Tuesday 29 April 2014

A day at the Horniman

The Horniman Museum and Gardens is a fantastic place to "let kids be kids".  We went along last Sunday morning, and stayed the whole day.  We had little or no expectations of this place, way down in Forest Hill (East Dulwich if you are trying to be posh).  But it proved a huge hit with The Boy - and hence with us as parents.

We started off having a run around the beautiful grounds, including a play in the "Sound Garden".  This was simply ingenious for explorative little toddlers, with large outdoor musical instruments to whack, bash, hit and blow.  The Boy loved it.

Eventually we tore him away so we could see inside the main building.  The collection is similar to the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford: crammed full of taxidermy, bones and natural history.  But I felt it was in a much better condition, and the explanatory notes were much more helpful and engaging.  Even better, the extensive display cases were accessible to toddlers and he could see everything without needing carried.

Entrance to the Horniman was free, but we payed a little extra (£6) to also visit the aquarium.  This was small, but again well displayed and thoughtfully arranged for little ones.

No visit to a museum is complete without testing out the cafe facilities.  The food and drink offer was fairly wide and varied, and we enjoyed our panini and drinks.  We returned later for tea and cakes.  The cafe was mobbed over lunch time, but they have a beautiful Victorian greenhouse which was a fabulous spillover.

After lunch, the "animal walk" was open, so we took The Boy along to see the collection of sheep, llamas and rabbits.  I have to say I have never seen such a well-kept city farm.  Not a scrap of mud anywhere!

Finally, I have to mention the spectacular 360degree views across London.  From various spots in the grounds, you can see The City, Battersea Power Station, Wembley, Crystal Palace... Amazing!


Monday 28 April 2014

A vlog about postpartum psychosis

My very first attempt at a "vlog" - minimal production values, shot on iPad, co-starring The Boy.

My Postpartum Psychosis

The reason I uploaded this, was so I could share it on my "Climbing Out of the Darkness" crowd rise page.

Me and a few other ladies are undertaking a London-based climbing challenge (quite possibly involving one of those very tall Canary Wharf towers!), in order to raise awareness of maternal mental health issues, and funds for the Postpartum Progress charity.

We would love your support, but even if you just take a look at the page and the video - well, we will be meeting our awareness-raising objective, so that's fantastic too!

Kathryn xxx

Friday 25 April 2014

On the South Bank

It's a tourist favourite, but locals use it too.  There are plenty of opportunities to be parted with your cash (aquarium, London Dungeon, London Eye...) but there is also an abundance of free, public, space.  The boy and I go to the South Bank a lot.  Even when it's raining, the Royal Festival Hall is a fantastic spot for him to run around in.

I just wanted to share a few snaps from our recent visits, where we took advantage of the beautiful roof garden and allotment area on the top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as well as the new public "sculptures" that have proven a huge hit with children.  I have to say the roof garden is currently my favourite hang-out spot in London.  If you get there early (by 11am) it is blissfully quiet and you can just take in the views.  I feel like I am hovering above the crowds below, rushing towards the London Eye or Big Ben, and the steady traffic on Waterloo Bridge.  The garden itself is beautifully kept, with lots of herbs and fragrant flowers for the boy to sniff.  Watching the boy play here, amongst the bumblebees and grasses, I am the happiest mum in the world.

An urban outdoor paradise!

I'm linking this post up to Coombe Mill's Country Kids linky.
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Happy meals

I'm no food campaigner, but if I were I think my cause might be "kids menus" in restaurants.  Perhaps not even just that, but the whole experience of taking a young child out to eat.

Being a parent can be hard and lonely work, but how fortunate it is that we live in a world where taking children out to dinner is no longer frowned upon.  And where some restaurants are practically falling over themselves to entice young families through the door.  We can take our hard-earned cash to places which understand what we need and cater accordingly. But this is not without challenges.

Since the boy was little, we have had a "table for three please" policy.  Babysitters are expensive, a luxury to be afforded only on special date nights, so we have always just taken the boy with us.  When he was really little, he would happily sleep in his buggy - or sometimes even in the car seat, under the table, in particularly busy establishments!  But since he has been old enough to sit in a high chair (or more often now his "BenBat" booster chair), he has eaten with us.  So I've had a fair bit of experience judging children's menus, and the "child friendly" credentials of the London restaurant scene.

Fine dining does not have to equal adult-only dining
I'm just going to put this out there: on a recent holiday to Italy we took our one year old son with us to a 3-starred Michelin restaurant ("Osteria Francescana", in Modena, as featured on Masterchef last year).  It was sublime.  We had a ten course tasting menu for lunch and the boy sat quietly (for almost three hours) eating the spectacular (and unlimited) grissini.  

The waiting staff were accommodating and the other diners did not seem to either notice or mind at all.  Friends and family were shocked, but we all had a genuinely good time.  I'm not sure we would have found a similar reception in any of London's Michelin restaurants, so I am glad we had this chance in Italy.  

My top tips for taking toddlers to "posh" restaurants are:
- always ask well in advance if children can be accommodated.  Check if they will provide a highchair or if you need to bring your own.  Ask if the chef can prepare something for children, or if you can bring your own supplies.
- request a table in the corner, which is well spaced from others but still provides your little one with a good view of the room.
- bring with you any toys or books that might keep your little one quietly occupied.  An iPad on silent mode is ideal.  Also bring raisins, smarties - whatever your child enjoys picking at!
- take your child to the park to burn off plenty of steam beforehand.  Ideally he may then nap in the buggy for a while, by your table.

Kid-friendly restaurants aren't always parent-friendly
One of the most child-focused chains of restaurants in London is Giraffe.  They have branches across town, all serving young families with breakfasts, brunches and antipodean-style fusion food.  They were a pioneer of the smoothie trend, and are genuinely great at what they do.  They are conveniently located near to many of London's children's attractions.  They dish out crayons and balloons,  and never run out of high chairs.  However... The husband refuses to set foot in there.  The reason?  It's hell on earth, basically.  Unless you get there by about 10.30am (for lunch!) there are queues of families snaking out of the door.  It's noisy and chaotic, full of other people's screaming infants.  The food is ok, but often a bit tepid (great for babies, not so much for grown up meals!) and it never quite lives up to its billing.  This is a real shame, as they do have great service and a fantastic children's menu (more on these later).
Here are my top food outlets which we reckon caters well to both children and grown ups:
- Wahaca.  This chain of Mexican street food restaurants was begun by MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers and it has always proved extremely child-friendly.  It is large and noisy enough for toddlers to fit right in, and does a good range of child-friendly food such as refried beans and cheese quesadillas.  There is a kids menu, but if you order sensibly from the adult menu you can all share and enjoy lots of different tastes.  It's two thumbs up from us!
- Yo! Sushi.  We all know the main peril of taking a toddler to a restaurant is the dreaded wait for the food to arrive.  Here you have the perfect solution: entertaining conveyer belt of food items, and food that is ready when you are.  There are plenty of child-friendly options - try the cucumber and avocado rolls, for example.  Our boy is also a fan of gyoza!
- Vietnamese street food kitchens.  There are loads of these across London - Banh Mi Bay, Pho, as well as the originals in North Shoreditch.  The husband and I love the Vietnamese/French fusion food, the banh mi baguette.  But I recently discovered that the boy loves Vietnamese steamed pork buns.  These are soft white buns, filled with a sticky slow-cooked pork mixture.  Perfect toddler finger food.  Everyone is a winner! 
- Pizzerias.  Take your pick, from Pizza Express to Zizzis to Franco Mancas.  Everyone loves pizza, and it's a great treat for a little one.
- Indian restaurants.  I'm not recommending that you take your toddler down Brick Lane on a Friday night. No way.  But there are a growing number of genuinely family-friendly places which cater well to young children.  Our current favourites are Lahore Kebab House (the Norbury branch, not Brick Lane!) and Dishoom in Covent Garden.  

Children don't have to eat chicken nuggets
One of the reasons we eat out is to try new and interesting food, which we perhaps might not be able to recreate at home.  We don't buy chicken nuggets, but I reckon if I wanted the boy to eat reconstituted mechanically-recovered breaded chicken pieces I'd know where to buy a bag of them, open said bag and throw some in the oven for ten minutes.  So it makes me sad when I arrive somewhere new, and see that the only items on the children's menu is variously shaped fried things with chips. Noooooooooooo!

Restaurants, please take a look at Dishoom's children's menu.  They encourage parents to choose off the main menu for the little ones.  But they also offer a number of child plates.  For £7.50 the boy had a fresh squeezed apple juice, and a plate of mahi fish tikka (beautifully cooked but not spicy), Bombay potatoes, and a tomato and cucumber salad.  Yum!

What are your top tips for eating out with little ones?  Any restaurant recommendations you would add to the list?

Thursday 17 April 2014

Time on my hands

This morning the three of us visited a lovely little day nursery just down the road, near the Oval.  It has only been open since 2012, with a small intake, but already has gotten a great reputation and we know at least three other children who are very happy there. As a stay-home mum I'm not looking for full-time childcare - more, a few hours a week where the boy can hang out with his peers in a slightly structured environment, giving me some time for other things.  This nursery is one of the very few I have encountered which does not have a minimum number of days which your child must attend each week. They are flexible, and happy to fit around our needs.  We hope to sign the boy up to do two afternoons a week, starting after Easter.

This might be a controversial thing for a "full time" mum to do.  I'm not planning to go back to work (not yet anyway), and my business plans are a long way from actuality.  I don't have a newborn on the way, or other family commitments.  No.  I am solely planning to use these precious hours to catch up.  With my housework.  With my grown-up friends (remember those friends who don't just happen to be the parents of your child's playmates? Nope, me neither).  With all the personal admin piling up by the door.  With my mental health charities work.  With my beloved stray dogs needing walked at Battersea Dogs Home.

For around the cost of a dinner out at a local restaurant, this arrangement will allow me to catch up with all these things.  The hope is that once I'm caught up, the time that I do then spend with the boy is of a much better quality: I won't be on the phone, or on twitter, or trying to turn housework into some sort of toddler game... I'll be focused on the boy. 

I love being a stay-home mum (contrary to that American Greetings viral video advert, it's the best, most fulfilling, most rewarding job I could ever hope to hold). But running after a toddler, while also trying to manage all the other things in my life, can mean that the parenting becomes somewhat one-handed.  He never quite gets my full attention, as I'm always trying to work out how I can fit in the other stuff.

I hope this way I can carve out some precious time - for me, and for the boy.

Why cleaning with a toddler never works...

I'd love to read your thoughts on the challenges of being a stay at home parent, and the role of childcare options - so I am linking this up with

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Wednesday 16 April 2014

3 favourite chocolate cake recipes

The husband is turning thirty-something on Friday, so thoughts are naturally turning to birthday cake...

I was visiting Konditor & Cook yesterday and saw they had a new line in their celebration cake range: dark chocolate and hazelnut, with a noisette frosting.  Wow.  That could have been made just for the husband - right up his street!  But given the cost (£38) and the fact that I don't work, I was determined to try and replicate this at home.  Before I get down to Friday's business, however, I thought it'd be instructive to look back on some previous efforts.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite chocolate cakes...

Chocolate buttermilk and raspberry layer cake
This is as much of a "show stopper" as I'm ever likely to make.  The sponge and ganache (and buttercream) are all from my friend Bea Vo's "Tea with Bea" recipe book (available here).  I made the sponge as directed, and sliced horizontally into 3 layers and left to cool.  I then ganached each layer with a thin layer of dark chocolate ganache, before sandwiching together with fresh raspberries and a fluffy chocolate buttercream.  I worked in Bea's kitchen for some time, before having the boy, so I am quite familiar with a "professional" style of buttercream.  This stuff takes a little longer to produce, but lasts much longer and looks so much better than standard buttercream.  It is well worth the effort! All you need is a decent stand mixer and a sugar thermometer...

I presented this to the husband on his birthday two years ago, and it went down incredibly well with a glass of bubbly!

Green & Blacks chequerboard cake
This recipe is taken from the G&B "Chocolate recipes unwrapped: from the cacao pod to muffins, mousses and moles" book (available here).  It's in the "Time To Shine" chapter, and it is a pretty flashy cake.  Taste-wise it is not too rich, so would be ideal for a children's birthday party.  It is essentially a vanilla/chocolate marble cake, but the two mixes are combined by icing them into the tin in circles:

I was very pleased with the end effect!  It is a very satisfying way to practice your piping skills...

Andy's chocolate cake 
There's a bit of a story behind this one.  Essentially I was tasked with producing a cake to impress my little sister's new boyfriend.  The brief: "he loves dark chocolate!"  So I googled "ultimate chocolate cake" and the first result was this 5-starred recipe on the BBC Good Food site.  We were not disappointed.  I used 1.5x the quantities, to make a cake large enough for over ten people.  In total, 3 x 150g bars of good quality dark chocolate were used.  The result was rich, smooth and deeply chocolate-y.  I have to say I didn't do a great job on the presentation, but no one seemed to mind.  Andy appeared to love it, and that was all that mattered!

I'm linking this post up to Honest Mum's Tasty Tuesdays on HonestMum.com And also with Becoming A SAHM's
Creative Challenge

Monday 14 April 2014

Manics at the Brixton Academy

Somewhere at my parents' house there will be an old shoe box, containing the treasures of my teenage years: ticket stubs, wristbands, gig set lists, band photos, articles from NME and Q.  I was a teenage Manics fan, you see, and much of my spare time was spent in pursuit of all things Manic Street Preachers.  So when my friend asked whether I'd like to come with her to a Manics gig in Brixton, and furthermore to be invited back stage and to the after party, I all but bit her hand off.

We had deliberately kept our expectations low: what if the invite (from her friend, who happened to be the lead sound engineer) didn't come off on the day? But no, on Saturday afternoon there we were - onstage at the legendary Brixton Academy, witnessing the sound check for support band (80s legends) Scritti Politti.  I was excited enough to be perched not ten feet away from Nicky Wire's collection of bass guitars...

And that was before we were taken on a full back-stage tour.  (Not quite as exciting as it sounds: huge loading bays, stacks of miscellaneous band equipment, endless corridors that reminded me of a failing school, a glimpse of the canteen - pulled pork burritos for the Manics' tea tonight.)

We returned home for our own tea (the poor husband was confronted by a wife possessed by a 16 year old groupie, high on the scent of Access to The Band...) before returning in time to catch the last few minutes of Scritti.  Wish we could have heard more - their sound check was brilliant!  

The Academy was already packed.  It felt surreal to be ushered in through the stage door, past all these poor people who had been queuing all afternoon:

We had passes for the "VIP" bar upstairs, but quickly preferred to hang out downstairs to soak up the atmosphere.  That unmistakeable gig atmosphere of sweat, lager and stale farts - oh how I've missed you! Of course my friend and I were soon seperated due to an ill-timed toilet break.  I couldn't believe how "solid" the crowd was: gigs in Scotland are much more fluid, people coming backwards and forwards, passing drinks around... Here in London people seem to stand their ground like statues.

Anticipation was building.  This was already better than the last time I saw them, a few years ago, when we were seated sedately in the balcony area - and I was dodging a stream of sarcastic remarks from the husband, who was more of a Stone Roses person.

From the moment they stepped triumphantly into the stage, I was transfixed again.  Transported back 15 years, a girl who knew every single word.

They opened with "If you tolerate this...", and right from the start it was clear that James Dean Bradfield's voice and guitar was better than ever.  Musically and lyrically, I cannot think of a better live band.  They swoop and soar, they rage and they roar.  

They covered an impressive list of their back catalogue, from Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible, through Everything Must Go, right up to three new tracks from their latest release.  This pleased pretty much their entire fan base: all of which was represented here, from the earnest newcomers to the diehards. 

My favourite bit, as always, was Bradfield's acoustic solo: This Is Yesterday was always a poignant song for me, and it sent tingles up and down my spine.  Closely followed by La Tristessa... Well what's a girl to do?

Bradfield was soon rejoined by Moore and Wire, and the tempo was raised once more.  These guys may now all be happily married fathers, but they can still rock out to Motown Junk.  They crescendo'd all the way to an epic Design For Life finale.

A quick afterword.
We also, unbelievably, were given passes for the after party in the VIP bar (they say VIP, but really it is a dark, expensive, pit which you would never choose to visit were it not for the chance to meet the band!). Nicky Wire did show up, and I did ask him for a photo.  But the snap is so bad it is never going to see the light of day.  

The final touch to my perfect night out was again courtesy of my new best friend Chris the Sound Engineer: a tour T-shirt and a signed set list... This is literally the happiest night out I've had in years.

A Perfect Day

This week's prompt from Mum Turned Mom is "A Perfect Day".

At first I was going to wait until tomorrow night, to write about the amazing Saturday I have planned: cooking slow pork, taking the boy to his first baby disco (courtesy of Big Fish Little Fish), and then going with my old university friend to a Manic Street Preachers gig in the evening.  The Manics were my absolute favourite teenage band.  And - wait for it - we have BACK STAGE PASSES!!!

I cannot think of a more perfect day planned.   The problem is this: sometimes plans go awry, and sometimes great expectations can be dashed with disappointment.

So instead I am going to take this opportunity for a little reminiscing.  It will be self-indulgent and soppy, and for that I can only apologise in advance.  For this is the story of a truly perfect day - our wedding.  

Here I am getting ready with my sisters, my soon-to-be sister in law, and my beautiful friend who was doing all our make up:

I loved my dress, just adored it.  It was the first one I tried on and I bought it on the spot: a Justin Alexander strapless embroidered number, with a matching fitted long-sleeved jacket (with the train on the jacket).  We went for a fairly vintage style of hair, to go with the little birdcage veil/fascinator thingy.

I woke up that morning absolutely petrified - not about getting married, really, but more about the weather! I needn't have worried: there was not a cloud in the sky that beautiful May morning.  We made our happy way to Southwark Cathedral:

It was just a few weeks after the big royal wedding, and I got a small taste of what Kate M may have experienced upon rocking up to this Borough Market crowd outside the cathedral!

The actual ceremony passed in a blur, but I remember feeling so happy that I was marrying my best friend at last, and that this day marked a new beginning for us.  A chance for us to reflect on all that we were committing to each other, and sharing, for the rest of our lives.

During the planning stage of this wedding, I realised that the most cost effective way to get 100 people from Southwark Cathedral to the National Liberal Club in Westminster was actually to hire a boat and sail everyone down the Thames.  This proved a big hit with our guests, as we got to see all the major landmarks on the way!

The final part of the day was the traditional drinks/meal/speeches/dancing sort of affair.  We added our own touches - such as a tiered pork pie "cake", a humongous croque en bouche for dessert, a large keg of Harvey's ale on tap and so on.  It was brilliant to see all the little things I had spent months preparing for, finally happening!

All in all, I could never have imagined such a perfect day.  And I'm pleased to say, three years on, that marriage itself is surpassing all expectations too.  I love my husband more every day, especially as I see how great a dad he is, and how he has coped with the trauma of his wife's mental illness.  He is stronger, more loving, more kind, more generous, than I ever knew back when I agreed to marry him.  I am a very lucky bride!


Saturday 12 April 2014

Big Fish Little Fish

(I've just linked this post up to We're Going On An Adventure's "Tried & Tested" linky)
We're going on an adventure
The boy and I were very kindly invited by the organisers to the Big Fish Little Fish party on Saturday 12 April at the Brixton Jamm.  This was a baby disco, designed to entertain parents too.  The choice of venue itself was making a bit of a statement: the Jamm is known for its range of DJs and house nights.  Perhaps this company was started by parents who missed their clubbing days?

Indeed, the BFLF website states that it is a:
"brand new, creative and exciting music and dance party for the post-rave generation of parents and kids: all the fun and freedom of a mini festival, right in the heart of Brixton, Crouch End, Balham……
Music policy will be eclectic but not cheesy. Everything from ska, old skool rave, through soul, indie, hip hop, house, disco, dubstep and drum’n’bass – plus the pop hits you’d forgotten you loved. The DJs are professional club and festival stalwarts..."

First impressions were good: lots of staff on site, a covered buggy park area, glow sticks handed out on the door.  

Once inside, everything was on the ground floor, with two different rooms playing different music.  More indie/soft rock in the chill-out/craft/baby room and proper dance music in the disco room itself.

The full bar was open (hurrah!), and this was complemented by free Happy Monkey smoothie cartons for the kids and a fun cake pop stall for anyone requiring a sugar rush:

I have to say we were expecting cheesy disco music, perhaps some 1960s/70s numbers to bop along to.  It was actually pretty modern, "proper" dance music - played at perhaps a slightly lower volume (I always find nightclubs too noisy anyway - maybe all clubs should play at this level!).  I don't really know my dance music genres but if I had to guess I'd say it was house/ska/garage?  I am reliably informed that it was Tony Thorpe from Moody Boyz behind the decks...

The glitter ticker drop, bubble machine and wall-to-wall balloons all went down very well with the boy.  He appreciated the space to show off his killer moves (best arrive early for this as the rooms filled up quite quickly).  And as for the adults - well it's funny how quickly we lose our inhibitions when dancing with toddlers.  Moves were thrown with abandon, with not a thought to how we looked, and do you know what? It felt great.

I have to say the behaviour on (and stickiness of) the dance floor was no worse than, say, the Ice Factory in Perth on a Saturday night...

We stayed for the first hour (the party continues from 2 to 4.30pm), as our 17 month old was starting to tire.  Perhaps if we had paid full price we would have stayed longer, but certainly an hour of disco is a good effort for him, given the moves he was busting!  We would certainly go back, especially as they welcome kids of all ages, and in particular 0-8 year olds.

The husband commented that the whole experience was like an uber mums and toddlers playgroup, but the "nights" version... 

We were given free entry to this event from the organisers. All views above are, however, my own.

For more information and future events, see: http://www.bigfishlittlefishevents.co.uk/