Monday, 30 September 2013

A visit to Cadbury World and a brief encounter with Augustus Gloop

When we were invited to visit Cadbury World recently it took us about ten seconds to reply and say YES! We're big chocolate fans, particularly Tall Daughter who dressed in a purple outfit for the trip, so much is her devotion to the dark stuff (chocolate, not Guinness.)

We live in the North-west so it was a good 2 hour drive to get there, and the first thing we noticed as we left the M5 is that some of the roundabouts and junctions en-route didn't have any brown 'Cadbury World' signposts. it meant we took a couple of wrong turns before arrived, although we loved driving through Bourneville, the pretty village built by the Cadbury family for their workers.

We had pre-booked tickets for the 11.40am tour, and it was already quite busy and when we were leaving a couple of hours later it was crazy busy in the foyer so I would definitely recommend booking ahead. If you do have to wait and the weather's nice and you have small children, you can make use of the outdoor play area which looked great. Unfortunately, I visited with three teenagers (my own two, and one of their friends) and despite my encouragement they wouldn't use it. Teenagers, eh?

You can also visit the Essence Emporium, a mini-show with a chance to 'make' your own chocolate flavour, although The Teenager was disappointed that she didn't get to do anything herself - you're asked which flavour you'd like (from a choice of four)  and it's added to melted chocolate and put into a small cup with a spoon.

As we waited to start the tour, I jokingly said that I'd like to have chocolate thrown at me from time to time, and I wasn't far off because we did have chocolate thrust at us on three occasions throughout the tour, which can only be a good thing. We were also quite excited to spot Augustus Gloop  in the queue, or at least his doppelganger. All that was missing was the lederhosen.

The tour itself is self-guided, so you go at your own pace, and it's really very interesting in parts. We enjoyed learning about the origins of chocolate, and how John Cadbury started selling it from his tea shop. I loved learning about the history of Cadbury and their philanthropy. We also enjoyed watching clips about how the different chocolates are made - Creme Eggs, Easter eggs, etc - but it's a shame we didn't see any of it in person. It's not the same on a screen.

The part of the tour that took us through a small section of the factory seemed like a lost opportunity - the idea of watching already boxed bars of chocolate rolling off conveyor belts wasn't very exciting. Much better though, was when we reached the demonstration area with real human chocolatiers, who were making fancy chocolate boats, shoes and Halloween products. Watching skilled people at close range is always a treat, and this was no different. There's also a chance to write your name in chocolate, and who doesn't want to do that?

I particularly enjoyed the Advertising Avenue with old posters and clips of Cadbury's TV adverts, although this should have been a much bigger part of the tour (doesn't everyone remember the songs and slogans from their favourite ads?) and there was no reference to possibly the best ever Cadbury's ad 'Everyone's a fruit and nut case'. No worries though, because I sang it for the rest of the tour much to my daughters' delight. Or maybe not.

The Cadabra ride was definitely not teenager-friendly (three teenagers in a cocoa bean car = lots of guffaws) but it did make us laugh, and the interactive play zone floor where you get to splat chocolate looked like fun but they didn't join in.

Finally, at the end of the tour you emerge into the Cadbury's shop where there's plenty to choose from and some of the prices are pretty good, although their 'Factory Shop' had exactly the same prices as the main shop!

We thought the tour was much better suited to families with younger children as there seemed to be lots of activities to keep them amused, but not so much for teenagers. Having said that, we all enjoyed it. All three teenagers said they'd had a good day so that's great, and we did have some laughs. Thank you to Cadbury World for inviting us.

Oh, and we were also sent some Cadbury Pebbles to review which caused a bit of a kerfuffle chez notSupermum. Three people and only two bags to review, which meant we had to share! 

Anyway, they're like Mini Eggs but bigger and fact they're shaped a bit like a pebble, fancy that! We liked them, and they come in a resealable bag although why anyone would have any left to reseal is a mystery to me.

Disclosure: we were sent a family ticket for Cadbury World (normal cost £45.80) for the purpose of this review and our travel costs were reimbursed. All words, photos and opinions are my own.

Friday, 27 September 2013

I used to be someone else

So, I went back to see my GP today for an update, and to see if I was considered 'fit for work'. Fit for work, what a laugh. Quite honestly I don't really feel fit for anything at the moment and thought for a second he was going to refer me to the knacker's yard to be seen off.

The main problem is I'm still feeling emotionally wobbly. That's probably the best description I can think of. There has been a slight - very slight - improvement this week, and perhaps the St. John's Wort is starting to kick in, but I still feel like I'm 'on the edge' emotionally. I hear a song on the radio that triggers some memory or another? Sobbing. Watch a dramatic TV programme? More sobbing. Catch sight of a photo of lost love ones, or happier times? Heaving, face-dissolving sobs. It's not pretty at all. 

I never used to be like this you know, I was always in control. Once upon a time I would have been called stoic or even gutsy. Sadly no more.  Now I'm more likely to be called a mess, and I keep wanting to shout "But I used be someone else, someone happier" at the people who have never met the happier me. There are some people who I've met in the last 8-10 years who've only ever met this weaker, diluted version of my former self.

The thing that has shocked me most about all of this is how it seems to stem from the beginning of summer when, after years of being bullied, I finally stood up to them. Something changed that day, I snapped. Once I'd decided I couldn't take another 10 years of it I took some legal advice, which helped enormously and I honestly felt like I'd taken some control back. I felt elated at the time, was proud of myself and it felt like a fresh start.

But not long after that, I started to crumble. Was it because, after so long of being on edge, I allowed myself to relax? Is that what happened, the fa├žade crumbled? Maybe.

So now as I take baby steps back to a stronger position (I very nearly put 'normality' then, but I'm not even sure what that is anymore) I'm very conscious of a subtle, or maybe not so subtle, pressure to return to my former self and get on with it. It's almost an unspoken 'pull yourself together' pressure and is cleverly disguised in the form of support. That's why earlier on today, after having had a good morning and thinking I could sense the first signs of progress, I was soon sent spinning back to square one. Well, maybe not square one but if this was a game of snakes and ladders I just slid down a medium sized anaconda.

It does feel a bit like two steps forward and one step back at the moment, although the overwhelming fug of despair is starting to dissipate ever so slightly . I've also had the hint of a lifeline, a possibility that might help with a situation that's been making me very unhappy. It's very early days though, and I don't want to jinx it by saying anything optimistic (perish the thought) but....well, I think I can see a way forward. Perhaps. Maybe. Touch wood.

Wow, can't believe I actually just said that. A way forward. That's BIG.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Down the lane

We live down a quiet lane, just off a busier road. The houses were built in a row on what used to be the grounds of a large house, and the sandstone wall that was once part of their garden runs down the lane on a parallel with the houses. 

Just in front of the wall is a short strip of land, and each house owns the piece facing their house. Yesterday I took a stroll down the lane to see what was growing.

I'm joining up again with the award-winning Mammasaurus, who has her very own gardening linky. Have a stroll over there and see some gorgeous gardens.

Mammasaurus - How Does Your Garden Grow?

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Book club reviews, summer reading and a book giveaway

In January a friend started a new book club and asked me to join. I jumped at the chance because I although I enjoy reading I'd really got out of the habit and had loads of unread books on the shelves. (I'm a sucker for a book shop - I can't leave without 2 or 3 books that will still be unopened months later.)

So, it was about time to get reading again and I've really enjoyed being part of the group. I reviewed our first choice here, but here's a long overdue review of some of the other books we tackled over the past few months.

The Good Father by Noah Hawley.
The Good FatherPaul Allen is a doctor and leads a comfortable life. He has a young family with his second wife and a son from his first marriage. One evening while watching news coverage of the assassination of an aspiring presidential candidate, he answers a knock at the door to find the American secret service who tell him it that his son has been arrested for the crime.

Paul Allen embarks on a crusade to prove his son's innocence whilst trying to figure out how much of it is down to his own failings as a parent and whether it's too late to become a good father now.

Our success as parents, and whether we are good enough, is something that can keep us awake at night and this is about one father's examination of his role as a parent.  I absolutely loved this book. It's a haunting, thought-provoking and beautifully written story that had me gripped until the very end.

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton by Caroline Smailes
Arthur Braxton runs away from school and hides out in a derelict public swimming baths called the Oracle. When he finds a naked women swimming in the pool he falls hopelessly in love and his life is changed forever.

Described  as 'a modern urban fairy tale' this is an unflinching and often disturbing look at the people who inhabit the mysterious world Arthur stumbles upon. It's not always an easy read, but you are rewarded with a deeply moving story of how love can redeem us all. The end of the story is a sublime piece of writing and had me blubbing like a good 'un.

It's worth noting that this has become the benchmark by which our book club rates our books. Since reading, we have referred back to it more than any of the others, and its lasting influence is a testament to the impact it had on us.

16181775The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Professor Don Tillman is a professor of genetics and leads a very ordered life and it soon becomes apparent to the reader that he's well advanced on the Asperger's scale. As he approaches his fortieth birthday, he decides it's time to look for a wife.

What follows is both genuinely funny and extremely moving. I loved it and by the end of the book I was more than a little bit in love with Prof Tillman :)

The Rosie Project is a very easy read, and hugely enjoyable.

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
Synopsis: Ben and Helen Armstead have reached breaking point. Once a privileged and loving couple, it takes just one afternoon - and a single act of recklessness - for Ben to deal the final blow to their marriage. Separated from her husband, Helen takes a job in PR and discovers she has a rare gift: she can convince arrogant men to admit their mistakes. But Helen finds that the capacity for forgiveness is far harder to apply to her personal one.

This was my least favourite of our book club choices. I had high hopes for it (Dee is a Pulitzer prize winner) but it all went right over my head. The characters weren't interesting or likeable, and I was still waiting for something to happen at the end. It didn't.  It was all a bit meh. 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Nick Dunne comes home from work on his 5th anniversary to find his wife Amy has disappeared. The police suspect Nick and their investigations reveal a side of Nick that he strenuously denies. But what has happened to Amy? And just what is Nick hiding?

Okay, so you've probably heard the hype about this book, after all it's one of the biggest selling books of the year and is about to be made into a film. But is it any good?

Well, yes it is. It's a cracking read and by the time I was halfway through I didn't want to put it down and I can't remember the last time that happened. But, but, but....the end of the book was not quite what I expected, although that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just that I loved the rest of it so much I would have preferred to have had a different conclusion. But yes, read it.

I read these books on holiday:

I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron
I love anything by late, great Nora Ephron - films, books, articles, anything. I enjoyed her book I Feel Bad About My Neck so much that I decided to take this one on holiday with me.  I think it's fair to say she's more of a woman's writer but Ephron's style is so witty, so funny and so utterly charming that you'll be chuckling along whoever you are.  I loved this, and although it's funny it's made all the more poignant by the fact she wrote it when she knew she was dying. The last couple of pages are unbearably moving.

One Moment, One Morning by Sarah Rayner
An early morning commuter train, a man collapses, the train is stopped and an ambulance is called.  Karen, Anna and Lou, the main characters of this book are brought together by this one incident. How it affects their lives and their friendship is the focus of the book and the characters are likeable and real and you want to get to know them. 

I picked this up in a charity shop and thought it looked good, and I'm pleased to say my 75p was well spent. This was a great holiday book:  easy to read and very enjoyable.

The Bookman’s TaleThe Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett
I was sent this book to review by the publisher, Alma Books.

Peter Byerly is a young American antiquarian bookseller who relocates to England after the death of his wife. On a visit to a bookshop, he opens an eighteenth-century study of Shakespeare forgeries, and is shocked when a portrait of his wife tumbles out of its pages. The watercolour is clearly Victorian, yet the resemblance is uncanny and Peter becomes obsessed with learning the picture’s origins. As he follows the trail back first to the Victorian era and then to Shakespeare’s time, Peter learns the truth about his own past, and discovers a book that might definitively prove Shakespeare was, indeed, the author of all his plays.

Part historical novel, part mystery story and part love story this book is quite an unusual read. I read it on the beach, which seems odd given it's romp through dusty books and historical characters. It's a very interesting book, and the author shifts smoothly between the three time periods and the characters and tells a very satisfying story with all the loose ends well tied. 

l'll be honest, there are so many names mentioned throughout the book (some real historical figures and other fictional ones) that I sometimes got a bit confused about who was who. But still, a very enjoyable read and what's more I have two copies to giveaway! Just leave a comment (with your twitter or email address) if you'd like a chance to win one and I'll pick two names when the draw closes next week on Wednesday 2nd October. Please check the terms and conditions for guidelines. Good luck!

Terms and conditions:  The draw will close at 8pm on Wednesday 2nd October 2013. UK entries only. There is no cash alternative and the prizes cannot be transferred. I will randomly select the winners from the entries provided and my decision is final. If the winners do not respond with their details within 7 days I reserve the right to select a new winner.  

Traditional Christmas gifts for kids

Traditional Christmas gifts for kids

It sometimes feels like all of the joy has gone out of shopping for children’s presents. If you are looking at a list which looks awfully similar to last year’s, you are probably wondering where your child’s imagination has gone and how to bring it back.

Luckily there are plenty of presents which are sure to delight your child and encourage their creative side. The good news is they won’t burn a huge hole in your pocket either. The truly great children's Christmas gift ideas are timeless.

Butcher baker, candle stick maker!

Do you remember how much fun you had playing with your tiny kitchen set or sweet shop? The fun hasn’t gone out of such toys. They not only give a child pleasure but are educational and help teach cooperation with others.

With so many trendy chefs around these days, a miniature kitchen is ideal for boys and girls. They can have hours of fun ‘making’ dinner in their little domain so why not ask them to ‘make’ something for you?

A similar scenario is the shop. Children love to pretend to be the grown-up characters they see in their everyday lives and nowhere can they do this with more enthusiasm than in their own shop. They can choose what they are going to sell, give their shop a name and start to learn about arithmetic.

An all time favourite is the good old blackboard. Nowadays, such a toy usually has a white board on its opposite side too, for double creativity. Some chalk and a few felt tips will keep kids busy for hours as they create their masterpieces.

Dolly mixture

Dolls have not gone out of fashion. In fact they have become incredibly sophisticated with their own fashion lines and life stories at hand! A doll still has the effect of bringing out the sensitive and human side of your child as they relate to it like it is a friend.

All in the family

If you have forgotten how much fun board games are then this Christmas is the time to remember. Such games develop cognitive and practical skills and have the bonus of bringing everyone together.

Additionally, they teach friendly competition and a sense of community.

Playing a few family board games over the holidays when there is the time for everyone to relax will create special memories for children as well.

This is a featured guest post

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The one where I talk like an ol' sea dog

Tall ship So, yesterday I had a doctor's appointment  and when he asked me how I was feeling I told him I was trying to 'get back on an even keel'.

He really pounced on that phrase. He loved its imagery: the idea of a ship that was sailing unevenly and off course - and wondered why I'd chosen a nautical phrase to describe how I was feeling.

No secret really, I come from a long line of sea dogs (my brother, Dad, and grandfathers on both sides were all in the Royal or merchant navy) and as Britain has a long history as a seafaring nation it's no wonder we use these nautical expressions, sometimes without even knowing.

These ones are pretty obvious, and haven't we all sailed close to the wind at some point? (And been three sheets to the wind too?) :

All hands on deck   /  All above board   /  Let the cat out of the bag  /  batten down the hatches  / the calm before the storm  /  a clean bill of health  /  three sheets to the wind   /  sailing close to the wind

Anyway, going back to my doctor's appointment I also mentioned that I was feeling guilty about taking time off work, and was worried people would think I was 'swinging the lead'.  Turns out that's also a nautical phrase, although I didn't know it at the time.

There are too many to choose from but here's a couple of other, less obvious, commonly used nautical expressions.

No room to swing a cat - We've all been somewhere that's crowded, or too small for its purpose. But in the old sea-faring days all hands were called on deck to bear witness when punishments were given out. In the case of a ship with a big crew this could make for a very crowded deck, making it difficult to use the cat o' nine tails without hitting the observers so that there was 'no room to swing a cat'. 

In the doldrums - These days if we say we're in the doldrums it means we're a bit fed up, but the Doldrums is actually a region of calm winds, just north of the equator where two trade winds meet and neutralise each other. Sailing ships tend to get stuck there and make little progress. Sounds familiar.

I like the cut of his jib - Okay, okay, not a commonly used phrase but c'mon it should be! It's fantastic, and yes I've used it in the past to describe an attractive man, as in "ooh, I like the cut of his jib." It means to like the outward appearance, as the 'jib' was the front-facing sail on a ship and the first thing other ships could see. Crews had to make quick decisions about the unknown, oncoming ships based on the look and 'cut of the jib'.

I'm bringing it back - who's with me?

Monday, 23 September 2013

Living with teenagers part 2 ~ parents who've been there, done that

Living with teenagers

Last week I wrote about what it's like being the parent of two teenagers. As I said at the time I certainly don't have all the answers, after all I can only talk about my own experience, and I'm far from being an expert on the matter. So I asked a few blogger friends for their input and they very generously had a think about what it's like parenting on 'the dark side' and this is what they had to say.

Toni Hargis writes as Expat Mum and has three children aged 20, 18 and 10.

Family dinners - Although it's hard to have family dinners together when everyone's doing something after school, it's important to try. If you can't do it during the week, have a family meal on a Sunday evening before the start of the week, or a family take-away on a Friday. Leaving food out for them to eat as they come and go, not only leads to stinky bedrooms, but it allows them to stay in their rooms and be as uncommunicative as they want. 

Don't sulk - Yes, you, not the kids! Too often, when there's an argument, we stomp off to our corner of the ring and a deafening silence kicks in.  You may be right that "they need me more than I need them" but you're the adult. Closing down the lines of communication is never a good ploy with teens. 

Don't expect them to tell you everything - This can be a tough one. You might think you're their best friend but their loyalty often lies with their real friends.  The grey area comes when you worry that they might be in trouble; the best you can do here is instill in them the knowledge that if they really screw up, you'll be there for them. 

You're the boss- Don't be afraid to have rules - it's your house and you're in charge. Just because they "can't see the point" doesn't mean you can't insist on a rule being followed. (And have "consequences" up your sleeve for repeat offenders.)

Limit the stuff you know you should - When we first got PlayStation for my almost-eighteen year old, the rule was that it was only for weekends. Because that was all he knew, he rarely complained about it - until last year when, at the age of almost seventeen, he finally asked for more of a say. (We agreed!) When they're early teens, limit bedroom access to computers if possible. There's an age (particularly with boys) when they will try to troll through the "sexy" sites and they'll look you in the eye and deny it too! The problem here is that no, it's not just like the Playboy mag under the bed; these Internet sites have pop-ups that lead to truly shocking images and videos and the kids are too young. Ditto with Facebook; it's up to you whether you insist on them Friending you, but you need to make sure they're not engaging in online bullying and other nefarious stuff. 

Becky writes at English Mum and has two boys aged 18 and 15. 

It's all about compromising.  We have basic 'house rules' that we've thrashed out together over the years covering everything from talking to each other with respect to what time everything electronic needs to be switched off at night.  Everything else is discussed as and when issues arrive.  

I'm a firm believer in not sweating the small stuff.  As long as they're polite and respectful, I'll often overlook the odd one-off strop or last minute inconvenient request for a lift.  I think it's generally about picking your battles. 

Kate writes Wit Wit Woo and has two sons, aged 18 and 9.
  • I try to lead by example - I have a strong work ethic and went to university so my sons could see it's possible (my 18 year old has just started at uni!)
  • Laugh together
  • Guide and support them and try not to judge
  • Teach them to respect others
  • And the whole 'be their friend' thing is a myth. You're their parent. (That Robinsons ad annoys the hell out of me!)
Chris Mosler writes Thinly Spread and has 3 sons aged 17, 15 and 7, and a 13 year old daughter.
Teenagers are like toddlers but bigger. Unexpected mood swings and tantrums, a phenomenal need for sleep (usually at the wrong time), massive appetites, irrational behaviour, hating you one minute and loving you very hard the next. They don't need you AT ALL MUM and then they need you very much indeed.

In order to live with mine I have had to learn to listen without prejudice, to take time before I speak and to treat them with the respect I would extend to anyone sharing my house. I try hard to retain my sense of humour and not to laugh at them but with them. I persuade my husband that their wants and needs are as important as ours and that we have to accept that they will not always want to do what we do; that we need to find a way to make them want to be with us rather than just making them be with us.

Feed them, run them, love them (much like puppies) and remember, they will leave all too soon and you will be sad. (And invest in pegs - for your nose - teenage bedrooms, boys or girls, are fetid places!) 
I don't do 'Must Do's or advice, my only bit of parenting advice is 'Never say never'!

Tattooed Mummy has a 14 year old daughter.
  • Raising a teen doesn't start when they get to 13, it starts years earlier at birth. If you have a good/open relationship with your child you have much more chance of keeping that going than suddenly expecting a teen to share things with you.
  • Share things about your teen years. Let teens know that we were all there once.
  • Don't be scared to make rules. Rules can apply to all or some of the people in the house but they need to be clearly explained, no one can guess the rules! Ensure everyone knows what happens if a rule is broken. Sudden sanctions with out warning will just invoke rows and division.
  • Don't be afraid to say sorry if you are wrong or if you overreacted. Teens will learn from you - if you never apologise neither will they. That said, if they break a rule and knew the result/sanction then don't be afraid to follow it through!
  • Choose your battles (it's old advice but still true) Does it really matter if a book was left on the floor? Save the anger for important things.
  • Talk about stuff before it's an issue, even if that's embarrassing. Including, your views and advice on online safety, smoking, drinking, parties, sex, curfews, etc
  • Let your teen know that they are loved. And that you are proud of them. Don't expect them to 'know'. Tell them.
  • Ensure your teen knows they can always come to you - no one can (for example) blackmail them online because what ever they have done you are there for them.
  • Teens are hormonal. Give them a break, but don't let them rule the house. Anger is normal and to be expected, rudeness and violence however are not.
  • Talk to other parents. Twitter is great for that.
Thank you ladies!
After reading through these accounts of raising teenagers and realising how much other parents' experiences can help I decided to ask some other parents to contribute a bit about their own experience, and I'll be posting those next week.
Are you the parent of teenagers? What works for you? And what doesn't work?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Recipe ~ Leek and potato soup

Leek and potato soup

Today is the autumn equinox. Once the sun moves south over the equator it's officially autumn, so what better time to get the old soup pan out and start making some autumnal loveliness.

We love soup in our house, and it tastes even better if I make it in my Mum's 1970's soup pan. It's a bit battered and well past its best, but who cares when it has a cheery bright orange lid and holds a massive amount of soup.

Anyhow, here's my recipe.

Leek and potato soupLeek and Potato soup

4-5 leeks, chopped and cleaned
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
2 medium potatoes, diced
300ml milk
750ml chicken stock or water
50g butter
salt and pepper

First of all, prepare the leeks. Trim the ends, and remove any hard outer leaves. Then chop the leeks into roughly 2cm discs, put them into a colander and rinse thoroughly to remove any dirt.

Peel and chop the onions and potatoes, then melt the butter in the pan and add the potatoes, onions and leeks, stirring until they've all been coated with the butter. Put the lid on the pan and allow the vegetables to sweat over a low heat for about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure they don't stick to the bottom.

Next, add the stock and milk to the pan. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat and simmer very gently for about 30 minutes. Whatever you do, don't have the heat too high or the milk will boil over very quickly. Just a gentle heat will do, and check it occasionally to make sure it's not overheating.

Once the veg is soft it can be liquidised. I like it to be really smooth with no lumps. Reheat gently to serve. Season with salt and pepper.

This is one of our absolute favourite homemade soups and if you want to be posh and serve it at a dinner party you can call it by its Sunday name of vichyssoise (when it's served cold) but we prefer it hot with crusty bread.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The September garden

I haven't been into my garden much recently. It's been a bit neglected due in part to the wet weather, and also due to me feeling so down.

I love pottering about in the garden but it's been very hard to find any enthusiasm to do even the things I enjoy the most, and even though I know my mood would lift if I spent more time outside I just haven't been able to face it.

I did have a little wander around this morning though, to see what I've missed and what needs doing and to take some photos. It felt like making a long overdue visit to see an old friend, although I did promise to visit again very soon.

Rambling rose against side fence

black elder sambucus nigra

black elder sambucus nigra

I can't explain how much I love this black elder (sambucus nigra). It looks beautiful all year round, with flowers in the summer and berries in the autumn and the colour is a great contrast with other plants. The leaves are the deepest red-black although the photos don't do the colour justice. Stunning.

I've picked some of the peppers and there are an abundance of chillies now, but I need to find a way of storing them. I'm off to check the best way to do it.

In the meantime, please visit Mammasaurus' blog to see some gardens that haven't been neglected.

Mammasaurus - How Does Your Garden Grow?

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Recipe ~ Easy paprika chicken

I made this a couple of days ago, and it was delicious. The chicken was lovely and tender and should please even the fussiest of eaters - and I know because I have two of them living with me.

Serves 6
1 tbsp oil
2 medium onions, finely sliced
12 chicken thighs, boned and skinned*
2 crushed garlic cloves
1 tbsp sweet or plain paprika (I used sweet)
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
400ml chicken stock, a stock cube is fine
2 bay leaves
1 tsp mixed herbs
2 large peppers, deseeded and chopped into chunky pieces ~ orange, yellow or red peppers are best (they look better than green!)
1 tbsp cornflour
splash of cold water
ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large non-stick pan, and fry the onions until soft. Season the chicken with the pepper and add to the pan.

Cook the chicken and onions for about 5 mins until lightly coloured all over, stir in the garlic and paprika and cook for another minute. Add the chopped tomatoes, chicken stock, bay leaves and mixed herbs. Bring to a simmer then half-cover the pan with the lid and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, stirring every so often.

Add the chopped peppers to the pan, and cook for a further 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaves.

Mix the cornflour with the water then stir into the pan. Cook for another 4-5 minutes while stirring, until the sauce has thickened.

Serve with rice, although when my girls ate the leftovers the next day they served it with pasta which they preferred.

*I bought chicken thighs with bones and skin on because it's much cheaper to do it yourself. To bone them, put them skin side down on a chopping board and using a very sharp knife cut around the top of the bone and work your way down. It's very easy to do, the bone comes away very easily. Then turn the thigh over and cut in half down the middle, next pull the skin away from where you cut the thigh - it seems to come away more easily from there. Job done. Of course, you could also buy ready boned and skinned thighs :)

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Saatchi Medical Innovation Bill - why this matters to you

On Monday, I had hoped to be walking the halls of Westminster on my way to a meeting in one of the House of Commons' committee rooms. I'd been invited by Liz Scarff who had also organised the Marie Curie campaign I was involved with earlier this year, but sadly I couldn't attend for personal reasons. However, I accepted an invitation to join in via my first ever Google+ hangout instead (it's just like a Skype call with multiple participants).  So after a bit of a kerfuffle where I couldn't find the camera to attach to the pc (it had fallen down the back) and not really knowing what I was doing, I was suddenly linked up to the committee room and attempted to look studious while I watched and listened in on the discussion.

The reason for all of this was due to something called the Medical Innovation Bill which has been brought about by Lord Saatchi (not Nigella's ex-husband, thank goodness, but his brother Maurice).

Lord Maurice SaatchiMaurice Saatchi lost his beloved wife, the novelist Josephine Hart, to ovarian cancer in 2011 and like so many of us who have lost loved ones to cancer, he was shocked that seemingly little could be done to prevent her death. He found that treatments for cancer, and the administration of drugs, were archaic and had barely changed in nearly 40 years, so he decided to try and change that.

What Lord Saatchi found was that the medical profession was being held back from attempting new treatments because of the fear of being sued and the accusation of medical negligence.  This country has become very fond of litigation and the amounts of money being paid out to patients suing doctors has reached record levels and amounted to £1.2 billion last year, and the current NHS calculation for pending law suits amounts to £19 billion. It's because of this that the medical profession has become risk averse which means that patients - by and large - receive standard procedures, and although this protects the doctors from being sued it also prevents medical innovation.

The definition of medical negligence is the deviation from standard practice, but by its very definition innovation IS deviation.

As Prof Andy Hall (Director of the Northern Institute for Medical Research) said during the discussion on Monday, the medical profession is not making as much progress as they should be given the time and effort involved. Quite simply, their hands are tied.

We also heard the heartbreaking story of Debbie Binner's daughter Chloe, whose rare form of cancer was deemed 'not worth investing in' by drug companies. Debbie described the 'medieval' treatments her daughter endured, and their frustration at a system seemingly unable and unwilling to try new treatments. Chloe died in February this year, aged just 18.

The idea behind the Medical Innovation Bill is not to have a free-for-all where maverick doctors can try new treatments without approval. The Bill would prevent reckless experimentation on guinea-pig like patients, but it would enable (as Lord Saatchi described it) "bold, innovative work" that will advance the cures for cancers and other illnesses.

Keeping the medical profession in check, and ensuring any new procedures were approved, would be a multi-disciplinary panel who would safeguard the patients' interests and ensure relevant permissions has been gained. Changing the law takes time, so this is not going to be a quick process and it's also important to remember that this Bill will not cure cancer, but it enable the people who will cure it.

Michael Ellis MP introduced the Bill to the Commons today in a 10 minute reading and it was passed. It gets its second reading this Friday (13th September).

So, what can you do?

Please, write to your MP and ask them to support the second reading of the bill. You can use this link to find contact details for your MP (emailing is probably quickest) or just google "MP for {your town}" and the details should pop up.

Talk about this issue to family and friends. Let's make as many people as possible aware of this Bill.

If you're on twitter you can follow @SaatchiBill and keep the discussion going via the hashtag #SaatchiBill

Having lost both parents to cancer this is a subject very close to my heart, and most of you reading this will have been touched by cancer in some way. I urge you to support this Bill.

As Michael Ellis says "We need to reject the status quo because it's not working."

Thank you.

A life well lived

Yesterday I said goodbye a very special lady, a close family friend who was more like a second mum to me and over the past few years had taken on the role of 'adopted' Nana to my girls. We all loved her and can't believe we won't see her again.

During the funeral service one of her grandsons read out a very moving poem. I'd never heard it before but it certainly gave me pause for thought and I wondered how many of us, when we reach the very end of life, will be able to look back and say we'd made the most of it?

I think my friend was one of those people. I was going to say 'lucky people' but I'm not sure luck has much to do with it, it's more about grabbing life by the short and curlies and shaking every little bit out of it.

Even though she'd had a fairly tough upbringing, she was one of the happiest, most optimistic people I've ever known and had lived her life to the absolute fullest. Every time I saw her - and I'd known her since I was 9 - she was bubbling over with enthusiasm for...well, life!

She had a real interest in other people and somehow found time for everyone, she was the dispenser of sound advice and funny stories, and had a genuine warmth and charisma that you either have or you don't have, and she had it in bucket loads. The packed church was testimony to a life of friendship, kindness and laughter.

Top 5 regrets of the dying ( was reminded of the top five regrets of the dying, and how so many of us live according to somebody else's rules or limit ourselves with our own.

Who doesn't want to be able to say, at the very end, that their life had meaning, had lived it the way they wanted, and were true to themselves?

I believe I witnessed such a life being celebrated yesterday, and it was a poignant reminder that the changes I've promised I'll make to my own life are all the more important.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Living with teenagers ~ part 1

If you're the parent of toddlers, or even children under the age of 10, you may be wondering what it'll be like when they're teenagers. From the age of about 10 (especially for girls) there is a subtle but steady transition from child to teenager and it does give you a bit of an insight into how life will be with teens.

Just to ease you in gently, there are plenty of reasons to like your teenagers, so let's start off with some advantages:
  • they can dress themselves, and choose their own clothes (yes, this can also be a point of conflict but I'm keeping things upbeat here, ok?)
  • you will can get fashion advice from them;
  • you can (in theory) have a decent conversation with them;
  • they can usually entertain themselves for a few hours while you spent time on the computer do important stuff;
  • they can wash and bathe themselves - so there's no more bath time battles, although now the problem will be getting them out of the bathroom!
  • they can help with more housework, especially putting a wash on, ironing their own clothes and keeping their bedrooms tidy. Although more on this in a minute.

If you can overlook the occasional hissy fit and banshee like behaviour (yours, not theirs) it's no more difficult than when they were going through the terrible twos, and it's the same sort of process: the child is pushing for more independence and power while the parent might be resisting it or trying to adapt to the changes in their precious offspring. Of course the main difference is trying to discipline a child when they're the same height as you (or taller) and they have an answer for everything.

Understanding a little about the development of the teenage brain might explain why they often behave the way they do. The frontal lobe of the brain is the ‘decision making’ part of the brain and controls impulses and reasoning. Studies show that the frontal cortex of the brain isn’t completely developed until a person is well into their twenties, so the brain of a teenager is still very much a work in progress. Combine that with a huge surge in hormones, the changes happening to their bodies and the pressure of exams it's no surprise that teenagers find life a bit tricky sometimes.

I'm no expert by any means, after all my teenagers are still, well, teenagers so we won't know how they properly turned out for a few years yet, but if how they are now is anything to go by they're developing into very decent young adults. Yes, there's moodiness and arguments, eye rolling and stroppiness, but they're also polite, independent girls who treat others with respect and can hold a decent conversation with adults. They've also got plenty to say for themselves (I have no idea where they get that from) and work hard at school and I know plenty of other families with teenagers who are, by and large, very nice kids.

My advice from my limited experience with teenagers would be to choose your battles.

For example, the biggest issue I used to have with the Teenager was about her untidiness and the fact that her bedroom was an absolutely disgusting mess. If I went anywhere near her bedroom I would get stressed about it was and start ranting. Of course, she'd get angry with me for going in her bedroom and it would cause lots of arguments.

This went on for quite a while until a very wise friend asked me why I got so upset about it. "When you look back on this time in 5-10 years time, will it really have mattered that much? And is it worth damaging your relationship over it?"

Of course, she was right. It wasn't worth it, and in the grand scheme of things it wasn't that important. I decided to be less hung up about it and concentrate on all the other things she did right - and there were plenty. I can't say it was easy, but I just stopped nagging her about her room. Of course, as soon as I stopped nagging she started keeping her room tidy tidier and although it's far from spotless, it's miles better than it was and minus the tension between us.

In all honesty, teenagers are not that bad, and after all we were all teenagers once and look how well that turned out!

And because I don't have all the answers I've asked some other parents for their tips on how to survive the teenage years unscathed, and I'll be sharing their advice in a couple of days time. Watch this space.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Keeping the faith

I found this wooden sign earlier today.  It was in a box still only half-unpacked from our house move, even though next month we'll have been in this house for 2 years. I know, I'm embarrassed that we're still unpacking stuff but ho hum.

In case you're not familiar with it, it's called the Serenity prayer.

It used to be a permanent fixture in the old kitchen and was on the wall for donkey's years before someone pointed out it was the adopted prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous. I'm not an alcoholic but I like to help out when they're busy (baddum tish!)

Even if you don't believe in God I imagine it would still resonate with most people.

I love its simplicity, but those simple words are deceptive because "to accept the things I cannot change, and courage to change the things I can" is incredibly difficult to do.

I'd forgotten about it, buried away in a packing box, but I've reinstalled it in a prominent place, on the wall right next to my desk. I want to be able to see it everyday and think about the changes that are long overdue, and the decisions I need to make. There's a lot to do.

Do you have any words of wisdom that mean a lot to you?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Getting back to basics


Last week I wrote a blog post about being depressed. Cheery stuff.  But here's the thing, after a few days of worrying about the blog post (yes, worrying) - about whether it was the sort of thing people (you?) wanted to read I reverted it back to a draft post. In other words, I hid it.

Why did I do that?

Because I'd forgotten why I set this blog up. I set it up so I could rant/write about things that were bothering me or making me happy.

I'd forgotten that the best way to write is to pretend that nobody is reading. Nobody.

You know that cheesy expression about dancing like nobody's watching, etc etc? Yeah, well I need to blog like nobody's reading.

People who know me, people who meet me, often describe me as 'a strong person' and I dare say it's meant as a compliment. Well, no I'm not strong actually, it's just that some people just have to get on with things without saying much about why it's hurting. About how lonely they are, or how they desperately need support, or even just a hug. Because sometimes 'being strong' is no longer an option.

Truth is, I've been struggling over the past couple of months. Struggling to keep things on an even keel, and by 'things' I mean me. I'm not feeling great, there I've said it. I'm unhappy -  for several reasons - and instead of grinning and bearing it like I usually try to do, I've been unable to hide it. I've talked to my girls about it, and they've been great, very supportive, but y'know they're still kids and they shouldn't have to support me it should be the other way 'round.

Days spent on the verge of tears, feeling confused, being exhausted, and worrying about anything and everything but unable to make any decent decisions are all part of the symptoms. It's pretty crap to be honest.  In fact - and I'm not big on swearing - I'd go as far to say that life is pretty shite right now.

After reading a blog post by the fabulous Kate and having a twitter conversation about oversharing I decided that I needed to do something I should have done ages ago. I'm taking this blog back to basics. Ground zero. I'm going to blog the way I used to (when it never occurred to me that anyone would want to read it): without an audience in mind.

Sorry, I love you and all that, but I'm going to have to pretend you're not reading my ramblings and just get on with it. I need it, because blogging is the cheapest form of therapy available. And right now, that's what's needed.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

My Hobbs wish list for autumn

One of the drawbacks advantages of having teenage daughters is that they're really into clothes and fashion and have plenty to say about my choice of clothes. They've been putting some gentle pressure on me recently to wear 'nicer' clothes as I tend to go for comfort over style, although as they very annoyingly point out there's no reason why you can't have both.

Now if you're a regular reader of this blog you'll know I'm no fashionista, but I've been casting my eye over recent fashion trends and turning my nose up at most of  to be honest, but it seems that all is not lost!

I like wearing skirts, but once you're past 40 if you don't have absolutely knock-out legs you need a lower hemline and they've been a bit scarce over the past season or two. So when I read that midi skirts are back in this autumn I gave a little cheer!

When I was asked to take at look at the Hobbs website, which still has some lovely summer dresses on sale by the way, I loved their new skirts with lower hemlines. I don't think you can go wrong with a well tailored pencil skirt as they flatter most figures and Hobbs have several below the knee skirts in their new range, including this Saskia skirt which is definitely on my wish list.

Hobbs AW13
Molly Jacket £125 / Saskia skirt £99 / Geo block scarf £39

I also need a decent winter coat and after wearing what was supposed to be my 'dog walking' parka for the whole of last winter my daughters also agree with me! This oversized Daisey coat looks lovely, and it reminds me of a similar coat I had many moons ago.

Hobbs AW13
Daisey coat £279 / Clement Derby shoes £169

I don't wear heels very often these day - reserving them for the very occasional night out - so I was drawn to these Clement Derby shoes. And they're in the softest mauve pink leather, which seems to be the colour of Autumn 2013.

What are you doing to update your wardrobe this autumn? And do your children tell you what to wear?

This has been written in association with Hobbs.