Half Term Happenings: South Bank

Half Term at SouthbankIt’s half term: are you climbing the walls yet?

I took a trip to South Bank in London a couple of weeks ago to seek out the best of the holiday activities this February to help us chase the boredom away. If you’ve never been here with your children before you really should – there’s a wonderful programme of events with activities from children 0+, so there’s really something for everyone!

Here’s my pick of what’s going on at Southbank:

Children take over the Southbank Centre for two weeks in February for the spectacular Imagine Children’s Festival (9-22 February). Catch readings from authors like Russell Brand and Judith Kerr and celebrate Alice in Wonderland’s 150th Anniversary with dancing, dressing up and croquet. Under 5’s can join in with Baby Yoga, Move & Shake and two shows from Half Moon Young People’s Theatre.

See London like never before – from a duck, with London Duck Tours!Start on a road tour of the City of Westminster, taking in sights like the Houses of Parliament, Coca-Cola London Eye and Big Ben before slipping into the Thames to see the city from the water. All this on a historic vehicle used for the D-day landings in 1944.

Get involved at IWM London for a free family printing activity. Have a go at drawing your favourite piece of art from the current exhibition – Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War – and transfer your design into a print you can keep. Print it: Truth and Memory is on from 14-22 February.

Wallace and Gromit/Chicken Run fan? Take part in the Aardman Messy Time for the Very Young (17-19 February), a programme of workshops atBFI Southbank, that truly do offer something for everyone. With activities from age 0 to 14 you can choose from Claymation, film making, messy play or creative crafts.

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Gillray’s, London Marriott County Hall, achieved what I thought was almost impossible: it’s a wonderful lunch (or dinner) destination for both children and their discerning parents. Spotting three families dining on our last trip here, the kids will love the ream of colouring-in sheets they’re presented with, the special kids eat free menu (proper food only: not an orange fish finger in sight) and the wonderfully friendly staff. Adults won’t be able to get enough of the gorgeous steaks, exemplary wine list and riverside location. Gillray’s really is a star on the South Bank.

Have a budding Marine Biologist in your family? Dive in and be wowed by the fascinating creatures of the deep at the SEA LIFE London Aquarium.  Fun for all, get as close as you dare to Sand Tiger Sharks, Black Tips and Grey Reefs – without getting wet!

Thank you ever so much for everyone at Southbank for inviting me down – you can see the original article over on their website

MTT Does Paxos

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There are many ways one can start a holiday at an airport. A leisurely stroll round duty free, a cooked breakfast (with a beer… cos once you’re through security it doesn’t count), a nice sit down in an executive lounge.

What you DON’T want is a one and a half hour check-in queue (thanks, Monarch) followed by security discovering TNT (traces of) in your handbag, delaying you further for half an hour, i.e. fifteen minutes before your flight leaves.

For one I’m glad I didn’t book the executive lounge for breakfast as we would have had only 3 seconds to enjoy it as I legged it through the departure lounge 15 minutes before we were due to take off… a walk that was supposed to take 25 minutes (gate number 25 is FAR AWAY at Gatwick South). I made it, nearly vomiting, but I made it.

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And the TNT? They let me off but only after a pretty thorough interview, a full body tap-down and the realisation that I’d cleaned my phone screen at the same time as my work computer and those chemicals were probably the culprit. I got a bit of a telling off (don’t tell jokes to airport security) and was made to throw my phone case away but with a couple of minutes to spare I was on my flight to Preveza, Greece. Thank god.

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When we were looking at a place to go away, man friend wanted somewhere totally relaxing, quiet and beautiful. He was itching to go to Italy but I threw the Greek Islands out there: having spent a few holidays on a tiny island towards the north of Greece I knew how unspoilt they could be. After a bit (A LOT) of research we settled on Paxos, part of Paxi, the smallest group of Ionian islands.

One of the reasons Paxos remains so beautifully quiet and rowdy tourist-free is the effort it takes to get there. We flew out of Gatwick to tiny Preveza, and from there were taken on an hour long bus journey to the port town of Parga. The ferry from Parga to Paxos is another hour, and from there we picked up our jeep and happily followed our landlady for the week up to our villa near the hamlet of Magazia.

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Paxos has three main villages; Gaios (where you’ll find the largest port), Loggos and Lakka. The island is only 8 miles in length so you can drive between them all in minutes on the road system. It’s worth noting that if you use Google Maps to navigate (as I did) the super steep dirt tracks around the island show up the same as the tarmac ones, which definitely made for some interesting journeys.

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Oh, and put a drop pin to situate your villa on your map. It’s easier than you think to get lost on such a small island when you don’t have your villa’s address!

We booked through Ionian and Aegan Island Holidays who were great. By being disorganized and booking only a fortnight before we went we managed to save about £600 on the list price of the villa, and their private transfer from the airport to the island was fantastic with English-speaking reps there every step of the way.

We stayed at Villa Ita which was situated at one of the highest points of the island. It was a lovely two-bedroomed villa with its own private pool and absolutely astounding views. While perfect for two grown ups I will say that it wouldn’t have been suitable for those who find hills or steps a struggle, and probably for children either (sheer drops a go-go). One thing I love about Greece is the rustic charm; our villa had this in spades and was very comfortable, just don’t expect five star luxury.

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 Erimitis

The beaches in Paxos are mostly rocky but the calm sea means they’re perfect for swimming – just watch out for Sea Urchins! We visited a few of them – one of my favourites actually being just off the busy port of Gaios with plenty of people watching to be done. One of the absolute best things about the holiday was that I was able to swim in the sea every day, something I think is so good for the soul. Hashtag Hippy.

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You better believe that I had a pretty big interest in the food on the island. I’m a huge fan of Greek food and happily munched on Melitzanosalata (aubergine dip) and Greek salads each and every lunch time. My favourite restaurant was Vassilis Taverna in Loggos; I loved their Chargrilled Octopus with split pea puree and their Lamb and Orzo dish was to die for. The best views (and fanciest meal) was had at Erimitis which is a must-do for a bit of romance and if you’re looking for an excellent pizza with a beer and table service while you relax on the beach then head to Ben’s Bar. Roxi bar in Loggos is also a prime relaxation spot with a terrace that is perfect for sea and yacht-gazing. Beautiful. We didn’t have a bad meal the whole time we were there and everyone spoke wonderful English and was thoroughly charming.

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I reckon a car is a must-have for getting around Paxos and we had the most brilliant open-top Jeep but a boat is even better: nothing beats flying through the waves like James Bond (ahem) to discover and swim in your own private cove. You can rent boats locally at one of the main villages.

Despite missing the children more than I ever expected Paxos was an absolutely spectacular place to visit and I’d return in a heartbeat. I returned home relaxed, rejuvenated and more than ever determined to have a future adventure living by the sea.

Where have you been this summer?

MTT Does Manchester

My home town at the moment is Milton Keynes. Now, I really love where I live. Its proximity to London balanced with value for money can’t be beaten and the amenities are pretty amazing – the shopping, the indoor skiing, the entertainment district, the health club, the WAITROSE. Boy do I love my Waitrose.

But I’ve always known, in my heart of hearts, that I belong by the sea. There is something so completely special you get from being by the ocean that you don’t get anywhere else. I adore it and I can’t wait until there’s a time in my life where I’m able to spend more time at the coast. But for now the odd summer weekend will have to do, or evening the odd man-made seaside resort!

One of the great things about England is that we’re never more than approximately 70 miles from the sea, wherever we are in the country. MK is a town that can dubiously claim to be about this distance from a coast, with our nearest beach being a muddy one in Kent. I have never ever been.

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My favourite beach is Boscombe in Bournemouth (I was born just down the road! Represent!) but DID YOU KNOW… you can get pretty good beach action a little further north? Let me explain…

Manchester, one of the most exciting cities North of Watford, is actually only about 30 minutes from some of the loveliest beaches you could hope to come across. Extend that drive to two hours and you have even more available to you. Magic, right?! But even better – right now at Heaton Park to the north of the city you can find Come To The Beach – the biggest mobile beach in the North West! Hours in the car not necessary.

Entry is free and you will find deck chairs, buckets and spades and a seaside fun park complete with rides like crazy cards and the fun house. It’s all the fun of the beach with none of the hassle.

I spent a couple of nights in Manchester recently… here’s what I got up to:

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Hotel

I stayed at the Hilton Hotel on Deansgate which had one of the most incredible views of any hotel I’ve ever seen. The room was everything you’d expect from a Hilton – comfortable with all the necessary amenities – but the floor to ceiling windows made it something really special. There’s also the fantastic Cloud 23 cocktail bar which is situated on 23rd floor of the building and was a really super place to enjoy a couple of late night martinis. For more hotel options in the city click on over to Hotel Direct.

Eat

The weekend I was in Manchester the man friend fancied a good old steak so we plumped for Gaucho. Much like its London counterparts the restaurant is housed in a beautiful building on St Mary’s Street and offers a fantastic Argentine-inspired menu of steaks and sides. And wines! (And my choice – a v delicious Dirty Martini!).

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If you’re looking for something a little more casual I have it on excellent authority that Almost Famous is THE place to go: brilliant burgers and booze are found here. And for some restaurant recommendations from those who’ve probably eaten at every single establishment at the city I suggest you speak to Helen or Ellie ;)

Do

I spent some time at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) which was an absolutely wonderful place to spend a day with the family, but aside from the summer fun mentioned above there are many more wonderful ways to spend your time up North! Why not head to the Imperial War Museum North, take a tour of Coronation Street or flex your credit card at the Trafford Center? Whether you’re taking an adults-only trip or bringing the kids along there are plenty of things you can get up to in Manchester.

What are your favourite things to do in Manchester?

This post is in partnership with the folks at Hotel Direct 

How Greece Taught Me To Love Being A Mum

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Last week I took a little holiday. Well, kind of a big holiday actually. 1,541 miles to be exact, to Paxos in Greece travelling by train, taxi, plane, bus, boat and jeep. I had looked forward to this holiday for weeks and weeks beforehand, imagining the week of sunshine, beaches, indulgence and adult company. I’d thought about being without the kids – they were having a week with their dad – I knew I’d miss them but having them spend two nights away a fortnight prepares me for the time we’re apart.

The holiday was everything I wanted it to be. Paxos was literally heaven on earth, a tiny island full of little bays with turquoise waters, villages with gorgeous Tavernas churning out Melitzanosalata (I ate it every day), moussaka and Mythos. The beaches were rocky but stunning and I swam in the sea, laid out on the beach and took naps. It was a grown-ups dreamland.

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But I had no idea how much being away from the children for such a long time would hurt. It really was like I was missing something, something huge that I couldn’t quantify or replace. The stacks of sweet children on the island made it worse; I could see Elfie playing with the little girls of her age, painting rocks and collecting shells, or Hux charging into the sea with his usual ignorance of personal safety.

In reality of course it wouldn’t have been that perfect. Hux is probably a year two young for such a holiday (without him being a huge handful at least) and I would have worried about Elfie’s health in such a remote place. But still, but still. It ached.

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I felt guilt for being in such a special place without them – being on the beach, by a pool, looking at fish. Guilt that I was spending my free time away from them doing something so exciting. Guilt that rather than working hard I put my laptop away for a week to concentrate on these things I think they call books. I did a lot of thinking, mental caretaking, situation pondering. I think – as cheesy as this sounds – that by being away for that week I grew into my role as a mum more than I have in a long time.

There was a moment, the day after I returned home, when I was hanging the washing up on the line. I’m trying to get Elflie out of nappies at night and Hux I guess just likes the feeling of air on his bottom so as a result we get through a load of Fairy non-bio. The children were kicking a ball, the sun was on our faces and we had nothing to do but just be together in the garden. This is when a particular thought popped into my head for the very first time in my life, and that was just how much I love being a mother.

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Being a mum has never been something that I’ve disliked. It was moreso a situation that happened to me when I wasn’t really expecting it and therefore it freaked me out. It was something I kind of just got used to and in the meantime I think I missed out on the enjoyment part.

But there it was – hanging out fresh sheets, listening to bickering over a ball and thinking about what to cook that evening. Like a lightening bolt. It felt blissful to just know I was in the right place with those two little people at that time.

So content.

Thank-you, Paxos, for teaching me how to love being a mum. I’ll be back soon and with two little mini-mes. We can’t wait.

I should probably come back at a later date and tell you all about just how wonderful visiting Paxos – the actual island – was. Or the story about how I was 5 minutes away from my flight because traces of explosives were found in my handbag (my new nickname is TNT). Or maybe the one where I got on a train on the last leg of my journey home to Buckinghamshire and ended up in Wigan. Stay tuned…

MTT Does Shoreditch

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Even though it’s a good six years since I lived there, Shoreditch is still my favourite area of London. It’s not edgy anymore, it’s not particularly trendy (don’t you have to go to Putney to be trendy these days?), but I love it. I know the streets, the bars, the coffee shops, the people… it’s a vibrant and fun place and I just love to be there. In the last six months I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot more time in that area and now I’m working there too I thought it would be a great opportunity to tell you all about my favourite places. So without further ado, here it is; MTT does Shoreditch:

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MTT Does The Cavendish London

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Even though I no longer live in London I would definitely say it is my spiritual home. Something about the place is so energising: the atmosphere, the culture, the food, the tourists, the traffic. I love it all and every time I make the thirty minute train journey into the city I feel excited at the prospect of spending a few hours in my favourite place.

But a few hours never seems to be enough; luckily I have a good few friends who let me crash in their beds when I’m in town on a girl’s night, and you can always get a good value hotel room via Hotel Tonight (I love The Threadneedles) or at The Hoxton. And a couple of weeks ago I added a new hotel to my list of favourite places in London to lay my head: The Cavendish London.

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The Cavendish London is a 4 star boutique hotel in on of the most gorgeous areas of London, St James, just off Piccadilly. I visited on one of the first super sunny days of the year and it was just glorious; the sun was bouncing off the stone buildings, the sky was blue and though it was still pretty chilly there were bare arms and smiley faces every way you turned. I’d just indulged in one of my favourite activities, a hair cut with the ever-amazing Sam at Ena Salon (he knows how to make you feel spoiled, ladies), and strolling through such a beautiful London meant I was walking on air by the time I got to my hotel. You’ll find it easily as I did tucked in on a little side street just behind Fortnum’s: such a fantastic spot for anyone wanting to explore the finer parts of London.

I checked in and made my way up to my room. Just check out the view I was greeted with! I don’t mean the view of myself in the mirror, I’m talking that breathtaking London vista up there. Totally stunning.

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I never know what to do when I find myself in a hotel room. A place where you are ALONE, with a TV, a huge bed for SLEEP, magazines that you can READ. The potential for alone-time fun is incredible. So I did what I always seem to do which is order a Caesar salad and bowl of chips on room service, don my bathrobe and eat my lunch snuggled into the big fluffy hotel pillows. Blissful.

Caesar salad and chips is always my go-to room service choice and this one was top-notch. The chicken was perfectly chargrilled and though I don’t normally go for chunky chips these ones were wonderful. And anchovies, mmm, anchovies.

Bed at The Cavendish London

Desk at The Cavendish, London

Room Service at The Cavendish, LondonNot wanting to be totally lazy and explore the local area (and OK, cos I’d left my contact lens solution at home), I took a wander up Piccadilly to Piccadilly Circus. Up here you’ll find some shops and a LOT of tourists (and also a huge store dedicated to Nespresso? Who knew). I picked up a little bottle of wine from Whole Foods (fave supermarket in the whole world, sorry Waitrose) with plans to enjoy it in the bath later and just took an hour to walk aimlessly. This part of London is so different to what I’m used to, it’s a feast for the senses with its bright lights, smells wafting over from Chinatown and busy streets. It was fun but I was happy to retreat to the sanctuary of my room at The Cavendish London.

Sunrise from The Cavendish, London

There are rarely many things I find more satisfying than a nap in a hotel bed, so nap I did followed by a happy half hour gazing out of my window at the view with my Whole Foods glass of wine in hand. Soul food, that was. Then it was time for dinner after a long soak in a bath. This day… it just gets better and better, right?

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I’d invited my gorgeous friend Caoimhe to dine with me and was so excited to catch up with her. We began our evening with cocktails in the bar and gossip about boys before moving on to the restaurant. IMG_1342The food was one of the things I was most looking forward to at The Cavendish; their in-house restaurant Petrichor has 2 AA rosettes and after checking out their menu online I was really excited to dine there. It’s one floor up in the hotel so you get a really unique birds-eye view of the streets below which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a quiet, luxurious restaurant that would be suited to a romantic date or anniversary dinner. Or a catch up with one of your favourite Irish babes :)

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I plumped for the Scottish Scallop started which came with breaded frogs legs and was every bit as delicious as it looked. The scallops were cooked to perfection and though I’ve only had frogs legs once before these really hit the spot. Delicious.

Caoimhe went for the Trio of Quail: breast, egg and confit leg croquette. Just YUM. 

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Next up were the mains and though I chose well with  my Suffolk Chicken Roulade (the pan-fried lettuce was to die for and I loved the earthy taste of the king oyster mushroom and truffle hollandaise) I have to admit, I had total food envy. Caoimhe’s plate was a work of art; her beef fillet came with smoked potato puree, ox cheek croquette, duck liver pate and a potato ring. WOW.

IMG_1351 IMG_1349Puddings were up next and again these were big old plates of loveliness. My star anise creme brulee was a lovely end to a beautiful meal and Caoimhe’s Chocolate brownie could have been eaten three times over.

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With stuffed bellies we headed off round the corner to Quaglino’s for a little sip of Prosecco and an old-fashioned flirt with some bartenders. We must have done something right because they kept appearing at our table with shots of delicious alcohol: this one below was rhubarb pavlova and coming with a teeny tiny meringue it literally tasted like pudding in a glass. We were impressed. And slightly drunk. See: LEGS. My mother will be horrified.

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When we ran out of gossip I wobbled back round the corner to my bed at The Cavendish, excited about the TEN HOURS sleep I was about to have. There’s always time for a mirror selfie in a lift full of reflections, though…

IMG_5675The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed and energised hungover and starving. Luckily on my return to the hotel I’d had the wherewithal to crazily scribble a room service breakfast order and leave it on my door for morning. So I had a slug of water, took a picture of the London sunrise and waited for my feast to arrive at 8.30.

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Yep, apparently when I’m a bit tiddly I want ALL THE BACON. The breakfast was divine and tasted just as good as it looked, especially when enjoyed in bed with a massive cup of tea and Sunday morning breakfast TV. If you decide to brave leaving your room for breakfast though it’s worth noting you can until 12pm: it winds me up no end when you wake up at 10.15am on a Sunday morning in a hotel and realise you’ve missed breakfast and I wish more hotels were flexible with their times like this.

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A little post-breakkie snooze and I was ready to start the day. I had to be back home for the kids fairly early so after I checked out of my St James’s bolthole I took a little browse through Fortnum and Mason and hopped on the tube home.

All in all, a thoroughly wonderful way to spend 24 hours in the capital. I may not have gone sightseeing, taken in any museums or visited any great monuments… but I returned home feeling like I’d spent a whole day pampering and pleasing no-one but myself and that was worth its weight in gold. The memories of that wonderful alone time will last and last :)

The Cavendish London: I’ll be back!

I was a guest of The Cavendish London – thank you so much for having me!