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Ever since I first started using make-up as a teenager, eye liner has been a must have product for me. Over the years I've tried many different brands and experimented with various colours but as I'm now in my mid thirties, I tend to stick to the safe options of black or brown. I also don't tend to spend much on an eye liner these days as I hadn't really found much difference between the more expensive and the cheaper brands- that was until I discovered this eye definer from Aveda. Aveda is a cosmetics and toiletries company, which makes products based on botanics and plant extracts. There is a great deal on their website regarding their environmental credentials, including the fact that they have apparently funded enough wind energy to completely offset the electricity used at their USA headquarters. As well as this, they also claim that none of their products are tested on animals. I have to admit at this point that I didn't actually buy this definer myself, in fact if it wasn't for my sister I wouldn't even know about it. As it happened, she had purchased a 'lucky dip' box of various cosmetics on the understanding that they would all be good quality brands- she just wouldn't know until she opened it what colours or types of cosmetics she would get. Among her surprises was this eye definer, which she instantly decided she wouldn't use as it was blue and so she offered it to me instead. On seeing that it was quite a dark blue, I decided to give it a go and have been wearing it ever since. The definer itself looks like a standard eye pencil and the wood hasn't been painted over or coloured so it has a very simple and natural look to it. Even the wood itself is made from sustainably grown cedar and the Forest Stewardship Council's logo is printed on the side to certify this. The Aveda logo and a list of ingredients are also printed on the pencil, as well as the colour which is rather nicely described as 'wild indigo.' The end of the pencil is coloured dark blue and there is a clear plastic lid protecting the nib. According to Aveda, the product is made from 'aromatic flower waxes' derived from Jasmine petals and Geranium leaves, which make the definer easy to blend and smooth. As well as as being an eye liner, it can also be used as an eyebrow pencil although this obviously does not apply to the blue one (unless for some strange reason you really do want blue eyebrows!) The other three colours available are a light brown, mid to dark brown and black. For everyday use, I normally use a few light, feathery strokes of the pencil below my lower eyelashes, which gives a subtle effect with just a hint of colour. At first glance, it looks almost black when used in this way and I sometimes find myself wondering why I look a bit different when I catch sight of myself in the mirror, only to remember that it's because there's a bit of extra colour on my eyes! For going out in the evenings, I often apply it more densely just above my upper lashes for a little more impact and find it combines nicely with my preferred eye shadows of brown or plum. I've found that this definer glides on to my skin much more easily than most of the cheaper brands I've tried and is easy to blend with a finger, without going smudgy or disappearing altogether. It also has fantastic staying power (even in summer when my skin gets oilier) and I've never had to reapply it during the day as the subtle hint of dark blue is still noticeable to me by the evening. A little seems to go quite a long way as I don't have to sharpen it that often and so it's lasted me well over a year already. One thing that often bugs me about eye liners is that either the end breaks off when it's sharpened or it leaves a waxy mess in the sharpener, however I've never experienced either of these problems with this one and so it's very quickly become my favourite among my little collection. According to Aveda, this definer has been ophthalmologist tested and is suitable for sensitive skins due to the natural ingredients. I don't have particularly sensitive skin but I do find that some eye liners can irritate my eye if a little gets into my inner eye lids, however I've never had any such problems with this one so it does seem to have quite a mild formula. The only real drawback to this product is that at £12.50, it is quite expensive for what is basically an eye pencil, however it's lasted so long and done the job so well that I think it's definitely worth the price tag. I would definitely buy this definer myself when my current one runs out, but probably in one of the browns so that I can also use it as an eyebrow pencil and get a bit more for my money! The only special offer I can find at the moment is at designer-beauty.co.uk, where only the light brown/sepia shade is available for £5.50. The other shades can be bought from Aveda's website or John Lewis for the full RRP of £12.50.
Two very important members of the Indycat household are our two cats, Indy (no surprise there eh?) and Flossie. Our fluffy babies came to us nearly five years ago from the Cats Protection League and we consider them to be very much a part of our family, so it goes without saying that we want to make sure they are fed food which is both nutritious and tasty. One of the things we are keen on feeding them is dry cat food, having been told by our vet that a diet including biscuits is better for their teeth than meat alone. However, our moggies being typically fussy are not huge fans of biscuits and show far more enthusiasm for wet food. This has prompted an ongoing search over the years for a dry food that they will actually eat, which has eventually led us to settle on Go-Cat complete. Go-Cat is a well known brand made by pet food manufacturers Purina (also responsible for Felix and Winalot among others.) It's a food towards the lower end of their range, but is perfectly suitable for normal cats with no underlying health or dietary problems. Purina claims it is a 100% complete and balanced food, meaning a bowl of Go-Cat complete should offer all your cat needs nutritionally for one meal. As well as the adult version, Go-Cat complete is also available for kittens under a year old, senior cats over seven years old and Indoor cats. The adult food offers a wide range of five different meaty and fishy flavours, two of which also have vegetable flavours included. You can buy Go-Cat in five different sizes, ranging from a small box of 375g to a large bag of 10kg- I generally try to buy the largest pack size I can as this obviously works out cheaper. The boxes and bags are very easy to spot on supermarket shelves due to their bright yellow colouring. On the front is a picture of the Go-Cat mascot- a ginger tom by the name of Bobo, who is pictured leaping in the air whilst licking his chops (presumably at the thought of his dinner!) and the Purina and Go-Cat logos are underneath. Below this is a picture of the food itself and you are told that it's made with 'high quality meat for high quality protein.' One side of the box gives you a useful guide as to how much food you should allow for your cat depending on their size and based on normal levels of activity and 'environmental temperatures'- in other words a very active cat in winter will probably need more food than a very lazy cat during the summer. They also remind you to always provide fresh, clean drinking water (although for some reason ours prefer stale old rainwater, strange cats!) and provide a web address where you can download a template for a measuring cone to ensure you are offering the correct amount of food. The opposite side of the box provides all the ingredients and nutritional information- I won't list all of it here, however it is interesting to see that that in each 'kibble' there is just 4% of meat/animal derivatives. The rest is made up of a mixture of cereals, vegetable products, oils, fats, yeasts and minerals. Some vitamins (A and D3) have been added as well as minerals, although the minerals are printed in symbol format, which is a little confusing for people like myself who last studied chemistry a very long time ago! There is plenty of room on the side of the box for the full details to be printed so I'm unsure as to why they've done this. Below this is printed the phone number for Purina's pet care team, who apparently offer advice on all aspects of pet care and purina's web address. The back of the box provides plenty of blurb regarding the various benefits of feeding your moggie Go-Cat. Purina claims that this food helps to support their natural defences and that the protein helps to keep their muscles, heart and digestion in good order, whilst the minerals help to keep their bones, teeth and urinary tract healthy. For the environmentally conscious, they also claim to have reduced their cardboard packaging by 10%, apparently saving 195 tonnes of packaging per year. So, do cats enjoy eating Go-Cat? Well my two certainly seem to prefer it to any other biscuits we've offered them. We've tried the cheaper options- the kitties most definitely turn their noses up at tesco's own branded variety and we've tried more expensive ones- iams is another definite no-no. They will eat a few bits of whiskas when we've offered it but it's always Go-Cat that they eat the most of. Having said that, they would still choose wet over dry food every time and so we tend to offer them a small amount of wet food with their meals as they enjoy the meat so much. Generally, they will wolf down the wet food, have a few biscuits and then come back at various points during the day and night to snack on the rest of the dry food. On the odd occasion where we've run out of wet food, I've given them a bowl of biscuits on their own and they will eventually sit down to eat them, albeit after following me around whilst meowing pitifully for a while. Admittedly this is probably our fault for getting them into the habit of expecting wet food as well, however they do still obviously enjoy the taste of Go-Cat, just not as much as the meat. We have also offered them all of the various flavours in the range and they will eat them all- they don't seem to have a particular favourite. In terms of their health, our cats seem to be very happy and healthy on a diet of Go-Cat and are very rarely ill- one of them is occasionally sick after eating but you can always bet it's because we've offered them a different wet food (hubby likes to spoil them with 'posh' food now and then.) They are both very active, spend a lot of time outdoors and still often chase each other around as if they were kittens. Yearly check ups at the vet have always seen them sent away with a clean bill of health and so I'm quite confident that they are getting everything they need from the food they eat. If you are thinking of giving Go-Cat a try, I would thoroughly recommend it as it's fairly affordable compared to some other brands. I would however suggest trying one of the smaller pack sizes to start off with as just because my cats like it, doesn't mean yours will! A 375g box costs £1.16 in most supermarkets, with a 2kg bag (generally the largest size you can get in a supermarket) costing £5.09.
This time last year, my son's great granddad told us he would very much like to buy him a Smart Trike, as he had done previously for his other great grandson. Great granddad seemed to be very much taken with these little trikes and became quite insistent that Elliot should have one and so one day, a large box arrived at our house containing a lovely bright green Smart Trike Deluxe. Even if you've never heard of a Smart Trike, you will very likely have seen one. These are those little three wheelers you see being pushed about by parents, grannies and granddads by a rather conspicuous long handle sticking out of the back and containing a toddler in the front, generally looking rather pleased with themselves at riding along in such a grown up manner. Whoever came up with this rather simple but clever idea deserves a pat on the back, as I'm sure a ride in a Smart Trike has helped to avoid many a temper tantrum! On unpacking the box, we soon realised that we would have to pretty much fully assemble the trike ourselves, as all the parts are packaged completely separately from one another. This is fairly straightforward as long as you carefully follow the instructions, however it's also not the easiest of toys to put together and took us roughly 30-45 minutes to complete. This isn't great if you have a toddler waiting desperately to try it out, so I would advise that you try and fully assemble it before presenting it to your tots. I know that great granddad paid in the region of £75.00 for the trike and I have to say that at this price, I would expect the manufacturers to go the extra mile and at least pre-assemble some of the components to make the job easier for their customers. The Smart Trike comes in several different models and this being the deluxe version, has some very useful features. It's billed as a '3 in 1' product, offering extra parts which provide safety to babies as young as 10 months old. These include an additional safety bar around your child's mid section, which stops them from slouching outwards and a high back support. You also have fold down foot rests, which can be used until their legs are long enough to reach the pedals. In the second stage, (from roughly 15 months) you can do away with the bar and back support but can still use a harness fitted on the seat and of course the handle at the back. From 24 months, you can remove the handle completely and your child is free to use the trike independently. These age ranges are obviously a rough guide and are not set in stone, so if you want you can still use the handle for trips to the shops but take it off for use in the garden. As well as this, the trike also comes with a little plastic drinks holder on the front, a play phone, a basket on the back and a small storage bag, which fixes to the back handle. The instructions don't actually include any information on how to fix the drinks holder and phone so we managed it by trial and error, although in all honesty Elliot has never used either of them as he's too busy being nosy at what's going on around him. There is also an adjustable UV resistant sun-shade provided, which attaches to the back support and so can only be used in the younger age range. We've found it useful up to a point, but it really depends on which direction the sun is shining in as to whether it offers much protection. It's also not much good on windy days as it's easily blown about and sometimes blows right back altogether. I have to say that in terms of the general quality of the product and materials used, I am a little disappointed with the Smart Trike. It describes itself as having 'full metal construction' but I feel that this is slightly misleading- indeed there are metal components in the front handlebars, the frame of the chassis and back handle, but all of these are completely surrounded by hollow plastic parts, which overall give the impression of quite a plasticky toy which is not of the highest quality. The foot rest also broke very quickly on our model when my husband was trying to fold it down, and now won't go back into its folded position. Smart trike claim that the seat cover and storage bag are 'quality', but I have to disagree with them here- the fabric feels fairly cheap and a little stiff to me. Although the seat cover is supposed to be washable, we found that the bright green colour ran considerably when we got caught out in the rain last year so I would suggest that it's washed on its own! The trike does feel fairly sturdy as you're pushing it along yet is light enough to manoeuvre easily. The wheels are covered in a layer of rubber, making the ride smoother than the hard plastic wheels of some ride-ons and although they're not swivel wheels and don't have the widest turning circle, it's still a good option for short journeys to the local shop or going round the park. Personally, I wouldn't use this for journeys of more than 30 minutes as it doesn't offer the same level of comfort or suspension as a pushchair. All in all, this is quite a handy little trike to have, especially when toddlers decide they don't want to go in their pushchair. They get to have a feeling of independence, riding out in the front, whilst the adult still has control over where they're going from the back. However, I do feel that Smart Trike have taken advantage of their good idea somewhat and are charging over the odds for a toy that should be better made and of a higher quality. The Smart Trike Deluxe is currently available from Mothercare, reduced from £89.99 to £71.99.
As last summer approached, my son's very generous Granny decided to buy him a paddling pool. She arrived one day in June with not only a pool, but a big bag of plastic balls so that he could also use it as his very own ball pit. The item in question was a Pop Up Pool from the Early Learning Centre, which was packaged in a large, fairly flat cardboard box with a picture of the fully assembled pool on the front. Inside the box, we found the pool and a co-ordinating sun-shade, neatly folded into a handy black mesh carry bag, with a set of instructions. I was most impressed by the inclusion of the carry bag, as theoretically this meant the pool would be easily portable and could be taken on weekends or holidays away. Assembling this pool is such a doddle- all you need to do is remove the pool and sun-shade from the bag and they quite literally pop up all by themselves. No endless huffing and puffing through little plastic blowers or stomping on pumps, which is great news for those of us with impatient toddlers. The pool itself is light blue and made from quite a thin feeling plastic material, with what feels like either plastic or metal rods, which are sewn in underneath strips of green material around the base and top. There are also four straight rods sewn into the sides of the pool, again underneath a strip of green, all of which help the pool keep its shape. On the base and side of the pool is a white graphic, containing the words 'pop up pool', I guess in case you happen to forget that this is a pool, which pops up! Also on one side of the pool is a useful diagram, showing you how to empty water from the pool and on the inside of the pool wall is a maximum water level marker. The sun-shade is made from the same material, but in green, with the interior lined in silver coloured plastic. I seem to remember the silver lining offers UV resistance, although I can't confirm this as I have long since thrown out the box and there is no information on ELC's website. Around the sides and rear of the pool are several small, black plastic toggles, which you very simply attach through corresponding loops of fabric on the sun-shade in order to fix the two together. Once your pool is popped up, it's ready to be placed in the garden and filled with water. Now although the material appears to be strong and durable, it is still fairly thin and the last thing you want is to end up with a hole in the pool (trying to work out where on earth the water is leaking from is a mission in itself!) For this reason, it's best to double check the area where you want to put the pool for stones or twigs that might end up piercing it. Then of course you simply fill the pool with as much water as you want and get ready for some paddling! The age range suggested for this pool by the ELC is 2-3 years, which seems somewhat limited to me- basically that's just one summer! Elliot received his pool at the age of 10 months and we were happy to let him sit in it and play with the water and various toys whilst supervised. I personally feel that as long as an adult is there to support and supervise, most babies will enjoy splashing about in this pool from the age at which they can sit up unsupported and you can also use a bumbo or bath seat for a bit of extra stability and peace of mind if you wish. I also think that children well over the age of three would get plenty of enjoyment out of paddling and splashing in this pool, even though it is quite small (96cm wide.) I imagine that as Elliot grows older, we will buy him a bigger paddling pool but hang on to this one as well, as it is so easy and quick to set up. You can of course also use this pool as a small ball pit indoors or outdoors. The sides of the pool are very flexible and not that sturdy, which has both plus and minus points. On the one hand, it's quite easy for babies and toddlers to crawl in and out of the pool as they choose, but on the other hand a lot of the balls follow them out and you find yourself forever chucking them back in. Although it is a little sturdier when filled with water, it is still easy for little ones to pull and push the sides down so a fair amount of water can and does escape. I have found the sun-shade to be particularly useful, as you don't have to worry so much about hats and sunscreen, both of which my son isn't keen on wearing. It does however make it a bit chilly in the pool (unless it's a very hot day) so I've often put some warmer water in the pool to make it more comfortable. You also have to be wary on windy days as the wind can pick up the shade and create a gap between it and the pool, so it's best to check if there are any gaps through which the sun could burn your child. I'd suggest not leaving one of these outside if they're empty as they can quite easily take off with a sudden gust of wind and end up in your neighbour's garden! A major downside to this little pool is that I have found it to be well nigh impossible to fold back up into the carry bag. My mum and I tried for well over half an hour, following the instructions and just didn't get anywhere. My husband had a go and also found that as fast as you get one bit folded, another pops out and he very soon got fed up with it. Rather than being stored in the tidy little bag it came in, it's had to go up in the rafters of our garage and this also negates the whole idea of it being portable. I would quite happily rate this toy five stars if it wasn't for this problem, but due to it no longer being easy to transport or store, I feel I have to knock two stars off. Overall, this is a great little pool for ease and convenience of set up but is let down by the folding issue. The ELC is currently selling it for £20, which I think is slightly overpriced considering its size and the quality of the fabric, however my Mum picked one up during a half price sale last June for a tenner, which I feel is closer to what it's worth.
Last August, my little boy was lucky enough to receive a sand and water table from the early learning centre as one of his presents for his first birthday. I was really pleased with this as he has always enjoyed his baths ever since he was a tiny baby and started to splash and play with the water from very early on, so I was in no doubt that this was a present he would get lots of use from. My memory of the packaging of this toy is slightly hazy, as I was somewhat distracted on the day in question due to trying to play hostess to the party guests. I do remember that the box was rather large as several children disappeared into it at one point, however it was discarded soon after so I'm not sure as to how sturdy it was. At any rate, I have found that this toy remains in good condition even if left outside over the winter so keeping the box for storage is not absolutely necessary. The table itself comes in separate pieces which have to be correctly assembled and fortunately, this is very easy to do. There are four legs, made of strong green plastic which fit into a cross shaped blue base. On top of the base, you then fit the two red plastic water/sand pits opposite each other. In the middle of the pits there are several holes, where your child can slot in the various water toys included. You are also provided with a yellow plastic cover in two pieces, which easily fits over the top of the table and protects it whilst it's not in use. There are eight water/sand toys that come with the table, including two types of funnels with wheels, a spade, rake, sieve and a little boat. All the toys are made from strong, brightly coloured plastic, which appears to be very durable and there are other separate toys available from the ELC which are designed to be used specifically with this table. Using the table is very simple as you just fill each section with with either sand or water as required. The pits are roughly 40-50cm deep, which I have found is perfectly adequate to hold a decent amount of water whilst still allowing a toddler to reach their hands to the bottom. The Early Learning Centre recommend that this toy be used from 18 months onwards, however we were more than happy to let our son play with it from 12 months old (with full supervision of course.) In fact, I would say that as long as an adult is there to provide extra support, most babies who can stand supported would enjoy splashing about in this toy and although they may not be able to use or reach the funnels and wheels, it's still fun for them to watch the water flowing through. The only thing you do need to be careful with is that the table is quite light when empty and can easily move or even tip over if your child uses it to lean on for support whilst empty. For this reason, it's best to fill it up with water before letting babies who can't yet stand unsupported play with it, as this adds extra weight and stops the table from moving if leant on. We were also wary of using sand in the table with a 12 month old as a trip to the beach had shown that he was just as likely to eat sand as to play with it. However now at the age of 19 months, he understands the word 'no' and is more likely to realise that sand is not for eating (that's not to say he won't give it a try though!) At the moment, it doesn't look as though the ELC is selling play sand, although this will probably change as summer approaches. You can however buy three 10kg bags from Tesco online for £8.61, or you can get a 15kg bag from Argos for just £2.99. The ELC doesn't suggest an upper age limit for this toy, however the table is quite low so it may not be very comfortable to play with once your child reaches a certain height. At a guess, I would say that an average five year old may find the table a little too low and a also a bit too babyish for their liking by this age. Although we have so far only used water in the table, my son absolutely loved being able to stand and splash about in it whilst playing with the various toys. As with any sensory play, your child can use their imagination and play with whatever other toys or other suitable bits and bobs you have in the house in conjunction with the table (kitchen utensils are always a favourite with Elliot!) and you don't necessarily have to limit their play to water or sand. The smooth plastic of the table is very easy to clean, so it creates an ideal opportunity for messy play outdoors and you can fill the pits with jelly, custard, rice or whatever else without having to worry so much about the mess as you would indoors. My one and only gripe with this table is the inclusion of a 'race track' in relief on top of the lid. This is apparently designed to be used with the ELC's car trios (or any other toy cars that fit in the tracks) so that your child has an extra added dimension in which they can use the table. My personal feeling is that this is not only unnecessary, but also makes the table less useful than it would be with a smooth, flat lid. A smooth lid would be ideal for creating the dual capacity use of a craft table, using the pits underneath as storage for paints and crayons. Of course this would mean we parents only have to spend money on one item, rather than two so the cynic in me doubts that the ELC will be changing the design any time soon! Nevertheless, I do think that overall this is great outdoor toy for toddlers, offering a good opportunity for explorative and sensory play. It's an extremely durable product, as lack of space has meant that it's had to stay outside in our garden over the winter and yet the plastic is still in excellent condition and none of the colours have faded. The Early Learning Centre are currently selling this table for £45, which may seem pricey but is actually not too bad in comparison with similar products from some other brands. It's also worth keeping an eye on the ELC's website as they often run generous sale discounts on certain items during the year so you may be able to snap one of these up for less if you're lucky.
A year or so ago, disaster struck in the Indycat household when our trusted Philips kettle decided to give up the ghost. Faced with the inconvenient alternative of boiling water in a saucepan to make cups of tea and coffee, I did what most sensible women would do and kindly suggested to my husband that he should pay a visit to Argos as soon as possible if he expected his cups of coffee to be replenished with the frequency to which he had grown accustomed. So off he went and very soon returned with a brand new, shiny Russell Hobbs Compact Kettle. Now my husband and I are quite different in the ways in which we shop- I'm more of a bargain hunter and willing to give any old brand a try if it saves a few pennies. Hubby on the other hand generally prefers to pay extra for well-known, established brands as he assumes they will be of a higher quality and so I wasn't at all surprised at his choice. The kettle was packaged in a fairly sturdy cardboard box, which we discovered was deceptively large as once we'd removed the kettle from the packaging, we were both quite surprised at how small it looked. I know this seems somewhat stupid to say in view of this quite clearly being a 'compact' kettle, however I sometimes find that products labelling themselves as 'compact' are more often than not just a tad smaller than the full sized versions. In this instance, the size was much more noticeably smaller than a standard kettle, to the point where I found it looked a little odd on the kitchen worktop. My husband confessed at this point that he hadn't intended to buy a compact version and had just gone for the most reasonably priced kettle from a decent brand, without reading the product description properly. Nevertheless, we decided that the volume of 1.2 litres (roughly 5 cups worth) would be perfectly adequate for our needs and so we decided we may as well hang on to it. Regardless of its size, I personally find this quite attractive as far as kettles go. It's in a jug style and the kettle itself is cordless, with a separate base. I much prefer this type of kettle as you don't have to bother with removing the cord when you go to fill it up and you avoid any worry about water getting into sockets. The circular base is made of black plastic about 2cm thick, with a raised metallic area in the centre which slots into a hole in the base of the kettle. The main body of the kettle is gherkin shaped and is finished in polished stainless steel, with the Russell Hobbs logo in black at the bottom. One one side, there is a water window which clearly shows you how much water is in the kettle whilst it's in use, with measurement markers in little white cups on the side. I love the fact that the water is measured in terms of cups, as I have no idea how many millilitres I would need to make a certain number of cups of tea and this method ensures you boil pretty much the right amount of water, which is not only convenient but also helps to save energy. A strong, sturdy curved handle in black plastic runs from just above to below the water window and underneath this sits a black, plastic flip switch used to turn the kettle on and off. On the opposite side at the top is a small, curved spout, which sits over a hole through which the water is poured. Unlike some kettles, the spout has been attached separately during the manufacturing process rather than having been moulded as part of the main body of the kettle and lies a few centimetres below the top edge. The hole in the side of the kettle is covered in a fine mesh filter (which incidentally is both removable and washable) to ensure that any lime scale doesn't end up in your drinks. Finally, there is a curved lid on the top, with a little black, plastic notch handle in the middle. This is an incredibly easy kettle to use, mainly because the lower volume and its lightweight nature makes it far easier to lift than other larger kettles, even when full. For this reason, I would highly recommend it for anyone who finds lifting a struggle. The lid is opened by slipping a finger under the notch handle and pulling upwards- it is attached by a small hinge on one side so no faffing about with removing the lid completely and I have never found it to be stiff or hard to open. The kettle has a smooth, stainless steel interior with a concealed element making cleaning simple and easy. Although I have a habit of filling the kettle via the spout, it's far more advisable to fill up through the top as we now have a bit of lime scale on the wrong side of the spout filter. Once filled, the kettle slots back onto the base and you just flip the switch upwards to turn it on. A nice feature of this kettle is that the water window glows blue whilst it's on, which is helpful if like me you are prone to filling the kettle and then forgetting to flip the switch. Once the kettle has finished boiling, the switch flips back into the 'off' position and voilà, it's tea time! The kettle seems to boil fairly quickly, although this could just be down to the fact that it houses less water. I have however found that it has several advantages over some other models I've used- there's never a drop of water leaked from the spout whilst pouring, whereas my Mum's kettle is terrible for this and there is always a pool of water on the worktop after making drinks. Secondly, as it is so compact you could quite feasibly use this as a travel kettle if need be and it takes up far less room on our kitchen worktop than our old kettle, which is very useful if you have a small kitchen or lots of other appliances. The smaller volume comes in handy for the most part as you do find you end up boiling less water and thus saving energy- especially if you have people in your household who tend to boil a whole kettle's worth regardless of the amount of water required. However, it does have its downsides if you find yourself entertaining several guests as you may end up needing to boil the kettle twice to make enough drinks. I have also found that the cup measurements can be a little on the small side so you need to overestimate slightly if you're making drinks in larger mugs. Another minor drawback is that being stainless steel, the exterior does tend to show water marks and it's quite hard to get it looking as glossy as it was when new. There is also a tendency for lime scale to build up around the outside of the lid and base of the kettle (even though ours is a soft water area) so it does need regular de-scaling to keep it looking in good condition. This kettle can be bought through the Russell Hobbs website for £25.00 plus free delivery, or through Argos for £27.49. Although there are cheaper alternatives, I do think this is a reasonable price as it's been 100% reliable over the past year and appears to be well made and durable, as well as being so easy to use and saving a bit of water and energy.
Over the winter, I've noticed my once shiny, soft hair has become much drier and frizzier than usual. My guess is this is mostly to do with being pregnant and has probably been made worse by central heating and harsh weather. At any rate, I decided this was a good excuse to treat myself to a nicer shampoo than the bargain supermarket-own brand I'd been using and so when my Mum pointed out this new Smooth and Soft Herbal Essences shampoo out to me on a recent shopping trip, I thought I'd give it a whirl. Herbal Essences by Clairol has become a well-known hair care brand over recent years, famous for their slightly suggestive advertising! The range has now had a bit of a revamp with new style bottles and formulas, which I think look far more attractive than the older style (although these are still available for fans of the older range.) I've used a fair few of their shampoos and and conditioners in the past and have liked the results, as well as enjoying the fruity fragrances. I do think the name 'Herbal Essences' is a little misleading though as very few of their products actually contain herbs- for the most part they are a based on a combination of fruit and flower extracts, however this is probably just me bring picky. This particular shampoo comes in a very bright, orangey red see-through bottle of 400ml, with a bright green press-down lid. The bottle is more or less rectangular in shape, but on one side curves outwards, giving it quite a feminine look. On the front of the bottle at the top, is the herbal essences logo, which includes a stylized, green holographic ring and underneath this is a brief product description, telling you that this shampoo is 'sensuously smooth', has mandarin and pearl extracts and is for frizzy, dry and damaged hair (that'll be mine then!) Following this, there is a small graphic of some orange segments. On the back of the bottle, clairol claims that the shampoo calms flyaway hairs and makes your hair silky soft and tries to persuade you to buy the matching conditioner, which apparently helps to combat the effects of humidity. On this occasion, I didn't buy the conditioner as I already had plenty of a different brand at home, so this review focuses on the shampoo only. One of the things I liked immediately about using this shampoo is that the bottle design is very convenient and easy to use in the shower. I have very small hands, however I can grasp the curvy neck and press the lid down with one hand with ease. You then obviously just tip the bottle upside down and squeeze out the amount required into your other hand- I find a dollop around the size of a 50p is plenty for my shoulder length hair. The shampoo itself has a lovely, fresh fruity smell typical of the herbal essences range. The fragrance is most definitely citrusy, but there is also an underlying pleasant floral waft and doesn't smell in any way synthetic to me. From looking at the ingredients, there are indeed a few citrus fragrances but I'm also amused to see the inclusion of 'margarita powder', although I don't suppose it's the same stuff you use to make cocktails! The colour of the shampoo is an attractive coral pink and it has a very creamy, moisturising texture, which makes me feel confident that this is meant to be a hydrating shampoo. It very quickly produces a rich and creamy lather when massaged into my hair and fills the bathroom with its sweet, fruity aroma. I will admit at this point that although I love the smell, some people may find it a little too sweet so I would advise that you have a good sniff in the shop before buying. Now although I do use a different brand of conditioner at the moment, it's the same one I've been using for some time with another shampoo so I feel it's safe to say that any difference in the state of my hair should be down to the herbal essences shampoo. After washing my hair, I either leave it to dry naturally or give it a quick blast with the hair dryer, depending on how much time I've got. I've used this shampoo probably four or five times now and have definitely found the results are better after blow-drying, as if I leave it to dry naturally, it doesn't seem to encourage my natural curls like some other shampoos. I tend instead to end up with undefined, still frizzy random waves and I find I need to go over it with straighteners to make it presentable (although, it does feel much softer and silkier to the touch.) After blow-drying however, my hair definitely looks and feels shinier and smoother and there is only a small amount of frizz. The fruity smell also lingers nicely on my hair for a few hours, even through a different conditioner, which I think is impressive for a mid range shampoo. So would I buy this shampoo again? Well although it is a little disappointing that a shampoo that says it's for frizz doesn't really get of this problem, I personally wouldn't really expect a shampoo on its own to be a miracle cure for frizziness. It does however meet its claims for creating hair that feels silky and soft and my hair certainly feels less dry than it did before. I bought a 400ml bottle on a current special offer in Tesco for £1.68 and I think if I were to see it at this price again, I would probably buy it, but I would think twice about shelling out the full RRP of £3.36. This shampoo is also available in 200ml in Tesco for a special offer of £1.00 (£1.93 full RRP.)
As I am currently nearing the end of my second pregnancy in two years, it's fair to say that my bra size has gone up and down like a yo-yo in recent times. I've always begrudged having to spend cash on yet more, mostly unflattering underwear for myself when it could be better spent on baby stuff or put away in savings and so I've taken a fair bit of time shopping around for maternity and nursing bras that don't break the bank. One of my favourite buys has been this particular two-pack of nursing bras, which I discovered in H&M. I doubt there are many people who aren't aware of this originally Swedish clothing chain, as you'd be hard pressed to find a high street in this country without one of their stores. H&M sell clothing, accessories, make-up and toiletries for both sexes and all ages and have plus size and maternity ranges, generally at quite affordable prices and of a decent quality. The layout of their stores has always taken me a little getting used to as there is such a huge range of clothing, which isn't displayed as clearly as most other shops. I know some people who hate shopping there as they think it's like a jumble sale, however I quite like having a good rummage through the rails to see if I can find a hidden gem! I was browsing through the maternity section of my local store one day when I came across these bras- a two pack including a white and a black one. I can't say I desperately wanted them at first sight, as they look very plain and functional, however on seeing they were just £14.99 for a pack of two I decided to try a few sizes on and see how comfortable they were. As it happened, I soon found a size that not only fitted perfectly, but also felt a good deal more comfortable than the other bras I had at the time. I was also very pleased to see that these bras seemed to give my bust more support than my other maternity bras and created an attractive silhouette, so I was soon at the checkout with my card at the ready. These bras are made from 95% organic cotton and 5% elastane, which goes some way to explaining why I find them so comfortable. My son was born in the middle of August, so I found this material felt breathable and cool during those hotter months. The fabric is also quite thick compared to the other nursing bras I own, which I think gives my bust a little more support and helps to disguise the 'smuggled peanut' effect some of us get during pregnancy! Although they are fairly plain, there are also a few feminine touches in the shape of a little bow between the cups and the elastic edging is prettily scalloped. Two things that I consider most important in any bra, (nursing or otherwise) is that it provides me with decent support and creates a pleasant silhouette with clothes over the top. I often find nursing and maternity bras sadly lacking in this respect, due to the lack of underwiring and the fact that most of the design is centred on the cups being easily unclippable. These bras however have quite a sturdy design- the cups are joined in the middle rather than being separate, the elastic around the base of the bra is thick and doesn't ride up and the fastening part is quite wide, with three hook and eye fasteners. There is also some wiring in this bra, although I wouldn't call it 'underwiring' as stated on H&M's website. The wiring is actually situated at the sides of the bra and provides extra shape and support, without pressing on any breast tissue, which is important if you want to breastfeed as underwiring can end up causing damage to the milk ducts. All in all, this gives a nicely lifted silhouette, which makes me feel good about myself. Pregnancy and breastfeeding obviously take their toll on a woman's shape- I can accept this whilst bra-less but if things still look as if they're heading south even with the help of a bra it can make you feel very unattractive! At the end of the shoulder straps there is a small, plastic hook, which clips through a rectangular shaped hole in a little plastic fastening at the top of each cup. By pulling the fastening up over the hook, you can unattach the top part of each cup for breastfeeding. Underneath the cup, there is a ring of cotton which helps keep breast pads in place and provides additional support. The shoulder straps are of the normal elasticated adjustable variety found in most bras. The washing instructions recommend a 60 degree wash and I have washed mine accordingly many times with no problems or shrinkage. You can tumble dry and iron these (not that I have done- does anyone actually iron their bras?!) and they have stayed in very good condition for a good two years (although they have only probably been worn for about 9-10 months in total.) The only gripes I have is that the black one has always felt a little tighter than the white one, although it still fits comfortably and that the wiring in the sides has started to bend over time. I have had them quite a while though, so they could probably do with replacing ready for baby no. 2. These are definitely my favourite bras to wear during pregnancy and breastfeeding- I also have nursing bras from Debenhams, M&S and Mothercare, all more expensive yet less comfortable and less attractive under clothes. I would therefore highly recommend these to any expectant mummies!
I have to admit that normally I'm pretty lazy when it comes to hair removal, however I do feel compelled to make sure I have a tidy bikini line when it comes to holidays or going swimming. Recently however, I've felt the urge to de-fuzz again for a different reason as I am heavily pregnant and am aware that in a matter of weeks, all sorts of medical professionals will be seeing my bikini area! Of course, logically I know that a neatly topiaried bikini line will be the last thing they or I will be concerned about when the time comes, however I can't help but feel the need to sort this out before my baby bump grows to such a size as to make any hair removal below it physically impossible (It's already a chore trying to get my socks on.) Although I tend to go for shaving when it comes to legs and underarms, I find it always leaves my bikini line uncomfortable and itchy and the regrowth is very quick. I'm also not keen on hair removal creams as they tend to smell unpleasant and I've never found them to work that well. For these reasons, I always use a home waxing kit on my bikini line as I can generally get good results that last for a good six weeks. I've had this little kit from Veet for quite a while so I struggle to remember how much I paid for it at the time, however Superdrug are currently selling it for £6.02. The official name of this kit is 'Veet Ready to Use Underarm and Bikini Wax Strips 16 Pack' and comes in a small, light blue box with the Veet logo at the top. Veet appear to have modified this product a little since I bought mine, as I have the original style box shown in dooyoo's picture, which boasts the addition of mint extracts. However on Superdrug's and Veet's websites, the box has a slightly different design and states 'with Vitamin E and Almond Oil.' My guess is that this is essentially the same product, although the newer version may be kinder to more sensitive skins. On the back of the box is some blurb about the various advantages and benefits of using these strips- Veet claim they are they are the perfect size and shape for the bikini and underarm areas, are quick and easy to use and that the results last for up to 4 weeks. They also claim that the wipes included get rid of any wax residue left on the skin and help to leave the skin soft and smooth. Underneath this is a box of text, highlighting the various precautions to be taken before using the strips. I was pleased to see that I can use this product whilst pregnant, but that it might cause some bruising. This didn't cause me any alarm as I've experienced some slight bruising after using these strips before and have found it to disappear relatively swiftly. Inside the box, there are 16 wax strips, roughly the size and shape of a penguin biscuit. The wax is opaque and blue and is sandwiched between two flexible, thin plastic-like strips, so on first impression you may think there are only 8 in the packet as they are doubled up. There is a good centimetre or so of plastic around the edge of the wax, which enables you to handle the strips without getting sticky wax on your fingers. There are also four 'perfect finish' wipes, which come in a little blue pouch and also included are the obligatory instructions. The first step to using the strips is to warm one between your hands. At this point I have to take issue with the instructions, as there is no guide as to how long you should warm the strips for. In my experience, it's very important to get this just right as if they are too warm, the wax sticks to your skin like glue and the strips come away, leaving both wax and hair in a gungey mess on your skin. If they are not warm enough, the hair doesn't stick properly to the wax and you end up with patchy results. Personally, I find that around 15-20 seconds is about right, however this does depend on how warm your hands are. I find that if the wax stands up from the strips when they are peeled apart, it's too warm and then it's best to leave it to cool a little before using. Once you've peeled the two layers apart, put one of the strips aside (wax side up, otherwise you'll end up with a sticky mess to get off the surface you've left it on!) and you then place the other strip on your bikini line (or underarm- however I've never used these here) and smooth the strip on to your skin in the direction of your hair growth. You then have to try and stretch the skin taught with one hand, which does take some practice, and straight away quickly yank the strip away from the bottom end against the direction of the hair, trying your best not to swear at the sting! Afterwards, you can immediately see the hairs all stuck in the wax and you have a nice, hopefully hairless patch on your bikini line. I normally find that my skin goes quite pink straight after and sometimes I also get little bruises or tiny spots of blood where the hair has been ripped out, however my skin tends to calm down within half an hour and as well as using the wipes in the pack, I also find it helps to use a cream like E45 to help moisturise and cool the area. The wipes themselves are moistened with a pale blue, oily feeling solution which does get rid of any bits of wax left behind, although you may need to rub quite hard to get rid of any larger stubborn pieces. There are only 4 wipes included in the pack, so I try to make one last per waxing session, however the wax will also come off fairly easily with baby or massage oil (I haven't tried it but I guess olive or vegetable oil would also do if you're stuck!) I do find that my skin feels nice and soft after waxing, but this may be more down to the cream I use than the veet wipes. Unfortunately I do sometimes find that the strips leave a few hairs behind, however veet does claim that each strip can be folded, warmed up and re-used several times, so if this happens I try and re-use the strips until any leftover hairs have gone. I have found that once used, the strips do lose a fair amount of stickiness and so are not so effective on a fresh area of skin and even fail sometimes to pick up stubborn stragglers, In which case I have to tweezer the odd one out. I also sometimes find that even though the strips are quite small, I might only have a very small area I want to remove hair from, in which case you can cut the strips in half to make them go further. You just need to make sure that the strips are cold before you snip, otherwise you end up with wax all over your scissors- and also be sure that the plastic waxless area of the strip is in the right place on your skin so you don't have to try and remove the strip by the waxy end. I find that the results from using these strips lasts around six weeks for me- well beyond the four weeks suggested on the packet, which means that even if I were to wax religiously every six weeks, one pack would last a good few months (of course I'm far too lazy to bother with this palaver that often so this kit has lasted me well over a year.) For this reason, I do think this product is worth the money, however I also don't think the strips are as easy to use as veet claims, as it's taken me a fair amount of practice to get good results and even then I often have to resort to my trusty tweezers. I would therefore recommend this product if you are used to home waxing, and to beginners I would say practice a few times on your legs before going near more delicate areas!
It's not often I get the chance to read these days, but as my husband had recently finished this book and highly recommended it I thought I would give it a go and I'm certainly glad I did. -The Author- 'Dark Matter- A Ghost Story' is written by Michelle Paver, who is best known for writing a series of children's books (The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.) Dark Matter is her first foray into adult fiction, however if I hadn't have read the author's blurb in the back of the book, I wouldn't have been aware of this and now plan on reading her children's series as soon as I get the opportunity. -The Plot- Set in 1937, Dark Matter follows the fortunes of 28 year old Jack Miller, who leads a somewhat depressing life in smog ridden pre-war London. He's stuck in a job he hates, is single and through choice has no friends, has hardly enough money to live on and both his parents are dead. When offered the chance to join a weather monitoring expedition to the Arctic as a wireless operator, the only thing that puts him off is having to spend time with his potential colleagues- three well off upper class graduates. However, the lure of escaping his dull and penniless existence soon triumphs and he finds himself aboard a Norwegian sailing ship heading for an island in between Norway and the Arctic. The ship captain's obvious reluctance to reach their destination rankles the group and when they do get there, events soon take a turn for the worse when the other expedition members have to head back to the mainland, leaving Jack in charge. Just as the Arctic winter sets in and the sun gives way to weeks of endless darkness, Jack finds himself completely alone...or is he? -Characters- Initially, I did find it a little hard to warm to Jack's character as he comes across as such a loner. The beginning of the book paints a rather sad, desolate picture of his life (very Kafka-esque) yet when offered the chance to leave it all behind, he almost refuses just because he'll have to interact with people he's decided he doesn't like, despite only having met them once. However, as the story progresses and you discover more about his life and thoughts, you start to feel quite sympathetic towards him as he hasn't had an easy life and seems used to keeping his feelings and fears hidden (the typical British stiff upper lip.) A particularly touching relationship develops between Jack and one of the expedition's huskies, on whom he comes to rely heavily as company, to the point where it seems to me that being so completely alone helps Jack to appreciate the benefits of friendships and relationships. As the book is written in the first person as a journal, you get a thorough insight into what's going on in Jack's head and this makes the narrative very readable and helps it to flow well. The other characters include Gus and Algie- Jack's co-expeditioners. Seen through Jack's eyes, he describes Gus as being straight from a 'boy's own' adventure book and he soon becomes quite attached to him, as Gus seems a likeable sort and is keen to keep Jack on side as he values his contribution to the expedition. On the other hand, Jack finds it hard to tolerate Algie who often comes across as ignorant at best and downright cruel at worst, especially in his treatment of animals. Supplementary characters include the ship captain, Mr Eriksson and an animal trapper by the name of Bjorvik who travels from his camp to keep Jack company for a few days. It's clear that Jack admires and respects the Norwegian characters, who have also come from lives of hardship and seems to relate to them fairly easily, despite the fact that they are both quite uncommunicative, Mr Eriksson in particular remaining stubbornly quiet regarding his misgivings about the island. -The Narrative- This book gives rise to some fantastic descriptions of polar landscapes, wildlife and the change of seasons from the midnight sun to endless nights. In particular, the first time the group see the island of Gruhuken, Michelle Paver paints such a vivid and beautiful picture of the scenery that you can almost feel yourself on the boat alongside the crew members. Alongside this, she gradually builds the tension of the chillier aspects of the story so that you are aware of it creeping up on you very slowly. I really liked the fact that there is very little gore or blood- it's mostly left to the reader's imagination, which in my opinion makes it a far scarier read. Paver also does an extremely convincing job of placing the book in the 1930's, with detailed descriptions of the equipment and supplies used on the expedition and references to the subtle differences between middle class Jack and his upper class colleagues. -Conclusion- Dark Matter is a thoroughly creepy and chilly read that I'm sure most horror and ghost story fans would enjoy, however it also paints an interesting and beautiful picture of life within the Arctic circle. At 243 pages, it's also not too long and maintains the momentum of the tension at just the right pace. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is currently on sale at Amazon for a reduced price of £7.30.
During the later part of last year, I'd thought about getting a night light for my son which would project images of fish, stars or such on the walls and ceilings in the hopes that it would help to settle him if he was feeling ill or teething. However with Christmas on the way, I didn't quite get round to buying one myself and I was happy that I didn't in the end, as one of Elliot's Christmas presents turned out to be just what I'd been thinking of- the Cloud B Twilight Turtle. Cloud B are an American company, which started off by manufacturing baby sleepbags and moved on to developing other animal themed sleep inducing products for children. Their products have won a whole host of awards in the USA and boast several famous A-listers as customers, including Katie Holmes and Angelina Jolie. On first getting the turtle out of the box, I admit that I would have had no idea that it sells in some retailers for around £30- it feels very light, not particularly sturdy and something inside rattles if you shake it. The underside of the turtle looks very much like a typical soft toy, the head, legs and tail are made of soft, furry sage coloured material and are filled with stuffing. The turtle's face is very nondescript and plain, just two black vertical lines for eyes and a horizontal one for the mouth. If anything he looks a little miserable, which is a shame as like most children my son is drawn to toys with cheerful faces. The belly is padded in the same fabric and in the middle of his tummy is a flap attached with velcro, under which the battery panel sits and is firmly screwed in placed (the batteries are included.) I was pleased to see it was battery as opposed to electrically operated as I find these are far easier to move around the bedroom without a cord attached. The batteries in this night light are still going strong after two months although admittedly it's not used that much any more. There is also a hidden on/off switch in the battery panel, which smaller children would find hard to operate. I always consider these extra switches to be useful in case you want the product to stay off, despite your child having other ideas! The fabric does seem to be of a good quality and is well stitched, with no visible loose threads. The soft part of the turtle appears to house the parts which power the LED lights, as you can feel it is rather hard through the padding. The top is covered in a moulded brown and green shell, which is made of fairly thin plastic and is punctuated by lots of star shaped holes and one in the shape of a crescent moon. At the bottom of the shell are four brown buttons- the first is an on/off switch. When pressed this activates the lights, which shine through the holes in the shell and project a very pretty pattern of blue, green and red stars all over the walls and ceiling (obviously this works better the darker the room is.) The next button along to the right has 'L1' stamped on it (I presume this means 'level one'.) When pressed once, the lights flash from green, to amber, to blue and then to red, each in a different star constellation. Press this switch again and the lights continue to flash, but now two colours and constellations at a time. When pressed for a third time, the lights revert back to their original constant state. Next up is the 'L2' button, which from memory I think makes the lights fade slowly away and then slowly reappear in the various colours. I say from memory, as at some point during the two months we've had the night light, this switch has stuck and now won't work at all. The final 'L3' switch activates a music setting- press once and you have a piano piece backed by the sound of waves. Press again and you get a flute playing a tune reminiscent of the soundtrack to the film 'Titanic' (sorry Celine Dion lovers, but this just makes me want to throw the turtle at the wall!) press for a third and fourth time and you have another two 'calming' piano tracks. Luckily there is a 'time out' function on the turtle which switches off the whole thing after about 45 minutes, by which time the manufacturers must assume your child has fallen asleep (they've obviously never met my son!) Now this could just be me getting old but as soon as I heard the music, I was amazed that the makers of the turtle intended these tunes to lull children to sleep as the volume seems rather loud to me. The music is also played on a very short, repetitive loop which most adults I'm sure would find very annoying- I'm not expecting a full piano concerto here, but a few bars of the same repetitive melody is a bit of a disappointment if you've forked out £30. Elliot has certainly never appeared to become sleepy or calmed by the music (when unwell it has made him cry and when better he's sat up and had a little dance to it!) so as there is no volume switch to be found on Mr. Turtle, the music setting has remained firmly off. Despite my gripes about the music, I still had high hopes that the appearance of some pretty stars on the ceiling might distract Elliot enough from colds or teething discomfort and help him off to sleep. I would love at this point to say that I've found the ultimate answer for sleep deprived parents everywhere, but sadly the turtle hasn't quite met my expectations. Admittedly, it did seem to help the first few times we used it as Elliot was quite taken with the novelty of the coloured lights, however whenever we've switched it on since, it's either made no difference or worse, has just made him wail all the more loudly. I can only guess that by using it when he's not been well may have led to him associating the turtle with feeling poorly, or maybe he just prefers a dark room with no twinkly stars! Of course this night light might be just the tonic for another child on another day. It's also possible that it may come in more useful as Elliot gets older (he's currently 18 months) and gains more of an understanding of stars and what they are, as my friend's 2.5 year old seemed to enjoy the effects when they stayed over. This leads me to believe there is one good benefit to this particular night light- unlike some on the market, it doesn't look too 'babyish' and includes some educational value as it projects the same star constellations you will see in if you look up at the real night sky. It's therefore suitable for much older children as well, especially if they enjoy learning about astronomy and picking out different stars. The muted colours and design mean that it won't look out of place in the room of a 6 or 7 year old, which I imagine might help to avoid potential embarrassment by friends if your older child wants a night light to help them sleep. This means that the turtle can potentially be used for many years, rather than ending up in the loft like many short lived baby products. On a final and slightly more negative note, I am rather disappointed with the stuck button and for me this is indicative of the overall quality and durability of the turtle. Whilst the soft underside is fine, the plastic of the shell feels quite thin compared to similar plastic products intended for babies and toddlers. I admit that it's not really intended for use as a toy, however the Cloud B website does state that the turtle is suitable for children 'of all ages' and so to me, it does need to be fairly robust to withstand any abuse a young child might inflict on it. Luckily Elliot has been quite gentle on the occasions he's got hold of it, but I'm not sure how the turtle would fare if dropped on a hard floor. After a quick search on the internet, I've found Firebox and IWOOT are currently selling this night light for £29.99. Personally, I think this is way overpriced and I wouldn't recommend spending that much money on a product which is not of the highest quality. There are a few online retailers selling it for around £7, however I would be wary of such a comparatively low price (a few warning bells are ringing in my head as these turtles look slightly different to ours.) You can also pick them up on ebay for £15-£20 which I think is closer to its real value. Overall, I don't feel I can really recommend this night light for younger children as there are far cheaper and better quality alternatives out there, however it might be useful for older children with an interest in astronomy.
Back in 2008, my husband and I decided on Thailand as our ideal honeymoon destination. After discussing with our travel agent what we wanted from our holiday, he recommended we spend some time at a resort based in an area of Northern Thailand called the Golden Triangle. This particular region isn't the obvious choice for a honeymoon, it's landlocked, hilly, mostly rural and is famous as having a large part historically in the growing of opium, (although these days the region depends largely on tourists for its income.) What actually drew us to the Anantara resort was the elephant camp and rescue charity on site- both my husband and I are animal and wildlife lovers and were keen to spend some time with these amazing creatures in what sounded like a far more natural environment than some of the more touristy areas. The other thing which attracted us was that we would have the opportunity to stay in five star accommodation at a fairly cheap price due to the exchange rate- we certainly would never be able to afford to experience this in the UK! To reach the area, you need to fly into the city of Chang Rai via Bangkok. We decided to spend a few days in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok before flying to Chang Rai, which was a great way to tie in a break in the city with the rest of the holiday. The resort offers transfers to and from the airport at an extra cost (bookable in advance) and although it's probably cheaper to use a taxi, we found extra touches such as the provision of bottles of cold water and cooling towels in the air conditioned mini-bus very welcome during the journey, which took roughly just over an hour. On arrival at the driveway into the resort, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were about to enter a wildlife park rather than a luxury hotel- the area surrounding the resort is heavily forested and at the bottom of the driveway is a pool with a statue of an elephant squirting water over itself. The hotel is set in beautiful gardens atop a hill and overlooks the Thai borders across the Mekong River to the countries of Myanmar and Laos. The Thais are well known for their excellent standards of service and hospitality and I have to admit that at first, I found it almost overwhelming to treated with such courtesy and thought for my every comfort as it's just something we aren't used to in this country. At the hotel, our cases were quietly whisked away, later appearing in our room as if by magic. We were then shown to the main lobby to check in (the lobby itself was quite a sight, a beautiful high ceilinged room adorned with cosy places to sit and with musicians playing traditional instruments) after which, a member of staff took us to our room and made sure we had everything we needed before leaving us to our own devices. The rooms themselves are beautifully and tastefully decorated and furnished, as is the décor throughout the resort. Despite being not used to staying in such luxury, we still felt comfortable and relaxed as the general feel was of calm retreat rather than being ostentatious or showy. From our room, we could step out on to a wide balcony overlooking the 'infinity' style pool and the forests beyond. The main feature of the room was a huge stone bathtub in the bathroom, plenty big enough for two people. The tub was surrounded by sliding screens so that with the screens back, you could admire the view over the balcony whilst having a soak, quite a treat! Even the toiletries provided were of spa quality, although unfortunately you couldn't sneak them back home in your luggage as they were in stone pots. Now although the Anantara describes itself as a 'resort', there are only 77 rooms on site which meant that the restaurants and pool area never felt overcrowded. In fact we often felt as if we were the only people staying there (this was midweek though so I imagine weekends would be busier.) There are three restaurants to choose from here- next to the pool is a bar serving drinks and light meals. Downstairs from the lobby is the main restaurant, which in the mornings serves a sumptuous buffet offering pretty much any type of breakfast for any nationality. During the day and in the evenings, this is transformed into a traditional Thai eatery specialising in Northern Thai dishes. The final restaurant serves Italian and Mediterranean food, which is quite a welcome change if you've overdone it on the spicy meals. We found the food in all three to be excellent but the Thai 'Sala Mae Nam' restaurant was our particular favourite as there were so many dishes we'd never even heard of before. As usual, the friendly staff were always attentive to our every need, we never had to wait long for our food and they would even take the time to teach us a few Thai phrases. A nice touch which was often given prior to the evening meal in the Thai restaurant, was the presentation of a few tastes of different dishes so you could have a try of something new before committing to a full meal. The Elephant Bar by the pool is worth a special mention, due to the fantastic array of cocktails on offer, always served alongside nibbles and a refreshing napkin wrapped around lemon grass. On most nights, the bar runs a happy hour where all drinks are buy one get one free, however as I said it was very quiet whilst we were there so there were no noisy parties or boisterous tourists (Of course this may be a different story at weekends!) The pool area itself is beautifully maintained and features an infinity style pool, which overlooks a tranquil view of forests, hills and the Mekong river. By the side of the pool is also a jacuzzi and it is surrounded by comfortable wooden sun loungers, with fully padded cushions and towels all neatly rolled and placed at the head. The staff from the bar come out at regular intervals and will offer extra towels, drinks and food (complimentary fresh fruit kebabs were very welcome on the hotter days.) So, besides eating and relaxing, what else is there to do in this wonderful place? Well first of all, it's worth bearing in mind that this hotel is pretty much in the middle of nowhere- the setting is very rural. It is possible to walk (20-30 minutes) or get a taxi to the nearest small town, however this isn't something we attempted ourselves as other holiday makers had told us there was very little to see or do there. If you like your holidays to involve lots of shopping, night life and entertainment then this is definitely not the place for you- the main vibe here is one of relaxation, calm and enjoying the surrounding nature and countryside. Most of the activities and trips on offer do involve booking and therefore paying more through the resort and as we discovered, they are not that cheap and can add a fair amount on to your hotel bill. If you are considering staying here and don't want to overspend, I'd recommend deciding which one or two activities or excursions are an absolute must and stick to just booking those. Of course one of the main reasons we chose to stay here was the elephant camp and so we decided to book on a one day mahout training course. Mahouts spend a great part of their life working with and training their own elephant, right from the elephant's babyhood, with the aim of being able to ride the elephant and enable them to understand and obey a wide range of commands. Originally, mahouts and their elephants were a valuable resource in Thailand's logging industry whereby the power of the elephant would be used to move heavy tree trunks, however with advancements in machinery and reduced amounts of available timber, mahouts and their elephants have slowly become redundant over the years. These days, many are reduced to travelling to tourist areas to try and scrape a living from holidaymakers by charging for photos or for feeding their elephants. The elephants, not used to urban environments, sometimes end up injured by cars or broken glass and can themselves pose a threat to the general public if upset- hence the establishment of camps such as the one at Anantara, which offer homes and a living for mahouts and their families and a natural environment for the elephants. For both my husband and I, the day we spent with the mahouts and elephants was definitely a once in a lifetime experience and well worth the money. We started off by going into the forest to find our elephants- I was lucky enough to have Jenny who is a bit of a superstar in the world of elephant polo. We then spent some time learning various ways of mounting and dismounting (none of them easy!) and eventually progressed on to riding, first with the mahout behind us and then solo, completely bareback with only a pair of big ears to hold on to. We also learned various commands in Thai, such as 'Faster' and more importantly 'Stop!' and how to turn left and right. After lunch, we took the elephants (and ourselves, we did get very wet!) down to the pool for a bath and finished the day with a trek back through to the forest. This was a fantastic day that I will never forget and would thoroughly recommend if you are an animal lover- admittedly it's not for the faint hearted as it's a long way up there and you do end up using muscles you never knew you had. There is also a three day course available, however you would need to be quite fit as we were aching for days afterwards! Other activities on offer at the resort include day trips to the neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Laos, cookery lessons and yoga classes, as well as use of the gym and spa. We booked in for a Thai massage at the spa, which was great (and slightly painful!) but in hindsight would have been far cheaper in Bangkok. We also booked in for a 'dining by design' experience one evening- an al fresco dinner under a gazebo in the resort's own rice paddy field, surrounded by the singing of frogs. Our dinner involved a great many courses cooked and served by our own personal chef and waiter and we ended by setting off Chinese lanterns- very, very romantic for honeymooners but again not that cheap. The grounds of the hotel are extensive, so it is possible to have some good walks and explore at no extra expense (we even came across some elephants having their own little wander on one occasion.) We also visited the Hall of Opium museum, which is within a 10-15 minute walk and is well worth a look if you are at a loose end, although be warned as this isn't a light hearted experience- it's designed to be thought provoking and is very much geared against the dangers of drug misuse. We stayed at the Anantara resort for four nights and for us this was about right- enough time to chill out and relax and enjoy the activities we wanted to do without becoming bored. I think if we had stayed any longer we would have been itching for more to do, so this may not suit those who like to be busy on holiday or have plenty of amenities on the doorstep. Including accommodation, all the activities, food and drink (not flights), our stay for two people cost between £800- £900 in 2008 and was booked through independent agent Goldcrest Travel. This didn't work out as a particularly cheap option, however it is possible to stay here and pay far less if you don't go overboard on food, drink and activities. Overall, I would highly recommended this as a destination for a very special 'once in a lifetime' holiday, especially for animal lovers or those looking for a calm and peaceful retreat. I would love to be able to go back there one day and have another wonderful day riding the elephants!
When friends and relatives asked me for ideas on what to get my son for Christmas last year, I often suggested musical toys as he has enjoyed music and songs from a very early age. (I do slightly regret this now as our house is full of toys which play some very annoying tunes!) Amongst the gifts he received was the Leapfrog Learn 'n' Groove Animal Sounds guitar, which I was pretty sure he'd enjoy playing with as soon as I saw it. This little guitar is made from very brightly coloured, hard plastic and there is a lot of detail in the design. The neck is yellow, with raised blue frets and blue tuning knobs (these are purely decorative) and at the top of the neck is a large green button, which plays various guitar riffs when pressed. The main body of the guitar is orange, with a red panel on one side in which the on/off switch sits. There are three different modes in the 'on' setting, which you reach by sliding a small green circular button to the left- these modes are counting, animals and music. On the opposite side is a small blue switch with two volume settings (very useful if Mummy or Daddy has a headache!) and a red bilingual switch with an English or French setting. In the middle of the main body is a large wheel divided into five sections, rather like a 'wheel of fortune'. These sections each depict a different type of animal, alongside a number and the corresponding amount of animals. Four of the sections sit behind slightly frosted plastic, so you can see them but not that clearly. The fifth section sits behind a separate clear window and the guitar will play the relevant animal noise or number depending on which picture appears in this window. To spin the wheel, you need to pull a little lever in the shape of a whammy bar, or as my son prefers, you can just spin the red knob in the middle. The whole of the back is encased in bright blue plastic, with the battery case sitting behind a screw on panel. The guitar takes three AA batteries, which are included. Due to the hard plastic casing of this toy, it is very durable and has withstood the normal amounts of abuse inflicted by an excitable toddler (I have actually just found the quite heavy wooden toy box lying right on top of it and it's without a scratch.) The on switch is big enough for little fingers to operate, although unlike other similar toys there is no hidden smaller switch which adults can use to turn off the guitar if the tunes really start to grate. Once the guitar is switched on, a female voice sings a song or says a different phrase depending on which mode has been selected. Your child can then intersperse the tunes with riffs from the fret button and various animal noises and numbers by spinning the wheel. The age range for this toy is suggested from 1-3 years and Elliot received it at 16 months, however safety wise, I would have been happy for him to play with it from the point at which he could sit up unaided. There are no small pieces which could come off, but it would be fairly heavy for younger babies so you'd need to supervise them in case they attempt to clonk themselves on the head with it. In terms of play and learning, I consider this quite a complicated and busy toy for children at the lower end of the age range and Elliot at 18 months tends to play with it more for the musical entertainment it provides. To get the most out of the educational features of the guitar, you really need to play alongside your child and talk to them about the different numbers and animal sounds, however with this toy, it's not actually very easy to do in practice. Rather than spinning the wheel and sitting patiently whilst I explain to Elliot how many sheep there are in the window and how they go 'baaa', he much prefers to spin the wheel and keep spinning it, with a few riffs thrown in for good measure. This results in a cacophony of guitar sounds, annoying tunes and various random 'woofs' and 'oinks' so that I barely have time to say 'ducks go quack' before the thing is meowing at me. Whilst I'm sure that Elliot will get more from this toy as he gets older, in the meantime I think of it more as something secondary that might help reinforce what he learns from feeding the ducks in the park, or from looking at pictures and story books together. There are also many possibilities for using this toy for role play- we often play in our own little family band with Daddy on guitar, Mummy on trumpet and Elliot on drums (The neighbours must love us!) I don't really have enough experience to be able to comment in depth on how the guitar fares with children at the older end of the suggested age range, however we've had a few visitors of around 2 and a half and just over 3 recently who both ignored this toy completely, so it may be just a little too young for some children heading for the three year mark. One final point I'd like to make about the guitar is that some of words to the songs are not very clear at all. I've only recently figured out that one of them is 'I play my guitar, who will sing in my band?' This is rather disappointing for an educational toy, as I would expect all the words to be crystal clear to enable very young children to learn and understand them. Other than that, this toy makes a nice addition to my son's collection of musical 'instruments' and it certainly encourages his musical imagination! The Leapfrog Learn & Groove Animal Sounds Guitar is available from Leapfrog or Sainburys at £14.99, Tesco currently has them on offer for £11.97.
We are big fans of baby sleepbags in our house- no worries about little ones getting tangled up or stuck under their covers, no cold babies due to kicked off blankets and the reassurance of a tog rating designed for whatever the temperature. When my son was born, we were lucky enough to receive two sleepbags as presents which saw us right through to six months, at which point I had to start shopping around for the next size up. On one particular shopping trip, I happened to go into Mothercare and thought I would check out their sleeping bags. To say I was shocked (actually more like horrified!) at the prices would be an understatement. A Gro-bag, which is generally considered to be the leading brand in baby sleepbags, was selling for around £30, with Mothercare's own retailing for around £22. Personally I think this is a ridiculous amount for what is essentially a piece of baby bedding (especially when you really need two in case of accidents) and decided to look elsewhere. A bit of online research later and I found that both M&S and Bhs do their own versions for around £16- a far more respectable figure and so I thought I'd grab one on our next trip to the shops. In the meantime, I was doing a some online sales shopping for a few bits for myself and had picked out a few things from matalan, when it dawned on me that they might also sell sleepbags. Sure enough, I was soon looking at a cute turquoise design with a puppy on the front at a price of...£9. I think I must have done a double take at such a cheap price and did feel rather sceptical as to what the quality would be like but then I thought, what the hell, if it turned out to be terrible I at least hadn't wasted loads of money, so I ordered one in the 6-12 months size. When the sleeping bag arrived, I was very pleasantly surprised. The main part of the outside is made of a bright turquoise velour, which feels lovely and soft to the touch and the chest area is of a cotton/poly mix, which to me feels no different to 100% cotton. There is a sweet little puppy design in one corner and also on the chest and the whole of the inside is lined again in cotton/poly, with a paw print design on the back of the neck. The sleepbag fastens with standard silver poppers over the shoulders and at the sides and then zips together from the bottom right hand corner all the way up to just above hip height on the left. It was February at the time, so I was happy to find that it felt very warm and quite thick and cosy. Although it was a bargain price, it didn't look cheap or nasty and there were no loose threads or any dodgy stitching. In fact, having owned several different brands since, I would say this version is actually better quality than some of the more expensive makes. We did have a problem with the zip on one of my son's previous sleepbags as it was the small 'hidden' type, which we found quite fiddly to do up and eventually it broke. The matalan version however has a standard medium sized zip, which is quite sturdy, easy to fasten and has remained in perfect working order for the duration of its six months of use. Putting the sleepbag on is very straightforward- you just unzip it, lie the whole thing out flat and lie your baby on top of the left hand side with their head above the neck opening. You then fold the right hand side over your baby's body and fasten the poppers over their shoulders, followed by zipping up around the outside and closing the poppers on the sides. I had wondered if the cotton/poly and velour would be less breathable than more natural fabrics, however my little boy has always slept well in this sleepbag and seems very comfortable in there, with no evidence of sweatiness or irritated skin. One thing I will say about this particular sleeping bag is that we have found it to be quite warm- the label doesn't give a specific tog rating, which is a bit annoying, but says it is less than 4 (2.5 is considered suitable for temperatures between 16-20 degrees C.) I would say that of all the sleeping bags we've used, this is the warmest and has been great for cold winter nights. However, Elliot is quite a warm blooded little boy so as soon as the weather becomes milder, I do find I have to switch to a slightly thinner one. Having bought two of these now, it seems Matalan only do them in the one tog rating (I would hazard a guess that it is 2.5 as that seems to be a 'year round' tog.) This means we've had to go for a different brand in warmer weather but this obviously depends on the child and if they tend to feel the cold or not. This would bother me more if I'd spent a lot on the sleepbag, but at £9 I don't think I can really complain! I have had plenty of opportunity to test how well these wash and they do come up really well- after a lot of washing I've noticed our current one isn't quite as soft as it used to be on the outside and has bobbled a bit on the interior, however I haven't really followed the washing instructions as it's been through a 60 degree cycle on many occasions when it should only be on 40 degrees. I imagine that if I'd stuck to the proper instructions, it would look a lot better but nevertheless it's still done fairly well considering the hot washes. I would very readily recommend this sleeping bag to any parent of a baby- most sleeping bags (including gro-bags) only cover a six month size gap so to me, it really doesn't seem worth spending over the odds on something that will be outgrown so quickly. I only wish that matalan would produce these in lighter togs and for over 18 months of age as I would quite happily keep buying them!
When my son reached 13 months old, we decided it was time to get him a pair of proper outdoor shoes. Although he wasn't yet walking by himself, he was becoming less keen on staying in his pushchair while we were out and often wanted to walk around holding our hands. My first instinct was to get him measured at Clarks as they have such a well known reputation as being experts in childrens' footwear, however a friend recommended we try the children's shoe section of John Lewis as she had found the service there to be better. Taking her advice, off we went to our nearest John Lewis to get Elliot's feet measured. I won't go into the details of the service at John Lewis as that's a review for another day, suffice to say we were very pleased with the knowledge the staff displayed and ended up buying a pair of Mini Fun boy's cruiser shoes. These particular shoes are part of a range by clarks, which are designed for children who are not yet walking unaided, or who are still crawling and 'cruising' (in other words, getting about by holding on to furniture and walls etc.) A main feature of these shoes is the rubber sole, which is much softer and pliable than walking shoes and extends over the top of the toe area. This allows greater flexibility for little feet still at the cruising stage, as their toes have to be able to handle the rigours of crawling, pulling up on furniture and getting back down on the floor. The soft leather upper of the mini fun design is in navy blue, with grey detail on the sides, back and tongue. Around the outer ankle and at the base of the tongue is flexible, breathable fabric, whilst the inner ankle is of soft cream leather. The inside of the shoe is also of breathable fabric and has a soft, spongy inner sole covered with a thin layer of soft leather. The shoes are fastened with a strip of material at the front, which passes through a navy plastic ring on one side and and then crosses over to fasten with velcro on the other side. On the back of the shoes is a small fabric loop, designed to help with putting the shoes on and taking them off. The outer sole is also grippable and features a design of jungle animals, which also appear on the fastening strip and loop. We found the appearance of this design to be quite versatile as they strike a good balance between sporty and smart- they are casual enough for day to day wear but also look fine teamed with shirts and trousers for special occasions. In practice, these shoes have been fantastic- the velcro fastening and loop at the back makes them extremely easy to put on (unlike one pair we tried with buckles) and Elliot always appears to be very comfortable in them. Most of Elliot's learning to walk has been done indoors without shoes, however when he wears these outside his feet appear to adjust to the shoes straight away and he's happy to toddle off (and now run) in them. They have proved to be very durable, especially considering the amount of abuse they've endured at Elliot's hands- they've been in rain showers, mud and a worrying stage of being chewed but have survived without damage. They are also easy to clean and come up very well with a bit of normal furniture polish. Surprisingly for us, they have also lasted longer than expected without being outgrown. We went to get Elliot's feet measured again last week and were told that as he is still lifting his arms to balance whilst walking, cruisers are still the best shoes for him and that this pair should be fine for another month or so. This means these shoes will have lasted for five months in total, which as parents of young children will know is a pretty good innings! Of course this may not be true of all children as a lot depends on how fast your child's feet grow, however the sales assistant did tell me that the clarks cruisers have around a half size leeway, which generally gives them a good longevity. This makes the price tag of £22.00 a little easier to swallow, but if you can try and get hold of these or other cruisers during the sales then they are often reduced quite considerably. There is only one negative I can think of as regards the mini fun design- it's very easy for toddlers to work out how to undo the velcro straps and take them off. Within seconds of getting in the car, I normally hear the tell tale rip of velcro and once we reach our destination, I'm presented with a pair of bare feet and a hunt for the discarded shoes and socks. More annoyingly, this is also one of Elliot's favourite activities to pass the time whilst he's sat in the pushchair and we have often come very close to losing his shoes outside and in shops. I imagine this is a common problem of velcro fastening shoes, however if you think that constantly having to put shoes back on is really going to bother you then it's worth considering the buckled variety instead (mind you it's probably only a matter of time before they figure out how to undo buckles as well!) All things considered, this is a great pair of first shoes for children who are learning to walk. I feel I have to take off a star for the price and how easy it is for kids to take them off, but other than that I would highly recommend them as regards comfort and quality.