Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Make like a model: Recreate the holiday brochure!

We wake up on the first day of our February half-term static caravan holiday in Wales with wind and rain pummelling the windows. And one of us has a revolting virus.
As we droop our heads into our bowls of Weetabix and wonder what the best rainy-day plan is, we flick through the Hoseasons brochure on the table with images of the happy, smiley, tango-tanned holiday we're meant to be having.
"The pictures are so cheesy," says my daughter.
"Yeah, we're obviously not doing our holiday right," says my sister.
"Hey!" I say. "Let's BE THEM. Come on..."

And suddenly there's a burst of happy activity and giggling. We've come up with a new 'thing'. We decide to call it Re-Bro: Re-creating the brochure. The kids are studying the exact poses and expressions of the children ("You need to bend your wrist more.") and the adults are hunting for the toast rack and discussing who should play mummy and daddy ("Well, who's the most orange?"). This is fun and funny. Enough to make us want to go out immediately so we can recreate some of the other pictures. 

Here are the results.

Exhibit #1: Fully enjoying the caravan comforts (turns out there isn't a bloody toast rack. Or a jug. Shame on you, Hoseasons).
Exhibit #2: Having a relaxing drink at the clubhouse (only we weren't prepared to go as far as actually spending money on drinks!).
Exhibit #3: We like it so much here, we decide to actually buy our own caravan. This is the happy moment where we're handed the keys. 
Oh yes, we're living the dream.

Footnote: A friend of mine saw these photos and said that she knows the original models in the brochure  - in fact, they live down the road from me! Coincidence or what?! 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Guest interview: "My hobby is doing special effects make-up!"

This time I talk to Nicole, 14, as she gets to work on us... 

How did you first get into special effects make-up?

I started doing it last summer after I met a girl at my mum's friend's wedding who did it. We became friends on Facebook and I saw her special effects photos and thought, "Ooh, I could try that".

Some people would say it's a very gruesome hobby! What would you say to them?
It's fun! It's artistic! It's creative! I want to be a paramedic and it's made me much less squeamish. Before, whenever I saw something bloody and horrible, I would have gone, "Oh woh woh", but now I'm like, "Oh...okay". It's good being able to watch a film or programmes like Casualty and think, "Ooh, that's fake". You can spot things straight away. I'd love to do make-up for TV. 

So how did you start?
I just got 99p fake blood and researched what I could make myself, like fake flesh out of flour and water with a bit of vaseline. But the blood was BRIGHT red and it was difficult to blend the edges of the flesh, so it looked a bit like having a dollop of cookie dough on your skin! 
But I did a cut and a bullet hole in my brother's cheek with that. Then I experimented with eye shadow, like browns and blues for wounds and bruises, and then I got this box for my birthday with face paints and latex and lots of sponges and brushes and that changed things quite a bit. *Look away now if you're squeamish!*
How hard is it to learn?
It takes time to work out what works and what doesn't and what colour combinations look realistic. I struggled with the very first ones. Even now, it often goes wrong. There's a lot of of wiping bits away, doing it again, wiping it away, doing it again. It definitely develops skills like perseverance and patience!
Where do you get your ideas?
I google YouTube all the time for inspiration. Sometimes you see something and you want to do it but you haven't got the right products, but you've got to be able to improvise, find something that will get the same effect. And you have to be confident – it won't work if you think it won't work!

How long does it take?
Bruises only take about two minutes. The longest I've ever spent doing something was three hours but that was a full half a face. On myself!
How often do you do it?
It's the thing I look forward to doing the most once I've got studying and stuff out the way. It's quite often what I do in the evenings. I just sit there experimenting on myself! I did my friend for Halloween – I did two bloody holes in her neck – and I did my brother's girlfriend the other day.

So, you've finished doing us now. Can we see the results...?
First, my daughter, who would only allow the merest hint of a bruise to be done on her...
Then me, with a right shiner...
And finally, my daughter's friend...
If you like this (or hate it and want a much lighter and fluffier make-up project!), you might like Unbratting the Bratz: Give a doll a makeunder.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

If you go down to the woods today: Go fairy-hunting

Fairy doors popping up in Oxfordshire said the BBC local news headline. Oh boy! Where were my wellies? I'm a sucker for imaginary worlds in the woods. The Magic Faraway Tree was my favouritest book in the whole world when I was a kid.

But where EXACTLY did we need to go to find these doors? It wasn't easy to find out, but eventually Google threw up some (enticing) directions: Cross the railway and go over the canal bridge. When you see the fairy wishing well on a tree by the gate, you'll know you're on the right path...

"Can I ask my friend William if he wants to come with us?" asks my daughter. "Yes, absolutely...[I stop, think] ... but maybe use the word 'elf' or 'gnome' rather than 'fairy' when you invite him..." [I'm being realistic, not sex stereotyping!]. He's up for it. And his mum says she's not missing out. We have our gang of fairy/elf/gnome hunters.
After a while, we start to wonder if we're on the right path. We've found nothing. And then there it is, a tiny wishing well with a super-cute rope ladder. 
And we're off, darting here and darting there, eyes scanning tree trunks, scrutinizing branches, till we make each delicious discovery. 
We linger over the details of the doors...
"A Chinese fairy must live at this one," says my daughter ...
"Can we make our own door and put it here?" says William. 
We know, they know, that there aren't actually any fairies, but it doesn't matter. It's exciting and happy-making all the same because it's out-of-the-ordinary, unexpected, mysterious. Someone (who?!) had the lovely idea to create these delightful doors and secretly crept around (at night?!) putting them in place. It merges the real world with the magical world of hidden, non-human creatures upon which so many children's books are based: The Borrowers, The Hobbit, The Indian in the Cupboard...

I half expected, half hoped Moonface would pop his head out of a tree to say hello. 

But anyway, let's get real. Want to go find these fairy doors for yourself? Send me a fiver and I'll tell you where they are. 

If you like this, you might like A fairy lives in our house. You can find out more about the Oxfordshire fairy doors hereYou can also go fairy-hunting at Gelt Wood, Brampton, Cumbria. Fairy doors have mysteriously appeared there every summer since 2010.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

A real eye-opener: Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre

My daughter has a new friend who is visually impaired. She is easy and comfortable with him. Puts herself in his shoes. At least, knows to read him out the descriptions of the different flavours of Quality Street, not just pass him the box. She’s also started asking me to lead her while she walks all the way home from school with her eyes closed.

So when I recently found out you could visit (for free) the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre near Leamington Spa – which includes a ‘sensory tunnel’ where you briefly experience life without sight – it couldn’t have been better timing.

Our tour guides are Mary, from Cumbria, full of warmth, humour, snippets and stories...
...and Holly, a gentle brood bitch labrador-retriever, pregnant with her third litter of future guide dogs. My daughter and her friend can’t keep their hands off her! And she doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
They are going to take us around the centre and show us the whole Guide Dog ‘production line’ (output: up to 1,500 dogs a year!) – from pre-whelping (ante-natal in human terms) to the seven-week-old puppies who are ready to leave the centre and begin their socialization programme.

We do, however, politely bypass the “honeymoon suite” where the stud dogs and brood bitches do their thing – though Mary gives us an Adult Only aside: “They can choose whether to do it indoors or al fresco, and there’s a special rubber grippy floor and a grass mound – you know, for optimum positoning!” she winks.

Now I am itching to take you on a step-by-step blog post tour of the centre and blurt out every single fascinating fact we learnt – but as that would spoil your visit should you go, I will just give you a little taster and limit myself to: 


1. A pregnant bitch spends the week before giving birth in a luxury suite with hydrotherapy and a 24-hour personal nurse in a bedsit next to her. (Note to self: In my next life, have my babies here!)

2. Each newborn puppy is marked with a splodge of pink nail varnish on a different part of its body so the carers can tell them apart.

3. Guide Dogs are trained to be spacially aware UPWARDS as well as forwards and sideways – so they will warn their owner, for example, if they are going to hit their head on the ceiling!

4.Guide Dogs are trained to obey their owner but DISOBEY if they think they know better than their owner. e.g. they can see a car is coming!

5.It costs 50p to get a Guide Dog (a token amount for paperworky reasons) but the cost of a Guide Dog from birth to retirement is £50,000!

And one unfun fact: 
By 2050 there will be twice as many visually impaired people because of the rise of macular degeneration.

When we get to have a go in the sensory tunnel, we are given special blindfolds to put on. “They allow you to open your eyes behind them,” explains Mary, “to make your brain think you should be able to see.” 
Then we go, alone, one by one, through the tunnel in total darkness. There are traffic noises and different surfaces underfoot. 
“That was fun!” says my daughter as she emerges from the other end. “But scary. It makes you realize how utterly difficult life is if you can’t see.”

An educational day out, for sure, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that a huge part of the appeal for the girls was the Cuteness Factor.
“Even if you didn’t like dogs,” I overhear my daughter’s friend saying, “There’s no way you could look at those puppies and not think they were adorable.” She’s not wrong. I’m no dog lover and my heart’s turned to mushy peas.

And there’s a final bonus: Complimentary tea or squash and home-made cake – donations welcome, but no pressure to do so (the cynic in me had expected we might be pushed into signing up for a monthly direct debit!).
We leave full of red velvet cake, knowledge, empathy, appreciation of our sight – and awe for these very special creatures.

“I used to think when I saw a Guide Dog, you just put a harness on them and off they go,” said my daughter on the way home.”I didn’t know how much intense time and effort and money went into them.”

Then she reverts to a more basic side of herself. “Mummy, PLEEEEEASE can I have a puppy?”

Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre's website here. You can also do a tour of the National Guide Dog Training School in Leamington Spa. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

Guest interview: "We ran away from crocodiles!"

This time, brothers Quinn (6), Aiden (9) and Luca (7) tell me all about their trip to Crocodiles of the World in Oxfordshire, run by Shaun Fogget of the Channel 5 series The Croc Man.

What did you think when your mum told you she was taking you to Crocodiles of the World?
Aiden: It was MY idea, actually. I went to my friend’s birthday party there a couple of years ago, so I said to mum let’s all go there and she said yes!
Luca: [can’t hold back any longer!]: Me and Aiden were running so fast because there was a crocodile coming near us! There were two of them!
Aiden: [annoyed with brother for jumping ahead] Can I tell you the unexpected bit?

Yes, go ahead.
Aiden: Well, when I was in the crocodile house we went to see the Siamese crocodiles, and we looked at them and when we turned our back they jumped at us – both of them – and we ran away because we were so scared!

But they couldn’t actually get at you, could they?!
Quinn: No, the glass was there.

But it was still scarey?
Aiden: Yes, and after that, we went over to the saltwater crocodiles and we noticed their teeth and we were like NOPE! So we ran away again.
Luca: One of them was really really hooooge. It was so hooooge.
Aiden: The biggest one was about 15 foot.

So these crocodiles can actually kill people in real life, right?
Aiden: Yes. They do something called a crocodile death roll. They grab onto their prey or person and spin it around and drag whatever they’ve got under water to drown it.
Luca [just to clarify]: And kill it.
Quinn: And then it’s gonna die and die and die until it’s put to sleep.
Did you get to hold a crocodile?
Aiden: No, just touch them. You CAN hold them but we weren’t there at the right time.
Quinn: I stroked a baby crocodile. It felt so weird. Kind of like really soft, and like a fish, but it was a crocodile.
Luca: Yes, it was so slimy. And when I was touching its tail, it tickled.
The man told us that if you put your hand near a baby crocodile or you swim near a baby crocodile, the mum or the dad keep chasing you and if it’s a Nile one it’s gonna be really speedy.

Did you see them being fed?
Aiden: Yeah. Dead birds. Chicken.

Did you learn the difference between a crocodile and an alligator?
Aiden: Yes, one of them has a small snout, and the other one I think is a different colour. They had both there. They had like a 100 crocodiles and alligators and caimans.
Luca: There were load and loads and loads. 

Did they have any other types of animals there?
Luca: Yes, parrots and...and...and...what else Aiden?
Quinn: Meerkats, and there was a hole you can go through and there was glass...
Aiden: a glass dome...
Luca: ...and you put your head up in it and everyone can see you and the meerkat come and they’re running around your head.

What was your favourite animal there?
Luca: Meerkat.
Aiden: Black caiman.
Quinn: Black caiman.
Aiden: Cause it’s camouflaged.
Quinn: Cause it looks so awesome.
Aiden: Cause if I was a crocodile I would probably BE a black caiman.

Well maybe you’ll be a black caiman in your next life!
Aiden [stops, looks at me]: Do we actually HAVE a next life?

I don’t know, but some people believe we do.
Aiden: [making his mind up]: I think we do.
Would you like to have a pet crocodile?
Aiden: No!
Luca and Quinn: Yes!
Luca: Can you even GET a pet crocodile?
Quinn: [getting excited]: We can put it into a cage and we need some meat for it.
Luca: And it needs water. That would be MY BEST PET. And I’m gonna have that crocodile. It gonna be MINE.

What name would you give it?
Quinn: Nuke
Luca: No, Bobby.
Quinn: No, Duke.
Luca: Duke of Marlborough! [laughs]

Finally, what do you give Crocodiles of the World out of 10?
Aiden: 10
Quinn: 100.
Luca: 159 out of 10.

Visit Crocodiles of the World's website here. They are holding their first CrocFest UK on Saturday 15th October 2016.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Can they pull it out of the bag? The ‘Lucky dip dessert’ challenge

School holidays and it was my turn on the child-care swap rota: Four girls. Six hours. Wet weather. Small town. No car. Tight budget. I was going to need more than a smile and a tube of Smarties to sail through this one. I screwed up my brain really tight and squeezed an idea out just in time. “We’re going to have a 'Lucky dip dessert' competition,” I told the girls...

Two teams of two. Each team has to choose and buy a random selection of sweet items in the supermarket for the other team. The challenge is to make the best desserts you can from the items you're given! Then I’ll put photos of the desserts on my Facebook page for a ‘live’ vote. Whoever’s desserts get the most ‘Likes’ is the winning team!

The rules
You can spend up to £3.50.
● You must buy at least 5 items.
● Include something SOLID (e.g. biscuits, cake, chocolate bar), something SOFT (e.g. mousse, cream, mousse) and at least one FRUIT (fresh or other). Don’t include anything that has to be cooked or prepared (e.g. get a pot of jelly, not squares of jelly) or that will melt (i.e. ice-cream!).
● Don't let the other team see what you're buying – keep it as a surprise for them!
● You must use some of EVERY item in the bag you're given to make your desserts.
● Think up names for your desserts .

I nudged them into pairing up so that there was a younger and older girl on each team to make it fair and jiggle friendship dynamics a bit. Then they gave themselves names – Team Awesome and Team Terrific – and we set off for the supermarket.

I watched them from a distance.Dodging each other in the aisles to keep their buys secret. Totting up prices in their heads with scrunched-up faces. Slavering over the sprinkles shelf. Swapping and switching items to get the most they could with their £3.50.Their delight at the price of Basics biscuits. Their shock at the price of squirty cream.
And finally, queuing up at the checkout and paying ever-so-politely like mini-housewives on a serious mission.
“That was really nerve-wracking!” said one of the younger girls afterwards. “I’ve never paid on my own before.”

Back at home, it was time to swap shopping bags. “Ooh...argh...good...nooo...” they squeaked as they examined the contents.
Here were the items Team Awesome had to work with.
And these were Team Terrific's. "Tic-tacs?!” they said, not sure whether to be pleased or peeved.
To prevent them plunging straight into a sugary gunge, I suggested they design their desserts on paper first. “Think of it as food art,” I told them. “You want your desserts to look good.”
And then they got stuck in, snapping, grating, bashing, layering...
Although there was lots of aesthetics and ingenuity going on (who knew cutting chocolate biscuits with a star-shaped cookie cutter would work?!), I also sensed the same, simple, sensual pleasure a toddler gets from making mud-cakes in the garden!
And the ideas just kept coming, until each team had a range of desserts, ready to be named, labelled and arranged for a photo shoot.

So, let me introduce to you the creations of Team Terrific...
...versus the creations of Team Awesome...
I put the pictures on Facebook with the heading VOTE NOW! (with 'vote closes at 4pm', the time the girls were going home) and we watched, excitedly, as the votes immediately started coming in.
Ooh, green was taking an early lead...but would purple catch up?

While we waited, we all picked one dessert to try... erm, let's just say, the pleasure was in the making rather than the eating. Turns out bashed-up ginger biscuits in chocolate mousse with jelly tots on top isn't such a great combo after all.

Incredibly, the final score was a tie: 10:10. But what do you think? Which is your favourite?!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Guest interview: “I learnt to drive when I was 11!”

This time I talk to Laura, now 18, who started driving when she was only eleven years old at the Under 17 Car Club!

I can’t believe you started driving when you were still at primary school!
You can join the club the year you’re going to turn 12, so I was in Year 6. I was quite a small Year 6 too, driving this powerful machine! It thought it was the coolest thing ever, especially being able to go back to my class on Monday and say, “This weekend I drove a car!” – and show them the pictures and videos to prove it! 

But how did you even reach the pedals?!
At first I could barely see over the windscreen! I tried sitting on a cushion but that wasn’t quite right, so for several years it was a case of moving the seat as far forward as it would go and having the wing-mirrors pushed right in.

You have to drive your parent’s car at the club, right?
Yes, it’s your parent who actually teaches you to drive. But there are lots of instructors who hop in and out of the cars and sit in the back and give you advice.
So was it a bonding thing for you or your dad – or did you argue?!
It was definitely a ‘me and dad’ thing. It was really nice. But of course there was frustration. There were bits where he was like, “Why are you still not getting that right?” or he'd say, “That’s it! I need a break!” You know that thing when you get out the car and both go your separate ways...!

Was driving harder or easier than you thought?
Harder! As a kid you sit in the car and you see your parents driving but you don’t really think about it. I remember at first I just couldn’t comprehend why you had to put your foot on the accelerator and take your foot off the clutch at the same time. I was like, “Why can’t I just do one after the other?”

Tell me about the different levels and tests you take at the club.
You usually take the Grade 5 test on your first day – it’s the absolute basics – how to move forward, stop, reverse, simple turning skills. I got Grade 2 when I’d just turned 13, and then it took me another two years to get Grade 1. After that, you can drive solo without a parent and you can drive with your friends and go out in each other’s cars. But they expect very high standards at Grade 1 – I failed two or three times. There were tears of happiness the day I passed!
The club’s every Sunday, isn’t it?
There’s a meeting at a different venue every Sunday, but you choose which ones you go – you can just go to the ones nearest you or can go to them all. It starts around 9.30 or 10 and you drive for 2 ½ hours in the morning, then stop for lunch, then drive again until 3.

What are the venues like? Is it like driving on real roads?
They vary a lot but the aim is to make it as life-like as possible with roundabouts, junctions, traffic lights and things like parallel parking bays and reverse slaloms to practice maneouvres. There’s one venue called Bovington which is miles and miles of roads and there used to be a venue that was genuinely like a small town, with pavements, kerbs, trees and really crazy hill starts!

So what’s the speed limit?
Generally it’s 60 miles an hour. But the Castle Combe venue is a race circuit so sometimes the cones are taken away and you can do 70.

You got to drive lorries and buses too, right?
Yes, I drove a 7 ½ ton articulated lorry when I was 13 and I’ve driven coaches and buses. Plus some people at Car Club have very nice cars, so I’ve driven Lamborghinis and Porsches, and some proper old cars too.
What was your favourite?
My grandad’s Bentley! I thought “I can imagine escorting the Queen in this!” I went to my Year 11 prom in it actually.

What’s the funnest thing you did at Car Club?
Skid Pan sessions is top of the list! That’s where they put oil and water on the road, as if it was icy, and you learn how to handle a car in those conditions. It’s really fun!

Are there ever any crashes?
No! It’s a very safe environment. There’s no insurance you see – it’s at your own risk. Perhaps a few close shaves with the Grade 5s sometimes!
Did you make a lot of friends at Car Club?
Amazing friends! And there’s lots of social events like BBQs and things.

And how much did it help you when you took your real driving test at age 17?
Unbelievably! I only had two driving lessons and some of my friends didn’t even bother having lessons and they passed. But I think the greater impact is that it’s made me a generally safer driver ... it’s just ingrained in you when you do it for a few years rather than a couple of months. 

The next Under 17 Car Club's Open Day is this Sunday 25th September. Visit the club's website here.