An Enriching Experience

June always seems to be a busy month for G and M and this year has been no exception to that unwritten rule. As well as the hell that was the lead up to G’s Year 10 mock exams – the exams themselves have proved to be not quite as stressful as we all feared they might be – there’s also been the much more enjoyable enrichment week for M and G’s work experience week too. Add in Live Lounge performances at school, end of year performances with their performing arts schools, we’ve finally found ourselves at the end of June and it’s time to take a deep breath, enjoy the last few weeks of school (if that’s even possible) and look forward to the summer holidays.

Last year, M was part of the school-based activities week as he wasn’t in a position to be able to consider being away from home from a health perspective and this year was no different, although the school makes the decision that all Year 8 students remain on-site, rather than being offered residential trips. After much deliberation, he was fortunate enough to be awarded a place on his first choice activity: the photography course. M really enjoys taking photos and has captured some really stunning snaps using just his phone’s camera at home. This was an opportunity to learn much more about the craft of photography itself and he spent 4 days learning about shutter speeds, taking action shots, images through water – lots and lots and lots of water! – and using light to write and capture words. He loved every moment of the course and has already decided to start saving up his pocket money so that he can buy his own camera as soon as he practically can.

The Friday was spent on a different activity and much to our surprise, he opted for paint-balling, something that has left him battered and bruised in the past. In fact, M hasn’t been paint-balling since he was hit accidentally by an adult using a high-powered weapon in the wrong part of the course at a friend’s birthday party. Whilst he wasn’t injured particularly and bounced back very quickly, the experience rattled most of the people there as M had his feeding-tube at the time and he was sore for a few days afterwards. However, the prospect of running around with a group of his friends and their plan to gang up on some of the teachers seemed to excite him and he couldn’t wait to go on the Friday even despite the rain. It was another fun-filled day and he enjoyed it all, even if he did come home sporting a rather impressive bruise to his right thigh by the end of it.

Whilst M had a week of enriching and engaging activities, G meanwhile found herself completing her work experience week. Back at the start of the school year, we had gone through a number of possible posts for her to consider and apply to for the week, but in the end she decided to spend the time working at the surveying firm as Mike. She spent her week learning how to carry out and complete property valuations, building surveys and home-buyers reports as well as the more mundane office and administration tasks that all good work placement employers expect: photocopying and shredding! Her Friday saw her spending the day at a building site and finding out about project management and property insurance claims. G very much enjoyed her week, though her diary entry for the Wednesday perhaps sums it up best – when asked “What have you learned about work this week?“, her honest response was “That it’s exhausting!

Eating Out with Allergies in Berlin

With breakfast, lunches and snacks sorted out, all that was left to do was to find a few places for dinner whilst we were in Berlin. Mike had done a lot of research on the museums and sights to see during our trip, so I had taken on the challenge to see what options for safe dining there might be. We had great success with the 3 restaurants we ended up eating at, even if none of them could be described as being “traditionally” German, and the allergy information was readily available and easy to read.

Pizzeria Simela: In my extensive internet research this restaurant consistently appeared with excellent recommendations for its brilliant gluten-free offerings of both pizza and pasta and I was delighted to read a more recent review that revealed they could also offer vegan – and therefore dairy-free – cheese. Based just around the corner from the fantastic Denns Biomarkt, this tiny restaurant has just a handful of tables, but is definitely worth a visit and booking in advance! We settled on some fresh tomato bruschetta on GF bread as well as a charcuterie platter for the four of us to share as a starter before selecting pizzas for our main course. Mike, G and M all opted for the GF buckwheat pizza bases, whilst I chose their regular base. It was also great to see a GF beer on offer and Mike willingly gave it a go, giving it a thumbs up. The food was absolutely delicious, there was a huge number of safe options G and M could choose from and there was very little left once my fellow diners had eaten their full. Definitely a winner in our books and one I would highly recommend.

Corroboree: This was a surprise find after a busy day involving 3 museums, a tour bus, lots of walking and even a lunchtime boat trip down the River Spree. We found ourselves at the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz, which seemed like a good place to search for a restaurant that might be able to cater reasonably well for even the most difficult of dietary requirements. Corroboree serves Australian-Asian fusion food and provided M with the chance to try some more unusual meats, something he’s been wanting to do for a very long time. The allergy menu I was given was fantastic and really easy to navigate and work out what was safe for both M and G. We were having a relatively early dinner, so G decided she would have a chicken Caesar salad supplemented with a bowl of chips, whilst Mike and I shared a Caesar salad with kangaroo steak as well as a platter for 2 which included Asian chicken, calamari and bruschetta. M, however, was the most adventurous of us all and decided to try the Corroboree platter with dairy-free tandoori chicken, crocodile tournedo and kangaroo filet. He enjoyed almost every mouthful and would happily eat crocodile again, though he’s less sure about the kangaroo as it tasted too much like beef for his liking. Something a little different to what we’d normally eat, but a big hit and a definite thumbs up for the freefrom offerings.

Hard Rock Cafe: It should come as no surprise that our first, and in fact, final meals were at our family favourite, the Hard Rock Cafe. Once again the allergy advice available was comprehensive and the restaurant manager came to discuss our dietary needs with us before the children placed their orders. We were reassured to hear that their GF fries are cooked in a separate fryer and there was no problem with tweaking the children’s choices to make sure they were as safe as they could possibly be. G once again chose the pulled pork sandwich which she first tried in Glasgow and now absolutely loves, whilst M changed his choices up a bit by choosing the pulled pork sandwich on the first night and a chicken and bacon “burger” for our final dinner. Both children were extremely happy with their meals and M was delighted to be able to try a selection of their smoothies too, having quizzed our poor waiter to make sure there was no milk added to them at all! Mike also decided to try their Local Legendary burger, which changes in each restaurant location and in Berlin was a burger topped with a serving of currywurst – the local delicacy of a bratwurst sausage topped with a curry sauce. I’m not sure its a burger I would have chosen, but Mike enjoyed it – and the generous glasses of beer that accompanied it. One of my favourite things about the Hard Rock Cafe is seeing what memorabilia they have on display and here they had a guitar made from a piece of the Berlin Wall with barbed wire as its guitar strings. Once again a restaurant we’d recommend to those eating out with allergies in the beautiful city of Berlin.

Sweet Treats in Berlin

The benefit of picking an apartment or apart-hotel to stay in is that there’s enough of a kitchen to allow us to cook safely for the children and we always travel with our extra suitcase of safe foods to make sure that we have enough of the essentials to see us through our time away from home. We never know what we’ll be able to find food-wise and it’s good to have a plan in our back pockets “just in case”. However, let’s be realistic, who really wants to cook when they’re on holiday? Certainly not me and so we had settled on a good compromise for a short break in Berlin, one that we’ve found has worked well for us in the past and which keeps the children happy too.

Even when we travel in the UK, I always make sure that I have breakfast cereals and cartons of rice milk packed as we’re never quite sure what dairy-free milks we will find and we start our days with breakfast in the room. Thanks to the great location of our Citadines Kurfürstendamm Berlin hotel, there was a Starbucks coffee shop and local bakery within easy walking distance, so Mike trekked out each morning to pick up a coffee for me and some freshly baked pastries and bread rolls for us to enjoy. We had also agreed with G and M that we would take packed lunches out with us daily and so had taken some Bfree wraps for M to enjoy, whilst we had picked up some great gluten-free bread rolls for G in a local supermarket. Both kids love cooked meats, so finding some safe lunch meat in the same supermarket was a great bonus and absolutely delighted them. Sadly, this same supermarket didn’t stock any rice milk, although there was an impressive array of other alternative milks and we ended up getting some soya milk for G and just used our supply from home for M’s daily breakfast.

However, as we found our way to dinner one evening at the fantastic Pizzeria Simela – don’t worry, there’ll be more about this in my next blog post – we stumbled across Denns Biomarkt and as we had a few minutes to spare, I suggested we popped in to have a quick look around. This has to be one of the best spur-of-the-moment decisions I’ve made in quite a while as, not only did their bakery have gluten-free fresh bread available, but there was a great selection of other allergy-friendly options available too, including numerous cartons of rice cream, which somehow made their way into the spare suitcase for our homeward journey! M also took a fancy to the black rice milk that he discovered, though sadly the final product proved not to be as tasty as he was hoping it might be. Here are a few of the freefrom finds that were the biggest hits with G and M:

Friederike from Jute Backerei: Well, who could refuse these amazing looking cookies from this gluten-free bakery? The clear labelling meant I could see from a quick glance that these were gluten-, dairy- and egg-free, so potentially a safe treat for M to enjoy alongside his sister. With the help of Google translate, I scanned through the list of ingredients and was happy to see that whilst they were baked in an environment containing soya, the cookies themselves were soya-free and didn’t contain anything that made me particularly worried about M eating one. They were absolutely huge and, I am reliably informed by both children, also extremely delicious!

Das Eis Triple Choc Ice-cream: Since getting home from Berlin, I’ve discovered that Das Eis is a huge vegan brand of ice creams and sorbets. Made from almond and rice milk, this ice-cream was also soya-free and so another treat that I was happy to let M try – once he had taken an extra dose of his array of anti-histamines and other medicines. There were a couple of flavours available in Denns Biomarkt as well as some other brands of dairy-free ice-cream, but the Das Eis Triple Choc was the only one that was also vegan and soya-free and therefore the best option for M. The children somewhat reluctantly shared the small tub with Mike, but they all agreed it was worth it.

Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Chunky Monkey Ice-cream: After our trip to the DDR museum, M asked if we could go on river cruise to enjoy our lunch and given the glorious day, Mike and I were both more than happy to agree. I had spotted some ice-creams for sale in the museum shop and had somewhat mindlessly looked to see what was available as I waited for Mike and the children to complete their purchases. G is notoriously difficult to buy an ice-cream for when we’re out and about as she won’t eat ice lollies and it’s rare to find a dairy-free ice-cream available for her. So, I was delighted to spot this vegan ice-cream, not least because we also felt we could allow M to try it as well whilst we were on holiday. The small pot was enough to satisfy them both before they tucked into their packed lunches and kept the smiles on their faces for the rest of the afternoon.

City Adventures in Berlin

Given the huge amount of history contained within this European city, it’s really no surprise that there is an incredible number of museums to visit in Berlin and somewhat understandably, by the end of our penultimate day, both children were beginning to grumble about feeling a little “museum-ed” out. We were lucky to enjoy some glorious sunshine whilst we were there, so we took every opportunity available to venture out on foot as well as making using of the “hop-on, hop-off” bus and highly efficient public transit system. I think (hope) we managed a good balance between those museums with exhibits about Nazi Germany and those about the Cold War era and it was great to hear G being able to explain in more detail some of the topics she has learned about at school. Here’s a list of some of our city adventures in Berlin this May:

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: A strangely effective and emotive memorial built within 5 minutes walk of the Brandenburg Gate. These 2,711 concrete slabs vary in size and shape and are constructed on undulating ground, which once formed part of the “death strip” that split the city into East and West by the Berlin Wall. There is no attributed significance to the number or design of this memorial, but instead it intends to invoke a sense of unease as you wander through the rows. Beneath the memorial, there is an information centre, which contains details and memories of some of the Jewish families affected by the horrors of the Holocaust from 1933 on. Unfortunately, the centre was closed on the day we visited and we didn’t have time to go back, but it is somewhere I’d be keen to revisit if we had the chance.

DDR Museum: Located on the banks of the River Spree, the DDR museum details life in East Germany under Socialist rule and is a fantastic interactive experience, which M really enjoyed. It looks at all aspects of everyday life from school and work to holidays, transport, national service and beyond. M was particularly taken by the opportunity to try his hand at driving the Trabant P601 simulation, whilst G spent a long time at the interactive desk which gave in-depth information about different parts of the political history of Berlin. My Grandad came from Czechoslovakia to the UK as part of the Allied forces during the war years and I found that the exhibits invoked many memories of how my grandparents lived, albeit in Northamptonshire, as well as of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1988 to visit our family who still live there. A great museum which kept us busy for between 2 and 3 hours.

Palace of Tears: This tiny museum is one we almost missed, but is definitely worth dedicating at least an hour to wander through it. It is based in the former border crossing point at the Berlin Friedrichstraße station, which was only used for those leaving East Berlin for West Berlin. It covers the timeline from the building of the Berlin Wall to its collapse, looking at the stories relating to the checkpoint as well as the process to achieve the reunification of the country. M and I spent some time watching the video of the fall of the Berlin Wall and talking about the fact that this event was living history for me – something that I remember happening during my childhood when I was about his age.

Jewish Museum: This was one of the museums recommended to us by G’s history teacher, but unfortunately the permanent exhibition is currently closed as it is being redeveloped. However, we spent the morning seeing what was open to the public and it was definitely time well-spent. Split over a couple of floors, we first visited the Holocaust exhibit, which displayed mementos, letters and photos from many Jewish families and relayed some of their history as well as detailing whether they died in a concentration camp or were fortunate enough to survive that terror. From there, we ventured outside through a memorial garden, before heading back in to the “A is for Jewish” interactive exhibit, which talks about the many varying aspects of contemporary Jewish life in Germany. Finally, we walked through the “Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves)” art installation, where you quite literally walk on 10,000 sheet steel faces of varying sizes symbolising all innocent victims of war and violence.

Mauer Museum at Checkpoint Charlie: This was one of the surprise hits of our holiday and one that we wouldn’t have visited if it hadn’t been for my insistence that I wanted to go to see Checkpoint Charlie on foot and our need for something to occupy our unplanned afternoon. Filled with an absolutely incredible amount of exhibits, it started with a look at the story of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman who is thought to have saved thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust before he disappeared in 1945 and was presumed to have died whilst imprisoned by the KGB, although there have been very many question marks surrounding the circumstances, and timing, of his death. Upstairs the exhibit moved through very many escape stories from East Germany, which absolutely fascinated M, not least of which was the armoured escape vehicle on display. There is also a huge area dedicated to human rights and worldwide civil unrest, including Ukraine and North Korea. An absolutely fascinating museum and one that you could easily spend a day, or more, exploring.

German Spy Museum: The unquestionable highlight of all the museums we visited in Berlin and it got a definite thumbs up from both children. Starting with a timeline of the development of espionage worldwide through the ages, this museum blends its interactive experience with a particular focus of espionage during the Cold War era. The main exhibit was divided between East and West Berlin and how spies played a part on both sides for many years. The laser maze gives visitors the opportunity to see if they can successfully work their way through the lasers to reach the abort button before enemy missiles are launched. Sad to say, neither G or M managed it, triggering the alarms as they made their way through it, although they both had great fun trying. There was also a section about fictional spies, most notably 007 himself, James Bond with some memorabilia and clips from several of the films. We hadn’t left ourselves enough time to see everything this museum had to offer as we had to head back to the airport for our flight home, so it’s definitely one to revisit in the future.

Bringing History Lessons to Life in Berlin

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a big fan of holidays. Not just the trips themselves, but I absolutely love the process from the moment we start thinking about the perfect destination to pick and, much to Mike’s frustration, can frequently be found thinking about where we should travel next, even before we’ve left home on the next one booked. We haven’t done too much travelling since our trip back to Canada last summer, but no sooner had G and I got home from our fantastic day out at the Strictly tour, than it was time to finish the packing and zip up the suitcase for our 5 day half-term break.

Our holiday was perhaps not what people expected, in that we weren’t chasing the sun with a few days at the beach, even though both G and M are desperate to go back to Greece and mention it every time they can possibly shoehorn it into any conversation. Instead, we had taken inspiration from G’s GCSE history syllabus and her learning about Superpower relations, the Cold War and Nazi Germany during the inter-War years, subjects which also happen to tie in quite nicely with M’s focus on World War 1 in his history lessons this year; and so headed to Berlin. As the children have got older, we try to involve them more and more with planning our activities whilst we’re aware from home and this trip was no different. G spoke to her history teacher just after Christmas as the school had taken a group of their A-level students to Berlin a few weeks earlier and came home with some recommendations of the best places to visit to help solidify her learning and understanding of these eras.

Armed with that information as well as the additional research Mike had carried out in the preceding weeks, we had plenty to do to fill our time and couldn’t wait to get started. I had found what looked like a great place to stay: the Citadines Kurfürstendamm Berlin apart-hotel, meaning that we had access to a full kitchen which always makes life a little easier when travelling with food allergies. We were ideally located not too far from the main retail street and within easy walking distance to not only shops and restaurants, but also the Berlin U-Bahn, or Underground rapid transit system.

Our first day started, as it so often does when we travel to a new city, with a “Hop-on, hop-off” bus tour, although we weren’t as impressed with the City Circle Tour offering as we have been with other tour companies we’ve chosen in the past. However, it gave us a great introduction to the city of Berlin itself and helped us work out how to get to the various sights on our list as well as ticking a few of them off without too much hassle. Both G and M were fascinated by their first view of the few remaining remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate and the bombed remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, all of which really brought their history lessons to life.

Strictly Marvellous!

What better way to kick off the May half-term after an almost unreasonably short term 5 than heading to Cardiff with your dance-mad daughter to finally enjoy her long awaited Christmas present?

What had been planned as a perfect mother-daughter Saturday outing to the Strictly The Professionals tour was somewhat derailed by the cancellation of our “Meet and Greet” session due to the irrefutable demands of 35 nation-wide performances of 50 dance routines in each 2-hour show, but leaving the Arena with an absolutely buzzing G proved that the day itself didn’t disappoint too much in the end. Of course, her perfect view of the intricate and often fast-paced dance routines as well as of her all-time favourite, Gorka Marquez, from our upgraded front row seats might have had something to do with her enjoyment!

The performance itself was truly inspiring, especially to my young and aspiring dancer. Carefully mixed with clips from previous Strictly shows and commentary given by each of the professional dancers appearing on stage, it was a wonderfully crafted show and both G and I loved seeing some of our old favourite routines as well as the incredible new ones. It was also a lovely tribute and send-off to Pasha Kovalev, who will not be returning to the 2019 TV show and G was quickly on her feet to join the standing ovation given to recognise him and his years on the show.

Add in lunch at her restaurant of choice – Pizza Express; a brief shopping trip and a dairy-free hot chocolate before we headed back to the station and it really was the perfect day out for us both.

 

Apologies for the less than perfect photos – but they were the best we could get from our seats and considering the lighting used!

Mental Health Awareness Week 2019: Body Image

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (#MHAW19) in the UK and the focus this year is on body image – how we think and feel about our bodies. I’ve talked about mental health in relation to our family before as there is no question that the ongoing challenges of M’s ill health and the restricted diets of both children have impacted not only them, but Mike and me too. Just because I’ve not written about body image issues before doesn’t mean we haven’t faced them and I thought it was finally time to try and put my pen to paper and talk about our experiences honestly.

It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the way I look. I am not a size 10 having, as I have often said, passed through it on my way to bigger and better things. I struggled as a teen being taller and bigger than some of my friends and again as a new Mum, when some of my antenatal group bounced back to their size 8 jeans within a ridiculously quick space of time, something I was never going to achieve. The depression that has haunted me since my early teen years didn’t help with my sense of self worth and it has taken me 40 years to finally accept that I am the way I am and that that is enough. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally have a crisis of confidence even now, but I have learned to wear clothes that flatter my shape and can truly step out with confidence when everything comes together to help me feel good about the way I’m presenting myself to the outside world.

There is no question that G is the spitting image of Mike and his side of the family, which gives her beautiful tanned skin and dark hair, although her build is very similar to mine. She has struggled at times with not being as slender as some of her friends and these days complains that she appears to have stopped growing whilst her friends are still inching past her. She is a beautiful young lady on the inside as well as out and we encourage her to find her worth in the way she behaves and reacts to the people who are around her and not her physical looks. We have all heard the criticisms of both print and social media and the airbrushed images that all too often create unrealistic expectations in our children and young people. The increasing popularity of taking selfies and then using social media filters to manipulate the image presented to the world can add to our unrealistic perceptions about the way we should look. I still remember a discussion we had with one of the paediatricians when she was little, who told us that the danger these days is that our perceptions and expectations of body shape and size are such that we fail to recognise when people are a healthy weight for their height and instead view them as overweight. G is learning to eat healthily, keep active, believe in herself and, most importantly, to not constantly compare who she is to her friends.

It is easy to believe therefore that if you’re slim you have no reason to have body image issues, but I can tell you that’s not true either. M is the complete opposite to the rest of us and has always been on the slender side. He is chatty, witty and can ooze absolute self-belief at times, and yet he has struggled with feeling too thin, too short and lacking muscles when compared to some of his friends. He refused to wear shorts during his Junior school years, even when the weather was gloriously sunny and we asked for permission for him to wear jogging trousers rather than shorts for PE – all because he hated the way his legs looked. These days he’s a little more prepared to reveal his legs, particularly when it’s too hot to be comfortable in jeans, but he frequently comments on just how much taller than him many of his classmates are.

Boys can be just as much affected by body image issues as girls can and we’re lucky that our secondary school is very aware of that fact and looks to support all of the pupils in its teaching about these matters. We are all aware that puberty is a tricky time and one that needs to be carefully navigated by all involved. At home, we look to help both G and M grow up with a positive self image and belief as well as teaching them the importance of balanced meals and regular exercise. We also encourage them to talk openly and honestly with us about how they’re feeling about various issues, not just about the way they look, and will help them find answers or solutions if they want. Our youngsters grow up sadly believing all too often that they need to be thin and conventionally beautiful to succeed in this world and I find it devastating that they do not truly understand and believe that there is so much more to achieving success than the way they look.

A pudding for every day

M’s restricted diet has come with a number of challenges over the years, not least of which is finding some delicious desserts for him to enjoy at the end of a meal. I have worked hard to adapt recipes or create new ones for him, but sometimes all this busy working Mum wants is to be able to pull a pudding out of the fridge and not have to do anything more than remove the lid and provide a spoon. One of the staples of my childhood for weekday desserts was fruit yoghurts and when M was small, he absolutely loved eating a yoghurt whenever he fancied it. G has always been less keen, although she definitely enjoys the odd soya pudding – especially the chocolate ones – on occasion.

So, I’m constantly on the look-out for an M-friendly alternative and you can imagine my delight when my hours of internet trawling uncovered the wonder that are Bio Organic Rice Desserts. Now sadly these puddings are incredibly difficult to source and I have spent a small fortune in shipping boxes of them to our house. However, the chocolate desserts have been a huge hit with Master M and those boxes definitely don’t last long unless a few are hidden away from his immediate view.

18 months ago I came across  La Crèmerie’ and their rice yoghurts at the Foodmatters Live Conference in London and last summer I eventually managed to convince M to give the yoghurts a try. We placed an order for both the plain and the vanilla flavours, but unfortunately  La Crèmerie was low on stock and we had to wait a little while for just the plain yoghurts to be delivered to our door. The rice yoghurt is delicious, although M wasn’t too keen on the plain flavour – I just wish that he’d had the opportunity to taste the vanilla ones as well. However, whilst they weren’t the biggest success we’ve ever seen, they did make a great addition to his smoothies and I was also able to use it to create a stewed apple and yoghurt pudding for him. Sadly, these are another more expensive option and perhaps not one for everyday, but they are a good dairy-free alternative and one I’d happily recommend.

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.