Archive for July, 2012

July 30, 2012

Slow Travel

I’ve long been a fan of train travel. Partly because I’m quite scared of flying and partly because I’m drawn to the history and romance of rail (even though the commuting reality can be somewhat different!) it’s been my favourite way to get about for a long time, bikes and horses notwithstanding. Whenever we go on holiday in the UK, I always hunt down the local steam railway too. It’s an unashamedly rose-tinted view of history, I know, but I adore steam engines and have a lot of admiration for the people who volunteer to keep them going.

North York Moors Steam Railway

Spurred on by thoughts of slow travel, I’ve been reading Dan Keiran’s ‘The Idle Traveller‘ and it’s made me go back to thinking about long distance rail travel with the kids. On our annual Parisian pilgrimage we always go by train. We just prefer it to flying. And I’m not even talking about environmental benefits, well-known as they are. I just find airports really intimidating, so they make me anxious and I spend most of my time watching the departures board and holding my breath. Then I have to get on the plane and get the plane into the air by the sheer force of my brainpower alone, judging from the white-knuckled way I grip the seat. I’m not so bad once we’re in the air, but landing makes me close my eyes and clutch at the seat again, praying to whoever might be listening that we make it to the ground safely. And I know that I’m more likely to be killed in a car than on a plane, but tell that to my heaving stomach! As you can imagine, I make a far better travelling companion on a train than on a plane…

Compare that with the sheer beauty of London St Pancras station and rail travel is already looking like a winner. The train connection (apart from having to run from King’s Cross, as the Leeds to London connection is always a little bit late) is a lot more straightforward and less scary. Leaving London and arriving at Gare du Nord in central Paris is so much better for my stress levels than getting to CDG airport and having to manage the connection from there.  But, no matter how many times I go to Paris on the train, whenever I’ve gone further into Europe (and leaving aside my university coach tour of Hungary and the Czech Republic) I’ve always gone by plane. Even though I’ve had my copy of The Man in Seat 61 and Flight-Free Europe for ages, I’ve I’ve never got past reading and dreaming. And that’s before I’ve even thought about my Bucket List rail journey; The Trans-Siberian Express, via Mongolia where I will disembark to see Pzrewalski’s Horses in the National Park…

Ooh, drifted off for a moment there. Where was I?

Oh, yes. I think that I’ve always been put off longer distance rail travel with the kids because I’ve been worried that they will get bored and that it will be really stressful. But, what if I re-think this? What if the journey itself is the point, rather than something to be borne with gritted teeth until we get to the destination? Keiran makes the point that during his rail journeys he has met many interesting people and seen things that would have been completely missed by anyone flying from A to B, which makes me think back to my own rose-tinted view of rail travel. Besides, I’m about to read a chapter called ‘Embrace Disaster’ which I’m sure will cover my fears of the kids getting bored! Mark Smith, the wonderful Man in Seat 61 also invokes that feeling in me that long-distance rail travel with kids is entirely possible, because of the way he recounts his own journeys on his brilliant and massively inspiring site. I’m also in love with the idea of sleeper trains, they feel terribly romantic, as though you might be a character in an Agatha Christie novel, but without the murderous intent.

The train is perhaps more expensive than flying but there are a few things to think about. On many train lines, children have a reduced or free seat price for longer than on a plane. There are fewer, if any, surcharges for baggage, priority boarding, calling the customer service line or using your card to pay for things, like there are if you travel with some budget airlines. And if the sleeper train provides a decent night of sleep, perhaps it reduces the amount of nights you might need in a hotel. Also, the idea of train travel is filling me with glee, unlike the plane which fills me with dread.

So, perhaps next year we’ll go to Europe on the train. Take a sleeper train from Paris to Italy. Or Spain. Or, more likely, just to Disneyland Paris to start with! But if we see the journey as part of the adventure, who knows where we might end up going?…

Have you done any long distance rail travel, alone or with your kids? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

July 27, 2012

A Hospital Bubble

I was in hospital last week. My daughter was ill. Thankfully, it was easily treatable and she started to recover almost the moment we arrived. Now, watching her dance around the room, it’s hard to believe she was ever poorly at all.

Being in hospital is like being in a little bubble from the rest of the world. It’s really warm, often with little natural light or fresh air. You are bound by the routine of meals, ward rounds and medication. There are machines everywhere, with alarms that sound if something is too low, too high, or not working at all. Nine weeks of the neo-natal unit  six years ago taught me what many of them do, which I’m sure is why although this experience was worrying and something of a shock, I was pretty calm and confident that everything would be fine.

Because of this confidence, I allowed myself to drift off into thought quite a lot. As she recovered well, there were many times when she was off in the playroom with her new hospital buddies and although I was watching over her, I was still able to read a book. I gazed out of the window at the clouds going by as she watched a bit of television on her bed. The enforced idleness felt like something of a revelation. Often I’m rushing around, talking of having ‘so much to do’ and being ‘so busy’, as though those things are badges of honour. And I am busy, but much of the time it is doing things I choose to do. A few days of colouring-in, reading stories and stroking my daughter’s hair as she tried to sleep with an oxygen mask on, actually did me a lot of good. It gave me a little chance to check with myself what is really important to me. And as much as my ‘busyness’ is important to me because a lot of it is generated by things I choose to do, there needs to be room in my life for colouring-in, reading books and gazing out of windows.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the book of my choice was ‘How to Be Free’ by Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and The Idler Academy.

Here’s to idleness.

July 25, 2012

Lomi Lomi

Recently, I had the best massage of my life at Lomi Massage Leeds. I’ve taken a while to write this post because I wanted to be sure of myself before I wrote about it. You see, the massage therapist is a dear friend of mine and I wanted to be sure that I was writing about the massage and not just being kind because of how fondly I think of her. I’ve thought back on it for a while now, and I’m reassured. It really and truly was the best massage I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot. I’m even qualified in Swedish massage myself, and I believe wholeheartedly in the power of massage for mind and body, so this is high praise indeed from me.

Often, when I have a massage, I spent far too much time thinking ‘Relax, relax, relax for heaven’s sake. You should be RELAXED by now. Why aren’t you relaxing?…’ Then, I start thinking of my to-do list and all hope is lost. Obviously, this means that by the end of the massage I’m not feeling much better than I was at the start. Having studied massage myself too, I kind of know what I’m looking for, and what I’m expecting, which can mean that if it fails to live up to my expectation, I’m terribly disappointed. This sometimes can happen if it feels as though the practitioner is merely going through the motions as if by rote, without really being genuinely involved in what they’re doing.

Jo’s calming personality and true belief in what she is doing mean that you have a real trust in her and that in itself allows you to relax almost right from the start. I know that it helped that we weren’t strangers, but I do believe that you’d feel that way from the start regardless. She’s simply one of the most grounded, kindest and positive people I’ve ever met. The secret location (a hidden cabin in the leafy Chapel Allerton area of Leeds) also helps, as you feel a little disconnected from the world for a while, which feels perfectly suited to the experience. She also works from Bivouac in North Yorkshire, another beautiful location.

Lomi Lomi  is different to the Swedish style of massage more commonly practised. It originates from the Hawaiian islands and is based in the spirit of Aloha. Simply put, this means universal love and it creates an atmosphere of open-hearted acceptance and kindness that you can feel from the minute you arrive. This massage is a wonderful way to be nourished and nurtured, and to take some time out of your regular routine for your mind, body and soul. The long firm and intuitive massage strokes flow over and under your body and you drift off into a real place of peace. As the massage began, I cried. At the end, I cried. I know this sounds odd, but they were not sad tears, but a sign of the much needed release of built up tension and anxiety. I felt so much better afterwards. More at peace with myself and with the world. This feeling continued long after the massage ended and thinking back to it, I return to a calmer state of mind.

Lomi Lomi massage is a beautiful, nourishing and powerful experience. I hope to repeat it again very soon.

PS: I want you to know that this isn’t a sponsored post in any way. I paid for my massage, and I wasn’t asked to write a blog post about it. I just loved it, and wanted to share that with you. Especially if you’re looking for a massage yourself…

July 23, 2012

Pennies for Piggies

Raising money for charity has taken on a whole new meaning these days. Every day I go into Leeds I see people trying to get us all to set up a direct debit for this charity or that, or I get asked to donate to someone’s fund-raising challenge. I know the direct debits are cost effective, but I don’t like being accosted every time I walk down the street! Occasionally, I also admit that it feels as though I’m being asked to donate to pay for someone else’s holiday of a lifetime, which makes me wonder if the charitable element can sometimes get a bit lost, despite the good intentions. I’ve done it myself though, asking people to donate to my Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge. Although given how hard I found that (there were tears), I feel as though I earned my charity the money through proper hard graft!

Anyway, onto the actual subject of my blog post. Recently, I was struck by something I read over at Dorky Mum about PennyBankKids. I didn’t go to Britmums, it’s not really my thing. But I did read lots and lots of tweets, blog posts and comments about it, and the one thing that everyone universally said was how great Sarah Brown was. She spoke about her small charity PennyBankKids, who, through their flagship project The Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory,  raise money for research into conditions of pregnancy and premature birth (something I have a personal interest in, my daughter was born at 30 weeks) and support vulnerable children and young people get a chance in life.

What really struck me about the post, and subsequent campaign, is the brilliant simplicity. No climbing mountains or setting up direct debits. Just good old fashioned charity. The blog4charity campaign is asking us to collect our loose change over the course of a month and then send it in, whatever the amount, to PennyBankKids. The few coppers that we don’t really think about would make a big difference to a small charity. To use a phrase probably copyrighted by one of my least favourite organisations, every little helps.

So, I’m off to find an old jam jar to collect my coins in, and then I’m going to be brave and stick my hand down the back of the sofa. Where, hidden among old bits of toast, broken crayons and lost toys, I am sure to find a few coins to start me off. I’m also going to get the kids involved. What a great, straightforward way of teaching them a little about charity. Let’s see if we can fill our jam jar.

July 11, 2012

Allotment Gardening: A Fresh Start

I wrote last week about the struggle to keep our allotment going and my decision to ask my Mum to be our partner. This week was our first session on the site together.

The first thing Mum said once she’d agreed to help us was that we had to tidy the shed. Although my inner teenager rolled her eyes and prepared to stomp around about it, my outer adult agreed with her. This photo, taken once we’d got everything out of the shed, proves she was right. Never argue with my mother!

Note the really useful contents: A ride on car, our Christmas tree stand, an England flag and a roll of old carpet…

Clearing out the shed feels like a winter job really, but the weather this year has been so troublesome, and today felt distinctly autumnal anyway. Plus, the after photo shows that it’s actually tidy now and will be much more practical. No more wrestling with a tangle of netting every time I want to take a fork out of the shed! There is also now quite a lot of unused space in it that we can put to good use later on.

Once the shed had been sorted out, we spent a bit of time digging over an empty patch of the plot that should have been my flower cutting patch but has gone horribly wrong and then pulling up the onions. These have been in the ground a bit too long and so are enormous. I just hope they don’t rot.

After an hour’s worth of work we set off to the garden centre to pick up a few things and make plans for the autumn – although it feels early to be thinking of the next season, the summer has been a bit of a washout. Rather than focus on what has gone wrong, I prefer to look forward to what’s next. This feels like a bit of a fresh start for us all, and I’m more enthusiastic about the promise of the allotment than I have been for ages. Clearing out the shed, although in itself quite a dull job, felt like an announcement that we’re serious about it once again. Working with Mum was really companionable, because we get on so well and it was easy to see how much difference an extra pair of hands working with us regularly will make.

I’m excited to see what we will manage to produce over the next year. Needless to say my plans for the place have expanded in an enthusiastic fashion!

July 9, 2012

Liz Earle Skincare: Product Review

A short while ago, I wrote a post about the Leeds branch of Liz Earle, purely because I’d had a great experience and wanted to share it. The lovely folk at Liz Earle read it, and sent me a few products to try out.

The first was the Instant Boost Skin Tonic. Now, I’m not very good at using toners. I forget in my rush to get out of the house in the morning, and to be honest, I’ve tried a few in the past that were simply too harsh and so which left my skin really tight and dry. This one is different. It’s alcohol free for a start, so doesn’t have the astringency of older styles of toner, and it’s got a gentle floral smell from the calendula and rose-scented geranium it contains. It’s really gentle and refreshing. In fact, I’ve started using it on its own when I come home from work, just to freshen myself up, as well as after cleansing. It does seem to make a difference, taking off that last bit of grime  (usually mascara!) from my face, not to mention tightening up the enlarged pores on either side of my nose. I love this product and really recommend it. Just be careful when you first use it though. In my enthusiasm to try it, I ended up sloshing it all over my hands – it comes out of the bottle faster than I’d anticipated!

The second product I’ve been using is the Gentle Face Exfoliator. I’ve been using this on a weekly basis. It has a slightly medicinal smell (probably because of the skin purifying eucalyptus it contains) and is a white creamy consistency with small beads of exfoliating jojoba. It is massaged onto dry skin after cleansing and then rinsed off. It’s really gentle and does a good job of taking away the dead skin cells and dryness on my skin without leaving it feeling as though it’s been treated harshly. Once it’s rinsed off, I then use the Skin Tonic above again, which leaves my skin feeling soft and floral scented.

Finally, I’ve been using the award winning Intensive Nourishing Treatment Mask. I love this product. My skin often feels a bit exhausted, a bit like the rest of me really! I especially like using it when I’ve got the chance to lie down for 15 minutes and relax with it on, because it feels like a real treat after a busy week. My skin reacts really well to it too, looking and feeling smoother and softer – less exhausted! If you buy the starter kit, it comes with a muslin cloth for you to use to take the mask off with.

It comes as no real surprise to me that I’ve been so impressed with these products – although they were a gift, this is really how I feel about them, and if you get the chance to talk to me in person about them, you’ll have a job getting me to stop! I love the products, the ethos of the company, the BUAV accreditation, the British roots and the great customer service. At the moment too, there is a special offer. If you spend £60 on products, you can get this lovely tote bag which I think would be great for the beach. Now, if we could only get the weather sorted out too…

July 6, 2012

Believe in People

My sister in law once bought me a mug that I loved. Partly because it was a Rob Ryan mug. I love the combination of whimsy and melancholy that seems to run through his beautifully created paper cuts and so this was a treat. But the other reason I loved it was because of the words written on it:

Believe in People.

And I do. It might sound incredibly naive, and I’m not a Pollyanna character whose unrelenting optimism doesn’t acknowledge the presence of Very Bad Things in our world. I know they exist. But overwhelmingly, I believe that people are good. Most of us are just trying to muddle our way through this life to the best of our abilities, making decisions, taking risks (or choosing not to) and just getting on with it. Its the reason that, unless you do something dreadful to prove me wrong, I’ll always be your friend.

It’s also the reason I’ll always be your cheerleader. Not in the sense that I’m going to get some pompoms and create a bespoke chant for you all, as fun as that sounds, but in the sense that if you’ve got an idea, a plan, a project, I’ll cheer you on. No matter how worried you are that it might seem like a pipe dream. We all need someone to believe in us, and I believe in you. And you. All of you, in fact.

I’v recently found myself  in that situation. I’ve started a project. Hell, I’m always starting projects. I’ve got as far as writing the title of it at the top of a piece of A4, and scribbling copious notes in a brand new and especially purchased notebook (isn’t new stationery the best thing?) I’ve also had chats in coffee shops. All very exciting. Usually, when I start something new, it’s alone. This time I have cheerleaders. A team. People who I have approached to cheer me on, be in my gang and make it happen. And they’ve all said yes. You have no idea how much joy this brings me. It also brings fear – as it’s moved from something that just exists in my head, to being something that other people are invested in. But, I’m concentrating on the joy right now.

So, if you’ve a project, an idea, something you want to make happen, I’ll be your cheerleader. I believe in you.

July 4, 2012

Simply Swim: swimming costume review

On Sunday we took the kids swimming for the first time in ages. Although both of them have done toddler swimming sessions, my daughter struggled when she started swimming lessons properly. She’s so slim (as a result of her premature birth) that she used to turn rather cold and blue almost the minute she hit the water and that, coupled with her fear of getting water in her face, was enough to make her really upset every time we took her. Three sessions later, we gave up completely, and tucked the idea away for some time in the future when she was ready again.

That time has finally arrived and so, armed with a new pair of goggles each, we all went to the local pool. They have a Family Splash day on Sunday, with lots of inflatables and floats. Both the kids really loved playing with these, and, together with her new goggles, they helped Eve to forget about her fears of getting splashed with water. With two adults, we even got the chance to steal away to the full sized pool each and do a few lengths for a little exercise. It’s been ages since I went swimming, and I really enjoyed it. It’s such a great alternative to the running and cycling that I try to fit into my life. Less pressure on my joints for one thing. I felt especially confident re-entering the pool, as I had a brand new swimming costume to try out, courtesy of  Simply Swim. The company have a huge range of costumes to suit everyone from mums like me who want something suitable for swimming the occasional few lengths, right up to seriously competitive swimmers and triathletes. They also have large ranges of costumes for children, men and lots of accessories too. The costume I chose is part of the Speedo Sculpture range, with low cut legs, extra thick material, a control panel over the stomach area and a discreet logo. Perfect. I really like being able to order and buy things like swimming costumes online, as it completely removes the paranoia of trying them on in store fitting rooms. Trying things on in the comfort and privacy of my own home is far preferable! From making my choice to the costume arriving took merely a few days, and it was packaged so that it could be posted through my letter box – no having to wait in for a courier service, or having to make the trip to the sorting office, which was an added bonus.

I’m really pleased to say that the family swimming session went so well. We’re going to keep going regularly, so that Eve is confident enough to join her class in their weekly swimming lesson when she moves up a year in September. I’m also going to sort out a few one-to-one lessons for her to build up her confidence. Ben, who is only three, basically thinks he’s Michael Phelps, so the main issue with him is making sure he doesn’t get out of his depth. Swimming is such an important skill, so I’m really pleased that the kids want to learn – not to mention that we’re having lots of fun together as a family too.

My swimming costume was sent to me for review by Simply Swim.

July 2, 2012

Allotment Gardening: A Change of Plans

This year my husband and I have really been struggling with the allotment. Despite best-laid plans and use of the Half Hour Allotment book, the combination of the weather and our other responsibilities has worked against us. The beans and peas have mysteriously disappeared, despite following exactly the same processes as last year (and protecting them in the same way) the apple set has been disappointing because of the rain and half of the plot is wildly out of control.

When we get the time to spend down there, instead of being ruthlessly efficient we stand around aimlessly trying to work out what job will make the most difference in the time we have available. It’s all a bit dispiriting. Instead of being a joyful experience, if I’m honest, it’s just becoming a bit stressful. Not that we haven’t been here before. When Eve was born ten weeks too soon, we spent a whole Winter sitting in a neonatal unit instead of sorting out the soil on the plot. We’ve had two babies, and I’ve had two caesarian sections, loads of other life responsibilities, and through them all, we’ve managed to juggle the allotment alongside everything else.

It feels different now. One of the reasons stress becomes real distress is when you can’t see an end to the situation you’re in and we’re in this situation for a long time. Full time work and small children just don’t leave enough time for it. We need to remember that it’s supposed to be fun. A hobby that might just provide some of the food on our plate. It’s really important to me, but I don’t want it to just become another thing to worry about. After all, the upside of a job is a salary with which we can buy the food we need. It’s more than that though. I want the kids to enjoy being outside. I want to share with them the happiness that growing some of your own food can bring, and the knowledge of where that food comes from. As well as that, they’re also learning about living alongside nature and I love to watch them exploring and playing on the plot, even though their presence reduces the amount of actual work I can get done!

Our feelings of stress about the situation are not helped by the new allotment neighbours. An army of them work the plot and in a few short months, it looks like they’ve been there longer than our six years. It’s making me miserable. I know the competition is only in my head, but we still look like the weakest link on the site and I don’t like it! We talked about giving it up recently. It broke my heart as I know that we’d never be lucky enough to get a plot again given the popularity of allotment gardening these days, but we also need to make sure that our holding onto one is legitimate and not depriving anyone else who would do a better job.

In order to make it work, I’ve taken a leaf out of my neighbours’ book. I’ve resisted this before, because I didn’t want to relinquish control over the plot, but all that  has done is leave me with no time and little food for my hard work. People are stronger as a community.  So, I did what I always do in times of crisis.

I called my mum.

We’re going to share the work in return for sharing the rewards. Even sharing, I’ll end up with more food in the first place because of the extra work being done – and Mum gets to grow the vegetables she cannot grow in her own, often waterlogged, garden. I already know, obviously, that we can work as a team together and our knowledge and skills will complement each other. I’m really excited about it. Of course, she might have said yes because of the payment up front I offered. A share in my one and only fabulous crop of this year. Here it is…