Monday, 30 November 2015

Christmas Presents That Last

If there's one thing about being a parent I've really struggled to get used to it's that kids come with a lot of stuff. They say it gets easier as they get older, but - as I step on yet another piece of Lego (I do love the stuff but I look forward to feeling carpet under my feet rather than dismembered mini figure heads sometime in the future) - I'm not so sure. My kids' stuff seems to take up more and more space, with football kits jostling for space with a variety of wind instruments, random bits from party bags accumulating on the kitchen counter and toy boxes over flowing with the aforementioned construction bricks. 

But you can't really tell the kids you're not buying them Christmas presents, can you? (even though it's very tempting when you quiz them on what they want and you can see that they really don't have a clue.) Rather than submitting to more costly, space-consuming toys with a limited shelf life, there are some things to give this Christmas that have appeal beyond the holidays, which don't create too much unnecessary clutter in your home - here are some of my suggestions*

Subscription to First News 

A weekly newspaper for children aged 7-14, First News offers high quality, age appropriate content and the added benefit of getting something new to look at each Friday. Although many schools get this paper, I'm not sure how many kids actually get to see a copy. This is a great gift for grandparents to buy - they'll like knowing they're giving a non-techy gift with purpose.

For the wildlife lover in your family, a subscription to National Geographic Kids is a great alternative.

Animation software

I'll be upfront and say I work for a major UK animation company but I'm really not getting commission to advertise their animation product! However, I couldn't not give it a mention as doing a little bit of animation with your child is really rather good fun. Not being the most patient of people, I had assumed the slow, meticulous nature of animating would test both mine and the kids boredom thresholds, but in actual fact there's something really appealing about working on a project that requires slowing down a gear.

It's also surprisingly easy to pick up the basics of animation, meaning your child will be animating themselves or their Lego characters in no time. 

Check out the Animate It! software here.

Classic Lego packs

Don't fret over that expensive Millennium Falcon ending up in bits by 31st December. My boys have always preferred to go 'freestyle' with their Lego creations so I'd recommend buying a big box of Classic Lego so they can enjoy a less prescriptive construction experience. You'll be amazed at what they come up with. Our boys have discovered some pretty out there tutorials on YouTube, resulting in the most imaginative projects, from recreations of football stadiums to M&M dispensers (yes, really)

You can also buy from the online 'Pick a Brick' shop if you'd like to supplement your box with some more unusual pieces.

Classic games

I'm talking Scrabble, Boggle, Battleships. Proper old school games that you can enjoy playing as an adult too (though never - NEVER - embark on a game of Monopoly with a child under will drive you bonkers.) We also recently discovered Uno - I'm not sure why it took us so long - and we played it pretty much constantly when we were on holiday in the summer as neither myself or the other half can ever remember the rules to standard card games. Uno is bloody brilliant. If you don't already have it, buy it as a stocking filler - it will be the best £6 (or thereabouts)you'll ever spend. 

A grown up sketch book and watercolour pencils
A good one for older kids - what's not to love about wrenching them away from their tablets to do something creative that doesn't involve lots of paint and mess. Derwent ink pencils are good and there are plenty of options for high quality sketching pads. 

For some lovely illustrative inspiration, take a look at the '20 Ways to Draw' books by Julia Kuo. There are some lovely guides for animal lovers, showing you how to draw everything from whimsical cats to funky frogs, while your young fashionistas will like trying their hand at sketching shoes, sneakers and dresses.

Walkie Talkies

Lots of LOLs to be had with these but you need to buy proper ones, not character branded kids ones that are utterly useless. Visit your local Maplin store for a good selection. We have the Binatone ones and they do the job - use them on days out, car journey convoys, round the house...a surprisingly enduring bit of kit that only involves the addition of batteries, a god send if you're technically-challenged like me. 

A simple puzzle

Those 3D ones are all well and good, but they don't stay together for long and will end up in pieces around your child's room eventually. They're also quite fiddly so you'll end up doing most of the work on them when your child's fingers tire of pushing tiny bits of puzzle into tiny slots. Having 'helped' create a Tower Bridge, Old Trafford stadium and various other global landmarks, I can vouch for the fact that they do try your patience somewhat.

So how about sticking with a nice traditional 'normal' jigsaw? A big one that you can do together on a cold winter afternoon, or perhaps a postcode puzzle that features your home, and which you can then stick to a piece of card and pop in a frame (we did this and it takes pride of place in eldest son's room)


A no-brainer, really. One thing you can never have too many of. I've selected some of our favourites over the years here, but there's always something new on the horizon. 'Refuge' by Anne Booth and Sam Usher is a very pertinent take on the traditional nativity story, while I'll be buying my 7 year David Walliam's latest book, 'Grandpa's Great Escape'

Eldest son is hooked on the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz, while you can't go wrong with the latest edition of the Guinness Book of Records for all your weird and wonderful trivia needs. I've also been reading good things about 'A Boy Called Christmas' by Matt Haigh, an interesting take on the Santa Claus story, and will be adding this to their stockings.

Theatre tickets

I'm a big believer in giving experiences, especially if other family members are really struggling to find a suitable gift. A cinema card or theatre tickets make a great present, especially for older children who understand the concept of delayed gratification a bit better. We received tickets for War Horse last year, which gave us a treat to look forward to in dreary January. This year I'm dropping hints about taking my 11 year old to Goodnight Mr Tom, coming to the Theatre Royal Bath in April.

*Please note that my suggestions have boys in mind, but are not exclusively for the male children in your house.


Monday, 16 November 2015

A Love Letter to Paris

Paris owns a small piece of my heart. I left a bit somewhere near the Left Bank, overlooking the water - that place where all those cliches about the City of Light really do exist: a couple simultaneously arguing and embracing as they stroll along the quayside, a gaggle of friends feasting on picnics of wine, bread and cheese, quite possibly discussing something very deep and philosophical. And now the sun is dipping behind those picture-perfect buildings, casting one last glow on the water to light the way for the bateau mouche gliding along the river...

That little piece aches today, though. It doesn't feel so happy in its spot by the Seine, so unusually quiet for a Sunday afternoon. There are no Sunday strollers today, no idling away the afternoon with a Gauloise and a cafe au lait. No mothers chide their children for skipping too close to the quay edge, no one lingers to browse the second hand book stalls.

It's not the Paris I fell in love with age 11, the Paris that loomed large in my imagination before I'd even stepped foot in France, a city pored over in French lessons, my Tricolore book suggesting life in Paris was a lot more exciting than life as I knew it. I wanted to eat tarte tatin, not a Mr Kipling's apple pie, drive round in a 2CV, not a Mini Metro, and go shopping in Tati, not M&S. 

Under the instruction of Madame Delavergne - my French teacher and the only teacher I can vividly remember from my secondary school days - I decided Paris was my spiritual home. Even a distinctly less-than-romantic school trip at the end of that first year failed to fade its glamour - yes, we stayed in a grimy hotel on an industrial estate on the outskirts of town, but we climbed the Eiffel Tower! We ate croissants for breakfast! We chatted to French boys on the cross Channel ferry!

The romance of the city became so embedded in my consciousness that I have often felt that in a parallel universe I'd be seeing out my days in a tiny, cat-filled apartment off the Boulevard St Germain. But of course, the years roll by and real life gets in the way of fantasy. We dream about drinking hot chocolates at Les Deux Magots or watching the world go by in the Jardins Tuileries when in reality we're stuck in front of a computer or trudging through the rain to pick the kids up from school. We get older and weighed down with responsibilities, and that trip to Paris we keep meaning to make never quite happens.

A few years back, though, we did leave our ordinary lives behind for a weekend, to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. I was just as excited as I was when I arrived in Paris aged 11. The industrial estate hotel was replaced with a tiny room in the Marais, we left the queues at the Louvre to wander around the Rodin Museum and spent all our money on expensive coffees and delicious eclairs at Angelina's. It was a special trip that reminded me why my younger self found Paris such a fascinating, intoxicating place.

But with age comes the understanding that even our 'happy places' aren't immune to the problems and tragedies of real life. Real life is messy, sometimes dangerous, and a magical facade can hide deep fractures that the casual visitor can't see. Real life problems can shatter through simple joys in a moment - eating with friends, going to a concert, lying on a beach - making the happy places of not just our imagined world, but indeed our everyday lives, seem fraught with danger. That's why that little fragment of heart feels broken today. 

So, what do we do? Do we stop visiting our happy places or doing the things we love? Do we let the destructive acts of the minority stop us living out our fantasy lives or finding small joys in the everyday? Or should we continue as before, defending the key cornerstones of not just the French way of life, but principles that guide people all over the world, wherever they live and whatever their religion: Liberte, egalite, fraternite.

Paris has inspired many expressions of love and wonder over the centuries, including some that can seem a little trite in the aftermath of last weekend's events. While I still believe that "Paris is always a good idea", this quote by the Paris-born writer and philosopher Voltaire has particular resonance at this moment in time:

"God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well."

Paris, je t'aime. 


Thursday, 5 November 2015

Devon in the Autumn

I hate being indoors. Being confined inside by bad weather or other annoying but necessary concerns - jobs, housework, waiting in for a delivery - can send me a bit cray-cray and I tend to panic about not being able to get out when the weather turns nasty. And so Autumn days signal a last-ditch attempt to get outdoors at every available opportunity, stockpiling reserves of vitamin D and wildly imploring my kids to breath in that fresh air and let the sun get to their pallid faces before the long winter kicks in.

And if there's anywhere to get a good dose of Autumn outdoor goodness, the Devon countryside and coast is it. On our recent trip to The Wood Life in Kenn, a small village just outside Exeter, we were blessed with benign days and mild evenings, allowing us to stay outdoors from early morning till late at night. In between hanging fire-side and stomping about in our own private wood, we boosted our serotonin in some lovely outdoor places.

With our nearest beaches straddling the optimistically-named English Riviera, we were keen to sample the coastal delights of this corner of the county. In all honesty, I prefer the beaches towards Dorset - such as Beer and Branscombe - or further South; Blackpool Sands near Dartmouth is a particularly lovely spot and isn't too far to travel if you find yourself based in the Exeter environs. 

That said, we enjoyed a lovely afternoon hanging out on the beach at Brixham, a bustling harbourside town where you can try your hand at crabbing, shop for souvenirs along the front or sit on the small beach, tucking into fish and chips - as a major UK fishing port, you can look forward to enjoying some of the freshest fish and sea food in the country here. We had some amazing cod, haddock and squid from Rockfish, a restaurant and takeaway overlooking the harbour.

Other beaches worth a peek include Babbacombe Bay and Oddicome Beach, which can be reached by a funicular railway for an added thrill kids will love. 

We didn't visit this time around, but Dartmouth is another highlight of this area. It's an upmarket resort full of lovely restaurants, quirky cafes and cute boutiques, as well as access to the aforementioned highly recommended Blackpool Sands, as well as other lovely coastal spots such as Slapton Sands and Bantham Beach.

Away from the sea, this corner of Devon is blessed with some idyllic countryside which really comes into its own on ethereal, mist-dappled autumn days. A walk through Dartmoor reveals tranquil, wooded corners and beautiful waterfalls. We enjoyed a meander through the peaceful Becky Falls where you can clamber over boulders and get close to the water. Other beauty spots in the area to check out include Lydford Gorge - the deepest gorge in the South West - and Parke, a peaceful gateway to Dartmoor where you can explore woodland and rivers.

For cream teas, independent bookshops and upmarket boutiques, Totnes is your place. It's a cute town with a cosmopolitan vibe - head to The Curator Cafe if you're missing your dose of hipster action. Plenty of other more traditional cream tea shops also abound.

For something totally different, don't miss Babbacombe model village - it's the antithesis of the modern family attraction and has a quaint, old-fashioned vibe that makes you feel as if you've been transplanted in the 1950s. It's a big outdoor space, where toy villages, shopping centres and famous landmarks nestle in amongst beautiful landscaping. They cut the grass surrounding the models with scissors - how cute is that! It's a big like Mini Land at Legoland and our kids were enthralled by it. 

For more suggestions of where to go in Devon, take a look at the tourist board website at

More photos

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