A great weekend celebrating a milestone birthday with family. Food, fun and fantastic weather – what more could we ask of South Wales in September?
No sooner have we just about stopped celebrating my Mum’s 70th birthday (there are a couple more presents to enjoy over the next few weeks), but it’s time for Mike’s birthday – and on a Tuesday of all days. Tuesday has to been one of the worst days to celebrate a birthday in our household – M has his dyslexia lesson after school, G has an hour’s tutoring to prep her for her GCSEs and we head to our local swimming pool for our half hour session between 8.30 and 9pm; and it’s pretty much non-stop until bed.
So, instead of even attempting a meal out or raucous party night, we had a rather low-key celebration over the weekend with a scrumptious buffet-style spread and bottle of wine for the adults in front of Strictly on Saturday and marked the occasion that way.
Happy birthday Mike – we love you very much xxx
What do axe-throwing, high ropes, tree-climbing, birthday cakes and family have in common?
Easy; my Mum’s milestone birthday – her 70th – and a family weekend spent celebrating in style at the fantastic Bluestone resort in South Wales. For those of you who have never heard of Bluestone, the resort is set in 500 acres of beautiful Pembrokeshire national park near Tenby with stunning views out to the Preseli hills and is a complete escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. As well as a site which is largely car-free, it is also absolutely jam-packed with activities and adventures to choose from and our weekend proved far too short to enjoy more than just a select few handpicked choices.
With 7 of us visiting, we stayed in one of their Grassholm lodges, which slept us all more than comfortably and included a fantastic open plan downstairs space with a generous sitting room, dining area and kitchen. Those of us who could booked bikes for the weekend and G and M had a great time racing around from venue to venue for each of the activities, although some of the hills proved a little more challenging for the rest of us. Over the last year, both children have really enjoyed every opportunity to go on bike rides especially as M’s confidence in his bike-riding has grown, and we can often be found spending a couple of hours exploring the country lanes near our house as part of a family ride. It’s also possible to hire a golf buggy to drive around the site, but we spent much of our time either walking or on our bikes whenever possible.
Needless to say, the children and Mike selected their activities for the Saturday with relative ease and I spent my time trying to grab action shots as G climbed to the top of a 40+ foot tree, whilst M and Mike took on the challenge of the high ropes course. Add in the demonstration of their Canadian roots in the afternoon with some axe-throwing skills and great fun was had by all. We even managed to squeeze in a quick early evening swim before heading out for a celebratory dinner at the Farmhouse Grill. Sunday was a little quieter with a morning at the Blue Lagoon water park before a late lunch at the Knights Tarfan.
All in all, we had a brilliant weekend and it came as no surprise when both G and M asked if we could go back another time. There were lots more activities that we could have tried, both indoors and outdoors, but we just couldn’t fit them in this time round. We would highly recommend Bluestone for a weekend, or week, away from it all and it certainly has enough to keep the most active of youngsters occupied for a good few hours anyway.
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.
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.
As Christmas fast approaches, we are all in that mode of frantically searching high and low for the perfect presents for our loved ones, or, at very least, the best price for whatever it is they want. My two are complete opposites when it comes to writing their Christmas wish lists: M knows exactly what he wants, be it the latest computer console and games (PS4 and Fortnite), musical instrument (electric bass guitar plus amp) or the slightly more random Tempur mattress (just don’t ask). Whilst these all come with a significant price tag and the ongoing conversation about having any one of them as a joint Christmas/birthday present, at least we know what to look for, although I’m not convinced he’d be that happy if all he got was a new mattress!
G, on the other hand, is a little more challenging. For the last couple of years, her list has been small and fairly inexpensive, which is great from a financial perspective, but far more challenging given she’ll be turning 15 just 2 weeks before Christmas and various family members want suggestions for both occasions. Having given the best idea to my Mum, I’m not quite sure what Santa will find to leave in her stocking this year, but hopefully with some hard work, heavy head-scratching and even brainstorming, we’ll get there in the end.
One of things that I love to support is local business whenever possible and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have spotted the memes on social media asking folks to consider buying from small, local businesses at this time of year to find something truly unique when it comes to gifts. We’ve been doing our bit to support our local business community for at least 10 years and love discovering new opportunities to do so along the way. We started with buying our weekly groceries from our local food co-op, who source local meats, dairy products, fruit and vegetables, baked goods and even ready meals and deliver to our door. They work very much in the same way as some of the bigger names in this market, but with all the added benefits of locally grown and produced seasonal products, thus reducing our carbon footprint as much as possible. Our nearest big city has an active fruit and vegetable market too and so they can also offer the more “exotic” items, such as bananas, which means we’re not heading to a big chain supermarket for just a handful of groceries too often.
Over the last 15 months, we’ve been supporting another local enterprise and one which is bringing great health benefits to us all. A local farm has converted one of its unused buildings into an environmentally friendly swimming pool, using water from its own bore-hole and heated by burning grass grown on the farm. It has a limited occupancy due its size and so rents the pool out on a private basis to small groups, who can book a regular time slot to spend there swimming. Every Tuesday evening at 8.30pm, our family can usually be found eagerly splashing into the pool, ready and raring to go for 30 minutes swimming time. It is conveniently close to us – just 10 minutes from home by car -, impeccably kept and we have developed a passing acquaintance with the 2 groups, 1 family and 1 a group of friends, who swim in the slots before us. We are allowed access to the spacious changing rooms for the 15 mins before and after our slot and despite my fears that M and G would dawdle, they both manage to get themselves showered, changed, dressed and ready to go by 9.15pm at the latest.
Even better, not only does this local farm provide this fantastic facility which has seen M’s confidence in his swimming skills soar whilst G, but we are also able to buy fresh eggs from the farm door on an honesty box system and their Christmas offerings include beef and turkey. I have long said that we have the best of all worlds where we live, being just 8 miles from the centre of a vibrant city with amazing theatres, music venues and sports stadiums, but having a cottage on the edge of farmland and being able to see fields and green spaces for miles. The children have grown up with a dairy farm just across the road and are accustomed to seeing cows or sheep in the field next door whilst they’re bouncing on the trampoline in our “paddock”. I love being able to access so many things so easily, even the coastline is just 20 minutes away, and truly appreciate and understand just how lucky we are. Supporting the small, local businesses that are trying to survive and thrive in challenging times is just one way we can help our local community continue to grow for years to come…and hopefully will help me source some great presents for G in time for December!
Turns out that October 15 is a popular day for birthdays. Old school friends, work colleagues and even M’s adored Godmother, but we’re celebrating a special day a lot closer to home. Cue Friday night celebratory meals, Saturday evening at the theatre and a Sunday afternoon spent baking a batch of M-friendly Chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes all to mark this occasion.
So, what more needs to be said other than Happy Birthday to our favourite husband and Dad!
One of the nicest things about adding some new foods to M’s limited list, other than the obvious of…well, you know, the addition of new foods to a highly restricted diet…is that just 3 new ingredients have added a huge number of new recipes for him to enjoy. Each one has brought something different to the cookery table, but the best one in many ways, or so M would have you believe, is the mighty banana. I first started playing with recipes back in March for M’s birthday, when I adapted an old favourite to bake a banana bread birthday cake with reasonable success. M wasn’t impressed by what he felt was an overwhelming flavour of nutmeg, so the recipe has had a few more tweaks to reach what is, by M’s exacting standards, almost complete perfection. It’s no exaggeration to say that the introduction of a 3rd fruit has been a game-changer in our household and so I thought I’d share the best bits about bananas with you all:
Banana Bread – it’s never easy to find recipes that can be adapted, and adapted well, to suit M’s restricted diet and these days vegan recipes are almost always my automatic go-to starter for 10. I found a wonderful vegan banana bread recipe on the BBC Good Food website and it took just a few subtle tweaks to turn it into a tasty, gluten-free, M-friendly baked treat that has been a big teatime hit. The latest twist has been to add some dairy- and soya-free chocolate chips to the dough, which makes the cake taste even more indulgent and a welcome addition to his daily packed lunch for school.
Banana & Chocolate Chip cookies – so often my recipes are a response to an unexpected need and these cookies are no different. One of M’s English lessons recently revolved around a tale of children stealing cookies from the staff office and his tutor group were given the opportunity to re-enact the story during a lesson. M came home from school very upset that he hadn’t been chosen to be one of these wannabe thieves and felt excluded because he knew he wouldn’t be able to share eating the cookies once they had successfully been taken. Fortunately, a quick call to the Head of Year 7 and an even quicker Google search found this wonderful recipe, which again required just a few tweaks to make a batch of M-friendly cookies that could be smuggled out of the school office alongside the ones for the rest of his class.
Banana, Apple & Lime Smoothie – one of M’s most precious possessions at the moment is the Nutribullet and Smoothies recipe book that my Aunt has given him as a memory of my Uncle. M feels even closer to him as he peruses the different recipes, trying to work out which he can safely make and enjoy and smoothies have quickly become a staple of his everyday diet. It’s even given him a great vehicle to trial raspberries as a handful added to the fruit mix works a treat. Despite his regular reluctance to get up and get ready for school, M can frequently be found whipping up a smoothie as an alternative to a more normal breakfast and he happily drinks it as he and G walk to school each morning. For a child who has always struggled with what to eat first thing in the day, these smoothies have been a real success story and a welcome break from the stresses that have all too often been a constant part of our morning routine.
It may be International Women’s Day, Jedi Day (thanks to Mark Hamill’s Hollywood star) and the eve of National Science week, but in our household, there’s only 1 thing that March 8th marks and that’s young Master M’s birthday. Except this year he’s not quite so young, having hit 12 years already – and just how did that happen? – and I can’t believe that this will be the last year that we only have 1 teenager in our household.
Today has been a great day at school for my youngest and despite a reluctant start to the day, he came bouncing back to the car at 3.30pm, keen to share everything that had been good about it. It’s not been the celebration that perhaps it might have been given the topsy-turvy nature of the last 2 weeks for our family, but it will be the celebration that we want it to be.
Happy 12th to my beautiful, strong, sensitive boy; who pushes the boundaries at every step, but has a true heart of gold xxx
For the 4th year in a row, I found myself not only in London, but also spending a little time at GOSH during the weekend closest to G’s birthday. Thank goodness that this year there was no admission attached to what is fast-becoming a December tradition, instead, just like last year, our reason for going was the December meeting of the GOSH YPF and with both G and M now active members of the YPF, we decided to make a weekend of it and round off the birthday celebrations in style, whilst gently kicking off our Christmas ones as well.
In the lead up to a previous YPF weekend, I was lucky enough to stumble across the Travelodge in Hounslow, which has quickly established itself as our destination of choice whenever we need to head to London for the weekend. A lot more affordable than central London prices, it is a short walk away from a secure car park and both the East Hounslow and Hounslow Central tube stations, making it an easy commute into GOSH in particular as all are stops on the Piccadilly line. This close to the end of term, we were able to take advantage of the fact that the out-of-school activities have now finished and headed to London on the Friday evening once G and M’s school day was over, and even managed a reasonable night’s sleep before our busy winter weekend began.
It started with our morning commute to GOSH, where we dropped G and M, both kitted out in their Christmas finery, for a YPF meeting filled with a whole host of activities and treats, including a hotly challenged Christmas quiz. Once the children were settled, Mike and I set off on foot towards Covent Garden and spent our day meandering the streets, exploring the shops and even managing to pick up the odd present or two as well. We stopped for a light lunch at the amazing Cafe in the Crypt at St-Martin-in-the-Fields, just off Trafalgar Square. This is fast becoming one of our favourite spots whenever we are in London as the food they serve is simple, yet delicious, they serve a few allergy-friendly snacks too and is a place I would heartily recommend to anyone looking for a peaceful break from the busyness of London itself.
Lunch done, we started our trek back to GOSH along Shaftesbury Avenue and stumbled across this group of festive, charity bike riders as we turned the corner towards our final destination. It really was a sight to behold as we were surrounded by Father Christmases as far as the eye could see and lovely to watch excited small children wave and shout out Christmas greetings as the cyclists sped past.
There was one last stop I wanted to make before we met G and M and that was at the Baileys Treat Stop pop shop located not far from Covent Garden. It was only open for 2 weeks and I was determined to take advantage of our trip and pay a visit there for a Baileys-inspired hot drink. The queue was long and it took over 40 minutes to finally get into the shop itself, though our patience was well-rewarded by the plethora of treats that was brought out to keep those waiting happy – chocolate eclairs filled with Baileys-infused cream, cups of popcorn and chocolate covered Baileys fudge and toffee. I finally made it to the front of the queue and having never tried their Pumpkin Spice version and not fancying a treat-laden hot chocolate, I decided to customise a Pumpkin Spice latte instead. I think the server was a little disappointed with my rather tame selection of “just” chopped nuts and wafer straws, but despite his best efforts, I held firm to my decision, which I maintain was absolutely the right one. However, the latte itself was incredibly disappointing and absolutely not worth the time and money I’d spent to get it. What I hoped would be a small Christmas treat for me really wasn’t and we wasted close to an hour with that detour.
However, the rest of our Saturday went according to plan and was a fantastic ending to G’s birthday celebrations. Both children had a great day at the YPF meeting and came away with some small and unexpected gifts and treats. G was really keen to have a Chinese meal for dinner and so we chose to double up M’s medicines throughout the day and then allowed him to relax his diet for the evening. Mike and I had done scouting around Chinatown during our day and we headed to the Feng Shui Inn for a few carefully selected dishes which the whole family enjoyed. From there, it was just a stone’s throw away to the Prince Edward theatre where we were treated to the delights of Agrabah, the fantastical quirks of the Genie and the addition of a handful of new songs to Disney’s Aladdin. This was G’s choice of show and I knew she’d enjoyed it when she asked at the end if we could see it again! It was an amazing production and we were incredibly lucky to see Trevor Dion Nicholas in the role of the Genie, a role he was reprising after a successful stint on Broadway.
Sunday morning saw another tube ride into London, though this time our destination was the Tower of London where we had booked an ice-skating session on the rink set up in the moat. Both children were keen to have a go at skating once again and Mike was just as excited. It took a little while for G and M to find their feet, but they were soon off and even attempting to get around on their own, away from the barrier. The session only lasted 45 minutes, but that was more than enough for all of us and M and I even left the ice a few minutes early due to the uncomfortable hire skates we were wearing. All in all, we had a fantastic and fun-filled family winter-themed weekend and it felt like a fitting end to what has been a long school term.