Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Overnighting at the Travelodge Ashford


image credit: Travelodge Hotels

Whether you're exploring the Garden of England or looking for a handy stopover en-route to the Channel, the Travelodge at Ashford offers a great value, comfortable overnight stay.

Located close to the M20 (but not so close that you can hear the traffic), it's easy to find and perfect for an early morning getaway the next day without getting snarled up in town centre traffic.

There was ample free car parking for the hotel, and it was easy to find a space near the entrance.  Tucked away on the Eureka Retail Park, you'll find loads of eating out options, great for families if you want to dine out rather than eating in the hotel bar - choose from Frankie & Bennys; Nandos; Pizza Hut; Chiquito or takeaways at Burger King; Subway and KFC.  There's even a Cineworld on the park, so you could nip out for a family movie before bed.

We arrived at the hotel very late at night as we'd been to a Forest Live concert at Bedgebury.  Even at nearly 11:00pm, there were staff on the desk to check us in and we were given our key for the room.  We were able to get a glass of wine from the bar and it was a welcome treat to take it up to our room, kick off our soggy shoes and get out of our wet clothes (it had bucketed down earlier in the evening and we got drenched!) Had we not been looking so dishevelled, we'd have probably stayed and enjoyed our drink in the comfy lounge area.


Although there's no air conditioning in the rooms in this hotel, the staff had thoughtfully been in prior to our arrival, closed the curtains and put on a fan in the room for us.

Decorated in the corporate colour scheme, we had a comfortable king size 'Dreamer' bed, a TV and tea and coffee making facilities in our en suite room.  The bathroom was roomy and equipped with a bath, a shower over, washbasin and toilet, there was a supply of liquid soap and shower gel/shampoo in pump dispensers.  It was all clean and fresh and quiet (even with the window open all night) so we slept like logs.




Our room overlooked a small pond, and it was so peaceful and relaxing looking out onto the wildlife - I spotted rabbits lazily nibbling the grass, a heron swooping over and a family of ducks and ducklings out for a morning swim.


After a refreshing shower in the morning we headed down to breakfast.  Buffet style, there was plenty to choose from with unlimited refills of tea; coffee and fruit juice; cereals; fruit; toast; yoghurts and cooked sausages; bacon; scrambled eggs and beans.





If you're travelling with your family, it's worth remembering that kids go free with Travelodge, up to 2 children under 16 can share a family room with no additional charge, and they get free breakfast too.

There is limited free wifi in the hotel (free for first 30 minutes, then £3 for 24 hours), and snack vending machines should you get the midnight munchies.  


We had a very comfortable overnight stay. Although I didn't have as much interaction with the staff as I've had at other Travelodge hotels I've stayed in, for a budget hotel I don't think you can do better than a Travelodge for a great value stay.  Rooms are available in this location from £67 per night.

Disclosure: We were offered one nights' accommodation and breakfast for the purpose of this review.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Visiting the Duomo in Milan

Duomo Cathedral Milan pigeons

The magnificent cathedral dominates the city's skyline and whilst its grandeur can be admired from afar, it's really worth a closer look with a visit inside and if you can, upstairs to the roof for the most spectacular views of Milan.

Duomo Cathedral and square, Milan, Italy

Building started on the Duomo in 1386, but the largest church in all of Italy (the fifth largest in the world) wouldn't be completed for a further 600 years. It's incredible to think that men laboured their entire working lives on something that wouldn't even be seen finished by their great, great, great, great, great grandchildren.

The Bishop at the time insisted the cathedral was built from Candoglia marble, a distinctive salmon pink stone, and each piece was transported to the centre of Milan via the canals after the Duke of Milan gave permission for the quarried stone to be used free of charge for the holy building.  Each piece was stamped to exempt it from charges.

As we queued to get in (note for others - buy fast-track tickets in advance!) there was the most biblical of thunderstorms.  The rain was coming down in sheets, running like rivers down the streets.  I'm sure it was worthy of Noah's time.  Funny how things change, in days gone by the cathedral would have offered shelter and sanctuary, these days they make you stand in the rain and queue for tickets.  Still, it was good to see the 14th century plumbing and drainage in action!

video


Entrance is €2 but it's well worth purchasing a ticket for the terrace so you can enter the rooftop area.  This is €8 (half price for children) to walk up the stairs, or €13 to use the elevator.

You can get a close-up view of the spires for free from across the road in the department store rooftop cafe, but photography is difficult because of the volume of people and the glass safety barriers.  It's worth paying and the heady climb to the top - although don't do it with slippy shoes and after a half bottle of champagne like I did.  I got the proper horrors.

Inside the building itself, you can't help but be awestruck by the magnitude of the Duomo.  The towering piers, 52 in total, one for each week of the year separate the aisles.  Each column is topped with statues of saints.  As you enter from the front, look for the meridian which was installed in 1786 by astronomers to mark astronomical noon by a ray of sunlight that enters from the south aisle.

Pillars columns of the Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Pillars columns of the Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

marble carved pillars of the Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

It's important to remember that this is still a place of worship, so visitors are expected to be respectful.  Women will be asked to cover their shoulders, although they were ok with my long denim shorts.  Disposable ponchos are available to purchase if you don't have someone handy to lend you their jacket. Voices should be kept low, children under control, camera flashes are not allowed and the use of mobiles is very much frowned upon.  The feathered capped guards may look like something from a William Tell story, but they mean business.

Back inside the Duomo, there are countless stained glass windows to admire ranging in date from 1473 to 1988.  The intricacies, the minute details in the carving, the tiled flooring, the magnificent gilded organ pipes - it was almost too much for my eyes.

stained glass window of the Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Biblical scene carving  Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Marble floor mosaic Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Gilt organ Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy


The peculiar statue of St Bartholomew, who was martyred by being flayed and crucified reminded me of those vintage anatomical drawings, all sinews and muscles.

St Bartholomew statue Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

St Bartholomew statue Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

St Bartholomew statue Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy


In the vault above the choir is the Holy Nail of The Cross, a red light marking the place where a nail reputedly from Jesus' crucifixion has been kept since 1461.  It is displayed to visitors every 14 Spetember when the bishop is raised up on hidden pulleys to the niche where it is hidden.

To enter the staircase for the rooftop, you need to exit the building and walk around the side, so if you want to break up your visit with lunch (or to wait for it to stop raining in our case) then you can.

The climb wasn't so bad - I forgot to count how many steps there were on the spiral staircase, but it was so worth it for the incredible views of the city. From here you can see up close the painstaking restoration work which is ongoing, replacing sections of the marble which have been eroded by time, weather, pollution and pigeon droppings.

Marble renovation rooftop Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

See the buttresses and gargoyles from above, and take in the panoramic vistas which on a clear day allow you to see the mountains in the distance.

Gargoyle rooftop Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Rooftop view Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Rooftop view Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Rooftop view Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Rooftop view Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Gold statue rooftop Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy
(scroll back up to my first picture and see if you can spot this gold statue!)

Even for a non-religious person like me, this was a visit I'll always remember.

Read my review of the hotel we stayed in during our visit to Milan, the Milano Scala Eco Hotel.

Linking up with Time Traveller.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Confessions of a first-time epilater

OK, I admit it.  When it comes to using an epilator I'm a virgin.  Well, I was until last night.

Don't worry, I'm not going to share photos - or even worse, videos - of my hairy man-legs, I wouldn't inflict that on anyone.  But let's just say I have hair issues.  My hair is dark and it grows ridiculously fast.  I mean ridiculously fast.  When I shave my legs, there's already stubble growing by the time I've got out of the bath and got dressed.  It gives me major problems in the summer because much as I'd love to run around free and wild and super-hairy, I'm just not one of those people.  The armpit hair revolution is to be applauded for helping women break the stigma, but until it becomes totally mainstream I'm not going to be the one that gets laughed at.  Sorry if I'm letting my feminist buddies down here, I'm just being honest.

Shaving my legs is a nightmare.  To keep them relatively smooth I'd have to do it every day, and I just don't have the time.  And anyway, when I do, like on holiday for example, they soon become sore and angry and I have that awful plucked chicken look and bright red dotty legs - especially if I go in the salt water of the sea - ouch.

I've tried hair removal creams and they are even more of a faff. Added to which you walk around smelling of that tell-tale hair-remover cream aroma. Either I get a reaction and end up red and chickeny again, or I spend ages doing it only for it to grow back in a couple of days.  For this reason I've never attempted waxing - I mean who wants to go through the pain and humiliation for just a couple of days of baby-smooth skin?  Not me.

Epilators have always scared the bejesus out of me.  I mean, rolling something over your skin which pulls your hairs out by the root - sounds like torture right?

But I've finally taken the plunge, and agreed to try out the new Braun Silk Epil 9 epilator.  I mean, how awful can it be?


It charged up very quickly using the mains cable into a shaver socket in the bathroom, and holds its charge for 40 minutes from just 1 hour of charging. It comes ready assembled to no fiddly pieces to put together.  There are lots of different heads for various parts of the face and body, but let's not get carried away, we'll start just with the legs shall we?


I read somewhere that you should down a couple of paracetamols before getting waxed, and this nugget of information bubbled into my mind when I was perched on the side of the bath about to go in for the first time.  Would I need them? Would they have been helpful?  Well maybe, but I took a deep breath and decided to go for it.

The Braun Silk Epil 9 can be either wet or dry, but I chose to use it dry for the first time.  I think a soak in a hot bath would have helped because it relaxes your skin and opens up the pores making the discomfort less, but I thought doing it dry would mean if I chose to wuss out I could just roll my trouser leg back down and nonchalantly carry on with my day like nothing had happened - no big deal.

So, the Silk Epil 9 is actually a lovely bit of kit to handle.  It fit comfortably into my hand, was very ergonomic, and let's face it who doesn't like a sexy new gadget.  I was momentarily distracted by the pretty sparkly glitter and the shiny light.


But back to reality.  I was going to do this.  I'd read the instructions, mentally prepared myself and I was ready - oooh glitter...

The booklet says that you should stretch your skin to avoid too much discomfort, and I have to admit, stretching my leg skin over my calf in the comfort and privacy of my own bathroom was much less humiliating and contortionist-like than stretching my face in the middle of a shopping centre to get my eyebrows threaded.

Following the instructions, I started at the bottom of my leg, moving the epilator in an upwards directing, gliding it over the skin.  Error.  As I later found out, the area around my ankles is probably the most sensitive part and by gods I nearly stopped right there and then.  It felt like a thousand sharp needles going into my skin.  By this point I was getting all hot, sweaty and a little panicky, so I took a little break, made a cuppa, momentarily reconsidered the paracetamols then recomposed myself before going in again.

The second time, I started further up my lower leg.  And do you know what?  It wasn't too bad.  The rollers on the epilator massage the skin and the little vibrations almost numb it.  It felt kind of like a nettle sting, but without the lingering sensation.  As soon as I stopped or moved to another area, the tingling stopped.

There are 2 speed settings, and as advised as a first-time user, I went for the slower one.

I was on a roll.  It wasn't long before I'd done the whole lower leg, and I was pretty impressed with my bravery.  You've just got to get over that initial wince and then honestly it's fine.  Apparently future sessions will be even easier as my skin gets used to it.

One leg done, much quicker than I expected, I moved on to the other leg.  By this time my daughter was in the bath, and I was able to stand there doing my de-fluffing while she had her nightly ablutions - see multi-tasking.  Doesn't every busy mum need to be able to deal with her maintenance while doing something else with the other hand?  This was actually a huge positive for me. It means I can fit it into my life without having to take an hour out to have a bath.


The Silk Epil 9 was actually incredibly easy to use.  The light was far from a gimmick, it was really helpful for seeing any hairs you'd missed.  The moveable head glides easily over your skin contours - so much better than a razor where you always have the danger of nicking yourself. Those little MicroGrip tweezer rollers that I've always thought of as instruments of torture actually became a thing of wonder - even beauty - as it skimmed over my legs whipping out the pesky hairs.  It was very satisfying.


Both legs done, time to stand back and assess the results.  First up, the smoothness test.  Well, they were't totally silky - I don't think I could have dropped a fine French silk stocking down them without it catching.  But I guess those must just be tiny newer hairs I can feel because I certainly couldn't see them.  Visually they looked totally hair free, and although they didn't feel 100% smooth, the feel hadn't changed by the next morning meaning I hadn't suddenly sprouted stubble overnight like I do with shaving or depilating.

My legs were a little red, but the instructions said this might be so and advised to do them in the evening, and they were right - by the next morning the redness had more or less gone.

Not using the epilator wet did mean my skin was left particularly dry afterwards, but nothing a good slather of moisturiser didn't fix.

I have to say, I'm hugely impressed.  Both with myself for braving it (it really wasn't that bad after all) and with the end results.

In contrast to shaving, the positives are that you can use it dry as well as wet. There's no danger of cutting or nicking yourself like with a blade.  The epilator doesn't pull the skin, just the hairs, so if you have any pimples, bumps or blemishes it will glide over them rather than shave the top off like a razor does.

I'm curious to see what the regrowth will be like both in terms of speed (the advertising suggests it lasts for 4 weeks, but nothing ever does with me) and the thickness of the hair, and also whether this does get easier and easier each time, but overall I'm very happy.  The biggest plus for me will be how long the results last for - I'll report back.

I'm just now left staring at all the other adapters wondering if I've got the guts to try it anywhere else...

Disclosure: I was kindly sent a Braun Silk Epil 9 epilator for the purposes of this trial.  All opinions are my own and are completely honest.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Camping deals with Aldi

As regular readers will know, we love to camp.  It can be a great budget way to take family holidays and last-minute weekend getaways but it can be expensive at the outset to get started and buy all the equipment.

If you're thinking of camping this year, or if you're a seasoned camper and need to upgrade or replace a few items, then you need to check out this weeks' special buys at Aldi which go on sale today.

The first thing you're going to need obviously is a tent.  Aldi have two great offers to choose from with their 5 person tent at amazing value at only £79.99 it comes with a 3 year warranty.  They also have a smaller pop up tent which sleeps 2 for £19.99 - perfect for festivals or trying out canvas in the garden.

Aldi 5 person tent £79.99 and pop-up 2 person tent £19.99

For seasoned campers, or those spending more than just an overnight away, you'll want to think about an electric fridge to keep your milk and BBQ food safe and chilled.  I know these can cost a fortune because we've looked into them, but this one from Aldi at £39.99 is great value.  The electric cool box works from either the mains if you have electric hook-up, or via your 12v car socket.  It's deep enough to hold 2 litre cartons or will hold up to 12 1 litre bottles.

Aldi electric cool box £39.99

Fancy lazing in a hammock but never know if there'll be trees to tie it to on site?  Or perhaps you fancy one for lounging in the garden?  This portable hammock with stand is ideal.  Complete with integrated pillow, drink holder and magazine/book holder, its available in either green or blue for £34.99.

Aldi portable hammock with stand £34.99
For a comfy night's sleep you need an air bed and this flocked mattress comes complete with its own carry bag and repair kit.  Guaranteed for 3 years, you'll get a great night sleep on here.  Choose from blue or grey.

Aldi Double Airbed £12.99

With loads more in the range from trolleys to folding airers, camp stoves to tables, walking shoes to head torches, sleeping bags to water bottles, Aldi has everything you need for a great summer of camping.

As with all special buys, when they're gone, they're gone so get down to your local store quick!

Disclosure: We were sent a hammock in exchange for this post.

Learn to Swim with Swim Shop - A Giveaway


Did you know that despite the national curriculum in England stating that all schools must teach children to swim a distance of 25 meters confidently, still 57% of UK 7-11 year olds cannot swim.  Sadly it's not a requirement in Scotland and the government have just ended the funding scheme for swimming lessons for primary school children there.

My daughter has been attending swimming lessons for several years now.  She's doing the AquaEd scheme and is currently at stage 5.  Going through the progression stages, she's really built up her skills and confidence in the water - right from when she was small and did activities such as blowing bubbles, designed to get children used to putting their heads in the water.  Now she's busy perfecting her butterfly stroke!

Now in Year 2 at school she also does weekly lessons with her class.  We're lucky that we have a leisure centre a short walk away and I know not everyone has access to these facilities.  It can also be expensive to attend lessons and for some families time constrains are an issue.  But still I find it interesting that some many children manage to attend extra-curricular activities such as football, ballet and gymnastics, yet they don't learn to swim.  Sure, all sports are good for fitness, and in some you learn various skills such as team work, but only swimming can save your life.  When was the last time anyone had to kick a ball into a net to save their life?

Swimming is not just a great exercise, it's a life-skill and a life-saving skill.  Of the 30 children in Ruby's class, I estimate that just over half are in the 'beginner' or 'non-swimmer' group at the pool which is in line with the above statistic.

Image: http://www.swimshop.co.uk


It is estimated that children require at least 25 hours of lessons to swim confidently a distance of 25 metres. Primary schools are offered 18 hours of swimming lessons per child a year, way below the recommended hours. If hours were raised to 25 across all primary schools as standard the number of children who can swim would rise by 200,000.  The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) suggest that swimming should come under the physical education budget and be taught as a requirement much like any other subject.


As a parent, what can you do to help?  Well, Swimshop have come up with some great activities and games aimed at raising confidence levels in the pool.  You can download them free here and they also have a range of floats and swimming aids to help young learners in the pool.



This year for the first time ever we're going on holiday to a villa with it's own pool.  I know that Ruby is going to have so much fun swimming in it, and I'm sure her strokes are going to come on quickly spending so much time in the water.  Conversely, if she hadn't learnt to swim I know I'd have been terrified and wouldn't have been able to relax for worrying about her falling into the pool or getting up early playing in the pool without us.  It's definitely one of the best things she's ever learnt.



Swimshop are offering 2 lucky readers the chance to win a pair of armbands and a fun design float as featured in the image at the top of this post.  You can choose from the shark design or the polly fish float, and the armbands are available in either ages 1-3 or 3-12.



For your chance to win simply complete the rafflecopter below.



The giveaway is open to UK residents only and will close at midnight on Sunday 5th July 2015.  Two winners will be chosen at random and will be sent a pair of armbands and a float of their choice.  In the event of any items being out of stock, Swimshop reserve the right to replace it with another alternative of similar value.  The prize will be supplied and dispatched by Swimshop who have kindly offered the prizes.


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Disclosure: I was sent a float as a thank you for promoting this campaign.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Carbon Monoxide - The Silent Killer: Win a free monitor & keep your family safe



Every year in the UK, more than 200 people go to hospital with suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, and around 40 people die. Small children and the elderly are most at risk, and CORGI HomePlan is campaigning for every home to get a carbon monoxide detector, so that they can keep their family safe.

In the last three years, an estimated one in six homes inspected by the Gas Safe Register was found to have an unsafe gas appliance and one in eleven has an unsafe boiler.

There are several warning signs in your home that could mean you have a carbon monoxide issue. Here are a few things to look out for:
  • The flame on your cooker should be crisp and blue. Yellow or orange flames mean you need to get your cooker checked
  • Dark staining around or on appliances
  • Sooty marks on the walls around boilers, stoves or the cover of gas fires
  • Pilot lights that frequently go out
  • Increased condensation inside windows
CORGI HomePlan are campaigning for every home to have their own CO detector and they’ve created a microsite to help families be aware of the dangers of gas appliances in their own home: http://corgi-homeplan-how-safe-is-your-home.org/

It's packed with easy to follow advice and warning signs to look out for, this site is an easy reference resource for homeowners unsure about how to protect themselves and their families and what to do when things go wrong at home.

It's not just homeowners though.  New laws require private landlords to install working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in high risk rooms such as those with solid fuel fires or gas boilers, but inevitably not all will comply. For around £30 you can have the peace of mind that you are protected.  If your child is off to university and staying in a rented room then a CO2 monitor is a great investment.

With the tragic news headlines recently, it's worth also remembering that some holiday properties aren't properly protected and I for one will certainly be taking a monitor to our rented villa this summer. 








CORGI HomePlan are offering readers the chance to win a CO-9X FireAngel Carbon Monoxide Detector by completing the rafflecopter below.  The monitor has an internal power pack which will last for 7 years meaning you don't need to worry about changing the battery.  It can be used as a portable monitor making it perfect for taking on holiday, or can be wall mounted.  These are excellent detectors and the ones we use at home.  We have one in our utility room where the boiler is housed, one in the kitchen where we have gas hobs and one in the living room as we have an open fire.

They are simple to use and have a one-button test feature.  If you'd like the chance to win your own CO alarm worth around £30, please complete the rafflecopter below.

The giveaway ends midnight 4th July 2015. One winner will be picked at random from all eligible entries.  UK entrants only.  The prize will be fulfilled and dispatched by CORGI HomePlan who are kindly supplying the prize. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, 22 June 2015

A Dip in Kings Cross Pond

Since reading about the new art installation that you can swim in, I knew that I'd have to book tickets for my wild swimming nut.  The Old Man has swam in rivers and reservoirs, in the sea, and in mountain lakes.  Being surrounded by open countryside is one of the biggest appeals of outdoor swimming, so I wondered how he'd feel about urban swimming.  Sure, he's been swimming in Hampstead Pond and in many of the London lidos but Kings Cross Pond is different.  Completely urban, right in the centre of the latest development phase of the area, and inspired by the popularity of the fountains at the nearby Granary Square.  Here you can swim with the BT Tower and the gothic St Pancras station in the background while East Coast trains trundle into the Kings Cross arches.


The pond is completely natural - no chlorine like you'd find in a municipal pool or lido, yet filtered and pure - so no creepy crawlies or fish like you'd find in a river or lake.  Perhaps this is the ideal balance for outdoor swimming.

Smaller than I expected, the pond is only 40 m long by 10m but it won't get overcrowded as it's pre-booked tickets only, limited to 163 people per day, the exact amount the reed filtration system can cope with.



Open from 6.30 am until dusk, you can book a ticket for a three and a half hour period throughout the week with prices starting at £3.50 off peak, rising to £6.50 at peak times including weekends.    Tickets are only released a week or two in advance though, so you'll have to take a punt on the great British weather. Spectators are welcome too, either for free at the elevated viewing platform, or poolside for £2 per person.  Children are welcome to swim but must be accompanied by an adult.  There are lifeguards on duty (I might add some of the friendliest lifeguards I've met), and you can change in the bright red and white poolside changing rooms and keep your valuables safe in the lockers.  You'll find sun loungers on the poolside and this is set to become one of the coolest places to be this summer.









Set on a raised mound, the kids will love rolling down the hill and parents will enjoy the tranquility of sitting amongst the wild flower planting, a true rarity to see such flowers growing in central London.



Twenty-odd years ago I worked at Kings Cross.  If you'd have told me then that the area would be completely regenerated with bars, galleries and amazing public spaces, I'd have laughed in your face. If you'd have told me people would flock to swim in a pond there I'd have thought you were crazy.  But here it is, and now I love this area so much.

The installation is only planned to be open to the public for 2 years, so take a dip now while you can.