Friday, 31 August 2012

Decorating the guest bedroom on a tight budget - before and after pics

When we moved house last year one of the most exciting things for me was that we now had an extra bedroom that could be used for guests.

It's only a small room - 8' 11" x  8' 9"- and I wondered if I could squeeze a double bed in there, but I was determined to be able to invite friends to stay over so it was one of the first rooms to be tackled. It also had to be done on a very tight budget, so I kept decorating and furnishing costs down to a minimum.
Before: blue, blue and ....erm, more blue.
The room had been used as a boy's bedroom and had been painted two shades of blue, the bottom half of the wall was a deep blue - and a complete nightmare to paint over! But the biggest problem was the border that had been used around the room. When I took it off it pulled off the paint underneath which looked like it had been painted onto unprepared plaster. Not good.

That meant I had to sand down the whole area where the border had been then fill the gaps with a premixed filler, and then - oh joy! - sand it down again to get it as smooth as possible in readiness for the paint.

Then it was a matter of painting over the blue paint which turned into a marathon painting session.  It took 3 coats of white emulsion (which I already had) to block out that deep blue and even then I was sure I could still see the blue!

Next, I painted a feature wall after figuring out the best way to squeeze a double bed in and against which wall. The feature wall paint was one of the specially mixed colours from the Dulux range (you know where you get them to mix it while you wait?) although I can't tell you the name of it because my brother has hidden tidied away the tin.

There was already pretty decent laminate flooring down, so I just cleaned it up before moving the furniture in.

The chest of drawers, table lamps, mirror , cushions and bedding were all from my bedroom at the old house. I redecorated my new bedroom a few months ago, so these were spare. The red side table was £17 in the reduced section TKMaxx  (I love their red sale stickers!) and the curtains came from Next (£35).

The bed purchase has a story all of its own, but this divan (£120) came from a local furniture shop where I was also offered the solid oak headboard for £30! Needless to say, I snapped their hand off!

All the other bits and pieces I already owned and thought they went well together. I didn't want to overwhelm such a small room, so I've tried to keep it all fairly simple but co-ordinated. I would have preferred some pattern in the room, but I didn't want to splash out on wallpaper because of the tight budget, although maybe in a few months that could be changed. All together, including £15 for the mixed paint it cost approx. £217 to redecorate and furnish the room.

I like the final result, and our recent guests said the room was comfortable. The only quibble I have is whether the room is too samey-samey, matchey-matchey? What do you think?

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Sponsored post: Can you really have it all?

Being a single mum and trying to balance your life can be tricky, and you may be thinking: can I really have it all? Well, with a little planning and prioritising you can. This article highlights key ways to get on top of your life and take control. Follow the tips and you can strike a good balance between work, family life and love.

Make time for yourself

Life is a balancing act at the best of times, and as a single mum you might find this really tricky. Finding time to spend with your kids, working and relationships is hard, but you also want to make time for yourself.

It might be time at the gym, going for a drink with friends or just chilling out on your own at home, but however you like spending ‘me time’ make sure you make the time for it!

Image: Flickr

Leave work at the office

This is the key to relaxing. Try not to bring work home with you, both literally and metaphorically. If you can get it done in the office do so, don’t think you’re going to be able to bring it home and spend time with your kids while you work, it just won’t happen. Once you leave the office that’s the time to switch out of work mode and into a relaxed state.

Prioritise family time

You already know this, but it’s really important to make family time a priority. Being a single mum is a balancing act, but you always want to put your children first. Reserve time to spend with them having fun, helping them with their homework or just sitting watching the TV.

Make the most of this time by turning off your phone when appropriate and making sure all your attention is on your kids.

Image from Flickr
Using your circle of support

Family and friends are so important, and as a single mum they become even more vital. Lean on them for support, be it emotional or practical like babysitting or giving you a lift somewhere.

Friends are also good for helping you weigh up potential partners. Sites such as eHarmony are great for finding people, so when you have you should use your circle of friends to help set yourself up on a date.

Dating advice

You might not feel like you have time to date, but if you want to you should make the time. This one comes under the ‘making time for yourself’ banner, but you’ll want to follow a few guidelines when you do date.

First, it’s best to keep your kids out of it until you’re sure you’ve found someone who will be around for a while. Secondly, be honest and upfront about your situation. Thirdly, be picky, and fourthly, take your time. You can start discovering the real you by making steps to balance your life, so use this advice and start now!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

A day at the races

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend York Races Ladies' Day last week. It's quite a while since I went to the races, but it's always a fabulous day out and this was no exception.

The whole subject of horse racing is very nostalgic for me - my Dad was keen on the horses and was always studying the form on a Saturday. He liked to have a flutter and we always enjoyed the big races as a family - the Grand National, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, etc. - but always on the telly, never at a race course. I've been to race days at Aintree since then, but this was my first visit to York.

I invited my very lovely friend Caroline to come with me because I knew we'd have a lot of fun and, after some discussion about the finer details* (Just how dressy is Ladies' Day? Knee length or maxi dress? Hat or fascinator? Take the train or drive? Pink champagne or sparkling wine?) we were excited about going.

My invitation came from Jaguar cars who were sponsoring one of the races and had some of their luxury cars on display, in particular their new XF Sportbrake estate car. Didn't know Jaguar did estate cars? No, neither did I.

The new Jaguar XF Sportbrake estate car.
If you're looking for inspiration for my Christmas present,
look no further. I don't mind which colour.
We had a modest bet on each of the six races but for the Jaguar Cars Lowther Stakes there was one horse that seemed perfect for a joint flutter.  'All fur coat and no knickers' is a very northern expression and was just right for a Geordie and a Scouser. Unfortunately, it wasn't placed but not to worry as Caroline had backed the winner and won a very tidy sum.

There's something very unique about the atmosphere on a race day.  All of the different elements combine to make a really special event: the betting systems, the fashions, hats, the excitement and (hopefully) picking up a few bob from the bookies and best of all enjoying the equine beauty and power at close range and the roar of the crowd as the horses near the finish line.

We had a really enjoyable day despite dodging the rain and even managed to come home with some winnings. We're already planning our next trip!


*My first reaction after being invited was "Yes!" quickly followed by "What on earth am I going to wear?"

That problem was quickly resolved by the lovely people at Boden who not only made some suggestions, but sent me their beautiful Poppy dress to wear. I complemented it with a fascinator rather than a hat and black wedges and was more dressed up than I had been in ages.

I'm glad I made the effort because Ladies' Day was a fabulous, colourful display of beautiful hats and fashions and everyone scrubbed up very well, including me. Thank you Boden!

Disclosure: in case you hadn't noticed this post is sponsored. However, we supplied our own pink champagne.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Dogshaming ~ our version

I've recently become a fan of the very funny blog Dogshaming.  If you haven't seen it you must have a look - it's basically an online gallery of dog who have 'sinned' and their owners have posted their transgressions online.

Of course, I couldn't resist the chance to join in - so here's our version with Tessie confessing to her very worst vice.

When Tessie's around NO cake is safe. She once took a whole chocolate cake leaving the cake knife, which was balanced on the side of the plate, untouched. She's a crafty one.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The garden in August: the last of the flowers PLUS win a beautiful bouquet from Clare Florist

This has been our first summer in this garden, and it's been a fabulous display of flowers and pretty things. There's hardly a gap in any of the borders, everything has expanded so much, but most striking are the lavenders outside the conservatory which have become enormous.

They're so beautiful and fragrant and attract lots of bees, but the downside of that during the warmer weather the doors have been open and they fly straight into the conservatory and usually can't get out again. It's like a bee cemetery in there.  Will have to sort something out before next year's invasion.

I love crocosmia and had planted it in the old garden, so it was a lovely surprise to see it poking its gorgeous orange head out of the border when we came back from holiday.

It's been a case of new garden syndrome where I don't know the names for some of the plants, so I'm having to a bit of research (which includes asking twitter for help!)

Everything in the garden was planted by the previous owners, and as we get to the end of the summer I've been making notes of what will stay and what will go. There isn't a lot that will go, but come to think of it there's a huge honeysuckle right at the back of the border that has got a bit out of control. Its days might be numbered.


****This giveaway has closed: the winner is Susan McKeon, thanks for entering!****
Clare Florist bouquet
Summer Memories bouquet
Just as I was planning this post I received an email asking if I'd like a bouquet from Clare Florist which is an independent online florist. I thought it would fit in nicely with this post, so I'm offering this beautiful bouquet of summer flowers as a giveaway. 

To enter, just leave a comment with the name of your favourite flower and why. I'll choose a winner next Thursday 30th August. Please make sure you leave an email or twitter address to make it easy for me to get in touch. Thanks, and good luck!

Terms and conditions: The winner will be chosen from all comments left before 6pm on Thursday 30th August. The prize will be sent out directly from Clare Florist. There is no cash alternative. UK entries only. If the winner does not contact me within 7 days I will choose a new winner. My decision is final.

Friday, 24 August 2012

August review round-up and giveaway: win a £30 Sainsburys card for school uniform

****This giveaway has now closed, the winner is Ashleigh Allan, thank you!***

It's been a busy month!

For us August is all about the school break, seaside holidays, lazy mornings, a long To Do List and pottering around the house. BUT, never one to shirk my responsibilities I've also been busy reviewing some products so that you don't have to. I know, I know - I'm a blummin' martyr.

First up, we've been eating pizza!  Dr Oetker's Ristorante pizza range is actually one of our favourites so we didn't hesitate when asked to sample some. My daughters' favourite is the Pepperoni Salami thin crust which is really tasty, although personally I prefer the Pizza Funghi.

According to the good Dr Oetker, his pizza is the best this side of Naples - although I only ate ice-cream when I was in Naples (2 hours between trains) so I can't confirm.

However I can confirm that we always have one or two of these pizzas in the freezer. Pizza, jacket potato, coleslaw and salad - that's one of our quick and easy dinners for those busy days!

We also received a lovely breakfast hamper courtesy of Almond Breeze.

Almond Breeze is a new milk alternative, which contains no trans fats or cholesterol and just low levels of saturated fat and is a fantastic source of calcium – you can get 15% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) per serving.
Almond Breeze Unsweetened contains only 29 calories per serving, that’s 60% fewer calories than even skimmed milk.  All the Almond Breeze range is free from dairy, eggs and lactose and there’s no soya, gluten, peanuts or MSG in the range. All of the products are also suitable for both vegans and vegetarians.
I bought myself a new camera a few months ago, and because it's bigger than my compact camera I'd been looking for a camera case that would protect it and make it easier to carry around. So it was a happy coincidence when I was asked if I'd like to review an item from LoveCases. They have a huge range of cases for cameras, camcorders, laptops, satnavs and others gadgets. 

They recommended an easy-access neoprene case to fit my Lumix camera which is designed to protect against moisture, impact and dust. It has a handy neck strap and also a retaining strap to attach to the camera.

I used it on holiday when I didn't want to lug a camera bag around with me. I popped the camera with the soft, protective cover in my beach bag and it was safe even with all the sand - and we spent everyday on the beach!

I've been a fan of Ecover products for years but I'm even more impressed with the new Ecover Zero range which is fragrance free for sensitive skins.

They have worked with Allergy UK to produce this range that used only gentle plant-based and mineral ingredients and no phosphates.

As both Tall Daughter and I have eczema (my daughter's is more severe than mine) this range is a bonus for us as I have to be very careful which laundry products to use.  I also like to use environmentally friendly products whenever possible, so this new range is ideal.

And finally, because it's nearing the end of the summer holidays most parents are thinking about the dreaded school uniform shopping bill. I know I am!

Sainsburys have very kindly donated a £30 gift card to help with the cost of uniform. Sainsburys' TU school uniform range is tested rigorously to withstand the battering it gets from children - and with their split resistant seams, plus hard-wearing and stain resistant fabrics you should get your money's worth out of them. And from my point of view, any school uniform range with non-iron shirts and permanent creases and pleats is onto a winner with me. 

To have a chance of winning the gift card just leave a comment saying 'Pick Me! and I'll pick a winner randomly next week. And please, please leave your email or twitter address to make it easier for me to get in contact!

Terms and conditions: The winner will be chosen from all comments left before 6pm on Wednesday 29th August. The prize will be sent out directly from Sainsburys. There is no cash alternative. UK entries only. If the winner does not contact me within 7 days I will choose a new winner. My decision is final.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

A stress-free dinner with friends: chicken chasseur and OMG chocolate brownies

Last night we had good friends coming for dinner and for the first time in a long time I didn't panic.

I usually get very stressed out beforehand because I appear to have made friends with people who really know how to cook. Some of my friends are brilliant cooks - in fact one of my friends runs two restaurants - so instead of looking forward to their company I usually spend the days leading up to a visit in a complete state of panic!

But this time it was different.  First of all, I decided to keep it simple - I just can't compete with their skills in the kitchen, so settled for a fairly easy menu. And secondly, I tried to focus on the fact that they were coming to see us and not to award an Michelin star.

For the first course I served a selection of continental cold meats, olives, artichoke hearts and peppers (from jars), pate, salad and a variety of breads.  It was all set up beforehand, which gave me time to prepare the main course in relative calm.

The main course was chicken chasseur, carrot mash, green beans and boiled new potatoes. I apologise for no photo, but I've borrowed one from the Knorr website where I took the recipe from.

Chicken chasseur (with my notes in italics)

  • 2tbsps olive oil
  • 1tbsp plain flour, for coating
  • 1 small chicken jointed into 8 pieces or (the easier option which I took!) 8 chicken thigh portions (skin on or off as preferred) 
  • 2 shallots, very finely chopped (100g)
  • 50ml brandy, optional
  • 100ml white wine
  • 1 Knorr Chicken Stock Pot
  • 600ml tomato juice (I didn't use this much, it seemed a lot - I probably used half)
  • 250g button mushrooms, peeled and finely sliced
  • 3tbsp chopped tarragon (didn't have any!)
  • 2tbsps chopped parsley
  • 2 tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded, finely diced

1.    Gently heat 1tbsp olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan. You want the oil to be hot but not so hot that it scorches the floured chicken.
2.    Spread a layer of flour on a plate or a tray. Flour the chicken pieces, coating them in the flour evenly and thoroughly and shaking off the excess. 
3.    Add the floured chicken pieces to the hot olive oil, skin side down. Fry the chicken without moving the pieces until golden-brown underneath, around 8-10 minutes; turn over the chicken and fry until browned on the other side. 
4.    Add the finely chopped shallot to the chicken pieces in the frying pan, placing them under the chicken so that the shallot cooks.
5.    If using brandy, pour it in around the edge of the pan so that it runs underneath the chicken pieces. Cook for 2-3 minutes to cook off the alcohol.
6.    Then add in the wine, again pouring it in round the sides of the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes so that the alcohol from the wine cooks off and its acidity is reduced.
7.    Now add in the Knorr Chicken Stock Pot and the tomato juice (don't add it all, add half like I did then check so see if more is needed). Shake the pan to gently work it in, turning the chicken pieces to coat them in the liquid.
8.    Slowly bring to the boil, dissolving the stock. Add the tarragon to the chicken and simmer for 5 minutes. (At this point, I took the chicken pieces out, kept them warm in the oven and reduced the sauce down until it was thick and much more intense in flavour, then I returned the chicken to the pan to finish the dish).
9.    While the chicken is simmering, heat remaining olive oil, in a separate frying pan. (I didn't use an extra pan, I just added the mushrooms and tomatoes into the main pan 5 mins from the end of cooking, it worked out fine.)
10.    Add in the sliced mushrooms and fry them for 3-5 minutes. Add in the parsley, shaking the pan to mix it in well. Add in the diced tomato, shaking to mix in well.
11.    Spoon the mushroom mixture over the chicken pieces, garnish with parsley sprigs and serve at once.

This chicken dish was really tasty and everyone - including the very fussy Teenager - enjoyed it. I'll definitely be cooking it again, it's destined to be a favourite in our house.

chocolate brownies
OMG chocolate brownies - I put walnuts on one half and left the other half nut free
as Tall Daughter doesn't like them

Pudding was a recipe from Red Online for OMG warm chocolate brownies - my name for them, because that's what we said when we tasted them -  they were gooey, fudgey and very very rich. If you use the same recipe though, be warned that I had to leave them to bake for nearer to 40 minutes than the suggested 25. Served with a good quality vanilla ice-cream.  Delicious!

chocolate brownies with vanilla ice cream

Add to this good friends, laughter, talking until the small hours and copious amounts of wine - and it's the perfect combination for an enjoyable evening.

What do you serve when you have friends coming for dinner?

Monday, 13 August 2012

Thinking aloud

Chocolate digestives are addictive.
No one ever ate just one chocolate digestive.
I need to stop buying chocolate digestives.
I also buy too many books.
If I were to read all of the unread books I own it would take me roughly 73 years.
I have made a start by reading 4 in the last week.
I always panic in the days before friends come to stay.
I will read approximately 3,710 recipes before deciding on the menu for my friends' dinner.
They'll come, we'll drink too much and I'll forget to serve pudding.
When I win the lottery I'll employ a chef.
There are 12 things on my summer To Do list.
Of the 12, I'll do 11 the day before term starts in September.
One thing will never get done.
I was very sceptical about the 2012 Olympics.
I loved every minute of the 2012 Olympics.
I hope the next generation of athletes is truly inspired.
There are some lovely cycle routes near our house.
My bike has a flat tyre and hasn't been out of the shed for months.
Tomorrow I'll pump up the tyres.
I might even go for a ride.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Don't ask your children what they have learned from you, you may not like the answer.

I'm sure I gave birth to my two daughters only a couple of years ago, yet they already appear to be adolescents. 

And what seemed like only a few days ago my daughter ran upstairs to find her tellytubbie yet came back down wearing heels and looking like a young woman.

Today, sitting on the beach on our first full day of summer holidays, I watched a young family nearby. Their two daughters played in the sand, with sunhats on and their chubby toddler legs slathered in sun-cream.  Then I glanced across to my own two girls stretched out on their beach towels with their bikinied, modellesque figures and realised that our sandcastle days are over. And believe me, I even offered to buy new buckets and spades but they were having none of it, and there's nothing sadder than a lone middle-aged woman competing with small children to make the best sandcastle.

It's at times like this that the reality of time passing becomes heightened, and I realise there are only a small number of years left before they become adults and head off into the world.

But I don't intend that to sound like a Bad Thing. It isn't. It’ll be hard to let them go, of course it will, but it's what I've been preparing my girls for all of their lives. Otherwise all of those nuggets of information I've shared over the years, and all the times I've given them the benefit of my years of wisdom will have been in vain. (Incidentally, when I asked the girls what the most important lessons were that they'd learned from me they said....none. Nada. Zilch. I've taught them nothing apparently, they can remember no words of wisdom or instructions on how to do anything of merit, which means I won't be writing a parenting book anytime soon.)

What it does mean, however, is that I'm more aware of the fleetingness of childhood, and how I want them to have happy memories of the time we spent as a family. It's one of the reasons we recently started to have 'family Tuesdays' where we spend the evening together doing a chosen activity. We've been to the cinema, eaten out, been bowling, played board games and even just watched a DVD together - just the three of us without the distraction of 'phones or laptops.  

It's an attempt to find some more pockets of time where we enjoy each other’s company instead of talking to each other over the top of a laptop or during the ad breaks. It has meant we've had to spend dedicated time to actually talking to each. That's real conversations instead of tweets, texts or short chats in the car. It's been a bit of an eye-opener to be sure, recognising that my girls are actually turning into young woman with their own strong opinions of everything from music to feminism, and everything in between. I have raised girls with minds of their own, with views that they're happy to defend in the face of their much more knowledgeable mum *cough*.

When the time is right I want them to become independent, feisty, adventurous women and confidently fly the nest, but for now I'll hold onto them just a little bit longer...

Thursday, 2 August 2012

How far can a friend go before you can no longer forgive them?

Years ago when I was single I lived in a little terraced cottage down a quiet lane. It was tiny, just a two up-two down with a living room so small that one friend referred it as a 'cupboard'. But it was perfect for one person and I loved it there.

The house was in a row of five and had a slightly quirky setting with access to all five via a shared cobbled courtyard, where our variety of  colourful plants were displayed in pots and baskets .

The other reason I loved it there was because I had lovely neighbours. We all got on well, but I was particularly friendly with the woman who lived next door.  I considered her to be a really good friend. We'd be in and out of each others' houses all the time, helped each other out on many occasions and shared many a bottle of wine together - plus her husband did the occasional odd-job for me.

I'd been living there for about 12 years when I met the man I would later marry, and a few months after we met he moved in with me.

That's when things started to wrong, and yes I know it might have been an omen of things to come, but I was in love and we were happy together at that time.

You see, the problem wasn't between the two of us, but between my soon-to-be-husband and the next door neighbour - let's call her Jill. The two of them took a total dislike to each other quite early on, but things became really intolerable when I became pregnant with our first daughter.

She became what I can only describe as slightly unhinged by the fact I was having a baby. She told me she'd had to give her first baby up for adoption because she hadn't been married at the time (it was in the days when having a child illegitimately was a huge scandal).  She started shouting at us if we were in the garden, mainly abuse at my then husband, or sometimes even through the kitchen window and really not making much sense at all.

For some reason (I think she had a confrontation with my husband) things escalated to the point where I was terrified of bumping into her on the courtyard, so would go out the back way. It was a really difficult time for us, and being so far into my pregnancy I was getting very stressed out when I should have been relaxing and enjoying the final couple of months.

On two occasions, when I was more than seven months pregnant, we had to call the police when the situation seemed to be getting out of hand and I thought she might do something physical. It seemed to do the trick with regards to the verbal abuse although her erratic behaviour continued.

After the baby arrived things seemed to settle down a little, although we still avoided each other and our friendship was never renewed. I felt I couldn't forgive her for making our lives so awful in those precious months when I should have just been nesting and buying baby clothes.

Now there was three of us in the tiny house, so we decided we needed more space and within six months we'd moved to a bigger place, which was a huge relief. That was sixteen years ago. I've seen her a couple of times over the years, from a distance, and I still felt angry about the way she'd behaved.

So, imagine my surprise last week when I received a Facebook friend request from her!

My first reaction was one of shock. Then I felt intrigued. I wondered if she wanted to apologise for everything and was tempted to respond, but then I thought that too much had happened between us all those years ago.

Then I was in two minds about sending her a message and telling her how much she'd hurt me and how she had never apologised for anything, but I think it'd be like opening a can of worms and I'm not sure I want to deal with those bad feelings again.

There's something that makes me want to resolve this issue and perhaps even forgive her and renew some sort of friendship with her.  Then again, as soon as I wrote that last sentence I thought it was a mad idea. But still....

I'm struggling to weigh up the different things in my head.

What would you do?