An evening of chocolate and alcohol

My blogger life has reached its pinnacle. Last night, Red Letter Days invited me along to a chocolate making workshop with MyChocolate. That’s right … someone plied me with both alcohol and chocolate in return for my blogging and social skillz. I’m not sure it’s actually going to get any better than this.

I’ve always rather liked the Red Letter Days concept. Many years ago, I used it to buy my boyfriend (now husband) a flying lesson. I’m not saying the gift had a direct connection to our eventual marriage, but it was a great way of getting an unusual present for someone who didn’t need more stuff. At the time, my boyfriend lived in a shared flat where his bedroom was basically the pantry. It was just off the kitchen, and only big enough for a mattress and nothing else. The first night I stayed over, I had to leave my shoes outside the room because there was no room for them inside the room. Then all of his flatmates teased him. So he really didn’t want more stuff. But I digress… you wanted to hear about the chocolate and alcohol, right?

The first thing we did was learn how to make chocolate martinis. To be honest, I don’t think I’d ever had one before because I’m a bit of a traditionalist. If I’m somewhere that has martinis, I tend to get one “shaken not stirred” or, if I want to go crazy, I get a “dirty” one. I thought a chocolate martini sounded a bit sickly, but it wasn’t at all. The one we made had a perfect chocolate to sweetness to alcohol balance. And, she taught us how to make cool squiggles on the martini glass.

After drinking the martini, they decided to test our fine motor skills by allowing us to design our own chocolate button. You choose either a dark or milk chocolate mixture and smooth it into a shape you’d like, then take the other type of chocolate and make pretty designs and squiggles. Here’s the one the instructor made:

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You were also allowed to add flavouring to your chocolate button. I was very inspired and decided to make a mint-flavoured leaf. It was going to be beautiful and delicate. I’m not sure if I can blame my martini for the result:

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At best, it’s a giant chocolate apostrophe. Let’s not say what it is “at worst”. Moving swiftly on…

Next, we learned how to make a chocolate ganache, stick it in a piping bag, and then pipe it out to make the beginnings of chocolate truffles. It’s the first time anyone has successfully taught me how to use a piping bag, and a bit of a revelation really. I’m going to try it out at home sometime soon.

We then got to have some prosecco and taste some different types of chocolate while our lovely and knowledgeable instructor taught us about the history of chocolate and the “proper” way to taste it. I failed to take a picture of the prosecco because I was too busy necking it … but here is the chocolate.

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Did you know that chocolate has over 400 distinct flavour notes? That’s (apparently) loads more than wine. We had to sniff the chocolate, feel the way it snaps when we break it, and then allow it to dissolve slowly on the tongue. It all made me feel very cultured.

All of this was a clever way of distracting us while our previously piped chocolate ganache set. It all looked like little poos on the paper, as you can see below. We then had to roll and shape them into something prettier using cocoa powder.

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After that, we could dip them in chocolate again and get creative with all sorts of decorations such as strawberry curls, honeycomb and sea salt.

A chocolate martini and two proseccos in, combined with my natural lack of fine motor skills, resulted in these lovely truffles.

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But it’s okay, because they gave us a bag to hide them in and take them home. The pizza box housed my beautiful “mint leaf”. At least I know how to curl a ribbon.

The verdict? I am rubbish at making food look beautiful, but I had a wonderful time. Also, I ate the entire bag of the truffles that I made, just now whilst writing this blog post. They weren’t much to look at, but they were delicious. Just like many things in this world.

I heartily recommend Red Letter Days and this chocolate workshop in particular. It would be fabulous for a party, a date, a good night out with your friends or even a work do. One of the best things about it was that it incorporated a bit of team work and got me chatting with the other bloggers there, even though I didn’t know them beforehand.

Thank you to Red Letter Days for inviting me along to this experience free of charge.

Mission Mindfulness

Gourmet food, celebrity chefs and drinking by the river

One of my passions in life is food and drink. Before we had kids, my husband and I saved our pennies to go to Michelin star restaurants on big birthdays and anniversaries, and were always on the lookout for special deals that would make the very best cuisine affordable. We still watch all the celebrity chef and cooking shows we can find.

However, having young children has seriously reduced the amount of time and money we have to spend in pursuit of culinary delights. We can’t even watch Saturday Kitchen anymore. It has been replaced by CBeebies (or, if we dare vary from that, lots of whinging). For the most part, the only gourmet food we eat is that which my husband cooks (and he is pretty good, but he hasn’t got any Michelin stars).

So I was excited to learn about Pub in the Park, taking place 19-21 May 2017. This is a fabulous new food, drink and music festival hosted by celebrity chef Tom Kerridge.

In case you don’t know, he’s famous for his 2-Michelin-star gastropub in Marlow, The Hand and Flowers. He also has another pub, The Coach, opened in 2014. He has featured on well-known foodie TV shows such as The Great British Menu, and hosted his own shows such as Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food. Right now, he’s getting a lot of press for his new diet cookbook Tom Kerridge’s Dopamine Diet. I’m pretty impressed that he lost 11 stone with a diet he created for himself. That’s the right way to turn 40!

I’ve been wanting to go to The Hand and Flowers for ages but never had a chance. Now, this fantastic weekend festival is giving me the chance to sample a whole range of gourmet tasting dishes at affordable prices. There will be a fantastic lineup of celebrity chefs there doing cooking demonstrations, along with some great live music, all set in the beautiful Higginson Park in Marlow next to the Thames. Check out this amazing line-up:

full-line-up

There will be plenty of places to get a refreshing beverage and kick back on the riverside. And, best of all, it is family friendly. Under-5s go absolutely free, and there will be a children’s pop up picture house to keep them entertained.

If this sounds like a good day out to you, consider signing up to the newsletter (scroll to the bottom of the page) in order to get access to the exclusive pre-sale on Thursday 23 February. Tickets will be available to the general public from the 24th. On the link above you will also find all the information you need about the festival.

Hope to see you there!

I’m receiving complimentary tickets in return for promoting the event in advance and reviewing it afterwards.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
Sparkly Mummy
Two Tiny Hands

Lessons learned: bus tours are not just for tourists, and always bring a change of clothes

Yesterday 365 tickets gave me the great opportunity to take an open-top double-decker bus tour of London with The Original Tour. I have lived near London and worked there for over 10 years now, so I’m hardly the usual target customer for a bus tour. Us seasoned London-goers imagine that everyone on those tours is fresh off the plane from foreign lands, desperate to gaze at the beauty of our city. But even when I was fresh off the plane, I never took one of these tours. However, I know now that I was missing out.

The main reason I was keen to go on the tour is because my 4-year-old son LOVES double-decker buses. And on previous trips to London I had seen him gaze in awe at the “open” ones. “Mummy, can we go on an open bus, pleease?” And I’d always said no because I figured it wasn’t much different from the normal public transport double-decker buses, except that you would be outside and possibly cold! But I was wrong about that too.

So here is the story of our day, which didn’t quite work out the way we planned, but was still an adventure nevertheless.

The best-laid plans…

On a foggy Saturday morning my son and I excitedly jumped on the train to London. Here we are trying out my new selfie stick. It worked brilliantly for this photo! I had many, many bus selfies planned.

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The full plan for the day was to ride the bus from Trafalgar Square, where we picked up our tickets, to Winter Wonderland, where we would stop for lunch and a carnival ride or two. Then we planned to board the bus again to finish the rest of the Yellow Tour. All of the tours are hop-on, hop-off, to enable you to use the buses to get around to see whatever London attractions you’re interested in. You can switch which routes you use over the course of the day depending on where you want to get to. So in theory, you shouldn’t need any other travel ticket the day you take your bus tour.

There are two main sightseeing routes that go past all the major attractions. The Yellow Route is the original tour that covers some key sights. It crosses the river twice and passes the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye, The Shard, Tower Bridge and Leicester Square, among other things. This one is a bit shorter and has a real human tour guide telling you interesting stories along the way, and helping you know where the right place to “hop off” is if you’re planning a specific stop.

The other major route is the Red Route, also known as The City Sightseeing Tour. This makes a much longer circuit of London and goes past Regent Street and The Strand – a great way to see all of the Christmas lights this time of year. It has an audio guide, which includes a special children’s commentary to keep your kids entertained.

Both routes go past Winter Wonderland and other Christmas markets.

Your ticket also covers a bunch of other bus routes, along with walking tours and a river cruise. They give you discounts on admission to other attractions, and you also get this excellent little book for your child, full of activities and history.

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We decided that the Yellow Route was best for us because it was a bit shorter, and I liked the idea of having a live guide.

An entertaining bus ride

After we picked up our tickets, we waited for a short time near Trafalgar Square to catch our bus. There was a lovely attendant there to help us be sure to get on the right bus.

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We hopped on and went straight to the open-top part of the bus. Even though it was a chilly December day, it wasn’t raining, so we decided we could brave the cold for a bit. However, it wasn’t actually cold at all! The way the bus is designed blocked a lot of the wind from blowing in our faces, so we felt relatively sheltered and comfortable. It was great having a view of the sights unfettered by window glass.

The bus did a nice little circuit of Trafalgar Square where I took this picture of the Christmas tree. The tour guide explained how Norway sends us a tree for Trafalgar Square every year to thank us for helping them out during the Second World War.

Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square

We then went past the Admiralty Arch and a statue of Charles I on a horse.

Admiralty Arch.jpgI rather enjoyed the joke the tour guide made when he explained that Charles I was one of our shortest ever monarchs … and he was a lot shorter when we were finished with him! He was beheaded during the English Civil War – when Cromwell took over. The Guide asked us to consider how the current Queen goes past this statue during all her major parades, and how sobering it must be for her to pass this statue of her ancestor who died in such a grisly way!

The bus proceeded down Pall Mall past St James’s Palace, then down Piccadilly past the Ritz Hotel and Green Park. Another interesting little story from the tour guide that I hadn’t heard before was a legend about why they call it Green Park. Supposedly, Charles II’s wife Catherine caught him picking flowers for his mistress there, and in a fit of jealousy ordered all the flowers to be removed. Therefore, to this day, the park is only grass with no flower beds. I’m not sure how historically accurate that one is, but it was entertaining nevertheless.

And then it all went a bit pear-shaped…

At this stage in the journey I decided it was time for one of my highly anticipated bus selfies. I stuck my phone into my selfie stick and took aim, and then the screen of my phone went black. As I looked closer, it had a picture of an Android and lots of computer code gobbledegook streaming across the screen! Cue quiet panic while I wonder if my phone has some sort of virus and OMG how am I going to get through the rest of the day without a phone for pictures, maps, communication … all the things I constantly need it for?! I mashed the off button repeatedly to get it to restart. Finally, it did. Sigh of relief.

Then the tour guide prompted us to get off the bus for Winter Wonderland. So much for my bus selfie. Oh well, I thought to myself, I’ll get one when we get back on later.

We walked round to the entrance of Winter Wonderland and my son started complaining he was tired and his tummy hurt. I thought he was just hungry, so we made a beeline for the bratwurst stand. My son is normally a great lover of sausages so I thought this would go down a treat. We shared one and I cut it into small pieces for him. After the first bite, he said it was a little bit spicy. But he kept eating … 2nd bite, 3rd bite and then … it all came back up.

That’s right, dear readers, my son puked up his lunch in the middle of the Bavarian Village at Winter Wonderland. I looked around with embarrassment, but it was so crowded that nobody seemed to notice. I furtively cleaned up what I could and made a quick exit from the scene of the crime.

My son’s coat and clothes were covered in sick and I hadn’t brought any spares! Argh! I was supposed to finish reviewing the bus tour! What to do? My mind sailed through possible solutions to the problem. Should I pop back on the bus – or maybe into a cab for swiftness – to the nearest retail outlet to purchase some clean apparel? But what if this puke was only the first of many? Images of my son being sick down the side of an open-top bus – or worse, on some other people – danced in my head.

In despair I dragged my son out of the park and to the nearest Tube station. I decided to just go straight home and not risk exposing other bus riders to the contents of my son’s stomach. Unfortunately, we had to ride the Tube and then the train for quite some way to get back to our house in Surrey. I had to stop at WH Smith to buy a plastic bag to house his smelly coat because I hadn’t even remembered to pack one! Rookie parenting mistake.

Luckily, the train was not crowded so I was mostly able to avoid offending others with our stench. I think I saw a few people twitch their noses though.

The verdict

I have to send my apologies to the lovely PR person and 365 Tickets, who arranged this review opportunity for me! My investigation of The Original Tour was not as thorough as I had planned it to be. But surely it’s understandable that a poorly 4-year-old was in no state to enjoy a prolonged bus ride?

Despite the shortness of my experience with the tour, I can without reservation highly recommend it. As I mentioned earlier, I never thought those tours had anything to offer a “seasoned traveller” like myself, but I actually found it incredibly relaxing to sit on the bus and hear entertaining stories about London’s history and landmarks. It seems like a great way to get around if you are planning a day out enjoying London’s attractions, and even better at Christmas when there are lights and other festive sights to see.

I think the tour is a great way to get your children interested in history, too. My son loved being on the bus and listening to the stories the tour guide was telling. I would also recommend it to any friends visiting London – even if not for the first time – as it’s sure to teach you things you didn’t already know.

I hope to take my son back someday soon to enjoy the full tour. I’ll just avoid stopping for bratwurst halfway through, and remember to bring a change of clothes and a plastic bag.

Disclosure: It’s not a secret! I received a ticket for the bus tour in exchange for the review.

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Petite Pudding

Kidzania London: Great educational fun for kids

This half-term I took my 4-year-old to Kidzania London. This unique attraction at Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush is a whole city entirely run by kids. It has shops, food outlets, emergency services, and more. The aim is that kids get to try out real-life jobs in a fun, hands-on way.

How it works

Kidzania has around 60 different role-playing experiences, set out in the format of a sort of miniature city. Upon entry, kids are given 50 “KidZos”, which is fake money. Some of the roleplaying experiences cost KidZos to play, and other experiences earn KidZos.

Each of the experiences is completely kids-only. Parents cannot even go inside the rooms where the children do the different activities – they have to watch through the window! Or, if your children are 7+ years old, you can leave them to do it on their own, and either relax in Kidzania’s parents’ lounge, or go shopping in Westfield. Kids wear RFID bracelets and the whole place is secured so older children are safe enjoying it on their own.

Each admission to Kidzania is for 4 hours, and their website expects you to do around 4-6 roleplaying activities in that time. We actually managed to wedge in 7 activities despite a bit of queueing, so I was very happy with that.

The best way to explain exactly what it’s like is to write a little bit about each activity my son did. This of course will only offer a taste of what’s on offer.

Aviation Academy

We made a beeline for this because my son was rather keen on the notion of being an airline pilot. He went into the room himself with a group of other kids and they dressed him up in a cute little pilot uniform.

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Inside the room I could see (through the parent viewing window), that they had a fully simulated plane cockpit. My son thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Paper recycling

My son has a thing about recycling – not entirely sure why – but I thought he would enjoy learning about paper recycling. He went into the room on his own and the teacher there showed him how they mash up old paper, soak it and then form it into new sheets of paper. He got a piece of handmade paper to take home.Making paper.jpg

Ice cream factory

This was sponsored by Wall’s and the kids got to make a mini milk. They had miniature versions of the machines in the factory and my boy seemed to enjoy it. He got given a badge to take home.

Smoothie making

Same concept as the ice cream, but with smoothies, sponsored by Innocent. This one had a good layout and I could see everything that my son got involved in. He really enjoyed trying some of the fruit and then making a machine work, which spat out a smoothie drink box that he got to keep and drink.

Fire & Rescue unit

This was the absolute highlight. We had to queue for a while – and if I went again I would go to this first thing to beat the crowd – but it was so worth it. First, the kids watch a video about fire safety and what firefighters do. They get to wear cute little firefighter uniforms.

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Then, they ride a miniature fire engine across the city to where there is a model hotel “on fire”. They have toy fire hoses that squirt real water and they all get to help put out the fire. The whole scene was really cool because the city also has Ambulance and Police experiences. So all of the emergency services turn up to play different roles and help with the fire at the hotel.

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City tour bus

Not really as hands-on as the rest of things. You basically just ride a miniature tour bus (much like the fire engine) around the whole city. You know, on a tour! But my son obviously loved it because BUSES.

Textile recycling

I already mentioned about his love of recycling. The textile version of it looked really fun because the kids got to use tablets to sort the clothes for recycling as if they were working in the factory. They also sorted some real clothes by hand and learned all sorts of things about the process. He was given one of those rubber wristbands to take home – which is one of his favourite ever things – he has a growing collection of them from wherever we go!

What I liked about it

I think Kidzania is a very fun place for kids. I saw children of all ages there, really getting involved and loving the feeling that they were in charge and doing “grownup” tasks. It had a great Disneyworld sort of atmosphere that made you feel as if you were immersed in an alternative world. However, the kids were all learning about real-world professions and getting an insight into how the world works generally. I think this was immensely beneficial for my 4yo, as he is just on the cusp of having a deeper understanding of the world and things like this steer him in the right direction.

The notion of spending and earning money is useful – although my son was a little too young to care about that bit. I looked after the money for him and if I hadn’t, it would have been lost for sure! However, I think the roleplaying itself and putting kids in control was even more useful than the training of tiny capitalists. Learning and trying out new skills filled my son with confidence. It was also helpful for me as a parent to step back and let him get on with it. I was prevented from hovering and helping him when he didn’t really need help (as I’m sometimes wont to do).

Without exception, all of the staff there that ran the different sessions were amazing. The staff are all DBS checked, but beyond that, I don’t know what their training was. But these people managed groups of 6 to 8 children of varying ages almost effortlessly, and with great fun and humour. My son is known to challenge authority figures but he behaved beautifully for these people.

It was also lovely that some of the experiences gave a small token, like the wristband or the badge. Very nice to get souvenirs that don’t cost extra!

Some points for consideration

The child admission is £32 during school holidays, and £29.50 off-peak. I think that this is fairly good value, especially if you have an older child who you can leave to go around on their own. That amounts to fairly cheap babysitting! Also, that sort of price is in the usual range for any theme park or attraction in the London area, and Kidzania is definitely as much fun for kids as any of them.

However, I’m less keen on the £16.50 adult admission price. Kidzania has a parents’ lounge where you can go and drink coffee and use the wifi. If I could have done this, I wouldn’t have minded the admission price. But as I had a child under 7, I had to follow him around everywhere. It was pretty hard work standing outside all of the venues while my son enjoyed himself. I think there should be a cheaper price for the parents of under-7s.

On the upside, this place would be perfect for catching up with a mum friend. You could bring your kids and chatter away without interruption while the kids do their activities!

Another thing to consider is the food situation. The website says that you can’t bring your own food, but this wasn’t policed. There were many people blatantly picnicking, and in the end I envied them. The only food outlets were a coffee shop, a crepe trolley, a “diner” and a GBK fast food counter.

We didn’t go to the diner because the seating inside looked odd. Children were sitting down at little bars and there seemed to be no place for the adults to sit. I wanted to sit down and enjoy lunch with my son, so we chose GBK, which had more tables (but not enough, I should note).

Unfortunately, the GBK burger was one of the worst I’ve ever had! It featured 2 dry overcooked patties, presented wrapped in paper with no plate or basket – only a tray – to put it on. And it was very expensive. I paid £21 for two burgers (one child-sized), one fries and two drinks.

I would urge Kidzania to assess their food outlet options and also to “legalise” picnicking. If you are planning to visit, perhaps you’d like to avoid visiting at a time when you would need lunch – I certainly can’t tell you to break the anti-picnic rules.

The verdict

I think Kidzania is definitely worth a visit if you are looking for a unique, immersive and educational attraction for your kids. It’s great for ages 4 and up – and even better for ages 7+ because the kids can go round and let their parents relax.

The Kidzo money that they earn is also good anytime. So if you don’t earn enough on your first visit to buy anything at the Kidzo store, you can save it up and use it next time.

Disclosure: I received 2 admission tickets in return for this review, but I retain editorial honesty.

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Tammymum

The Harry Potter Studios are even better than I thought

I shall announce with shameless pride that I recently visited the Harry Potter Studios completely sans child. Nobody paid me to go (I paid to go), and another completely adult friend joined me. I know some people who just don’t “get” why adults like Harry Potter. Well, the adults who do like Harry Potter don’t “get” why there are any who don’t! At the studios, there were actually more grownup visitors than there were kids.

Harry Potter tour entrance.jpgThese are the actual studios where all the films were filmed. They are a piece of filmmaking history. However you might feel about the films themselves, it is wonderful to see all of the work, imagination and pure craftsmanship that went into the making of them.

The practical stuff

The question I always ask when it comes to stuff like this is, “Is it worth the ticket price?” Tickets for this attraction cost £35 for an adult and £27 for children aged 5-15. Children 4 and under go free. These prices sounded very expensive to me, but now that I’ve gone, I can say that you definitely get enough entertainment to make the price worthwhile. It is also useful to know that the attraction is very buggy-friendly so you could easily bring an under-4 along without it being too much of a mission.

It’s worth noting that you need to purchase tickets in advance – you can’t just rock up there on a whim and buy at the door.

It’s pretty easy to get to as well. I took a train to Watford Junction and caught their shuttle bus up to the studios. The bus costs £2.50 return. If you prefer to drive, there is loads of parking on-site and right next to the entrance. You could always fly there in your Ford Anglia.

Flying Ford Anglia from Harry Potter

What you get to see

I took a hundred photos but I won’t share them all with you for the sake of surprise. But for the sake of proving it’s worth the ticket price, here are a few highlights.

They tell you at the beginning that the tour lasts about 3 hours. My friend and I went through a little faster than that, but you could easily spend longer than us. We didn’t queue up for the green screen room, where you can get a photo of yourself riding a broomstick (among other things), nor did we get a video of ourselves riding the Hogwarts Express.

Just about all of the iconic sets and props that you could wish to see are there. All of the costumes on display are the ones that the actors actually wore. I’ve been to Universal and Hollywood Studios in Orlando, but this tour is more real movie history than I’ve ever seen.

You start the tour with a stroll through the Great Hall at Hogwart’s, which has real York flagstones on the floor. I rather liked the fetching mannequins of Dumbledore, Snape and McGonagall standing at the front.

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After the Great Hall, you move on to a massive room which has various sets from the movies along with hundreds of props, costumes and models of fanciful creatures. Some highlights for me were the potions classroom and the painting of the Fat Lady who guarded the entrance to Gryffindor House.

Potions classroomFat Lady portrait from Harry Potter

I was also amazed to see the set of the kitchen at The Burrow (The Weasley family’s house). I’d always assumed that the knife that chopped by itself and the brush that washed dishes on its own were powered by some sort of digital trickery. But actually, they were mechanical, and you can watch them chopping and washing away completely independent of human intervention.

I also enjoyed laughing at the profusion of Kitten plates in Umbridge’s office.

Dolores Umbridge's Office from Harry Potter

When we finally left the massive room full of sets and props (and we could easily have spent much longer in there), we emerged into a room that was much more exciting. It contained…

Hogwarts Express

THE HOGWART’S EXPRESS!

I had no idea before going that they would have the whole train there, waiting there on Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, giving off steam. You can walk on actual train carriages which are dressed to match the various scenes that happened on the train throughout all of the movies. I was very surprised to learn that there was so much realism in these scenes.

After the train, you have a chance to get some refreshments at a little cafe and sample some Butterbeer. I’m not sure if I can recommend it, but there are only a few places in the world where you can try it, so you might as well have a go.

You then proceed outside to a backlot where you can see the actual Knight Bus, the Dursley’s house on Privet Drive, and the crooked bridge from Hogwarts. I was always rather enamoured of the look of this bridge and was very excited to be able to walk on it.

Hogwart's Bridge

After the backlot, you can see a creature shop that shows how they made lots of the fantastic beasts from the films. Then, finally, the piece de resistance: Diagon Alley. I’m not even going to put a picture of it because it can’t do it justice. The detail of this set is absolutely staggering. You will feel as though you’ve been whisked away into the Harry Potter world, a muggle no longer!

And just when you think it doesn’t get any better, you emerge to an aerial view of a huge scale model of Hogwarts itself. We spent ages looking at the incredible details and craftsmanship that went into this model, and enjoying the unique atmosphere provided by the lighting and the music in the background.

Finally, of course, you emerge into the gift shop. There are so many fun things in here so as to completely bankrupt you. I managed to restrain myself to purchasing only a chocolate frog.

I was interested to find that you can buy an illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I might buy that for my son’s 5th birthday to introduce him to the series!

I’ve only touched briefly on all of the astounding details of this attraction. It is probably one of the most interesting places I have ever visited. These films were clearly produced by a team of people who were both incredibly talented and who cared deeply about their work. I know that it’s a money-making venture, but I still think it is unusual and generous to make all of this behind-the-scenes film history available to the public.

hogwarts-pinterest
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A Shrek Adventure with my big boy

Earlier this week I took my son on a day out in London on his last day before starting school. It was such a treat to go to London with just one child who doesn’t need a pushchair, bibs, bottles, purees or any other heavy equipment in order to enjoy the day.

The main attraction of the day was our trip to Shrek’s Adventure, and I thought I’d write a little review in case you’ve been wondering whether it was worth a trip.

The background

As you may know, the Shrek franchise is part of the DreamWorks film company. They are your leading alternative to Disney movies, and they do it well. I have loved Shrek since the first movie came out in 2001 – well before my kids were even a glimmer in my eye. I love the moral that you don’t need to be beautiful or popular to be a hero. And the snappy one-liners.

That must be Lord Farquaad’s castle … Do you think he’s maybe compensating for something?

Other DreamWorks films include Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and (more recent but less well known) Home. All of them have great modern soundtracks and clever dialogue that the parents can enjoy too. One of my favourite ever film lines is from Kung Fu Panda:

There is no charge for awesomeness. Or attractiveness.

So this was one of those days out that was (selfishly?) just as much about me as it was about my son. I was giggling like a little girl the whole time.

The practical stuff

It is a bit expensive, but you can save money if you book in advance online. The online price is £18.90 per adult and £15.30 per child. shrek portraitThis is about on a par with other London attractions though, and well worth it considering the quality of the show.

I highly recommend booking well in advance if you’re going during half-term or other busy times. I had tried to go last half-term and there were no tickets available when I went online to book the day before. However, today, as some kids were already back to school, it was virtually empty – which was awesome.

It’s in a great location on the South Bank, close to Waterloo Station and next to other attractions such as Sea Life, the London Dungeons and the London Eye. If you want to see more than one thing, you can save money buying combi tickets.

The best bits

I obviously won’t give away all the details, as that would ruin the fun, but here are a few of our favourite bits.

The show starts out with a 4D bus ride. In case you’re unfamiliar with 4D, that’s where, on top of the film being in 3D, they do other stuff to make the environment seem realistic, like squirt water at you if you’re being splashed in the film. It wasn’t just any bus ride – it flies through the air from London to the Kingdom of Far Far Away. My son thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Rather than landing in Far Far Away, you crash there – for reasons I’ll keep a surprise – and then you are sent on a quest to find a way back home to London. Obviously, well-known characters from the Shrek franchise will be there to help or hinder you.

You wander through a series of realistic fairytale sets, and actors play the Shrek characters. There is also a bit of direct audience participation, and it’s all very silly with lots of gross-out humour. It really is entertainment for the whole family.  It’s a little piece of theme park magic.

At the enPhoto with Shrekd of your quest, you get to meet a real live Shrek and take pictures with him using your own camera. This is so nice because it would be very easy for a place like this to insist the only photos you get are the ones they try to sell you.

The staff were so lovely as well. When we got to the Shrek photo opportunity bit, my phone (which I’d turned off because I <always> follow the rules) was taking AGES to boot up. I went to the end of the photo queue and it was still booting when I got to the front. The woman working there let me stand off to the side for as long as it took (it must have been at least 15 minutes), and then come back when I was ready, so we wouldn’t miss out. This was beyond the call of duty and I really appreciated it.

While we were waiting, a giant King Julien (from Madagascar) had a dance party with my son.

I like to move it, move it!

After we finally got our Shrek photo, we came out into an area that had loads of bits from the other Dreamworks movies, with cool things you could pose with for photos, and a Kung Fu Panda computer game. We stayed in this area for ages and, again, no one rushed us along, which was great.

kung-fu-pandaFinally, we came out into the bit where they try to sell you pictures they took of you during the show. These had been taken in front of a green screen and they were actually really good quality. I have to admit to being suckered in.

We got a ‘Far Far Away travel journal’ with all of our pictures in, and stories and activities related to the movies. It also came with a keyring and magnet with our pictures in, and you are able to download the photos for use online. It was £25, but it was a really special day and I’m happy with spending this for the memories. My son has wanted to read his travel journal before bed every night.

The verdict

I think this is the most exotic adventure you can have with a young child in London. The website says children under 6 might be too afraid at this attraction, but my son is 4 and is very sensitive, and he was totally fine. It’s definitely worth a visit if you like theme parks, Dreamworks movies and/or adventure!

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a sponsored review. I paid my own way!

The Pramshed

A magical (and affordable) day out at Priory Farm

There are only a few days left of the summer holidays, and I’ve noticed that all the days out and extra childcare that summer entails are taking their toll on my wallet. When I had a chance to take my older son out last week, I was keen to find somewhere with free or very cheap admission.

We ended up at Priory Farm near Redhill, Surrey. If the weather is nice and your budget is tight, you can’t really beat this place for a day out in the Southeast.

We went on a weekday and arrived about 10am. At this time we had no trouble finding an excellent parking space, but there were absolutely loads available.

Just next to the car park is this huge pirate ship where the kids can play.

Pirate ship playground at Priory FarmThere is a coffee kiosk in the area and picnic benches so that parents can watch their kids play from a civilised distance whilst imbibing caffeine and/or cake. It also sells ice cream, in case you need to bribe your kids to leave the pirate ship.

My 4 year old had no trouble safely climbing around the ship on his own. A toddler would need closer supervision.

Right next to this play area is the entrance to the main attraction – the Discovery Walk. The Discovery Walk showcases the natural beauty of this property, set as it is with views over the Downs. But it offers more than just trees and flowers. Throughout the trail there are many things to climb, tunnels to explore and secrets to discover.

Before you start

The admission price is a very reasonable £2.50pp, which includes a treasure hunt for the kids. The standard treasure hunt features nature facts, but there are also themed hunts throughout the year. The one we did was all about the Olympics. Each stop on the hunt had a trivia question to answer (with some pretty obvious clues to help younger ones figure it out), along with a hint about how to find the next question. The price included a prize at the end, which was a small bag of sweets and a plastic gold medal like the ones you get at sport days. In my opinion, this place is very good value for money.

For an extra £1, you can get a bag of fish food, which I highly recommend, for reasons I’ll explain later.

I should also mention that the trail is relatively buggy-friendly (although I wouldn’t attempt it as the lone adult – better to have at least one friend to join you if you’re pushing a buggy as well as chasing after a child).

Highlights of the Discovery Walk

The first stop on the trail is this pretty little garden.

Wendy's garden at Priory Farm

After you leave the little garden, you turn the corner, and the next thing you see is a beautiful field of wildflowers. You walk past that to discover a teepee with a drum inside. Plan to spend a rather long time listening to your children banging the drum.

When you’ve managed to tear the kids away from the drum, you will encounter one of the absolute highlights of the park: a maze made of sunflowers instead of hedges. I’m a complete sucker for mazes of any type, but this one takes the biscuit. In this maze, on this day, I took probably one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken.

Sunflower
I totally put this on Instagram.

The maze has fun little hints to help you through, and spinners to help you choose your direction. My son loved this and felt a sense of achievement when we found our way out. It isn’t so big that you will be lost for an onerous amount of time.

After you leave the sunflower maze, there is a gentle hill to climb. This is the first time you’ll encounter one of these little balance beams.

Balance beam at Priory Farm

There are lots of little things like this to climb throughout the trail. They are great because it means you never have a long walk without encountering something that keeps the kids interested.

At the top of the hill, you will enter a little wood, in which the trees are labelled with their names (very educational), and there are many secrets to discover. They’ve built lots of little houses made of sticks, which may or may not be inhabited by faeries. I won’t ruin it by telling you all the details, but here is an example of one of the least elaborate ones. Faery house at Priory FarmThe trail through the woods leads you to an abandoned quarry, which contains some more surprises, and then you are invited to climb out of the quarry using a wooden climbing wall. There is a trail round if you can’t or don’t want to climb. I went ahead and climbed straight up, no doubt looking super mature and dignified as I did.

At the top of the hill, there are further things to climb, ways to make loud noises, secret tunnels to navigate, circles of standing stones, and more. Word to the wise: the tunnels might be very muddy on the bottom, even if the weather has been dry. My son could walk at full height through them but I had to maintain an awkward crouch in order to avoid getting filthy. Ouch, my aching middle-aged back! In retrospect, my son probably could have managed in there on his own, but just be prepared for possible crouching or extremely muddy knees if you need to retrieve your children from the tunnel.

Another real highlight for me was the Labyrinth. This bit is not buggy-friendly, or suitable for anyone who can’t balance or climb things. But it is totally worth it. Legend says that a dragon resides within.

The Labyrinth releases you into a beautiful fruit orchard. Look at the size of those plums!PlumsYou then make your way down a gentle slope to the fish pond. Here is where your fish food purchase comes into its own. The pond is well-stocked with fish and they are the greediest creatures you’ve ever seen. There are also lots of greedy ducks. The fish climb on top of each other, and the ducks climb on top of the fish as they all compete for a bit of your fish food. This is truly a spectacle to thrill kids and adults alike. I took some pictures but they just don’t do it justice – you need to see for yourself.

There are a few more surprises on the short walk after the fish pond, before you come to the exit of the Discovery Walk. It took us just over an hour, despite one of us having little legs. My son was having so much fun that he didn’t once complain about his little legs being tired (a complaint that happens for much shorter distances when he’s bored).

If you have more time…

There are loads of other things to do on this property that we didn’t have time for on this day. You can race rubber ducks down a little waterway. You can visit the garden centre and eat lunch at the cafe there, which has a large playground attached to it. And you could pop across the road to check out the Farm Shop.

The verdict

The fun we had at this attraction easily rivals that we’ve had at farm parks which charge four times more for entry. It is a unique place which has clearly had a huge amount of effort and love put into it. The result is a truly magical day out, with new things to discover around every corner.

Cuddle Fairy

Don’t pretend to be a duck: Lessons from a lovely day at Hever Castle

Tips for a stress-free day out with the kids.

I think we’ve already established that I’m not the outdoorsy type. It’s not that I don’t like going outside, it’s just that I’m lazy and everything is easier indoors.

I am the sort of parent who believes in toddler gates. Lots of them. And playpens too. Anything that keeps my little ones in an enclosed area in which I can watch them without having to move (or spilling my drink). I therefore get just a little bit stressed about taking my kids to wide open spaces where I have to chase them around and apply jackets, or sunscreen, or hats (that will be immediately tossed away and lost) or perhaps a change of clothes because they’ve fallen into a moat or something.

So I thought I would share with you some lessons I learnt on a recent trip to Hever Castle, which might help anyone who’s planning a trip there to have a stress-free time – or at least give you a chance to laugh at me.

1. Plan your journey

As usual I just assumed my sat nav would get me to the Castle’s car park and did no further research despite having an excellent internet connection in my house. I’m pretty sure my sat nav is out to kill me. Every time I saw a lovely brown sign pointing the way to the Castle, my sat nav entreated me to go in the opposite direction. Luckily, I ignored it and managed to not end up crashing into a field of sheep. However, apparently Hever has more than one car park. I had planned on meeting my friend ‘in the car park’, and we ended up on opposite ends of the property. No big tragedy, but could have been avoided if I was paying attention.

2. The Tower Maze is awesome but watch the exits

Our first point of call was the adventure playground, containing standard playground equipment along with a truly awesome giant wooden multi-level maze with slides coming down out of it. Having entered at the top of the playground, my friend and I blithely assumed that there were no further exits to the playground area and that we could send our older children to run free on the Tower Maze without them disappearing into the unknown.

But then we didn’t see or hear them for a while. So I walked round to the back of the maze and [camera pans to my face with a look of horror] there was another exit out of the playground. Going right out to who-knows-where. Cue me walking frantically around the maze looking for the children, calling their names in my ‘definitely not panicking’ voice. Thankfully, I found them hiding in a hidey hole in the maze having a whale of a time and not the least bit lost.

3. They have really nice toilets

Like, really nice. With those Dyson hand dryers that you stick your hands into instead of under and that actually dry your hands. Whenever toilets have their own dedicated outbuildings, I don’t expect them to be nice. But they were. With proper baby changers and everything. And it’s a good thing too. Because we went to ALL the different toilets while we were there. At least 5 times. I’m not convinced that my son even used the toilets each of those times. Maybe he was just admiring the hand dryers.

4. Don’t pretend to be a duck

Hever is a beautiful place to have a picnic. We set up under the shade of a big old tree on a slope of well-groomed grass that looked out towards the castle. For 10–15 glorious minutes, all of the children sat on the actual picnic mat and ate their picnics. This is something that has never happened to me before. Usually they are just running about while I chase them with a sandwich.

ducks at hever castle
You can see the ducks here, trying to sneak up on an innocent child, looking shifty.

And what was it that broke the spell? It was me, pretending to be a duck. There were lots of ducks around, and a couple of them were getting a bit close and looking a bit shifty like they wanted to make off with some of our carbohydrate-rich food.

I shouted at them to go away. They ignored me. I threw a small stick in their direction, hoping to scare them off. They tried to eat the stick.

Finally, I got up off the picnic mat and chased them away, waving my arms in the air while yelling, ‘Quack, quack, quack’, as if somehow speaking their language would finally get through to them and make them realise they were on my turf.

The good news is, my strategy worked. The ducks flew away and didn’t return. However, our children thought that my duck impersonation was the funniest thing since a Minion first said ‘banana’. Their peaceful sitting-and-eating turned into them running away across the field while shouting QUACK at each other. As there were no toddler gates, I got stressed that one of them would fall into the moat.

5. Bring a change of clothes or a swim kit.

Hever Castle gardens
My attempt at an artsy photo of the gardens.

Hever Castle has this awesome thing called a Water Maze. It is a series of stepping stones leading into a central tower and back out again. If you try to go the wrong way, great jets of water fly out of the ground. I’m pretty sure the idea is that if the water sprays, you realise it’s a dead end in the maze and try going a different direction. But try telling that to a 4-year-old who would rather just stand in the spray of water for as long as possible. This would indeed be jolly good fun for all if you had brought swimming costumes and towels, or at least a change of clothes. Do you think we had brought these things? If you do, you haven’t been paying attention.

The verdict

Hever Castle is absolutely beautiful. I haven’t even mentioned the actual castle bit yet.

That is because they do a really great deal where you can pay for just the gardens and not the castle. We didn’t think we’d be able to enjoy the castle bit with the kids so saved ourselves the money. But I did go inside the castle once pre-kids and remember it being very interesting indeed.

I don’t think one could get tired of walking through the gardens, and I know they put on a lot of different activities for children and adults throughout the year. When my kids are older, I look forward to renting a pedalo or rowing boat on the lake.

All-in-all, it’s a lovely place for the kids to play, for the adults to enjoy the scenery, to buy an ice cream … and to visit the toilet.

The Lake at Hever Castle
This is a pretty fountain by the lake.
The Pramshed

You too can (at least try to) be Sherlock Holmes!

A review of immersive theatre production, The Game’s Afoot

You are a new recruit to Scotland Yard. As you stand on the streets of Victorian London, mist floating round your ankles, a police inspector begins issuing orders. There’s been a murder. Inspector Lestrade wants you to show Sherlock Holmes what Scotland Yard is really made of and solve the mystery first.

You grab your notebook and your list of suspects and you begin exploring the scene of the crime. You see a suspect standing nearby and head over to The door to 221B Baker Street, home to Sherlock Holmesinterview her, your mind racing as you try to figure out how to get her to talk.

And so, The Game’s Afoot.

This is the production currently taking place at Madame Tussaud’s, performed by the Les Enfants Terribles Theatre Company. During this play, the audience doesn’t sit on plush seats behind “the fourth wall”. You are part of the action, and the experience you have is determined by you.

The show takes place in an intricately designed set, where you can wander through the streets of Holmesian London, visit Scotland Yard, interview the Coroner as she dissects the victim’s body, or wander down the docks to interview a suspect. And that is only a small example of the many areas you can explore.

Your job is to collect clues and try to solve the murder. You are expected to interview suspects, read reports, and look for evidence everywhere.

Now I’ve enjoyed immersive theatre before, for example Punchdrunk performances where you wander through huge warehouses, exploring the set and encountering the actors in non-linear ways as they perform their scenes, resulting in a highly individual experience. However, The Game’s Afoot takes this concept a step further, by forcing you to basically become one of the actors.

Now I would not describe myself as shy but I’m also not the most outgoing person in the world. So I have to say it took me a while to get into my stride when trying to interview the suspects. You have to be clever to get them to reveal anything. You have to pretend it’s real and talk to them in a way that tricks or flatters them into revealing details. The actors’ performances are flawless, not missing a beat no matter what sort of question you hurl at them.

This is a great night out if you want to challenge yourself, and you’re sure to have loads to discuss with your companions afterwards. I only wish that they gave you just a little longer to enjoy the realistic atmosphere and amazing sets. I’d just started to really get into my detective character by the time it was all over.

There are two stories on offer, “The Case of the Poisonous Poet” and “The Case of the Bloodthirsty Beast”. I attended the latter, and am very tempted indeed to buy tickets to the other one now that I’ve boned up on my sleuthing skills.

 

 

 

 

Perfect burgers in Surrey

A review of Brisk Burgers, Oxted, Surrey

Having grown-up in America, I think I have at least a little right to a strong opinion on the subject of burgers. I’m sure there are many delicious burgers to be had in the UK, but unfortunately I have encountered very few of them. For me, burgers in this country are usually overcooked and dry, with not enough toppings or condiments.

So imagine my delight when I found Brisk Burgers, a newly-opened burger bar in Oxted, Surrey. This place really ticks all of the boxes for me.

The menu

The menu is relatively simple but has a nice variety of burgers for different tastes. I chose the “All-American” (as this was the true test for me), but “The Gurkha”, a lamb burger with curry seasoning and a yoghurt dressing, sounded delicious.

Husband chose “The Bandit” (pictured above), which had chilli sauce and roasted red peppers in addition to the usual bacon cheeseburger toppings.

There were a range of different chips you could order with your burger: standard chips, thinner “fries”, skinny fries, courgette fries and sweet potato chips. Other standard sides, such as coleslaw, were also on offer.

The drinks menu was large and comprehensive. I was particularly impressed that they offered local real ale, imported American beers and milkshakes.

There was a children’s menu as well, with a beef burger, chicken burger and bean burger as the main options. We were there without the kids around 7:30pm on a Saturday, but it was nice to see lots of kids there and know that ours would be welcome at that time on a future visit.

The food

My burger was a beautiful thing. It was slightly pink in the middle which rendered the meat soft and juicy. The tomato and onion were fresh, the streaky bacon nice and crispy. My favourite thing was the pickles served in a mustard dressing. I love pickles generally but these were quite special – not too sweet, not too vinegary. And there were a variety of condiments provided, including the must-have mustard for American burgers, French’s.

Husband was equally impressed with his burger, despite being far pickier than I am. He said the red peppers were sweet and just the right consistency (not slimy as roasted veg can sometimes be), and the chilli offered just the right kick for his chilli-loving self.

We had skinny fries (pretty good) and courgette fries (amazing). It was the first time I’d had courgette fries and they were delicious. Little squares of soft courgette coated in a tempura-style batter and delicately seasoned. And I’m pretty sure they were one of my five-a-day.

The atmosphere

IMG_20160730_193826The restaurant had a carefully studied hipster vibe that would have been at home in Shoreditch. There were funny drawings of moustachioed hipsters wearing burgers as hats on the wall. And despite it being quite a narrow space, the bare brickwork and light-coloured furniture made it feel bright and airy.

The only feedback I have is that they should consider adding some hooks under the bar for hanging personal belongings. We waited there for our table and I couldn’t figure out where to rest my handbag.

The service

Very friendly, professional and happy to accommodate special requests. It was a little bit slow at times, but it was very busy and the place has only just opened, so I expect they will tighten things up as time goes on.

The price

This really surprised us. We had 2 burgers, 2 sides and 4 alcoholic drinks, and were expecting to pay over £50, but the final bill came to under £40.

The verdict

Unique, outstanding and definitely worth a visit.