Summer 2019 was all about home-grown entertainment and experiences before heading into a year of GCSEs – both exams and options!
I’ve made no secret of the fact that the Hard Rock Café is not only a firm favourite when it comes to choosing somewhere safe and delicious for the family to eat, but is also now something of a tradition with one of the children, almost always M, asking whether there’s a branch for us to visit whenever we go somewhere new, no matter where in the world we are. Believe it or not, it is also a question raised when we investigate holiday destinations, though it has not yet dictated our final vacation decision. I fully accept that I am to blame for my children’s obsession with going to as many HRC locations as we possibly can and the collection of their “City tees” carefully stored under my bed is testimony to just how long my love affair with HRC has been going on.
Given all of that, it does seem odd that despite our very many weeks spent in London, that until our most recent visit, we had never visited the flagship restaurant before. Well, to be more accurate, I had been there many years ago, but hadn’t taken either Mike or the kids there when looking for somewhere to eat out. So, we decided to make the original restaurant our final pitstop before heading back to the station to catch our train home. We arrived a little later than originally planned due to some confusion over where exactly we needed to go as there have been 2 further locations opened in London over the last few years. Despite our initial false start and unexpected visit to their Piccadilly branch – and deciding that that is somewhere we will definitely go back to eat another time – we eventually reached Mayfair in one piece and after a somewhat lengthy wait, finally sat down to enjoy our dinner.
We actually began our visit there with a short trip to “The Vault”, a small museum holding some of the rock paraphernalia that they don’t currently have on display in the main restaurant, before we ordered our food. It occupied a few minutes, but wasn’t as interesting, or vast, as we were hoping it might be. G and M already knew what they wanted to eat and opted for the GF pulled pork sandwiches with fries which have become a firm favourite with them both. The service was as excellent as ever and we were impressed with how quickly the food arrived with us despite our somewhat lengthy wait.
What we weren’t anticipating was a visit to another UK HRC location just 2 weeks later during our Manchester adventures. This unexpected surprise was thanks to the eagle eyes of M, who, despite being told by me that I thought the Manchester branch has closed down in the time between my university years and today, spotted it on the Google map as we were planning our walking route from the IWM North to the escape rooms. Just as in London, it was the perfect ending to our weekend there and they devoured their meals with an enthusiasm no doubt stoked by their time skydiving. M decided that this time he’d venture away from the pulled pork and instead ordered a GF legendary burger, which he proclaimed to be just as delicious as he hoped.
Two great locations, two sets of excellent service and two fantastic lunches. Would we recommend? Absolutely and I can’t wait to see which Hard Rock Café we’ll discover next!
When planning our weekend in Manchester, I started as always with a quick bit of research to see if there were any hidden gems that we could visit for some delicious meals. I knew that we would have our pick of the plethora of safe chain restaurants to fall back on if we needed, but it’s always a great treat to be able to eat somewhere different and new, and we were especially lucky with the choices available to us. We found 3 great restaurants for dinner and even had unexpected success for lunch, which was fantastic.
Marco’s New York Italian, MediaCity – I had high hopes for our Saturday night dinner and they absolutely didn’t disappoint. My research showed that they had a gluten-free menu available, but I couldn’t find a copy online, so emailed about a week or so before our trip to ask if they could email a copy to me and also enquiring if they would be able to cater dairy-free too. Within an hour and a half of my first email, their reservations manager, Hannah, replied with the GF menu attached and told me that she had asked their chef to confirm the DF options that would be available to G and M. If I’m honest, I didn’t expect to hear back from them again, so was thrilled when a second email popped into my inbox a few days later with the list of DF meals they could offer.
Their service from the beginning of our meal to the very end was absolutely impeccable. The manager arrived at our table with a form to complete, but this was simply to record our contact details and what the allergies were so that every meal coming out of the kitchen could be recorded and checked before it was brought to the table. For the first time in an awfully long time, G and M were able to have a 3-course meal and every bit of it was absolutely delicious. G started with garlic bread, then enjoyed an American pizza and finished with a bowl of vegan vanilla ice cream; whilst M opted for New Orleans Shrimp, Spaghetti Bolognese and apple crumble with ice cream.
The staff were attentive, the food incredible and the care to detail brilliant. We wouldn’t hesitate to eat at Marco’s NY Italian again and give it a well-deserved 10/10 for not only the wide range of menu options available, but also the fact that they had allergy-friendly desserts other than fruit.
IWM North Café – Lunch when we’re travelling can always be tricky, especially when we’re not staying somewhere with a kitchen to allow us to take and prepare packed lunches. I had spotted on the IWM North website that their café had GF options available, so I thought we’d see what they actually had on-site that might suit G and M before heading off for a snack somewhere else nearby. To my delight, they had a ready supply of GF/DF/EF bread rolls and hot dog sausages, which constitutes a great treat for both children. They were thrilled to be able to have hot dogs for lunch, which might not have been an exciting menu option, but were delicious, whilst Mike and I stuck to the more traditional sandwich and pasty offerings. They did also have a couple of GF and vegan cakes available, but unfortunately none that would suit our particular allergy needs.
Sweet Mandarin – a last minute addition to our itinerary, thanks to a random tweet I spotted the Wednesday before we went. This Chinese restaurant has a separate GF menu and the children were thrilled to be able to choose whatever they wanted from it, more or less. M suggested they shared some starters of spring rolls and salt and pepper chicken wings, and they then each opted for their own sweet and sour – G picked prawns whilst M decided he wanted chicken. As is so often the case, we ended up with far too much food for the 4 of us, but enjoyed a leisurely and delicious meal before heading back to the hotel for the night. Another excellent recommendation, though it only got a 9/10 from the children.
No sooner had we arrived back from London, than G and M disappeared off to South Wales with my Mum and my Aunt for the week leading up to the August bank holiday, leaving Mike and me at home to work, wash clothes and start to sort out what was needed for our bank holiday adventure in Manchester. We travelled to South Wales on Friday evening to pick the children up and spent the night there before heading off to Manchester the following morning. We decided to try and avoid as much holiday traffic as possible, so wended our way across mid- and North Wales to reach our final destination and that decision proved to be the best one we could have made as we saw very little traffic at all. We reached Manchester, and one false start later – who knew there’d be so many Premier Inn hotels in the Salford area? – had arrived and were ready to start our visit.
Sunday was dedicated to the IWM North (that’s the Imperial War Museum for the uninitiated) to support G’s GCSE History studies about the rise of Hitler in the inter-war years and the Cold War period, and proved to be an excellent exhibit to visit. Their audio-visual short films shown every hour were a great addition to everything that was on display and there was a nice mix of interactive elements for the children to do as well. The sections covering the time periods of most interest to us were, perhaps, not as in depth as we would have liked, but overall we enjoyed the time spent there. G and I also took some time to walk around their special exhibit about the Yemen crisis, although M had definitely had his fill of all things history about that point and abandoned the galleries for the cafe with Mike. It was fascinating to see G’s reaction to the photos and displays about this more recent crisis and she was keen to express her thoughts about the responses of politicians and their excuses for not doing what they knew was needed.
Originally we hadn’t planned to do anything for the rest of the day as we weren’t sure how long we would spend at the IWM, so over our lunch, we investigated and discussed where to head next. M was keen to do something “fun as a family” and so was delighted to learn that we could visit EscapeHunt Manchester and try our hand at one of their themed escape rooms. We were lucky to get a booking for their “The Last Vikings” challenge and had just enough time to walk our way from Mediacity across the city to the escape rooms. It’s the first time we’ve attempted an escape room as a family, but is definitely something we will try our hand at again. We had lots of fun, although we failed at the final hurdle and were in the midst of solving the last clue when our time ran out.
Our decision to go to Manchester were twofold, the first being the IWM North, but our second was perhaps the more exciting, especially for G and M. This was the day for their indoor skydive in aid of Over The Wall and despite a somewhat grumpy start from our youngest, we arrived at iFly Manchester with 2 very excited children. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate due to a shoulder injury I sustained at the start of the year, but Mike was keen to try his hand too, so we had booked them a family session which allowed them to split 10 minutes “flight time” between them. I was impressed at what appears to be the natural skydiving skills of my husband and children and the smiles on their faces said it all. Mike and M are both keen to go back and do it again, but G is less convinced, though glad she gave it a try in the first place. All in all, it was a fantastic bank holiday weekend and we were back home for a rest before school went back the following week.
I wouldn’t usually think to write about where we’ve found to eat out in London as over the years we’ve often frequented one of the very many chain restaurants that we’ve come to know and love, but this time we spread our wings a little bit further and I thought it worth sharing our latest mealtime experiences.
Our Thursday evening dinner was courtesy of that old favourite of ours, Pizza Express, who were conveniently located less than 5 minutes from our hotel in Southwark, though there are many branches you can choose from no matter which part of London, or the rest of the UK, you’re in. In the 8 years or so that we’ve been frequenting their restaurants, we have only had a poor experience on one occasion, when they had run out of gluten-free pizza bases but failed to inform us until we were placing our order. Thankfully, even then, the restaurant staff worked hard to prepare other safe food for both G and M and both children managed to eat well. G is very much a creature of habit when it comes to her food, so I knew she was likely to order the GF dough balls followed by an American pizza with goats cheese; and so she did. M loves to peruse the menu whenever he gets the chance, but this time chose a meal almost perfectly matching his sister’s, simply changing her goats cheese for the vegan mozzarella instead. The order came quickly, the food was delicious, there was no confusion or hassle about their orders and we left the restaurant with our appetites pleasantly sated,
Breakfast on Friday was a typically low-key affair and eaten in our hotel room as we had done our usual and carried travel containers filled with safe cereal for G and M to eat. M and I managed to find a small Sainsbury’s near to the theatre on the Thursday evening, so had popped in after the show to pick up a carton of rice milk. We have found that this is a routine that works really well for us and reduces the stress of choosing safe breakfast options for both children to eat. M’s only apology was that he had forgotten to research the nearest Starbucks to our hotel so that I could start my day with a coffee, but was quickly reassured when we reached the Globe theatre to spot one just across the street from it.
No sooner had we finished our Globe theatre tour, than M was clamouring for lunch even though it was only around 10.45 in the morning. This was not the result of an overwhelming hunger on his part, but rather great enthusiasm from both him and G as we had discovered a Subway sandwich shop near the Tower of London which stocked GF bread, which was also dairy- and egg-free, and they couldn’t wait to give it a go. During our holiday in Canada last year, we had seen GF bread available at the Subway on Toronto Island, but had not opted to buy one as 1) we had a packed lunch with us and 2) we had rather foolishly assumed that we would be able to buy it at other stores too. We were very much wrong in that assumption and have spent the last 12 months trying to find a shop serving GF bread somewhere in the UK, so you can just imagine how excited they both were to finally try a sub.
We were impressed with the service provided and care taken, even during a fairly busy lunch service during the summer holidays. The staff changed their gloves before handling the GF rolls for the children’s sandwiches – without me having to ask – and there was detailed allergy information available indicating the top 14 allergens present in all of the sandwich fillings and toppings. It was a strangely emotional experience as I watched G and M decide what sandwiches they wanted to try and pick out the toppings they wanted to add to make their perfect lunch. Here were my 15 and 13 year-old children, who have never been able to order at a Subway before because of their allergies, finally eating just like their friends. The look on both their faces as they made their decisions was priceless and their verdict on lunch – perfect!
We had booked tickets on a late train home to give us enough time to enjoy our planned excursions as well as the unplanned ones, and the final trip of our day was to one of our family favourite places to eat, although we hadn’t yet tried the London branch. Do you know where we went? Well, I’m afraid that’s a story for another post.
After our late night at the theatre, you wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that we might take it easy and start our Friday off in a more relaxed fashion; but you’d be very wrong. We had lots planned for our second day in London and wanted to achieve as much as we could before catching our train back home, which meant one thing, a much earlier sleep that maybe any of us would have chosen.
Our first stop was a tour of the Globe theatre, just 5 minutes from our hotel and G’s choice of must-see sights for our visit. It’s the first time we’ve been to the Globe, despite having walked past it and discussed seeing it on very many previous occasions. The 40 minutes spent learning more about the history of the original theatre as well as the efforts to build the reconstruction were absolutely brilliant and M enjoyed being able to ask questions of our guide based on bits and pieces he had previously learned at school. My only regret is that we hadn’t built in time to go to a Shakespeare play whilst we were there as both children have eagerly asked if we could see one, so at some point in the future, of course, we absolutely will.
With the Globe ticked off our list and a watchful eye on the impending grey clouds, we found our way back to the Tower of London and headed in to explore as much as we could given the August tourists, darkening skies and 2 children who were growing hungry rapidly. We decided to start with the Crown Jewels and just about survived the spots of rain that fell as we made our way through the fairly lengthy queue. The exhibit has been updated since the last time Mike and I visited there many moons ago and is definitely worth a visit as there is a great balance between the information boards, video footage, photographs, timelines and the Crown Jewels themselves.
Unfortunately, our late night the night before combined with the poor weather and hunger meant that G and M really didn’t want to queue to see anything else at the Tower, so we made the decision to convert our admission tickets into annual passes to allow us to return and see the bits we missed out this time over the next year. As I am keen to also visit Hampton Court – poor G is being inundated with “educational” visits that fit with her GCSE syllabuses at the moment – this will hopefully prove to be a canny decision as we can visit there as well as other palaces as part of the Historic Royal Palaces membership.
Once we all were fed and watered to our fill, we then spent some time trying to decide how to round off our day in London. The original plan had been to stay at the Tower of London for the rest of the day, so it was now time to find an alternative that would fit with our plans for dinner and the train journey home. After lots of suggestions, some more extraordinary than others, we eventually settled on a visit to the Clink Prison Museum, which is tucked away just along the road from our hotel. It was a decision based on our need to escape the rain for an hour or so, but was definitely the unexpected success story of our whole trip. This museum is not big, but it certainly is crammed full of information, artefacts and stories about what is considered to be the oldest prison in England. Both kids were able to wander through at their preferred pace and spend time in the bits that interested them the most. It was come as no surprise that M was particularly taken with the torture devices on display and shared everything he was learning with whoever would listen.
From the Clink, there just enough time to pick up our bags from the hotel, journey across London for dinner and reach the station to catch our train back home.
At one time, London was very much our home from home as we visited several times a year to attend M’s hospital appointments at GOSH and whenever those appointments didn’t fall on a Wednesday afternoon in term-time, always tried to tie it into a few days away from home. Both G and M had the chance to stay in London as part of their school’s enrichment week residential trips, and both said no. After all, why would they go with school to a city they’ve spent more time in than sometimes they’d care to remember?
Bearing all that in mind, it could come as something of a surprise that we’ve spent the last couple of days back in this old haunt of ours – and by choice, not by necessity thanks to our success in getting theatre tickets through Kids Week London. We’ve been extremely fortunate to see a number of shows over the years and this time we decided to chat over the choices with G and M before I attempted to buy the tickets the moment the website opened. Much to our surprise, the children had very different ideas about the shows they wanted to see and so I was set the challenge of trying to get tickets for G and Mike to see “Phantom of the Opera” on the same night that M and I headed to “School of Rock”. Fortunately, I was successful and with our theatre trips confirmed for the Thursday evening, we decided to make a short break of it and visit a handful of sights we haven’t been to before.
Our day started with a 20 minute walk to our local station to catch the London-bound train. I had made it clear to both children that I didn’t want them plugged into their electronics for the duration of our journey, so M had selected a few card games to take with us and, much to my amazement, we spent the entire time playing an array of card games as well as a couple of rounds of Marvel Top Trumps.
In no time at all, we had reached London and then it was a case of trekking across the city until we reached our first destination of the day, Tower Bridge. Thanks to M’s hard work researching and planning our routes and timings before we arrived, we decided to get off the underground at Monument and then walk along the river path to the Tower of London, where we ate our picnic lunch before climbing the stairs to explore the history of Tower Bridge itself.
The climb to the top of one of the towers was interspersed with facts about the construction of the bridge itself 125 years ago and, having reached the top, were then able to walk across the walkways linking the 2 iconic towers at either side, including a stretch of glass walkway that looks down onto the road and river below. This is not our first glass walkway – we’ve ventured onto the one at the CN Tower in Toronto too – and M was quite happy to wander across, jump onto and sit down on it. G, however, was lot more reluctant, but with a little gentle persuasion and a lot of hand-holding from me, she tentatively stepped onto the odd corner here and there, though she pointblank refused to do much more than that. Walkways conquered, we then headed on to the pump house to understand how the original mechanisms to raise the drawbridge worked before stopping for a vegan ice-cream treat from the ice-cream van cannily parked in the square beneath the bridge.
By the time our ice-creams were devoured, we were all ready to head to our hotel, fortunately just a short walk away along the South Bank. We have stayed at this Premier Inn near Borough Market several times before and find it wonderfully centrally located and easy to reach as well as surrounded by a number of chain restaurants that make it easy to feed both G and M. We had just enough time to unpack bags, dig out the theatre tickets and freshen up before we headed back out the door in search of dinner and our shows. Once we had finished our meal at the nearby Pizza Express, Mike and G disappeared in one direction, whilst M and I went off in another in search of our respective theatres. It was a wonderful evening and both children absolutely loved their musicals of choice. I would highly recommend a trip to see “School of Rock” as would M, whilst Mike and G raved about “Phantom of the Opera”.
New job, end of term, fundraising plans, health challenges, summer holidays… sometimes it really is nice to be able to stop and smell the roses, especially when they’re as beautiful as this bunch of flowers currently gracing G’s windowsill. A thank you from her Stagecoach school for all her help last week at their summer school – a small acknowledgement of her efforts and one that has very much been appreciated and enjoyed by us all.
We’re all taking a little time this week to slow down and appreciate life. With a couple of days off planned for the end of the week, I’m winding down to just spending some much-longed-for family time together and am wondering if I can convince the children to give up their technology for at least some of that time too. M is spending the week planning 101 things he wants to do with G before we have our break, whilst G tries her best to ignore him and focus on some gentle revision instead. Mike and I will complete as much work as we can and anything left outstanding will quite simply have to wait until we head back to our desks on Monday morning.
I hope you too get the chance to stop, take a breather and appreciate life in its fullest this week.
A lot can happen in 20 years.
In the years since our wedding in December 1999, our family has doubled in size and we’ve moved schools, houses and jobs at a rate that has to be seen to be believed. We’ve survived illness and loss within both our families and our friends, and continue to do so on a daily basis thanks to some long-term diagnoses that have oft-times caught us when we were least expecting them. Chronic illness has become a much bigger part of our lives that we could ever have imagined, but with that has also come some amazing friendships, connections and opportunities that we never even dreamed would happen and that, in many ways, I wouldn’t change for the world.
One such relationship that we have all absolutely come to value is the one with the charity, Over The Wall. They have been a phenomenal support to G and M since both first attended their camps in 2016 and are, in an almost unbelievable stroke of serendipity, also celebrating 20 years since they were first launched by UK businessman Joe Woods following in Paul Newman’s footsteps and the development of the Hole in the Wall Gang camps in Connecticut USA in the late 1980s.
So what are we doing to make this a year of note?
As far as our anniversary goes, I’m hoping that Mike and I might manage a night out somewhere special, though celebrating the week before Christmas can make that difficult as we negotiate the huge numbers of office Christmas parties that we inevitably encounter when trying to book a table anywhere without a lot of forward planning.
And, of course, it will come as no surprise that we are also working hard to raise awareness and funds to support Over The Wall’s ambitious plans to take a record-breaking 1,000 children to camp this year. Mike started the year in style with a sponsored polar dip on New Year’s Day and we’ve turned our hands to a few other things – some old, some new – to see just how much we can raise. We followed the “sparking joy” fashion and adopted a Marie Kondo approach to clearing out our wardrobes, committed to giving a regular amount each month and even stood in the entrance of our local Tesco superstore a couple of weeks ago to collect what we could and spread the word about the camps too.
G and M have obviously been a big part of many of our efforts, but are now launching an appeal of their own. Their yearning to do something truly spectacular has unfortunately been somewhat hampered by not yet being quite old enough to participate in the activity of their choice, but they have instead picked the next best option in their eyes and will be taking part in a sponsored indoor skydive at the end of this month.
How can you help?
Well, it goes without saying that any sponsorship you can give would be very gratefully received by G, M and OTW, especially if you can help them meet their fundraising target of £200 – scaled back somewhat from M’s original suggestion of £20,000 – by visiting their fundraising page here.
If you’re not able to donate, but live near a Tesco store in one of the following areas*, OTW is one of their Bags of Help Centenary Grants recipients until the end of August and by adding your blue token to their box, and encouraging friends, family and fellow shoppers to do the same, you will help them receive a significant grant that will be genuinely life-changing. Remember “Every Little Helps”, even if that’s by a blue token!
Finally, sharing the OTW message of #mischiefandmagic with friends and across your social media channels will not only help the charity reach even more of the estimated 50,000 children and young people living with serious health challenges across the UK, but sharing our fundraising page will hopefully bring even more cash donations pouring in to help them achieve their goals not only this year, but in the future too.
*OTW is currently starring in stores across: Perth & Kinross, Angus, Stirling, Fife, Clackmannanshire, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, East Lothian, Midlothian, Somerset (inc Bristol), Wiltshire and Swindon.
We’ve made it!
We almost literally limped to the end of term, but we made it, not withstanding the challenges of mock exams, shingles and Lyme disease. Homework was completed (and handed in), sports day was competed in (and won) and the last day was enjoyed in all the glory of own clothes and an early finish to the day.
We might only be a week in, but already G and M have been busy. We’ve squeezed in a couple of films they wanted to watch, the beach has been enjoyed with G’s godfather and his family visiting from Canada and they’ve kicked off this week by volunteering at our Church’s holiday club for primary-age children during the day as well as taking part in the evening’s youth club for teens.
And there are plans for the weeks ahead: G is spending a week volunteering at their Stagecoach’s summer school, a visit to London to see the musical of their choice thanks to London theatre’s Kids Week and even some fundraising for the fantastic Over The Wall which they’ve planned themselves (more details of that to follow). We don’t have a “big” summer holiday planned having been to Berlin during May half-term, but instead have decided to enjoy our local area as well as the occasional overnight visit to somewhere a little further afield in the UK.
One thing’s for certain, it’s looking to be a busy, fantastic and very happy summer holidays and I hope yours are too!