Friday, 27 February 2015

My February Reads


After my mammoth reading session in January, I haven't done so well this month.  I'm blaming half term and now chicken pox for absorbing all my time!

I did manage to complete my B for A-Z authors but should really be much further along than this by now...I need to choose shorter books I think.

Here's what I've read this month:-

A Walk in the Park by Jill Mansell - I do love a good Jill Mansell book.  She is one of my 'go to' authors when I want a romantic story to curl up on the sofa with and lose myself for a day or two.  This didn't disappoint.  Lara Carson vanished from Bath 18 years ago, leaving her family and her boyfriend, Flynn without a word.  Now she's back in town.  There's no-one more delighted to see here than her childhood best friend, Evie, who is just about to get married.  Or so she thinks.  This is a lovely story of how life might not always turn out the way you think, but that sometimes, these hiccups can be the best thing to ever happen to us.
Star rating: ***

The Skeleton Cupboard: Stories from a clinical psychologist by Tanya Byron - This is Tanya Byron's account of her years in training as a clinical psychologist.  She shares incredible stories of some of the patients she met during her placements and how they inspired and taught her so much.  Although all the case studies aren't actually real (rather based on some of the people she worked with) I thought it was an incredibly moving book.  It reminded me how people are unique and amazing individuals.  Well worth a read although you may find yourself shedding a tear or two.  It is also my 'B' for A-Z of authors.  Now for the C!
Star rating: ****

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan - After suffering an unfortunate freak accident in the chocolate factory she works in, Anna Trent finds herself stuck and unmotivated.  A chance meeting with her old French teacher, Claire sees Anna make the decision to move Paris to work with a master chocolatier, Thierry.  Thierry is the former sweetheart of Claire and this book follows Anna and Claire in the present as well as Claire and Thierry when they were courting.  It's a lovely, heart-warming story about healing old wounds, finding love and, of course, it is filled with delicious recipes as usual in Jenny Colgan's books.
Star rating: ****

Have you read any good books this month?  Let me know if you've got any recommendations.

Linking up with A-Z Authors and Read with Me.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

My Top 5 Kitchen Life Hacks

I am a huge fan of taking shortcuts where possible in the kitchen.  Having two young children, there isn't always time to do everything 'properly' and if you've ever seen me make a cake then you'll know exactly what I'm talking about (I go for the 'dump it all in together and hope for the best' method of baking)

So if, like me, you are looking for ways you can cut down on the amount of time you spend cooking the evening meal with a child hanging off each leg, then here are my top 5 life hacks for the kitchen:-

1. Cook your bacon in the oven
This is one I only discovered recently after many years of dodging spitting fat as I tried to fry my bacon.  If you have never cooked bacon in the oven then you are missing out.  Not only does it come out deliciously crunchy but it also means you can pop it in the oven and walk away until it is ready, without having to stand around by the hob.  Trust me, your weekend bacon sarnies will never be the same again.

2. Use your microwave
Pre-children, I would only ever use the microwave for heating microwave meals and not much else.  In fact, most of the time it just sat on the kitchen worktop, taking up space and gaining dust.  Now I use the microwave for everything: I steam vegetables, roast garlic, soften sugar, poach eggs, proof dough and so on.

My favourite use is part-cooking vegetables and potatoes if I'm making a stew or a casserole and I need to do it quicker than normal.  This ensures that the contents are soft (James and the kids don't like their veggies to be crunchy!)  If you don't have a microwave then you should definitely invest in one.  You can get many great deals, such as these Panasonic microwave ovens.  
3. Use tongs for fruit squeezing
Once upon a time I owned one of those cheap white plastic fruit squeezer things which is supposed to be the best way to get lemon/lime/orange juice and so on.  Either I just didn't get the knack of doing it correctly or they really are as useless as I think.  I have found a much easier way is to cut my fruit in half and use a pair of tongs to squeeze each half, successfully de-juicing them.

4. Refrigerate onions
If you don't want to be weeping buckets every time you try and chop an onion then store them in your refrigerator.  I've been doing this for a number of years and it works a treat.  No more stopping every few seconds to dab at stinging, running eyes.  I have also heard that putting a slice of bread in your mouth (with some partially sticking out) can also work as the bread absorbs the fumes before they reach your eyes.  Can't say I've tried this out though personally.

5. Soften butter
We've all been there when using real butter; holey, decimated bread because the butter is just too hard.  Not ideal.  A great and easy way to soften butter is to use a cheese grater.  The smaller curls of butter will soften much faster than waiting for the whole block to soften.  A pretty neat trick if you've got guests coming over too and the curls of butter can look quite artistic too!

Have you got any kitchen life hacks?

Disclosure: This post has been written in collaboration with Panasonic.  However, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

When Chicken Pox Strikes...

We have been more than lucky in the last 6 years when it comes to childhood illnesses.  Aside from the usual snuffles and sniffles, our kids don't really 'get' sick.  I think Meg has vomited once in her whole 6 years and Eli the same.  Which is quite lucky really as I am one of those unfortunate souls who ends up being sick alongside the person being sick, just because they are being sick!

Chicken pox is one of those childhood illnesses which almost every parent expects to have to deal with at some point.  Although I have to admit I was beginning to think my two were immune.  Having both been in nurseries from a young age we've had plenty of letters and notices about chicken pox doing the rounds and yet, Meg and Eli never seemed to catch it.

So when Meg woke up with a small rash around her ears I thought nothing of it and sent her off to school as normal.  We're all a bit cold-filled at the moment and she often has a viral rash which accompanies her runny nose so it didn't seem to be anything too worrisome.  I wasn't even that concerned when she said she didn't feel like going to gymnastics as unusual as that was.  It happens to all of us sometimes.

However, later in the day when she had been home from school for a while she suddenly came running down the stairs exclaiming about something on her neck.  I took a look and suddenly, there were a whole load of spots including one rather large, angry looking one on her shoulder which had clearly been scratched.  Uh oh.

The thing which threw me was how slowly the spots appeared.  I asked around and most people agreed that if it was chicken pox, within a couple of hours she would be covered.  Not Meg.  I don't know whether she has a super kick-ass immune system or just likes to do things in her own time but the following morning she hardly had any spots at all.

I wondered aloud whether it might be chicken pox which got Meg excited.  Did she have to stay off school?  Would we have a special girlie day, just the two of us?  Could she bring her bed downstairs and lie down on the sofa?

I wanted to be sure though and as the one on her shoulder didn't look so hot so we took a fun trip down to the GP surgery where we sat in a darkened spare room, before they confirmed that it did look a lot like chicken pox, and that they'd actually seen 3 other children from her school (in her class as it transpires) who also had chicken pox.  Great!  They loaded us up with calamine and paracetamol and sent us home.  The nurse suggested I rub Eli up against Meg whilst I was at it to 'kill two birds with one stone.'  To be honest, they are always clambering over each other so if he doesn't turn up spotty in a week or so he's got to be the wonder-kid.

A quick stop off at the pharmacy for our medicine and to grab some Frozen stickers to cheer up the patient who declared, 'Mummy, I don't think I like chicken pops any more.  I want to go home,' and she was back on the sofa, snuggled up under her duvet and feeling very sorry for herself.

She perked up a while later when offered her stickers and we had a little giggle over playing 'dot to dot' applying calamine to all the spots we could see but it didn't last long before she had retreated into a little bundle again.

This morning she is complaining of feeling unwell so I'm going to keep an eye on her.  I know this is a routine illness which most children get at some point but it's still not nice when it's your child is it?  Not to mention the fact that having just survived half term, we are now all stuck indoors for another week or so!  If anyone finds my sanity, please could they send it back?!  

I think lots of cuddles are in order, and maybe some chocolate too!  For Meg, obviously, not me.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Four Things...

I spotted this little questionnaire/meme on Holly's blog (one of my favourites) and as I am all for procrastinating and not spending time novel writing I thought I'd give it a go.

It's been a while since I've done one of these too and it helps lovely new readers get to know the face behind the blog.  Or something...

Four names that people call me other than Jess:

1) Mummy: often repeatedly, often at loud and ear-splitting pitches.

2) JJ: this is what James calls me.

3) Jessie: I am not a Jessie and yet, people seem to often choose to call me this rather than Jess.  I have often wondered if it's because I am married to a James (Jesse James, get it?!)

4) Sarah: I get this more than you might think.  Do I look more like a Sarah than a Jessica?

Four jobs that I have had:

1) Tumble Tots lackey

2) Legal Secretary

3) Office Manager

4) Writer

Four movies I have watched more than once:

1) Pitch Perfect: I cannot get enough of this film and am more excited than I should be about Pitch Perfect #2 coming out soon!

2) French Kiss: 'Fester, fester, fester.  Rot, rot, rot.'

3) Stardust: We have a tradition that we watch this film every year after we have put the Christmas decorations up.  When this comes out I know it's nearly time for Santa!

4) About A Boy.

Four books I'd recommend:

1) Game of Thrones: just amazing.

2) The Hunger Games trilogy: no explanation needed.  The books far outstrip the films so well worth giving them a go.

3) The Distant Hours by Kate Morton: a beautiful, wonderfully told story which just draws you in.  I think I might have cried when it finished.

4) The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman: a tragic yet beautifully woven story based on real events.

Four places I've lived:

1) Huddersfield

2) Wolverhampton

3) Loughborough

4) Southport

I'm feeling the challenge to add an international location to the above list now!

Four places I've been:

1) Male, Maldives

2) Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt

3) Gulu, Uganda

4) Berlin, Germany

Four places I'd rather be right now:

1) Discovering hidden gems in any European city.

2) Lying on a beach, somewhere hot.

3) Meeting Disney characters at Disneyland with Meg and Eli.

4) Unpacking boxes having moved to New Zealand (imaginary wants count, yes?!)

Four things I don't eat:

1) Cheese

2) Olives

3) Lamb

4) Anything spicy

Four of my favourite foods:

1) Chocolate cake

2) Pesto chicken

3) Chinese 

4) Chips

Four TV shows I watch:

1) Hart of Dixie

2) Sherlock

3) Modern Family

4) The Musketeers

Four things I am looking forward to this year:

1) Getting my book published.

2) Going on holiday.

3) Spending more time together as a family.

4) James' job changing meaning he can spend more time at home.

Four things I am always saying:

1) Stop!  Usually aimed at Eli and encompassing a large number of incidents from tearing away from me down the road to climbing and clambering over furniture.

2) Whatevs

3) Super as a prelude to something else i.e. super-cool, super-slow, super-lame....

4) Ask your Daddy...when I don't want to be the bad guy!

I tag...anyone who fancies sharing their own four things!

Me & My Camera...

Since becoming a blogger I have had a love affair with cameras.  I am always feeling the challenge of improving on my photography and capturing our family moments in high quality  and so last year we invested in a bridge camera.  Unfortunately, somehow the quality still doesn't seem to cut it.  If the lighting is right then it takes amazing pictures but if it isn't, then my iphone actually far outranks the photos I'd be able to take and so I generally find myself using my phone because I'm lazy and it's always to hand and I know that I'll manage to get a semi-decent picture regardless of the time of day.

Then I get onto Instagram and see other people's photos and I end up moaning to James that I need a better camera, he suggests I get out my bridge and learn to use some of the more complex features and so the circle goes round and round.

The trouble is, I'm not very technologically minded and although I have been on a couple of photography courses, my brain just can't adapt to all the features which come with a quality camera.

When I visited Uganda earlier in the year I borrowed my father in law's camera.  A high-end point and shoot but one which just took amazing photos.  This has convinced me that with the right equipment, you can capture some fantastic photos without it getting too complicated.

That is where the Panasonic Lumix TZ70 comes in.  

This lightweight camera has been designed to offer top picture quality with its high sensitivity MOS sensor allowing you to capture fantastic photos even in low light.  As a blogger this is such a great feature.  Sometimes, despite all your best planning you simply need to take pictures when the lighting is rubbish and with the Lumix TZ70 you know that you won't be compromising on the sharpness of your picture.  The camera also has a 30x zoo Leica lens so you can really get up close to your subjects and even lets you record videos in HD.

Another feature I love about this camera is the high speed response; with light speed auto focus and 10fps high speed burst shooting you can capture in-focus images no matter how fast your subject is moving.  Anyone who has tried to photograph children will be able to tell you what a valuable feature this is!

Check out the video below to see more about this camera and all that it has to offer.

I think this would be the ideal choice whether you are an avid traveller looking to capture your adventures, a parent wanting high quality images of family life or simply someone looking for a decent camera which fits in your pocket.

Disclosure: This has been published in collaboration with Panasonic.  All words and opinions are my own.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Review: Ravensburger Alphablocks Giant Floor Puzzle

Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of doing puzzles with my children.  It's a terrible habit I have of simply lacking the patience needed to sit with them and watch them mash the pieces together.

I realised recently, however, that my reluctance has been passed from one child to the other.  See, Meg was never very good at puzzles and I just assumed that Eli would be the same.  He hasn't really ever shown interest in doing them (although that may be because the ones we have are all princess themed...) and I've never really pushed the matter.

However, as Meg has gotten older so her puzzle skills have improved and she can now quite easily sit and do a puzzle by herself, with little intervention needed; she will even choose to take a puzzle off the shelf by herself and sit and do it.  Something I never thought would happen, cynical old me.

This has piqued Eli's interest in puzzles and he will often look over her shoulder, trying to help and so when we were offered the chance to review the Alphablocks Giant Floor Puzzle I said yes, figuring it was about time he got the chance to have a go at his own.

He was beyond excited when the parcel arrived and it was for him.  He was bouncing on the balls of his feet, dragging me into the lounge so we could sit down and try it out.

The box is brightly coloured and immediately Eli recognised the CBeebies characters.  There are 24 large pieces, ideal for smaller hands to hold and turn.  As it's an alphabet themed puzzle it's also a great chance to practise phonics with children who are slightly older; Eli is currently doing this at nursery so it all fitted in very nicely.

As you might expect, each letter also has an emotion or action and attractive and bright pictures.

Eli took to it right away, using the box to find which Alphablock he needed.  

This is where my only criticism of the puzzle comes in; I had assumed that each letter would be one piece of the puzzle.  This would make it easy for the child; to see which letter they needed next and to find the corresponding piece.  It would help with running through the alphabet and practising the sounds.  That isn't the way this puzzle works.  You get several letters on one piece, or none at all.  This is fine in itself, but you can't really work on letters and sounds until the whole thing has been completed.

I suppose the upside of this is that it makes it more challenging for older children; rather than them just finding the next letter, they actually have to consider how the puzzle pieces fit together.

Perhaps it should have occurred to me when I saw that there were only 24 pieces in the puzzle; but I just assumed.  

However, beyond this, the puzzle is ideal for children aged 3+ and as I said, is a great way to get them engaged with recognisable characters, and is a good educational tool as well, allowing children to practise their letters and sounds.

The puzzle is available from various retailers and is priced at £9.99 which I think is a reasonable price.

We would certainly give it big smiles and a thumbs up.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The One Where...I Finish Writing A Book

Last Saturday I wrote the sentence:

‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘I really think I am.’

...and I sat, and I waited for the fanfare.  This was the final sentence in the novel which has taken me just short of two years to write.

Of course there were no fireworks and nobody burst through the front door with a bottle of champagne and box of chocolates in their hands congratulating me and handing me a book deal.  That's the stuff of dreams.

But still.  Despite procrastination and hair pulling and weeks of abandonment and not being able to fall asleep without the characters wandering around in my head, shouting to get out, I have finally, finally finished writing my book.

It feels amazing.

At the end of January I entered it into a writing competition to win representation from an agent and I should hear back about that sometime next week (eek!) but aside from that I am sort of wondering what next.  Should I go self-published, should I at least try and find an agent willing to take a bet on my book?  I've never been very good at selling myself so the idea of trying to write a pitch which makes my book sound like the best book ever to be released and really, it's a must-read, makes me cringe a little bit.  I'm not sure I could do it without feeling like a fraud.

In the spirit of still not being certain whether any of the words I had put down onto paper actually made sense I decided to take the plunge and pinged out a message on Facebook asking whether there was anyone who might possibly quite like to give it a go.

I clicked 'send' and then obsessively checked my phone every 5 seconds for the next 10 minutes as I worried that nobody would bother to respond and then amazingly 15 people said they wanted to read it.  I won't lie, it's possibly the most terrifying thing I have ever done sending it out.  I was immediately back in the world of the obsessive, refreshing my emails to see whether anyone had managed to read it in the half a day I'd given them.

So far, one person has finished it and I've had dribs and drabs of feedback.  Mostly positive, some constructive but the overwhelming sense is that might not really be all that bad.



Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Cuerden Valley Park, Chorley

On Sunday we got the first hint of Spring; gorgeous sunshine and mild weather.  It was the ideal opportunity to get on with our mission this year of getting outside more and exploring our local area.

Cuerden Valley Park is less than half an hour's drive away from us and has been on our 'must visit' list since last summer although we just never seemed to get round to going.  I think we were probably drawn to the beach too much when the weather was good.

The big pull for us was a review I had seen which mentioned that the river was accessible for paddling and wading; something that we knew both Meg and Eli would love.  So we donned our wellies and coats and set off to check it out.

The park is made up of 650 acres which is pretty big.  There are 5 car parks dotted around and it costs £1 for all day parking in any of them.  I think this is really reasonable considering you could easily spend the whole day at the park, especially in the summer.

As we hadn't been before we chose to park in the car park closest to the visitor centre and Cuerden Hall although we didn't actually get chance to visit either as the kids were determined to head straight down and get splashing.

So first stop was the water.  We headed down a windy path towards the most promising location and we weren't disappointed.  Despite the fact that it was mild but not that mild, we did worry that maybe the kids would get cold if they got wet but they didn't seem to mind one bit.

In fact we had to constantly remind them to not wander too far into the river Lostock which winds it's way through the parkland.  I think this will be a great place to come in the summer when we don't need to worry about anyone catching a cold from spending too much time in the chilly water.

Once we'd managed to drag them away from the water we followed the footpath round and came across a large lake.  There were plenty of geese and ducks here which would be perfect for feeding (if we'd thought to bring bread!).  Definitely something to remember for next time.

We started to walk round the lake only to realise that you can't, but that didn't matter as we came across something even better...a whole load of trees had been felled which made the perfect natural climbing frames for the kids and the ideal place to grab some pictures of them.

Just watch out for those prickly bits, eh Meg?!

At the back of this area, there was a gate which led out onto a large hill and some open fields.  Again, the ideal space to run around and burn off some energy.

By this time the sun was beginning to set and the day had turned cooler so we headed back to the car, once more crossing the water (or maybe three or four more times as the kids walked back and forth and yes, Meg did have a change of coat!) before heading up the hill towards the hall accompanied by Eli singing about 'jellyfishes in his wellies.' 

By the time we reached the top of the hill we were well worn out and gasping for a drink (well, mostly me and James were desperate for some caffeine!) There is a tearoom here but it only opens on a Sunday and closes at 3.30pm so by the time we were ready to head home it had already shut.  We'll definitely be trying it out on our next visit though.

I could see us easily spending the day here in the summer and we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon out.  If you are local to the area I would recommend a visit.

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

5 Reasons You Know It's Half Term

Ahh half term.  The stuff of dreams.

Is it just me, or does anyone else look forward to the joys of half term only to be met with the following:-

1.Your Kids Get Up At 5am
For the past two weeks you have been late every single morning for school, having to drag the kids out of bed, wrestle them into their uniforms, shovel breakfast into their mouths and then bundle them into the car.  A few times you've had to sneak in the front of school after being caught out by the blasted frost on your windscreen that will not be moved.  So naturally on the first day of half term they are up and bouncing on your bed at 5am.  Because they know they can break you.

2. It's Raining
In the run up to half term you surveyed the mild(er) weather with pleasure and made promises that you would take full advantage of all the free fun that the outdoors can provide for you and your children.  You may get cocky and swear that even if it rains you'll still get out.  That was before point number one when Monday morning finds you drinking your third coffee of the day at 8am and staring out of the window at an uninspiring grey wet morning.  Let's be honest, there's just no way you are doing that.

3. You're Sick
This happens to me every single half term.  I don't know whether it's the sudden enforced close quarters which bring me face to face with the many and varied germs my children carry but regardless.  That break you have been so looking forward to, all that quality time you can spend with your children is now ruined as you make your way through your weight in tissues and force yourself to swallow down disgusting lemon and honey concoctions.  You even consider taking your kids to the inner circle of hell that is soft play because you are so desperate to stop them bouncing off the walls but then you remember that means coming into contact with even more snotty germ infested small people.  Not.Going.To.Happen.

4. You Have No Food
On your third visit to the supermarket in a week, you begin to wonder whether there isn't an army of borrowers in your house.  Where has all the food gone?  Milk, bread, fruit, snacks, all seem to be vanishing at a rate of knots.  Not to mention all the cakes you've been made to eat just to make it through the day.  Don't judge.

5. You Have No Money
It is 9pm on Sunday evening and you have finally put your feet up and started dreaming of the week to come.  Then your husband tentatively approaches you and says, 'Darling, we've just about recovered from our over-spend at Christmas and so it would be really great if you didn't spend any money this half term.'  Wonderful.  Brilliant.  Superb.  So you can be stuck at home (see points above) all day with two children bouncing off the walls, driving you mad, eating all your food and hiding tiny bits of play dough all over the house whilst you gradually retreat further and further into the corner.  Then you smile a small, secretive little smile as you remember that by the time He walks through the door at 6pm they will jump on him like two feral monkeys, swinging from his arms and wrapping themselves around his legs demanding attention.  Then you can sit back and point out that he put you on a strict budget.  Win.

By the time the following Monday rolls around, you stagger into the school playground, bowl your children through the doors of their classroom and hurry back home to climb into bed.  Unless you are unfortunate enough to have to go back to work as well in which case have some cake.  Lots and lots of lovely cake.

The above may or may not be drawn from real life.  I love my kids really.  Even if they do make me ill with their germs.

What are your half term fun experiences?!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Siblings {February}

This month has been business as usual for my little siblings.  Equilibrium has been restored now everyone is back at school and we once again have days when Meg and Eli get on like a house on fire and days when they just seem to squabble and antagonise each other non-stop.

I love coming across special shared moments like this; there is something so absolutely heart-squeezingly beautiful about seeing them choose to be together under their own initiative and not because I've asked them to go and play for 5 minutes to give me some peace.

Of course, as with anything, these moments can be short-lived.  More and more we begin to see the differences in their personalities come out.  Meg is much more capable of sitting and engaging with a task whereas Eli will give you just a few minutes before he has to be off climbing or clambering over things and creating chaos.

But still, for that brief moment, seeing their sibling relationship as it strengthens, even though it was only for a short moment is really something truly special.  I hope so much that as they get older and start to have different interests that they don't lose the unique bond that they have.  That I can still look up and catch them in a pose like this, totally unprompted, but a real expression of how much they love each other; even if some days it's hard to remember that!

dear beautiful

Friday, 13 February 2015

My Best Valentine's Experience

I told a slight mistruth earlier in the week when I said we didn't 'do' Valentine's Day.  What I meant was that we don't really celebrate it now but we did once upon a time when we were young and newly in love and keen to impress each other with our romantic gestures.

In fact, one of the most romantic things anyone has ever done for me was my first Valentine's with James.

Now before I start I should probably say that I am a complete control freak.  I always think how amazing it would be to do something spontaneous like turn up at the airport and board the cheapest flight going but I know that in reality I just couldn't do it.  What would I pack?  Where would I stay?  What if it was awful?  All these things and more would be buzzing around my head and I'd end up googling the place and completely spoiling the spontaneity of the experience.

So, the first year that James and I were dating, he told me that he had something planned for Valentine's Day and that a taxi would pick me up at 7pm from my house.  That was it.  No further information.  No amount of wheedling and bribing from me would convince him to reveal more.  I was in full blown panic mode that entire day.  Did I dress warmly, smartly, casually?  Did I need a coat?...and so on.

My friends, apparently in on the secret, thought it was hilarious, texting me several times throughout the day asking how I was coping with the not-knowing.  Suffice to say that by the time the taxi arrived I was unbelievably stressed.  Not the best start to a Valentine's Day date!

Of course, a big part of being in a relationship is learning to trust and looking back I wish I had just believed that James would come through.

I turned up at a building, which happened to be the place where we occasionally worked with some young people...had I come to do some youth work rather than have a date?  James met me at the door and led me upstairs where he had completely transformed the room.

There were candles and fairly lights scattered around creating a beautiful ambience, soft music playing gently in the background and a picnic blanket taking centre stage with a wicker basket and some wine glasses accompanying it.

I was completely taken aback to be honest.  It wasn't at all what I had been expecting!  We enjoyed some gorgeous food (this was before the era of cameras on mobile phones so I wasn't able to take any pictures!) and drank some delicious wine.

Once I'd been wined and dined, James brought out some huge, squishy cushions and piled them up so we could watch 'When Harry Met Sally' on a big screen using a projector in total comfort, a film I'd actually never seen before either.

Such a simple idea, and so not worth getting worked up about, as it transpired to be one of the sweetest and most enjoyable dates I have ever had.  It also taught me that I ought to learn to trust James' judgement a bit more.  Sometimes the man comes through!

What is your best Valentine's Experience?  Or your worst?!  Feel free to share below!

Disclosure: This post has been written in collaboration with TheCircle

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Our Sugar-Free Journey

I know that this is the kind of post which has a marmite effect on readers: some completely understand whilst others think I've lost my marbles but as I use blogging as a way of recording things, it only makes sense that I would also use it to record our journey to becoming sugar-free.

My reasons for doing this are varied but essentially it boils down to how ill I have been in recent months.  I am having lots of tests and investigations (thank you NHS!) but one thing I have become aware of is how much I don't take care of what I put into my body.  I gradually began to make changes by starting yoga and drinking herbal teas (see my video here for more on that) and so this is the next step.

Now, myself and James are starting out on an 8 week detox courtesy of the 'I Quit Sugar' book by Sarah Wilson with the aim that after the detox has finished we won't cut sugar out of our diets completely (I love a slice of chocolate cake just too much!) but that we will be more aware of what we are putting into our bodies and will be more in control of how that affects our diet and subsequently how we feel.  If successful we will also reduce Meg and Eli's sugar intake although I am assuming this will happen more naturally as we change our meals and so on.

Just going through my cupboards yesterday was a revelation; whilst we are generally quite good at cooking meals from scratch we have been known to fall back on ready meals and jars of sauces when we are having a busy week.  I had literally no idea how much sugar was in those things.  Go on, take a look, it'll shock you.  That goes for breakfast cereals too.  In fact, I have even been persuaded to venture into the world of slow cooker porridge as I know the kids will eat it and it means they won't nag for the other, more conventional, breakfast cereals.

Right now we are on week one and it is going fairly well.  The idea here is that you take small steps to reduce the amount of sugar you are consuming; no cold-turkey just yet.  So that means less sugar in my tea, no soft drinks, and no cakes or chocolate after dinner.  Snacks should also be sugar-free which I know James has found difficult; he has such a physical job that he usually needs a morning and afternoon pick-me-up to keep him going and because of this he has 'forgotten' a few times and indulged in a chocolate bar and a can of coke since we started.  Luckily, there are some great recipes included in the book for snacks you can eat to keep you going and I'm hopefully going to rustle some of those up this week to help.

When I went food shopping at the start of the week it was a real eye-opener to actually look at the sugar content in the items I was buying, and I ended up putting a lot of stuff back as it just didn't make the cut.  I also ventured into the foreign food aisle of the supermarket for the first time to discover things like coconut oil and chia seeds.  

I tried one of the lunchtime recipes today and it was so yummy and more filling than I had thought too.  This was poached egg and steamed greens mixed with spring onions and tuna.  Delicious!

I know that some people will be dubious about this whole thing; James certainly was and took a lot of convincing but I do hope to be able to report at the end of the 8 weeks just what a difference it has made.  We shall see!

Valentine's Day For Him With Debenhams

So yesterday I shared some of the items I would like for Valentine's Day if money were no object so I thought it was only fair that I also share what I'd buy for James if I wasn't limited by a tight budget.  This is also my entry for this blogger competition.  Go check it out.

It is safe to say that James and I have very different tastes but I've tried to stick to things I think he would like, rather than the things I would personally choose for him.

The chinos and shirt combination would be a smart-casual option and I just love the Fred Perry sailing jacket.  James' idea of a treat is cheese and wine so the hamper would be the perfect choice to spoil him with and I love the scent of Viktor & Rolf products so it's a no brainer with that really!  

I'd pair the navy shirt with the chinos if it were my choice but James only wears clothes from a select colour palette so I had to feature something grey as well.  I think the watch is just stunning and I know he's keen to get a new, high-quality watch which I may have mentioned before.

I have to say that if he had this lot to open on February 14th, I think he'd be one very happy chap!

Cheese and Wine Tray

What do you think of my choices?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

My Valentine's Wishlist

If I'm honest, we don't really *do* Valentine's Day.  We might plump for a card each and maybe buy in one of those meal deals from the supermarket but we don't really buy each other expensive gifts or go all out.  For one thing, hasn't it just been Christmas?  And another, it's our birthdays in a month or two and we'd run out of great ideas.  Not to mention that after nearly 8 years of marriage, we kind of know how we feel about each other (and I'd be a bit concerned if we didn't!)

However, I do love to receive gifts (it being my Love Language) and so on the basis that James might be reading this post, and might decide to surprise me with more than a card bought last minute when he remembers, here are just some ideas for him:-

I love fresh flowers and I don't think you can go wrong with a nice bouquet, especially if you have them delivered during the day as a surprise.  Sunflowers are my favourite as I think they really brighten a room.  How gorgeous is this sunflower and rose jug from Next?

I'm a real sucker for mugs; I just love having a cup of tea in a nice mug, is that weird?!  At the moment I'm really into teacups and saucer sets as I think these add a sense of elegance to my morning tea routine but actually, I really love this mug from Emma Bridgewater.  I've hinted once or twice about this particular cup to James...let's see if he gets the message now!

Now that the kids are a bit older I can wear gorgeous bits of jewellery without worrying about them tugging on it and strangling me or breaking it which is really nice, although I do have to make sure Meg doesn't steal pieces when I'm not looking!  This handmade silver frost ring from Nude Jewellery is just divine, although to be fair I'm in love with quite a lot of the pieces from their range and if you didn't know, they make contemporary jewellery in London and are well worth a visit.  Here's a post I previously wrote about a piece they sent me to review and why I think they are so great.  

I have been banging on about going for a spa day for months now and I wish I could justify the expense (and childcare) of spending a day relaxing and enjoying myself with maybe a treatment or two thrown in.  Unfortunately that just isn't going to happen unless we get a windfall but it would be an ideal present.  I visited a spa for the first time last year and I have well and truly caught the bug.  You just can't put a price on how relaxed you end up feeling at the end of the day!  I like the sound of this Escape Break at Formby Hall.

Failing all of that, I think it will be nice to enjoy a nice meal and relax.

What are you doing this Valentine's Day?  What are you hoping for?

Disclosure: All thoughts and opinions are definitely my own!  Although I was sent a piece of jewellery for including a link to Nude Jewellery.