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Forget the sunshine and sharks' teeth, in Florida I got to meet Mickey Mouse!

There is seriously nothing more exciting than being a child and getting to meet… Mickey Mouse! Throw in Daffy Duck and Pluto and holding a baby alligator with its mouth taped shut and you’re pretty much in child heaven.

I went to Florida when I was just seven and 25 years later – cripes, that makes me OLD! – I still remember it vividly. Our family holiday consisted of non-stop excitement and adventure and included eating alligator soup, watching HUGE crocs launch themselves up and out of the water to eat chicken carcusses swinging from a washing line, and collecting sharks’ teeth on the sandy white beaches.

Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse (Photo credit: ross_hawkes)

I remember it like it was yesterday; my dad waking us up in the middle of the night to get us washed, dressed and packed off to the airport for a family holiday. A few days later and my brother and I were combing the beach for the little black teeth, thinking how cool it was that they washed up on the shore and that sharks couldn’t be very dangerous if all their teeth fell out and ended up in our bucket. An America chap popped over with a HUGE bag of sharks’ teeth and said my brother and I could each take a handful of his to help us with our own collections. Painfully shy but spurred on
by our parents we delved in. It was SO exciting!

We also found it hilarious that every time mum ordered chips we got crisps but, despite being just seven, I can remember the sense of fun, excitement and happiness of holidaying in Florida. It was the last big holiday we had as a family before my parents split up a couple of years later and it was three weeks of awesomeness. It was also my first introduction to the road looking wet because of the heat but when you got up close it’s perfectly dry; an optical illusion that kept my childlike brain wondering for hours.

People in Florida were helpful and friendly too and when my brother’s ‘cush cush’ went missing, the hotel staff rallied around to find it. It was an easy mistake to make, ‘cush cush’ was a full sized pillow that my younger brother insisted on travelling and sleeping with, his little comforter, and the hotel maid had scooped it up into the laundry by mistake. But after a ‘911’ call to hotel reception and a manic half hour, ‘cush cush’ was returned to the room safe and sound and my brother’s tears stopped. A happy ending and another Florida memory I’ve been unable to shake off.

Seriously, my time in Florida has stuck with me as the sort of childhood holiday I’d want my own kids to have; the whole experience was simply magical, not least because we spent time at Disney World and got to shake hands with THE Mickey Mouse. I also remember a ride called Figment of Your Imagination themed around a little purple dinosaur called Figment, a toy version of which accompanied me home on the plane thanks to a visit to the Disney World gift shop.

Gatorland Zoo sticks in my mind too (ref the gators chomping on chickens above) as well as a boat trip around the Everglades

, the fear and excitement of seeing crocodiles and alligators in the water filling my little belly with butterflies. At the zoo my brother and I got to hold a baby alligator, its mouth taped up so it didn’t snap at us and I got the exciting end – the mouth – to hold while my brother settled for the tail. We also have a great family photo – and this is when I realise I wish I had a digital copy to share or could easily pluck it from my mum’s photo albums at home – of my brother and I putting our heads into the wide open jaw of a gator. Of course, the gator was a replica version in the zoo but it looks pretty damn real to anyone who sees the photo.It’s on my ‘to do’ list to return to Florida for a holiday as soon as possible, as a sunshine-filled adventure with hubby and maybe friends or in a few years when we have kids and can give them the sort of amazing holiday I had when I was seven.

I don’t have such vivid memories of any other childhood holiday, Florida really stuck with me and I wish – as I type this from my desk on a raiy evening – that I was back there.

Five for Friday: Why I'm peeing my pants in excitement for summer

Highclere Castle, Highclere, Hampshire

I wouldn’t usually wish huge chunks of the year away but I positively cannot wait until June. Here’s why…

1) Bye bye studies (temporarily), and hello life (temporarily)
Once my next assignment is submitted in early June I’ll be free of study for the whole summer, which means I get my evenings and weekends back and complete freedom to… DO WHATEVER I WANT! Whether it’s dinner and drinks with the girls, a day out with hubby or clearing out the garage (I’m itching to get in there and unleash my inner Monica) I can do it. Hoorah! I can even spend a whole weekend in my pyjamas watching back-to-back episodes of Murder She Wrote, eating nothing but biscuits and drinking tea from china cups if I want to. It’s not that I don’t love the MA, I do, but a break will be blissful and hopefully well earned.

2) Holiday!
Usually, as January 1st of each year rolls around me and hubby will be booking a holiday, putting a marker in the calendar to drag us through the bleak winter months when there’s nothing much to be cheery about. Christmas behind us, we always need a holiday to look forward to. We’ve planned nothing this year because we’ve been reluctant to spend any money (having a tight arse phase at the mo – and hubby nearly bankrupted us with his eggnog latte addiction) and free holidays don’t exist – or rather, they do, but are at my mum’s house in the Shire. And while we STILL haven’t booked anything, we WILL be taking at least a week off in June to revel in some Cornish sun, make ourselves sick on rum and raisin ice cream and cream teas, eat in seafood restaurants, explore parks and gardens and generally have a bloody marvelously British time.

3) Writing, writing, writing
It’s really not possible to work full time, do an MA part time and manage to eat, bathe and dress myself daily as well. Throw in time with the family, time to read, watch my fave TV programmes and wind down after a long day in front of a computer, play netball and volleyball and try and salvage some inkling of a social life, and my poor old writing tends to fall off the ‘really need to get on and do’ list. I’ve just managed to enter two competitions which, luckily, only require the first chapter or two of my novel (and I await with baited breath!) but it’ll be lush to get some proper time back to focus on writing projects, my blogging, my novel, some freelance work. Bring it on. I’m brimming with ideas and won’t be fulfilled until I’ve put this creativity into action.

4) Afternoon tea and a slice of heritage
To celebrate the handing in of my last assignment of the academic year hubby and I plan to while away a few hours at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed. We’ll soak up the history, the grounds, the well thought out camera angles, and revel in a slice of British history and an era brought alive by a fictional place called Downton Abbey. And on the way home we’ll stop for afternoon tea a posh hotel in Marlow, using the voucher my delightful friend Bloater (she’s not fat, far from it, but has been known to eat a whole maltloaf in two bites) gave me for my birthday. A lush present and hubby and I will use it to pretend, just for a couple of hours, that we’re civilised.

5) Sporting highlights
June to September calendar highlights include: car shopping (hoping my current batmobile lasts that long); Buchy and Bruiser’s birthday bash (these are my husband and wife friends, not a comedy duo btw); the Big Doggie Do – the dog show in which Ralphie was crowned cutest puppy two years ago; Mandy’s wedding in July; Olympic volleyball in August (we have tickets!) and topped off nicely by a weekend oop norf and a trip to the York Festival of Writing (need to run that last one past hubby first).


Pictured above is Highclere Castle, Highclere, Hampshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One anniversary, two people, a treehouse and a very posh restaurant…

The 5th December 2010 was bang on perfect and the same day one year later was going to be hard to beat. Let’s face it, wedding days are pretty special. But our first anniversary was blooming marvelous.

The walls around us were made of wood and we bathed in a copper bath for two before pulling on our Sunday best (or Monday in this case) and trekking across a muddy field, arm in arm, the wind in our hair, torch in hand; our only light against the black of night. As we reached the old country house, a dark shadow appeared and opened the car door with a creak, guiding us in. And away we went, down winding roads, sliding around corners as a frost began to take hold.

Harptree Court treehouseAs we reached our destination, warm smiles greeted us, the glow of Christmas lights and festive decorations and a very comfortable sofa. We’d just travelled from the treehouse at Harptree Court (which gets a great write up in The Guardian) to The Priory in Bath for dinner. The treehouse was my idea but full credit goes to hubby for planning the meal out – I had no idea until we’d arrived where we were even going and he’s usually rubbish at keeping secrets! I was so hungry a Macdonalds would have done but this had to be the best meal I have ever tasted. We plumped for executive chef Michael Caines’ signature tasting menu… scallops, pate, seabass, beef, cheese, sorbet and fruit salad and a chocolate dessert, followed by anniversary-themed petit fours and a fair bit of wine. Between the eating we sere served by really helpful and attentive staff, not snooty and in your face, just friendly and informative and genuinely interested in which was our favourite course. To be honest, they were all amazing but the pate and beef were probably top. Lush!

Petit fours at The PrioryThe sommelier was fantasticly passionate about his wine and helped us try some new ones, not intimidating with his knowledge and passion and not snooty about my lack of refinement when it comes to fine wine either. His lessons in wine were enjoyable. And the chap who served us our cheese course had a genuine glint of excitement in his eyes when we asked for his recommendations. Masterchef winner Sam Moody is the head chef at The Priory and between him and Michael Caines, they produce some food to be very proud off. There was literally a party in my mouth that night!

After the meal – which lasted over three hours! – we headed back to the treehouse, the perfect tonic to a busy existence. It boasts all mod cons as well as a character copper bath, heated flooring, a much needed hot water bottle , log burner, and a huge helping of Linda’s homemade lemon cake which is to DIE for. The torch was much needed, we’d have been sleeping in a wet field without it, but that added to the experience and isolation of our three-day retreat. Harptree Court is nestled in tranquility between Bath and Bristol, near to Chew Valley Lake, and it’s a pretty drive to the Park and Ride which took us to Bath’s Christmas markets, Harptree Court Treehousehugging the town’s Abbey and luring visitors to its core with the smell of mulled wine, cheese and chutneys.

On our second night at the treehouse we braved the dark and wet again and strolled around 200 metres to the local pub, the Waldegrave Arms, where we were met with smiles, cosy Christmas lights and music and a good home-cooked festive menu. And as we wandererd home, our bellies filled with roast turkey and beef stew, we saw the local phone box filled with novels. Locals use the box to house their book swap shcmee – what a lovey idea.

Linda and Charles run Harptree Court and welcome people into their home like old friends. At 10am check out time, Charles was there with the 4×4 to help us take our luggage across the field to the car and we left feeling utterly relaxed and smug. Our first anniversary was everything we’d hoped it to be and more, and we couldn’t have asked for a nicer place to spend it.

£50 on eggnog lattes!!! Am I Mrs Scrooge?

I’m full of the Christmas spirit – yes, it’s only November. I’m watching my swelling collection of festive films, recording everything TrueFilm on Sky has to offer in seasonal movies and Michael Buble’s new Christmas CD is now the only music I play in the car. I am the incredibly proud owner of snowflake pyjamas, two Christmas jumpers and a cardigan sporting knitted reindeer and I keep getting distracted from my MA studies by mince pie recipes on the internet. I’m also thinking about making mulled wine for the hobbits visiting from the shire this weekend and have organised my diary around the switching on of Newport Pagnell’s Christmas lights. Oh, and my reward for submitting my first MA assignment in a couple of weeks will be a visit to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland.

Merry Crisis and Happy New FearAll that said and done, I have a small inkling that I may be turning into Mrs Scrooge this year – ever since my husband announced he’d spent almost £50 on eggnog lattes this month and I nearly choked on my turkey and cranberry panini. Now don’t get me wrong, eggnog lattes are lush – but £50!

There’s one more pay day between now and Chrimbo and it’s just not going to cover the yuletide spending frenzy I’d like. And this year I’ve become positively anal about savings and don’t want to dip into that pot, uh uh. And I’m worried that I’ll be asking Santa for contributions to my inflated car insurance, due for renewal in January and bound to be extortionate following a recent prang. Bloody Milton Keynes and its roundabouts!

I’m also wincing at the fact that now I’m a married woman I have to cough up for extra presents, which means less money for myself. Christmas is about treating yourself, right? Oh no, it’s about goodwill and peace to all men, or something like that. Pah. We have two families to buy for and I very much like the gift of giving, even if I don’t like paying for it.

So I purposely left toilet roll off the weekly shopping list yesterday, just to save myself a whole fiver, when I’m only going to have to order it next time because loo roll, let’s face it, will always get used. Toilet roll manufacturers are never going to go out of business are they?

This time of year is also sociable and sociable generally means expensive – Christmas dos, catching up with friends over eggnog lates – and we all know how expensive that can be *coughs and points to husband*, iceskating trips, and buying useless Christmas trinkets because you’re too weak to walk past shop windows without popping in to ‘browse’.

So I guess I’m less a Mrs Scrooge – because I wholeheartedly support the feel good factor that Christmas brings – and more torn between wanting to splash the cash on having a very merry time and wanting to have something bigger than a rusty twopence in the piggybank by the time 2012 rolls around.

Someone pass the winning Lottery ticket! Santa? Are you listening?

Picture by decarr66 via Flickr under Creative Commons licence

Five for Friday: Why I'm looking forward to Christmas

Amaretto and coffee in a snowman mugYes, I know. It’s stupidly early to be saying the C word but I don’t care; I love this time of year, the drop in temperature, the cosy nights and the run up to Christmas. Here’s why I can’t wait for Chrimbo 2011:

1) This time last year me and hubbles were preparing to get wed, so we pretty much missed out on the Christmas build up. We plan on more than making up for it this year though, and have already started taking amaretto in our coffee, watching festive films and planning where to put the Christmas tree. This year (having moved house since last Chrimbo) we’ll be getting a real Christmas tree from the greengrocers down the road, which we frequent every Saturday; taking my parents into town for the switching on of the Christmas lights when they visit from the shire for the weekend; saving our pennies to invest in a whole new set of Christmas decorations to complement the new house; and watching The Hogfather over and over again.

2) Our first wedding anniversary! We’ll have made it to one whole year of happy marriage on December 5th and we’re spending it here. Three days and two nights of just us, some relaxation, some Christmas shopping and tasty food. Bliss.

3) A trip to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. We went a couple of years ago in the pouring rain and while the weather didn’t put a dampener on it – no pun intended – it would be nice to go when it’s dry. We’ll do sightseeing in the morning, lunch in the afternoon and head over to the festivities of wonderland and top up on gluhwein and bratwursts in the German market, browse the trinkets on sale and show off our best hat-scarf-and-glove combos.

4) Ice skating at the local garden centre. I love Frosts – another sign I’m getting older, I love spending weekends in garden centres – but Frosts has a special feel about it and it has its very own ice rink in the winter, I’ve just doscovered. I actually hate ice skating and am beyond crap at it – I think my balance was thrown out at birth along with the placenta – but I’m game for a laugh this year. My reward will be a huge mug of hot chocolate and a few mince pies.

5) A festive baking fest! I make the best mulled wine on the planet, thanks to an adapted version of my mum’s recipe which I may or may not share at some point in the future. But this year I’m going to try mince pies – yes, I’m taking on pastry, how very ambitious, as well as some kind of festive chutney. Cheese and biscuits are going to make an appearance in my house this December and I want to be chutneyed up in preparation. Hubby has also pledged to make amaretto cheesecake and ice biscuits (yes, he’s a metrosexual and takes as much pride in baking as I do.)

Roll on the festivities! Ho, ho, ho!

My holiday? C'est bon!

Dry skin, sore eyes and red and white bits. No, I don’t have some horrible disease, I’m just back from hols; my sun-kissed skin singing out for hydration, my contact lenses unforgiving as they cling to sun cream-stung eyes and the odd burnt bit to boot. But I had a lovely time in the south of France!

I discovered a few things while I was away, not least that I drink half as much alcohol as other members of my family, that bikinis turn from white to yellow thanks to sun cream, and that I cannot stomach the ocean. I also found the south of France to be beautiful, friendly, hot and a pleasant cultural change to my usual European destination of choice, Spain.

We stayed in Cannes and when I say “we” I mean me and my family. Yes, at 31 I’m probably way too old to go on family holidays but I packed my husband so surely it’s fine?

Robyn and Richard Bateman in Cannes

Me and the hubbles

Anyhoo, we had a fab six days in Cannes, flying into nearby Nice, and said bonjour and merci more times than I can remember.  We soaked up the rays on the beach, explored the old part of town, it’s cobbled streets and typical French eateries, admired the views of Cannes and its harbour from on high after a very sweaty walk and spent two days on a boat, visiting the coastline from Cannes to St Tropez, back to Cannes and then on to Monaco and back again. We saw Bridget Bardot’s quaint cottage, ate French fancies in the gorgeous and unspoiled coastal resort of Ville Franche and learned how to manage sea sickness. And some of us didn’t. Oh, and that there’s no dignified way to get on and off a boat.

The first hour on the boat didn’t sit well with me; my body doesn’t take to sloshing around and it was mixed with an irrational fear – and poor balance – that I’d topple overboard and be swallowed up by the sea. And the sea scares me more than boats; it’s dark, vast and eats people alive. It’s menacing, eery and just bloody scary – so no sea swimming or jet skis for me, uh uh. A trip below deck to the loo proved too much for my stomach and while I didn’t puke it was a close call and even put me off my lunch. And if you know me, you know I rarely say no to lunch.

On day two I’d almost acclimatised but gobbled down a sea sickness tablet nonetheless and felt my brother’s pain when he emptied a day’s stomach contents into the sea. What’s most odd is how the rocking sensation stays with you for a day or two after you get off the boat, and it’s none too pleasant. Add to that a bumpy flight to Southampton, a train journey to Dorchester, a drive to Beaminster to pick doggy up from his grandparents and then a three-hour trek back to Milton Keynes in the very late hours, and that’s probably why I feel tired, rough and totally unrefreshed today. It’s like the French sun and breeze that warmed my bones into relaxation never even happened. Thank God for an extra day off work is all I can say, otherwise I’d be completely evil. And thanks to Papa Slingsby for spoiling us kids rotten!

Anyway, holidays are best told in pictures so here are a few…

View of Cannes from up high

View of Cannes from up high

A view of Bridget Bardot's house from the sea

A view of Bridget Bardot's house from the sea

Up the coast from St Tropez

Up the coast from St Tropez

Feet, beach and a view of the sea in Cannes

On the beach in Cannes