Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The case of the missing apps

I had an iPad crisis.  Something, or someone, was eating apps.

BBC News disappeared, then BBC iPlayer, and Plants versus Zombies.  Then it got worse.  Instagram went, and the Camera disappeared.  YouTube evaporated and all apps that I still had that needed the camera refused to work.

In all I had about 30 apps that were there, but weren't.  They showed as installed which meant I couldn't blame Ethan for their accidental deletion.  This also meant I couldn't reinstall because the MacBook and the iPad both thought they were on the iPad.

I tried a restore from backup and I was left app-less.  I tried turning it off and turning it on again (the IT Helpdesk Special) and I tried a hard reboot (an action of last resort.)  Nothing.

I asked my trusty Social Media sites for help.  There was a glimmer of hope when Hugo sent me a link to something that was a bit like jail-breaking but not quite jail-breaking.  This sounded like a rather drastic course of action so I resolved to make a Genius bar appointment.

Navigating the Apple site I found an option to schedule a call.  This meant someone would call and advise me at a pre-arranged time.  That sounded easier than negotiating Christmas shopping crowds at Lakeside so I booked a call.

Lo and behold, the next day, at 1:00pm, I had a call from a lovely lady who helped me through a simple reset procedure.

I asked if she'd seen the disappearing app problem before and she hadn't.  She did reassure me though it was probably a software glitch and nothing I'd done.

Within about five minutes, I had all of my apps back.  They'd been there all the time but had somehow been hidden.  A reset set them free.

The service was brilliant and cost nothing.  My iPad is back to normal, all apps back where they belong.  I'm now even more super-impressed by Apple service.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Mary and I should go shopping

Mary Portas published a report today on the British High Street.

She has 28 recommendations.  Good for her, but good for the High Street?

Her report was reported as being produced in response to an environment in which apparently we don't want to shop on our High Streets.  Apparently we all want to buy everything online or in out of town retail parks or shopping centres.  Really?

I like seeing things before I buy them.  I would much rather buy in a shop rather than buy online.  So why do i buy online?  Well I can do it from the comfort of my home whilst drinking a cup of tea and the goods get delivered to my front door.  That must be the reason.

Well that might explain part of it.  Price might play a part, but I rarely compare online with High Street prices.

So what's the real reason?

Frankly it's because I'd need to travel to an out of town retail park or shopping centre to be able to buy the things I buy online.  My High Street doesn't offer me the variety I need.  I loathe shopping centres and retail parks.  I don't like driving to shops because I hate traffic and the M25.  I never know if I'll get stuck in traffic and that's not good if I know I need to get home in time for the school run.

I even buy groceries online because I have to use the car for a weekly shop and that means driving a distance or fighting for space with the other residents of Brentwood in the local Sainsbury car park.  The exception is the local farm shop which usually gets two visits from me a week.

There are horrible things about buying online.  Buying the wrong thing has happened to me and to friends.  It's easy to make a mistake.  In the space of a week I had the same jazz saxophone music book turn up to the house twice.  I bought from an independent music store online but forgot I'd also left a copy in an Amazon basket.

I loathe, with almost every fibre of my being, the courier companies that try to deliver, try again and then require me to visit their grubby industrial estate to collect my goods.  Had I been in when they tried to deliver they would have handed over the goods requiring just a signature, but because I'm collecting from them I need to take a passport, driving licence and utility bill and then sign for the goods.  This causes problems when one orders goods in one name, like Ann Cardus, but all of one's ID is in the name of Carolyn Cardus or Carolyn A Cardus.  The arguments I've had could fill a book.

I would do all of my non grocery shopping on the High Street if only the choice of goods was on my High Street.  I like the coffee shops; I like being able to nip to the Post Office, bank or library whilst doing some shopping. But there's no point, unless the right shops are there.

Brentwood is trying and the collection of businesses in Crown Street is really trying to improve the sense of vibrancy that a High Street needs.

Mary's right.  Car parking should be free.  Out of town store development should be stopped.  A High Street needs to be an interesting destination where consumers feel happy spending time and, more importantly, money.


Tuesday, 29 November 2011

I think I've started something

Yesterday was a bit of a different day for me at work.  I'd invited Anthony Nolan to work to try and recruit people for the Anthony Nolan register.

I'd seen a blog by Alice Pyne earlier in the year ( in which she described her bucket list.  The thing that has always been at the top of Alice's list is "To have everyone eligible join a bone marrow register."

Alice's courage in the face of her cancer at the age of 15 was inspiring, and moving.  Her first thought is trying to get people onto a bone marrow register benfitting others with cancer.

I looked at how many people worked with me in the same building.  There must have been a few thousand.  It must be possible to get some of them to sign up to a bone marrow register.

I got in touch with Anthony Nolan and we set a date.

Yesterday I discovered how difficult it is to find new people for the bone marrow register.

In advance I had done some pre-event activity by walking some corridors and telling people about the event.  There was an e-mail that arrived in everyone's inbox I figured that some people might need additional motivation so I baked brownies for the first 50 sign ups.  Anthony Nolan said that 50 was their target for the day.  I thought that was easy.

The charity support team arrived in two parts, one in time for a ten o'clock start and the other an hour later.  There was a limiting factor of time as the Anthony Nolan crew could only be with us for just four and a half hours.  But I still thought we could hit the target of 50.

Then the day started.  I went corridor wandering again to drum up support, looking for 18-40 year olds who didn't have one of the many health issues that would exclude them.  It was then that I realised we have a dearth of "young" people at work.

I spent the whole of the four and a half ours on four inch heels, walking and standing, and talking to people about Anthony Nolan and why they should sign up.

There are the willing volunteers, the willing but scared, the scared and unwilling, the plain uninterested and the weird group that fake interest, say they'll come back and never do, or they fake a medical condition that excludes them.  For the record, fainting a bit a while ago is not epilepsy.

By the end of the session I was in severe pain having bruised my soles by spending too much time vertical in silly heels.  I had also shifted a fair few brownies.  And the really good news is that we hit our target of 50 sign ups.

It would have felt like failure if we hadn't hit 50, but because we did hit 50 I can call it a big fat success.  The next challenge is to try to achieve the same, or even better results, at Dunton and Dagenham.  And I wonder whether any of our agency partners (where there are loads of young people) might also be interested.


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Recipe selection - cakes

Here are a selection of recipes for the cakes that were available for my recent British Vintage Homeware party.  This is going to help me because I'm forever searching for recipes.


Apple, cinnamon and walnut cake

Killer Brownies

Banana and Chocolate Muffins

Orange, carrot and raisin spiced muffins - Hannah made carrot and raisin spice but I prefer the orange and carrot ones.


Apple spice muffins - I usually add raisins but forgot this time


Gluten free, polenta, lemon and pistachio cake

Lemon and lime cupcakes



Lemon and lime cupcakes

This is an adaptation of a Hummingbird Bakery recipe.  The original recipe is for lemon cupcakes but I was lacking a lemon or two but happened to have a lime or two so I substituted.

Makes 12 American-sized cupcakes or 18 UK-sized cupcakes.  An American cupcake is baked in a muffin case and a muffin tin.  A UK cupcake is baked in a slightly shallower tin with a cupcake case.


  • 120g plain flour
  • 150g caster sugar (I use granulated)
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tbsp of a mix of grated lemon and lime zest
  • 40g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
  • 120ml milk (recipe says whole milk but I used skimmed)


  • 250g icing sugar
  • 80g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
  • 2 tbsp of a mix of grated lemon and lime zest
  • 25ml milk (recipe says whole milk but I used skimmed)


Preheat the oven to 170˚C or 150˚C if you have a fan oven.  If you're as slow as I am and your oven gets up to temperature quickly then you can leave this step until later.

Put flour, sugar, baking powder, lemon zest and butter in a mixer (I use Kenwood Chef) with paddle attachement (whatever one of those is - I use Kenwood K-beater attachment).  If all of this mixer malarky sounds a bit confusing you can use electric whisk.  Beat on a slow speed until the mixture resembles sand.

Gradually add the milk and beat until just incorporated.

Add the egg until just incorporated and then continue mixing until the mixture is smooth.  The recipe says not to over mix but I never know how that instruction helps.  I guess you should stop as soon as you think the mixture is smooth.

Fill paper cases until they are 2/3 full.  This isn't like a muffin mix.  If these cook properly then they will have a flat top that's at the level of the paper case when they come out of the oven.

Bung in the oven for 20-25 minutes.  Sponge will bounce back when pressed gently when they are done.

To make the frosting, beat together the icing sugar, butter and zest using a mixer or electric whisk on a medium setting.  Once the mixture has come together turn the mixture down to a slow speed and gradually add the milk..  When the milk is mixed in, turn the mixer up to a high speed and mix for at leads 5 minutes.  The longer the mixing, the lighter and fluffier the frosting.

Once cupcakes have cooled down you can spoon the frosting on.  It might be possible to pipe this frosting but piping has never been something that has floated my boat so I haven't tried.

I have successfully frozen these with the frosting, but if you do this then allow to defrost naturally.  A blitz in the microwave would melt the frosting.



Thursday, 17 November 2011

Apple and cinnamon cake/pudding

I've made this a few times and have had more than one person asking for the recipe.  This is even after I completely screwed up the recipe and served something that I thought was terrible.  I think this means it must be quite a forgiving recipe.


  • 300g sugar (I use golden granulated but I'm sure caster is fine too)
  • 280g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 eggs
  • 120ml cup sunflower oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 120g chopped walnuts
  • 800g chopped apples


  • Preheat oven to 160°C fan oven or 180°C otherwise.  If you have a gas oven or an AGA then you're on your own.
  • You need a tin that's roughly 25cm x 25cm.If you've bought a tin for my killer brownie recipe then you can use it again for this recipe.  Ideal size is 25cm x 25 cm or thereabouts.  Grease and line the bottom of the tin.  Ideally you should use a tin with removable base as this cake is quite crumbly and extracting from a tin that doesn't have a removable base could get messy.
  • This recipe requires a lot of apple.  I love Bramleys but I'm sure eating apples would be fine also.  When I'm chopping apple I fill a bowl with water and lemon juice.  I peel and chop the apple (in this case about the size of your small fingernail ish) and pop it in the water with lemon juice.  This stops it from going brown when exposed to the air.  I'm not a quick peeler/chopper but even if you are quick you might want to do this too because of the amount of apple you're chopping.I also prepare my apple before starting with any of the rest of the recipe so that most of the work after the peeling is just measuring and stirring.   I also prepare my nuts ooo errr.  I use a hachoir which is a posh herb choppy thing with a couple of blades but a knife is fine.  To be honest if they'd been in the cupboard, I'd have use pre-chopped nuts.   I hate chopping nuts.
  • Before you read on you should read this next bit carefully.  DO NOT use a mixer for this recipe.  Use a spoon and stir it.  I have used a mixer and I killed this.  USE A SPOON.
  • In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and bicarbonate of soda. Add the eggs, oil and vanilla, mix well (USING A SPOON).  Add the nuts and apple, mix until all the apples are evenly coated (USING A SPOON). Scrape into your prepared baking tin and level out with the back of a SPOON.
  • Bake for 30 minutes and then cover with foil.  I know this is a faff but you will burn your cake if you don't do this.  I have discovered that a massive BBQ skewer placed on top of foil resting on my baking tin will stop the fan on my oven blowing the foil off.  I've also discovered that picking this skewer up without wearing oven gloves after it's been in the oven is a stupid idea.  Doh.
  • Total cooking time is about an hour in my oven.  You may want to do a skewer test at 50 mins and do the skewer test again at an hour.  If you need to leave it in for an extra 10-15 mints then don't worry.  This will be a very moist cake because of the apple content and you are protecting it from burning with the foil.
  • I have killed this by over-mixing and over-cooking and still been asked for the recipe.
  • Serve warm or cool.  Oh and it freezes well which means it works well for those school cake sales or office cake-baking occasions.
Credit and kudos to Lisa whose original recipe I have translated from American and which is available here.

Monday, 14 November 2011

I didn't believe you anyway

We usually have some Greek yoghurt in the fridge, in 500g pots, which the children will eat with honey as a sweet healthy-ish treat.  I don't know quite how or why but it has become usual to eat this treat from a teacup.  Also, in a bid to develop independence (and because I'm lazy), we encourage the children to serve themselves.

This evening Ethan asked for honey and I encouraged him to sort it out himself.

I turned around and he'd grabbed a large pot of double cream out of the fridge and was about to help himself.  I said "Er, no Ethan.  That's double cream.  If you ate that you'd die."

"Really?" he asked.

"No. I was kidding"

"I didn't believe you anyway."

I love the fact that children don't like to feel duped at all, just like grown-ups really.


Sunday, 6 November 2011

Economics 1.01

Hannah and Ethan have both been given an "Enterprise" task at school.

They've been given an investment of one pound and they have a school year in which to make that one pound grow.  The profit thus made will benefit a charity of the children's choice.

On Tuesday Ethan has his first Enterprise event in which he can sell things to others in other year groups.

Ethan has decided to follow in my footsteps and bake muffins to sell.  The rules say that the ingredients must be paid for from the initial investment.  So I set about working how cheaply he could make the muffins if necessary.

We opted to make a batch of 36 mini muffins because we knew the children would only be spending very small amounts on items.  I looked up the prices for all ingredients if the cheapest ingredients possible were bought for standard chocolate chip muffins.

So adding the cost of value flour to value eggs, to value this and value that the cost worked out at five pence per mini muffin.  This prompted me to look at how much it costs me to make the normal sized muffins that I bake for school cake sales.

So I added the cost of organic flour to free range eggs to etc.  And I got a bit of a shock.

The school sells my cakes, and all cakes, for 20 pence.  It costs me that to make them.  I might as well just put my hand in my pocket and put the money straight into the PTA coffers.  When I think about the hours I've spent baking for school cake sales it makes me want to spit.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Strictly cheaper

Every year I watch Strictly Come Dancing.  There are things I like and things I think would benefit from improvement.

I like the mix of celebrities and I think the professional dancers are all fab-u-lous (to quote Craig Revel Horwood).  The band is amazing and the make-up and costume departments do an amazing job.  Craig, Len and Bruno are wonderful and the lovely Claudia Winkleman who used to host the weekday show It Takes Two was very funny and used to get the tone of the show just right.


Bruce and Tess really annoy me.  Neither have the talent needed for the job and they get by on looks (Tess) and sympathy (Brucie).  Bruce's constant jibes at Craig constitute bullying and are in poor taste.  And judge Alesha doesn't have the same authority as a professional dancer.  She over-marks and is responsible for the most vacuous of comments at times.

The elimination of the dance off was, in my opinion, a mistake.  We are now in a situation in which really bad dancers, like Ann Widdecombe and John Sargent, stay in because the general public like laughing at people, and not in a good way.  It also means that the Sunday night show is a farce.  It's filmed on Saturday night with everyone pretending it's happening on Sunday.  The judges change their outfits, the presenters change and people like me have found the spoiler on the Saturday night anyway.

When the series started there was almost constant filming of the dance training.  This was often funny, interesting and informative.  Well I think the budget has been cut and there are fewer camera crews available to follow the different celebrities around.  The show now resorts to a scripted unfunny video that is shoehorned into the training schedule.  It usually involves taking someone away from the training room to help them "get into character" or improve their fitness levels or speed.  It's always contrived and more than a bit pathetic.

But I'll still watch.  It's better than X Factor.


Monday, 31 October 2011

Smashing pumpkins

Today we had two Halloween carved pumpkins stolen from the front of the house.  This is the second year in a row this has happened to us.

I got close to seeing the culprits and ran and shouted after them.  They dropped the heavier pumpkin just a bit further up the street.

Dave didn't want me to go after the group that were running off because there was one of me and about eight of them.

Hannah was upset.  She'd taken a lot of time working with me to carve the pumpkins and had been planning to take both of them to the Brownie pumpkin carving competition (which she'd won the prior year) on November 1st.

I was annoyed and fairly full of adrenalin after chasing the thieves and shouting at full volume, including, to try and bring on some guilt, "Do you realise you've made my daughter cry?" *

I called the police.  I didn't dial 999 and it took me a while to find the non-emergency number.  While explaining what had happened I did say "This sounds silly", "I realise it isn't the crime of the century" and "You're not going to ask me to describe the carving on the missing pumpkin are you?" but the woman I was talking to was taking it very seriously.

I guess what I wanted was for any patrols to keep an eye out and if they saw a group of about the right size in the area, to stop and talk to them.  I wanted them to get a ticking off.  I knew it was a long shot, but thought it was worth it.  Previously the Police have actively encouraged calls about what they termed "anti-social behaviour."

What happened next though surprised me.

I was then asked when I might be available for an officer to pop round for a chat and an appointment was arranged.

I can't help thinking this echoes a situation in which a group of teenagers were responsible for a broken window at the front of the house.  When I reported that an officer came round and I was contacted by phone and mail by Victim Support.

I didn't feel like a victim then and I don't feel like a victim now.  I am annoyed, but that's about it.  Involving the Police will teach my children a lesson about acceptable behaviour (which I would hope they would already know) but a home visit won't prevent this happening again, unless of course I'm persuaded to join the rest of the country with lights off hiding in the dark on Halloween.

Anyway I'm off to remove the spiders, bats, skeletons and rats from the front door.  Ding dong the witch is dead.


*Actually they didn't make Hannah cry.  As I keep telling the children, they are in control of their emotional reactions.  Hannah chose to be upset.  She could have chosen to be non-plussed.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


I ordered an iPhone 4S on the first day I could. I'd been clinging onto my deteriorating 3Gs for too long and reading all of the technology press rumours about the launch of the iPhone 5.
I also checked to see how much cash I could salvage from my old iPhone and Envirophone came up trumps offering £120.
When I started to look at the timing of the new phone and the deadline to return my old phone to Envirophone, there seemed to be a discrepancy.
The Envirophone date for return was October 21st and yet Apple's site was suggesting that would be the earliest my shiny new phone would be dispatched.
I checked Envirophone's site for a new quote and was dismayed to see that their offer had fallen to £60.
I contemplated £60 and whether that was worth being without a phone for up to a week. I concluded I wasn't the sort of person who could survive without her phone.
I gave up checking the Apple website and I decided I'd just have to take the financial hit on returning the old phone.
Today I need to work later than normal and I didn't get in until ten to three. There was a UPS card on the doormat.
I checked the Apple website and my phone had been dispatched.
I fought my way through the UPS voice menu to speak to someone to ask if the driver could possibly redeliver. They checked and called back to say the driver would try. I said "There's a banana and chocolate muffin in it for the driver if he makes it".
I waited. I checked with Envirophone that posting today would mean it would arrive tomorrow. I phoned the Post Office to check opening times and was dismayed to discover the Postman collected the post at five.
I also had to get the children to their swimming club by five o'clock.
At four twenty the UPS man and I exchanged a phone for a banana and choc chip muffin.
I'd already backed up, sync'd and prepared for the transition.
I extracted my SIM card, used Victoria's SIM card cutter (nervously) and plugged the phone into the MacBook.
I waited. I decided things were looking like they were working so I erased all content and data from the old phone and we dashed off to the Post Office entering just after the man from Royal Mail.
We ran to the counter and handed over the old phone in its padded bag and Special Delivery envelope.
We went home to find the sync'ing was still progressing. It finished. I unplugged. I made a phone call. It worked. With minutes to spare.
There are times when everything falls into place and I just feel lucky. This was one of those times.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Hindsight isn't always a wonderful thing

I mentioned this a while ago on Twitter and Facebook, and maybe Google+.

The weather was balmy as we had a late blast of summer warmth in September.  I'd just come home from a long day in London and needed to change quickly to be able to collect Ethan from Beavers.

I probably didn't need to change but I'd just been on a hot and sweaty tube and train so it seemed appropriate.  I chucked on an easy quick cover up; a summer dress that covers a multitude of sins.  It's long and fairly shapeless and probably isn't at all flattering.

Dress on I hopped in the car to drive to the church.    On Wednesdays Ethan goes straight from Beavers held in a church hall, to choir practice in a completely different church.

I arrived early and while I was waiting I chatted with some of the other parents who were waiting for their children.  When Ethan emerged I whizzed him off to a different church for choir practice and then I drove home for the hour before Ethan would need collecting again.

I was early to pick Ethan up and waited for a few minutes talking to the priest and other parents until Ethan had finished tidying up and was ready for home and bed.

It was when I got home that Dave said "What's that on the back of your dress?"  We both investigated and the thing that was on the back of my dress was actually something that wasn't there.  The dress was sporting a large hole.  The hole was situated a hip height at the back of the dress.  There wasn't much under the dress.  There was something, but not much.  I think we all know what I'm saying.

I'd been to two churches, one of them twice, wearing a dress with a large hole that exposed my backside.  A tad embarrassing, with hindsight.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Smelly marketing

I wandered into town this morning to run some errands and buy some things I didn't absolutely need but wanted.

One of the things on my list was a large silicone baking dish for toad in the hole.  My toad in the hole always sticks to the dish it's baked in.  I mentioned this to someone yesterday and she recommended getting a silicone baking dish, because she has one and she only uses it for toad in the hole.  Well she must have been talking to everyone in Brentwood because the whole of the town was out of silicone, apart from the silicone that is used in breast implants.  Since the TOWIE lot have been filiming in the town we're over-flowing with silicone.

Anyway, one of the shops I wandered into was Steamer Trading Company.  It's a beautiful shop full of pretty things and I could spend a fortune if I didn't have reasonable self control.  As I entered the shop the aroma of freshly baking cakes hit me.  I looked around for an oven and couldn't see one and wondered if they piped the small into the shop.  I went upstairs and looked in every nook and cranny (without looking like a freak) and couldn't find the oven.  As I came downstairs a member of staff was going upstairs with used mixing bowls and utensils coated in cake mix.  I figured the oven must just be well hidden and decided I'd return later in case there was some lovely cake to be had.

I reflected that doing baking in a shop that sells cookery and dining items is a brilliant idea.  Everyone loves the smell of cake cooking in the oven and it must entice people into the shop and put them in the mood for buying baking related items.

I returned later, after a trip to the bank, and as I went into the shop I was overwhelmed by the smell of burnt cake.  It was an acrid smell that was deinitely not enticing.  I had another quick look for the oven but found, instead, the charred remains of cake on a chopping board.  Black crumbs were all that remained.

It was then I thought that the idea of baking in a cookware shop only works if the people doing the cooking know what they're doing.


Thursday, 22 September 2011

Moist scrummy chocolate muffins

Choc mufties

I haven't given these muffins their correct title because it might put you off baking them.  The title should read cocoa courgette muffins.  Please don't let the courgette put you off.

Chocolate muffins can often be dry, sorry affairs that look so much better than they taste.  These muffins look as good as they taste and taste as good as they look.  There is no hint of courgette flavour but the courgette does bring a delicious moisture to the mix in the same way carrot can to a carrot cake.

OK, that's the sales pitch over, here's the recipe.

Makes at least 12 standard size muffins.

You will need a muffin tin or two, muffin cases, two large bowls and an oven pre-heated to 190˚C or 160˚C if you have a fan oven.


  • 280g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon (weird I know but have faith)
  • 3 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 egg
  • 140g soft brown sugar (I didn't have this so used 100g natural granulated and 40g light muscovado)
  • 60ml milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence (not quite so weird but still a little strange)
  • 340g grated courgette (I used course grater although recipe said finely grated and I didn't peel the courgette although you can if you want to)
  • 90ml corn oil
  • 85g optional chocolate chips (the recipe said raisins which I thought sounded disgusting but you could always try it as an alternative)


  • Put muffin cases in muffin tins and if you haven't turned the oven on, do so now.
  • In a large bowl stir flour, baking powder, bicarb of soda, salt, cinnamon, cocoa powder and choc chips (or raisins) if using.  If you're keen then you can sieve this.  I'm not convinced sieving makes any difference and I only ever stir with a fork.
  • In another bowl beat egg with a fork.  Add sugar, milk, vanilla, courgette and oil and stir well.
  • Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir.  Do not be tempted to use an electric mixer at all because you will ruin your muffins.  Have faith, use a spoon and stir.   If it's anything like the batch I made today you will think that there's not enough of the wet ingredients to mix in all of the dry ingredients.  Persevere because it is possible.  It will be a fairly stiff mixture because the courgette releases moisture when it's baking.  Just make sure that no dry flour is visible when you've finished stirring.
  • Spoon this mixture into the muffin cases and bake for 20 minutes ish.  I usually turn them in the oven at 17 minutes to make sure they bake evenly.
  • They are cooked when tops spring back when pressed

It is customary for the cook to make a cup of tea towards the end of the baking time which is to be enjoyed with one of the muffin batch.  It's very important to check the quality of one's own baking.

Choc mufty

Monday, 19 September 2011

Wasting time and ruining lives

I have spent most of this evening crying.  With laughter.

I recommend you visit and kill a few minutes the next time you have a few minutes to kill.

Here is a tame taster:


Most of the autocorrect screen grabs are much more offensive, so you have been warned.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Around and about

Sometimes someone does such a rubbish job that they really need to have it pointed out.

I mean if somebody did something that endangered life and limb, they should be told, am I right?

OK does anyone know the muppet who works at Essex County Council and has responsibility for roundabout design?

You see this roundabout here:


I know which side of this roundabout I should use if I'm travelling straight on.  The problem is that too many people in Brentwood seem to be confused by this roundabout and travel on the right of the roundabout when approaching it as shown in the photo.

I have been travelling in the opposite direction and I've come across cars heading straight for me.  I could interpret this as a vendetta against me were it not for the fact that the twonk at Essex County Council has so clearly screwed up with the planning of this roundabout.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The real holiday car

As promised, just a little later than promised.  Disclaimers here.

We had an S-MAX 2.2 Duratorq TDCi 6 speed Manual Titanium.  For those not initiated in the ways of the Ford product an S-MAX is a seven-seater that can also be a five-seater or a two-seater depending how many seats are up or down.

I could tell you what I think of the car's looks but you should really judge for yourself.

S MAX Exterior

Of course that's a brochure shot.  I'm not sure the heights and angles of this next shot are quite as complimentary, but at least the wheels match the brochure shot.

IMG 0377

It does however show that, despite a thick layer of French road filth, the car doesn't look desperately dirty.  I think that's down to the choice of the Mica Stone paint.  Our next car will be black and will show every last speck of dirt.

We travelled in five-seater mode with the last two seats folded flat and it was very capacious.  It fitted all of our holiday gear, including all of the unnecessary stuff that we took and never used or touched and we still had room to see out of the back window, although the height of the luggage was too high to allow us to use the tonneau cover.

The storage inside the car was reasonable and we found enough space in the glove box to hide the TomTom satnav and also the 35 DVDs we took.  Door bins, seat pockets, centre console and space under seats allowed for more storage and, because we only have two children, there was a spare seat providing a spot for in-car snacks and drinks.  This spare seat also served as a useful no man's land in between those same two children.  I remember that seat housing the largest coolbox ever when I was a child which served as a barrier separating me from my brother on long car journeys.

We have also taken this car camping which has meant it has been stuffed to the gunnels with "stuff" and it is just amazing how much "stuff" you can fit in the car.  The issue is that the car does not come with my husband fitted as standard and if there is one person who can pack a car to within an inch of its exhaust pipe, it's my husband.

The panoramic roof would, I've no doubt, have been delightful but we had to steal the fuse for that to feed the 12V cigar lighter at the front of the car which failed on our day of departure.  A fuse costs nothing (well the dealer I got the fuse from didn't charge me) and it's easy to change, but it's annoying in a car that's less than a year old to have anything fail.  I did wonder whether Ford ever discovers there might be a problem if everyone just fixes it themselves although that does mean diagnosing the problem too without help.

The seats are very comfortable.  For our return journey we spent about 12 hours in the car and it was more comfortable than an office chair or the sofa at home.  I thought I'd miss the lack of lumbar support on the driver's seat but the seat was supportive enough without it.

The entertainment in the car was provided by Dave's iPhone iTunes library streaming via Bluetooth through the car speakers.  We adjusted the sound so that we used front speakers thus minimising any audio interference with the DVDs being played on the Nextbase DVD players attached to the rear headrests and playing sound through infra red magic through to wireless headphones.  (Think that sentence should probably have had a comma or two.)  It was a set up that worked perfectly (12V power permitting) and if you don't have Bluetooth in your car, you need it.

The engine performed very well and provided all the power we needed even when fully loaded.  We could overtake on hills and pull away from lights without any problems.  We used the cruise control and in sixth gear the car was able to maintain the speed smoothly and without struggling at all.

Fuel economy though was underwhelming.  The car told us we were achieving 35.9mpg which is less than I expected.  I should say we were travelling at French autoroute speeds combined with twisty turny hilly roads with air-conditioning on about 70% of the time, which isn't great for brilliant fuel economy but I expect better.  I know that a new car needs time to reduce the friction in the engine and improve its efficiency but this car had a thousand or two miles under its (fan) belt.

The technology that we used a lot was cruise control.  On long autoroutes with the Gendarmerie being ever watchful we used cruise control to keep ourselves legal.  I noticed that the car had a speed limiter too.  We tried that function too but, because the system can be overridden if you kick down for extra power, I struggled to understand how it was useful.

We also used the satnav, but in conjunction with the TomTom.  I don't like the Ford satnav.  Firstly It didn't show the road that led to our accommodation, but the user interface isn't intuitive for me at all; I would go as far as to say frustrating.  Most of the time it will get you to your destination and it will probably get you there using an efficient route and I'm sure it's possible to get used to the interface, I just prefer my TomTom.

As to the other tech in the car, we appreciated the Quickclear screen and the parking sensors.  The car had a rear view camera but I didn't like it.  I think it might be a spatial awareness thing and men might appreciate this feature more.  I preferred to see nothing and rely on the parking distance sensors; the camera view just confused me.

In summary: We like the car so much we're getting another one, but in black.



Wednesday, 7 September 2011


I will blog about the holiday car I promise, just not tonight.

This evening I had the chance to attend a local Tweetup but knew I couldn't.  Dave was away for a business trip so I couldn't leave the house.

Dave being away meant leaving London in time to collect the children from the after school club, sorting out an evening meal and then rushing Ethan off to choir.

While the children were eating it occurred to me that after dropping Ethie at choir Hannah and I would be kicking our heels for about an hour until Ethie needed to be collected again.  And then the penny dropped.  Hannah and I could go to the Tweetup together.

I hesitated.  It wasn't the type of event you'd normally take a child to but Hannah is nine years old, very sensible she knows what Twitter is.  Plus it wasn't as if I'd been to previous events and seen drunken, loutish behaviour.  People were drinking in moderation and were being terribly polite.

Ah, the venue, a pub.  Well actually it was a room set apart from the main bar, but still a pub.

I tweeted the event organiser and asked whether it would be OK to bring a nine year old.  He wasn't sure the pub allowed children.  So I phoned the pub and they were absolutely fine.

But would Hannah be comfortable in a room full of Brentwood Twitterati?  I asked her and she said she'd be fine.  I explained in detail what previous Tweetups had been like and I checked she was still OK about turning up.  She said she'd be fine.

So we went, Hannah felt very grown up, some people were lovely and spoke to both of us, and Hannah was a star performer for the magician who was doing some close up magic.

But amongst all of this I heard "She's brought her child."

Words account for 7% of communication, tone of voice 37% and body language 57%.  I couldn't see the body language but the tone of voice wasn't pleasant.

Imagine the Witches in the Roald Dahl book and imagine the sneer in the voice as they might say the word "child."  It's a sort of spitting sneer and that's what I heard.  And the tone of voice grated.  Fortunately it was almost time to leave and collect Ethan and get both children home for bedtime.

I know some people don't like children but this annoyed me.  That attitude annoyed me but there was something else that annoyed me more.  Hannah was between me and the voice and I just hope she didn't hear it.

I hope I misheard.  I hope I got it wrong.  Either way, sadly, that was the last Tweetup Hannah attends on my watch.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The holiday car

I did suggest I might blog about the holiday car.

Firstly you need to know I work for Ford so, whilst I believe this to be an honest appraisal, I have had years of brain-washing.  I mean seriously.  Next month sees my 20 year anniversary with the Company.  (If you want to send congratulatory cards the date is October 14th.)

Secondly, you should I know I was a passenger for most of the holiday, predominantly playing the part of SatMum or, as I think I should be called with the benefit of hindsight, MumNav.  I did some driving, mixing up a bit of smooth and slick autoroute with twisty, turny, lumpy, bumpy roads.

Thirdly you should know I used to be part of a Drive Team.  This is a bunch of (usually) educated engineering types with perhaps a random marketeer (I was the random marketeer) who appraise vehicles during the product development phase.  The tests are contrived but are intended to reflect the customer experience.  The Drive Team evaluate all manner of vehicle attributes (defined by the Vehicle Integration Team) such as "left foot comfort."  This was always a strange attribute to my thinking as my left foot was always comfortable, but then I was enlightened by colleagues who pointed me in the direction of the left foot rest which is a feature that I had never used and still consider to be completely redundant.

One of the benefits of being "on" the Drive Team was a training session with Jackie Stewart.  The only thing I really recall from the session was his advice on testing the build quality of the vehicle.  Apparently, using the bottom of one's fist one should bash a vehicle body panel 15 times, because (and I quote) "Ten is not enough and 20 is too many."  The wisdom of the three time World Champion was legendary.  He didn't mention those World Championships at all by the way.  Not ten times, not 20 times...

The other benefit was driving around proving grounds.  I am pleased to say that Michigan Proving Ground has a corner named after me.  I got a little over-enthusiastic taking a corner in a VW Transporter.  I know, the glamour - a bloody van.  But anyway I gave the Armco a friendly nudge and now, and forever more, that corner is Cardus corner.

Actually, I'll leave it there.  I've given you an insight into my skills, abilities, age and admiration for the legend that is three time World Champion Jackie Stewart.  I'll leave talking about the car to another day. :)

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Day 15, in which we consider an investment

There's a ruin of a chateau not far from where we're staying.

We'd seen it from the road and thought (as my Dad would have said) it had "potential".  We drove along a few lanes and trudged along an overgrown path to take a closer look.  It's perfect.  Granted it would probably have cost at least a million and probably three times that to restore and return to holiday home condition avec le piscine.  This, not insignificant, financial hurdle hasn't prevented us from consistently and constantly referring to it as our future holiday home.  We've toyed with renaming it from Chateau Longas to Chateau Cardus (there's a wine called Chateau Cardus from a vineyard west of Bordeaux) or Dave's favourite: Chateau David.

The trouble with all of this is that we've already invested in a raft of holiday homes by investing in Holiday Property Bond.  I don't want you thinking that this whole series of holiday blogs has led up to a sales pitch because that wasn't my intention.  I wanted to blog about our accommodation, not because I want to brag, but because the type of accommodation we have is a little different from the norm and requires an explanation.  Tomorrow's blog may well be an honest appraisal of our holiday transport.  I haven't decided yet.

I've spoken to some people about Holiday Property Bond (HPB) and the first thing I say is "It isn't timeshare" because it isn't.

Firstly I must explain that I'm not a financial advisor, nor am I on commission, but I am a "customer", "owner", "investor".

The way I think about HPB is like a syndicate or co-operative who have pooled resources to invest in holiday properties in the UK and rest of Europe.  This means that everyone who has invested in the Bond owns a little bit of the whole property portfolio.  It is an investment and I can choose to cash it in, at which time it may have lost or gained in value.  Equally I can ensure my children, and grandchildren inherit my investment, if I choose to keep it.  I invested a sum that had been left to me by my Auntie Margery because she loved travelling and it seemed to be an appropriate use of the money.

My investment entitles me to points and points can be spent to book properties that are a part of the portfolio.  So, for example, a £10,000 investment might be the equivalent of 10,000 points which will book two weeks in a two bed cottage in Constant in the Dordogne.  The properties require maintenance and there is a maintenance charge for the period of the booking.

Normally when one books accommodation the cost is seasonal and rises dramatically during the school holidays.  Because the HPB maintenance charge is just that, for maintenance, it remains constant throughout the year and is significantly lower than a high season charge for similar accommodation.  The thing that is used to even out demand and supply is the number of points required to make the booking.

HPB sites usually have at least one pool and sometimes the larger properties will have their own pool.  There is usually a games room, DVD library, a clubhouse with games library, children's play area, tennis courts, a reception office and often an onsite shop and/or restaurant.  We've also found giant chess/chequers, mini golf, boules, bowls, WiFi, onsite PC, bar, croquet, gym, sauna, steam room.  It's all very middle class.

The self-catering properties are generally of a good standard and you know what you are getting before you arrive.  When travelling with young children we arrived to find our property didn't have a stairgate.  We asked if it was possible to install one and it happened, within hours of our request.

We have now stayed in properties in Spain, Portugal, La Gomera, Anglesey, Brittany, Dordogne, near Paris, Madeira and Turkey.  Sometimes the HPB development is wholly built and designed for HPB whereas at other times HPB has bought part of a bigger development.  In our experience the bespoke developments are better.

There is a downside to the arrangement and that is that if you want to get the pick of the properties in peak season you can't book at the last minute.  You do need to plan ahead.  But this downside also has an upside.  There is a points free booking system, 28 days before departure for UK properties and 56 days before an overseas departure  This means that if you aren't tied to school holidays you can often pick up a holiday at short notice without dipping into precious points.

If you decide you don't need points for a year you can elect, in advance, to take a return on your investment instead, about 2.5% I think.  And your investment can be used to book a holiday for anyone.

I think I've covered the main points but if you have questions I can try and answer them, or you can look for information yourself, if you're interested (HPB do tenancy propoerties too but that's too much to digest).  It's worked for us and could work for you too.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Day 14, in which the end is nigh

Tomorrow is our last full day here.  This is so far past holiday hump day that we're at the bottom of the slippery slope.  This is the sort of time that I start thinking about the return to home.  It's when the holiday stops being pure holiday.

I've already been online to sort the shopping out for the evening that we arrive home.

I'm mentally going through the things we need to have sorted before school and work start again.  It's not a very long list but I wish I'd sorted more out before now.

I had intended to keep an eye on work e-mails and I was for the first couple of days.  Luckily I did some pre-holiday preparation to ensure my e-mail inbox could cope with the vacation onslaught.  I picked up the 2,000 plus e-mails in the inbox and filed them all into an offline folder called "Pre holiday e-mails".  Some of you are wondering how my e-mail could be so out of control.

Well it all started when I returned from a week away earlier in the year.  I'd cleared down my inbox to make space for incoming e-mail missiles that would appear in my absence, but when I returned from the week away I couldn't send e-mails, or receive them.  I was completely work-handicapped.  I couldn't do anything and I didn't know which e-mails I hadn't been able to receive.   I called the IT Helpdesk and once I'd got through the queue and spelled my surname using the phonetic alphabet and confirmed my desk location I explained I needed a bigger inbox capacity.  It wasn't the first time I'd had this conversation so I knew they could fix this problem.

My argument went something like "I can't work under these conditions" and yes I think I probably used those exact words.  I know that right now you're thinking that my working conditions are pretty cushty and you'd be right, they are, but everything is relative.  I have the slowest laptop in the world, which nobody believes until they actually watch my machine change screen pixel by pixel, and to be hamstrung by a daft megabyte limit is just adding insult to injury.  Anyway the rather bemused gentleman in Manila who was at the other end of the phone explained that I already had a substantial e-mail capacity.  My retort probably used words like "multi-media", "large", "files", "part-time", "can't", "work", "under", "these" and "conditions".  If he hadn't acquiesced to my request then I would probably have resorted to tears, not as some pathetic female manipulation but just because I would have been exhausted with the frustration of the whole situation.  Waterworks were unnecessary though and I got what I wanted.

So my inbox doesn't need clearing to zero every week and regular deleting and filing of the stuff I get time to look at is normally enough.  Every month I have a clearout of the oldest stuff and that gets me through.  Holidays though are an additional strain, hence the extra preparation and hence the intent to manage things through the holiday.

It didn't last more than a couple of days so the stress of e-mail hell is starting to seep into my consciousness.

Obviously I'm doing my best to push work away so that I can continue to be in holiday mode but I know the end is nigh.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Day 13, in which we count wild things

I haven't gone looking for wildlife this holiday, but I've stumbled across quite a bit.

Everyone expects little lizards to climb walls in Europe and I've seen plenty of them, but I've also seen things I didn't expect.

While driving along the local lanes we've seen red squirrels.

While paddling in the Dordogne at Beynac to cool down a viperine snake swam past.  I wasn't sure I'd ever been in water when a snake had been in the same vicinity.  Now granted it was small and, having done my research, I now know it wasn't venomous but I didn't know that at the time.  I just stayed where I was and called to Dave, Hannah and Ethan to come and have a look.

While waiting for the boys stood next to a pond yesterday we saw two European water voles and whilst they are sometimes called water rates they are much cuter than rats.  They are chubbier and have smaller ears and tails.

And today there were hundreds of swifts flying balletically next to out holiday house.  They were swooping and diving and catching insects on the wing and they were incredibly beautiful.

The highlight though might have been the sight when I was watching the swifts.  I heard a rush of air and then I saw it; a peregrine falcon at the end of a steep dive aiming for one of the super fast swifts.  It failed and stumbled out of its dive to gradually regain height and disappear from view but it all happened within 20 metres of me.  Stunning.



Thursday, 1 September 2011

Day 12, in which we were utter tourists

This morning sort of dissolved in the way that soluble aspirin does; one minute it's there and the next it's gone.

After lunch we went to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area: La Roque Saint-Christophe.  It's basically a big rock.  It's not the first time I've visited a big rock.  I mean there are the mountains on which I've skied (badly), there's Ayer's rock (or Uluru), there's Snowdon, Dartmoor, Mount St Helens, Yosemite, Badlands National Park, Hawaiian volcanoes... you get my drift.

This rock was quite cool.

The Dordogne has carved the rock around it and this has resulted in huge rock overhangs which previous generations have used for shelter including constructing houses using the natural shelter provided by the rock.  But at this big rock had a ledge that was about 80 metres up from the ground and this one has been used as shelter too.

55,000 years ago the first Neanderthals used the space and the dwellings morphed over time.

The displays we saw showed how the space might have been used by Neanderthals and also by more recent occupants from medieval times.

The displays were interesting but the views were very pretty.

We drove though Les Eyzies, stopping for a touristy ice cream and then we took the scenic SatMum route home for some pool and sunshine time.

Isn't that the kind of thing holidays should be about?

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Day 11, in which we revert to SatMum

The plan was to drive to Sarlat.  Now there's a quick way to do that (SatNav) or there's a slow way to do that (old school following maps).  Now when I visited the Dordogne with my parents we always had SatMum sat in the passenger seat with a Michelin map on her lap. We tried to recreate that today.

We had seen some beautiful towns on the banks of the Dordogne that were begging to be explored and we thought we could get to Sarlat via some of these picturesque tourist magnets.  In addition to these towns we wanted to travel along some specific roads which we knew to be scenic, because we'd bought ourselves a Michelin map.

I could have attempted to programme the SatNav with Sarlat as the final destination with numerous waypoints but it seemed easier to use the map.  So that's what we did.  We made the scenic drives and we made it to Beynac.  Beynac was sunny and steep and Hannah and Ethan were a bit hot and bothered so we cut the road trip short and headed straight for Sarlat and ice cream.

Walking around Sarlat had only one thing going for it as far as the children were concerned: ice cream.  After the ice cream we had trouble keeping their attention so we whizzed around the rest of the beautful, historic Sarlat and then programmed the SatNav for home sweet home, or holiday accommodation sweet holiday accommodation.

So, for part of the day at least, we recreated SatMum.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Day 10, in which we like what we don't have

Is it just me that likes looking around French hypermarkets?

I know what I'll find if I wander around a UK supermarket which is why I try to avoid the experience.  It's dull, boring and predictable.

French hypermarkets on the other hand are a wonderland of the new and interesting.

The food is an obvious difference, although for the life of me I couldn't find sour cream when I was looking.  But for me it's all the other stuff.

We're looking for a fuse (mini 20A) for the car, see Day 1 and a French hypermarket is just the kind of place that would have something like that.  Granted in the ones we've been in so far, that part of the display has been out of stock but we live in hope.

Today I saw a baguette cutting breadboard.  It was a slotted breadboard with a hinged, permanently attached bread knife.  Completely ridiculous, but amazing.

There were lovely china "things" which were the shape of a six inch high tumbler and which were intended for hot drinks I think even though they didn't have handles.  I thought they would be perfect for ice cream sundaes.

There was bag I could easily have bought, a jug that I could have slipped into the trolley, some table linen that I could have taken home and a bowl that would have been great to take camping.

There were many aisles I didn't get to explore because as soon as I suggest I want to wander and browse, Dave's eyes roll and I know he doesn't approve.  It's just not his thing so I just get away with a brief glimpse in the time it takes for Dave to get through the checkout.  It simply isn't long enough.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Day 9, in which the British really shouldn't

Today we took charge, as promised, and we took les enfants canoeing along the Dordogne.  We'd found a place that bussed us 14 km up river and gave us until 7pm to find our way back to the car.  We figured the 11:30 departure should give us plenty of time.

We hadn't figured on two children that can't manage a canoe paddle to save their respective lives.  Gah!  Two canoes may not have been the smartest choice and next time Dave and I are sharing a canoe and the kids can make their own way.

I jest, sort of, although it did take us until 5pm and we were the last of our group to make it.  I guess that means there might have been people who didn't make it, but who am I kidding?

Canoeing is a fabulous, relaxing way to see the country, and the views from the river were outstanding, not to mention the non-stop sunshine.

The only fly in the canoeing ointment, apart from the delightful damselflies that accompanied us, was an international incident.

There is a lot of macho bravado on the river.  There are men who "own" the paddle and who are "in charge" of the canoe ensuring their ladies are safe and reach their destination unharmed, there is the horseplay of young men tipping canoes over and generally larking around, and there is the football hooligan who is seemingly lost.

We came across a few canoes exchanging insults.  Effectively there were canoes containing British hooligans who were goading a group of French young men.  There were insults flying in French and English and the English guys were timing their insults such that they thought they could paddle their way out of danger if necessary.  I know this because I heard them discussing their escape strategy.

It escalated to the point when one English lad shouted up river to the French group "Come and 'av a go if you think you're 'ard enough!"

The French decided the English boys, with their all too obvious insecurities, weren't worth the trip.

I was embarrassed for our nation.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Day 8, in which we got it very wrong

Today we let the children run the show.

Hannah came with me to the bakery van and she asked for the pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, croissant and baguette.  It went a bit pear-shaped when there wasn't enough pain au raisin but we coped.

We encouraged the children to browse a leaflet promoting the various activities in the area designed to attract tourists.  We asked them which attractions they wanted to visit.

One of the places they chose was Les Jardins De L'Imaginaire, which seemed like a good choice.  The main image was of an area full of fountains emerging from the ground and the description was of six hectares of beautiful gardens and fountains.  Show me a child that doesn't like running around a garden and playing in fountains.

It was only open for a few hours in the morning and a few in the afternoon with a long siesta in between.  I guessed it was about an hour away so we planned to leave at one o'clock to arrive at two.

We loaded just one of the SatNavs with the postcode and I picked one of the random streets attached to that postcode as I couldn't find the exact one mentioned in the literature.

45 minutes later we arrived at the destination, except it wasn't.  We'd reached the autoroute which was the random road I'd selected earlier.  We pulled over and considered our position.  We used the internet and maps on our phones to find we were actually a further 45 minutes from our intended destination.

When we arrived we discovered we could only enter the gardens by joining a guided tour, in French.  We paid up and were presented with a English printout of the tour.  The children were unimpressed.

It was dull.  The gardens were OK but I couldn't help feeling that if the Royal Horticultural Society got their hands on it then it would be much much better.  We eventually, after much "I'm bored", "I'm thirsty" and "I'm hungry" noises (from Hannah but mainly Ethan), arrived at the fountain in the picture.  It wasn't a fountain for play.  It was just one stopping point on the guided tour.

Ethan and Hannah tried to enjoy the fountain but I knew we were simply annoying people who wanted to take arty photos with their large-lensed cameras.

We left as soon as was decently appropriate.  Tomorrow the adults are in charge.

Day 7, in which we learn about the hittopotamus

At dinner Ethan launched into his routine of "Did you know..." and today it was the little known fact that "...hedgehogs can have up to five million spines?"

No I hadn't known that.

Earlier in the day I'd received a text in which someone told me they'd sorted out Tom's birthday party and could I hold the date.  I have no idea who texted me and I had no idea which Tom was having the party.  I consulted the children to see f they could shed light on the situation.

Ethan named the two Tommy's in his class with their exact birthdays.  How did he remember that?

I told Ethan he must have a huge memory, a huge hippocampus and there then followed a discussion about the difference between a hippopotamus, a hippocampus and a hittopotamus (what Ethan used to call a hippopotamus and, if I'm honest, still does).

We talked about London cabbies and their extraordinary memories because they need to learn the Knowledge and experiments have shown this results in enlarged hippocampi (plural of hippocampus?)

Dave piped up about the Dichotomous which is a large, two-headed, plant-eating mammal that lives in water, and to round things off I told him about the Monotonous which is a large, boring, plant-eating mammal that lives in water.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Day 6, in which Ethan is funny

This was the day that Dave and I relived a part of our childhoods.

We'd both holidayed in the Dordogne as children and both remember visiting caves in the area, none more impressive than Le Gouffre de Padirac near Rocamadour.

It was ideal cave visiting weather: wet and cold-ish.  We set off on a two hour journey with children plugged into Wallace and Gromit and The Curse of the Were Rabbit via the DVD players.

The SatNavs (always used in pairs) made for an interesting journey.  Even when we were passing signs clearly indicating Le Gouffre de Padirac we followed the SatNav and whilst the roads we took weren't exactly farm tracks, they proved to be an excellent route to test suspension ride quality.

The caves were perhaps more impressive than I remember, but being there triggered a few things I'd forgotten. Like my Dad's vertigo which he struggled to overcome as we climbed the steps towards the top of the steepest and highest cliff face within the cave.  I didn't remember the boat ride being as long as it was and I'm pretty sure the souvenir photo didn't feature when I was last there.

When we emerged into the daylight the rain was still there.  We ate lunch and headed home, children watching Wallace and Gromit on the return journey too.

Hunger was on our minds when we returned and I knew that we'd booked an archery session which would delay the evening meal so I opened a family-sized bag of bolognese flavoured crisps.  Not the nicest flavour I've ever tasted but Ethan was a fan.

He said they were better than ready salted, better than salt 'n' vinegar and better than porn and cocktails.


Thursday, 25 August 2011

Day 5, in which Ethan was bored

As threatened, today was the day for exploring Bergerac.
For the record, it was quicker and easier to get to the Carrefour in Bergerac that it was to get to the one we went to on Day Three.  Not that we bothered to enter, but we passed it, twice.
Dave, being Dave, had printed off a list of walks in the local area before we left home.  One of these walks was around Bergerac.  So we used the trusty SatNavs (they should always be used in pairs) and they plonked us right near the old town.
Time to crack open the pain au chocolat from the bakery van.
We put Hannah in charge of navigating because she's good at it and Ethan wasn't interested.  And Ethan's lack of interest spilled out over everything for the rest of the morning.
He was bored.  Bergerac was boring.  The wine museum was boring.  The market was boring.  The churches were boring.  I was boring.
When it was time to stop and eat our lunch it was a blessed relief from the constant boredom spout that was my son.
I know you're thinking that there's some bad parenting going on here.  There must be a way to engage a small child and make a leisurely amble around an historic town interesting.  I tried, I really did.  When we got to the market we talked about the big fish on display and whether this was the biggest fish he'd ever seen.  Along the river bank we looked for boats and fish and rats (yes, there was a rat - what could be more exciting than a rat?  Was it a water rat or just a dirty rat?).  We looked for woodworm in the beams on the old buildings and talked about how how some of the new buildings were being built in the style of the old buildings.  We talked about cars and statues, dog poo and ice cream.  It was all boring.
So after lunch, eaten in sight of a crêperie and ice cream parlour (not sure what the french term for one of those is),  Ethan wanted an ice cream, or crêpe.  I wasn't sure that such an objectionable child was eligible for such a treat.  It was then that Ethan promised that if he were allowed such a treat he wouldn't be bored for the whole of the holiday.
We succumbed to ice cream because French ice cream is really quite nice.  But Ethan's was a hollow promise that lasted but a few hours.
Back at the ranch his mood improved while he was splashing around in the pool, but then he got cold (we didn't understand this as we were baking in the 30˚C plus heat).  And whilst he was recovering under a towel by the poolside, he declared he was "More bored than a bored person in Boredland."
I am clearly a failed mother, and boring to boot.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Day 4, in which we got our arses whooped

And the heavens opened.  It started with a bit of thunder and lightening and then came and went during the day.  It mainly went but when it came we were glad we stayed in.

We could have got up early and visited some impressive local caves or made it into Bergerac for a damp walk around the market, but we opted for less energetic activities, save for a late splash around in a pool.

After the obligatory visit to the bakery van, in time for pain au chocolat this time, we taught Hannah how to play cribbage.  We considered this a great bit of holiday homework.  To play well it is necessary to have grasp of probabilities, hone observational skills and be quick with mental arithmetic.

The first game was played with cards visible to aid learning.  This was won by Hannah.

Ethan had been observing the cribbage training and joined the next game, played with cards visible, and won by Ethan.

There were a few games that followed and, whilst Dave and I escaped complete humiliation by winning occasionally, we still had our arses whooped.

To further the children's tuition in educational gaming, we then moved on to Yahtzee, which also relies a knowledge of probabilities and quick mental arithmetic.  They beat us at that too.

I think we might treat them to a tour of Bergerac tomorrow


Day 3, in which we eventually had our daily pain au chocolat

The children woke at 7:30 which would normally be fine but this place is in the middle of nowhere.

The previous night I had looked across the fields and trees for a sign of civilisation.  I spotted two lights in the distance, close to the horizon.  In such peace and tranquility children can sound like a group of hyenas, and ours do, especially Ethan.  Dave tried gently to ask Ethan to use his quiet voice whereas I veer towards the "Shhhh!".  Neither has any impact for more than five seconds.

So at 7:30am I'm very conscious that the only noises I can hear come from my overly loud children.

We readied ourselves for a trip to the bakery van and, on the walk through the village, I prepare Ethan and Hannah to ask for "deux baguette et quatre pain au chocolat" and to say good morning with "Bonjour Madame." and to say thankyou with either a "Merci Madame" or a "Merci beaucoup".

She had no pain au chocolat.  We hadn't arrived in time.  We'd failed.  Brunch or "coffee time" as it's known in our house, was doomed.  The only thing that could save us was a trip to the shops.

The lady at reception, when asked, had explained that the best supermarket to head for was in Bergerac.  Being independent British people armed with technology we knew better.  Had I not specifically downloaded all Carrefour locations into my TomTom? It was obvious to one and all that we were equipped for this challenge.

I asked the in-car SatNav where the nearest Shopping Centre was.  I asked the TomTom where the nearest Carrefour was.  They agreed.  Off we went.

Except we didn't go anywhere near Bergerac.  In fact we went in the opposite direction.  For 46 kilometres.  Is anywhere in France further than 46 kilometres from the nearest Carrefour?  Really?

Once committed we couldn't admit that the lady, who lived locally and knew the area well, knew better than our technology, so we forged on knowing secretly that we were making a mistake.

Eventually we arrived, we shopped, we bought pain au chocolat and we ate pain au chocolat.  We have an inkling there may be a better way.  We might freestyle it next time and follow the signs saying Bergerac.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Day 2, in which we were not caught speeding

We had a leisurely start on Day 2 but at least we had in-car entertainment for the children because of our diligent efforts on Day 1.

The journey ahead of us was only about five hours plus stops but it's always nice to arrive early.

On a previous trip to France (skiing in Morzine) we'd been stopped for speeding.  I wasn't driving.

Being stopped by the French Gendarmerie was an unpleasant experience as we were escorted to an autoroute exit and Dave was extracted from the car and disappeared. For ages.  To be honest I thought they might be taking the opportunity for a bit of police brutality but actually they just wanted to hammer his credit card.

So Dave was sticking to the speed limit, or close to it.

On Day 1 I'd come up with a little ditty to keep Dave under the speed limit.  Every time I thought he was straying above the speed limit I'd say "Be bar be bar, nick nick nick." which I know sounds really stupid. Well let's dissect it.  The "Be bar be bar" bit it is my pathetic police car impression that Dave ridicules and the "Nick nick nick" bit is my little reminder that if he continues he'll be nicked.

Dave obviously has visual access to a speedometer because we didn't disconnect the speedo on Day 1.  We also have the satnav plugged in (yes, as well as the in-car nav) and the satnav shows the real speed of the car (I should put a disclaimer in here because it might not be 100% accurate) because it uses satellites.  And the satnav highlights the speed in red if it decides you're travelling too far over the speed limit.  This relies on it storing the right speed limit data but I had just updated map information so it was sort of accurate.

Well Ethan was looking out for the red speed and every time he saw it he said (in a loud and annoying voice) "Be bar be bar nick nick nick."  And he said it again, and again, and again.  Dave asked Ethan how long he wanted the journey to be and I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking that Dave said that because if Dave slowed down the journey would last longer but no....he was hinting that if Ethan carried on he'd be walking.

"Be bar be bar, nick nick nick."

Day 1, in which I am a genius

Day 1 looked promising.

We were out of bed, showered and breakfasted and we'd packing things in the car before I'd even remembered the first thing I'd forgotten.

Then I remembered Ethan hadn't written a Thank you card for his great Granny's birthday present, I remembered he hadn't done the one piece of homework he'd been given over the holidays (drawing a picture of our house), and I remembered I was going to try and find some architectural drawings, sign a contract and write a cheque.  It was all going so well.

One by one the items on the to-do list were eliminated (although frankly Ethan's effort at drawing our house was extremely pathetic and didn't even have a front door, but I was past caring) and we left on time, or would have done were it not for the fly in the ointment.

In preparation for driving across France (which, if you've not done it, is a long way) I'd bought a super duper DVD thing that attached to headrests and allows children to watch different DVDs.

We had one of these previously but it only played one DVD across two screens and we found the age and gender difference meant there were only two films Hannah and Ethan could ever agree on.  Then I mashed one of the leads in a Galaxy front seat height mechanism which was kindly replaced by Mr Argos without charge.  After some sterling service the 12V power lead lost it's metal end which, for the technically-minded among you, signals a problem as it's the metal bit that carries the electricity.   It still worked when plugged into the mains however which was a boon when Ford started producing cars with 3-pin sockets for rear seat passengers.  But eventually the discs stopped playing and we figured the player was destined for the great scrapheap in the sky, or at least the tip on Coxtie Green Road.

I'd tested the super duper player before our departure day because I knew there would be nothing more frustrating than the cries from the second row of seat "Mum, it won't play." or "Mum, how do I turn it on?" or "I can't hear anything." etc.  I knew how to attach it to the headrests using the stanchion mounts (even though I have no idea what stanchion means).  I could insert discs, get the audio coming through on the infra red speakers and adjust volume, pause the disc and anything else you could mention.  So it was a surprise on D-Day when it didn't work.

I married an engineer and, whilst I'm not an engineer, I do have a mind that works in a similar way.  We started the diagnosis and quickly hit upon issue with the 12V socket and suspected a fuse malfunction.

Five minutes late for our self-imposed departure target we headed off, mindful of the need to fix the fuse issue.  Dave drove and I assaulted the Owner's Handbook.

I suggested switching the instrument panel fuse for the faulty one as they shared the same current rating.  Dave thought we might need an instrument panel so I proffered the sunroof as an alternative swap.  The car didn't have a sunroof but I guessed the handbook was referring to the panoramic roof which is nice but not exactly essential. We opted for trying to find a new fuse.

A new fuse could come from a dealership except they all close on Sunday.  A quick tweet asking for advice resulted in several suggestions of Halfords but Dave was on a mission to make it to Eurotunnel.

In the AA shop at Eurotunnel Dave found fuses galore, both full-sized and mini.  At the same time I discovered the S-MAX had a rear power socket and plugged the DVD player into that.

So we had a temporary fix and the materials for a permanent fix. Or so we thought.

We drove to our overnight stop at Orléans and, while I cooked, Dave went to fix the car.  He'd seen and thought he'd bought mini fuses but had instead bought two sets of normal fuses and it was the mini ones he needed.  After much huffing and puffing and maybe a word or two in French, he swapped the sunroof and 12V power socket fuses.  Which I think is what I suggested earlier in the day.




Thursday, 11 August 2011

Watching, listening and learning

We were driving in the car today listening to the news on Radio 4.

We were listening to reports about the riots around the country.  There were words like violence, riots and criminality reaching our ears.  When we reached home Ethan wanted to tell me something.

"Mummy.  You know the riots?"


"You know the criminal stuff?"


"We don't do that do we?  It's something we don't do."

"That's right.  We don't.  And I hope you never will."

Monday, 8 August 2011

Media circus

I'm middle class, middle aged, read the Guardian (online) and watch C4 News.  My views are thus influenced.

I think the riots that have been taking place over the last few days have nothing, or very little, to do with the shooting of Mark Duggan.

Initially, in Tottenham, there was a peaceful protest.  Word spread, and people who weren't happy with police stop and search policy joined the protest but stepped it up a notch with violence and thuggery aimed predominantly at the police.

What happened next was that word spread further.  Something was happening and it was probably more exciting than Saturday night telly.  So people headed out onto the streets and the police represented authority.  Authority, the Government, was what had reduced benefits and screwed up the economy so that getting a job was nigh on impossible.  Making a big fuss about that seemed attractive.

Whilst the violent protests were happening the disaffected realised that they had power and could get away with pretty much anything.  The police were under-resourced, because of the Government cuts, and were outnumbered.  So the looting started.  If you don't have a job and your benefits have been cut then the opportunity to steal the stuff you can't afford to buy might have been tempting.

The media were all over this rioting and the social networking sites were awash with images and video.  Everyone was looking at Tottenham and, let's be honest, people normally don't care about Tottenham at all.  I'm not anti-Tottenham; I could equally say that people don't care about Newton Abbot.  The point was that nobody cared until people were misbehaving.

It's a bit like children being naughty to get attention.  The child that's being naughty (Tottenham) gets all of the attention and the previously good child (Hackney) is jealous.  The good child then resorts to bad behaviour because it knows that being bad results in attention.

So we now have Tottenham, Hackney, Lewisham, Stratford, Catford, Croydon, Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Enfield, Birmingham and so on, all competing to be on Sky News, BBC News, C4 News, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

And now Cameron is coming back to sort out the naughty children; but every parent knows that this sort of behaviour should have consequences without attention.  We need a metaphorical naughty step.

I'm not retweeting pictures of rioting because this behaviour should not be promoted and given air time.  I honestly believe that media, including social media, is making this situation worse.  But it's the people behind the cameras and the people retweeting the images that are helping to promote the riots.  So stop it.  Please.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

The pros and cons of Twitter

Twitter can be great, but today was a day when perhaps I should only have looked at my twitter stream in the morning.

Today was the day we were taking Hannah and Ethan to stay with their aunt and uncle in Surrey.

This morning, as every morning, I turned my phone on to see what was happening in the Twitterverse and saw a handy little bit of information tweeted by @M25_Traffic:


I did some investigating and realised there was no easy way to get through the traffic caused by this closure.  We could have driven through London but I'm sure too many other people would have had that thought so we started to consider alternatives.  Friends (who clearly don't know me well) suggested taking the helicopter but Ethan suggested the train.

I had a look and the journey wasn't too long and the fare wasn't unreasonable.  I wanted to check the online fare would be the same as a fare bought in the station so called National Express and spoke to someone in an Indian call centre who confirmed it would be.  The Indian call centre features further on in the story but probably deserves a blog in its own right.

We drove to the station, parked in the £3.90 car park and bought our train tickets.  The earlier research into fares paid off as I was able to tell the person at the ticket desk that the first fare he quoted was too high and that there was a cheaper alternative.

No sooner had we made it to the right platform it became clear that we weren't going to be able to travel from Shenfield.  There had been a fatality at Brentwood and the location of the fatality was now a crime scene and no trains would be passing through.

This was confirmed by @NRE_NXEA:


We assessed our options and someone at the station suggested driving to West Horndon and catching a train from on the C2C line.

I went back to the ticket desk and asked whether we should get a refund on our tickets and start again, or whether the tickets we had bought would be valid on the C2C line.  I was told that a refund wasn't necessary and our tickets would be valid.

We realised the £3.90 car parking charge wouldn't be refundable which seemed wrong but got in the car and made our way to West Horndon.  En route I called National Express and had the most frustrating conversation with a woman in the same Indian call centre.  I wanted to know whether West Horndon was the most sensible alternative to Shenfield.  She failed to listen and comprehend the situation and she clearly had no idea about the geography of Essex and where Shenfield was in relation to anywhere.  It was when she finally suggested the best alternative was Brentwood (remember, the crime scene, the location of the fatality, all of which had been explained earlier in the call) that I nearly lost my patience.

At West Horndon, forking out more for another car park, we made it onto the right train, and platform.

We made our way with children and umpteen bags (containing amongst other things a Nintendo Wii and two child car seats) to Surrey and arrived in time for lunch.  And then it was time to say goodbye to the children and head back home.

As we travelled back towards Waterloo I checked my Twitter feed and saw this:


This worried me.  We had been told our tickets would be valid on C2C but this tweet said something different.  Our car was parked at a C2C station.  It seemed we had three choices: buy tickets back to West Horndon and the car, travel back to Shenfield and get a taxi to West Horndon to collect the car, or challenge the ticket validity change.

I tweeted back:


Somehow @nationalrailenq had been following events and decided to pitch in with their view


But their response was very similar @NRE_NXEA:


Help how exactly?:


And so it went on.  Now if I hadn't seen the tweet about tickets no longer being accepted on C2C services I would have been none the wiser.  We would have travelled back assuming our tickets were valid and we would have been fine.  So I pretended I hadn't seen the tweet, whilst continuing my dialogue with @NRE_NXEA on Twitter because I could, and it provided amusement for the return journey.

Our tickets weren't challenged, but I did have the evil notion that I should send a tweet like this:



Monday, 1 August 2011

The answer

Last week I blogged a blog about a maths problem that had been set for primary school homework.  I asked you how you'd solve the problem.

Here's how I solved it.  I thought like a child, which is how I solve a lot of problems.

A reminder of the problem: How do you work out which two whole numbers between 50 and 70 which, when multiplied together produce 4095?

I thought about what times tables a child should be expected to know at the age of nine and how those tables might relate to the question.

I realised that the number 4095 ended in a five which would mean that one of the numbers I was looking for (between 50 and 70) would have to be divisible by five but, because 4095 ends in a five, it would also have to end in a five.

This meant that one of the multipliers was either 55 or 65.  From here the maximum number of calculations the pupil has to do is two.  I did some long division (actually I cheated and used my calculator because it's decades since I've done any long division) and discovered that the multipliers are 65 and 63.

Ta da!

But I am in awe of the far more impressive calculations that many of you proffered.  I am not worthy (despite still having the scientific calculator that I had at school).  You can all have a sticker.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Emergency School Holiday Plan

I normally save this for a point later in the school summer holidays.  It's the "Emergency School Holiday Plan" which should only be deployed in case of emergencies.
Yesterday was the first day of the holidays that I was spending with Hannah and Ethan.
Last Friday didn't count because a) it was an inset day and b) Hannah spent most of the day at the local horse sanctuary having an "experience".  She was mucking out horses, preparing feed, grooming and generally having a good time and learning about horses (and pigs and goats and....because even though it's a horse sanctuary they do other things too.)
Weekends don't count because they don't and because weekends happen all year; school holidays don't.
Monday to Wednesday didn't count because the children were staying with their grandparents.
So yesterday was our first day together.  And I had an appointment with British Gas in the morning and "Fridgeman" in the afternoon.
Our boiler has been kaput for an age and this was the first time I'd been able to get an appointment on a day when I could be at home during the morning or afternoon.  And our fridge went pop earlier this week so Dave arranged for Fridgeman (nice chap from C & M Domestic Appliances) to pop round and fix the fridge (or try to).
This meant we were tied to the house and, after a DVD morning, the children needed a project.  I resorted to the tried and tested plan without any regard for the consequences: Camping in the garden.
I didn't get the big tents out, just the two man tent that Dave and I used to use.  The project involves putting the tent up, making up beds and ensuring the tent is filled with home comforts and then, the final touch, sleeping in the tent overnight.
I now have nowhere to go.  The Emergency Plan has been deployed and there is nothing left.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Maths homework

Yes really.  Maths homework.

I know, I know, 90% of you have switched off now because if there's one thing you weren't good at when you were at school it was Maths, or Math if you're American.  Well imagine you have a nine or ten year old who has come home with homework.  Do you want to know the type of homework that they might receive these days?

Well this homework wasn't received by one of my children but by a friend's.

I got this text "Hi Ann.  I hope you're well. 'Cos you're really good at maths.  How do you work out which two whole numbers between 50 and 70 which, when multiplied together produce 4095?  (Johnny's homework)  Is it a case of trial and error?"

Well firstly can I set the record straight... I used to be better than average at Maths.  I did take two Maths A Levels and even went on to study Maths at University.  The decision to study Maths at University was stupid and I should have listened to my A Level teachers who warned me that it was a stupid decision.

So anyway, can you work it out?  It's from an old SATS paper.

Is this what we expect our nine year olds to be able to do?

Monday, 18 July 2011

Diggerland June 11

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Diggerland June 11, a set on Flickr.
Diggerland trip for Hannah's birthday. If you haven't been, you should (Rochester in Kent and elsewhere around the UK).