Summer Break: There’s a kite blowing out of control on the breeze

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The second part of our 2013 summer break was a flying visit to Ruth and Andrew’s new house in Marlow, with the main event being a visit to Legoland Windsor.

Marlow seems like a lovely town. We wandered down the high street (which was full of shops, rather than bookies and tanning parlours like so many places nearer home!), visited a lovely park with a brilliant adventure playground for the kids and even wandered a bit along the banks of the Thames, eating ice creams in the sun.

Later, once the kids were in bed, we sat in the back garden enjoying the local beer (Rebellion Beer Company is in nearby Marlow Bottom. I particularly enjoyed their Red ale) and marvelling at the red kites circling over our heads. Apparently this is a normal occurrence, and it certainly makes a change from the crows, magpies and gulls we get back home. Sadly we weren’t able to take a picture that did them justice, but they were very, very impressive to watch.

The next day began very early, not because of our Legoland trip, but because the girls were up at the crack of dawn and Gem and I were vainly trying to get them to go back to bed. Although we weren’t very successful, it actually wasn’t the worst thing in the world as we wanted to be away early anyway to be at Legoland in time for its doors opening.

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I’d read a few tips on the Unofficial Guide to Legoland Windsor, but still didn’t really know what to expect. We followed their advice, though, and made a beeline for the far end of the park, which seemed to pay off as we got on our first ride of the day, Atlantis Submarine Voyage, with hardly any queuing. And it was great! From our “submarine” we were able to watch all sorts of marine life swimming about, including a few Lego fish! The kids loved it, and so did the adults.

Other rides we went on included Boating School, Desert Chase, Aero Nomad and Knight’s Quest. The last of these was Heather’s first ever “thrill ride”, and she said it was “scary, but kind of fun too”. I explained that was kind of the point! We also watched the Pirates of Skeleton Bay show, which was fun, although getting to it quite late we didn’t have the best seats.

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Lunch was a splendid picnic next to Miniland, which is an impressive collection of landmarks from around the world, all modelled in Lego. I had a lot of fun pointing out to the girls all the places that we’ve been to in real life, either as a family or individually.

We had planned to visit the newly opened Duplo Valley splash zone, but it was quite a cloudy and cool day so we decided just to carry on enjoying the dry attractions instead, as we were never going to fit them all into one day anyway.

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Our final stop (before the gift shop, of course) was STAR WARS Miniland, where scenes from each of the STAR WARS movies have been recreated in Lego. Gem, who’s not a fan, was through this in a flash, while I took my time geeking out over all the models, and explaining to Heather what they all were. She’s seen a couple of the movies, and I think she recognised a few bits. She definitely recognised Yoda, and declared that he’s her favourite. Not a bad choice!

All in all, we had a fantastic day out at Legoland Windsor. So much so, in fact, that we’re already talking about going again next year. And why not? After all, there’s loads of stuff for us still to explore. If only it were closer to home… :(

This autumn I'm running/cycling in a 30km duathlon and a half marathon, to raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign. You can read more about my challenge here or support me here. All donations, however big or small, gratefully received!

Summer Break: Ee-I-Ee-I-Oh

Farm animals: Pigs, cows, chickens

When I first met Gem, she lived hundreds of miles from where she does now, which was rubbish in all sorts of ways (we spent a LOT of time on the phone!). That long distance relationship did have one benefit, though, that continues to this day: a reason to visit parts of the country I would never otherwise have seen.

I don’t know exactly how often we’ve driven the roads and miles to Lincolnshire, but I’d guess we’ve clocked up well over 40,000 miles in trips to Welby, and that’s only since Gem moved up here!

We figured out our best route pretty early on (in the days before Google did all the planning for you!) and have stuck to it since, but nonetheless our journey has changed over the years, mainly due to the arrival of little people. Gone are the days when a trip home started after work on a Friday – arriving at Nana’s around midnight with kids who are full of beans thanks to a few hours sleep in the car does not make for a peaceful first night. Instead, we now travel during the day, setting off first thing and arriving mid-afternoon, which means lunch on the road.

When we traveled post work, we were quite limited in where we could stop for dinner, and more often than not it would be Scotch Corner or Southwaite for a Burger King. But with more places are open during the day, and nutritional content for the kids to think about, we’ve tried out a few different places recently, and now have a new favourite stop-off: Mainsgill Farm.

Just off the A66, and almost exactly at the halfway point of our journey, it’s a wonder it took us so long to investigate Mainsgill, but we’re very glad we did. The girls love seeing all the animals (as well as cows, sheep, pigs and chickens, there are donkeys, goats, llamas and even a camel!) and Gem loves the farm shop which is stocked with all sorts of delicious, locally produced cheeses, meats, pies and cakes.

Last week we had lunch at Mainsgill for the first time, and although there’s no dedicated kids menu, we still found something for everyone and had a good lunch for under £20 – cheaper than BK, as well as healthier!

Throw in a kids play area, and some wonderful sunshine (OK, we don’t always get that!) and it was a real struggle to drag ourselves away and get back on the road. Hmmm… maybe it’s not such a good place after all!

Mainsgill Farm is located on the A66, 4 miles from Scotch Corner. They’re open 9-5, 7 days a week.

This autumn I'm running/cycling in a 30km duathlon and a half marathon, to raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign. You can read more about my challenge here or support me here. All donations, however big or small, gratefully received!

Together forever and never to part

Oban harbour

Oban harbour – even more beautiful in real life!

Last weekend was our 10th wedding anniversary, and one we felt we should celebrate in style. We decided that a night or two without the girls was the order of the day, but with a big old world out there, where should we go?

New York was the initial destination of choice, but quickly dropped off the shortlist once we figured out how much it would cost. Berlin was next up, and we actually had a hotel booked there, but again decided that the money it was going to cost would be better spent on other things, and started looking closer to home. Manchester, Liverpool, London and Inverness (where, all those years ago, I proposed by Loch Ness) were all in with a shout at one stage or another, but the winner was a late bid by Oban, somewhere neither of us had been before.

Hills and a loch

View from the train – I think this was Loch Awe

And so on Friday we waved the kids goodbye (Heather was most confused that we were leaving them, at our house, with Grandma and Grandpa) and caught our train to Oban. Travelling by train was Gem’s idea, and one of the best she’s ever had, because it made an overnight stay feel more like a two day break. Oh, and it meant we could indulge in some celebratory bubbles en route, to accompany our antipasti style lunch (another of Gem’s ideas – I’m so glad I married her :))

Our home for the night was the Ranald Hotel, a short walk from Oban station. The Ranald is a new hotel, built less than a year ago right in the heart of Oban. It’s so new that its location on Google Street View is occupied by a dilapidated garage, apparently operating as a garden centre. I assure you, that’s NOT where we stayed, although it might have been cheaper!

Not that the Ranald was expensive I hasten to add – we paid a very reasonable £125 for one of their Splendid rooms, and it certainly lived up to its name. Not only was it spacious with one of the comfiest hotel beds I’ve ever slept in, but the shower was incredible and the decor – both in the room and in the hotel in general – was top notch. I also loved the tiny box of chocolates that were in our room on our arrival! It’s nice touches like that which make a hotel memorable, and it’s little wonder that the Ranald is ranked top hotel in Oban by TripAdvisor.

Farmfoods Oban

My Great Great Granny was born here!

Luggage dumped, we went for a wander round Oban itself, stopping for “refreshments” along the way. It’s a really lovely town, and the views across the bay are stunning. I also had Gemma take the picture above, which probably seemed a little odd to anyone watching – why would anyone take photos in the car park of Farmfoods? Little did they know that over a hundred years ago this was the site of the Oban Tannery, where my great great grandmother was born!

After changing, and a quick cocktail in the hotel bar, we headed out for our anniversary dinner at Cuan Mor, a bar/restaurant with great views over the harbour. They also have an on-site brewery, the Oban Bay Brewery to be precise, so I was looking forward to sampling a few of their beers. Sadly they only had one (Kilt Lifter IPA) on tap, which was a little disappointing. It was tasty, though, as was the food. I had West Coast crab timbale, a rack of ribs and a New York cheesecake, all of which were excellent. The restaurant was busy, and we had to wait a couple of minutes for a table, but on a Friday night that’s to be expected and wasn’t a hardship. And the table we got was by the massive front windows, allowing us to watch the sun go down while we ate, which coupled with the atmosphere inside made for a very enjoyable evening.

Cuan Mor

Cuan Mor – we sat by the left most window

Sadly, a 5:15am wake up call (thanks Megan!) meant we were both shattered, and after dinner we headed back to the hotel where we were sound asleep before 11pm. No stamina these days, unlike our wedding where we were the last folk to leave the reception at 3:30am! I think those days are long behind us.

Saturday morning we had breakfast at the hotel (pancakes) before checking out and going for another wander. We didn’t have time for the distillery tour, but we did sample some of the best seafood we’ve ever tasted, from a little stall between the harbour and the station. It was so good we bought some to take on the train with us.

All too soon it was time to go home. The girls were pleased to see us, and we didn’t mention that the pencils we’d bought them as souvenirs had accidentally been thrown away. They’ll never know! After they were in bed, we shared fish suppers with my mum and dad, which was a great way to finish a great couple of days.

Oban is a fantastic place, and a great choice for our anniversary weekend. And, from looking through the tour guide in our hotel room, there are plenty of things to do nearby too. In fact, we both loved it so much we’re already planning a return visit, this time with the girls, some time around Easter 2014. And, already, I can’t wait :)

This autumn I'm running/cycling in a 30km duathlon and a half marathon, to raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign. You can read more about my challenge here or support me here. All donations, however big or small, gratefully received!

30 songs: Make my way back home

Two posts in as many days? Wow! Just don’t get too used to it…

Yesterday’s post was about a song that reminds me of Gem and how we became a couple after meeting online. I mentioned another friend that I’d made in a similar way, and met shortly afterwards despite thousands of miles separating us. By sheer coincidence (it only occurred to me AFTER I’d picked today’s song) today’s topic, a song that reminds meof somewhere, relates to that trip. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

My weekend visiting Vero in Ann Arbor (she was studying at the University of Michigan at the time) was pretty hectic. It was Hallowe’en weekend, which meant every night was party night, and the girls of Stockwell Hall seemed to be invited to every party there was. One night I even got dressed up myself – a hastily assembled Britney Spears outfit (think Baby One More Time video, with a baseball cap in lieu of blonde pigtails because we couldn’t get hold of a suitable wig).

In between all the partying, I:

  • was accused of having the most fake Scottish accent ever, before being asked to say something in my own language (English?)
  • got in trouble for the heinous crime of going for a shower un-chaperoned
  • broke and fixed a laptop (sorry Cate!) thanks to Olympus crappy camera software
  • toured round Ann Arbor but never got inside Michigan Stadium
  • ate the most amazing cinnamon sticks I’ve ever had (thanks, Pizza House!)

Sadly, all good things come to an end, and I had to leave. Not to go home, though, but to Utah, to visit my friend Rod who had recently moved out there. And that meant leaving Ann Arbor at 5am for a 3-4 hour flight.

I spent most of that flight asleep, but before I dropped off I’d put my airline supplied earphones in, and tuned to their rock station. Which was on a loop, playing the same songs every 40 minutes. Coincidentally, I woke up every 40 minutes, meaning that the only song I heard on that flight was Foo Fighters’ Learn To Fly. On the other hand, it might have just been that song that was played, on repeat, for the entire flight.

Either way Learn to Fly, rather appropriately, will forever remind me of flying between Ann Arbor, MI and Salt Lake City, UT. (Awesome video as well!)

This autumn I'm running/cycling in a 30km duathlon and a half marathon, to raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign. You can read more about my challenge here or support me here. All donations, however big or small, gratefully received!

RIP Bar Inopia

Back in 2006, Gemma and I had a long weekend in Barcelona. Seeing Pearl Jam was our main reason for going, but to be honest it was a good excuse to visit somewhere neither of us had ever been. In fact, never mind Barcelona, neither of us had even been to SPAIN beforehand!

The weather was glorious (“it’s great to know that summer still exists somewhere on the planet” was Eddie Vedder’s take) and we had a great time exploring the city, both on foot and from the vantage point of an open-top bus (a great way to get a feel for ANY city!). Even having to pay for our PJ tickets over again (don’t ask!) couldn’t spoil a magical trip.

Highlight of the trip – and one of our favourite nights out ever – was our visit to Inopia, a tiny tapas bar located well away from the main tourist spots. Gem had spotted a write up of it in a foodie magazine before we went, and we both thought it sounded too good to miss. So good, in fact, that when we forgot to take the magazine with us and couldn’t remember the name or where it was, we bought a second copy at the airport, so we didn’t miss out.

As it was a nice night, and the bar wasn’t far from where we were staying we decided to walk. Which was… interesting. I’m not saying it was in a rough neighbourhood – I don’t know the city well enough to make a judgement like that – but it certainly didn’t feel particularly tourist friendly, and as darkness fell, and we were surrounded entirely by local people we didn’t understand, we both began to feel a bit twitchy. Then, as we talked about giving up and heading back to “safety”, we found what we were looking for: Inopia.

The bar looked tiny from the outside, and not much bigger once you got inside either, although it did stretch quite far back. With only a couple of seated tables in the place (and those were taken) we elected to stand at the bar, where we had a browse of the menu, while enjoying a very nice beer.

We decided to go traditional, getting just 2 or 3 plates of food at a time, and to try different things as well as old favourites. The barman was a great help with that, because neither of us speaks much (any!) Spanish, and we only understood a few of the words on the menu. The food, as you’d expect from a place co-owned by a Michelin starred chef, was awesome, although 4 years on I can’t remember much of what we had. The one thing that will stick with me forever, though, was the baby calamari – tiny, thumbnail size whole squid, cooked in the most delicate batter you can imagine. Absolutely divine.

At some point – possibly when we’d finished eating, we moved outside, leaning on the bar from the street. From here we watched the world go by, chatted set the world to rights, and enjoyed more beers (Moritz is highly recommended!). When we eventually decided to head back to our apartment, we had a pleasant surprise because the bill was nowhere near what we’d expected, and miles cheaper than what we’d paid for food and drink elsewhere in the city – another sign that we weren’t in tourist town any more. A magical end to a magical night!

Last week, a couple of friends were asking what’s worth visiting in Barcelona, and I trotted out my usual first answer of Inopia. When I looked up its web site, I discovered that it is no more. Its doors closed for the last time at the end of last summer, and its owners are going their separate ways. One of them has kept the premises on, and is rebranding as Lolita, which sounds like it might be run along similar lines. But it can’t be the same, can it?

There’s no reason this should have made me sad – it’s not like I’m a regular, and we’re not going back to Barcelona any time soon – but it did.

RIP Bar Inopia – gone but not forgotten.

This autumn I'm running/cycling in a 30km duathlon and a half marathon, to raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign. You can read more about my challenge here or support me here. All donations, however big or small, gratefully received!