Monday, 23 November 2009

So I'm no longer a smoker eh?!

Me and my lovely dad who died of emphysemia three years ago after a lifetime of smoking.

My two lovely boys (and mum who managed to quit in her 70's) - my BIG motivation!
Friday 20th November 2009

3pm – Frantically driving around Manchester trying to find the offices of Ford Campbell while smoking my last fag!

3.15pm – Arrive in the room a bit flustered and late to be greeted by a sea of male suits and a couple of female faces. We get the introductory chat and have the chance to ask questions. Most (not all) of us have read the manual in advance so there are no real surprises although it wasn’t 100% clear that we couldn’t have an alcoholic drink while under-going the treatment. I did have an inkling about this however and knew for certain that I was off the caffeine for three days which, despite enjoying far more red wine that is healthy for me, was far more of a concern for me than not being able to have a drink or two.

However the threat of a Friday night out in Manchester without a drink was enough to see the first three suits fall by the wayside and walk out. They did, however, promise to return at 9am the next morning to give the treatment a go, having persuaded Joe and Lorne to meet them a couple of hours earlier than the rest of us. “It’s just that I simply can’t go to this important event and drink bloody Coke,” explained one of them. “I don’t mean to be rude!” (One night with Rio eh?!).

4pm - I line up and go third to have a small patch of hair shaved from behind my ear. Most nerve racking! Then I’m wired up. At first I feel nothing but am encouraged to turn the intensity up and after a while I feel a slight tingle/crawling feeling behind my ears. The tingling is weirdly pleasant. I’m encouraged to turn it up or down depending on what feels best; given a few tips about not getting it wet and how to detach myself if I need a shower and then I’m asked to record (on a level of 0-3) how I feel against a set of different criteria such as irritability, headache, low energy and shakiness etc. I score quite low on all the criteria and wonder if some of these might go from 0-3 within 24 hours of being off the nicotine!

5pm - Drive home and notice how filthy the inside of my car is. Might just have to give it a bit of a valet over the weekend. Head to the shops to stock up on juices, diet ginger beer and decaff coffee plus some healthy snacks in case I need to feed my face every five minutes. Do decide to treat myself to a KFC on the way home. Yum, a well deserved treat!

Head up to the in-laws to see the kids who are staying there this evening while Martin and I go to a gig. Haven’t told the boys about my plans so they’re a bit freaked when I walk in with wires hanging down from behind my ears! (Not that they’re that noticeable, especially with a scarf on). I explain the treatment and they both punch the air with delight in the hope that mum is never going to smoke a cigarette again. After trying to quit so many times I really hope I’m not going to disappoint them again this time.

6.30pm – Home and Martin has kindly cleared all smoking debris from the house, washed the ash trays etc and is now partaking of his own fags in the greenhouse (it’s his favourite place anyway!). Not feeling too bad about the cigs. I think about them all the time of course. As a heavy smoker this is going to be one hard habit to break. But realise that’s all it is. A habit. And an addiction. But I’m confident the N20s will help the addiction side of things. I know breaking the habit is down to me.

8.30pm – Realise my clothes and the house stink of smoke. First mini cravings kick in but more fleeting thoughts and habit rather than that real gnawing ache and wanting to cry that I normally get when I try and stop.

9pm – Drive to Manchester to see the Alabama 3 completely straight. No fags. No booze. Not even any caffeine. And you know what. They were fab! I even had a bit of a dance! Cast my mind back to the last time I enjoyed myself so much at a gig without booze, fags or indeed other mood enhancing substances and realise it was when I went to see Depeche Mode at the age of 14!

Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh once said: “This is the first band I could ever dance to in the daytime hours without chemical assistance...and that says a lot". Hear, hear Irvine – it was night-time but I managed it without booze, caffeine or fags either!

11pm – Gig over and we walked out of Manchester Academy through a stinking fug of cigarette smoke (Martin, naturally, lit up the minute we walked out of the main entrance as it seems did every other smoker in there). Yuk! It really stunk. Can honestly say the revolting smell was stronger than any urge I had to have a cigarette. Drove home (what a novelty this no drinking is! Suspect if I’d been drinking and smoking we’d have been backstage saying hello to our old mates and well up for a party!) and started craving a bag of chips. All chippies shut so decided to go for a plate of oven chips and ketchup washed down with ginger beer when I got home. Lovely! And didn’t feel too guilty since I’d only had a mini fillet burger and three hot wings at 6pm.

Midnight – headed to bed and slept pretty much straight away.

Saturday 21st November 2009

8am – Woke up feeling fine and refreshed and had a glass of mango juice to start the day along with porridge. A change from my usual coffee and two fags. Did make a decaff after breakfast though.

Had slept really well and felt refreshed. Slight craving for cigarettes but the biggest urge I have is for a proper coffee.

Drive into Manchester to get my wires checked and see Starbucks and Costa signs everywhere!

10.30am – Arrive feeling very gungho. It’s no miracle cure but so far I’ve found being off the cigarettes relatively easy and certainly nowhere near as hellish as on previous quit attempts. Am told my wires are in good shape. Joe takes my scores again (all still quite low – he puts the feelings of slight fatigue and the mild headache down to caffeine withdrawal) and I’m free to go.

Find I want to hang around and chat to the others about their experiences. (In fact this is one area where I personally would have liked a bit more support – swapping numbers, encouraging us to talk on facebook perhaps or having our own closed online forum to share feelings/experiences not just throughout the treatment but going forwards as well).

Am shocked to discover the three suits never showed at 9am this morning despite making special arrangements to come in early. They didn’t even call. Rude? Yes! Scared? Very! And to be honest their failure to face up to their stopping smoking fears really spurs me on.

Midday - Enjoy a busy afternoon, first at St Ann’s Hospice Christmas Fair (my client) with my youngest and my mum in law then a hospital appointment (bizarre Saturday afternoon annual check up with specialist). Got drenched walking back to the car after the hospital which put me in a very bad mood! Home and my decaff coffee did NOT hit the grumpy spot. Was suddenly very irritable and started craving a cigarette quite badly. Snapped at the kids. Wanted to raid the fridge (but didn’t). Worst I’ve felt in 24 hours.

6pm - We were supposed to be having dinner with friends this evening but it’s off. Probably a good thing with me not being able to have a drink. Also am really looking forward to my usual Saturday night routine of Pizza and X Factor with the kids (but will seriously miss my bottle of red wine that is part of the usual package!).

Suddenly it seems like I have a very long night ahead of me. Find myself playing a two hour game of Monopoly with Martin and the kids which they loved. After about an hour I even found myself secretly enjoying it instead of enduring it like I usually do (when all excuses for a game of Monopoly have finally run out!).

8pm – X Factor! (Ollie disappoints tonight!) followed by I’m a Celebrity plus pizza and chips with salad.

10pm - Get through the evening and still enjoy it but have found it quite hard going tonight. Getting sick of ginger beer, varying fruit juices and am so not impressed by the non-alcoholic spritzer I picked up in Aldi even if it does look like a bottle of white wine!

Find myself short-tempered and irritable and the cravings for a cigarette are quite strong – but certainly still bearable. Again nothing like as bad as before and nowhere as bad as eating Kangaroo balls and cockroaches like Katie and Kim on I’m a Celebrity. Every time Martin heads out the back door I know he’s gone to the greenhouse for a smoke and kind of feel jealous but also smug. Does that make sense?

Think about my lovely boys. Think about those awful adverts on TV at the moment (‘Mum, I know you’re watching and I really don’t want you to die’) and remind myself why I’m doing this. Think about people in St Ann’s Hospice. Think about my Dad and the sad and frighteting way he died because of cigarettes. Think about the promises I made him and myself. Think about how scared I get sometimes when I wheeze and cough in bed. Think about getting emphysema myself and being wired up to oxygen 24/7 like Dad was.

Sit and think of future parties, nights out and holidays and have the usual feelings of sadness and mild depression that I’ll never be able to enjoy myself again without a cigarette. Realise this is just stupid. The occasions will be just the same without nicotine! It’s only the withdrawal/addiction which is giving me these harmful messages at the moment. Think about all my non-smoking friends (most of them) and realise they can enjoy themselves perfectly well without smoking. They can dance, they can laugh, they can drink, they can talk, they can chill and I realise I can too!

Martin is great. He praises my efforts and says I might think I want a cigarette but I don’t otherwise I wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop smoking. Again I realise it’s just the drug addiction that’s talking to me. The little monster on my shoulder who wants me to stay hooked.

11pm - Feel a bit sad and shaky but okay really and decide to go to bed with my book. Read for about five minutes then fall asleep straight away.

Sunday 22nd November 2009

7am – A restless night. Woke very early and couldn’t get back to sleep. Kept thinking obsessively about decorating the lounge and rearranging furniture in readiness for Chritmas (so not me!). Decided to get up in the end and started my day again with porridge and mango juice followed by decaff coffee. One of the boys already up watching last night’s I’m a Celebrity.

Quite restless and agitated this morning and the urge for a cigarette still there and certainly stronger than on the first day. Still bearable though.

Keep myself busy by cleaning out some kitchen cupboards and the windows, feeding the kids breakfast, sorting out all the washing and putting away clean clothes etc. Stop for regular decaff coffee breaks. Managing quite well on the snacking front and not been stuffing my face as much as usual.

11am - Getting rattled because bored with doing housework and Martin is still in bed despite being called several times. Kids start to play up so make them clean their bedrooms and then have a big row with the oldest (10) over his homework project. Works though as he eventually gets on with it!

Do have a few problems with the machine this morning as I’m still wearing my jim jams so have no pocket to put it in – keep dropping it or it comes unplugged so I decide I need to have a bath and get dressed. Unplug, have a nice soak, get dressed and plug myself back in!

Midday – Sit down for a healthy lunch with the kids (beans, toast and scrambled egg with grapes and fresh juice). Martin doesn’t want any as he’s only just up! Never realized scrambled eggs tasted so yummy!

2pm – Still keeping myself busy. Peel the veg for tonight’s roast dinner, sort the kids pocket money out and decide to let Alfie go to the shops for the first time alone to buy Match Attack cards. Martin running around doing various errands. Dylan chilling in front of ‘How Clean is Your House’ (Strange child!).

3pm – Update online diary. Kids now playing football in the house. Might get rattled again soon but realise I would anyway with or without the cigs. About to stop typing diary and realise this is the hardest thing about stopping smoking. Am so used to ‘rewarding’ myself with a cigarette when I finish a task that I kind of don’t want to finish doing something as I won’t know how to reward myself when I do. Decide to read the News of the World!

4pm – Game of Cluedo and a cup of camomile tea while waiting for the roast chicken to cook. Yes - Mrs White, Spanner, Library. I won! And I didn’t think about a cigarette once apart from when it was Martin’s turn and he was in the greenhouse – again! Felt a bit sorry for him. Planning a big soggy dog walk after dinner.

6pm – Lovely Sunday Roast dinner. Took the dogs out straight afterwards despite the rain and they got a longer walk than usual. Kind of enjoyed it! Home and another decaff, felt fine about not having a cigarette. Still thought about one but didn’t bother me not having one.

7pm – Spent the rest of the evening watching TV with the kids and Martin. First James May’s Toy Stories, then X Factor then I’m a Celebrity (once kids gone to bed). Enjoyed another decaff coffee and some Terry’s (Dylan’s!) Chocolate Orange,

9pm – Slight headache but no major cigarette urges. Thoughts but not urges and no climbing the walls, even when Martin slips out to the greenhouse.

10pm - Camomile tea and news before bed. Tried to have a sofa snuggle tonight but Martin stunk too much so returned to the armchair! Looking forward to getting unplugged in the morning and to a life of freedom from cigarettes at long bloody last! Not to mention a big fat Costa and a nice glass of red or two with maybe some pasta tomorrow evening.

11pm – Lay in bed thinking about never smoking again. Felt like I was in the process of reinventing myself. Thought some more then realised what a load of tosh this thought was. Am giving cigarettes far more status than they deserve. I do not need to reinvent myself. EVERYTHING about my life will be just the same apart from the fact that I won’t have a piece of paper with tobacco inside it in my hand or mouth all the time.
Realised it was the power of the drug which was making me think I needed to reinvent myself. Am just fine as I am. Stupid bloody nicotine. Why give it any more thought?!

Monday 23rd November 2009

7am – Slightly unsettled night with a couple of unpleasant dreams which woke me but nothing too horrific and managed to drop back off to sleep again quite easily. Up and ready to start the week. Mango juice, decaff coffee and porridge with sultanas for breakfast then sat in rush hour traffic for ages to go and get unplugged! Felt strangely emotional/almost on the verge of tears but in a nice way during the drive in.

9.30am – Met with Joe and Lorne again and got unplugged. Had a nice chat about how I felt. Kind of didn’t want to say goodbye but realised it’s all down to me now so shook their hands, promised to continue to write about my experience and said I would only feel confident that I was indeed free of the addiction to nicotine in 12 month’s time.

10.30am – Back home and at my desk. Had a proper coffee (didn’t actually taste that great!) and a couple of slices of toast and Marmite when I got home before starting work. Determined to eat healthily and avoid the usual trap of stuffing my face to feed any cigarette urges (how can food feed an urge for a drug?). Past quit attempts have failed as the weight has piled on rapidly. Having strange thoughts about going for a run tonight!

11am – About to go and put the kettle back on – and believe it or not I want a decaff coffee not a normal one. What have you done to me?!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

If you're 'Inta' Thai green curry you'll love this

A fantastic way to get ‘Inta’ making your own Thai curries at home

A while across I met up with Danny Moore, a young Manchester based entrepreneur who has launched his own business ( this year and who is doing some amazing stuff with ethnic food.

Now being ‘IntaFood’ myself, I stayed in touch with Danny and have been keeping a keen eye on his fledgling business. So when Danny asked me and my chef husband to try one of his new Intafood Thai Curry recipe packs I was delighted – and the results far exceeded our expectations.

When I told the chef a pack was on its way, he was typically cynical. “Why would I want one of those when I can make a perfectly good Thai green curry?” he asked. “I bet they’ll be shit!” (Well he was a chef for 20 years!).

However, before we could even open the package that arrived by post from Danny we guessed what was inside – you could get off just on the wonderful smells emanating from inside the packaging itself.

Inside was a neat little sealed pack containing everything you need (minus the protein and veg) to put together your own Thai Green Curry – and his nibs was impressed. Individually packaged portions of Thai fish sauce, fresh sweet basil leaves (“Wow, these are hard to get and when you can find them you always have to buy them in large quantities”), Kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar, Thai curry paste all combined to give off the most wonderful aroma and get my mouth buds watering – I’m a huge Thai green curry fan!

Recipe suggestions are printed on the packaging and instructions for how to make your own Thai green curry which any novice could follow. Not being a novice the chef used the ingredients of the pack to help knock up his own curry – on a campstove inside our tent on a cold and wet August bank holiday Friday evening in the Peak District!

We’d taken along the chicken, a tin of coconut milk and some aubergine and served our final dish with cous cous rather than our preferred Jasmine rice (it’s easier to prepare in a tent, less washing up and goes down just as well, soaking up the wonderful fragrant sauce beautifully).

And can I say these packs are perfect for the gourmet camper as indeed they would be for anyone wanting to make their own, authentic tasting and fragrant Thai green curry at home.

I was certainly impressed by the finished dish and the chef was pleased with the fresh ingredients and the quantities. “I’d usually have most of these in but you usually have to buy them in bulk, often from a specialist oriental supermarket, and while some things keep or freeze well it can be hard to keep or even get some of the ingredients sometimes, especially the sweet basil.”

Memories of an unsuccessful trawl around several supermarkets to find fresh, sweet basil and lime leaves when we’ve wanted to make Thai green curry before came back to us. “I would definitely use these again,” said the chef. “It’s a shame the shelf life is quite short so you can’t stock up and plan ahead but it does at least mean the ingredients are fresh. The price (£2.99) is great – about right I’d say. My only criticisms are that I would have liked to have seen an indication of how many people the portion size was for – I knew because of my professional experience but it could be confusing for some cooks who wouldn’t know if this would produce a curry for two, four or more. And it’s a shame the packaging was plastic. Otherwise I loved it – I now want to try the other recipe packs in the Intafood range.”
See for more details or to buy a pack yourself - there's a great offer for new customers too!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

How not to run a campsite

Having enjoyed three lovely August bank holiday weekend camping trips at Newhaven Camping and Caravan Park in the Peak District in recent years, a crowd of us (head count 27 this year) once again decided to head off with our kids and dogs for a weekend of fun.
Now the first year we had been located at the top of a very steep slope but a recce of the site revealed an excellent looking narrow area suitable for groups, apparently known as the Long Stretch. So, for the past two years, we have booked this area and enjoyed a great time at the site which is perfect for the hoards of young boys we have in our party, surrounded as it is by narrow woods ideally suited to den building and 'off-road' bike adventures.
After last year's visit we once again reserved the Long Stretch back towards the end of last year. All was set for another fun weekend this August.
As in previous years, our family made the reservation and then other families were told to ring and book as part of our party. The numbers were building and all was good.
However a phone call from an extremely rude woman about a month ago should have given me some indication that things were changing at Newhaven - and certainly not for the better.
This woman rang me one Friday afternoon demanding to know exactly how many tents were booked in our party. I explained that while I had a rough idea I could not confirm exact numbers without ringing round. Not good enough it seemed. She needed to know exact numbers NOW!
I gently explained that we had all made our bookings as requested and that perhaps she should then have a record of who was booked in as part of our party. I pointed out that the fact that she did not have this record was, for me, rather worrying and asked if I could speak with the owner/manager - a lovely, friendly, gentle older man who had never been anything but courteous and kind to us in prevous years.
'There's not point," she declared. "He's hardly ever here. He's practically retired."
At this point I suggested that perhaps she was being rather rude to me as a regular customer. Somewhat incredibly, the words "Yeah well whatever!" followed, much to my disgust. I put the phone down shaking!
Fortunately I did manage to then speak to the owner and explain how rude his member of staff had been to me. He was nothing but apologetic.
And so it came that we were the first family to arrive at Newhaven on Friday afternoon. My husband dropped me off to check in while he and the kids drove down to the Long Stretch to bag the best pitch. Two minutes later he had returned to check in to say there were two other tents pitched in our reserved spot! It had not been roped off it seems.
The sweet (but rather harrassed looking) elderly owner explained that cones had indeed been placed to reserve the area for us but clearly someone had moved these and taken their choice of pitch after all. We decided to drive back down and see what was what. As we drove over the coned area an obnoxious man came running over screaming "Get off my grass, these cones are here for a reason!". Now we did try to point out that that reason was us but he was having none of it. "I'm the campsite manager," he screamed furiously. "Yes and we've just been told that the coned off area is reserved for us," explained my husband. "What's more, there are two other tents already pitched on an area we've had reserved for months. What's going on?"
"I'm not moving those tents for no-one," screamed Mr Grumpy. "Get off my site and don't ever come back!"
With seven other families en route we were clearly in a difficult situation. Personally, with the weather already bad, we would have been quite happy to head home at this point but felt we couldn't leave all our friends in the lurch.
Shaking once more we headed back to reception to find the poor owner. Somehow he managed to placate us, apologise unreservedly for his manager's behaviour and offer us a discount on our booking. All we could think was poor man.
And so our weekend began. As our friends arrived and we all started pitching the heavens opened once more. The Long Stretch was starting to resemble a mud bath.
The next couple of days more or less passed without incident - apart from lots of filthy, muddy little boys falling out every five minutes that is. Alas, getting clean was a chore since the usually warm showers appeared to be freezing cold this year. The atmosphere on site was not improved by the siting of a large burger van next to the shower block - a new addition and in my opinion one which was neither welcome or indeed needed.
Gritting our teeth we all decided to make the most of a fairly bad situation. By Sunday afternoon the rain was incessant and all of us were practically skating around the Long Stretch. But two gazebos, a large tarpaulin and a couple of wallpaper paste tables covered in Scooby Doo plastic table cloths ensured we all had a communal area for eating and drinking under and we tried our best to enjoy our last night and celebrate young Jack's 10th birthday at the same time.
We all collased into bed shortly before midnight. And then the revving started. For some unexplicable reason a large lorry appeared to have arrived to remove what we thought was a caravan from the site - at midnight! The revving and banging continued for several hours as the lorry proceeded to get stuck in the mud.
We all finally got to sleep around 3am. Only to be rudely awaken again by two very large crashes a short time later. Large branches had fallen from the trees surrounding the Long Stretch, narrowly missing our tent (dread to think what would have happened if they had!) but instead landing on our car.
Packing up in a mud bath the next day was possibly the lowest point of all. And then my 10 year old came off his bike hurting his knee. He'd already done a spectacular vomit in the middle of the previous night meaning that on top of everything else I'd had to try and clear up oceans of sick with the small remains of a pack of baby wipes.
Now normally I claim to love camping. And indeed I do. But this experience has to be the worst ever and if it had just been down to poor weather I could have accepted that. But right now I feel I never want to camp again. Certainly all of us agreed that our days of visiting Newhaven Camping and Caravan Park are well and truly over..
We can only imagine that, as he looks forward to retirement, the owner has made a very bad error of judgment in employing the people he has to manage his site. It's such a terrible shame. It has been and could still be a lovely place. But with the attitudes of 'management' currently on display and the arrival of the burger van we fear it will be downhill all the way.

Friday, 28 August 2009

An unsolcited apology from Fasthosts - wonders will never cease!

After yet more horrific, hair-tearing days of no Outlook access thanks to Fasthosts server problems I was shocked to receive an unsolicited email of apology from their customer services director. Very nice but still doesn't compensate me for two days of lost productivity Simon!

I am writing to update you on an issue that occurred intermittently for some of our POP Mail customers this week. Whilst this issue only affected a small percentage of our customers I note that your email account was on the infrastructure concerned and therefore wish to update you. Upfront I would also wish to apologise unreservedly if you or your business was in anyway affected by this incident. We are at an advanced stage in the process of implementing an improved and more resilient email platform, and unfortunately we encountered some unusual issues with balancing user access to the service which caused a temporary disruption. This led to a proportion of our email clients only having intermittent access, and a small number of customers having problems over a more prolonged period. Our operations team restored the service for affected customers as quickly as possible, and all mailboxes were fully restored by 6:00pm yesterday. Please note, no emails were lost through this service disruption as all emails sent during the issues were queued and subsequently delivered when the issue was resolved. We are fully committed to ensuring an effective service for our customers and are making significant investments to ensure our services are market leading and regret on this occasion a small number of our customers were impacted during our infrastructure upgrade. Apologies again if you were impacted and thanks for your continued business.
Yours Sincerely
Simon Yeoman
Customer Services Director
Fasthosts Internet Ltd.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Shell Island and our Welsh camping Staycation

We're seasoned campers but, for the first time this year, we decided to stay in the UK and brave a whole week of the British weather rather than our usual long weekend jaunts. Now a week or even a fortnight's camping in France is just wonderful - sunshine is almost (not always) guaranteed. But a week in Wales? Well I convinced myself that Shell Island - a new destination for us - would have its own sub-tropical micro-climate.

Alas, it seems Mocras (as it is know in Welsh - one of the few names I could pronounce) does indeed have its own micro-climate - desert storm.

Arriving on our first day we were convinced we had struck gold. Beautiful Shell Island in all its glory and a fabulous pitch among the dunes was ours for the taking. The sun was shining, the kids were throwing themselves down the largest sand dunes we've ever seen, the beer was still cold in the ice box and all was good with the world. The new Weber barbecue was put into action, a fantastic feast ensued and then we roasted marshmallows with the kids around the campfire before tucking them up with their Nintendos and settling down to some chill tunes on the ipod and a few more cold beers. The dogs snuggled up and dreamed of all the fun to come.
Day two and we woke to rather gloomy skies and a rather fierce breeze. Ho hum, we thought. Life is still good. A few hours later and friends arrived and pitched close by. We hadn't even realised we were all going to the same campsite until we got talking at footie training earlier that week. The boys were over the moon to have their mate Baillie in tow and off they all set, back into the dunes only to end up in a rather serious ruck with a bunch of other (older!) kids who were throwing sand in their faces and beating our youngest, only seven, with spades. He came screaming back to the tent, eyes full of sand and ended up with a very badly bruised back. Let's just say words were had!

The clouds showed no sign of clearing and the fierce breeze was gathering momentum, whipping sand off them their dunes at an impressive rate. But we're seasoned campers and we weren't going to let a little inclement weather ruin our evening. The campfire was stoked up once more and we tried to roast the marshmallows but the wind and sand soon put paid to that so we all retired into our tent for red wine and hot chocolate.

Bedtime came and we settled in. All I can say is thank God the kids slept through because, for the rest of the evening, the wind howled, the tent flapped furiously and I was convinced we were going to do a Wizard of Oz at any point.

Luckily our sturdy Outwell Montana (Note: metal poles are a really good move if you want a tent to survive Stonethwaite and Shell Island!) lasted the night but our poor friends woke to find their brand new tent practically flattened around them and duly packed up and headed home to complain to Go Outdoors for selling them a dud!

And so the week went on. Our friends returned 24 hours later with a new tent and a chipper spirit. It was their first wedding anniversary and they were determined to celebrate, if not in style. More drinks and more hot choccies with marshmallows were consumed and our friends endured a couple more days before the wind finally got the better of them and they decided to pack up and leave for a second time - duly ripping their second new tent in a week as they tried to pack in a force goodness knows what wind!

The rest of the week was dominated by grey skies and further (although less fierce) wind until at last, the day before we were due to head home the sun made a much welcome appearance and we were finally able to truly appreicate the glory of Shell Island.

Not that we'd had a bad time. The kids and dogs braved the surf despite arctic sea temperatures, crabbing was a huge success with all of us catching loads of the little blighters. (Told my neighbour earlier but he said I shouldn't go round broadcasting such information to the whole neighbourhood!).

Certainly our crabbing forays were far more successful that Martin's sea bass fishing attempts - despite getting expert advice from a member of the British sea bass fishing team all he managed to catch was lots of seaweed!

We then tried, but failed miserably, to buy some sea bass for supper but it seems that despite their being plenty of them swimming around the waters of West Wales, you can't actually buy them for love nor money. In fact what a dissapointment the local produce - or lack of it - was in general. Apart from a few good sausages and some Welsh cakes in a bakery it seems that every food shop from Barmouth to Porthmadog is full of the usual processed crap available everywhere. Saying that we had fabulous sit-down fish and chips in Barmouth and a fairly nice lunch and lattes in the Rock Cafe (turns out to be a God Squad joint) in Porthmadog. We also paid a trip to Portmerion and thanked our lucky stars we had waited until 3.30pm to pay the half price entrace fee. Very pretty and unusual yes but why is it you have to pay to walk round and look at a hotel and a few rental properties (mostly with Range Rovers parked outside) which only the truly wealthy can afford to stay in? No information, no guided tour, no little plaques telling us about the quirky architecture but we could pay another £3.50 for a guide book if we wanted. Personally, for almost £10 to get into the village in the first place, I would have liked to have had free access to a bit of history. Sneaked a look in the book in the shop and only learnt that the architect was originally from my home county of Northamptonshire. Bonkers then!

So crabbing, fishing, wave hopping, dune rolling, walking, cycling, sight seeing and lots of fun was had by all despite the weather but to be honest Wales (and the Welsh) was a bit of a let down. Beautiful, indeed stunning scenery but why then, when they live in such a gorgeous place, is everyone so miserable? Where were the friendly greetings in shops and pubs? Who is eating all the fantastic local produce that we know exists but could not find anywhere? Why were there scabby takeaways everywhere? And why was every accent we heard Scouse?

And Shell Island itself? A beautiful, truly gorgeous spot with stunning beaches, amazing views of Snowdownia and, on first appearances, probably the finest campsite to be found anywhere. But alas, below the surface, lurks the island's dirty secrets. Broken bottles, cans, nappies, bin bags - all strewn around the dunes. I suppose at least the perpetrators had at least tried to conceal their crap. But then there was the group of youngsters sitting on the beach enjoying a few beers and a campfire that we spotted on a late evening walk back from the sea with the kids and the dogs. No harm in that. Sadly, the next morning we found their beer bottles strewn across the beach and the inflatable dinghy they had with them burnt out atop the remains of the campfire.

One set of neighbours headed off home leaving four bin bags, a broken barbecue and around 50 empty bottles on their plot. (The bins were 100m away!). Two days later the wardens came and cleared the rubbish away.

Another set of neighbours abandanoned camp after their small tents were flattened by the heavy winds. Fair enough but did they have to leave the tents and everything else behind including dirty socks, old flip flops and food encrusted plates? This was four days before our departure and the remnants of their holiday remained after we had packed up and headed home.

At the centre of Shell Island is the main complex which has everything you could need including free (and clean) hot showers, a launderette, small (fairly okay priced) supermarket, excellent camp and leisure shop and nice gift and ice cream/fudge shop, cosy bar, scary, noisy games room (aaargh, the kids loved it!), hideous cafe churning out deep fried crap and creating an aroma of fine grease across the entire complex and decent kids play area. Good for watching the footie (two fantastic Arsenal results in one week) but scarily full of scallies dressed up to the nines in Bench and McKenzie, gold earrings dangling as they consumed WKD and pints of wine and screached at their 'bleedin' kids'!

To summarise, Shell Island has its problems. The rubbish is a big one and, while practical and offering more or less everything you need in an emergency, the central complex could have been so much nicer with a little thought, and perhaps a nod to the local area (and dare I say produce?).

The weather was pants (apart from the last two days) but we'd still go back. Despite our misgivings it's a truly stunning place with plenty of free fun to offer those with young children, dogs and a love of the great outdoors and real camping. Happy holidays!
Now it's Newhaven in the Peak District for the Bank Holiday weekend. Here we go again!

Monday, 10 August 2009

How to Cook for Kids if you live on Planet Observer

I had a kid free Sunday evening. I wanted a big newspaper to read. The Observer called - it was the front page flash promising a 10 page magazine feature on How to Cook for Kids that did it for me.

I can't believe I got so angry about it I had to write to the editor (see below).

What utter, utter tosh! Seared scallops and Salmon saltimbocca I ask you!

To read this nonsense (and actually the Observer has done us parents a big favour by publishing this article - at least we won't waste our hard-earned cash on the pretentious book the so-called recipes come from) see

Here's what I had to say to the editor:

Dear Editor,

What utter tosh! As the mum of two young boys and the wife of a chef we have a keen interest in food in our family so I picked up yesterday's Observer looking forward to reading your 10 page magazine special on How to Cook for Kids as flagged up on your front page.
Never in my life have I read such pretentious nonsense! Have our national newspapers totally lost touch with reality?
Salmon Saltimbocca? Seared Scallops? Radish, Watercress and Feta salad? Hello?
Now let's imagine we all had the money to buy ingredients like scallops to feed our kids wth in the first place. Perhaps the residents of Chelsea and Kensington pop into Waitrose or wherever for a few scallops for their little darlings of a weekend but, for the majority of parents, such luxuries would rarely make it onto the menu. Indeed, your own newspaper also carried an article on the rise of supermarket own label goods and for most of us, it's about feeding our families as well as we can on a tight budget these days.
Now, take a class of average 10 year olds and suggest they sit down to sardines and mustard for their supper. I predict a riot!
Not only were these recipes so incredibly wide of the mark as far as most kids are concerned, they weren't even that good.
And it was a case of hunt the missing ingredients in the photography. I might keep the magazine and turn iit into a game for my kids!
Can anyone tell me where the chorizo and chick peas were supposed to be hiding in the Prawn and Chorizo Non-Paella, for examle? And I'll gladly stand supper for anyone who can spot the watercress in the Radish, Watercress and Feta Salad - looked to me like a few radishes sliced up on a bit of stale old ciabatta!
I have a 10 year old son who happily tucked into fois gras and demanded to try horse meat while on holiday in France last year.
He loves a home-made curry, can demolish spag bol in seconds and is in and out of the fruit bowl all day. He also adores burger and chips and occasionally (gasp!) asks for a Pot Noodle when he's going fishing with his dad.
He enjoys a certain amount of salad and veg and can make a mean stiry fry all by himself. But really?
How Hugh (and his practically fruitarian daughter!) and Matthew managed to convince (con?) not only a publisher but also a national newspaper, into publishing such pretentions nonsense in the name of our kids is beyond me! If any parent out there buys this book with the belief that it offers good advice about feeding a family they will be wasting their hard earned cash. Perhaps, by publishing these 'recipes' in avdance, the Observer has in fact done us all a favour.
I dare you to try some of these dishes out on a group of hand picked kids and see what they really think Roasted Chickpea Bruschetta (where was the bread?) or Grilled Courgette. It makes Annabloodybel Karmel look almost realistic.
We're off on our 'staycation' to Wales next week. The chef has plans to smoke mackeral caught by him and the kids. Lovely! The new Weber barbecue will be getting a battering on a daily basis. We've heard you can pick wild strawberries on our campsite.
But we'll also be heading to Lidl in advance to stock up on fruit, ham, crisps, croissants, pasta, beans, cheese, biscuits and all those other things that normal kids like to fuel up on when running around a campsite getting dirty, tired and hungry all day. I think I might even throw a few Pot Noodles in my trolley just for the hell of it!
Yours faithfully,

Michele Hart
0161 282 0545
07796 276672

PS - I don't have a book to sell, I don't have a business to push but I promise you that my husband and I could come up with a better How to Feed your Kids feature than this. Please start thinking about real people and families for a change. We consider ourselves foodies. We try to encourage our kids to eat healthily and expand their palates (something of a challenge with our youngest who is on the autistic spectrum). We cook with our kids and tell them where their food comes from. We grow our own veg. And there's nothing we like more than sitting down to a good home cooked meal with the extended family. We also go to McDonalds occasionally, rely on fish fingers and baked beans or a chippie tea on a Friday when the boys have to be at cricket by 6.30pm and we even let our boys run out to the ice cream van and have a volcano (like a 99 but covered in hideous blue sherbert!) every now and again!

Friday, 7 August 2009

Can hotels make the food grade?

I was lucky enough to be invited to dine in the new Park Inn in Manchester last night with fellow foodie blogger manchesterisace.
All glass and funky furniture and primary colours, this is a slick looking hotel which is sure to attract plenty of overnight guests from the Manchester Evening News Arena opposite.
Our evening began with a chilled glass of white on the terrace overlooking the apartments of Manchester's Green Quarter (not much green or trees in evidence although still plenty of mud and diggers and the ubiquitous glass and chrome apartment blocks which have taken over Manchester like a plague in recent years).
All very pleasant. The sun was shining for a change and we enjoyed a happy half hour chatting to General Manager Neil Raw and bubbly Director of Sales and Marketing Jill Browton.
Neil then asked if we'd like to head into the dining room and, rather suprisingly since my fellow diner had been asked to write an official review, we were then joined by Neil for dinner which, while he was pleasant and charming company, we both found a little odd.
Sadly we were the only three diners in the ultra modern restaurant overlooking the ring road and defined by some of the brightest orange dining chairs I have ever seen.
Adorning our side pates were small rubber replicas of a branded mini the hotel has parked outside the front entrance and which apparently Jill uses when she's zipping around the city. Cute and I get the real version but my only thought on the replicas on our side plates really was 'Why?'. Mind you I still pocketed them both to take home to my two young boys so, if nothing else, they would be children pleasers I guess.
So onto the food. We glanced through a decent looking menu offering a range of starters, mains and desserts as well as some well though out lighter dishes and snacks.
On the recommendation of Jill my friend chose the Tiger Prawns which I may have ruined for her slightly by then asking everyone if they had seen the latest episode of Blood, Sweat and Takeaways.
I chose the blackened salmon salad with corander, lime and avocado and it was superb. Practically large enough to be a meal in itself, the large chunk of salmon was moist and beautifully cooked, the salad fresh, zingy and packed full of favour, all presented beautifully to create a true visual feast.
Indeed presentation is sonething they do rather well at the Park Inn if our meal was anything to go by. We were greeted with a selection of gorgeous, warm seeded rolls served in their own paper (?) lined basket on taking our seats and this, along with great service, was certainly most welcome.
Onto our main courses and my companion decided to go for the posh fish and chips option which she said was great. Neil ordered the sirloin steak, medium rare, which certainly looked fantastic and came served with three huge onion rings sat on top and a side serving of sauce, Neil choosing the horseradish option.
Being a mum I am subjected to dodgy burgers more often than I would like but seeing the gourmet burgers on offer on the menu accompanied by fat chips I suddenly really fancied one so opted for the Cheddar burger with aged Cheddar, tomato and pickles.
It looked stupendous. My lovely big fat chips came served, like the bread earlier, in their own paper lined bowl (apparently there's a debate going on as to whether they are in fact fat chips or wedges but who cares, they were great!) and the burger looked a beaut. You need to like your seedy bread here though as, once again, the bun was packed full of seeds like the earlier bread rolls. Luckily I do!
Cutting my big boy burger in half I then put down my knife and fork, picked the fella up with my bare hands and took a huge bite, much to the delight of the GM who said he hates seeing people trying to be smart and eat burgers with a knife and fork. Hear hear!
Expecting a taste sensation full of mature cheddar, fresh tomato and pickles and juicy beef I can honestly say that I felt suddenly very disapointed. This handsome looking burger just did not live up to expectations.
Size wise it was great. Substantial but the burger itself was cut relatively thinly which meant I could clamp my chops round it in one bite (a challenge too far in some gourmet burger joints).
It looked fab. The tomato and pickles were zesty and fresh and it had all the makings of a classic. But something just wasn't quite right.
Deconstructing the assembly on my plate I tried each ingredient separately to find out where the problem lay. The cheddar was certainly lacking and though described as aged I would definitely question its maturity. But I think it was the burger itself that was cuasing me offence although I found it hard to work out why. It was definitely dry and I would have certainly preferred something a bit juicier in my bun but this wasn't the main problem. To be honest it just tasted odd. Almost stale. But it wasn't!
Thankfully the generous size of my delicious starter and the proportions of the burger and chips meant that I could politely leave half of it on my plate delclaring to Neil that I was just too full to manage any more.
Unfortunately this meant I also had to pass on dessert but would have liked to try something from the small selection on offer, especially the maple caramel cheesecake.
Our meal was rounded off by a double espresso and some more pleasant chat with the friendly and likeable GM Neil.
On reflection? Shame about the burger but otherwise a pretty good dining experience for a new city centre hotel restaurant. Presentation was fantastic, service was smooth, the company was pleasant, the salmon starter was superb and the orange chairs were very simply just very bright.
With a few more diners and a bit more atmosphere this could be a good place to grab a bite either before or after a gig at the MEN Arena and I would certainly give it another go. I'd probably order the steak next time though.