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****Update 27th April 2012.**** Sometimes dreams do come true. On 25th February 2012, over 4000 swimmers in 23 countries, 5 continents and 15 separate timezones swam 100 metres in Rotary Global Swimarathon. We have finally gathered in the totals and the paperwork from around the world and a new record for the most simultaneous swimmers in human history is about to be officially announced!! But the most amazing part of all - around the world a total of £64,000 or just over $100,000 was raised in that 1 hour event - I can never begin to tell you how proud I am of making this happen through social media. Our club have just won a national Rotary award, we've got Rotary Britain and Ireland and International right behind us for the 2013 event where we are expecting 50,000 swimmers, 1000 clubs to raise over $1 million and its set to continue for many years to come. I've found a whole new career in Social media event fundraising for charity sector and every day is a new adventure. Life is short, but doing something you passionately believe in makes it a whole lot more fulfilling - I've found a way to use my writing / my blogging and truly make a difference. The worldwide family of Rotary opened up my eyes to the possibilities, and there are so many brilliant service and community groups out there to discover. GO FOR IT! **************************** Sorry I've been away so long, but it really seems a very appropriate time, today being 41st birthday to make a return to writing on this site and to share with you some very exciting news. After 15 long but successful years in the IT industry, after much careful consideration I've decided to pursue a completely new career in the charity sector. As you may have seen from my previous articles I've been looking for ways that I could make a difference. Now I'm very certain I've found it! Since January 2010, I've been a proud member of my local Rotary Club in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and this has truly opened my eyes to an incredible range of local and International Charity projects. Rotary International has an incredible 33,000 clubs and 1.2 million members worldwide, made up of professional and business people from all walks of life all dedicated to putting service to others above self. One shining example of that is our club's annual Swimarathon event. Over 3 days, each February (thanks to support from local business sponsors) we manage to book up every lane of our local swimming pool. Teams of 6 swim for an hour and are sponsored, and all of the money raised goes directly to local charities. Last year alone we raised an amazing £46,000 and over the full 22 years the event has been run we have raised over £500,000. http://www.rotaryswimarathon.org As 2012 is Olympic year, being hosted right here in the UK, we wanted to do something very special. So we came up with the Rotary Global Swimarathon. Basically, we've invited the whole world to join us on 25th February 2012 (closest Saturday to Rotary's 107th anniversary) to raise money for our global EndPolionow campaign http://www.rotary.org/endpolio . Since 1985, where there were more than 350,000 cases of Polio recorded, Rotarians have worked tirelessly to raise many millions of dollars for and support immunization programs. Through these efforts, the number of cases of Polio has dropped to less than 2,000 and from 104 countries it now remains in just 4 countries - Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Nigeria. We are 99% of the way there http://www.thisclose.net and have an unprecedented opportunity to make Polio only the second disease (after Smallpox) ever to be completely eradicated. As the most IT literate member of the club, I've spent the last few months running a social media campaign on facebook http://www.facebook.com/rotaryglobalswimarathon and twitter http://www.twitter.com/rotaryglobeswim to get the event known across the world. Very proud to say the project has grown far beyond even our wildest initial dreams. We now have not one but two global event ambassadors. The incredible Penny Palfrey http://www.pennypalfreyproject.organ Australian Open Water Ultra Marathon Swimming world record holder, and UK Paralympic and World Champion Swimmer Fran Willamson http://www.fran-williamson.co.uk . With just less than 3 months to go , we already have more than 30 clubs across all 6 continents of the world signed up to join us http://www.rotaryglobalswimarathon.organd are fully expecting the figure to rise to over 100 with more than 30 countries being represented. The amazing thing is that the world record requires every one to swim at 12:00 - 13:00pm G.M.T, which means that in New Zealand for example they are swimmming at 1am on 26th February, and in the East coast of the US there are open water swimmers taking part at 4 in the morning! We have schools, sports and swimming clubs , even triathletes lining up to join us, but the great thing is you only need to be able to swim 100 metres to be a world record breaker. From starting out as a distant dream, by a small local Rotary club, we have managed to create an event that has captured the imagination of people all around the world, and we hope to make it a permanent fixture on the charity calendar. Finally i'd just like to share with you a couple of videos all about the event. Remember you don't have to be a Rotarian to take part - we can help you with all the details. Come on in the water's lovely. Penny Palfrey Australian event ambassador http://youtu.be/s387zfH2VIQ Fran Williamson UK Event ambassador http://youtu.be/13Lm8sOAF4I Swimarathon chair Roger Graves http://youtu.be/FQwNj76znQk Goes without saying, all earnings from this article will go direct to Rotary International End Polio Now campaign. Thanks for reading!!
~~~Cheesy I know!~~~~ As I whirl closer towards the inevitable working from home, lunchtime nibble zone, I've only gone and extrapolated my all-time favourite cheesy spread from the fridge . That's right, it's the wise-cracking dairy moo day dreamer that is the laughing cow, or to use its proper French title "La Vache qui rit" I'm sure those "Krafty" sorts over at DairyLea are still scratching their heads on just how a double horned red faced chortling french cud chewer has managed to establish such a strong hold in the hotly competitive triangular market place, but here's my thinking.... ~~~~Appeals to all ages~~~~ Since my earliest recollections growing up in the 1970's , Dairylea has been firmly targeted at kids, with that unforgettable tag line "Kids will do anything for the taste of Dairylea", but as time and the market place has moved on I'm not sure they've kept pace. To this day I find their triangles to be sloppy in texture, squishy squashy, and rather bland to taste. In contrast, what I like about the Laughing Cow triangles to use the proper original French name, is that it has a genuine heritage, dating right back to the 1920s, and that the quality and freshness of the cheese gives it a real creamy flavour. In that way, it really crosses over from being a lunchbox treat for kids to being an all rounder for the family, whether as a tasty sandwich spread or topping, or even just to be gobbled up one by one as the mood takes. ~~~The cheese-tails~~~ Each individually wrapped triangle can be quickly and easily opened by pulling on a little red piece of foil, and hey presto - no mess , no fuss. The packaging is nicely presented, adorned with the cheery face of aforementioned Mrs Moo. If you see a purple box - that denotes the lighter variety. ~~~~Cook-tastrophic~~~~ Now I've seen some fine food reviews and recipe selections on this site, so couldn't resist the opportunity to share with you the magical first time I sampled the delights of this most splendid of soft cheeses. The setting was Tenerife, self-catered accommodation, a group of lads sharing, out late every night, full English breakfasts, and cheap and cheerful top up meals the rest of the day. One day I thought to myself, we've been here all week and haven't even used any of the cooking facilities - and as I found myself suffering an attack of the munchies I found myself compelled to go out and get something to cook. Don't know if it was the after effects of a few nights on the booze, or simply the by product of my own overactive imagination, but I had a real craving for some crispy squid rings. So I duly went to the supermarket below, before it dawned on me. Hang on we haven't got any cooking oil or butter, and I'm not buying a load just for a one-off cooking effort - that would be a complete waste. At that very moment, I was passing the dairy selection, and for the first time in my life I spotted the familiar cardboard circle "La vache qui rit" - that'd do the job I thought to myself, a couple of cheese triangles should melt into a bit of a sauce. Then genius that I am I flashed up another inspiration - I'll chuck in a jar of Helmans mayonaisse, that should do the business One badly burned frying pan later...but hey at least I managed to avoid full-scale food poisoning - that's the quality of this cheese! Don't worry I won't be posting this elsewhere as a recipe:)
Those of you following my recent reviews will no doubt be eagerly awaiting the final instalment of my kid's party trilogy. This time ,a family trip to Pizza Express to mark his 5th birthday. The wife and I have fans of the Pizza Express franchise for a good 15 years or more, ever since we first discovered the welcome behind that mystical blue lighting back in Tunbridge Wells. We've visited a couple of dozen other restaurants since then stretching across the country from Newcastle to Newquay and I really can't recall any bad experiences amongst them. So, somewhat handily given the names I picked out, this just happens to be a review of the Newark branch of the Pizza Express family. ======================= Down by the Riverside........... ======================= In keeping with so many of the other restaurants up and down the country, the setting has its own unique character. Situated right on the banks of the river Trent, it features a panoramic surround look out tower, complete with spirally staircase. Sitting up stairs in this section always feels like a bit of a treat. One of the most interesting aspects of the dining experience is the effect of the circular glass surrounds. If you've ever visited the Whispering Gallery at St Paul's Cathedral you'll already know what I mean. Suffice to say that if you value a very private conversational dining experience, probably best to bear in mind that news travels very fast between those sitting nearest the windows! ========================= The tried and trusted favourites ========================= Now, in our household, as I'm sure is the case with many of you out there, rather like the way a successful football team has its spine of key players, there are certain dishes that are always first down on our team menu sheet. Dough balls all round is a given. So simple, so crispy, so tasty - perfect. For Grannie, the lasagne always gets top billing - not too big a portion - delicious sauce. For me, I can't contemplate an Italian meal without a giant wedge of cream and sponge coffee coated indulgence known as Tiramisu. Overall with so many varied and interesting Pizza and pasta combinations on offer, even the fussiest of consumers should be satisfied here - and all very reasonably priced typically in the £7-12 range for mains. ============ Lighter Delights ============ All well and good Paul I hear you cry, but what about us poor souls trying to keep the calorie intake under control. As it happens, having chanced upon a timely article in Mens Health magazine I have some good news on that front. They came up with the 3 healthiest dishes they could find on the menu. From the starters they chose Crostini al Pomodoro - delicious Bruschetta Bread, tomatoes and garlic- coming in at under 200 calories - and just in case you are a weight watcher follower - that translates to roughly 2.5 pro points. For me , the real bonus ball is in the main courses. There is a whole raft of Pizza toppings available in the Legerra format for only 500 calories (14-16 pro points), which is basically a Pizza with a hole in it stuffed with spinach and salad. They come attractively served up on a flexible chopping board style base - its part meal, part work of art. Into the tricky dessert zone, the Sotto Zero is the option to go for - low fat frozen blackcurrant yoghurt in a Sundae style, with a couple of wafer thin chocolate sticks to boot for only 110 calories, bringing the grand total to sub 800. Apparently the Volcano pizza alone is 1100 calories, so you can see the benefit of choosing wisely here. One other point worthy of note is that you can also get mini puddings or "Dolcetti" to go with your coffee - perfect for a little end of meal treat without stretching the gut beyond its natural limits! ============ Family Friendly ============ For us, I think the real clincher with Pizza Express, is how good they are in our experience, at providing for young children. The Piccolo menu offers a full set of dishes from Doughballs (also available with nutella dip nowadays) to chocolate sundaes, even rounding off with a cappuccino style frothy milk for the sophisticated little souls. There's always a mini activity set and crayons, catering for a range of different ages. But if you want an example of really going the extra mile, then look no further than our little man's birthday celebration. There we were, sat downstairs, just across the way from where the two chaps were happily preparing the dishes. Now one of these particular gents, had his own unique style of preparing the pizza bases. Every couple of minutes or so, he would throw these huge flattened circles of dough up into the air, catching them effortlessly with all the style of a seasoned Cocktail bartender. As you can imagine, during the course of the evening, this became a source of particular fascination for our little one. The very smiley chap in question, seemed to really enjoy having the extra mini audience, so much so that during a very brief pause in operations, he came out from behind the counter to chat to our highly excitable young observer. In his hand he held out a tiny patty of dough and asked if as a very special birthday treat whether he would like to have a go. No second invitation needed. Enthusiasm abounding, our miniature dough flinger was very quickly into the swing of things. In the meantime the other chef decided that he needed a proper Pizza Express chef's hat to mark the occasion and duly crowned our little sunshine. Alas, just as a new career was beckoning, little fella over reached his capabilities, with an extra high throw, that flew over our table, and managed to lightly graze past the left ear of the lady on the table behind us. Fortunately she took it all in good spirits, and our little dough machine duly agreed to step down while he was still at the top of his game... ============ Final Thoughts ============ I appreciate that everyone's dining expectations are different, and with any franchise, the quality of service will inevitably vary, but it certainly seems to me that Pizza Express on the whole have a very good formula that appeals to a very wide range of people. I believe there's even a club you can join, with discounts on offer to loyal members and I genuinely admire the forward thinking and positive approach of the chain, always looking for new ways to improve service. And as for our little boy - he's most definitely a fan for life now!!
Well what do you know? Back again on the kids party discovery trail. My 5 year old little boy's slightly older female cousin being the source of this latest invite, but huge sighs of relief all round that it won't be a girlie girl occasion. It's all new territory once again, so off we all set on a brand new Saturday morning adventure to the Tropical Butterfly House and Falconry Centre. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ All that's missing is parking...... ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ With the aid of sat nav, its a relative doddle to get there. Nestled away down a quiet country lane in North Anston on the outskirts of Sheffield, according to the website its only 5 minutes away from M1 J31. We came up via the A1 and A57 past Worksop, and it was a nice easy journey. That is until we needed to get parked. Clearly with more than a couple of children's parties on the go they are struggling for parking capacity. All of the 30 or so parking spaces near the front were occupied, so we ended up parking on a grass verge aligning the way in. Maybe there's an overflow on the grass in the summertime, otherwise I can't imagine how they cope! Moving swiftly onwards, we headed through the courtyard to reception. Seemed reasonable pricing to me, at £7.50 an adult and £6.50 a child with family tickets, other concessions and the under 3's going free. As party guests, we got one adult and child in free, so just deja vu muggins paying up again. To be fair, with so many other guests arriving at the time, the lady was honest enough to say that she loses track, and thanked us for asking to pay. The reception also doubles as the shop, seemed quite a decent selection of cuddly toys and games in there. No time for browsing for us though, as our party was ushered into the adjacent building. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Fun and sunshine, there's enough for everyone ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Our destination - the Fun room. Now I'm always a bit sceptical of such leading titles, but in this case, it pretty much fitted the bill. Sort of a combo between a junior youth club and a nursery class, there was something here to keep a variety of age-groups occupied. The sportier kids (and the competitive 40 something Dads -i.e basically me) were naturally drawn to the paddle ball, the table football and the pool table. Bonus ball that neither the table football or even the pool table required any cash to play - what a rare result! Naturally my little fella was most keen on the paddle ball, but at 50p a throw it wasn't going to break the bank. In the middle was a set of four steering wheels and coloured lights constituting the rainbow race. Each player spins their wheel as fast as they can, hoping against hope that their colour will make it to the end first - high octane action! A face painting lady was on hand, so we swiftly side-stepped that, there were a couple of tables full of drawing materials and brass rubbings so we ducked out of those, and before you knew it the lunch time line up was finally upon us ~~~~~~ Grub up! ~~~~~~ Back downstairs in a mini-cafe area, being the ever diligent parent, I made sure it was me that took our little one to his seat. Whilst there he just happen to hand me the unwanted spares from his platter, a pizza slice, a ham sandwich and a sausage roll - how could any Father refuse to help out! For the remaining slower to react grown up helpers, there were hot and cold drinks available plus a selection of snacks. The main cafe is elsewhere in the complex (near the main butterfly enclosure) but we didn't get to sample it on this trip. Once the birthday girl had blown out those candles, we assembled outside, and had a quick toilet stop. Bit confusing with Girls and Boys pointing to one area, but as its all cubicles, my inner genius eventually cottoned on to the fact that they were unisex facilities. Whilst we were waiting for the last few, we discovered some great little air blowing machines. There's just something undisputedly magical about getting a large inflatable ball and watching and some tiny little ball pool ones and watching them float effortlessly in the air or be launched into the stratosphere. Or maybe that's just me! Also spied a signpost advertising tractor and trailor rides - probably another seasonal attraction. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Let's take a Walk on the wild side! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Now I can sense the question forming out there. Hang on a minute Paul, when are you going to get to the furry funsters? Fear not, for at this very point, a taller and thinner but just as softly spoken Sarah Mulligan a like lined all the kids up ready for their special guided tour round the centre. As they were all full of e numbers and mid sugar rush, it was never going to be plain sailing, but she went about her business with professional aplomb. First stop a little wooden shelter, and she brought out a brown owl to show the kids. Apart from the minor bird in the cage wolf whistling the adults as we looked on, it was all going swimmingly until she asked a question about where the birds ears are located. When they got it wrong initially, she made the fatal mistake of asking them to try something different. Moments later a chorus of river dance erupted , courtesy of 20 pairs of wellies smacking against the wooden boards and the poor birdie tried to make a dash for it! Luckily it all calmed down, and some of the group were moved on to take a look at the guinea pigs and gerbils in the next room. Onwards and upwards our next stop was the farmyard animals enclosure. We followed a trail round past the parrots (where a talk was in progress , repeated 10 minutes later by the pretty pollies no doubt), and unwittingly marched into the path of the skunk surprise. An intermittent jet of water caused no end of panic and consternation amongst the little ones which was reasonably out of proportion given the fact it was already bucketing it down with rain, but nonetheless a source of adult amusement. There was a chance to feed the goats, which my son took one look at and oh so predictably handed over to me to dish out, plus a few other mini beasties to say hello to. Definitely time to get in the warm... ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ No high-5s please Denzil! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ In case anyone needs an explanation of the section title, I'd highly recommend watching the Fools and Horses classic where they try and capture a rare butterfly - never fails to make me smile. In the tropical butterfly enclosure, and certainly no shortage of the winged wonders , ranging from tiny little transluscent ones through to big blue flappers (not sure if that's the correct latin name). Plenty of information and signage to help educate along the way. Our little troupers were then gathered up just outside the nocturnal room. To our left, a tank containing a mini Crocodile. Overhead we spotted that lizard of the Bud-weis-er adverts from a couple of years back. Was this about to go into full on I'm a celebrity mode?! Fear was rising , especially as soon as the idea of holding a snake was suggested. A tiny little python - called Monty - go figure? was the brave volunteer and was passed around the circle of wonder. Little man volunteered his mummy to assist, and they both agreed he wasn't a bit slimy. The parents started to wonder if the next creature in line was a spider - one or two were checking for the exit signs. But no, second time around it was a mighty - Hedgehog - cute!! All done in terms of the tour, a quick look through the bats and the other residents in the black out room, and a few pennies spent on feeding the coy carp and other tropical fish and our tour was done. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Have a break, have a Meerkat! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The good thing is that party guests are free to spend the rest of the day touring around. Further around we could see sign posts to the falconry area, but unfortunately we only had another half hour or so before we needed to head home. Naturally, top of the list, due to that never getting out of your head style advertising campaign was a visit to the Meerkat enclosure. Now, I have to say that I didn't expect to see a smoking jacket, or here a Russian accent in the process, but I do admit to being a little disappointed that there was only one little fella braving the elements. What on earth could we compare it to? But round the back , you can watch the rest of the sensible creatures, sleeping through the glass windows. No doubt they were roller skating around the minute we walked away - but such is the Simples life we lead. All-in-all, had we had better weather and more than the 2 and a half hours we spent here to really explore, I could certainly see the attraction of the place as a family day out. Will definitely make a return trip in the summer months, and in terms of finding something a bit different for a party venue, I can testify that all the kids and most of us grown ups really enjoyed themselves. The final word must go to the website "Home to animals from South America, Australia, Africa , the Phillipines...and South Yorkshire!"
Ever since our little man started his first year of "big school" in September, we've found ourselves fully hooked into the "party" circuit, and especially at this time of year we seem to be picking up birthday party bags and fresh invites virtually every week. Last Saturday was no exception - a month or so back, we got an invite from two of his pals to a party at Rand Farm Park. When the wife and I clocked the invite the location was a bit of a surprise - being over the other side of Lincoln, about 40 miles from us. But we weren't going to disappoint the little fella and we're always up for finding new days out places. So Saturday morning, we hotfooted it over there straight from his weekly swimming lessons (we just about managed to get him towelled down first!!) It's actually a few miles North of Lincoln centre, on the A158 , close to the village of Wragby (and only 30 miles or so from Skegness for any holidaymakers looking to escape the delights of "Skegvegas" for the day) As we were running late, we found a spot in the Overflow car park and skipped right past an impressive looking Outdoor playground, featuring a central rope climb tower, and plenty of interesting looking obstacle course type options. Probably better left for the warmer months, but there's also a Pedal Go-Kart track. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ A warm welcome ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I just about had chance to cast a glance at the entrance prices as we scrambled inside, and at £6.95 for an adult / child , £5.25 for senior citizens and free for under 2's seemed pretty reasonable. When we got to the desk, I noticed an electronic board up with the latest updates and information (very efficient), and the staff were very quick to get us organized. As party guests we got one adult and child in free and an orange sticker, while muggins here got to cough up the cash and a yellow sticker in return. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Moo, Baaah, Oink, Tweet, LUNCH! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ It is a working farm, and our party had already begun with a spot of animal feeding, but we were soon on the trail to catch up with our group. I have to admit being quietly pleased that we'd missed out on the opportunity to have my hands covered in slobbering tongues as little man generally delegates the feeding task to my good self. They offer lamb and calf feeding as well as opportunities to hold and touch the animals. They certainly seemed a very contented and well looked after bunch with their pens equipped with stereos playing soothing classical music and the like. But it was the tearoom equipped with 120 places that provided the pot of gold at the end of my morning Rainbow. Our party guests had their own table in an adjoining room (handily right by the toilets) so we could keep an eye on them and still get on with our own lunches. I had a splendid Jacket Potato with Chilli, and the wife enjoyed a lovely freshly made sandwich or three, all very reasonably price I thought. ~~~~~~~~~~~ Tractor Time ~~~~~~~~~~~ Time for some fresh air next, and while we waited for our turn on the tractor ride, there was a nice little under 4's playground for them to limber up on. Sadly, there wasn't quite enough room on the trailer (which probably seats about 25) for all the adults, so I had to watch the mighty blue tractor thunder majestically away with my son and wife on board and wait for the tales of exciting adventures (or more accurately the big smiling faces) when the returned 10 minutes later. ~~~~~~~~~~~ Discovery Time ~~~~~~~~~~~ Next up we were back indoors in a little activities / educational centre. Our group's main challenge on this occasion was uncovering layer upon layer of newspaper for the purposes of the noble art of Pass the Parcel, but in my idling moments, I spied a nice little stage area and shop, again very well presented. I do believe one or two of the more opportunistic parents nipped out to the nearby farm shop. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Play Time ~~~~~~~~~~~~ No doubt, the crowning feature of the place (particularly at this cold time of the year) was the splendidly appointed Indoor Adventure Play Barn a.k.a Soft play. Featuring all manner of interconnecting rope bridges, twisty and helter skelter style slides and foam ball cannon fire, there's plenty to keep them occupied here. With a minimum age of 4, and some areas reserved for the over 6's, when it gets busy there's always the chance of a small bump or tumble, but overall it seemed pretty safe to me. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Shopping time ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ One of the surprising extra features of this place, is the toy shop area just adjacent to the soft play. They've obviously got friends on the board of Playmobil or something because there are at least 3 shelves stocked full of all the Playmobil kits you could possibly ever want. Very handy indeed if you've got a little one who's into this stuff. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Home time ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Overall , we spent a very happy three or four hours here at Rand Farm Park, and the best recommendation I can give is that now we know about it, we'll definitely be paying another visit later in the year. For anyone local, I believe they even offer a season ticket for a very reasonable £30. There's plenty to do both indoors and out, and for me what's particularly impressive about the place is just how well organised and presented everything is We'll be back!
Now as many of you regular dooyooers are no doubt well aware by now, I do like to discover a new family day out in my local area. The subject of our today's review is our most recent find - Twinlakes Family theme park in Melton Mowbray, and I'm very happy to say it didn't disappoint. So if it's wild rides and all action adventure you are looking for - well unlucky really. But, for the worn down parenting population out there, particularly those with families boasting one or more pre-teenagers, I can promise you a good value day out that has something to keep everyone happy. ~~~~Getting there and admission~~~~ OK let's get the formalities out of the way. Finding the place is pretty straightforward if you come in via the main routes. A1 and then A607 to Melton Mowbray should enable you to pick up the brown signs. As for admission, there are separate summer and winter rates. It's currently advertised on the website at £8.60 per adult or child with discounted rates available for senior citizens and disabled guests (carers go free). Not sure what the 2011 prices will be but as a guide it was £11.75 per adult / child last summer. If like us you are local and you can make it more than a couple of times a year, I would recommend investing in an annual pass starting at around £40 per person. Year round easy access, come rain or shine, picnic or indoor play - they've got it covered. When you arrive, and you take in the sweeping panorama of attractions, you won't fail to notice that clearly this place was all part of a farm at some point in the near past, and in fact there is a barn area with a few cows, pigs, sheep and goats - I believe there's even a spot of ferret racing in the summer months. But before I start racing ahead, let me guide you through the various outdoor and indoor attractions waiting to be discovered. ~~~~Outdoor fun~~~~ Head left as you go through the entrance, and you'll come to a kind of medieval / castle / themed zone. There's a nice wooden castle structure, with a variety of slides and just round the corner there's a bit of a playground area. Our eyes were drawn to a medieval jousting ride - where you get to ride on a noble mechanical steed at an extremely untroubling pace - perfect for concerned mummy riding with our little one up front, and a back to my youth granny. Not so great for a big 6ft 2 oaf in terms of leg room but we survived! Back down the hill, assuming you can pass up the two large indoor play areas for now, you'll find a couple of bears guarding the gateway to USA Adventure land (or something like that - I get confused). Straight away our little dynamo spotted the humoungously long (for a little nipper) assault course and right then and there we knew we'd be investing in season tickets. Believe me if your kids are fans of the likes of Wipeout / Takeshis Castle / Ninja Warrior or any active game show - they will love this. Only trouble is a fair few of the obstacles do require a bit of parental assistance for the under 6's at least, so Action Daddy had his day in the sun as well. There's a start and a finish line so if you ever feel like reenacting your Krypton Factor assault course fantasies this would be the place to do it. Next up on my best of list would have to be the downhill dinghy slide. Assuming your legs are up to the steep climb, most kids are never going to pass up an opportunity for high speed sliding, so its a guaranteed winner. Just next to it are some very odd ball bouncy 4x4s in a carosel type ride. An intriguing ride, but really recommended if you suffer from piles that is for sure. If you are seeking a bit of maritime action, you could head out on the motor powered dinghies (subject to the weather as you'd expect). If it's big water you need there are the mighty twin lakes and a selection of rowing boats and pedalos for hire. As my title suggests - these ain't exactly in the Lake District class of size! You could then catch the train that runs around park all day long, or head back via the zip slides or the Dodgems (basically the only ride you have to pay extra for). Why not round things off with a bit of rollercoastering. 2 to choose from and no white knuckles required - well put it this way one of them's a caterpillar (the other is a buffalo). My final indulgence was a ride on the high flyers - you can be Peter Pan for just a few fleeting moments - Orville eat your heart out! ~~~~Indoor Play~~~~ As I said earlier there are two indoor play areas and they both have fairly decent cafe areas with the usual fast food fodder mixed with a few jacket potato and sandwich based healthier options. In the smaller Pirate themed area, you'll find a barrel river ride, a little train, an inflatable pirate ship, a mini drop ride called shark bite, and a power jet ball play area upstairs. In the main arena, which has a Gladiator theme you'll find the Soft Play. Kids get measured by the Centurions on guard (aka semi-bored people in red caps) and if they are over 90cm they can go in unaccompanied. Great we thought - our little man's quite tall for his age - of you go son. Only then did it dawn on us just how big the play zone actually was. Numerous rope ladders and inflatable climbing apparatus. A giant multi laned slide in the middle and even steeper , crazy drop slides flanking at each end. More levels than the Crystal Maze, you could lose yourself in this place. So after he came back looking fairly daunted I decided to join him on an adventure. Now it has to be said that when you are pushing 15 stone and bear footed the wooden rope bridges aren't the most comfortable , nor are the narrow squeezy tunnelly bits. But I have to say it was great fun, and probably the first soft play I've seen where the adult can join in with all the good stuff! Once we'd emerged for a well earned rest, there was a fresh challenge awaiting. Perseus's magical mirror maze. A little unnerving it has to be said once you get in there, but after a few minutes we cottoned on that all we had to do was follow the incredibly smug kids who were shouting we know the way out and we were sorted. I'll let you uncover the secret technique for yourselves. If you've dabbled a bit too much in the fizzy colas and burgers of the day, I wouldn't recommend taking a trip on the big drop ride in the middle of the hall -otherwise the results could be very interesting. ~~~~Theme days~~~~ So far we've only visited twice, once over Halloween half term and the second time in the early run up to Christmas (late November). I have to say on both occasions they have really gone out of the way to decorate the park according to the theme. As well as ghosts and ghouls, bats and lanterns every where you looked , (plus there were a couple of guys dressed with the Scream masks who did get a few jump out of skins on the big drop ride when they sat next to the kids) they held a special pumpkin carving workshop and all the left over pumpkins could be taken home for free. Likewise at Christmas, for a small extra charge that included a half-decent present, they had a Santa's grotto including an indoor winter wonderland walk full of real christmas trees and jolly decor which went down very well with our little cherub. ~~~~Happy days~~~~ So there you have it - yabba's whistlestop guide to a great family day out. Certainly looking forward to attending in warmer climes, but even if it's a rainy Sunday afternoon it's good to know that there's more than enough fun to be had in the Gladiatorial softplay alone to give us an easily accesible local option. You could even buy a combo ticket that includes a sister park called Wheelgates up near Mansfield and one other park down in Devon. I'm sure like most places they've suffered a bit during the downturn, but for me, it continues to be a winning formula if you've got a place where adults can bring out the big kid that's in all of us, and the little ones go home so knackered they'll sleep all the way through for once.... So come on give it a try!!
~~~Going for Gold!~~~ Back in 2008, having moved to an area of rural Lincolnshire at least 10 or 12 miles from the nearest built up town, the idea of taking up a new gym membership and spending 20 minutes each way travelling and a few quid a visit on petrol on top of the £40-50 minimum monthly membership fees didn't seem particularly appealing. Especially given the fact that as my job routinely takes me away in hotels for 2-3 nights every week, the chances of using any gym facilities during the week are greatly limited. So having got a double garage (aka handy dumping ground space) with our house, I set about assembling my own home version of the gym. The main purchase was always going to be a running machine. I'd heard plenty of horror stories about the very limited, flimsy and poor quality imitations of gym running machines that could be bought up and till a year or two back. Yet here I was flicking through the pages of Argos looking at pretty chunky looking machinery starting at just over £200. In the end based on the recommendations I settled on the Roger Black Gold edition - which came in at around £349.99. It offered extra features such as elevation settings, and most importantly a dual drinks holder option! Given my weight at the time was hovering around the 16 ½ stone mark, at the time my fitness levels were more aligned with Terrys All Gold rather than Roger's version, it was time to get to work in earnest in the finest of New Year traditions. ~~~~For once it's really true - easy assembly~~~~ The machine arrived in a traditional long flat pack format, and my good lady wife, a long suffering volunteer when it comes to self build work gave a heavy sigh. Especially when she opened up the manual, only to be faced with graphical details of over 150 cogs and moving widgets. Luckily somewhere in the small print it stated that this was the work that had already been done at the factory, and in actual fact the majority of the assembly required was to fold out the main panel, and screw the front section in place. Result! One thing you definitely want to think about in advance is getting a treadmill mat to go underneath - for a small price of around £20 you can ensure the machine's weight is spread evenly on the floor and at the same time limit the amount of dust and dirt that can get into the machinery. Given it's a fairly hefty consumer of electricity, would also suggest you get a plug with a safety cut off device - as you'll read in the next section, it's a hefty piece of electrical machinery that needs to be treated with appropriate caution. In terms of its usability, it's very easy to get things underway. There are up to 6 programmable options available but if I'm honest I've always found the manual controls very straight forward to use, so I would suggest sticking with them. Once you've got the machine in place, simply flick on the red power switch. Press start on the display, confirm program 1 (default for manual), press start again and you'll get a 3-2-1 countdown. The machine starts up at 0.5 miles per hour - and can go up to a top speed of 8.8 miles per hour (*). My advice is don't step on it immediately, let it warm up for 30 seconds or so at around 4.0 mph and then start walking on it - after a couple of minutes you can set it to whatever speed feels comfortable. At the same time, you can click on the black switch on the right hand side to raise or lower the incline as required. Admittedly it's not quite up to a 1 in 5 type slope (like the big gym versions that claim up to 15% elevation) but you can definitely feel the difference running up the incline. The time elapsed, your speed in MPH (*) and the number of calories are burned are all displayed as you run. You can also measure your heart rate by gripping the silver grips - wouldn't recommend doing this when you are running at significant pace, but it's a useful guide to how long it takes for your heart rate to recover post workout. (*) 8.8 mph equates to about 14 Kilometres per hour - my machine only displayed in MPH but believe the newer models can display either option. On my machine the calorie counter is always 120 Kcals per mile run, no matter how high or low you set the incline - as it doesn't factor in differences in weight - treat it as a guideline rather than an accurate measure. ~~~~Tread carefully!~~~~ Now, one of the most important aspects of the purchase is that it comes with a 2 year parts and labour warranty. I say that from experience, because I have encountered one or two technical gremlins over the last couple of years. First thing that I noticed after regularly dripping sweat over the LCD displays is that over time the digital displays start to fade. Not a major problem in itself, but a bit distracting when you can't make out whether it's a 2 or a 5 etc, and you need to slow things down or make adjustments. A few weeks later though, a much more significant fault. The machine actually cut out on me in full stride (at 8.8 miles per hour) without me pulling or touching the emergency cord. It then proceeded to slow down at random intervals on further attempts. Eventually one day, I switched it on, and even before I'd touched the controls it started moving at pace and most worryingly of all started making sparking noises. So the engineer came out, and in the end diagnosed a faulty controller board and once that was replaced it was all good again - at least for another 3 months or so. So just about 6 weeks before the 2 year cover expired, it all went pear shaped again - this time with a whole lot of rattling and juddering before totally ceasing up. When the engineer came out this time, he had one question for me - how often do you lubricate the treadmill? "Ah, I replied - I haven't actually done that yet". "Did you not get the small lubrication oil with the initial shipment" "Hmm" I replied (finally the penny dropped about that odd looking canister that had been left to dry out on the utility room window sill for the last 18 months). Apparently, the best way to keep things in good shape is to apply said treadmill oil every 6 weeks (for relatively heavy usage) and this should prevent further unnecessary machine kaputtery. He duly replaced another controller board and the main engine, and I duly took his advice and purchased the treadmill oil via the World Wide Wonderland -again very reasonable at under £15. Note to self - always read the details before unpacking!! ~~~~Olympic dreams~~~~ So under warranty replacements aside, its been a good 2 and a half years now since Golden Boy took his place in the garage, and I have to say that given I'm now a svelte (ish) 14.5 stoner, and the amount of gym membership I've saved on, its been a very good investment all-in-all. The final bonus ball with this machine (certainly from my experience) is that the speed and mileage claims are very generous. If I compare my average times outdoors for a mile (even on a flat gradient) of around 9 mins, to the easily achievable 7 minute miles I can do indoors, even the most ardent fan of indoor exercising would have to concede that it's measures are a tad generous. But as long as you don't go around believing that you are the next great thing in British middle distance running (and lets face it big Roger himself never extended past 400M anyway as far as I'm aware), it does the job, its very easy to use and should serve you well - whatever your own fitness goals. So go on, make it your New Years resolution today -- your country needs you : )
Now I've got to be honest, I'm a bit of an old stick-in-the mud when it comes to crisp preferences. I've got my favourites - Kettle Chips, Walkers plain, Pringles and I generally stick to them. I'd had disasters with flavoured rice cakes , remained unimpressed by rice crackers, and wheat crunchies / nik naks just didn't come up to scratch. Any of those M&S or Boots low calorie offerings are a taste nightmare. Then one day doing our regular shop , I spotted something that seemed to stand out a bit from it's crispian peers. Spelled out in flowing white letters against an idyllic rural green picture of meadows under a clear blue sky, Sunbites immediately sent the messages to the brain that these might be a healthy alternative. Then I noticed the Wholegrain snack label. Something different again, and bonus of bonus balls sour cream and black pepper flavour. Well Sour cream's my favourite Pringle variety, and Black pepper my favourite Kettle chip, looks like I could be on to a winner. To top it all the corregated creations presented on the front were just like Bacon Frazzles of old. ~~~Taste~~~~ So the acid test. No not whether they would dissolve in glass of coke. Would they pack a punch with their crunch, would the flavours make me quaver, or would it all be just one more too good to be tasty option in a long line of crunching disappointments. One bite was all I needed to know - they were absolutely delicious. Clearly once I'd munched my way through them in record time I knew we were going to meet again. The best way I can describe them is moreish. ~~~~Crispiness~~~~ Providing you don't manage what I did and put them in the front of your rucksack and proceed to drop the bag onto the floor you should get a good selection of large wavy tastebud ticklers. In contrast, when crushed under the weight of a laptop - they can pretty much disintegrate into a million pieces of mess - be warned! ~~~~Stats counter~~~~ So how do they stack up on the calories and fat front. Not too shabbily as it goes - 131 calories a standard 28g back 6.1G of fat, and only 0.4grammes of salt. Multi-pack here I come!
Acclaimed children's author Julia Donaldson is perhaps best known for her hugely popular illustrated story "The Gruffalo", which seems to have captured the imagination of a whole generation of kids, and even got its own Christmas day reading on the BBC last year. But, in our household, there's another book of hers that has a special place in the heart of our very own little monkey. Night Monkey Day Monkey - With its striking orange cover and hard board design, it has long occupied pride of place on little man's book shelf. It tells the story of the coming together of two monkeys who share the same jungle but operate in completely different worlds. The story begins as Night Monkey clambers up the tree and wakes up a rather disgruntled and groggy Day Monkey, whisking him away on a night time journey to the stars. Just like the Gruffalo, the magic is in the rhyme on every line. The words trip effortlessly off the tongue right from the evocative opening sentence. "The moon shone down on the jungle, night monkey climbed up the tree, she clambered and leapt, to where day monkey slept and whispered you can't catch me..." Believe me, I'm no great connoisseur of poetic construction, but I really enjoy reading out the lines, so cleverly constructed and carefully blended together. Plus in true boy's own tradition, there's always the opportunity to substitute in a few cheeky amendments to the original words for maximum comic effect - Night Trumpy , Day Trumpy - it's a sure fire winner! In the ensuing adventures, a whole variety of mind-blowing discoveries leave poor old day monkey, utterly bemused. He figures there is a giant banana up in the sky, that there are flying rats, that they are chopping up the trees into logs. To restore the balance, Night Monkey then gets a taste of her own medicine the next day.- I'll let you discover them for yourselves. The great thing is that after a few readings, you can simply say the start of the verse and your little one will happily repeat it "Night monkey laughed and said." .... "Don't be daft!" delivered back with chuckles every time. In the end they find a way to build a bridge between their worlds - celebrating their differences. So crack open the cans of coke , light the camp fire and pass me the guitar - this truly is the book that teaches the world to sing, in perfect harmony :)
~~~~For one Knight only~~~ Proudly announcing the ever so slightly much anticipated tale of our long planned, mini-weekend quest for the family in Warwick, brought to you in association with a freebie points overnighter at the nearby Holiday Inn Express. Our most recent visit in July, coincided with some kind of music festival weekend of events going on at the castle An eclectic mix indeed with Friday night starring JLS, Saturday night a Queen tribute and a Sunday night the British Proms. We came down on the Saturday night - and all the omens were good. Flicking onto John Barrowman's light entertainment cheese fest - none other than Dionne "Warwick" was the guest star - meant to be or what?! But, I hear you cynics cry, this is so much more than just a castle, this is a Madame Tussauds / London Dungeon / Chessington / SeaLife family marketing production. Don't let that put you off - the key here is preparation, and especially at this time of year you'll find the supermarkets are awash with 2-for-1 deals at these properties. As you'll hopefully come to agree as you read on, for 3 adults and a babba, £10 a head (as apposed to the standard £19.95 or even £22.95 with Dungeon per adult) for a quality attraction like this, has to be money well spent in my book. They still manage to sneak in an extra £4 all day parking charge for the Castle Grounds, but let's face it, with our son already dressed in Early Learning Centre's finest full body armour, shield and foam sword; there can be no turning back. It's time to take the Castle by Storm. ~~~~~The Devlin is in the Detail~~~~ After the epic 5 minute woodland stroll from the car park, we are greeted at the gate in true noble fashion. A battle scarred knight greets us all and gives our little soldier some exciting news. At 1.15pm, all the brave warrior children will meet by the Trebuchet display (more on that later) to help Devlin the Dragon Slayer on his brave quest. Let's just say, one completely satisfied customer, before we'd even paid our way in. His mate, the "rat catcher", maybe not quite so exciting (although I could certainly see a career for him in afternoon cabaret), but still very much a part of the whole stage setting routine. ~~~~The Pageant Playground~~~~ Over the years, having lived for a time in and around Birmingham, me and the good lady had paid a few visits to the Castle and had always enjoyed our days there. But here we were with babba in tow, racking our brains as to whether we'd ever actually seen a playground area. Once again Warwick delivered the goods. Just through the entrance gates, on the left hand side, there's a little wooden banner, proclaiming the way to the Pageant playground. Like so many of these naturalistic play areas you find these days, the wooden theme runs throughout, with miniature forts, slides, swings and seesaws suitable for a range of different ages. The big highlight for our little fella was most definitely the zip slide, suitable for aged 5 or over (or big 4 year olds in our case - providing daddy was on hand at the other end to steady the impact), where they sit on the black rubber circle and hopefully keep a firm grip on the rope. Being world renowned for my propensity to sniff out a tea break at the earliest opportunity, naturally it didn't pass my attention that there's a hot drinks and snacks stall on hand with a couple of picnic tables to help build the strength for all the wall climbing adventuring to come. ~~~~Once more unto the breach dear friends~~~~ Arriving at the Castle gates around 10.45am gave us the chance to catch the last parts of an archery demonstration by an extremely knowledgeable and entertaining chap who we'd both remembered from a few years back. No question in my mind- all the Castle team really do genuinely seem to enjoy what they do - it shines through. Another treat was to see the lowering and raising of the original portcullis. Again the same chap really did his utmost to create the atmosphere, fire up the imaginations, his voice projecting here, there and everywhere. Taking us back to the days of the War of the Roses, and the critical role that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick played in determining the eventual outcome. Whipped into a frenzy, by our leader, we began to cry out "Warwick oh Warwick!" to show our loyalties. However given that he eventually sided with Henry Tudor of Lancashire following dutifully as a crowd we were then encouraged to pledge allegiance to said county in order to gain admittance. Needless to say, my proud Yorkie wife, managed to conveniently skip that bit, and once they got the flimsy looking wooden block securing the gate back in position, we charged on through. ~~~~We're the Kings of the Castle~~~ Of course, the first mission for any knight worth his salt is to boldly climb to the flag of the tallest tower in order to rescue any fair maiden who might happen to be in the vicinity. Through the gates and round to the right, there's an inviting looking walkway from which to begin your quest. That's all well and good, but as ever, be prepared. Overall, there are some 150 steps to ascend, and the main central tower, consists of a classic dimly lit and spiralling original stone staircase that just seems to go on and on. So if you've got little ones with you, make sure they are ok with the dark, and if they are likely to struggle physically, be certain you've got enough muscle power and surefootedness to get to them safely to the top. The views over the castle grounds, Warwick and the surrounding countryside are spectacular though, and I recommend taking a few minutes rest to soak them up and prepare for the downward trip. Just to set little one at ease, I took on the descent (which does have railings all the way) backwards, one step at a time, and it wasn't too tricky in the end. There's a couple smaller towers and exhibits to explore, so it's a mercifully gradual return to terra firma. ~~~~Feasting time - just like days of yore~~~~ Funnily enough, all that walking had helped me work up a bit of an appetite. Walk out through the gate at the far end of the courtyard, and hey presto - plenty more food options. Now, the Mowenpick icecream stall was always going to be a big draw, but we took our time, looked at the jacket potatoes, sandwich options and other stalls further up the grassy bank before finally settling on a nutritionally optimized Sunday lunch. OK I admit it, it was pancakes all round! Still, I chose a savoury ham and cheese version which was very filling (but leaving enough room to help my son polish off his chocolate variety). Over to our right, a falconry display was in full swing, a mighty eagle sweeping through the sky. Time for us lads to spread our wings a little and take on a fresh challenge. No better way, I know to gain a stitch and get dizzy straight after eating than rolling down the grassy bank and then charging back up. Eventually my wife put an end to the madness and rewarded us each with a mighty chocolate cone. Frankly those looming sky hawks were starting to unnerve her, so we returned to the main courtyard. ~~~~Wax, battle hacks or dungeon cracks anyone?~~~~ Over by the main gateway, there's the relatively recent edition to the Castle, the Warwick Dungeon. As it was a separately priced attraction and given my son's distinct lack of age and fortitude for such matters, we skipped the Dungeon. Grannie was permitted a few minutes to take in the Kingmaker exhibit which tells the story of said Neville, and how he eventually met his own demise at the Battle of Barnet (seemed a funny meeting place for a Yorks vs Lancs scrap to me but hey that's history for you). Feeding in from the mother chain once more, there's a special Victorian weekend party waxwork exhibition in recognition of the castle's role in more recent times. With a few live actors thrown in to add to the occasion. If none of that appeals, you can always take a quick stroll around the great hall and armoury displays. If you are after a proper meal, there's a splendid courtyard restaurant to be discovered. And finally for any little princesses in waiting there's a special Princess tower on hand to be explored. Our little fella's attention was drawn to the once maligned rat catcher, who appeared to have some kind of rat hurling contest (featuring ultimately lifelike bean bags) for the gathered childlike masses. But he was merely the warm up act, as they prepared to reel out the big guns. ~~~~Touché Trebuchet!~~~~ As the time rolled around to 1pm, it was time to gather on the river bank. The crossing temporarily closed, all eyes on the mighty wooden contraption being prepared across the way. This apparently was the ultimate siege weapon back in the day. Basically tons of rock, pinning down one enormous catapult mechanism. How does it get the fire power? Basically one enormous human version of a hamster wheel - that's how! As our miked up armour clad host bellowed out the facts on this stunning piece of ancient weaponry, we witnessed the collective scrabbling of a bold collective of humanity, cranking it up for all they were worth. Turns out they are no elite combat force, merely the willing volunteers picked out from today's visitors. After nigh-on 10 minutes of prepping (really you don't want to miss with this thing given the time it takes to reload!), we were rewarded with the stunning visual of a 200 pound wooden ball, being hurled a good 500 metres through the air (mercifully in a controlled way into an entirely empty part of the river grounds) before we were swept along to our next adventure. ~~~~The wise adult keepeth his trap shut~~~~ Our Dragon hunter was in full voice, leading the crowd up the bank to a clearing of trees. He gathered all the little warriors into a circle and fiercely ensured their attention (and possibly that of any health and safety officers present) by expertly wielding a silver tipped spear as his tale began to unfold. He told of the Dragon Slayer, who was getting too old for it all, and how his brave son Devlin came through when the Castle needed him most. Best of all , he secured an investment of £200,000 from Theo and Duncan (ok maybe not but it was certainly an impressive pitch...). He then set the children a few riddles to give them the opportunity to get a map that would lead them to the dragon's lair. Wary of the surrounding parentage, he warned that it would have to be the child answering on their own - strictly no help was allowed. Question after question passed our brave little four year old fella by. In the end, his sad look of desperation to find an answer was just too much for me to bear. The whole group were particularly foxed by the following - "I am heavy going forwards but not backwards". My razor sharp brain could take it no more. A careless whisper was all it took - I should've known better... A solitary, tiny hand goes up - "What's the answer brave soldier?" "Ton" replies little man with complete confidence. "Explain?" says the Dragon man...."Errrrr...." The game was up, all eyes on me, the Daddy who just wanted to make his son proud. "I think 10 press ups should do it" he said with a mischievous glint in the eye. My son, well practiced in supporting the team, dutifully got down on his hands and knees ready to oblige "Not you, your Dad!" Luckily my arms well practiced from the art of responding to "Can I 'ave a carry?" were able to deliver the 10 in good style. To a raucous applause, I took my bow. Memories are made of the cheeky little grin as our treasure was rewarded with his map. I'd do it again, I tell you. We'll be back!
~~~~Watch out there are Elves about~~~~ Our first Centre Park holiday was last year at Elveden forest when we decided to combine a visit to our relatives in the area. The first thing to note is that we foolishly left most of the paperwork behind, and relied on the postcode printed in the brochure to get us there - big mistake! We ended up on a village highstreet, literally on a level crossing facing the Norfolk Border - as the Park is definitely in Suffolk we knew something was amiss. When my wife rang up to try and find out what had gone wrong the weary answer she got was "For some reason our normal post code doesn't get you there" and I quote verbatim. She then proceeded to give us an entirely new postcode which was at least 3 digits and over 5.8 miles away. So not really a spectacular start, but as we explained to our little boy "must have been those trixxy elves up to mischief" which seemed to satisfy him. ~~~~Here for the duration!~~~~ We arrived around 10am on a non school holiday Monday and there were plenty of cars already queuing up. Instantly we were struck by the sheer scale of the operations and. At least the check-in process was straight forward, 3 bays each side, just need to give them booking reference number and confirm surname and you get the keys. Now you can't actually go to the lodge till after 2pm but you soon realise that's not an issue. Not just because there's so much to see and do on site while you are waiting , but frankly because its such a palaver getting parked up and hiking into the complex. Our plans to "just use it as a base " to travel out and have a look at the attractions of Suffolk went straight out of the window. We're here for the duration - So twenty minutes and a flagging toddler later we've learned the 2nd rule of Center Parks - the bicycle is king. For some unearthly reason they've not marked up separate cycle paths which means a loose toddler is two wheel fodder. ~~~Crazy fun~~~ Immediately just outside the Village square, we discovered Treasure island. Over the bridge through the clearing and onto the good ship Hispanola preserved in all its wooden glory with rope ladder and slide. Little man charged aboard, headed straight for the steering wheel and took control. Just then another Mum and tot arrived on the scene and she tried to drum up a modicum of enthusiasm in her little one "Ahoy " she ventured timidly. Quick as a flash our captain piped back gleefully "Ahoy MEE HEARTIES!" We had officially arrived in the holiday zone After a bit of deliberation, we headed to the boat house to hire our clubs for Mini Golf on the Island. Now as expected the prices were a little on the excessive side at £4.50 for an adult and £3.50 a child but we figured we had an hour or two to kill so may as well turn it into a 27 hole epic. Little man ploughed on in his own style , hockey sliding his way up and down the stone set green bazed and wooden lined course. Snake pass and Dead mans chest proved the undoing of my wretched attempt to prove my worth as a golfer as wifeski stormed to an unassailable 7 hole lead. ~~~~Accommodation~~~~ You are only allowed to drive to the houses either on day one or the last day. It's 10 miles an hour all the way and by the time we'd unpacked it was a right old drive round a never ending one way system Now on arrival day and departure day only, you are allowed to drive your car round to your lodgings. There are a range of options available ranging from the most basic Comfort and Comfort plus lodges (basically a couple of bedrooms, lounge /kitchen / bathroom, with the comfort plus having a DVD player and dishwasher thrown in extra) , through to the Villas and Executive Lodges which in my view are only vaguely affordable if there's a big enough group of you. We paid around £450 for a 4 night, Monday to Friday off-season comfort plus lodge. It was comfortable enough, with a big corner sofa An extra nice touch was the barbecue and patio area out the back. I have to say in places it was looking a little worn, spotted a few holes in the curtains and bed sheets, we were "missing" a few light bulbs The central cooking area felt a bit like being in a Little chef but with Grannie doing the honours. Yet again I reckon those Elves had been up to their tricks as on the sliding patio window out the back a tiny circular sticker mysteriously declared "There is open water close to your villa." Just how close exactly was clearly requiring further investigation if we were going to even contemplate letting our little one have a wander out the back even under our eagle eyed supervision. So I manfully took a few strides out the back , passing a load of utterly domesticated ducks who were making the first of many house calls of the day (big clue on the water front), even to the point of tapping on the window. Didn't take long to discover that yes indeed there was some kind of canal like off shoot from the main lake within 50 yards or so. ~~~~Food and Drink~~~~ On arrival my hunter gatherer instincts quickly led me past an empty looking American grill, yet another Starbucks, and into the Plaza. Here we had a straight two -way choice between Café-rouge in the red corner and Bella Italia in the blue corner. The prospect of pasta for little chapster won the day (and the lure of the crayons and balloons - we are so easily bought) To be honest it wasn't quite up to the usual high standards we'd expect, the service was a little lethargic and the food wasn't quite as well cooked through as it should have been. As well as these familiar high street restaurant chains on site, our particular favourite was the Pancake house (which I believe is also a chain but not one I'd come across before), not least because it had an extra soft play area , which is so handy when you are waiting for food to be prepared. It was great to see the kids firing up there imaginations - one minute it's a pile of soft padded cushions, next minute there's three of the little mites all going "nee naw nee naw, fireengines to the rescue" by the end of the week it was virtually a stage show in the making! The food was just right for a light lunch, with a choice of savoury and sweet fillings. A bit further out, its well worth a visit to the Foresters Inn country pub venue , offering fresh cooked food, always nicely presented - once again there's an indoor and outdoor play zone to keep the little ones entertained while you wait. For our day one evening meal we decided that dining out wasn't option and naturally we did consider the takeaway route. Cleverly they offer free delivery on Mondays and Fridays. We settled instead on getting provisions from the Parc Market Surprisingly given its local monopoly, the pricing at the Parc Market didn't seem all that unreasonable. Including beers , stuff for breakfast and a couple of days worth of tea, came in at under £35. We later discovered that if we had spent £40 we could have had it delivered for free. ~~~~Sub Tropicana Drinks aren't free!~~~~ Without doubt one of the biggest reasons people choose to holiday at Centre Parcs are the spectacular indoor swimming facilities (specially as its free to enter!) Again, it's very well organised, with a buggy park outside, row upon row of family changing rooms and lockers. Once you are through the shower area, you are faced with an enormous glass greenhouse, and the vast expanse of ocean blue water lapping around an elaborate rock face. You don't even have to worry about bringing along floats / armbands etc for the little ones - there are plenty of free life jacket style floats for anyone under 5 to use. Every half an hour the wave machine powers into action, which is always good for a giggle. Off to the left side of the main pool there are a couple of tunnels. Cleverly they've set up a streaming current which carries you along effortlessly down the left hand side, then through various extra current boosting jets you get propelled out of the other side - little munch couldn't get enough of it. In this area there's also a steep 20 foot water slide if you are feeling in the mood to allow gallons of water up your nose. On our first visit these 3 places were about all we spotted, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the lack of additional sliding action. The next day though, we spied some steps up to the right hand side and bingo we found not one but three extra big slides, plus even an outdoor salt water pool to explore. So being the big brave (big kid) daddy I naturally road-tested everything on the family's behalf. Word to the wise, when riding the rapids , I strongly advise not to avoid getting turned around - hurtling backwards towards unseen rocks - not the best! The salty pool outside was a big hit and our little boy's floating on his back came on a treat, after he'd been struggling for ages in his lessons. The one thing we were still missing was the separate kids pools you normally get in these places. But that was just because we hadn't looked around properly A walk around the outskirts of the dome revealed the pirates cove. Here we discovered a toddler play pool featuring water jets, a sandpit by the water, and all sorts of other little bits, plus a 3-8 year old zone with its own special pair of training water slides. Here in the Cave there's also additional vending machines, toilet facilities and even first aid assistance on hand. Hats off to them, the swimming pool complex was everything we'd hoped for and more! Given that inside the complex there is a lagoon bar serving snacks and drinks all day, as well as plenty of seating areas, it's really a place you can easily spend a few hours, so its worth planning your day carefully. ~~~~Outdoor attractions~~~~ No question, whatever the age group there is definitely something that will appeal to you. The centre piece is the main lake, so naturally there are any number of water sports activities available from the high octane rush of the Waterskiing to the more gentle pedalo options. If you fancy more of an adrenalin rush, you can sign up to the high ropes stuff, or if you want to slow things down - there's even a 9 hole golf course on site. Back on the freebies front, one great feature is the artificial beach front, and never fear if you haven't packed any buckets and spades, to save you the expense of forking out, simply recycle any old Starbucks cups of coffee and stirrer sticks and voila, instant sand castles - those unwanted coffee dregs ensure you get just the right ratio of sand to water! There are a couple of good playgrounds to cater for the different ages - one larger one outside the sports cafe, with a large tubular slide and a variety of wooden obstacles to try them out with, and then a 3 to 10 year old playground including a fully laid out wooden choo choo train complete with adjoining ticket office or ice cream shop for the purposes of little fellas stubborn imagination. ~~~~Indoor sports and activities~~~~ Inside the huge sports plaza there are at least a dozen or more badminton courts which can also be adapted to play soft tennis, there's the rock climbing area, golf simulators, and basically activities running all day long. ~~~~The Verdict~~~~ Overall we had a great time of it. We decided next time around rather than risk Elvish trickery we'd go to the Sherwood Forest Park just 20 miles up the road. Might seem a bit strange, but as you don't really need to leave site for a few days , I say why not - It takes away all the travel hassles, you can do a big shop and bring that with you and hey if you do forget something major - it's never far to go. If you have older than toddler age kids, be warned, you will have to fork out here for the activities. But all, in all, there's plenty of choice and variety so I would definitely recommend at least a 3 day taster visit if not necessarily a full week.
Long before the BBC asked a certain Suurrr (ok Lord) Alan to get involved, the Apprentice format was already making big waves in the USA. Unfortunately, those whacky folk at the BBC decided to schedule the most recent re-runs at the less than ideal time of 11.15pm on a Monday night. As they were showing 2 episodes at a time, this meant a work night finish of 12.45am. Testimony to my quickly established levels of addiction that I ended up watching every single one. For anybody unfamiliar with the format. Essentially it represents an extremely tough 13 week interview process, where week by week two teams of candidates take on a series of heavy duty business challenges, and at the end of each episode one or more unfortunates from the losing team are unceremoniously fired and removed from the proceedings. The prize is a premium job with Property developing Tycoon extraordinaire (or is that hair) Mr Donald Trump. Another common denominator between both shows in the UK and US is the remarkable propensity of the contenders to come out with some appallingly poor attempts at their own brand of business wisdom. To give you a taste of what's in store, after a particularly spectacular failure the project manager came up with this classic desperately looking for the positives load of nonsense in the highest traditions of the show. "I think we did a great job rowing together, just not sure we did it in the right direction, or that we had the right boat or even the right oars!" But there are so many other appealing features of the US version. ~~~~The Trump Card~~~ I find myself constantly mesmerized by the Trump flick over, his blond tinged hair carefully swept across his head. Mr Trump doesn't also always seem highly in tune with the real world. When the subject of being gay comes up, his attempt at positive enforcement falls perhaps a little off message "I guess you don't find these lovely two ladies attractive, that's why they have menus in restaurant - it's a great world!" In one episode where one of the teams achieved the classic "miss the point entirely" during a selling task. Mr Trump wasn't having any of it. Rather than letting the losing project manager pick two for the boardroom and all those niceties, he brings the whole team back in. He lets a couple go, and then as the remaining four desperately bicker between themselves he just waves the finger and fires the lot of them - classic! What's also very different is the way they pick on something being depicted in the show like "get to the point" and we get a sort of mini business advice trailer from Mr Trump himself - somehow I can't imagine Sir Alan sharing his pearls of business wisdom like that, but then again in many aspects he does show similar traits. He just wants quick decisions, no messing around and he certainly doesn't have any time for unnecessary waffle. ~~~~Selling the dream~~~~ I love the fact that they call their teams - "Corporations". Definitely a case of Vice President syndrome creeping in - everybody thinks big and it's all about following the American Capitalist Dream to the extreme. As if to underline the importance of being seen to reflect democratic principles, each week the winning team gets to vote whether or not to grant an exemption to the project manager. I love the catchy theme tune and the title sequence is like something out of Dallas or Dynasty with them all flashing their million dollar wannabee smiles atop a display of market indices. Another contrast from the British version is the high standard of presenting confidence that exudes from the majority of the candidates. Yet rest assured, there are still all those searingly awkward moments for all to see . The inquest for the losing team is certainly not held in a backstreet café. It's all in "Trumpton" hotel, with all those dark-woods and deep red carpeting making it feel like you are stranded in Marriott Hotel country. Unlike the Nick and Margaret permanent fixtures, Trumps team seems fairly interchangeable. There's old George, Caroline , Bill , even Donald's son and daughter Donald and Ivanka occasionally make an appearance. I love the final sequences when they are whisked away in a big yellow taxi - The oh so subtle "Yahoo hot jobs" neon pink advertising board on the top just makes it for me. Just before they go in to the boardroom for the final showdowns, the collective of the Trump national percussion orchestra fire into frenzied overdrive working the triangle and the timpani to dramatic perfection. ~~~~The Live final~~~~ As you would expect everything is just that bit grander scale for the US version of the final showdown. No extra moderator required here (sorry Chilesy), it's Trump, centre stage, directing proceedings in a giant theatre. Another difference over the UK version is that he hasn't yet made the final decision and he does it live in front of the audience and the watching TV millions. Pure class. I heartily recommend the DVD - taking you back to the very first series - I admit I only rented it - but well worth a look!
Now, over the years I've spent many a happy time in the grand old and glorious city of York. Easily accessible on the East Coast Mainline that runs from London to Edinburgh or by road from the A1, within easy reach of the cities of Newcastle and Leeds, Yorkshire's finest tourist destination offers great variety and is bursting with charm and character. From those fondest early childhood memories of scampering around the olde worlde everyday exhibits in the never ending Castle Museum, to discovering my Viking roots rampaging along the city walls. No question, York is my kind of town! ~~~~All Aboard!~~~~ Let's start this whistle stop tour with something a little hot and steamy. Why York's only the home of the National Railway museum, and gadzookingtons it's now free admission! A short walk down from the main railway station, here you'll find over 300 years of locomotive history lovingly preserved, including all the famous names like the Flying Scotsman or the Mallard the fastest steam train in the world no less, right through to modern times with the mega fast Japanese Bullet trains. At the works you can play at being a signal man or lady, there's a great outdoor play area, and lots of other interactive exhibitions to explore. Throughout the year there are a number of special weekends running, which you do have to pay for but in my experience are well worth the money. We took our little man to a Thomas the Tank Engine weekend and it was just fantastic, seeing all his favourites brought to life on special train rides, with loads of fun activities going on all day long. If on the other hand you prefer your transport to be at a more leisurely pace, you are also in luck. The river Ouse runs right through the city (and has been known to cause significant flood damage to many of York's treasures in recent years. As a result there are no shortage of river cruise options and even rowing boats for the more intrepid adventurers out there. ~~~~Magnificent Minster~~~~ If you like a little more cultural refinement and splendour, then you could do worse than head for the utterly mesmerising and tranquil delights of York Minster. These days there is a small entrance fee to pay, but when you consider the astronomical upkeep costs for a place like this and the breathtaking scale and majesty of the place, in my book its well worth the money. You find yourself instantly drawn to the magnificent 14th and 15th Century Glass displays all around, constantly intrigued by the memorials and statues that line the outer walls. Around Christmas time, you may even be lucky enough to be there while there are services in place - now that is magical. ~~~~Memory Lane Museum~~~~ Now if like me you are still a big kid at heart, and like to recapture some of those magic moments, have I got the place for you. The Castle museum is perhaps one of the best examples of every day life museums in Britain today. The numerous exhibitions, the authentic Victorian streets and shops, the Dick Whittington dungeons. From Cradle to grave gives you a fascinating insight into the changing nature of the ceremonies and traditions associated with birth, marriages and death over the last 100 years or so. Plus in the summer months they often have shows and activities throughout the day. Every time I've been I've discovered something different, it really is a special place. As for the original castle itself, there's really not much left to be fair. Still standing on the site is Cliffords tower (but be aware it is a steep set of stairs to get up there) which is a separately run English Heritage attraction, There are a few other notable museums in York, including the Yorkshire Museum, and the Jorvik museum. Although the Jorvik does feature a very detailed, lifelike recreation of Viking existence, for me it is still over priced for what you get. Essentially it's a wagon ride, plus a few exhibitions including all the thrills and spills of authentically recreated Viking poo, but in the end there's really not all that much you can go and explore. If you are feeling energetic, you can walk the walls for most of the way round the city. Just keep a close watch on those over exuberant toddlers though! ~~~~Diagon Alley - eat your heart out!~~~~ Fans of Harry Potter take note. Certainly one of the most famous historic shopping streets in the land, the iconic narrow old street known simply as The Shambles offers a rich array of exciting arts and craft and mystical shops. From the sweet-toothed to the tea room junkie, from the casual browser to the most fervent of collectors, there is a curiosity or two for everyone here, so long as you watch your step. Those cobbles can play havoc with the ankles! ~~~~The Yorkie Bars (and tea rooms) are on me~~~~ York has also had a long association with the chocolate industry, thanks to both Terry's and Rowntrees chocolate factories being based in the city. Also there's a fantastic 10 day annual food and drink festival in September each year. The stalls in the central square are not to be missed. Down one of the main thorough fares that takes you from Betty's down towards the Shambles, there's a big wooden sign hung between the shops "Ye olde starre Inn" pointing to another side alley. Although there are many other great eating pubs like the "Three Tuns" in and around the centre, this one has become a regular stop off for us. It's full of atmosphere and also kid-friendly. There's a hot food desk where the waft of hot steak pies and other home cooked fineries is constantly enticing. Just along the way, you'll find the famous Betty's team rooms, and typically speaking you'll be able to tell when you are close simply by the huge queue of people snaking out of the door. Betty's was founded by a Swiss lady, who combined the best of traditional swiss "cakery" with some classic english tea time service, to create the perfect recipe for afternoon indulgence. Yes it's pricey for a pair of crumpets, but when they are dripping in hot butter, and served with a silver salver and a steaming hot chocolate, just , you try and resist! ~~~~York Miscellaneous~~~~ Dear reader, I feel I must share two more of the reasons why York will always have a special place in my heart. Back in 1989, I entered an eliminator competition at our 6th form college, and being a supercalifragilistic sort of a swat, I managed to make it to the final 6. Our reward was an interview in historic York to fight for the chance to make it onto the very essence of student quiz programming - Blockbusters. Sadly Paul in York gave battle in vain, perhaps the world wasn't quite ready for me on the TV screens, or my constant lamenting that big bad Bob Holness hadn't come along in person , or maybe just the fact that I didn't get enough questions right -but whichever my dreams of a gold run came to an end right there and then. But this is my story, my fairytale and from a scene of great personal disappointment, I emerged to return but a few months later on a golden run of my own. After training long and hard up and down hills on a lunchtime, me and me pal who's surname was Hind (another golden connection) trampled our way all the way round the city from race course to castle courtyards to complete my first ever half-marathon. What's more I even outrun the incredible athletic ensemble representing Betty's tea room. Ahh the memories!.
Finally, the promise of an all sunny weekend, proved too tempting to resist. So yesterday morning, we fired up the Quattro (well technically our Volvo) and headed back to the 1980s, to the East Coast wonderland that is Skegness (a.k.a Skeggy!) Pretty much a first time visit for all of us, so a chance to look at things with fresh eyes. ~~~~First Impressions - which way to Mablethorpe?!~~~~ Driving through into the town centre, and along the sea front, I have to be honest it wasn't looking all that promising. There's absolutely no view of the sea or beach. Basically, all you can see is a seemingly endless line of cardboard cut out gawdy light bulb coated frontages proclaiming crazy amusing golf, paddling lakes, candyfloss coated go karts and all you can eat Bingo... We kept hoping that as we headed towards the North car park there might be a small let up in the visual bombardment of unfettered tattiness. A quick scan of the sat nav told us that our backup options of Mablethorpe and Sutton-on-Sea were at least 15 miles away. Little man needed his lunch as soon as, and so we gathered our resources, bravely deposited the £6 all day fee and scrambled up the ridge to discover if a high tide was about to write off our entire bucket and spade day dreams... ~~~~Super sandy go ballistic, beach it is just gorgeous!~~~~ Lo and behold. Wide and welcoming, golden and warm, sands stretching as far as the eye could see. Admittedly the sort of biting breeze that chilled down to the bone, and the empty spaces owing much to it being early season but nonetheless, before our very eyes, just the kind of beach you dream of as a kid. Before too long our little man, is darting up and down the drifting sands, tackling and tumbling (and stopping every couple of minutes asking us to get the sand out of his shoes), roaming free and wild. But a rumbling of a different kind was dominating my thoughts. Ahead we could see a pier, and where there's a pier there's fish and chips, so my primeval hunting instincts took hold. ~~~~The ultimate seaside combo~~~ Just across from the pier, we spotted a takeaway fish façade, and a few moments later found ourselves in the all-singing, all-dancing, Beachside Tavern. Not only a full fledged pub, big screen tvs, carpeted floors, dark wooden tables and chairs, but a very well organised food order point, offering a full range from the classic Fish, Chips and Peas, to Jacket potatoes and chilli (for those of us weirdos with our new healthy dietary tendencies). Even a full carvery option available at a reasonable £6.95 for adults £4.95 for kids. So quick served food, freshly prepared (well we got the fish straightaway so I nicked half of the fish out of the batter on good lady wife's platter), pleasant surroundings, happy days. Just then out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a menacing turn of events. A wild-eyed thug, racing towards the glass window outside, his arm swung back ready to land a crashing blow. Luckily it turned out to be one of those 3 punches for a pound, test your strength boxing machines that he was aiming for, so I didn't have to evacuate the little one after all! ~~~~Fun time~~~~ No better way, I always think to make sure your dinner goes down properly than to get on board a 15 minutes unlimited bounce fest for £2 on the trampolines at the end of the pier. Still, a promise was a promise, and whilst he was clowning around, we spotted the donkeys ready for our next challenge. If you happen to have kids with hamster like tendencies, you could always put them in the giant see through plastic balls on water, but we figured that really would bring his fish and chips back to life a little prematurely! So down to the beach to the right of the pier, and a very large and handsome steed called Macca hand picked by our little fella. Nutall's donkeys, complete with red uniforms, and all, did look very well looked after, so we had no qualms about using them. According to a quick web search, the donkeys and one of them in particular called Sooty, have recently won awards from the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, so they must be well treated. All the donkeys walk together, with little bells ringing, and Macca had read the script perfectly making sure that he kept in front of all the other donkeys the whole way. We walked along a little further, and the lure of the giant big wheel and the roller coasters proved too much. Little fella soon revised down his plans on what he wanted to go on after closer inspection of the green caterpillar coaster and the like, but we still had our 6 tokens for a fiver to try and use up. The most old fashioned of all saved the day. A real classic Merry go round Carousel with horses, not once, twice , but three times round. All a bit too noisy and baudy in the fairground part, the tell tale hands over his ears told us it was time to move on once again. ~~~~Magic discovery~~~~ Just then we had our next big result of the day. We spied a pink frontage, to an aged 3-14 year old play area called Little Rascals. Basically for a price per child of £4 they can stay and play as long as they like, with plenty of seating for the parents to sit on and watch. Instead of paying up to £2 a time to go on individual rides and the like, here they had an indoors windy castle, an Aladdin Themed Bouncy castle and a giant slide, plus gondola swings, a sandpit and a mini playground for the younger ones. No surprise here that this was his favourite part of the whole trip. Each child gets a sticker and a handstamp so you can come and go any time during the day. A good 45 minutes of bouncing to his hearts content was the perfect way to burn off his lunchtime chips and make room for a mini-ice. ~~~~Paddling time~~~~ Of course, no trip to the seaside could ever be complete without the proper sandcastle building and roll your trousers up paddle time, so once again we braved the open plains and the wind to dip in a toe or two. It is a fair old trek to the waters front with so much beach to enjoy, but he had brought his own little flag with him, so you can't miss photo opportunities like that. If anyone visiting happens to have quit smoking recently, they may be a little disconcerted by the rows and rows of wind farm machines that are out to sea. Light brown bases and white sticks, maybe not the best colour scheme if you are trying to beat the cravings - I know a totally random observation , but that's just the way my mind works. ~~~~Wrapping it up~~~~ Once I'd reattached my frozen toe, back we headed through the artificial park land and over the collection of bridges and mini river ways. Plenty of ideas for our next visit - looking across over to Nature Land, with a Seal sanctuary built in , I saw a big green sign saying "Crocodiles , etc" - now that is clearly a properly run establishment for educational purposes and not at all some cheesy seaside cash-in. There's always a great selection of mini-golf with all the classic windmills and the like. You can ride for £3 return or £2 one way on the river boat service which winds its way through the mayhem. We found a nice modern playground with a couple of big slides, rope climbs and tyre swings, and that was just enough to prepare him for the 1 and a half hour sleeping ride home. Depending on where you are coming from there are various routes in and out of Skegness - the main one being the A52, but as a result the early season traffic levels really didn't trouble us. So I have to conclude that despite our initial reservations, Skeggy still has a lot to offer as a family resort, if you can see beyond the creaking, and achingly artificial elements. We'll certainly be back!
Whilst over at our 'local' National Trust property Belton House on Easter Sunday, I spotted a poster advertising the extra Easter events going on at Clumber Park. With an as ever uncertain weather forecast, I figured a quick 30 mile jaunt up the A1 on Easter Monday was well worth the risk, given that as paid up "Trusties" it wouldn't cost us a penny to try. ~~~~Getting there~~~~ As I said, it's very handily positioned off the A1 at the A57 intersection with the road to Sheffield. There's a big brown sign at the A1 exit and when you reach the roundabout take the A614 to Nottingham. Within a half a mile, you'll see a right turn, and there you are. Well on the borders of the park at least. There's a gateway, followed by a huge long straight road along all lined with gigantic trees. Slightly further along there's an entry point, and even for non-members the good news is it's only £5.20 per car, which I think is pretty reasonable. It's mostly one way, very straight forward, and basically you should follow the signs marked "Visitor Facilities". There you'll find ample parking including over flows in various grassed areas. ~~~~The main courtyard~~~ Once you've parked up, (we parked over by the cricket pitch area) it's a fairly short walk down to the central courtyard feature. Depending on the day you are there, you might just see tractor and trailer rides just before you enter the main square. On your right as you walk through there's a leaflet area and most likely a representative from the Trust to greet you. To the left there are a couple of shops and some plants on display, and there's a small takeaway café on the right hand side serving hot and cold snacks including real dairy ice cream. (If you shuffle around in the bottom long enough past the ridiculous flavours like Elderberry and Honey , you may just unearth a plain chocolate one!) Walkthrough the arch (past a rather clever dragonfly shaped bench) and here you'll find the main buildings on your left. There's another shop where you may just find a Robin Hood outfit, complete with bow and arrow set should any little merry men in your party be interested. Daddies like me on the other hand are far more likely to be struck by the delightful indoor and outdoor seating of the restaurant area. Probably best to get a visit to the facilities in for any little ones at this point, especially as the Woodland play area through the small doors on the right is bound to be spotted fairly sharpish. ~~~~The dining area~~~~ Funnily enough, one of the few let downs of Belton House is the catering, for some reason, the small facilities there just don't seem to come up to normal NT standards. No such worries here at Clumber Park I'm happy to say. There's 3 or 4 quality hot dishes of the day, choices for kids with options like spaghetti and meatballs or the convenience of a choose any 5 cold items selection. There are plenty of spacious wooden tables in 3 or 4 separate annexes, so even on a busy day like Easter Monday, with a bit of patience we were still able to get a decent table, and particularly on warmer days the outdoor seating offers a good alternative. ~~~~The play area~~~~ So after lunch, we delivered a revived and refreshed little man to a wooden kingdom of play. According to the staff member who welcomed us to the park, it's a play area designed by children, for children, and you can certainly see the appeal. In one corner there are 3 separate miniature tree houses on different levels. Moving towards the centre piece, there's a set of fairly challenging ropes and wooden frames to negotiate, including rope ladders and a spider man style web - probably better suited for those aged 6 and over, but our little man was certainly prepared to get as far as he could before rescue daddy had to be deployed. The whole play area is thick with wood chippings, so hopefully the worst of any mini fall would quickly be absorbed. There's also a classic double kid sized tyre swing, an obligatory wobbly bridge or two plus those bell ringing style see saw ropes to give them a quick taste of life without gravity. All in all it's a very well thought out play area , the only slight criticism would be it's not quite big enough, especially on busy days like this one. Funny as well, that with all these cleverly crafted play areas, the old tree on it's side in the corner was probably drawing the most visitors of all - kids and trees - what is it about them! ~~~~A Ferry nice bonus~~~~ Once we'd managed to prise him away from the play area, we were intrigued to spot signs advertising a ferry service. We walked out of the courtyard, and there before us was a very impressive rolling panorama of open space, with a great big Lake at it's heart. As we'd done the Easter egg hunt thing the day before (and as our little man really didn't need any additions to his already burgeoning collection!) we skipped past the extra marquee on the right and headed to the waters edge. It took a moment or two to locate said ferry, as in all fairness it bears a rather closer family resemblance to a large pedalo. Still it was an easy sell to our little fella, who quickly took it to be the "Paddle Steamer" that he'd wanted to visit today (having see Granddad Dogs boat on Peppa Pig that morning. So with that smug satisfaction of being those lucky parents who can actually deliver on an outlandish promise, we headed to the boarding point. Double bonus, only 50p per person each way, so we were gladly helped aboard and found our positions on the metal squares in the middle. Capacity of about 16 on the good ship "Lincolnshire II" and life jackets are provided for the little ones if required. Our very own captain Dog-beard was far too preoccupied with the treasure Island we were heading towards to worry about such things, although the little jolt at the far end that we were warned about , did add to the excitement. ~~~~Miles and Miles to explore~~~~ Just a glance across the horizon at the other side, gave an instant impression of just how huge the park land actually is. No surprise then, that bike hire is extremely popular round here. Apparently there are over 20 miles of bike trails available. The other thing that strikes you is just how many dogs people bring along with them. Unless there was some kind of dog show going on that I wasn't party to, I can't recall seeing so many mutts in one place for a long time. Anyway, even the distraction of various setters and spaniels , plunging into the icy lake waters couldn't distract our man from his next mission. Armed with welly boots and after all the showery weather, it was perfect conditions for jumping up and down in muddy puddles. ~~~~A final flourish~~~~ So suitably soaked through at the trouser legs, we persuaded him to hop back on the ferry, and return to the lake area. As I said at the outset, there were a few extra activities laid on, including face painting, drawing, hula hoops, space hoppers, mini trampolines, Frisbees and football. By this point in the afternoon most of the crowds were gone, so he was in his element flinging himself wildly on and off a rather squishy looking hopper. 10 minutes later, he'd reached his official point of exhaustion, and in just 4 and a half hours, Clumber had officially sent him to slumber land. Really can't wait to come back in the summer months and have a further explore round. Will definitely try and hire one of those trailer bikes next time around - carrying 45 pounds of sleepy baba all the way back to the car is no restful task!