Category Archives: Family

Easter travels

I thought that time flew by when the children were young, but these days I’m finding it passing even quicker and this Easter holiday has been no exception to that rule. G and M have split their time between Over The Wall and my Mum for the most part as, for Mike and me, it has very much been a case of business as usual during our working week. However, we have made the effort to take advantage of the opportunities created by a break from performing arts and dance classes as well as the long weekend to squeeze in some fun family days out where possible. Despite their seeming reluctance to go for a walk, we’ve found that adding new locations to the mix has made the challenge of keeping our 2 teens engaged much easier and I wanted to share them with you:

National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire – nestled away in South Wales, this is a place that we’ve visited a few times over the years, but it had been a while since we had last ventured in that direction and neither children could particularly remember our last visit there. The Gardens are home to the largest single-span glasshouse in the world, which houses some of the most endangered plants from around the world. M really wants to travel to Australia and whilst that isn’t currently on our holiday plans for the immediate future, he was thrilled to explore the Australia area in the glasshouse. In turn, that led to a very interesting family discussion about where we’d really like to go and revealed those we already knew – Australia for M and Japan for Mike – as well as the previously unheard suggestions of Greenland and Russia from G. On the day we visited there was a display of various bugs and creatures for the children to investigate and we enjoyed the opportunity to chat to the Botanic Garden’s very own “Butterfly Ranger”, which is definitely the best job title I’ve ever heard.

Uncertain of what food might be available on-site we had taken a packed lunch with us, which proved to be the best decision as there was only a handful of gluten-free offerings available in the café. We did supplement our lunch with a portion of chips for the children and Mike to share and took advantage of the tables set up inside the glasshouse to sit inside and enjoy our lunch. Lunch finished, we then headed around the rest of the grounds, although there was a lot more we could have discovered if only we’d had more time. Both children enjoyed stretching their legs, playing in the play area and generally just burning off their energy by running along the pathways. It was a great afternoon out and one we’d certainly revisit again.

Longleat Safari Park, Wiltshire – We haven’t been to Longleat since M was a baby and as we drove past the main entrance en-route to taking G to this year’s South Siblings OTW camp, I thought it was definitely time for a return trip. Unsurprisingly neither child has any memory of being to this amazing estate before and were happy to agree with my suggestion as long as we drove through the safari park (M) and tried our luck in the hedge maze (G). Our visit started with the safari park and both G and M were delighted with all of the animals we spotted on our way round, especially the antics of the monkeys as they clambered across our car roof and down the rear window. Mike had stopped to remove the radio antenna from my car before we entered the park and the children could quickly see the reason why when the monkey on the car in front of us bent their aerial almost in half and started chewing on it! Hunger pangs hit G and M when we were about half-way around the park and so they took the opportunity of sitting in the car to munch on their sandwiches whilst trying to spot lions and tigers…(and bears? Oh no!).

Safari finished, we then headed into the main estate itself and insisted on what was meant to be a quick pitstop for Mike and me to eat our packed lunch before we tackled the challenge of the maze. However, having spotted an array of gluten-free offerings on the café menu, we couldn’t turn down the chance to feed the children a second lunch and so M filled up on yet more gluten-free chips, whilst G enjoyed GF sausages and chips. The hedge maze was a lot of fun and we were surprisingly successful in reaching the centre far quicker than we were expecting. The view from the top of the central tower was incredible on such a beautiful spring afternoon. From there, it was time for a quick runaround the castle play area, a trip to see the koalas and then back to the safari park, this time stopping at the African village near the entrance to satisfy G’s yearning to get up close to the giraffes, thereby unwittingly recreating a photo from her last visit at age 2.5!

Margam Park, Port Talbot – this was our final day out over the Easter Holidays and we picked the perfect time to visit with the glorious sunshine that bathed the country over the Easter bank holiday weekend. It was the first time Mike and the kids had been to Margam Park and both M and G have already expressed a longing to return there in the summer – though I suspect the lure of the Go Ape Rope Adventures might well be the biggest draw. Once again we had taken a packed lunch with us and we found a great picnic table near to the Castle to sit and enjoy our meal in the sun. From there, we wandered around the park: past the boating lake, through the farm and along some of the trails before arriving back at the mansion itself.

M had spotted the go-karts and so we decided to hire 3 -one each for Mike, G and M – who then spent 30 minutes pedalling around and navigating more of the trails, whilst I took the opportunity to wander alongside the lake before finding a bench to sit peacefully and enjoy a little more sun. We rounded out the day with a walk to the Orangery and through the monastic ruins before we headed back to the car.

All in all, we enjoyed some magical days out together and would really recommend all these places for a fun family day out.

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Pizza and Ballet

One of the Christmas presents we were treated to this year was family tickets to go and see Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” at the Bristol Hippodrome. We have only been to a couple of ballets with the children over the years despite our love of the theatre and my Mum was keen for us to experience this unconventional retelling of this classic ballet. Of course, no family evening out can start without dinner out too and this time round, partly as we were later arriving in Bristol than we’d originally planned and partly because, well, why not, we decided to veer away from our known safe restaurants and look for somewhere new to try.

It’s always a challenge when eating out with G and M because of their dietary needs, but our decision over the last 18 months or so to relax M’s restrictions on high days and holidays in order to find a better quality of life and balance for him means that on occasions like this, we’re able to eat in places where we’re confident he can choose safe ingredients to make a tasty meal. We know that there are a number of restaurants near to Bristol Hippodrome from Pizza Express to Wagamama, so I made the suggestion that we wandered up Park Street to see what else might be available, with our end target being Pizza Express if nothing else seemed to suit.

About halfway up the hill, we stumbled across the marvellous Molto Buono restaurant and, spotting gluten-free pizza bases on the menu, decided to stop there and see how their food measured up to the children’s somewhat exacting standards. It didn’t take too long for G and M to decide what they wanted to eat and were delighted to discover that as well as gluten-free pizza bases, the restaurant also had vegan mozzarella available as a topping. Much to my surprise, G opted for the GF Marinara pizza – tomato sauce, olive oil and oregano – and M chose the GF Diavola – tomato, salami and vegan mozzarella. Mike joined them in trying one of handmade pizzas, whilst I settled on a pesto pasta. The dishes that arrived looked amazing and tasted even better with portion sizes that satisfied even the voracious appetite of the youngest member of our family. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this restaurant – excellent food, prepared simply, served quickly and all at a great price.

Fully satisfied by our meal and with more than enough time to meander our way back towards the theatre, our evening had started in fine fashion. We all then sat enthralled for the next couple of hours as the story of Swan Lake unfolded before us. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation brings a more modern-day twist to the tale and replaces the well-known Dance of the Cygnets with an incredible male troupe of swans instead. The dancing was incredible and brought real inspiration to both G and M as they watched it in absolute awe, something that should never be under-estimated as M had expressed his concerns about watching a ballet – “…there are no words to explain what’s going on, so how do you know the story-line..?” before it even began.

I think we would all heartily recommend seeing this production, though it turns out that I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to the setting, much preferring the classic portrayal of the Swan Lake tragic love story. It was fascinating to talk to G and M about their thoughts on the production, with M uncertain as to whether the second half was a dream or not and both expressing the view that the role of the Swan/Stranger represented the 2 sides oft he Prince’s psyche. This was a performance that really challenged everything we knew and expected of a ballet and was a truly amazing experience. Despite my hesitations about some parts of this version, I am fascinated to see how Matthew Bourne has adapted and updated other ballets and hope to be able to see another of his productions soon.

Birthday blessings

This weekend has been one of “those” weekends. You know, one of the ones where there’s so much to do and just not quite enough time to manage to do it all. A combination of birthday celebrations, performing arts classes, auditions and hospital appointments has left us feeling somewhat exhausted; but tonight, after a fun few hours with M, G and a group of their friends, I’m also counting our blessings.

It’s been no secret that M found last year, his first at secondary school, tough. The move into a school environment where his year group was considerably bigger than his entire junior school combined with family deaths and the inevitable challenge of his continued restricted diet left not only M, but all of us, struggling to find a positive way forward. Circumstances last year meant that we didn’t really do much to celebrate his 12th birthday, so I was determined to kick off his teen years in whatever fashion he wanted.

The celebrations started with an M-friendly pear and ginger cake with caramel buttercream icing on Friday evening to accompany his presents, which included the bass guitar and amp that he’s been yearning after for a few months. He had been slightly frustrated with Mike’s refusal to take him to look at guitars last weekend and was only marginally mollified by the promise to get up early this Saturday morning to visit our local guitar shop and examine exactly what was on offer. As you can imagine, his excitement in finding the guitar and its own mini amp waiting for him when he got home from Stagecoach was wonderful to see and we’ve been serenaded with renditions of both “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Seven Nation Army” since late Friday night! I’m just glad the bass guitar lessons he’s been having at school appear to be paying off already and delighted to see him so wiling to practise in every spare moment.

However, the culmination of M’s birthday weekend came yesterday afternoon as we spent the late afternoon and early evening with a group of his and G’s friends. M had chosen a group of old friends and new, some from school, others that he’s grown up with and the best bit was seeing just how well these different strands of his life hit it off and enjoyed the few hours together. After lots of chat, M had decided he wanted to try his hand at an escape room and we booked 2 rooms at one of our local escape rooms sites. We amicably split into 2 teams, each with an adult and a mix of the older and younger children and determined to compete against the clock, rather than each other to escape our locked rooms.

I was impressed with how well they all worked together and certainly those on my team managed the frustration of solving some of the clues well, with only one of M’s friends needing some redirection and reminders to focus from time to time. We were lucky to escape with just 2 minutes to spare and although Mike and M’s team were not quite so successful – they had found all 4 keys, but failed to open the door in time – everyone enjoyed themselves and were ready to move on for a dinner to suit all dietary needs that were present.

The chatter, camaraderie and chuckles around the table were wonderful to experience and all the children were a delight to spend time with as they enjoyed their food and just spending time together. It was a wonderful way to celebrate M’s 13th birthday and I really have counted my blessings tonight that M has finally found his way out from the darkness of last year with the help of some amazing friends, who accept him for who he is and don’t see his health challenges as a barrier to their friendship with him. A perfect celebration with both new friends and old; and a combination of friendships that I hope will keep going for many years to come.

Young Carers Awareness Day 2019

Today is Young Carers Awareness Day 2019 and the purpose of the day is to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by young people because of their caring role, and to campaign for greater support for young carers and their needs. Young Carers often struggle with mental health problems of their own due to the strains they can find themselves under, hence the launch of their #CareForMeToo campaign.

I was recently invited to write a blog for Over The Wall about the impact of their camps on our family and I chose to particularly focus on the importance of the siblings camps for children like G, who is recognised as a Young Carer locally. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my thoughts here too.

 “…when one person in the family has a chronic illness, the whole family has it…”

Jamie-Lynn Sigler

When you live with chronic illness you know that it is about so much more than just the disease itself. Pain, exhaustion, medicines, appointments and hospital admissions are often accompanied by a loss of self-confidence, doubts about self-worth and mental health issues that need time, patience and understanding to come to terms with and overcome. As parents to a child with a rare illness that is little known and little understood, Mike and I have had to find a resilience and strength within ourselves to not only support M as he finds his way to understanding his condition and living his life to the fullest, but also to fight those battles that he is not yet ready to tackle himself.

For the last 8 years, since our appointment with M’s first gastro consultant, our focus has been on finding answers and researching ways to give him the best quality of life we can despite the challenges he faces. As he now heads into his teens, we are seeing the fruits of those endeavours as M begins to make his own choices about the foods he eats, knowing full well the reactions he may experience, and taking on more responsibility for his medicines.

You could say that we’re achieving what we set out to do when we got his diagnosis: to raise a young man who won’t let his illness define or constrain him and who believes that he can be successful no matter what; but we have not been alone in supporting M. Family, friends and our local community have walked every step of this journey with us, helping us in more ways than we could ever imagine was possible; but there is one person who has been there since the very beginning, without any choice and yet who loves M unconditionally and is an indisputable rock for him, even when they don’t always see eye to eye.

She is, without a shadow of a doubt, the unsung hero in our family story.

Since the day her baby brother arrived prematurely in her world, G was determined to help out whenever she could. She put up with his incessant screams from what we now realise was undiagnosed pain and looked to comfort him however she could – making him laugh, giving cuddles, reading stories or just bringing him “Cat” when nothing else would do. Like so many siblings to children diagnosed with chronic illness, G has inevitably been side-lined when that illness has dominated family life and despite our determination to make sure she doesn’t miss out because of it, I know there are times when we haven’t got that balance right and given G the attention she deserves and needs.

From the interruption of frequent hospital appointments to badly timed admissions over her birthday 2 years in a row, G has had to take the back seat to M’s illness more times than seems fair and these are not the only ways in which her life has been affected by his diagnosis. We cannot ignore the reality that having a chronically ill sibling has had a massive impact on G and her mental health too. Anxiety, panic attacks, facing fears and anger management issues are all inextricably tied up with the role of being a young person caring for another and it has been crucial we find a supportive environment for her that has taught strategies for dealing with her yo-yoing emotions and provided a safe and understanding outlet for them. Encouraging G’s involvement with our local Young Carers group as well as applying for a place at the Over The Wall Siblings camps have been important steps in recognising the impact that M’s health has had on her over the last 15 years and have helped her feel that we really do understand and appreciate all that she has had to put up with and sometimes give up too.

That time away at OTW was a week for her to be herself, not defined or viewed in her role as M’s big sister and encouraged and allowed her to take time to focus on herself without worrying about him. G came home a different child to the one who had left us, having realised that her life experiences didn’t isolate her in those circumstances and she had found a sense of self-worth that she had been struggling to develop at home and at school. G’s second camp experience saw her develop a confidence and willingness to take on new challenges, knowing that, with a little bit of self-belief and perseverance, no mountain is too big for her to conquer. OTW brought G out from the shadow of M’s ill health, helped her rediscover who she is as an independent individual and gave her her childhood back – and for that I can’t thank them enough.

Battle of the Birthday cakes

December is always a busy month for our family, what with birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas to celebrate and squeeze in alongside the end of term and all the added demands that that almost always inevitably brings. As well as the last-minute rush to make sure cards have been written (and sent) and that presents have been bought (and wrapped), I also have to make sure I have time to bake the perfect cake to help us celebrate G’s birthday in style.

Over the years I have tried my hand at all sorts of cakes and I love spending the time to let my creative side really come out, though Mike might disagree as some of my more complicated masterpieces have kept us up into the early hours as I strive to get every detail just right. Last year I attempted a gluten- and dairy-free red velvet cake for G, which tasted great, but didn’t look as appealing as I’d have liked and so this year I was determined to create her a special treat that looked and tasted the part. G is a definite chocolate lover, something that can be a little tricky when you’re dairy-free, but there are lots of great dairy-free options available and I was determined to use a mix of them to make G a cake that the whole family, including M, could enjoy.

The obvious starting point was the beautiful chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes that I had perfected for Mike’s birthday and which I knew I could turn into a fantastic 2 layer cake. I wanted to create a really sumptuous filling and to my delight discovered this salted caramel flavoured icing mix as I wandered around our local supermarket. Mixed with our regular dairy-free spread, this made the perfect buttercream filling and topping for G’s cake. I finished it off with handfuls of Freedom mallows, shavings of Moo-free chocolate and sprinkles of Sainsbury’s Free From White chocolate chips. The final cake was a huge success: gooey, delicious and everything my chocolate-lover could have wanted for her 15th birthday.

Once G’s birthday celebrations finally came to an end, I was then on to my next birthday cake project, which was to bake a cake for my Aunt for her birthday on December 23. This year was her first celebrating without my Uncle, who sadly passed away earlier in 2018 and the plan was for a family gathering at my Mum’s house to mark the day. Mum was keen for me to bake some more of the chocolate cake that I had made for G’s birthday, but I wanted to do something a little different, especially with Christmas right around the corner, and instead settled on one of M’s firm favourites, banana bread.

When it came to making the cake, G was a huge help and offered to bake a dozen cupcakes, whilst I decided how to decorate them. She did a great job and by the time I’d found the perfect design and all the necessary ingredients, there were 12 wonderful looking cupcakes waiting and ready to go. I took inspiration from the front cover of a fantastic cupcakes cookery book that I’ve used before and gave a nod to my Welsh heritage with a plateful of sheep cupcakes. Safe buttercream icing, a small supply of Freedom mallows, safe cocoa powder and a little fondant icing was all that was needed to create these fun birthday treats,which were not only enjoyed on the 23rd, but saw G and M through Christmas too.

Thai-time

Back in 2017, we were invited to visit and judge the wonderful Bangkok Canteen in Gloucester as part of the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards (FFEOA) and it won a well-deserved gold award for its amazing gluten-free Thai food. However, what with one thing and another, I never quite got round to writing up a review of our visit despite my best intentions and so, when Michelle asked us to make a return journey there in 2018 to flex our judging muscles once more, the whole family were delighted to go back to try their food again and I was determined to finally write that blog post – even if it’s still taken a little longer than I’d have liked.

The Bangkok Canteen is one of those hidden gems that once discovered you want to shout about to the freefrom world, whilst being, at the same time, almost reluctant to share too much, or too loudly, just in case it suddenly becomes very popular and you struggle to book a table at short notice. What I love most is that even though it advertises itself as 100% gluten-free, nearly all of the menu is also dairy-free, which is absolutely perfect for G; and with staff as incredibly knowledgeable as theirs, they are willing and able to offer great advice to those of us who need to know about the other ingredients used. Another highlight is their use of a lot of local or UK grown produce wherever possible, which means that treats such as Gloucester Old Spot Pork Panang appear on the menu – and come highly recommended having more than passed my taste test! Add in a good selection of organic, gluten-free and vegan beers and wine and you really can’t fault this restaurant for its allergy offerings.

Over the last few months, as I have well-documented on my blog, we have taken the decision to allow M a little more freedom with his food choices when we eat out or are on holiday. That’s not to say that he suddenly eats completely normally, but with the complete support of his gastro consultant, we increase his medicines to help dampen the reactions he experiences when he tries more than his staple diet at a meal-time. This time round he decided to stick with the base ingredients we know he can eat – think chicken and prawn – whilst adding some flavours that he longs to enjoy again – sweet and sour for example. Both children chose some familiar favourites and were thrilled to be able to safely pick starters, main courses and puddings, although the generous portions meant we ended up with far more food that we could really comfortably manage. I opted out of a dessert of my own, preferring a pot of jasmine tea to finish my meal, but the banana fritters and Thai custard cake, served with dairy-free and vegan ice-cream were a big hit with both G and M. It really was fantastic to be able to enjoy such a delicious 3-course meal as a family and I’ve no doubt that we will visit the next time we’re in the Gloucester area.

The food at the Bangkok Canteen is fabulous and delicious and it really is incredible to have found a restaurant that is so switched on about their freefrom offerings. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this Thai restaurant to anyone in the area, or visiting the area, who wants a truly exceptional dinner. My one recommendation would be to make sure you book a table in advance as it appears to be a popular destination for dinner in Gloucester; and one not to be missed.

Polar Dip

Despite the assertions of some Canadian friends that it couldn’t be a “real” polar bear dip without having to break some ice, in the middle of December Mike decided to take part in our local New Year’s Day polar swim. With just a smidge over 2 weeks to prepare for this madness, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Mike was completely mad – believe me when I say it was something that went through my mind too – but the reason for it is actually a fantastic one.

You have all heard me talk a lot about the amazing charity, Over The Wall, who provides free therapeutic camps for children with serious health challenges as well as their siblings and families. G and M have been fortunate enough to go to these camps twice each over the last 3 years and the difference it has made to them both is incredible. Since G’s first trip to the South Siblings Camp in 2016, we have taken every opportunity we’ve been able to find to raise awareness and funds for them – from M’s presentation at school to G’s sponsored hair-cut. I’ve talked to more people than I can even begin to count about just how special this charity is and in the last year have been delighted that 2 fellow EGID Mums were successful in their applications for camps too.

2019 marks 20 years since OTW’s first camp in the UK and they are looking to mark that anniversary by being able to send 1,000 children, young people and families to one of their camps. We want to help them achieve that goal, knowing from firsthand experience just how invaluable their camps truly are, and will be spending the year finding new ways to support them just as they have supported G and M.

And that’s why Mike kicked off our fundraising year in style with his Polar swim. He chose to swim in 9° water for 20 minutes – 1 minute for every year that Over The Wall is celebrating this year – and we set a tentative target of £200. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, Mike not only more than managed his New Year’s Day dip, but also raised a fantastic £223!

If you’re able to give even a small amount, I know that Over The Wall will make very good use of it and you will be helping enrich the lives of young people living with health challenges, just like G and M. You can donate via their special 20 years donation page here.

Welcome to 2019

It feels a little strange to be putting fingers to the keyboard and sharing news with you all once again. Since the last time I wrote, we’ve celebrated Christmas, seen in the New Year, made some big decisions about future plans and the children have headed back to school. Mike kicked off the New Year in style – something I’ll share more about in my next post – as part of our family commitment for 2019.

To be honest I was glad to see the back of 2018, which had challenged us all from almost the beginning of the year, thanks to a nasty bout of Aussie ‘flu and…well…everything else that then followed on from that. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad and there were also lots of highlights from our year to celebrate too. Unfortunately and almost unbelievably, 2018 finished in much the same way it started with the sad news that one of my Godmothers passed away just before Christmas and 2019 obviously didn’t get the memo that it needed to improve on our experiences and kicked off with further news of ill-health for both friends and family.

However, I’ve learned some important lessons in 2018 and will be taking them forward into our New Year. I have some wonderful freefrom finds to share amongst other news and I’ve no doubt there will be discoveries and adventures to write about as 2019 unfurls.

Here’s to a year of discovery and wonder for us all.