient when travelling, helping to save precious space in your beauty bag. In our case it was the perfect addition to my son's swimming bag, rather than carting our full size shampoo and shower gel with us for use after his weekly swimming lesson.

The range includes dedicated products for pregnancy, too, as well as effective balms and washes for common complaints such as atopic eczema, nappy rash and cradle cap. I'm particularly drawn to the sun creams which I'll definitely be trialling next time I'm off somewhere hot, as both my children can react to some sun creams. Mustela's creams and sprays promise extra high protection (50+ UVB) and tolerance by even the most sensitive of skins. They're also fragrance and alcohol free and suitable for use from birth.

Baby colognes are ubiquitous on the continent, hence the Mustela range includes an 'Eau de Soin' spray, contained in a quintessentially French bottle. While I'm not sure many mums in the UK would necessarily splash out on a cologne for their little ones, this would make a cute christening present, perhaps, and it can also be used as a room spray for your nursery. Interestingly, I stumbled upon a review of the product in the Daily Mail, which recommended the fragrance for grown-ups, saying it makes a much cheaper, natural alternative to Clarins' legendary 'Eau Dynamistante' - read more here.

The range is currently available in the UK through a number of online chemists and retailers, including Bliss life, Calder Pharmacy and Essentials. Prices range from around the £3.99 mark to £17.99 for the baby cologne. 

Visit the Mustela website here to see all the products in the range and to buy online.


I have one 'Soothing Comfort Balm' to giveaway if you would like to try one of Mustela's products for yourself. This moisturising chest rub is perfect for treating your baby's cold and is free of chemical nasties. Its gentle purifying scent eases discomfort and helps to soothe your baby to sleep - a bathroom cabinet essential for this time of year!

You can read more about the Soothing Comfort Balm here. To take part in the giveaway, follow me on Twitter by clicking below, or email me at luisasanders@gmail.com

a Rafflecopter giveaway

All images courtesy and copyright Mustela.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Byron Comes to Bristol

With new eateries popping up all over the place at the moment, Bristolian foodies have a lot to be excited about. One such new arrival rocked up on the Queens Road at the tail end of last week, so - it being Friday and us being in a bit of a weary, end-of-the-week type mood - we decided there couldn't be a more apt time to trial its take on the classic American diner experience. 

A new addition to Queens Road
Byron Burger might be new to Bristol but it's been keeping Londoners stocked up with proper burgers since 2007 and now has branches across the capital as well as outposts in other cities across the UK. Back in '07, the vogue for gourmet burgers was in its infancy, and Byron was a pioneer in reclaiming the meat patty from the dingy recesses of the fast food industry. By combining quality ingredients with an artfully retro dining experience, Byron Burger helped to reposition the burger as THE cool thing to chow down on. Fast-forward to 2014 and gourmet burgers are now firmly featured on the food map and the Byron model isn't quite as revolutionary as it might have once seemed. But a good burger is still a joyous thing and with lots of imitators but few real masters, we were interested to see if Byron remains at the top of its game.

Slightly nicer decor than McDonalds
The food is very good and reasonably priced. A standard burger is £6.75, with accompanying fries at £2.95, and portions are just the right side of big. We ordered some extra courgette chips (perhaps a vain attempt at injecting something healthy into our carb 'n' protein fest) which were absolutely delicious; other sides include coleslaw and onion rings. The menu is, as you'd imagine, rooted in the classic American diner experience, though you'll find more contemporary alternatives if you fancy trying something a little more modish, from a bun-free 'skinny' option to a 'Chilli' burger(our choice) packed with green chilies and chipotle mayonnaise (not to be underestimated - while delicious I had to turn the heat down a little by removing a chilli or two.)

Burgers 'n' BIG gherkins
We ate with our two children and Byron makes the usual accommodations for younger diners (colouring sheets, kids menu, etc.) and they have booths! All kids (and most grown ups too, actually) love a booth. The kids menu comes in at 2 courses for £6.50. Particularly helpful (and not something I've seen at a restaurant before) is the indication of portion size. Kids menus vary greatly and it's sometimes hard to judge whether a child size portion will suffice for the age of your child. At Byron it's clearly stated that theirs are designed for 6 year olds and under so you know where you stand. I also liked the fact that you can buy your young 'uns smaller-than-standard cokes, helping to assuage any parental guilt you might feel about giving into requests for fizzy drinks. 

Byron Burger for kids
Kids burgers come well done and you can request the same for older kids having an adult burger or for yourself if well cooked is how you like it. Our burgers were plump and juicy, and accompanied by a proper bun and perfectly cooked skinny fries. Oh, and a proper full size gherkin on the side - the perfect final flourish for a gherkin aficionado like myself. Puddings keep with the American theme - think cheesecakes, brownies and old-school knickerbocker glories. 

American-style good service is clearly something that Byron feels strongly about too - obviously you'd expect super-friendly service in those first days post-opening, but I got the feeling that the company prides itself on a casual but efficient service and that staff are keenly aware that it's not enough to have a cool concept and a hip interior - friendly, slick service is what keeps customers coming back. 

If you really do love your burgers you can join the Byron Burger Club to receive exclusive invites to previews of hamburger specials and new openings, and to get priority access to one-off Burger Club events. 

Find Byron Burger at 62 Queens Road, BS8 1RE. For other branches and more info visit the Byron Burger website here.


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Affordable Art

A couple of weeks back the Affordable Art Fair made its annual visit to Bristol and I was invited to take a look around courtesy of Smithson Art Gallery. Bristol's a creative city and galleries and print shops abound, but what's great about the Art Fair is being able to see a variety of stuff in one huge place. This time around some 55 galleries were in attendance, taking over the vast space that is the Engine Room at Temple Meads station. The fair rolls into town each year, as well as taking up residence in two locations in London, Hampstead and Battersea. If you missed the Bristol event and don't want to wait until next year to see what the fair's all about, the next event takes place at Battersea Evolution on 23rd-26th October. 

So, what exactly is meant by 'affordable'? Unfortunately most of the pieces that caught my eye were very much out of my budget (a particular favourite came in at £1700) but in proper art terms this does constitute a reasonable price point and if you're a serious art collector you'd find plenty to tempt you. For amateur art fans like myself, it's perhaps less about investing in a piece and more about dipping a toe into the contemporary art scene, seeing which artists catch your eye and perhaps leaving with a print to brighten up a bare wall.

What I enjoyed about it was being able to browse at ease - it's a different experience to stepping into an empty gallery and feeling a bit self conscious about looking around with no real intention to buy. There was also a huge range of styles on offer, from edgy photography to quirky screen prints, unusual sculptures to nostalgic watercolours. After a bit of deliberation I came away empty handed but there were plenty of pieces I hesitated over, none of them coming in over my pre-set budget of £100. But with no obvious space to fill on my walls and other more pressing financial obligations needing attention, I decided to hold off making a purchase. 

If you can't get to London and don't want to wait a whole year for the next Art Fair, this month signals the beginning of the autumn arts trail season in Bristol, with the West Bristol artistic community hosting their trail on the 11th and 12th October. Taking in private homes and studios around Clifton, Redland and Hotwells, it's a good way to view local talent across everything from jewellery making to ceramics. Find out full details here.

Then in November, North Bristol takes up the baton, with one of the biggest trails in the city covering areas such as Bishopston, Horfield and St Andrews. I've been visiting the trail for the last couple of years and love the idea of popping into different homes and studios, meeting with the artists and browsing original pieces of art that usually have a very affordable price tag. Find out more about North Bristol Arts trail here. 

Finally, you can also browse affordable art without even leaving the house thanks to www.original-art-under100.com/. I came across this site thanks to brilliant blog The Frugality. There's a lot on this site so you may need to do some sifting to unearth something that rocks your boat, but there are handy filters to help make the job easier, and the prices are very wallet-friendly if you want to buy something a bit more unique than a ubiquitous Ikea print but don't know where to start.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

Busy Doing Nothing

We're a couple of weeks into a new school term and the laisse-faire, unstructured days of summer seem a dim and distant memory. At the school gates there's an almost palpable frisson of anxiety hanging around parents who are remembering just how stressful it is juggling work with school pick up and the multitude of extra-curricular and social activities that somehow sneak their way into our already hectic schedules. As the new term rolls in, we always seem to have to 'be somewhere' at an given point in the day - there's rarely a moment when no demands are placed on us and we can just 'be' instead. How did we get to this point? Why do we feel the need to timetable every second of our children's lives? Who says we have to be quite so busy all the time?

Doing nothing is fun
I've long worried that the modern parenting style of packing our kids' days with extra-curricular activities has a detrimental effect, not least on the average household's finances. There are numerous articles on the web quoting eye-watering figures that parents are apparently willing to shell out to ensure their children have access to a range of hobbies and 'experiences'. I say 'willing' but there is of course a sense amongst many parents that you just to suck it up - everyone else is paying out so their child can play the harp/try street dance/enrol at circus skills, etc, etc - so your child simply won't have a chance of becoming a fully rounded, employable adult if you don't, too.

Somehow this myth has taken root, and of course there are plenty of companies out there happy to take advantage of our middle-class anxieties and push ever-more spurious pursuits in our direction - surely we can find the time to fit in that class on Mandarin for Preschoolers somehow? Our child will be destined for failure if we don't! It's amazing how many rational-thinking parents give into peer pressure when it comes to the perceived 'needs' of their children. But this modus-operandi seems to almost always result in highly stressed parents with rapidly dwindling bank accounts and exhausted children, who - with 6am starts for swimming club before school, followed by tennis class in the evening - are often gaining not much more than a yearning for a 'day off' and a pallid complexion. I nearly came to blows with a mother who was horrified by my opinion that many children just do too much these days. Her response implied that by not taking advantage of every opportunity out there I was doing my children a disservice, and that I was lazy for being reluctant to spend every evening and weekend ferrying my children from one activity to another.

Had said mother's philosophy been driven by a disadvantaged background and a desire to give her own children opportunities that she may not have had, I would have understood her position. But 'helicopter parenting' is a thoroughly middle class obsession, and one which has the unfortunate consequence of further widening the gap between the classes. As middle class parents coach their children to within an inch of their lives and fill their days with expensive educational experiences it becomes patently clear that these kids have got something of an unfair advantage over the child from the poorer background. 

Now, of course hobbies are a good thing. For a child to find an activity they truly love, which perhaps gives them something more than school can offer, and which nurtures their confidence and enjoyment of the wider world, is obviously something parents should encourage. But in between enjoying those hobbies ('enjoying' being the operative word, here) shouldn't we allow our children the time to do absolutely nothing? And is it really indulgent to expect a couple of hours to oneself at the weekend, to sit around drinking coffee and reading the Sunday papers? 

Sadly, as exhausted parents who seem to spend every waking hour dashing from one activity to another, it's all to easy to turn to electronic devices to entertain our children during the few hours that they are actually at home, so desperate are we for a bit of child-free time in between all this hectic activity. What this means, of course, is that our children are becoming increasingly incapable of managing their own free time. Without someone to 'direct' their down time they simply don't know what to do with themselves (unless they have an iPad or mobile to hand...) With school life becoming ever more rigid and restrictive, and the burden of academic expectation on even the youngest school-goers growing each year, it seems that children's concept of 'fun' is becoming muddled - it appears that they don't understand that they can actually make their OWN fun sometimes. 

It's my belief that we should be giving our kids opportunities to rediscover spontaneous, simple activities of their own devising. But to do this, we need to slow down, give them time to just 'be'. Instead of filling their time and supervising their every waking hour, we should step back a bit and give them space to enjoy simple, uncomplicated pleasures. Let them find the things that really, truly interest them rather than foisting activities upon them that we think they should be doing. Not only does this make for a calmer home life, but the health of your bank account will improve, too. 

Forget 'Tiger Parenting', but consider 'Idle Parenting' instead, a philosophy espoused by Tom Hodgkinson in his brilliant book 'The Idle Parent' which I would urge all parents to read. A truly alternative parenting guide, it suggests that a more hands-off style results in happy kids, happy parents, and says we should heed the words of writer DH Lawrence, who wrote in his essay 'Education of the People': 

"How to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning."

You can read an interesting article by Tom Hodgkinson on Idle Parenting here. To buy his book, click here.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Blogs I Love

The blogosphere is a big place. When I scroll through my own Twitter feed it would seem literally everyone out there is at it, and I can't help but sometimes yearn for the simplicity of the world before the web, when the written word was confined to books, newspapers and magazines. The blogosphere can be a noisy place, too, with countless demands on your attention, coming at you from all angles, thanks to the intrusive nature of social media. As a writer of a blog myself, I'm obviously guilty as charged but I do frequently question the quality of my own blog and try to adhere to a policy that it's better to keep quiet if you don't actually have anything interesting to say. 

But all that said, there are some great blogs out there, which - un-tethered by character counts and business requirements - are free to offer a more personal, honest view of the world at large, whether you're into fashion, food, politics of whatever. Blogs long ago replaced traditional media as my 'go to' place for ideas and inspiration and as an erstwhile magazine junkie they give me a hit of easily digestible inspiration on the things I love without spending a penny. 

So, here are five blogs I like to visit when I want to pick up ideas, look a lovely images and read well thought-out, interesting content...

The Frugality 

Alex Stedman's thoughtful blog bridges the gap between high fashion and the high street. As a fashion stylist who's worked on magazines such as Red, she has an obvious eye for style but keeps things realistic (unlike many fashion magazines) by sharing her budget-friendly interpretations of the latest trends. Her wardrobe is insanely stylish but also accessible and her writing style has a warmth and 'normal-ness' to it that is often lacking with other fashion writers. Alex also covers eating out and travel on her blog. I particularly love her 'postcards from' posts and tips on stylish travel on a budget.

Lucy Laucht - These Foreign Lands

Lucy may not be the most prolific of bloggers (she's too busy uploading the most incredible photos to Instagram) but if you fancy imagining what life might be like if you were a hip creative in Brooklyn who likes to spend their weekends travelling around the States (and further afield) in a camper van, this is a good place to live out the fantasy. Straddling the worlds of travel and fashion, the look of this blog is just gorgeous, and it's peppered with dreamy, stylish images that make you want to book your next holiday pronto.

Selina Lake

For an instant hit of colour-filled interior design inspiration, I always check out Selina's pretty blog first. As the author of several interior design books, Selina's trademark is the dreamy, vintage-style design that I love so much, and her blog is a great place to pick up ideas whether you're planning a complete room overhaul, are looking for themes for a wedding or want tips for sprucing up your garden. A lovely place to lose yourself in for an hour or so.

An Affair with Italy

Every so often, I need my 'Italy fix' so it's very helpful that an entire blog is dedicated to a love of all things Italian. It also helps that the blog features some stunning images courtesy of a fashion photographer who manages to capture the style and beauty of the country in all its multi-faceted glory. If you're planning a trip to Italy, this is a good place to do some research - there's a whole travel directory featuring places to stay, eat and shop, whatever your budget. And if  you can't get to Italy anytime soon, you can gorge on stunning images, find out about Italian eateries nearer to home or try out recipes from top chefs and recreate la dolce vita in your very own kitchen.

All blog images courtesy of The Frugality, Deliciously Ella, Lucy Laucht, Selina Lake and An Affair With Italy.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Day Trip to the Forest

With the summer slowly ebbing away and UK weather patterns returning to the standard mix of sunshine and showers (read torrential rain) last weekend, we were looking for somewhere to go for the day that wasn't too far from Bristol but would allow for some exercise and a last gasp of sunshine ahead of a week that was forecast to be miserable. After discounting the beach (perhaps not a good option when the tail end of a hurricane looms on the horizon) and a train trip to Cheltenham (too many tempting shopping opportunities) we ended up packing a picnic and heading off to the Forest of Dean, or specifically the Sculpture Trail at Beechenhurst. 

Ticking the boxes for being cheap (just petrol costs and parking - £3.50 for the whole day – to consider) and not being too far away if the weather should turn really foul, this is a great place for a family day out. About an hours drive from Bristol, this particular part of the forest offers some lovely surroundings to explore, as well as some unusual, natural sculptures to spot en route.

The trail is accessed via Beechenhurst Lodge where you’ll find plenty of parking, information (including maps of the trail), toilets and a café. There’s also a lovely children’s play area, with sections for both toddlers and older children – a great place to hang out and have a cuppa from the café before you head home. If you're bringing a picnic there's a large, flat grassed area in front of the lodge where you can lay out your blanket, play some ball games or just relax before or after your walk.

The full trail might be a bit ambitious for younger kids, being 3.5 miles long, but you can do a portion that suits you and there are signposted short cuts to help you keep distances manageable for little legs. There are plenty of places to rest along the way, with lovely, tranquil spots where you can build dens, walk along logs or just sit on a tree stump and drink it all in. The sculptures are designed to blend in with the natural surroundings and aren't hugely obvious, particularly for kids, who may be expecting something with a bit more 'wow' factor. That said, be sure to look out for the hanging stained glass window, which casts an ethereal glow over the surrounding trees. The sculptures are really a bit of an aside to the simple pleasure of walking in some peaceful, magical surroundings, away from the crowds. If you're lucky you might also spot a wild boar as we did on our travels... 

If you’re looking for an alternative attraction in the Forest of Dean, try Puzzlewood. If there was ever a place to define the idea of a magical wood, this is it – Puzzlewood is an otherworldly place of ancient trees, moss-covered rocks, labyrinthine pathways and rickety wooden bridges. It's really quite spectacular and quite probably unlike anywhere you've ever been before.Walking around this strange environment you can see why Puzzlewood regularly crops up as background dressing for dramas such as Merlin an Dr Who. It's also rumoured to have been the inspiration for Tolkien's Middle Earth forests. There's an outdoor and indoor maze, toddler racing track, playground and cafe here, too, and at just £22 for a family ticket, pretty good value for a family day out.

If you'd like longer to explore this lovely corner of the country, a good accommodation option is the Forest Holidays outpost at Coleford. Bed down in well-equipped, high-spec cabins (ranging from standard options to more luxurious cabins equipped with outdoor hot tubs; some even have their own adjoining tree house!) and enjoy direct access to the forest with its many cycle trains and walking routes. We visited a couple of years back when the complex first opened so we enjoyed the facilities at their shiniest, newest best, plus we paid next to nothing for a three-day break. Prices are substantially higher now Forest Holidays have become much more established, but you can still get reasonable deals out of season, or if you're able to stay during week outside of peak times. If you can travel in a larger group and split the cost between you, prices even out quite significantly. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

Summer So Far...

The six-week summer break can stir up mixed feelings in parents up and down the land. Shrugging off the wearying routine of getting little people out of the house on time (and then navigating the inevitable stress of getting yourself to work, too) is a wonderful thing, but it's often replaced with the equally stressful job of balancing holiday fun with financial reality, as well as coping with the eternal problem of childcare cover for those days that you work. It's no wonder that many of us can't get to the school gate quick enough come September!

At the risk of tempting fate, our summer break has so far been pretty successful. With a run of good weather, we've managed to avoid unreasonable amounts of screen time or costly trips to indoor,  rainy-day activities. We've covered beach, hills and city so far and we've all got some healthy colour in our cheeks. 

Here are three recommendations for summer fun, based on what we've been getting up to over the past couple of weeks...

1. Get on your bikes

An activity that wins approval from both kids or adults. If you can't face another trip to the park or refereeing football matches than inevitably turn fractious, try getting out the bikes instead. Cycling any great distance is obviously age and ability dependent, but if your kids are over seven you'll be surprised at just how far you can get on a family ride. Living in Bristol - the UK's first 'Cycling City' - helps as there are some fantastic flat routes that are do-able with little ones in tow. Start with the Avon Gorge tow-path to Pill, a lovely little route with a good stopping place for snacks or a picnic on the green just before you get to Pill harbour. The terrain is nice and flat pretty much all of the way, and you pass through some really tranquil countryside. On your way back, you could continue on the railway track towards the harbour and stop at the docks for coffee or a stroll around the M Shed museum (entry is free.)

A little further afield is the Strawberry Line, a scenic route that cuts through some really lovely Somerset countryside, beginning at Yatton and finishing at Cheddar. It's 9 miles one way, which might be too far for younger children, but you can just do a portion of the route, perhaps stopping at a country pub en route to sample some of the local cider (and freshly squeezed apple juice for the kids.)If you do make it as far as Cheddar you can cool down after your ride by descending into the famous Cheddar caves for a subterranean experience your kids will love. 

Visit Sustrans for details of cycling routes across the UK.

2. Hit the beach

A no-brainer if the sun is shining. We return again and again to Lyme Regis, about an hour and a half from Bristol on a good day and a place that just works for us. It's the right side of busy (though the sandy area of the bay can get uncomfortably cramped on a sunny day), has safe, shallow waters and a mix both sand and pebbles. The only real hint of seaside tackiness is the promenade arcade (which comes into its own in the case of a sudden downpour) but on the whole Lyme Regis is a pretty stylish place. Pastel-coloured beach huts line the beachfront and there are some cute cafes on the front and in the town. We like the Town Mill Bakery, an organic cafe and bakery where you can feast on artisan breads, delicious cakes or enjoy a traditional Dorset cream tea. For something a little more chi-chi, esteemed chef Mark Hix has an outpost here at the Hix Oyster and Fish House, smart restaurant overlooking the harbour.

There always seems to be something happening at Lyme Regis, too. On our most recent visit here was a bath tub race going on and on previous visits we've seen air displays and lifeboat launches - exciting viewing to keep kids entertained without spending a penny.

If you're looking for somewhere to camp in the area, I recommend 
Hook Farm in Uplyme, just five minutes in the car from the centre of Lyme Regis. It's a clean, well laid-out site, with both pitches and static caravans. It was packed with young families when we were last there, plus there is a small play section and wooded area towards the back of the site which the kids can explore.

3. Take on the capital

I used to be scared of visiting London with my kids. Despite having lived there for years and knowing my way around, the idea of depositing the kids in the thick of all that hustle and bustle used to bring me out in a cold sweat. But having visited London several times with the kids now - most recently without my other half - I know I won't actually lose one of them or accidentally leave them on the tube. The key is to word them up before you leave on staying close to you(and perhaps leave your phone number somewhere about their person, or make sure they've committed it to memory) and to keep your expectations reasonable. Stick to one main activity rather than trying to pack too much in and factor in plenty of pit-stops. I keep costs down by cashing in my Clubcard points for restaurant tokens so we can enjoy a big, energy-restoring lunch and use our Family and Friends Railcard to get a third off our tickets. 

Travel while in London is cheap - kids don't pay on the tube or buses until they're 11 years old. And of course while you're there, there are lots of free activities to enjoy. Be warned that you need to get to key free attractions like the Natural History and Science museums early to beat the queues. If you do find there's a big queue, cross the road to the V&A which never seems to have a queue and is definitely worth a look, even though it's not as obviously kid-friendly as the other museums in the area. Girls particularly will love strolling around the fashion exhibits, but there's appeal for boys too, with amazing sculptures, ceramics and artworks to look at, as well as a whole section devoted to technology from the past. Stop for snacks at the gorgeous Morris, Poynter and Gamble rooms - your kids will love the theatricality of these rooms, with their huge, glittering lights, ornate stained glass and colourful tiles. 

On our most recent trip we spent a day in Greenwich, a great place to escape the crowds of the West End and enjoy some green space and amazing views over the city. You can also visit another free museum here, the National Maritime Museum which is full of interesting model ships and exhibits that chart sailing history through the ages. There are lots of dedicated children's areas with hands-on exhibits to keep them occupied. Then, meander through the market to pick up lunch (everything from Italian panini to tailor-made sushi is on offer) and eat your treats in front of the Cutty Sark. You can pay to take a closer look above and below deck. 

A real highlight for our kids on this trip was a ride on the Thames Clipper, which you can pick up from Greenwich Pier and which goes back into town, stopping at Embankment. It's a low-cost, fun way to see London from the water, taking in some key sights and traversing beneath the famous Tower Bridge. Prices are really reasonable and you can use your Oyster card to pay for your journey. 

For more tips on travelling to London with kids, take a look at my previous blog post here. 


Monday, 7 July 2014

Six Great Summer Reads

Heading off somewhere sunny and looking for something to read while on your travels? When it comes to buying books I love a personal recommendation. Since having kids reading has become a bit of a precious luxury so when I pick up a book I really want it to deliver - I just don't have the time or energy anymore to plod along with a book that turns out not to be my thing or doesn't live up to expectations. And there are few things as disappointing as cracking open a new book on holiday to find it leaves you thoroughly underwhelmed. 

Of course taste in books is a very personal thing - if you've ever been in a book club (I have) you'll know just how passionately one book can divide people. But you've got to start somewhere and browsing Amazon with its overwhelming choice and contradictory reviews can leave you struggling to find what you're looking for. So I've collated six books I reckon make great additions to your suitcase - these are books I've enjoyed on holidays recent and past, and which I hope provide some inspiration for your own holiday reading...

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

I'll admit it was the retro-style Penguin cover that first attracted me to this book. And it's partly set in Italy - another bonus. This is one of the most unusual books I've read and I was utterly engrossed in its multi-stranded storyline that weaves between 1960s Italy and present-day Hollywood, with the doomed Burton-Taylor love story played out in the background. It tells the story of a beautiful actress who comes to Italy to star in the ill-fated film of Cleopatra, alongside the aforementioned star-crossed lovers. But when a scandal breaks on set, said actress is whisked away to a remote corner of the Ligurian coast, where she meets the humble hotel-owner Pasquale Tursi. Fast-foward fifty years, and Pasquale shows up in Hollywood to locate the woman he fell in love with all those years ago, and comes to understand that the glittering facade of Hollywood hides some murky, sometimes tragic, realities. A really unusual, captivating novel.

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

Perfect reading if you're going somewhere hot and dusty. I loved this short and sweet novel when I first read it years ago and loved it even more when I read it on my first trip to Morocco. Esther's mum is the kind of mum I would love to be in a parallel universe: nomadic, adventurous and free-spirited. Of course, as the book shows, refusing to be tethered down by convention isn't actually that practical when you have two young children in tow. As Esther's mum tries to find herself in 1970's Marrakesh, Esther and her sister Bea are left to roam free in a city that is at once magical and frightening, leaving them torn between wanting to share in their mother's hunger for new experiences but also yearning for routine and order in their often chaotic lives. A funny and magical read that has a truly strong sense of place.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

One of the most charming, heart-warming books I've read, this 1996 novel is a book that makes you laugh and cry in equal measure. You may have seen the film which - as is often the case with book-to-film adaptations - is nowhere near as good as the original novel, a lovely story of friendship and an examination of the complicated, often fraught bond between mother and daughter. At the heart of the novel is Vivi, a feisty Southern Belle and the colourful figurehead of the Ya-Yas, a group of gals who are bent on defying convention in 1930s Louisiana. As children they have fun and cause chaos, and as grown-ups their bond grows ever stronger as they realise that they can only push the boundaries of southern conservatism and convention so far. Now in their 70s, the ladies are brought together once more to help mend Vivi's broken relationship with her daughter Siddalee. Can their handbook for life - "The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood" - help mother and daughter to find their way back to each other?

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

If you like to feel a little unsettled when lying on your sun lounger then I recommend this thought-provoking novel, which I read on holiday last year. Julia is 11 and on the cusp of adolescence. Her life in suburban California is predictable and unremarkable. Until she turns on the TV one normal Saturday and everything changes. The rotation of the earth has started to slow down and life as Julia knows it is about to change forever. As the days become longer and the distinction between day and night blurs, Julia and her family have to navigate a new world order in which communities become tribal and uncertainty hangs over each new day...a riveting read that will have your mind whirring with questions and 'what ifs?' long after you've turned the last page. 

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Tom Ripley is a masterpiece creation. Joining his journey from New York to Italy is a gripping rollercoaster of a ride as it soon becomes clear that Ripley isn't just a harmless impersonator, but a damaged sociopath whose actions leave a trail of death and destruction in his wake. What's so clever about the book is that despite knowing that Ripley is a loser with an unhinged personality, you can't help but root for him at times during the book, particularly when he's catapulted into the privileged, spoilt world of Dickie Greenleaf and his Ivy League friends. There's never a dull moment in this book - the perfect poolside thriller. 

The Light Between Oceans by M.L Steadman

If you fancy being transported to the other side of the world this book is a good choice and a breathtaking, heart-rending read. Set in a remote Australian community on the edge of the Great Southern Ocean, this is the story of a Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel, keepers of the lighthouse on Janus Rock. Much in love but heartbroken by their inability to have children, fate intervenes in the shape of a baby that washes up on shore and places a life-changing choice on their shoulders. The choice they make has cataclysmic consequences for both Tom and Isabel, the baby and a woman named Hannah Roennfeldt. This is a gripping, heartbreaking story that asks questions around the issues of personal happiness and moral responsibilities - a compelling and moving story.
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