Friday, 26 February 2016

Lukas Graham, Lie-Ins and Quality Time...#LittleLoves

I am finding it so hard to believe we are only 3 days away from the end of February.  Don't get me wrong, I am loving the crisp frosty mornings followed by the beautiful sunny afternoons which are so characteristic of a British spring but we are almost in March; Easter is almost upon us and that is just crazy!

I've been a bit sporadic with my posts over the last 2 weeks as we've been battling various bugs which keep making themselves a nuisance time and again.  Aside from a sore throat or two we have *finally* it would seem kicked them in the behind so I should be back on form from this point.  She says...

Since my last update I've read a couple of good books including I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh.  I had been putting off reading this despite the rave reviews I kept seeing everywhere because I'm not so great with thrillers (I couldn't read Gone Girl when I was on my own in the house, for example!) but I'm glad I went for it in the end.  I read it in pretty much one day and it has been so long since a book has kept me turning pages way into the night.  Although the subject matter is a little hard hitting for the mamas out there, it's a really great read and I would definitely recommend.

I don't want to say Glee again but it is pretty much all I've been watching!  I finally made it to THE saddest episode; The Quarterback which is the tribute to Cory Monteith.  I knew it was going to be sad but I didn't expect that I would find it so moving.  Let's just say I shed some tears...

We've also been watching The Secret Life of the Zoo which the kids are really enjoying and catching up with Cold Case which has finally made a reappearance.  Cold Case is one of my all time favourite shows but after we watched the first season it seemed to vanish from British's back now and I am loving it.

No photos included and a bit of a cheat but I was back wearing a rather unattractive hospital gown again this week.  I had a cardiac referral a while back and had to have an echocardiogram as part of it so I was celebrating the first day back at school with a trip to the hospital.  What dreams are made of, right?!  Luckily it didn't take too long and they seemed fairly pleased with the condition of my heart although I won't get the formal results for a little while.  The gowns makes me smile every time they hand me one and try to pass off that they aren't as terrible as they are.  I don't think anyone can make a hospital gown look good!!

Probably joining many a bandwagon with this one but I am loving Lukas Graham's '7 Years' this week.  I've been playing it almost on repeat and it just doesn't get old.

I spent some one on one time with Meg this week and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to sit down and work on a sequin picture kit she had.  It was quite simple so she just sat and made the picture whilst we chatted away.  It was only maybe 45 minutes but it was so precious and I realised I should do it far more often than I do at the moment.

And Lastly...
We are having a child-free weekend this weekend and although I will miss my babies I am really looking forward to the lie-in tomorrow.  Is that sad or what?!  I'm thinking bacon sandwiches and reading until lunchtime.  I can't remember the last time I did that!

Have a good week all...

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Stick Man Trail at Delamere Forest

It has been just over 2 years since we completed our first Stick Man trail at Delamere Forest and we had a fantastic time; when we heard that the Forestry Commission were bringing the trails back this year we knew we had to go along.

It was a beautifully clear day which meant that when the sun was out you really felt warm but as it began to set it soon got cold.  We wrapped up warm and headed out, prepared to only manage an hour or two outside before the cold was nipping at our noses and fingers.  Surprisingly it was quite busy when we arrived and although there were signs that the main car park was closed we managed to nab a free space.

At Delamere they have made some slight changes to the previous Stick Man trail; it's now in a totally different, newly engineered place which we missed on our way in!

We ended up following the Gruffalo orienteering trail instead to begin with but this was fine as it meant we got to explore the forest which the new Stick Man trail is now not a part of.

Gruffalo trail (accidentally) complete we made our way to the Stick Man trail.  The changes mean that the trail can now stay open until June which is good news for those who don't fancy heading to the muddy woods in the colder weather.

Stick Man packs are available from the cafe near the Visitor Centre and these contain a number of activities for children to complete as they follow the trail around.  The boards dotted around the trail also encourage children to look around them and engage with nature.

There isn't much going on around the trail now it isn't part of the forest so if you want to do some den building or head off the path at all you would need to complete the trail and then walk to one of the paths leading into the main part of the forest.  Obviously we did this the other way round and it was fine although Eli was flagging a little bit by the end.

Completing the booklet in the pack and the different activities on the boards took about 45 minutes but we were the only ones on the trail as it was the end of the day.  I imagine it might take longer if you were to go at a busier time of day.  All of the activities are related to nature and the woods around and involve the likes of building a bird nest, creating a stick tower and making your very own Stick Man or Stick Lady.

Overall with the trip round the woods and the Stick Man trail we were kept occupied for a couple of hours which was great.  In the colder months I find that we don't manage to be out for as long unless we are doing something fun; the muddier and colder the kids get the less compliant they are about walking around so I think 2-3 hours was a great run.

You can find your nearest Stick Man trail here.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Our Perfect Holiday...

Endless stretches of golden sandy beach, crystal clear water shimmering in the sun, hours spent lazing in the warmth immersed in my latest book followed by delicious food and cocktails until dawn...once upon a time that would have been my idea of a perfect holiday.  Total and utter bliss.

Actually, who am I kidding, that IS still my idea of a perfect holiday (although maybe not the cocktails until dawn part) just doesn't often go hand in hand with two children aged 4 and 6 who want constant entertainment.

When you become a partner or a parent, holidays have to change to accommodate the other people now in your life and although James and I generally ticked along quite nicely together when we went away, as the kids get older and their interests change and develop, so has the way we holiday together.

For me, I am still a sunbathing, book reading, relaxation seeking bod.  Throw in some exploration and I'm yours.  The writer in me loves to discover the stories of the places we go and (much to the chagrin of Meg and Eli) I would happily spend hours wandering around museums and ruins, imagining myself at the heart of whatever great events took place in times gone by.

Cobbled alleyways call my name and I love nothing more than roaming around, never knowing what to expect around each corner.  My nosy streak has seen me taking part unexpectedly in a traditional Zambian wedding, sitting at the centre of a market atop a drum whilst stallholders performed for me and even eating lobster in total darkness at the end of a pier whilst on my travels.  

James is the foodie of the family.  He is always willing to try local delicacies, never worrying about his digestion (if it came from the side of the road I would almost certainly steer clear of it!) but loving the experience of trying something new.  He's also a sunseeker like me, but whereas I prefer the slow pace of the warmer weather, he likes to be active.  Give him football, give him watersports, give him swimming and snorkeling, give him hours with the kids running backwards and forwards along the beach...he'll take it all.  As long as he gets a big hearted meal at the end of the day of course!

Meg is the thrill seeking water baby.  Since she learned to swim she has loved nothing more than hours spent in the water, whether that water is deliciously warm or bone-tingling cold.  She's also the child you will find longingly staring up at the rollercoaster with its 18 loop the loops and deadmans drop, just wishing she was tall enough to go on (she never will be, for the record.  This mama could not cope with the fear!)  She's also creative and loves dancing or drawing; making pictures in the dirt or doing yoga in the sand.  She'll take it all in her stride.  Just give her a heady mix of activities and water and she's content.

Eli is our adventurer.  If an experience doesn't leave you messier and muckier than before you started it then it's not worth doing in his opinion.  He has a huge amount of energy from the second he opens his eyes in the morning until the second he crashes on his bed in the evening and he likes to be on the go-go-go.  Sitting still is for the weak...this boy needs to be kept occupied.  He likes nature and exploration and discovering the new and especially the unanticipated.  Whenever we go somewhere, James and I have to frantically read up on it before we arrive because we know that we will be peppered with questions from the moment we arrive.  The obscurer the better!  Although he does also enjoy the sun, Eli really thrived when we visited Oslo as we were constantly on the move (mostly because it was so bitterly cold!) and he got to learn a whole new host of facts about things like grisly vikings.

So how do we find a holiday which suits all of our different temperaments?  Perhaps the one thing that we all agree on is the fact that we like the new.  We like trying things as a family which we have never done whether that's learning a new skill like ice skating or just visiting a place we've never been before.  We like the excitement of the unexpected and the joy of doing something together.  

Our perfect holiday is one where we find a mix of time when we can relax (or play and charge around nearby in Eli's case...) and time when we can go out and explore.  Hand Eli a map and tell him he's responsible for directing us and you never know where you might end up.  Give Meg the chance to do something a little bit challenging and she won't stop beaming from ear to ear.  Give James a new dish and me a good backstory and we'll combine them all into a magical family memory, cherished for years to come.

Does that sound like a tall order?  Or a feasible possibility?  I certainly hope the latter as this is our entry for the Mark Warner Family Blogger Ambassador Programme (the creative writer category) and we would love the opportunity to give it a whirl.  

Monday, 15 February 2016

Siblings {February}

This month has been a bit of a learning curve for Meg and Eli; we made the decision to start sending Eli to a martial arts class rather than gymnastics, moved Meg to a different gym class and they both got separated into different swimming groups as well.

They don't do many things after school but they are so used to spending all their free time together that it has been strange for both of them to adjust to doing something without the other one right behind them.

In other ways though it has been nice; Eli only ever really went to gymnastics because Meg did and it became more and more obvious that it wasn't his forte whereas he's only been to a couple of martial arts classes and already we can see that it's much more to his tempo.  Likewise with the swimming, Meg is progressing much faster than Eli so they needed a change.

I suppose it made me contemplate the fact that as they grow older and as their differences and interests become so much more pronounced, we might see a bigger gap appearing in how much time they spend together and this tight little unit that we are so used to having around may not be seen as frequently as it is now.

Of course, that is hopefully way off in the future and even as I'm typing this, I can hear the sounds of their laughter drifting up to the study.  Star Wars is still very much flavour of the year and all their games involve some elaborately complex storyline where they each take a number of characters and play out one of the films.  I have no doubt that this half term is going to be full of pretty much the same game reenacted over and over again. 

Meg still very much takes the lead and is often the one watching over Eli, reporting back if she feels he is taking things slightly off track.  Eli is much wilder than Meg; where she is cautious, he is impulsive and although it can sometimes lead to disagreements on the whole they balance each other out.

It makes me quite glad that I can now sit and enjoy a cup of tea with the television on a normal channel and know that for at least a short period of time, they can entertain themselves without needing me to step in.  However, I'm still waiting for that to happen when we are out and about; I'd love to not have to worry that Eli will have taken himself off to try out something dangerous; which is pretty much a daily occurrence at the moment!

The Me and Mine Project

Friday, 12 February 2016

Reading, Rugby and Being a Writer...#LittleLoves

I had an absolutely manic time of it last week so I didn't manage to post much on the blog.  This week has been a lot better; I am beginning to see that I really need structure in my working week as much as possible.  I can't always guarantee when clients will send work and set deadlines but I can try and make the most of the days I set aside to work and not faff about for hours on pointless and un-work related stuff!

I am back this week and though and ready to share my Little Loves:-

I finished reading my current book 'Leaving Time' by Jodi Picoult.  I got this for Christmas and it had been a while since I picked up one of her books so it seemed a good time.  I can't really tell you what I made of it.  It wasn't at all what I was expecting if I'm honest.  It's about elephants and psychics and ghosts and mistakes and as with many Picoult books it challenges your perception on things and has a fair few twists and turns.  I wasn't all that comfortable with the subject matter although I did love learning about the elephants!

Sadly (depending on whether you are talking to me or James) I am still on a Glee binge.  I've now made it to Season 4 and I'm watching episodes I've never seen before as I think we only watched the first few in Season 3.  It's still enjoyable even though I know it's going to have a sad outcome when I finally reach Season 6.

We also watched the first episode of The Secret Life of the Zoo with Meg and Eli.  It's a documentary behind the scenes at Chester Zoo and it was really quite fascinating.  It's a 6 part documentary so we're looking forward to seeing the rest.

My England Ruby top for the first game of the Six Nations.  Despite being surrounded by football fanatics most of the time, Rugby is my own little sport and I love watching it.  Not so keen on England's performance but we'll see how it goes over the rest of the tournament.

Charlie Puth's album 'Nine Track Mind'; it was only released a couple of weeks ago and I chanced it on Spotify.  It's a really enjoyable album and I've been loving having it on in the background whilst I've been working this week.

As well as trying to structure my days better I've also been trying to eat better on the days I'm working at home.  When I'm busy I tend to eat very badly often grabbing a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar at lunchtime to snack on and keep me going until dinner.  This week though I've tried some new recipes and although it has taken a larger portion of my time I've felt so much better.  One of my successes was tuna stir fry rice.  Really yummy and I made enough to have it a couple of times.

And Lastly...
This week I shared the first chapter on the manuscript I'm currently working on.  You can read it here.  Just after Christmas I felt really subdued about how hard it has been to self-publish and then keep momentum going.  Nearly all of the success stories I have read online involve putting tens of thousands of pounds into marketing campaigns (and how many ordinary people have that kind of money lying about?!) but I've given myself a stern talking to and I've now got a plan of sorts for the next few months.  It can be so easy to lose sight of the fact that I loved writing Secrets of the River and I love hearing from people who have read it and enjoyed it and that's why I write.

Have a great week all.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Sneak Peek: The Bookshop...

One of the hardest things about being self-published is having a good sounding board on which to bounce ideas and concepts.  I am quite lucky in that I have a number of people who are always only too happy to read my current work but I thought I'd like to throw the net a little wider this time.  If you are interested in contemporary women's fiction then read on for Chapter One of my latest manuscript, The Bookshop:

Part One: July

‘My mother left when I was 6 years old.  Then she died. 

I don’t say this to make you feel sorry for me but simply to pass on the facts. The trouble is, I never know whether to tell people first that she left, or that she’s dead. 

People find it difficult to believe that a child could be so unmoved by the passing of a parent, almost as much as they find it hard to understand how a mother could abandon her child. But there you have it. Now you know, and I would please beg you not to cast judgement on me about the type of person I might be having grown up without my mother.  I’m normal. 

Well, as normal as anyone can expect to be when their father is a Hippotherapist (believe it or not, this has nothing to do with the large African mammal) and they have been a guinea pig for his treatment methods since the time that they could write their name. I often wonder if the reason my mother left was because she couldn’t handle my father’s eccentricities but I try not to dwell too much on the past, plus she married him, didn’t she?’

Cassie paused in her writing and placed her pen into the notebook. She had thought it would be a good idea to help her get some perspective if she started to note her thoughts down but so far it wasn’t doing her any good. She closed the book and ran her hand over the cover, taking a short moment to admire the prettiness of it. Stationary was a weakness of hers and when she’d spotted this beauty in the train station’s shop she hadn’t been able to resist. Turning her head, she gazed out of the train window, watching the countryside flash by as she pondered her current predicament.

Almost exactly one month ago she had received a phone call out of the blue from a firm of solicitors in Hereford. Her initial reaction had been to hang up the phone but some small part of her interest had been piqued and she’d managed to resist.

‘Is that Miss Thomas? Cassandra Thomas? This is Huw Morgan from Taylor & Morgan Solicitors calling. In Hereford?’ 

The voice paused, clearly expecting some form of acknowledgement but Cassie was silent.  She hadn’t the first clue why someone from Hereford would be calling her home in Sheffield, least of all why they would know her full name. Nobody called her Cassandra, not even her father. The accented voice continued. Cassie pictured a very rotund, bald man on the other end and had to fight a smile. Perhaps he wasn’t bald and she was just being overly judgemental. He had that type of voice though. 

‘I’m calling you today because, as you know, your mother has recently died and in her Will she bequeathed a property to you.’

Again, a long pause.

‘Our condolences for your loss.’

Cassie was so astonished she hadn’t known what to say. She was equally shocked and surprised, and, sad? How could she feel sad for the loss of someone she hadn’t ever really known? She had mumbled out a response and written down the name of the solicitor before hanging up the phone, completely and utterly bewildered. Her mother, her estranged mother, someone she hadn’t seen since she left when Cassie was 6, had left her a property in her Will, somewhere in Wales. As far as surprises went, this one was fairly monumental.

She had been due to go out for drinks with her boyfriend Dan and her best friend Andi but when Dan had arrived to collect her she had opened the door and stared at him mutely.

‘Cass, are you alright?’

Cassie and Dan had been dating for 2 years after meeting on a work night out. Dan occasionally did freelance work for the photography company Cassie worked for. They were a small company, just three photographers and a couple of part-time assistants and Cassie who did the admin and organised the diaries. When they’d been introduced, Cassie had immediately fallen for Dan. His narrow face and angular cheekbones were dominated by the large, black-rimmed glasses he wore behind which bright blue eyes sparkled cheekily. He was tall and slender, and utterly gorgeous. She’d spent the entire evening trying not to gawk at him, engineering ways to ensure that she didn’t need to leave her spot next to him at the bar and risk losing her position to someone else. In fact, she still couldn’t quite understand why someone like Dan, with his great fashion sense, creative talent and laidback outlook on life, could ever be attracted to her. Cassie had three staple items in her wardrobe’s repertoire and she wore them to excess: skinny jeans, hoodies in various colours and her converse. Her hair was a non-descript ash-blonde, which worked fine with her green eyes but she generally tied it up, getting up too late in the morning to have any time to do much with it before work.  She did occasionally go through stages of staring at it in the mirror, wishing she could do more than just tie it up or straighten it; to make it frame her heart-shaped face a little better somehow but she could never take the plunge. The downside of having grown up with only her dad and one uncle for company; her knowledge of hair and make up were somewhat limited.

At work she was known for being a control-freak; highly organised and efficient, excellent at keeping everyone on track and where they ought to be. Her home life however left a lot to be desired. It was a bit like the hairdresser with the bad hair or the builder with a wreck for a home; she spent all day organising everybody else and so when she finally opened her front door the last thing she felt like doing was being structured. Luckily Dan seemed to see past the piles of mess, the unwashed dishes and the post-it notes which littered every other available surface where she had scribbled down a date, or a thought, or a plan and then forgotten about it completely. In fact the only place in the whole of her two-bedroom flat which was even slightly passable was the spare bedroom which housed her pride and joy. Shelves filled with books, the classics as well as more modern work, her stationary collection comprised of writing paper, notebooks and pens and boxes of printed photographs which she had taken over the years. To the naked eye it didn’t look all that different from every other space in Cassie’s home but when she went into that room she could tell you where absolutely everything was. Here was ordered chaos and she adored nothing more than sitting amongst her treasures, choosing a notebook to write her thoughts down in or opening up a box and being transported into a wonderful memory via the photographs she lifted out.

Dan had stood on the threshold of her front door, a questioning look on his face, but Cassie had turned and headed for her sanctuary, knowing that if anywhere could make her feel better, that would be it.

Once he'd finally got the whole story from her, Dan had been all for driving her down to Hereford immediately to get more details but Cassie had been hesitant. Bequest or not she hadn’t seen her mother for over 20 years. There were so many questions she had; did her dad know? Should she tell him? Why would her mum leave her something? Had she left something for her ex-husband? 

This was the main reason she had waited a whole month before making her mind up. Cassie had worked hard to keep the lid on the box marked ‘mother’ closed for her entire life. She would never, ever, be able to forget the sad look on her father’s face when he had sat her down and told her that Mummy had gone away for a little while. Had lost count of the number of nights she had lain awake, listening for the sound of her coming home again. When she finally realised that she truly wasn’t coming back she had been angry, resentful and hurt and vowed never to give her a second thought. And she had rigidly kept that promise for the best part of two decades.

Until now.

If you enjoyed this, make sure you subscribe to my blog or visit my Facebook page to ensure you are kept up to date on the release date.  You might also enjoy my debut novel Secrets of the River which is available from Amazon now.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Gandeys Circus is Coming to Town...

If you are looking for ways to occupy the kids this half term and live in the North West then I wanted to share with you just one of the special things you can do:

Liverpool's very own Gandeys Circus is back this February half term and they are bringing a galactic themed treat which is suitable for the whole family.  Taking place on Speke Hall Road (opposite Dobbies Garden Centre) the circus is running from the 12th-28th February so perfect for parents who are looking for something to keep the kids entertained over half term and beyond.

The theme is all about a circus taking place in a galaxy far...far away which is sure to delight both children and adults alike and the press release states:-

This year’s galaxy renowned acts are coming from beyond the stars to entertain families this half term.  Firstly we have the brilliant belly busting trio known as Equivokee, who will be punctuating the thrills with their hilarious routines throughout the show! Appearing alongside Equivokee we have the world smallest stuntman and real life Ewok from the original films Trevor Jones, returning as Peanuts the Clown. Providing some Latin passion will be the Havana Troupe, who will be displaying their graceful feats of strength in their Russian Bar, Spring Board and Hand to Hand acts. Appearing alongside the Havana Troupe, from South America we have the Torres Brothers with their fast paced bolas act and Gordon Marquez with his high speed juggling. As the big top lights darken, the next act is revealed, working at the very cutting edge of circus technology, audiences are sure to be entranced by the breath-taking neon skills of Lazer Girl! 

Finally, landing in the circus ring, we have the Giant Space Wheel which will have families watching through their fingers as Duo Sifolinis risk life and limb in this death defying star battle! Also appearing throughout the production will be the Royalles London Showgirls who will frame the show with their beautiful dancing finesse. The circus will be led by the world renowned Binky Beaumont as Ringmaster, who is returning to the circus ring for the first time in 5 years…all this and more awaits you under the Gandeys Big Top!

How fantastic does that sound?  The last two years the circus has been completely sold out so we are very excited to be attending Gandeys Circus as guests this Saturday and we will be sure to report back to you all the fun I know we'll have.  Neither Meg nor Eli have ever been to see a circus so they are going to beyond thrilled when they find out where we're going and I'm sure if you keep an eye on our IG account you'll see a fair few photos appearing!

You can also expect to find face painting, popcorn, drinks, light up toys and much more and the circus isn't just visiting Liverpool.  There are also performance dates for Knutsford, Newcastle under Lyme and Birmingham as well so be sure to check out the website to see when this intergalactic circus is coming near you.

We are being provided with complimentary tickets to Gandeys Circus.  All thoughts and opinions, unless otherwise stated, are our own.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Firs Cottage Bed & Breakfast, Kington, Herefordshire

A couple of years ago we visited Hay on Wye for my birthday.  It was, by far one of the best weekends away we've ever had as a couple and not just because I got to spend two days completely surrounded by books.

As my birthday was the weekend before the Hay on Wye festival a lot of accommodation was closed so we ended up having to look further afield than the village itself and this led us to Firs Cottage Bed & Breakfast in Kington.

We pulled up outside a gorgeous chalet-cabin type building, with a wrought iron table and chairs outside and were met by the owners of the B&B, Sue and Les.

On arrival we were provided with hot drinks and a slice of cake each which was made by Sue.  This little touch was just lovely and was very welcome indeed after our long drive down.

The log cabins are separate from the main house and there are two, side by side.  They had just been newly completed when we stayed and the attention to detail was evident.  From the luxurious bathroom suite to the furnishings which were all locally sourced, we were more than a little impressed.  In fact, considering what we paid, we definitely got a good deal.

There was a small balcony with table and chairs outside and a dining table inside.  Breakfast is included but additional meals can be arranged; as we were out in Hay for the two days we didn't make use of this service but we did have a quick look over the menu and the food looked divine.  If we were to stay again we'd definitely give this a try.

The complimentary breakfast was served in our room, at a time specified by us the night before and was well cooked with a good selection.  You can also opt for fruit and cereals as well if you wish.

There is no bath, but the shower was more than adequate and I loved the lighting.  It gave the bathroom a really modern and upmarket feel.

Complimentary wifi is available but I really struggled to get any signal.  This wasn't necessarily a bad thing but as a blogger it was something I picked up on!

Overall we thought that the accommodation was excellent for the rate.  Prices start at £45 per person, per night which is very reasonable compared with other B&B's in the area.  It would be the ideal choice for a romantic, luxury break away.  Obviously it would be possible to book the two chalets at the same time if you were a family but I would say only if you had older children as you would have to be in two separate cabins.

Kington is located in Herefordshire, a gorgeous part of the country and there is lots to do in the surrounding area.  It was about 20 minutes from Hay and half an hour from Hereford itself.  Herefordshire is stuffed full of quaint little villages which you could easily spend the day exploring or, alternatively there is kayaking on the River Wye and horse riding in the vicinity as well.

I would love to return to Hay, possibly again this year for my birthday and Firs Cottage would be top of our list as a place to stay.

Disclaimer: I was not asked to write this review and we paid for our accommodation at Firs Cottage ourselves.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

AirBnB: Our Experiences and Tips

I first came across AirBnB about a year ago when someone I follow on Instagram shared their photos from a lovely weekend away.  It immediately piqued my interest; getting to stay in an actual home rather than a generic hotel seemed like a rather unique concept and I spent the next few months researching and 'favourite-ing' places all over the country I would like to visit.

If you haven't come across the concept before: AirBnB is a rental site; people rent our rooms in their apartment or home, or they rent out their entire home to guests.  You can book properties in around 200 countries all over the world and there are approximately 600,000 homes available on the site.

I didn't get chance to actually book using AirBnB until August last year when we decided we wanted to go to London.  We were travelling with my parents so a hotel wasn't really going to be suitable and we wanted to be in a central location.  Cue the decision to book with AirBnB.  Both James and my parents were understandably hesitant: What if we turned up and it wasn't a real home?  What if it wasn't in the place it claimed to be?  What if the owners came home? All real and valid questions.

Me?  I was mostly excited that we were going to finally be using one of the beautiful properties I had been eyeing up for over 12 months!  

Any concerns we had about using AirBnB went straight out of the window when our request was accepted and we immediately had a phone call from our hosts.  They went out of their way to ensure that everything would be perfect for our arrival, even calling us on the day to check we had found the house and the keys without any issues and offering us guidance on how to beat the traffic when they realised we were stuck.

Our next AirBnB test was a little bit more risky; we decided to use it when going to Oslo late last year.  There's a slight difference between being stuck in London, a city we know and where we speak the language to travelling somewhere overseas and potentially being without somewhere to stay but again it went absolutely smoothly.

Now I'm not claiming to be an AirBnB expert because I have used it without any hiccups but I did a lot of research before booking and wanted to share some tips I had picked up:-

Is it safe?
This is probably the main concern that we had before completing our first booking but AirBnB go out of their way to ensure that the process is safe for both hosts and guests.  You have to provide identification (scanned ID like a driving licence) and a phone number which will be verified before you can make a booking or become a host.

There is also a star rating and review system so you can see what other people have found at the properties you are considering.

Payment goes through AirBnB and generally speaking AirBnB will cover up to £600,000 in damages for hosts.  AirBnB's customer service is available 24/7 so you can always get in touch with someone if something should go wrong with your booking.

Of course there are always going to be horror stories as with any accommodation booking.  How many times have you been to a hotel and found you've been let down or it didn't quite live up to expectations?  There are certainly ways you can try and prevent this from being your experience but nothing is ever 100% guaranteed.

When does it work?i
I think there is a lot to be said for staying in a hotel but there are some times when AirBnB just works better such as when you are travelling in a group (like we were in London) or you want to stay in a specific area of a city perhaps.  We also found it was cheaper for us as a family of 4 than staying in a hotel when we were looking into going to Oslo, so it is always worth comparing the two when looking to go away.  You have to keep in mind however that you don't get the perks which come with staying in a hotel; no pre-cooked breakfast or concierge service available here!

It's also not a great choice if you are looking for somewhere last minute as there is no guarantee as to when your chosen host will reply and whether their availability calendar has been kept up to date.

How to avoid a bad experience?
Make sure you read the ratings and reviews from people who have previously stayed in the property.  If the host is new and you have any concerns then I'd stay away until you are more au fait with the AirBnB process. You can see from a host's profile whether they have been verified and so on, so take the time to read in detail about any potential property and host until you are satisfied.

Check the amenities list carefully to make sure that everything is above board and as you are expecting and it's also worth reading the cancellation policy as these vary (being set by the host not AirBnB) and you should know where you stand with regards to refunds due to cancellations.

When you request to stay ask any questions you think may be relevant to your stay such as the distance from the airport or train station, access to public transport, wifi availability, whether your room locks etc...anything which you would need to make your trip the best it can be.  This will allow you to make an informed decision about whether the home is right for you.  I would also recommend being honest about why you are travelling; both in London and in Oslo the hosts were only too happy to recommend local places for us to visit and try out once they knew why we were coming and who we were travelling with.

Remember that a host is under no obligation to accept your request so again, don't leave your booking until the last minute.

Final Tips
- I would recommend getting a telephone number for your host and having that to hand in case of any issues.  If you are staying a room and not booking out an entire home I would also pass on your transport details just in case there are any delays.

- Be considerate guests, leave the home in the condition that you found it even though you might be paying a cleaning fee.

- Leave fair feedback which is an honest reflection of how the home was advertised versus what you found.  Remember that a host is not in control of the weather, whether the people in the adjoining apartment were noisy or if something happened whilst you were out sightseeing and believe me I've read some reviews where people have complained about the above!

- You are given the option to leave both public and private feedback for a host so if there is some way you think a home could be made better, you can tell the host your opinion without blasting it all over their review page.

And enjoy!  I can't wait for our next AirBnB experience...possibly Stuttgart in September?!