Sunday, 29 November 2015

November things

November is always a busy month for us. Not only do both of my girls have birthdays this month, but they are only one day apart on the 12th and 13th.

When they were little they used to share a party, but not anymore, so the celebrations seem to last over an entire week as they do their various birthday meals, parties or sleepovers being organised before everything's all over for another year.

This year we celebrated The Teenager's 19th birthday, and Tall Daughter's 16th. I still struggle to believe that they're both so grown up now, and that this is the last year The Teenager will actually be a teenager. How can she be 20 next year? Surely she was only watching the Teletubbies a couple of years ago? 

And as Tall Daughter reliably informs me, as she's turned the magic 16, she's now old enough to join the army, drive a tractor or buy a lottery ticket.  There is also the matter of her being old enough to do ...erm...other stuff but we'll gloss over that for now.

We went into Manchester on their birthday weekend for a meal, and then onto the Christmas market next to the Lowry centre.  This chocolate brownie stall was very popular - your choice of brownie with hot chocolate sauce and cream poured over, very naughty but totally irresistible!

Lowry centre Christmas market

Lowry centre Christmas market

Tall Daughter and I went into town last week to see the Weeping Window poppy installation at St. George's Hall.  We didn't get the chance to see the installation at the Tower of London last year, so we were keen to see this smaller but no less moving display. It was pouring with rain when we got there, and fenced off (open during the daytime though) so we viewed it from several feet away but it was still beautiful and probably easier to see because of the lack of crowds.  Each poppy represents one of the lives lost from Liverpool regiments during the first world war.

Weeping Window poppy installation

Weeping Window poppy installation

Weeping Window poppy installation

I love Liverpool at night time, it's such a beautiful city and very European looking. If you get the train into Lime Street station the first thing you see on exiting the front entrance is the huge and impressive St. George's Hall. It forms part of the cultural quarter with the adjacent buildings in William Brown Street which include the Central Library, Walker Art Gallery and World Museum. I love walking around this part of the city, and at night with the old fashioned street lights, illuminated buildings and cobbled streets, it's just gorgeous.

Liverpool at night

Since subscribing to an unlimited cinema ticket at the beginning of the year I've been trying to go to the cinema at least once a week. Some months the choices have been dire, so I haven't always managed it but at this time of year there's usually a lot to choose from.

This month I've seen The Lady in the Van (loved it, Maggie Smith is an absolute joy), The Dressmaker (a quirky black comedy) and Black Mass (Johnny Depp is brilliant in it). I also wanted to see Brooklyn and Carol, but neither of them were showing in the local area, which is a shame.

And now we're already on the countdown to Christmas. At the risk of sounding like Scrooge - bah Humbug! - I think the whole festive period starts way too early each year. By the time the big day comes everything seems to have run out of steam, we're fed up of seeing the same ads on telly and the real meaning of Christmas seems to get lost in a commercialised haze.  I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking that, am I?

And finally, this month I started working full-time for the first time in 12 years! I'm still getting used to it, but it seems okay so far. Actually, tell the truth, I did try full-time a couple of years ago when I started working for a charity but combined with a very long commute it all added up to a very tiring working week so after a few months I cut back to four days a week. Now I work close to home which means I can get back quickly at the end of the day, and with one daughter at uni and the other old enough to drive her own tractor, I'm not needed as much at home anymore. I think we'll be okay.

What have you been up to this month?

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Making some changes in the bedroom and getting a better night's sleep

Getting a better night's sleep

As mentioned in my previous post, I've been making some changes as recommended by a sleep expert in an effort to improve the quality of my sleep.

It's taken me a little longer than I expected, mainly because I've been having awful lower back problems which have been going on for weeks now (inflammation of the facet joints, very painful).

One of the recommendations was to clear the bedroom of clutter, technology and anything that doesn't belong in there.  I hate having an untidy bedroom, but I'd noticed a gradual build of of clutter which had been driving me mad! So, a couple of weekends ago, I decided to bite the bullet and sort it all out.

Decluttering the bedroom

I'd been wanting to paint the bedside cabinets for a while, so they were the first things to be emptied. I've had them for years, and they're in good nick but were looking a

Then I cleared everything from under the bed.  For some reason there were several of those large 'under bed storage' bags full of things we either didn't use, need or want anymore. I also went through all my shoes and clothes, and along with the stuff from under the bed it was either donated to a charity shop or taken to the tip.  I was pretty ruthless, you would have been proud.

Painting the bedside cabinets

Then I painted the bedside cabinets (using this Apartment Therapy guide) which took longer than I expected due to my dodgy back. But, eventually they were done and ready to go back into the bedroom, which by now was looking a lot less cluttered.

Next on the list was replacing the mattress, which was at least 8 years old - possibly even older. Silentnight very kindly offered me one of their prize-winning Classic 1200 Pocket Deluxe mattresses to try, and their Just Like Down pillows and duvet.  Seriously, the duvet is so soft it's like sleeping under a cloud.

Silentnight mattress

Silentnight mattress

Then it was time to make the bed, and add some finishing touches.

Tidy bedroom

Tidy bedroom

Tidy bedroom
I think my bed needs more cushions!

It's a much more pleasant room to be in, it feels much more inviting and it's lovely to be able to walk in without seeing mounds of laundry or having to think about tidying up.

It's no coincidence that I've been spending more time in there, pottering around in the evenings (I love a good old potter) and going to bed early so I can read in bed before turning off the light.

I'm already noticing a difference. I feel more rested in the mornings, my back pain has reduced significantly and the quality of sleep is improving, although it's still something I'm working on.

Do you get a decent night's sleep?

Disclosure:  this is a collaboration with Silentnight, but the words, opinions and bedroom are my own.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Making it my way: Giovanni Rana butter and sage sauce

Simply Italian Butter and Sage sauce

Well, it definitely feels like proper autumn now that our Indian summer is over and the chill has set in.  This is the time of year when we want comfort food, and I'm always on the look out for tasty filling meals that require minimum amount of faffing, so I was happy to take up the challenge from Giovanni Rana to make three different dishes with their new Butter and Sage sauce.

As you might expect, it's perfect as a pasta sauce, but the creamy sauce has a lovely sage flavour which goes particularly well with mushrooms, and as we are still not eating meat I thought we would see how versatile it could be.

Mushroom risotto

The first thing I tried was mushroom risotto. I love a risotto, it's probably my favourite TV dinner, and it's so easy to make.   I know some people are put off by the amount of stirring required, but I don't mind if the result is so tasty.  I'm afraid that in my haste to eat it this is the only photo I took of the risotto, and it looks a bit anaemic because it's before the pepper and cheese were added.  Sorry!

I added two big spoonfuls of the Butter and Sage sauce towards the end of cooking, around the time I would normally add butter to the pan to finish off the dish. It added a lovely creamy, subtle flavour to the risotto. 

Butter and sage sauce

Next day I decided to have an old favourite for lunch: mushrooms on toast. A variety of mushrooms gently fried for a few minutes then the butter and sage sauce added to make a creamy sauce, and poured over a big slice of toasted crusty bread.  SO good, and could it be any easier?

Mushrooms on toast with Giovanni Rana Butter and Sage sauce

We're eating a lot of fish at the moment, and the sauce was perfect with some smoked haddock we had the following night, I just warmed in the microwave for 30 seconds and poured it over the fish and veg. Sometimes fish dishes can be a bit dry, so this was a lovely way to enjoy it. I'd definitely have this again.

Smoked haddock with butter and sage sauce

So, three different ways to use the sauce and none of them using pasta.  We enjoyed all three meals, but the sauce lends itself very well to a variety of dishes, we'll definitely have it again.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Reasons to be cheerful this week #R2BC

I thought I'd join in with this week's Reasons to be Cheerful linky over on Becky's blog.  I've got three reasons this week:

1. Autumn leaves

Is it just my imagine or have the autumn leaves this year been particularly colourful and vibrant? The weather has been perfect for dog walkers: bright, sunny and not too hot - and is there anything more uplifting than a long walk when autumn is in full swing? I love this season, it's so beautiful.  
 Dog walks in the autumn

After months of recall training, Alice the greyhound has proved herself to be very good at responding to commands and as a result is able to spend a bit more time off-lead.  Greyhounds instinctively love to run and giving her the opportunity to do it for fun, rather than for so-called sport, is lovely. This week she's been having great fun chasing squirrels (she never catches them, they always run up a tree) and running through the woods. 

Morning walk through the village

I've also got a great view of the park from my bedroom window.  The tree with the golden leaves is actually in our garden, but the trees beyond are just over the fence in the park. I'll miss this view when we move house next year.

2. A leisurely lunch

We had the opportunity to have lunch at a restaurant which is new to us, the George and Dragon in Altrincham.  We like Altrincham, it's good for shopping and Tatton Park stately home and Dunham Massey park are always good for a visit.

I asked Tall Daughter if she'd like to invite her very nice but incredibly quiet boyfriend along to have lunch with us. I thought it might be easier to interrogate him chat over a relaxed lunch as he always seems very shy when he comes to the house,

It's a funny business, getting to know your daughters' boyfriends because one of the things you want your children to do is to choose someone who will treat them, and as a parent you really want to like them - I mean, how awkward would it be if you didn't? Fortunately for me both of my girls have made sound choices (so far) in the boyfriend department.

The lunch was delicious, there was plenty of choice - including several vegetarian options - and the food was freshly made and very tasty. Service was very good and we were made to feel welcome, and the quiet and relaxed atmosphere made it easier to get to know TD's boyfriend a bit better.  A very enjoyable lunch.

George and Dragon Altrincham

George and Dragon Altrincham

George and Dragon Altrincham

3. Time off 

Last week I made a last minute decision to take this week off work. I haven't worked in a school for two years now, and I miss having the half-terms off.  I don't really need them as much now as my daughters are old enough to look after themselves, but still, it's nice to occasionally plan some time off.

Of course, The Teenager is at uni so yesterday we made a little road trip to visit her.  Even though she's a very confident girl and was sure she wouldn't miss being at home she admitted that she had started to feel a bit homesick recently so a well-timed visit from us was a little boost for her, plus Tall Daughter hadn't been to Sheffield before and was keen to see where her sister was living now.

If the weather is good, the drive to Sheffield includes a very pleasant route through the Peak District - what a beautiful place, the scenery is just stunning.  Unfortunately, the weather wasn't great yesterday and we only saw a few glimpses of the spectacular views, hopefully Tall Daughter will see its real beauty another time. I'd love to spend some time there, maybe on a walking holiday.  It's on my list!

What have you been up to this week?  Have you been away this half-term, or are you spending time at home?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Loneliness doesn't happen overnight


Did you read this recent story about 95 year old Bill Palmer?

Bill rang his local radio station to talk about his loneliness. His wife has dementia and now lives in a care home, and Bill talked with heartbreaking candour about how his everyday life is 'hell'. He took a pragmatic approach, saying:

"I listen to the radio and watch TV and have lots of friends, but unfortunately when you get old people don't visit - that's life."

It was heartbreaking to read but as you might expect and hope for, thousands of people got in touch and offered him friendship, phone calls, lunch dates and real warmth.  It's always reassuring to see how the public respond to stories like this, and we've heard plenty of them before, and for a little while it restores our faith in human kindness.

We all feel lonely at some point or another, but loneliness like Bill's doesn't happen overnight. No-one goes from having a close, loving circle of friends and family to being completely alone in an instant.  It's a very gradual process, taking place over many years.  Friends move away, parents are no longer around, children grow up and leave home, relationships end, marriages break down, social lives dwindle.  There might be some depression or anxiety  involved, financial worries, or maybe a house move that results in the loss of a friendly community or neighbour, until gradually we find ourselves a little more isolated than before.

Well meaning people might say things like 'join a club' or 'take up a hobby' which is good advice on paper, but ironically loneliness can make it difficult to make those vital connections with others. Spending too much time on your own can result in losing social skills or the confidence to use them, and so it becomes a vicious circle, and lonely people - by fearing further rejection - can feed into their own isolation by keeping a distance from others.  How often do we hear the phrase 'they keep themselves to themselves' about someone, when I'll bet they're lonely and crying out for company.

Nobody wants to admit to being lonely, and therein lies the rub.  It takes a very brave person, like Bill, to put into words what it's like and although he got a such a wonderful response, in most instances saying 'I'm lonely' makes people feel very uncomfortable.

There's a real stigma to admitting it, because it feels like you've done something wrong. It means you haven't been able to sustain a relationship well enough, or have failed to make friends or nurture the ones you've had. Friendships are reduced to the occasional text or Christmas card, or a sincere but effortless 'happy birthday' message on your Facebook wall.  Have a read of this beautifully written blog post by Mother in the Middle, if it doesn't make you want to send real, handwritten birthday cards to everyone you know, nothing will.

Loneliness isn't contagious, but it is an epidemic is in this country.

There are several national campaigns to end loneliness in the UK, which are quite rightly aimed at isolated older people, but loneliness isn't the preserve of the elderly and may be closer to home than you think.

As I said, it doesn't happen overnight and I reckon we all know someone who is already on that slippery slope, but doesn't feel brave enough admit it.  Think about the people in your own life who you suspect are a bit lonely and let them know you care. It doesn't have to be a grand gesture - a simple phone call might be a good start.  It could make all the difference.


The Campaign to End Loneliness

Age UK's Help End Loneliness


How to help a lonely older person

How to cope with loneliness

Monday, 26 October 2015

Trying to get a good night's sleep

Trying to get a good night's sleep

I've always been a good sleeper. When I was a child I used to enjoy the sensation of falling asleep, still do, and I can still fall asleep very quickly, but for the last few weeks my mind has been whirring and I'm having lots of wide-awake moments in the middle of the night (why is it always 3.30am?) and I'm not getting a full night of good quality sleep.

When I wake in the night, it's like BANG I'm wide awake and there will be a song playing on repeat in my head. Just recently it's been Queen of Peace by Florence and the Machine which, considering she has a voice like a foghorn, seems a bit ironic really.

Added to that, I've been having some back problems which is making the sleep issue even more difficult.

To try and resolve it and find some answers to why I'm sleeping badly, I'm having a bit of help from a Silentnight's sleep expert. I know, I didn't know there was such a thing either but there is.

After completing a sleep diary and questionnaire, I had my first session with Dr Nerina, a couple of weeks ago, and it wasn't quite what I was expecting. Sure, it started off as I imagined it would with questions about my quality of sleep, sleep routine, nutrition and how much caffeine I drink (too much tea apparently) and I picked up some tips on how to get a good night's sleep:
  • Avoid using technology at least an hour before going to bed.  It can make the brain too stimulated;
  • Reading a book in bed will help you to relax before going to sleep;
  • If you have things on your mind, jot them down in a journal. Putting pen to paper can help to clear a busy mind;
  • cut down on caffeine from lunch time onwards. If you can't go without a cuppa try decaff for a change;
  • Put a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow. The scent helps to calm the mind and induce sleep;
  • Invest in a good quality mattress and check for signs of wear . If yours is older than 7 years it might be time to get a new one;
  • don't keep your phone next to your bed, it's too tempting to check it during the night; 
  • Instead of using your phone as an alarm, buy an old-fashioned alarm clock and keep the phone downstairs, or at least away from the bedside table;
  • if you wake during the night, don't  check the time. Instead, try a breathing technique to get back to sleep: Kundalini breathing is particularly good for a wired mind and body. Sit up straight in bed, pucker your lips as if holding a 10p coin, breathe in forcefully through the lips, exhale through the nose. Do this for one - two minutes;
  • Create the perfect sleep environment. Make your bedroom tranquil, calm and free from clutter, junk and technology. You should never bring your work life into the bedroom – make it a technology free zone.
Then it took an unexpected turn. She thought, from my answers and sleep diary, that I was "running on empty" and asked me, "So, who looks after you?"

I wasn't expecting that, and honestly didn't know how to respond, but I suppose it's something many parents are guilty of, and single parents are probably even worse.  When there's only you doing everything it's very easy to be swept up in the busyness of life, and fall into the trap of not looking after yourself. There's always something that needs doing, or someone else to take care of, and looking after Number 1 is usually way down on the To Do List.

After establishing that my self-care is pretty minimal, Dr Nerina thought I should concentrate more on paying more attention to myself and my own needs. It's strange to hear a stranger, to all intents and purposes, say that you need to put yourself first, and consciously think about making some life changes.  "It takes energy to change direction" she said.  I've thought about that a lot since our session, and she's right, it does take energy (and courage) to change direction, but I suppose you also need to know which direction to take.

While I'm thinking about that, I'm going to be making a few smaller changes, and hope to see an improvement in the quality of my sleep,  I'm going to be making some of the changes suggested by Dr Nerina, including decluttering and tidying my bedroom which I think will also help.  I'll be writing about that later this week.

Disclosure: this is part of a collaboration with Silentnight, but words and opinions are my own.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Are you brave enough for the Home of Halloween?

Blackpool Tower Dungeon

Halloween is much more of a thing these days isn't it?

At the risk of showing my age, when I was little Halloween was a fun event consisting of toffee apples, apple bobbing, carving pumpkin lanterns, and telling ghost stories while someone made whoo-whoo noises in the background.  Sadly, I don't think that's enough to keep today's children satisfied, they want more (fake) blood and gore and they want to be scared! Where has this thirst for horror come from I wonder?

When my girls were little they were obsessed with going Trick or Treating, which has become hugely popular over the past few years. And now, that American influence of celebrating Halloween is spreading over here and it seems to be getting bigger each year.  As soon as the summer holidays are over the shops seem to be full of Halloween outfits and masks and macabre decorations. We have a local, organised Halloween walk around the village, and some of our neighbours really go to town on decorating their houses for the night. Later on there's also a Monsters' Ball, but for older children it's probably a bit tame. 

For older kids and adults, going to a Halloween event is the thing these days and both of my teenagers are keen to go to one - and the scarier the better!  

Blackpool Tower Dungeon 'After Dark' event
The Blackpool Tower Dungeon, experts in scaring the bejaysus out of willing victims customers, will play host to the Home of Halloween family experience this month, complete with over 800 pumpkins, a host of characters, electrifying special effects and stories.

"Join our cast of horribly hilarious characters as you embark on a journey of mischief and mayhem. Meet the Witch Finder General and mysterious witches before being accused of a terrible ‘witchy’ crime, plus take a ride on our ‘for those who dare’ drop ride for a real thrill".

Suitable for children aged eight and over, and maybe adults who don't do the scary stuff (like me!) this sounds more treat than trick.  

For the more daring, there's also a spine-chilling After Dark event, strictly for over 18s, where you get to be chased around in the dark and scared witless.  I was invited to go along but I'm a scaredy cat I politely declined.  

Whatever you do this Halloween, have fun and stay safe. 

Blackpool Tower Dungeon

Disclosure: this post was written in collaboration with the Blackpool Tower Dungeon