Wednesday, 14 October 2020

How to make a Christmas Hot Chocolate Station

As Autumn creeps in you might be inclined to enjoy cosy evenings in, candles burning with festive scents while you're snuggled under blankets on the sofa. Today is particularly wet and miserable and it has me thinking about big steaming mugs full of rich hot chocolate & marshmallows, and how I plan to be buried underneath my fluffy teddy fleece throw in front of a family movie later (I'm very eager to see the new Mulan film).

I have always loved the idea of creating a hot chocolate station in the kitchen for the kids to help themselves to as we approach Christmas and after trawling the internet and Pinterest I have found some great inspiration for building ours. I realise it is only mid October, however this year after so many things have been cancelled I really want to give everyone something special to look forward to, so having a little stand with Santa and a Snowman on it for a few extra weeks is just something little to remind them that it's not going to be this way forever, and nice things are coming their way.

I started my search in Poundland, because, well it's Poundland why wouldn't you? I found a little Snowman Tealight Holder which I thought was cute, and I already have some flameless flickering LED tealights, for safety. In my sundae dish (that I already had - I recommend having a rummage through your cupboards to see what you can use before you buy anything else) I have some tiny long life Carnation mini milk pots, they come in packs of 20 for £1 each and are great for making tasty creamy drinks.

On the top tier I have a Santa Mug from Poundland, which I have filled with Festive Stirring Spoons, or I may use them to make our own chocolate spoons closer to Christmas - these were £4.99 for 8 spoons from a seller on Amazon and would make nice gifts if you wanted to make your own hot chocolate stirrers, just top them off with marshmallows & wrap in a cello bag with a bow or some string. Next to Santa in a repurposed candle jar I have Candy Canes for stirring with, to give a little peppermint twist - they come in packs of 12 for £1.

The small clear clip-top lidded jars were £1 each from B&M and are the perfect size for marshmallows and small chocolate treats for stirring in to drinks (or to eat while you're waiting for the kettle to boil...), we've also filled one with some chocolate wafer straws - £1.99 for a box from B&M. I have a jar of regular small pink and white marshmallows that you can pick up in just about any supermarket, and one for vegan marshmallows from Freedom for my eldest daughter, and also my niece and great-niece when they come to visit - these are available in ASDA and Holland & Barrett (and probably elsewhere too). We have some Cadbury's hot chocolate powder as it is our favourite, alongside the Sweet Freedom Liquid Choc Shot which is vegan, and I also plan to add some fun flavoured sachets from Options and the like.

I bought some biodegradable paper straws in fun festive gold, white and red, and the tube was £5.49 for 100 straws. The stand is a two tier slate cake stand, which can also double up as a cheeseboard for when we are allowed to entertain at home again. It was £15.99 from Amazon and is the ideal size for all of our bits & pieces. The only thing we can't add is the squirty cream which no hot chocolate is complete without - that's in the fridge chilling and ready to go! Roll on the festive season - I'm so ready!

Monday, 5 October 2020

Lockdown Diaries - April

I was so happy when the Easter holidays rolled around. We decided to follow the school calendar and timetable to keep things as stable as possible but things were still difficult. Our eldest's planned trip home from university in Derby was cancelled because we could not travel, and she was also still working because she was a keyworker - we hadn't seen her since February and then had the added worry of her being exposed to the virus at work, all while she was studying in the final weeks of her degree. We did not get to spend Easter with her, and she missed her sister's 10th birthday which was really hard for her. The rest of us spent Easter weekend together with a traditional egg hunt around the garden and a roast dinner, to be honest after March the days all just sort of rolled into one so it was important to me to make it as special for them as I could.

E was kept busy with gymnastics challenges set by her club to carry out at home to help pass the time. The kids spent a lot of their time out in the garden, particularly H & E as they worked together to keep up their fitness routines for rugby and gymnastics - E enjoyed putting H through his paces with some strength and conditioning, and H had E to help practice passing (or he was just throwing the ball at her I'm not 100% sure which - maybe both). We reached peak lockdown when we started baking banana bread, and E and H had both made some really tasty cakes, muffins and brownies in the weeks we had been at home.

H gave us a real worry one night with a grumbling appendix for a second time just after the Easter break ended. We narrowly avoided a hospital trip but we did need a visit from the ambulance service to give him the once over after calling 111. It was a rough night for him, he was very poorly but by morning he was feeling better. He spent the next day on the sofa with his laptop and watching BBC Bitesize because I am mean like that and made him do his schoolwork since he was working from home anyway. He was waited on hand and foot all day so don't feel too sorry for him.

I was worried about E's birthday. A lockdown birthday was less than ideal and when you're 10 all you want is to have your friends around for sleepovers, and to have fun and be silly and laugh. Sadly, she was stuck with just us for the day, but wonderful friends and some family members pulled out all of the stops to make sure she didn't feel forgotten. Before lockdown started I had anticipated what was coming, and bought a helium tank and some balloons which I hid away ready for the big day. She was not waking up to an empty living room and no celebration.

I was sent lots of lovely video messages which I compiled in to one and played it to her in the morning when she woke up. People mailed gifts, and dropped them off on our doorstep. Twitter was doing what it does best and everyone was joining in with an Amazon gifting spree - I added a wishlist for her and explained it was her birthday, and she was gifted books and nail polish and stationery by complete strangers who wanted to help make sure a little girl had a special day during some horrible times. She received some fantastic cards and pictures drawn for her by the children of friends including a beautiful card with a hand drawn gymnast on it, by the very talented teenage daughter of a friend. We had a special birthday breakfast of pancakes and any toppings she wanted, and in the evening we made our own cinema in the living room with lots of snacks and sweets. It wasn't the birthday celebration we wanted, but we had a great time at home together & it was certainly one to remember.

By the end of April I was feeling pretty mentally fatigued. The break from home learning over Easter did us all good but for me, I just wanted to know what was happening, what was coming next - as did we all. I think it's important to tell you that I have found this hard. One evening I walked out of my house and just wandered around my town, having a quiet sob into my cardigan cuffs before I made my way home in the dark. I missed my friends, and my job, and my family. I still do, because none of this is normal nor is it anything that any of us have experienced before and it is perfectly okay to admit that it is affecting us and we are finding things a challenge, so if anyone wants a chat my comments are always open (and anonymous if you wish). Please don't ever feel alone.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Lockdown Diaries - March

March feels like it was years ago now, doesn't it? In early March I was wandering around New York City with my husband celebrating our wedding anniversary. One day we walked all the way from the Empire State building to Brooklyn, stopping off in the West Village for coffee before grabbing lunch from a deli and eating it in the sunshine in the park underneath Manhattan Bridge. We spent an evening on a river cruise on the Hudson looking at the city all lit up. We walked the High Line, and wandered around Chelsea Market with our Starbucks Reserve coffee, watched a Knicks game in a packed Madison Square Garden. Coronavirus was just starting to creep in to our daily lives then. There were hand sanitising stations starting to pop up in a lot of places in NYC, but no masks and no social distancing. I had taken sanitising wipes on the plane and wiped everything down when we boarded both there and back. The night we flew home our flight was delayed, and as we were boarding Donald Trump was giving a press conference, we stood in the departure lounge at our gate and watched - for a few moments I was worried we were going to be grounded on the wrong side of the Atlantic - the flight after ours was cancelled. We got on, and then waited while others got off and had their luggage taken off lest they be stranded in Europe with all of the uncertainty surrounding the rapidly escalating global situation.

When we got home I went back to work. Things were starting to be cancelled, it was very apparent that our lives were about to change in ways we could not have seen coming. Watching the news every day, watching the case numbers and death toll climb steadily. Schools were closing, businesses and offices soon after. We picked up the kids from school that day and then... That was that. Stay at home. Do not see your family and friends. Don't go out. Also don't bother to try and find toilet roll, pasta, flour or rice because of the selfish prats who rushed out to unnecessarily panic buy had taken the lot - sod the rest of us. Luckily for me I keep well stocked cupboards and regularly planned our meals so we had what we needed, but there were many who were left with nothing thanks to the painfully stupid and thoughtless actions of a few.

Work was quickly wound down and then closed, I had a sudden avalanche of of admin to deal with and suppliers and contractors to cancel. Navigating home learning with three kids at different stages - primary, secondary, and college - was no mean feat. I had no idea what I was doing, I was so, SO grateful to Twinkl for opening up their resources for everyone to use for free - it meant I had access to everything I needed to keep E's learning going while we waited for her school to set up their online learning platforms. We also managed to put our own twist on her learning by doing things like drawing, baking cakes, writing book reviews, and planting seeds in our garden. I have to say, the three of them were phenomenal. Everything was ripped away from them at a moment's notice and they just accepted it and got on with it. No seeing their friends, no sports, no school or college - their entire world was turned upside down and they took it all in their stride with a strength and understanding that still makes me tear up six months on, I am just so bloody proud of all of them. We had a few rocky days with L as expected, and dealt with more meltdowns in two weeks than we had in two years, but we made it through together.

Those weeks leading up to the Easter holidays were tough going. The wall to wall sunshine we were lucky enough to have at the time made things easier because we could make the most of the garden and going out for dog walks, and it certainly lifted our moods (as much as it could, anyway). We stuck to the kids usual daily school timetables and based our learning around those to get us through the days - keeping to their routines as much as possible, and looked forward to April when we could take two weeks to have a breather, and see what was going to happen next.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

5 Top Tips for a great Summer with Camp America

J had the summer of a lifetime at KSA last year, lots of people ask us about his personal experience of Camp America and if he has any advice for making it a fun and memorable time, and so he shared his top 5 tips to make things a little easier, to save money, and to stay safe.


Consider taking backpack style luggage rather than a suitcase if you plan to travel afterwards, or at least make sure you have a sturdy suitcase with wheels. J had a wheeled suitcase and it was perfect for camp, but it got a bit bashed and battered after enduring a whopping 11 flights and 2 bus journeys during the 3 months he was away.


Take a fully stocked First Aid kit with you. You probably won't need it during your time at camp because they usually have a nurse as well as anything you might need and they will take good care of you, but once you head out on your own it makes sense to have your own supplies. We recommend packing the following items in your kit;

- Paracetamol/Ibuprofen
- Nail Scissors & Clippers
- Tweezers
- Mosquito Repellent
- Plasters/Bandaids
- Sudocrem
- Antiseptic Cream
- Antihistamine Cream & Tablets
- Anti-diarrhoea Tablets
- Hand Sanitiser


Try to plan ahead as much as possible by making an itinerary to avoid overspending on flights and buses. You can also save money by planning your route and looking for deals, and booking flights with a stop off can save you even more. J flew from Los Angeles to New York with a brief stop in Arkansas and saved over $200 on that one flight alone.


When looking at accommodation such as AirBnB, be very careful to check the area in which it is located before you book. Don't just rely on reviews, google it and see what people have to say. There are some very scary places in the USA... Be careful! You also need to make sure that your AirBnB host is genuine and everything is all above board before handing over your payment details.


Get a USA sim to put in your phone while you are stateside (Camp America can help you with this), or find out what your UK service provider can do for you contract wise before you leave. It's important to have this ready for when you arrive to keep in touch with your family, and in case you need to reach anyone from Camp America. CA have a dedicated team and number to help you out while you are in the USA so make sure you have it stored in your phone.

Monday, 28 September 2020

10 Vegan-Friendly Christmas Gift Ideas

Buying the ideal Christmas gift for your vegan friend or relative needn't be difficult. There are many amazing products available that are suitable for all (not just vegans!) and for every budget. The only thing I struggle with when buying for my vegan daughter is the advent calendar. She might be 22 but I still buy her one every year - provided that is that I buy it before they sell out which has been known to happen unfortunately... I've got my eye on the NOMO calendar from Sainsbury's this year.

Etsy offers a whole host of amazing small businesses with fantastic eco-friendly products. To prevent giving anything away in case she's reading I'm going to share some of what we bought her last Christmas, as well as a few other bits and pieces I have found on my internet travels.

1. The Vegan Mug, Etsy, £10.45

I love this, and she did too. It's fun and colourful and makes a great addition to your mug collection.

2. Set of 4 Stainless Steel Straws and Cleaning Brush, Etsy, £4.25+

Self explanatory I think - portable, so handy to keep in your bag for daily use and easy to clean.

3. Set of 21 Reusable Make Up Remover Pads, Etsy, £12.97

Washable and eco-friendly, these PlanetLove make up pads include two handy storage bags to keep them safely together when laundering.

4. Chilly's Bottles, Chilly's, £20+

Not just water bottles, but food containers, and accessories too - with a new range of coffee cups due to launch November 2020.

5. Vegan 1460 Ankle Boots, Doc Martens, £149

The classic Doc Marten boot, but vegan!

6. Lush, Lush UK, £various

I love Lush products and they make excellent gifts especially at Christmas. Handmade and cruelty free with lots of beautiful and fun seasonal designs available.

7. Hand-Cracked Coconut Big Gift Box, The Body Shop, £35

There are lots of scents available, such as British Rose, Shea Butter, Mango, etc. if coconut is not their thing, as well as gift sets of varying sizes.

8. Hot Chocolate & Marshmallows, Holland & Barrett, £3.99/£1.86

The ideal accompaniment to the vegan mug, and great to pop in a gift hamper or Christmas stocking.

9. Baileys Almande 70cl, Baileys UK, approx. £16

A delicious blend of almond and vanilla flavour, perfect for a festive tipple.

10. FILA Disruptor 2 Trainers, FILA, £80

My daughter loves FILA trainers and this particular pair are proudly vegan.

If you have any suggestions or recommendations I would love to hear them, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

The Camp America Experience - the adventure of a lifetime?

J has always been into sports, mostly football, which he has played since he was little. His Dad has coached him from when he was just a little boy up until he started to play senior football, and then eventually they got to play on the same team together which was a memorable experience for them both. He knew he wanted to work in sports and leisure post-GCSE, so he went on to study sport, health and fitness at college after he left school.

For two years he worked hard, even travelling to Seville in Spain for study and training for three weeks as part of the Erasmus+ scheme. As we approached the end of his second year of college, his Dad and I paid for him to take his NPLQ - the National Pool Lifeguard Qualification - as another string to his bow. It was a very intensive course, and I think it is very underrated in how difficult it is. He passed it and became a qualified lifeguard just a couple of months after his 18th birthday.

We had discussed the possibility of him spending a summer with Camp America as a camp counsellor for several months, and so as his final year of study came to an end he applied, and attended an interview in Bristol after answering an online questionnaire. It was very informal, a chat in a coffee shop to go over his application and to to ask any questions he might have about CA, and the chap was very friendly and helpful. He passed the interview, and we began the next stage.

Camp America make the process very simple, everything is done step by step and they have a great team available to help if you get stuck anywhere along the way. J filled out his application which is all done online, got references from his tutors and employer, and we made a short video all about him and his interests to show prospective camps. You want to make an impact, and to show them who you are and what you're about so a video is a great addition to your application but not a requirement. Before we knew it he had two offers of a placement. The first one was not suited to him, but the second was absolutely perfect - a lifeguard placement at a sports camp! An online interview with the camp directors followed and he was hired.

The following week he got the bus to London and attended an open day style event where camps have representatives available to chat to and interview for placements even though he was already placed, because we'd bought his bus tickets already and we also thought it would be good for him to connect with others who would be travelling to the USA and to speak to some Camp America staff in case he had any more questions. It meant he also got to have his #placed photo!

After his placement was confirmed, J needed to complete some important aspects of his application. A medical carried out by his GP (a simple appointment with basic health checks and questions), his DBS check to make sure he was suitable to work with children, and then finally his U.S. visa application. Camp America charge a fee to make all of the arrangements which covers flights (unless you choose to arrange your own flights) and the majority of the application admin, however things like the DBS and visa cost extra on top, as expected, and this can vary depending on your area. I think all-in, as a first-timer it cost us around £800 - it usually costs less for returners. In my opinion it was worth it to have step by step help throughout the process.

Completing the student work visa application was a bit laborious but straightforward enough, and we had to take photos to accompany his application. Our local Tesco have a photo machine which prints them the appropriate size, as they are slightly larger than our standard UK passport photo sizing. We made his appointment online, and his Dad travelled with him to the embassy for his interview. It was a brief interview though a little daunting to be at the embassy, but he gained his approval and he left his passport there to be checked & stamped ready for him to travel in June - it was returned to us by courier. When he got home, we ticked off 'approved' on his Camp America account and waited for his flight information. It was done - he was going to the USA!

CA arranged all of his flight details and accommodation when he reached the United States, we just had to book his journey from NYC to camp which was around two hours by bus. The day he left for the USA he still had to sit his final college exam, so that morning his Dad and I dropped him off at college and then went and had breakfast while we waited. When he was done we picked him up and drove straight to the airport to drop him off ready for his flight. I cried all the way home, and had all through the airport too - my husband wouldn't even walk with me I was that bad. He flew out to New York, and the Camp America reps picked him and other counsellors up stateside, and took them to their hotel for the night. The next day, they all headed into NYC together for a wander around the city before heading off their separate ways to their camp placements. J hopped on a bus to the Berkshires in Massachusetts, to Kutsher's Sports Academy which was his home for the summer.

KSA have an amazing summer camp programme and offer absolutely every type of activity you could think of at a breathtaking location on Lake Buel in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The camp counsellors stay in cabins with the campers and have their own groups that they are in charge of for the duration of the camp session. Campers come from all over the world to stay at KSA, which is unsurprising considering the high quality of care and activities on offer. The counsellors have regular rotational time off from duties, and J made some friends for life after a busy summer of working and living together. It was your typical American summer camp experience - s'mores on the beach, swimming in the lake, a cabin in the woods. Homesickness is something to be mindful of, and J had one occasion about six weeks in where I think he felt a bit tired and missed his family, but KSA took great care of him and the next day after a chat with the program director he was back raring to go.

He spent his days working at the lake, visiting theme parks, playing games, and there was even a couple of trips to the malls for some shopping. The kids would put on shows, and KSA shared so many pictures and videos that I almost felt like I was there - I loved being able to see J and what was happening at camp because as some of you may know, teenage boys are not great at giving updates or sending photos... I loved having that connection and would log in to the site every day to see what pictures were up and what everyone had been getting up to.

J was paid for his work at camp, in two instalments. He had been working two part-time jobs alongside his college studies so had saved some money to take with him, and we agreed to support him financially while he was away if required and we would sort it out when he got back. He didn't need a great deal of money during his time at camp as his accommodation and meals were all included.

Working at camp gave him excellent practical experience as well as the opportunity to travel. After finishing his exams and leaving college in June he would have then needed to get a full-time job while he waited for his results. By applying to Camp America, he was able to make the most of his 'last' carefree summer before a job and responsibilities, to see a bit of the world, and to be independent. Before he left he got in touch with a local leisure centre to ask about potential employment opportunities when he returned in September and was told they'd be happy to hear from him when he got back.

KSA camp began in June and ended in August, when it came to an end he and his new friends got on a bus and headed off to Boston to start their three-week adventure around the USA. He managed to cover an impressive 10,596 miles and visit 7 states in that time, hopping flights (11 in total) all over the place with his camp buddies, before meeting up with friends from home who were also in the U.S. but at different camps.

Spending a summer with Camp America was - I think - the best thing J ever did. When he returned he had grown up so much. He was independent and responsible, and ready to enter the world of work. He contacted the leisure centre again when he got back and as promised they invited him for an interview - which he slept through because jet lag is a real thing, you need to give yourself some time to readjust when you get home. Luckily they were very understanding and he rearranged, and got the job! A year on he is very happy there, working full-time and saving for the future - a house, a car, travel or all of the above. All I know is CA gave him skills for life and it was well worth every penny spent (which he paid back in full by January after his return). University wasn't for him, and this alternative path into adulthood, education and employment has been a very successful one.

I'll be sharing J's top tips for a summer with Camp America, along with some FAQs, and details of his post-camp travel adventures in future posts. If there is anything you'd like to know about Camp America and his experiences, please leave a comment below. In the meantime - see if you can spot him in the 2019 KSA camp staff video!

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Moving Swiftly On...

I can't believe it has been over 3 years since I wrote in this blog. So much has changed for us, but also stayed the same. The children aren't all children anymore but these amazing and determined young adults making their own way in the world, facing new challenges that even I couldn't have foreseen - I certainly never imagined raising kids during a global pandemic nor did I think we'd have to navigate through things such as lockdown, home educating, and furlough, use face coverings and douse ourselves in hand sanitiser every 20 minutes. What a weird world we live in right now.

I think one thing that has become apparent throughout this is that I haven't taken enough time for myself in recent years, and I have been pouring from an empty cup. From being so fit and healthy three years ago to where I was at the beginning of this year was a huge contrast, so I have made efforts to make myself a priority again and I feel so much better for it. In May a neighbour took a photo of me on my doorstep at our VE Day street party and it really hit home how much weight I had gained and how unhappy I was with my body. You can see it on my face and in how I am standing, I look miserable. It was then that I began to join in with PE with Joe Wicks five days a week, and start following a sensible diet and since that day 17 weeks ago I have lost 48lb and I feel GREAT. I feel like me again. Happier, more confident, healthier.

My eldest is now 22 and has completed her degree with a 2:1 after studying and working hard throughout lockdown, and she is now living back in our neck of the woods, though not at home with us, but close enough that she can pop in to take my flour and raid my pantry for snacks. She's just started her new job and has a new partner and everything is really positive. We also love having her nearby again, it has been a long four years without her.

J is 19, has completed his college studies and earned his coaching qualifications as well as his NPLQ. After sitting his last exam in 2019, his dad and I picked him up from college and took him straight to the airport and off he went to the USA for three months with Camp America for the adventure of a lifetime. On his return he bagged a great full time job at a local leisure centre, he too has a new partner, and he's happy and making plans for the future.

L just turned 17 last month. He has now started his second year of college studies and has also just got himself a new job, as a kitchen porter in a local pub. We have been helping him look for employment since he left school and unfortunately until now we have been unsuccessful - I don't want to say it is because of the disclosure of his Autism, but... We all know how things are. Thankfully a local company has finally given him a chance and he is enjoying learning to be independent, working just two shifts a week around his college studies, and earning his own money, which he is saving up (though he doesn't know what for yet!).

H is on the brink of 15, has just begun Year 10 at secondary school and still living and breathing everything rugby. During lockdown he worked hard to maintain his fitness and took it upon himself to run for local charity The Bath Rugby Foundation by running the distance between his own rugby club and Twickenham - an impressive 89 miles (143.23km). He managed to raise an amazing £530 for BRF, who help vulnerable children and young people to succeed using the core values of rugby. We are so proud of him.

Last but by no means least, we have celebrated a whole decade of E who turned 10 in April. A peak lockdown birthday was not ideal but we made it special for her with the help of family and friends who sent cards and gifts, and recorded special birthday messages for her which she watched when she woke up. She's still working hard at gymnastics, and has just had a successful trial with TeamGym at her club so as of next week she will be training with them as well as her own WAG squad. I love her determination and how motivated she is, I'm looking forward to watching her in action once competitions resume next year.

As part of my plan to make more time for myself I will be back here on my blog. Writing, sharing, thinking out loud, helping to make sense of things by "putting pen to paper" and helping to quieten the noise in my head. Writing is very therapeutic to me, so if you want to come along and read then please do, I'm just hoping it'll help me find a bit of peace.

A lot of my previous posts are about parenting and young kids and toys etc, and while I will definitely be talking about our family life and things we do, see, and buy the focus will be naturally shifting as the children are growing up. Lifestyle, home, experiences. I look forward to sharing it with you again.