Apr 142014

As I mentioned in my last post, we’re off on our first holiday abroad as a family this summer. We’re going to France and I’m really looking forward to it. Well I’m looking forward to the being there side of things anyway. The getting there bit is going to be stressful – if only I’d have seen this infographic from Brittany Ferries before booking our flights to Bordeaux!

I’m not just saying this because the purpose of this post is to show how many advantages there are to taking a ferry instead of a plane, but I’m genuinely dreading the prospect of Dylan and Xander at a great altitude. I haven’t worked out which one I’m most concerned about yet as they will both present their own bespoke problems, but getting them on it is going to be a similar experience to that of The A-Team on those occasions in which they needed B. A. to board a flight. Now where’s that glass of milk, eh?

So what are the benefits of taking a ferry to France as opposed to a plane? Well, to be honest, what aren’t? It takes less time for starters plus there’s the massive bonus of space. We’re talking actual leg room and as much luggage as you can cram into your car, which can’t be bad. Though if I drove, I’d be travelling light so as to keep room for a few cases of red. Well, it would be rude not to.

We used to go to France every summer when I was a kid and it was always by ferry. I really looked forward to the adventure that was being able to walk around the boat doing different things and seeing who could spot land first. It would be nice for my two to experience it too so I think we’ll definitely go by ferry next time – if they’re not too much of a nightmare this summer that is!

Ferry to France vs Plane

Image source: Brittany Ferries – Ferry VS Plane to France

This is a sponsored post. All of the opinions expressed in it – including the belief that my sons are going to act like Mr T – are my own.

 Posted by at 2:18 pm
Apr 112014
Two little boys looking unhappy next to a photo machine

If you think they look upset, you should have seen us!

We’re going to France on our first family holiday later this year. We’ve got most things sorted but passports for Dylan and Xander were still on the ‘to do’ list, so we’ve been dutifully knuckling down and filling in all the relevant paperwork with the associated fear of getting things wrong firmly in mind. I think one of the reasons we’d been unconsciously putting it off – apart from the fact that passports for young children are ridiculous and nothing more than a cynical way of making money – was the tricky issue of getting two under fours to sit still and look ahead for ten seconds. Yes, it was time to get their photos done.

As usual, the cause of the woe was entirely our own fault. Sensible parents would have taken their little darlings to a shop that offers passport photography as a service, but that would have been too easy and we thought we’d go for the slightly cheaper option. Big mistake.

We made our first attempt last week in a slightly older photo machine that was randomly tucked away in a newsagent. It only allowed three attempts, but we figured that we could get Dylan to play ball by the time the final shot was taken, so we gave it a go. After much turning of the stool to raise it to its highest level – and having to put it back after completely unscrewing it in the process – we were ready to start. We made him take off his coat and, after laughing rather too much at the coincidental fact that he had a Superman T-shirt on underneath, got him to look forward. He was still too low down. Bollocks. Undeterred, I crouched in the footwell, hid my hands under his T-shirt and lifted him to the correct height. He looked forward, Kate leaned in and pressed the button then quickly shut the curtain and the photo was taken. Just as he looked round to see why Kate had shut the curtain.

Take two. He looked at Kate again. One attempt left; to make sure he stayed in place, Kate concealed her arm behind him to gently keep his face pointing in the correct direction. The photo was taken and, at last, he was perfectly framed. He looked terrified, but that would do. We printed it and then noticed that Kate’s thumb was visible on his shoulder. Fuck it!

Fast forward to this week and we tried again. This time at an all-singing, all-dancing photo machine in Eastbourne Arndale Centre. It had a camera that moved, negating the need to adjust seats as well as the opportunity to take as many photos as you like before settling on one and taking your money. First up was Dylan. We adjusted the camera and he was still too short. Never mind, we had bags and coats he could sit on. One problem solved. Unfortunately, the machine also showed a live video image of the subject which, to young children, is an invitation to pull silly faces. And he did. For about ten minutes. When he had exhausted his repertoire of expressions, he started to get the idea and looked forward with his head in the correct position. Only he looked at the image of himself below the camera rather than at the camera itself.

Once we’d talked him round, he did look at the camera, but kept smiling and saying “cheeeeeeeese!”. My head was starting to hurt. Somehow or other though, we eventually caught him looking both in the correct direction and in between grins. It was the perfect shot. I went to put my debit card in to pay for the photo, only to discover that the chip and pin machine had the smallest of signs – on a see-through sticker, no less – stating that it was out of order and only accepting cash. Shit! We didn’t have any. Kate ran off to the nearest bank while I simultaneously jealously guarded the machine from other people who wanted to use it and tried to appease Xander who was starting to kick off. Thankfully, Kate made it back in time and the pictures were paid for, printed and in our possession. Just Xander to go then.

Even with the camera adjusted and all our bags and coats on the seat, the little man was still too low down. I reprised my role of man on the floor – which, by the way was agony as it had raised metal dots which left marks in my knees that stayed for hours – only to find that I was getting in the shot by holding him in position. We got him to stand on the seat and, with the same body language as the Tottenham players in the tunnel before their recent humiliation at Anfield, he leant back against the wall.

This didn’t bode well, but at least he was lined up properly. We explained what to do and I stayed in the footwell to keep him company. He seemed to get half the idea, but kept leaning forwards and turning his head to one side in the same way that Liam Gallagher does at the microphone. Straightening him up resulted in a tantrum and bribery with sweets before, finally and by complete fluke, we caught him in between expressions and not quite looking in the right direction, but with his eyes open. Hurrah!

This whole sorry episode took an hour. We didn’t bother doing the shopping we’d gone in to Eastbourne to do afterwards. Our children had broken us. Now we just need to hope that the passport office accepts the images…

 Posted by at 2:34 pm
Apr 092014

A terrapin swimming and looking at the camera.

We visited Sea Life Brighton for a review last year and really enjoyed ourselves so, when they got in touch to ask if we’d like to go back for a preview of their new Rainforest Adventure exhibit, we jumped at the chance – fortuitously, this took place on Xander’s birthday, so that was the family day out we’d been hoping for sorted out too. Nice one!

The main attraction in the new section is a seven-foot anaconda which, when we visited, seemed quite happy to blend in with the other residents of the centre by slithering around underwater. If you’re not a fan of snakes, you may want to quickly skip the photo immediately below this paragraph! I’m not particularly afraid of them, but it was quite an arresting sight to see a predator of this size lurking in the depths waiting for her prey!

A seven-foot anaconda swimming underwater

Younger visitors can make their entrance to the new section by clambering through mangrove roots and there are also small tunnels with domed viewing windows for them to get as close as they dare to the deadly snake as well as to the altogether-more-approachable terrapins. The ground beneath our feet had been transformed into a forest floor and, of course, it was rather humid too. This all contributed to make it an immersive experience from the off and I also liked the way that the Victorian architecture of the centre – which, by the way, is the world’s oldest aquarium – had been made to look like Aztec temples. Very cleverly done!

A child looking through mangrove roots.

Other Amazonian creatures on display include terrapins, turtles and piranhas – which, apparently aren’t as fierce as certain 3D films would have us believe; I decided to take their word for that rather than put it to the test though – with poison dart frogs set to take up residence soon too.

Piranhas swimming in a tank.

We all enjoyed the day out and would recommend a visit if you’re on the lookout for somewhere to take the kids during the Easter holidays. Bear in mind that there’s a plethora of other underwater creatures to meet while you’re there too, including sharks, sea turtles, octopuses and rays.

Tickets start at £9.95 per person if you go in a group and £11.95 if you’re going on your own with savings of up to 30% available if you book online.

 Posted by at 4:42 pm
Apr 072014

An infographic showing statistics about male cancer awareness.

Listen up people – the chaps among you in particular – it’s Male Cancer Awareness Week and, according to a survey by male cancer charity Orchid, awareness of testicular cancer in particular is pretty low in some circles with two thirds of men not sure how to check themselves for signs of the disease.

The survey – which was completed by 3,000 men – was commissioned in order to establish how ‘in touch’ those of us with Y chromosomes are with the family jewels and, as well as finding that many more of us need to swat up on what to look for, there were some other surprising statistics based on various social and environmental factors. Here are some examples:

-          Single men are less likely to recognise the signs and symptoms  of testicular cancer

-          Office workers are least likely to regularly check themselves

-          Tabloid readers appear to be more aware and likely to check for lumps and bumps

-          One in three men would tell their mum or partner if they found a lump, rather than their GP

-          Manual workers are most likely to ignore early symptoms of testicular cancer

-          London men are less ‘ball’ aware than other areas of the UK.

Apparently, if it’s caught early, testicular cancer can be 98% curable. Sadly it seems that too many men delay seeking an early diagnosis meaning that, if they are suffering from the disease, there’s more chance of it spreading and of less chance of treatment being effective.

One of the reasons I participate in Movember every year is because I once had a scare. I got it checked out by my GP and had a scan too and, fortunately, it was a false alarm. I’m not going to lie; it was a horribly embarrassing and awkward experience, but I’ll do it all again if I’m ever in any doubt. I’d rather be embarrassed than seriously ill.

If you don’t know how to check for signs of testicular cancer, this guide should be of use. Also, Orchid is today launching its first confidential, freephone National Male Cancer Helpline. It is staffed by male cancer information nurse specialists every Monday and Wednesday from 10am-5pm on 0808 802 0010. They can also be contacted via a new email service at helpline@orchid-cancer.org.uk.

 Posted by at 9:06 am
Apr 042014

A happy little boy on his trike.

Somehow or other, we have a two-year-old boy once again. I’m really not sure where the time has gone – or why the little man still isn’t sleeping through the night, for that matter – but we recently celebrated the two-year anniversary of Xander arriving in the world with such force that he saved me the trouble of cutting the umbilical cord, so he’s definitely a fully-paid-up member of the terrible twos brigade now.

Despite being very aware of most things in life, I don’t think he quite understood what it was all about as he keeps asking when his birthday is going to be – or maybe that’s because he wants more presents – but he certainly enjoyed himself and knew what to do when faced with gifts, candles and cake! He ripped open, blew out and mercilessly devoured them with the great gusto that has become his trademark. Basically, he systematically destroyed the spoils of celebration.

So how has he changed since his last birthday? Well he’s still a force of nature whose party trick is breaking stuff, so things are similar on that front. He’s a lot more talkative though. He was using odd words and phrases at one, but there was nothing resembling conversation. Now, he’s not backward in coming forward about communicating what he wants. Namely food. His first words every morning are either “Is it breakfast time?” or “Got any Jaffa Cakes?” Nothing if not consistent.

He’s also really enjoying books, which is another good thing. I think he sometimes uses them as a delaying tactic at bedtime, but an interest in words and the structure of stories bodes well. He’s shown an interest in drawing and making things too, so he’s seems to be doing well on the creative front.

He is happy to quite literally charge head-first into new things and ask questions later. He’s an ‘in-your-face’ type and has become the family clown – he’s a talented little mischief maker – but is also very sensitive to other people’s feelings. Apart from today when he had a meltdown during Dylan’s end-of-term preschool performance and caused me to miss it. Git.

Despite dabbling in irrational tantrums though, he’s an amazing little lad who’s doing brilliantly and we’re really proud of him. If he could just learn how to sleep through the night by his third birthday, I’d be much obliged.

 Posted by at 4:09 pm
Mar 312014
A washing machine

Behold its glory!

As I’m in between jobs at the moment, we’re all about saving money, so when the friendly folk at Beko got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in writing a post about money- and time-saving household tips, I felt well qualified to say yes. In exchange, they gave me one of their 9kg washing machines to review and keep. Very generous! Anyway, on with the tips and interspersed pictures of the machine…

Bundle it!
Okay, strictly speaking, this isn’t really a household tip but it’s saved us money so I’m including it. We recently moved our internet, phone and television to one provider. We were paying too much for ours and are now saving well over £20 a month. Admittedly, we could save even more by getting rid of the sports channels, but I’d never do that! I would miss watching my team dash my hopes of glory every season.

Close up of large washing machine drum with washing in it.

And speaking of bundles, you can get loads of up to 9kg in the large drum

Order groceries online
This is probably preaching to the converted but, in case not, it’s well worth considering. As well as removing the stress of running the gauntlet of people who are armed with trollies and have no sense of direction, ordering your shopping online is a great time and money saver. It removes the temptation of buying random things because you’re hungry and they’re right in front of you, and helps you stick to a weekly budget too. You can also buy a delivery pass to save money on deliveries and choose times that are most convenient for you. Plus, if you’re the sort who drives – I’m not – it’ll save you a fair bit in petrol too.

Experiment in the kitchen
Not like that. Tsk. No, experimenting with different ingredients in home-cooked meals can make savings that add up over the year. For example, we often replace beef mince in lasagne and spaghetti bolognese with turkey mince. It’s much cheaper and better for you plus you won’t notice the difference in taste if you have a nice sauce. Speaking of which, making your own instead of buying them literally saves a packet!

Close up of a washing machine being switched on.

And on the subject of experimenting, there are several cycles to choose from, making it easier to save time and money

Switch off
Even when appliances are on standby, they’re still stealthily using electricity so we always switch them off if they’re not needed. The only things that are always on, in fact, are the fridge/freezer and Sky box. Similarly, we always unplug phone and tablet chargers when they’re not in use. I looked this up online to see how much we save on this basis and the general consensus on the sites I visited seemed to be around £40 a year, which is well worth having!

Use energy efficient appliances
As well as being kinder to the environment, appliances that have been designed to use less energy can save you money. Just plucking an example out of thin air here, the Beko washing machine I’ve been given to review is a great example. It can do loads of up to 9kg, is quiet – so you could use its time delay function to put it on at night to save even more money and not worry about it disturbing people – and has an EcoSmart rating of A++. Apparently, it could save you £84 – or 119 washes – in a year.

The interactive LCD display is clear and easy to follow too – you could almost say it’s child’s play, but given Xander’s past indiscretions with washing machines, we’re limiting his part in the chores to unloading it when it’s done. I suppose that’s another way of saving time at least as well – as long as the clean clothes end up in the basket rather than on the floor…

A toddler trying to hide in a washing machine.

What a helpful boy!

We’re very impressed with it and are confident that it will save plenty of money through the year, so I’m very happy to recommend it. Beko 9kg washing machines are available from various retailers from £299 – money that I imagine would be made back in associated savings very quickly. It’s well worth considering if you’re on the lookout for a new machine.

 Posted by at 10:31 am
Mar 192014

A tractor made of construction toy pieces

Both Dylan and Xander have embraced their creative sides a lot more of late and really enjoy making things. Dylan does so in order to enjoy the end result, whereas Xander seems to take more joy in building things so that he can knock them over afterwards. Each to their own. But they clearly both enjoy the construction side of it all so, when I was offered a Bizzy Bitz set for them to try, it would have been cruel to say no.

For those who’ve not heard of it – and I have to admit that I hadn’t – Bizzy Bitz is a range of construction toys based on a ball and socket system. Children can use the pieces to assemble anything from two-dimensional, mosaic-like pictures to three-dimensional structures, making it a completely open-ended toy that allows them to be creative. Indeed, the box had little in the way of instructions inside, which I applaud as it encourages kids to do their own thing rather than copy a set of guidelines. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it either as a result, so they can just get on and enjoy using it.

A pattern made of construction toy pieces

It’s all very good for dexterity too – due to the way that the parts which can be connected to others are aligned, the pieces sometimes need to be rotated in order to fit. According to the press release, it’s good for mathematics skills too and I can see why – if only there were more things of its ilk around when I was little – I may not have been forced to resit my GCSE! Another benefit we’ve discovered is that it’s useful for teaching Xander colours. He seemed confused by them for a little while – thinking everything was ‘purple’ – but asking him to pick out certain pieces by referring to their colour has certainly contributed to him getting them right most of the time too.

A person made of construction toy pieces

The key thing, of course, is what the boys think of it and I’m pleased to report that they both love it. Dylan in particular, but it has to be pointed out that Xander is a year under the recommended age, so I think it’s something he’ll enjoy more and more as his attention span increases! In case all the positives I’ve highlighted in this review haven’t given the game away, I’ve really enjoyed playing with it too and am really pleased that the boys are gaining something from using it. I’m very happy to recommend it for anyone on the lookout for an educational toy for children aged three and up.

Bizzy Bitz sets are available from £4.80. The 110-piece My First Bizzy Bitz set we were sent costs £13.99.

 Posted by at 5:17 pm