Saturday, 26 November 2011

Mum's Gone to the Cotswolds - Oxford

A month later, I'm finally getting around to posting about the last part of our Cotswolds trip. So you've had the journey there via Tesco and the Rollright Stones, I've moaned about our fruitless visit to Bicester Village outlet centre and then applauded a rainy Blenheim Palace which ticked many boxes despite the weather and the price (and the cafe floor).

Our final day was beautifully sunny and we had decided upon a trip to Oxford; see the dreaming spires and maybe inspire our teenage son that such delights could be his if would just pull his finger out. Of course I'm a Cambridge girl myself and so the Dark Blues are probably the spawn of the devil but I was told not to be so up myself and just soak up the atmosphere of what, I have to admit, was a rather attractive city.

As is often the case when we visit towns where parking is likely to be tight or made up of multi-storeys which bring me out in hives, we plumped for the Park and Ride. When Rory was little, this had the added benefit of giving him that "ooh we're on a bus" adventure. Not sure he gets quite so excited now but at least it avoids the parental spat in the front seat over maps, one-way systems and parking spaces.

The area of Oxford where most of the colleges were situated was, indeed, quite lovely; honey-coloured stone, stunning architecture, a sense of calm and affluence. Like many cities however, there is a definite 'tat end' which we discovered later on when Dougie was desperate for a pee. During the day we had used the toilet facilities of Starbucks and McDonalds but things were really bad when all we could find were the loos belonging to the indoor shopping centre's car park. I decided to give my pelvic floor a bit of a workout and held on until we found more salubrious surroundings. Dougie, unable to hang on, waded in.

Interestingly, whereas Rory had hated discount shopping at Bicester when all the shops were heaving and noisy, he adored the tranquility of the shops in Oxford. And didn't the little bugger just go and find a nice quiet Jack Wills shop where he found a perfect (full-priced) hoodie. It took us some time before we could prise him out of the shop but once he'd got his pink and navy-striped bag he was a happy lad and allowed us to walk around the town without too much grumbling. Shopping with kids doesn't change much as they grow older: buy them a toy, stuff sweeties into them on a regular basis and, with any luck, you can stretch the afternoon out a bit.

Bus back to the car park but then Dougie decided he was hungry. He's worse than a child. Left us to sit like sad sacks in the car while he disappeared for well over half an hour. As we saw him approaching from the distance, we were about to shout rude things at him until we noticed he was carrying a Waitrose bag. Inside...treats! Crisps and Powerade drink in obligatory lurid colour for Rory: cream cakes and fancy fruit juice for me. Okay, he's forgiven.


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Sunday, 20 November 2011

Review: Mega Hi-Tower from Garden Games


Hi-Tower  - with volleyball to give
you some sense of scale

My teenage son, Rory, was sitting beside me when the email came through offering me the chance to review a Giant Jenga game courtesy of Garden Games. I don't usually get asked to review things (apart from some books of late) and the last thing we were asked to test was a chip fryer this time last year. That went down rather well, but unfortunately we had to give it back. However, the good people at Garden Games were letting us keep this. So we said yes, please!





Dougie trying a novel approach
to removing the blocks?!


We've played Jenga before, usually the small version where the pieces inevitably become lost under the sofa. No chance of that happening, I reckon, with this large, outdoor version. 58 smooth wooden blocks (45x60x180mm) in a sturdy carry bag. Mind you, it's a tad heavy: 13.6kg according to our bathroom scales. Husband, Dougie, brought it inside and we made some space in the living room. To be honest, unless you've got a decent-sized room, and don't mind valuables being walloped as the structure falls down, I'd take it outside where it's designed to be played. My heart was in my mouth as the structure wobbled precariously near our telly.

Despite being a teenager, and programmed to find most things boring, Rory got into the spirit of the game. The language was choice at times, but the three of us had a laugh together and there was the predictable male surprise whenever I was successful at removing a block.

I'm sure if Rory had been younger he would have adored playing separately with the blocks, creating his own towers, buildings etc. As it was, game over, he disappeared and left us to figure out which way the blocks went back into the bag.

Would we recommend it? Yes, I think this would be enjoyed by all ages (over the age of 6) and particularly in the summer when having a barbecue or party. Please note, as it's quite addictive, the competitive dads will be in their element!

The Mega Hi-Tower  costs £49.99 from http://www.gardengames.co.uk/


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Monday, 14 November 2011

Mum's Gone to the Cotswolds - Beautiful Blenheim

After the disaster of Bicester and the success of  'going for a walk', our second full day in the Cotswolds greeted us with pouring rain. Undeterred, we donned sturdy footwear and raincoats and drove off to Blenheim Palace. These places are always pretty expensive when you just turn up. As Dougie handed over fistfuls of notes to the man in the booth, I bemoaned the fact that we have a drawer full of Tesco vouchers which could have paid for the whole day in full, if only I'd had the nous to plan in advance. Knowing me, they'll be out of date before I have a chance to spend them.

It was still tipping it down as we trudged from the car park to the Palace but, once inside, it was warm, welcoming and there was a free guided tour (ok, after the amount we paid, let's say 'included'). We were escorted by a wonderfully enthusiastic chap; part Ronnie Corbett, part Brendan from Coach Trip. We learned a considerable amount about the Marlborough family,Winston Churchill and the relevance of specific items in the State Rooms. Hands up everyone who goes round these rooms in stately homes on their own and can only really comment, "Nice tapestry"?  That's usually us and we never learn very much.

This tour was followed by a computerised presentation about the history of the house and its family. It's quite a laugh actually, with moving dummies, one of whom was the King's mistress sitting up in bed while her lover was supposedly in the wardrobe. Can't imagine how parents might answer a child's question on that little vignette. There were a few educational computer screens where, let's be honest, most adults and children just press the buttons for a few seconds then move on to something else. But, overall, rather entertaining and again it was free (included).

We found the cafeteria. Busy, noisy and with staff whose method of cleaning tables was to use a cloth to sweep everything onto the floor. Dougie wanted to make a quick exit but I knew we'd get tetchy without food so we persevered though we wished we'd found a Tesco as we seem to do most lunchtimes on this holiday.

Back outside, hoods up, we walked through the grounds and, despite the rain, we were still able to appreciate the Autumn colours, the pheasants, the lake, the waterfall. Best of all, we were virtually alone.




Eventually we conceded defeat and, pretty well soaked through and sniffling, we plodded back to the car. The log fire of the Old Swan and Minster Mill cheered us up, together with the fun we had listening to a dad trying to teach his two young children how to play snooker in the gallery above us:

"Come along now, Toby, that's not the way to hold the cue....No...No...further down...ah well that wasn't very good was it?....should have aimed the cue ball at the bottom of the red ball....ah Daddy won again"

Competitive Dad or what! (see sketch from The Fast Show, below)




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Friday, 11 November 2011

We Will Remember Them

Do you remember this photograph I posted a couple of weeks ago (here) for The Gallery, the theme for that week being Faces? Well, that particular week there was a prize for the best photo and accompanying story. I'm very pleased to say this snapshot of survivors of the Great War, including my grandfather, was chosen as the winner (see the post about the win on Tara's website)

I'm delighted the photo was acknowledged as being a little bit special because, of course, today is the 11th day of the 11th month and, this year, the 11th year of the century. Remembrance Day. A day, and a weekend, when we take time out to remember those who sacrificed their lives for us. Although these men in the photograph survived the war, they were very brave to enlist and fight for their country. They will all be dead now but they live on in photographs such as this.

The prize for the competition was a Kodak  Pulse Digital Frame and I'm going to give it to my mum. It's a clever WiFi gadget with its own email address so I, and the rest of the family, can email photos straight to the frame. I think she'll like it.

Many thanks to Tara for running The Gallery each week on her website. It's the only linky/meme I have returned to regularly as I often find there is a theme which encourages me to seek out old and new photos and, more often than not, there's a good story to be told too.

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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Book Review: The House of the Wind by Titania Hardie

The House of the Wind, by Titania Hardie, tells the story of two women, centuries apart, whose lives are woven together by the myth of the woman who walked away unscathed from the ruins of the Casa al Vento. Madeline Moretti (Maddie), a lawyer from San Francisco in 2007, is mourning the accidental death of her fiancĂ©. Maria Maddalena (Mia), living in Tuscany in 1347, has seen her own mother killled in a brutal fashion. We learn how their future unfolds and how history binds them together in a very spiritual way.

The novel is beautifully written and I only wish I'd been reading it under warm Tuscan skies with no time limits, rather than snatching chapters here and there, which, to be fair, didn't allow the book to work its magic on me.

The narrative swaps from one century to another and I do find that a bit tricky. Just when I'm being drawn into one character's story and feeling empathy, the scene changes and I have to work hard to remember where I was with the other. The book is quite long and at times I was urging the plot to move a little faster. Yet there were some fascinating insights into corporate legal work in the United States plus some very interesting detail about medieval life in Europe during a very unstable period in history.

And how could I not be captivated by the setting in Tuscany of the very real hotel Borgo Santo Pietro which sounds so luxurious and serene, I'm tempted to book a holiday there right away.

I have very fond memories of Tuscany as our precious son was conceived there 16 years ago. Maybe there is magic to be found in that beautiful part of Italy after all.

The House of the Wind was published by Headline Review on 27 October 2011 in Paperback Original, £7.99. I was sent the book by the publishers to review.

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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Mum's Gone to the Cotswolds - How to spend nothing at Bicester.

Path up to Minster Mill reception.
Now, where was I? I was interrupted in my story of what we got up to at half term by my giddy trip on the Thames and the exploits of my salad-loving son.

The last you read, we had reached the Old Swan and Minster Mill hotel, near Witney, via lunch in Tesco car park and a slightly spooky stop-off at the Rollright Stones.

Our first evening meal in the hotel restaurant was, as they say in food reviews, a triumph! A pint of local Hobgoblin beer for Dougie, a Bombay Sapphire Gin and Tonic pour moi and a lemonade plus a few slurps of beer for Rory. The food was fabulous too. The boys had fish and chips, served in a replica chip shop wire basket with a small layer of newspaper (The Times, I think), a little pot of mushy peas and half a lemon, wrapped in muslin, all served on a very chic slab of slate. I had salmon in a cajun sauce and, as I was the only one with room afterwards, a big dollop of Eton Mess.

We slept very well.

Breakfast was even better. We had to walk outside from the Minster Mill part of the hotel to the Old Swan inn. What better way to start the day than to sit by a log fire with a bacon, sausage and egg bap made to order. Morning papers, cup of tea...lovely.

I was tempted to stay all day but we had shopping plans. Armed with an extra 10% off any purchases at Bicester Shopping Village we were all set for a good old spend. How wrong we were. Whereas the year before Dougie and I had bought plenty of designer bargains; this year, with a teenager in tow, it all went belly-up. My focus was no longer on my own needs (ok..wants) but on my boy, trying to find him new jeans and some winter clothes. Unfortunately it was very busy; the shops were heaving, the muzak unbearable and my son had turned into his father. Diesel jeans I suggested? "No, Mum, look at the price! Too expensive even when reduced. I'll stick to the ones I've got" (Dougie punched the air. That's my boy!)

Even the cafes and restaurants were a nightmare; queues out of the door. So we boxed clever. Walked around the corner, out through a gap in the bushes, and found a Tesco. Costa Coffee franchise just inside the door. That'll do nicely. Our second lunch from Tesco in as many days.

Boys refused to go back through the bushes to continue our shopping so we returned to the hotel, changed into boots and went for a walk. Rory slightly dubious about such an activity; he wasn't sure what was involved, but he soon got the idea. The grounds of the hotel were gorgeous; the River Windrush gently flowing through the middle. After exhausting the meadows, we found a path through the fields and came across an English Heritage site, Minster Lovell Hall, which, in the late afternoon sunshine, was quite captivating. Best of all; it didn't cost a penny.

Cheap day all round...

St Kenelm's Church, Minster Lovell

The ruins of Minster Lovell Hall

More ruins



Santa's come early...

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Sunday, 6 November 2011

A conversation I wish I'd never started - No.3

Another in the series of 'Conversations I wish I'd never started' with my teenage son, Rory. However, whereas conversations One and Two  portrayed a mother with an addled brain versus a 'too sharp he'll cut himself' son, this time I think I may just have the edge.

Conversation took place at midday today as I managed to persuade my lad he should maybe think about getting up. It's Sunday, 6 November, the day after bonfire night.

Me: Ooh look, there's a rocket in the front garden.
Son: Where?
Me: There, poking out of the ground.
Son: I can't see it.
Me: It's right in front of you. Can't you see the stick?
Son: Why would it have a stick?
Me: Because they come with a stick.
Son: Do they?
Me: Of course they do. Can you see it now?
Son: (peering) Oh! A rocket! A firework rocket!
Me: Yes, what did you think it was?
Son: A type of lettuce.

And he has the cheek to say I'm too middle-class!



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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Mum's Gone to London for a bit of Thrillaxing with iExplore

I'm always a bit wary of boats ever since that unforgettable day in Iceland when I was seasick for three hours on a whale-watching trip. The fact that it was accompanied by the natural consequence of taking laxatives the night before....well, maybe I shouldn't dwell on that but I'm sure you get the picture.

However, despite the fact that I thought I was going to die, that experience has become the stuff of family memories, one of those tales that will be talked about ad nauseam (literally), accompanied by the words, "Do you remember the holiday when...?"

Our trip to Iceland, with activities such as white-water rafting, snow-mobiling, glacier-hiking and the 'didn't quite see a whale but saw my breakfast float away'-watching, has to be my favourite holiday experience. Why? Because we came home refreshed, exhilarated and happy in the knowledge that we had given Rory, our son, a few life-changing moments.

So when I was invited to London yesterday for a speed boat trip on the Thames and to learn of a new travel website which embraces this concept of  'thrillaxing', I jumped at the chance. A group of bloggers, with three of their gorgeous children, were kitted out in big coats and life-jackets for a wild 50 minute ride down the Thames with the Thames RIB Experience. In all honesty, if we'd walked by the Thames and saw this boat trip, I would have been tempted to play the Mummy card: "You boys go on it; I'll stay here and look after the bags". I had no excuse this time so threw caution, and my hair, to the wind and had the most brilliant time listening to the informative/funny commentary and joining in with the James Bond and Hawaii-Five-0 music. I wasn't sick; in fact the motion of a speed boat didn't seem to affect my stomach, but I did squeal a lot. I took the following video during one of the slow parts of the ride; when the boat took off around Canary Wharf I had to keep my hands firmly attached to the bar in front of me, rather than my camera. But hopefully you'll get the idea. I saw some fabulous sights, including the rather beautiful Renaissance curls of the two ladies ahead of me.


During lunch following our trip, the travel presenter Craig Doyle told us of his holiday experiences with his wife and four young children, before we were enlightened as to this new website, http://www.iexplore.co.uk/, which, under the umbrella of the Tui organisation (including Thomson, First Choice, Exodus, Crystal and Sunsail), is a one-stop place for people seeking holiday inspiration.

iExplore has done some YouGov research and found that 75% of UK holidaymakers find that keeping active abroad helps them take their minds off what's happening at home and in the office. However, they don't suggest everyone goes whizzing off on speed boats and trekking up Kilimanjaro. No, they appreciate families, couples and singles will all have different budget requirements, comfort levels and an idea of how much 'activity' they want to do. The options range from river boating to gazing at the Northern Lights and going on safari.

I decided to try their travel profile Inspirator quiz and after assessing that I like comfy beds, too much luggage and sightseeing like a meerkat, I'm classed as a 'Culture Craver'. I think that's pretty accurate.

You may also like to have a look at their Facebook page and a quiz they are running www.facebook.com/iExploreTravelUK . Upload your thrillaxing photo or video for a chance to win a holiday worth £5000.

If only someone had taken a photo of me on that whale-watching trip - I'd be in with a helluva chance!



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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Mum's Gone to the Cotswolds - Crossed Wires

We were staying in Britain this half-term so there was no having to get up at a silly hour to catch a flight. Rather, a leisurely breakfast and into the car by 10am for the drive to Oxfordshire. Of course we still had the usual squabbles about which route to take. As Dougie doesn't like the Corby-Kettering-Northampton route, we chose a new one via Bedford and Milton Keynes, though as our SatNav lady obviously prefers to travel via Northampton, she was having none of it. So it was me and the map.

Even though I say it myself, I was spot on with my navigation. There was only one hiccup when at a T-junction Dougie asked me if it was right or left. I said yes, it was right and said the name of the the village on the sign, "Aynho". At which point he stopped the car and turned to me,
"So which way then?"
"I've just told you! Right".
"But then you said, ay...no. So is it left then?"
"No, it's right! I said 'Aynho'"
"There you go again, AY...NO"
"NO....IT'S BLOODY AYNHO. THE VILLAGE. ON THE SIGN. LOOK"

We took a couple of detours: a lovely lunch...in Tesco car park off a roundabout in Milton Keynes (classy) and a quick stop at the neolithic stone circles, the Rollright Stones, which I thought would appeal to everyone. The King's Men stone circle is set in a wooded clearing; across the road is a larger solitary King stone, while a short walk away is a group of leaning stones (the Whispering Knights). According to legend, a king left his troops while a group of knights were plotting treason. He encountered a witch who promised him, "Seven long strides shalt thou take And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.” The king thought this an easy task but hadn't realised the hillside would obstruct his view, whereupon the witch turned him and his men to stone.

It began to rain as we were leaving, which all added to the spookiness of the experience. Back in the car and it wasn't long before we reached our hotel, the quite beautiful Old Swan and Minster Mill near Witney. Our rooms were called 'cosy' which was quite apt as they were small, but perfectly formed! The rooms were together, reached by a lockable door to our own separate teeny corridor. Having dumped the bags (or rather, me dump the bags, Dougie carefully hang everything up) we set off for an explore and found a gorgeous lounge, complete with a crackling log fire. The boys decided to have a game of snooker in the minstrel's gallery above. I told Rory what the gallery was for and he looked at me with a vacant expression.

 "The minstrels played here', I explained.
"Who are they, then? Some 70s group?"


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