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MelissaRuth

MelissaRuth
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Member since: 04.02.2011

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      22.06.2013 12:01
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      A brilliant boarding school / love story written for teens but perfect for adults too.

      As a child and teenager I always loved reading school stories; St Claires and Malory Towers, the Chalet School stories and What Katy Did. These all bring back fond memories of reading about the antics that kids get up to in boarding schools. When I started reading 'Anna and the French Kiss' and realised that it was set in a boarding school I was more than happy to read on. As an adult I've not found many school books to read and although this book is classified as a Teen read it is equally suitable and enjoyable for adult reading and made a good contrast to the sort of books that I would normally read.

      I put it on my Amazon wish list after reading a review where I realised that it looked like just my kind of book and luckily my seventeen year old daughter brought it for me for Christmas. Now that I have finished reading it she is whizzing through it and loving it just as much, if not more, than I did.

      The cover of the book is particularly attractive. It has a photograph of half of a girl and a small part of a male (the rest of them is out of shot) sitting on a park bench with their arms extended and supporting them with hands turned in to face each other. The girl has a loving smile on her face as she looks towards the boy. They both wear pale pink jumpers which works well with the colour scheme of a brown bench on green grass; pink brown and green always seem to work well for me. The title is also printed in pink and green and is placed on the wooden bars of the bench. The Eiffel Tower forms the background and is in soft focus. This cover reflects the gentle nature of the book and feels totally appropriate for the content. Another thing about its appearance that made this book special is the thick glossy paper on which the cover is printed which also folds inwards like the sleeve of a hardback with pretty scalloped edges. The blurb is printed on the inside of the front cover and details about the author on the back. The pages themselves are also unlike any book I've read before as they graduate in width giving the book a frilly profile, again creating a nice soft romantic feel as you read.

      The book tells the story of Anna Oliphant (aka Banana Elephant) and Etienne St Claire and their immediate group of friends at the School of America in Paris (or SOAP as they refer to it). Anna has been a relatively happy normal teenager growing up in Atlanta in the States, attending High School and working in a cinema. She has a best friend Bridget and prospects are looking good for a potential relationship with Toph who works in the cinema. Her father, an author, is trying to work his way up in society and deems that by sending Anna to France to complete her last year of education in the prestigious School of America, his status will be raised. It doesn't matter to him at all that Anna doesn't want this or that they don't have the finances for her to live to the standards of other students there.

      As we meet Anna she is being left in her hall of residence by her parents being told 'you'll have a wonderful year here'. Anna tells us the very few facts she knows about France and you realise that she has no knowledge at all of the language, not even the basics of hello and goodbye. Mer, in the room next door is friendly to her however, and at breakfast the next day Anna sits with her and her group of friends who take her under their wings and look after her. It is at breakfast that she first meets St Clair. St Clair is an interesting mix of American, English and French with a posh English accent. He immediately shows interest in Anna and seems quite protective of her. It is St Clair who first shows her how to order food in the canteen as she's been living off of self service sandwiches and St Clair who eventually coaxes her out of her room to see the sites of Paris. Anna is attracted to him but he is in a longstanding relationship with Ellie and besides Anna is going to be electronically communicating with Toph while she's away and she's hoping they'll get together properly in the Christmas holidays when she goes back home.

      Anna lives in Paris for nine months altogether. In the first person she recounts the things that she gets up to while at school so you hear all the normal things about lessons and goings on in the residences, but as they are seventeen they also have freedom to explore Paris, so I also found this interesting. Notre Dam plays quite an important role throughout the story, especially the star outside where you can make a wish - what are Anna and St Clair wishing each time they visit? E mails are also recounted between Anna and Bridget and Toph so that you are able to follow how things are developing back home in Atlanta as well as in Paris.

      Ultimately though it is clear that this is a story of romance and heartache and you live the highs and lows of teenage love with Anna. One of the clever ways of showing how things are going between Anna and St Clair is that she changes how she refers to him dependent on how positive she is feeling. He is known to all by his surname, but Anna gradually begins to call him by his first name, Etienne, as her feelings develop for him. This was a really special touch and again a central part of the book.

      I completely believed in Anna and St Clair. The story telling is absolutely beautiful and I was totally immersed in their characters. It is not so much descriptions of how they look that help to identify them, although St Clair is known for the outlandish hat that he wears, but the emotional aspects of their personalities that I felt I knew intimately. They both have issues to deal with; Anna the rejection of being sent away and St Clair's Mum is seriously ill and these are expressed in such simple understated ways, but it is so easy to relate to them.

      One aspect that really shone through and made me think about my own life, is the role that communication plays in their relationship. If only they would speak to each other and tell each other how they feel about their close friendship, then things could be entirely different for them. It becomes obvious though that they expect each other to mind read and know what the other is feeling and they are not doing this, and I think that so often in our own lives we do this too, so it was good to have this considered quite closely in the book as it definitely makes it feel realistic. But will they manage to do this before the middle of the book, the end of the book or not at all? - You'll definitely have to read to find out.

      I would highly recommend this book to anyone right through from young teens to the oldest of readers. It is probably more of a girls books but I doubt there are many people who would not be completely absorbed in Anna and Etienne's lives and riveted by it all. Although this is a love story there is no sexual content that I would consider unsuitable even for the youngest of teens.

      Both my daughter and I agreed that the title 'Anna and the French Kiss' is not overly inspiring and sounds tacky, with a touch of the 'Angus, thongs and the full frontal snogging to it'. However, it does describe what goes on in the book and we couldn't come up with a better title, so really we shouldn't complain. We're both looking forward to laying our hands on the equally uninspiring title of Stephanie Perkins other book, 'Lola and the Boy Next Door.' The first chapter of this has been printed at the end of the book to whet our appetites.

      Written by Stephanie Perkins who has previously worked as a book seller and librarian before turning her hand so successfully to writing. She lives in North Carolina.
      Published by Speak for the Penguin Group in 2010.
      372 pages with a large font.
      ISBN no: 978-0-14-241940-3
      RRP: No UK cover price is listed but available from Amazon for £5.86 in paperback and £5.28 for Kindle.

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        21.06.2013 18:14
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        A small National Trust house with beautiful walled gardens and parkland - definitely worth a visit.

        Built in the 16th century, the brick built, Tudor house of Greys Court is one of my favourite local National Trust properties to visit. It's not a huge imposing mansion as many NT properties are, but is instead, a large, not overly ornate, homely house with a rambling sequence of spectacular walled gardens set amidst acres of parkland and woods.

        **The practical bits**

        You'll find Greys Court in the beautiful open countryside to the West of Henley on Thames in Buckinghamshire. A car is needed to reach the village of Rutherford Greys on the B481 where it is located. Entering the postcode, RG9 4PG into a sat nav should get you there safely. From March to October Greys Court is open daily with the gardens open from 11 - 5 and the house opening up for the afternoon from 1.00. It also opens up again in December for Christmas festivities.

        As with all National Trust properties the cost of entry is pretty extortionate, but this is essential, as so much expensive maintenance is required to preserve these properties for us to continue enjoying and learning from. Indeed, a couple of years ago when we visited Greys Court it was under scaffolding and polythene wraps as extensive repair work was carried out to many of the Tudor timbers. It is now thankfully back on full view in its fully restored glory. I would recommend joining the National Trust if you like visiting old houses and gardens. Our family ticket to the house and gardens at Greys Court cost £24.75 whereas our years membership was £93.00, so it won't take us long to have made the membership worthwhile. You can join at any property that you visit. An adult costs £9.90 and a child £4.95 with gardens only tickets being £7.70, £3.85 and £19.25 for adult, child and family tickets.

        The shop is a typical National Trust one selling books, gardening equipment, smellies, a few toys and in this case lots of bee and bug habitats to encourage insects into your garden, as can be seen in the kitchen garden here.

        The toilets are right by the shop and include facilities for people with disabilities.

        Most of the paths are gravel so could be a bit of a challenge for pushing wheelchairs over, but certainly not impossible and there is also ramped access to the ground floor of the house. There is disabled parking just outside or drop off is permitted at the entrance to the house.

        ***What is there to see and do***

        **The house**

        Whenever I look around the house I can't help but smile. It's a strange but lived in combination of grandness and historical elegance mixed with 1980s and 90s modernity which in turn are now becoming antiquated in their own rights and lead me to reminisce as I walk around. It feels quite quirky but is very much the natural way in which the house was lived in and you are in no doubt at all that this is a home that until very recently was alive and full of action.

        One of the most renowned former occupants of the house was Francis Knolleys who was the treasurer for Queen Elizabeth 1 as well as the jailer of Mary Queen of Scots. However, the family whose lives you get an insight into as you explore their home are Sir Felix Brunner and Lady Elizabeth Brunner who moved here in 1937 and brought up their four sons in the house and grounds. Despite donating the property to the National Trust in 1969, Lady Brunner continued to live in the house until 2003 and it has been left just as she and her family last used it.

        Downstairs you will visit four rooms. None of the rooms are overly large and pretentious. The drawing room has an ornate fireplace and a wonderful 18th century moulded plaster ceiling and some superb Chinese themed antiques, but the sofa is a comfortable modern one and it feels warm and welcoming. Participation is certainly encouraged here by the National Trust and the children's guide booklet encourages them to lie on the floor so that they can look up at the ceiling. Nowhere is roped off so you can look at anything as closely as you like and sit on the window seat and listen to music. My daughter had a wonderful time playing the grand piano and music is left out to encourage visitors to do this.

        The dining room is functional and the NT have told the history of the house by writing it on the plates laid on the table. Embroidered cushions are also used in this way in the bedrooms. The school room is one of my favourites. There are quite a few old toys from the mid 20th century including a beautiful fully furnished large dolls house. There's commemorative bunting hanging from the fireplace and paperwork on the desk alongside the 1980s style telephone and television. The sofas are practical and apart from books there is much more evidence of modernity and less of the grand past of the house. I think the Brunner's must have spent most of their time in here and I could spend ages browsing as there are so many bits of everyday 20th century life to see.

        The kitchen is fabulous. It's big and has a wonderful range and open cupboards with pretty curtains across. The utensils look as though they have been collected together over many years, but then there is the modern cooker and hob and the big miele fridge and freezer added in too. Nothing has been fully modernised; it has evolved and technology has been incorporated as needed without destroying the past. It is fascinating to look and see what things come from which eras of the houses history. It really does have to be seen as it feels indescribably blended.

        There are two staircases; the grand one from the hall and the back stairs into the kitchen complete with Lady Brunner's stairlift which itself is taking on the look of an antique now. Upstairs you visit three bedrooms and Sir Felix's study. The bedrooms are fairly unremarkable and retain more of the look of the more distant past; they seem to have far fewer possessions in their bedrooms than elsewhere in the house.
        The bathroom though is a very fetching yellowy 70s style - lovely! The study is packed with books and I recognised my old Hitachi record player form the 1980s in here. A classical LP was playing and my 13 year old reminded me that this was the first time that she had ever seen a record player in action! It's then that you start to feel old and realise that your own past is becoming a history lesson.

        You will need a timed ticket, available from the entry kiosk to look around the house.

        **The walled gardens**

        I love to meander around the five areas of the walled gardens with their linking wooden gates. It still comes as a surprise what I will find as I make my way through each little wooden door, especially as everything changes as the seasons progress. Unusually the walled gardens are not to the rear of the property but lie to the front of the main house across the green front lawn and behind a building now housing the tearoom (more of that later) and the dower house which is a private residence.

        The white garden has always been my favourite. Unsurprisingly all of the planting here is white and a vast magnolia tree looks magnificent in spring against the remains of the 14th century stone castle and fortified castle, which forms one wall of this garden. The large pond is home to many frogs and we've spent many hours kneeling on the ground watching them go about their business. There's also a lovely white veranda with table and chairs that you can sit and relax on. It's a very natural unregimented and restful area to sit in.
        The wisteria garden is also impressive as the gnarled 130 year old plant coils around on itself as well as over an arched trellis. The purple blooms are best seen in June. Other themed areas are the rose garden and cherry garden as well as a large and immaculately kept kitchen garden where you will find some unusual ways of attracting bees to the garden and some fun ways of presenting plants to give colour.

        **Parkland and woodland**

        If you have time to spare you can venture over the 'moon bridge' that crosses the ha ha and out into the many acres of parkland, not forgetting to peer into the old ice house. The thatched roof little hut has been restored and you can peer into the deep pit where snow and ice was stored throughout the year to use to keep food fresh.

        Further out still there are marked paths through woods and I would definitely recommend a late spring visit when the woods are bursting with the vibrant scent and colour of bluebells. We've had fun climbing on fallen trees around the pond area as you walk back around towards the carpark.

        **The Maze**

        If like me you picture hedges when the word maze is mentioned, you may be surprised to come across this grassy area with narrow brick pathways, which form the Greys Court maze. The fun is still there aplenty though and we enjoy running around the little paths until we hit the feature in the middle. It's only small and takes a few minutes to complete but it's fun to see where your friends are and to race them to the middle and it's just a little bit different to the norm.

        **The tower**

        The earliest known habitation of this site was a castle built in 1347. An impressive tower and a few walls are all that remains of this now. The tower doesn't look all that high but it feels it as you climb the stone steps to the roof where you can look down on the house and gardens and out over the rolling valley and the woods. It forms a beautiful backdrop to the walled gardens and is the main view from the front of the house.

        **The donkey wheel**

        I never looked down a well so deep before. It's well worth going and seeing the building where donkeys were used to pull water from the well which was used right up to 100 years ago.

        **Tea and cake**

        No visit to a National Trust property is complete without tea and cake in a quant tearoom and this one doesn't disappoint. Recently the small tearoom has been extended by the addition of a large marquee where all of the seating is now provided - maybe not the warmest on a cold Easter day, but with a laid wooden floor and windows all around it was a pleasant place to tuck into a hot chocolate and piece of homemade flapjack. In warmer weather there is also seating outside and people will often be seen sitting out on the lawns at the front of the house or on the daffodil flanked banks near the tower. The selection of cakes is delectable and slices of carrot cake, lemon and blueberry drizzle to name but a few looked both large and very tempting priced from £1.50 - £2.80. Cream tea may be more appealing to some or even soup of the day or homemade vegetable or salmon tartlets and salad or a ploughman's for £6.20. A range of sandwiches and baguettes is also available.

        Picnics are only allowed in the designated but very nice area near the carpark.

        On a chilly Easter day we spent a happy three hours here, but when the weather is brighter and more flowers are in bloom we happily spend a lot longer here and venture out into the woods. I would definitely recommend visiting especially in late spring when the numerous daffodils are in bloom and the white garden looks exquisite and early summer when the wisteria is breath taking as well as all of the roses. Throughout the year special events are held so it is worth checking out the website, for instance there have been Easter Egg hunts for children and theatre productions are planned.

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          24.04.2013 20:30
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          Summary: An exceptional book based in and around Malaya during the second world war.

          "It was not the first time Connie had killed someone". This first sentence immediately draws you into the plot of this book and is the first of many lines of suspense that occur throughout this captivating book. Immediately we learn that Connie Hadley has been involved in a car crash which has resulted in the death of a native Malay woman, but the nature of what happened to have caused her to kill someone previously, is something that I really wanted to find out, but, was left in the dark about for quite some time.

          The dying words uttered by the native woman are key to the way that Connie deals with all subsequent events in the book, "I curse you. You family. You children. And You. I curse you all". The native's sixteen year old twins, Maya and Razak, witness these final words and are determined to seek revenge on behalf of their mother and ensure that the curse is fulfilled. Connie on the other hand feels total guilt stricken, as I'm sure we all would, at what she has done and feels that she must ensure that the twins are looked after.

          The car accident happens in 1941 in Malaya where English born Connie lives with her husband Nigel, on their rubber plantation, just at the time when this area of the world is beginning to be drawn into the Second World War and shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The first part of the book includes some beautiful description of the jungle environment that the plantation has been carved from and the relatively luxurious life led by these Westerners compared to the abject poverty that the twins live in, in the shanty town area of Palur.

          The author introduces most of the key characters of the book in these early stages. Connie (also known as 'old thing' by her husband) is the central character, through whose perspective most of the story is told. She is stuck in a loveless marriage having come to Malaya with no idea of the extreme heat and isolation that she would have to live in, and reminisces long and hard about life back home. Her life now revolves around her young son Teddy and she also has a secret that she can share with no one. Her husband Nigel Hadley was brought up on the plantation and lives for it alone, but also spends time hiding away from his marriage in a stripper bar, whilst pretending to be in meetings. His good friend Jonnie frequently comes to stay and seems to be a grounded, faithful friend to the family, but on one occasion he brings his acquaintance Fitz to the house on. Noone really knows quite what to make of him and they all seem to find him hard to trust. Six year old Teddy has known nothing other than life on the plantation with their servants and fully expects to follow in his father's footsteps. He is a fun love typical lad, loving to play with his dog, Pippin - who plays a very important role in several parts of this book. He also is obsessed with planes and is thrilled to bits when he is brought a kit to make one when Jonnie visits. And then there are the twins. Maya is so bitter, but Razak takes up the opportunity to work in the gardens that Connie has encouraged, to help ease her conscience.

          A sub plot is also running to a lesser extent while the scene is being set back at the Hadley plantation. Madoc runs a bar and brothel out in the jungle and will stop at nothing in his endeavours to acquire money to expand this venture for the benefit of himself and his wife Kitty. He is a greedy bumbling self centred fat character and throughout I pictured him like Mr Bumble from 'Oliver Twist' or the fat greedy innkeeper from 'Les Miserables'. His antics come back to haunt him and eventually their stories interweave with those of the voyagers on the White Pearl.

          I was quite prepared to keep reading about what these characters got up to living or visiting the plantation and was enjoying learning about the two sides of the cultures in Malaya during war time and thought that it was going to be an extremely good read. I knew that it was set in wartime, partly from the picture on the front cover which depicts a bomber flying over a jungle landscape and partly through having read the blurb where it is clear that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour signified an end to the relatively peaceful life that they have known up to now. I was worried that it would turn into a full on war story, but it doesn't at all, although you are always aware that the war is shaping the events that occur. This was a relief as I much prefer to read a people focussed book rather than war facts and horrors.

          The White Pearl after which this book is titled, is a large and luxurious sailing vessel that was given to Connie by her husband as a wedding present. As the war comes closer to home for them and they begin to witness its atrocities, they take to the White Pearl and sail away to safety, adventure and the rest of their lives. And that it as much of the plot as I want to share with you, other than to say that from here on in you will be treated to as much action and adventure, love and hatred as you could possibly wish to have in any book. You'll be enthralled by so many dangers, intimate moments and encounters with goodies and baddies. This book is not a rollercoaster of a read; it is more like one of the fairground rides that fiercely pulls you from one direction to another, harshly changing direction repeatedly but leaving you feeling totally exhilarated and fulfilled. The storyline is so rich, with many twists and turns. Just as I thought I had worked out which direction the plot was going in, I was wrenched away again and all my pre-conceived ideas were uprooted, as I readjusted to the new piece of information I had learnt of unexpected happening that had occurred. This continued right to the end and I would have been no more surprised by a completely devastating ending or a happy ever after one - it could have gone either way! All of the characters appear to have their own agenda whilst on board the ship and it was fascinating to see how these developed and interwove and in some cases totally changed from what we had been strung along to believe.

          Amidst all of this action, that could sound quite chaotic from my description, and certainly is at times, there is also calm. Descriptions of characters and the environment and perfectly portrayed. It is not over sentimental and wordy, but you are able to picture with a high degree of clarity all of the characters and the various settings whether they be in the jungle or out at sea, or at a calm and peaceful time such as sharing Christmas Day lunch or during a wild storm or air raid. The thoughts of the characters are expressed as parts of the book are written from their differing perspectives, so I felt that I had a great deal of insight into each of them, or at least as much as the author wanted me to have at any point in the story.

          It was so interesting to watch as the relationships between the characters evolve as layers are peeled away and they learn more about their true characters or conversely as barriers are put in place and deceptions made. These aspects also add to the whirlwind nature of the book, but it is not confusing at any time as you totally believe in the characters as they are presenting at any one time. Central to the book is the relationship that Connie has with each other member of the cast and how these change over time. Connie's personality develops and changes as she deals with the torrent of emotions and occurrences that rain down on her and her fellow travellers and it is interesting to compare the comparatively weak Connie at the beginning who is submissive to her husband, to the strong character who emerges as events proceed. She makes mistakes and good and bad decisions along the way, but with her throughout is the presence of the native woman's curse.

          Kate Furnivall was a completely new author for me. I may not have chosen this book as historical and war stories would not be my first choice, but I am extremely grateful to the friend, who brought this book as a present for me, for introducing me to the books of such a talented author. The author obviously has a wild and vivid imagination, but a section at the end of the book that explains about how she researches for her novel, reassures me that this is grounded in well researched historical fact. My knowledge of this period in history has definitely been enhanced as well as my understanding of the cultures of these countries and the relationship between natives and colonials. Her writing style is fast paced and absorbing and she has an excellent capacity to thoroughly engage her readers. I read the book quickly as I was so engaged. Each chapter seems to end with a cliff hanger, so whereas I would normally be quite satisfied to stop reading at the end of a chapter, I really didn't want to turn out the light to sleep. The book went everywhere with me and I found myself snatching small segments to read at any available moment.

          I'm sure that my enthusiasm has already made it clear that I highly recommend this book. I'm a 40 something year old female, but I'm now passing it onto my seventeen year old daughter as I think this will be just her sort of book. I think a male would also appreciate the gripping writing style and there is certainly plenty of action and adventure. There is also enough romance to satisfy people who like that genre of book. I would say that there is a well balanced mix of content so there should be a bit of something for everyone. She has also written four other novels, so these will now be added to my wish list and I will look forward to reading them all as well. She is currently writing a book set in the archaeological world of Egypt in the 1930s just after Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered, which sounds like it will be a good one to look out for too.
          Reading group questions are included and this would make an excellent choice for a reading group as it offers up so many discussion opportunities.

          ISBN:978-0-7515-4336-0
          RRP- £6.99
          430 pages

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            10.04.2013 12:44
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            High quality photograph albums with a simple design and space to record memories.

            Taking photographs and recording family memories have always been so important to me. I'm not happy to just leave my photographs in files on my computer. I enjoy having them scrolling through as my screen saver and have a digital photo frame, but there's nothing quite like having a printed photo to look back on or to show to other people. I'm worried that future technologies will render the computer copies obsolete, a bit like old slides which are so difficult to look at and videos that need to be transferred to be able to view them as technology has moved on. I would also never feel happy to leave my prints in packets; I like to have them displayed in albums and preferably ones where I have room to write something beside them.

            When I needed a new photo album I searched on Amazon and found the Green Earth series of albums. I really liked the look of them especially as each one has a die cut animal or shape on the front in various colours, making it a set that can be collected. The cost of the one that I brought with a seahorse on was £10.99, about six months ago, and usually one in the series is on sale at this reduced price; at the minute (30.03.13) it's the black whale one. The usual price, however, is £13.99 with £3.95 postage and packaging. This is pretty expensive and I will buy more when they are at the reduced price, but I do think that these are the best quality and nicest looking of any of the many photograph albums that I own and are therefore worth the price. There is a discounted price for buying three together of £38.97.

            The albums are of the slip in variety which is definitely my preference. They are much kinder to photographs and far more likely to maintain them in good condition than the adhesive types where the acid in the materials causes yellowing and degeneration of the photographs after a surprisingly short amount of time. Each album holds 300 6 x 4"photographs with three being held on each half of the page in a horizontal landscape position. This is a slight draw back as if you have a vertical photograph you won't be able to display it the right way up and will need to crane your neck to see the image. However, this is the case with almost all of my albums, so not something that would deter me from buying this type again.

            Each album measures 33cm x 24cm and my full one is 7cm wide. All of them have a high quality brown thick cardboard cover, which has a very natural feel. The pale brown colour is slightly striped and resembles brown packing paper in a way, although it's obviously far more substantial. The binding is then a different colour for each design. Mine has a thick textured blue strip of binding that adds to the simple decorative features and extends 5cm across the cover. The remaining decorative feature on the front takes the form of a rectangular strip of this same deep blue card which is embossed at the bottom with the Green Earth logo and underneath says 'paper grown on earth'. Stuck onto this, in a pale yellow different textured card, is the die cut outline of a seahorse. The sea horse shows through in the dark blue colour under this stencil type outline. Finally there is a deep green material tag attached between the outer cover and an inner piece of lining paper which looks very smart and again says 'Green Earth' The overall appearance is simple, natural and is obviously very high quality.

            Other options of die cut image and colour scheme are a blue starfish, orange sun, black whale, yellow flower, red flower and red heart, black elephant. All have the same fawny brown coloured background. I think that they are perfect for a themed use and if I was going on safari, I can think of nothing better than the elephant one or the sun for a beach holiday.

            Moving inside, the inner cover and both sides of the first brown card pages are left blank. I have used one of these to create an index, but if the album was recording pictures from a single event it would make a great neutral background for a title page. There is a similar page inside the back cover as well as a useful pocket that can be used to store all sorts of other memorabilia such as holiday tickets, maps and leaflets etc. There are fifty pages containing plastic sleeves divided to hold three pictures on each side. The points where they are divided seem strong and I experienced no ripping, which I have quite a few times with other albums.

            Beside each photo there are eight short ruled lines to encourage you to write a little bit about each photo. Albums that offer this opportunity have such long term benefits in reminding you what you were doing and when and who you were with, in years to come and are also great for letting other people read as they look through your snaps. For me, recording this kind of information brings an album to life and I often wish that heritage photos in our family had been recorded in such a way, as now those memories attached to the photos are lost and often I don't even know who is in them.

            This album, ordered from Amazon Market place, via a company called Harrison Cameras Direct, arrived within a few days and I was extremely impressed with the robust way in which it was packaged. The album is wrapped initially in cellophane to keep it clean and then in copious amounts of bubble wrap and cardboard before being placed in a Fed Ex bag for dispatch. You can also order directly from Harrison Cameras for the same price and they also sell lots of other sizes, such as 40 photos, 100, 200, 600.

            I have been looking to see if I could find any reference to whether these products are environmentally friendly but haven't been able to find any reference to whether they are made from recycled materials or from managed forests. They feel very natural and I truly hope that they are.

            I have added these albums to my Amazon wish list and really hope that I will be able to collect the whole series. They will look great lined up on a bookshelf together.

            Summary
            Photographs and the memories that they hold are priceless and I would strongly recommend printing your photos and using these albums to store them and record a few memories. They are high quality and their simple die cut designs are eye catching.

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              26.03.2013 13:10
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              Beautiful historic riverside hotel in the New Forest.

              A spur of the moment look on booking.com to see if we could find somewhere to stay in the New Forest revealed that we could have a room for two for £69 plus £20 extra for our daughter to share the room, in The Master Builders Hotel at Buckler's Hard near Beaulieu in the New Forest. We were pleased with this price as it wasn't too much more expensive than alternatives given such as a Premier Inn in Southampton. As we were hoping to visit the Motor Museum at Beaulieu this hotel was perfectly located as it is only two miles further down the river.

              The Beaulieu Motor Museum is signposted from junction 2 of the M27 motorway which leads from Southampton into the New Forest and I would recommend following these signs right into Beaulieu and then follow the road to Limington and Brokenhurst signs from here and shortly after a turn on the left will be signposted to Bucklers Hard and then again on the left about a mile further on the driveway into the hotel is signed.

              **Buckler's Hard**

              You may have heard of Buckler's Hard; it's a tourist attraction in its own right and you can pay to visit a tourist centre just past this hotel or like us you can just choose to stay right in the heart of the historic village. What makes Buckler's Hard so special is that it is the point on the Beaulieu river where a ship building yard used to stand in the 18th Century. When I looked at the remains of the slipway on this beautiful stretch of river I assumed it was small sailing type boats that were made as these are the type of boats that can now been seen in the marina. I was shocked then to discover that I had underestimated the scale of production on this site quite considerably; picture HMS Victory and that is exactly the type of ship that started life at this picturesque spot. Paintings inside the hotel show exact ships that were built here and I was so impressed to see one painting of the Spanish Armada where no less than three of the ships originated here, one of which being Nelson's personal favourite, HMS Agamemnon.

              As recently as the Second World War this area was used for the construction of dummy landing craft which were then used to confuse the Germans and lead them to think that the British invasion of Europe would come from Calais rather than Dunkirque. The remnants of a recent archaeological dig were evident on the water front where the archaeological team had been looking at this 20th Century use of the area. My husband says that he remembers seeing a Time Team dig where they based outside of the hotel investigating the 18th Century use of the land.

              **The Master Builder's House**

              The Master Builder's House was built in 1729 and was home to Henry Adams, a renowned shipwright. It stands right on the edge of the water overlooking the old slipways and forms the end of a terrace of red brick built cottages with a symmetrical terrace just opposite. These cottages with the village green and gravelled track through the middle are a famous British landmark and are ever so pretty. There is nothing industrial about this landscape now. The views from our room were across the green to the cottages opposite and across the wide river which is full of sailing boats. It is as picturesque a setting as you could ever wish to stay in and knowing its historical importance made this an exciting location for our mini break.

              This end portion of the terrace was converted into a hotel during the last Century and is now run by the small chain, Hillbrooke Hotels. It consists of the main building where you can stay in chic or luxury rooms and there is also a newer block where the standard rooms are located, but they have less good views. We were lucky enough to have been given a 'chic' room, room 32 - Fervent, up in the attic.

              The main house also houses the restaurant, reception, the beautiful lounge with large inglenook fireplace as well as French doors overlooking the river. The hotel also operates as a pub and the restaurant is also open to the public, even serving breakfasts for sailors moored in the marina. Outside is a large terraced area with picnic tables and also a good sized lawn which has a giant chess set on it to keep little ones amused. A gravelled carpark is plenty big enough for all customers.

              **Reception**

              My first contact with reception was via a telephone call as I prepared to book online as I wanted to check that the additional bed in a room was suitable for a nearing adult sized teen and also to query local sports activities. The receptionist was extremely helpful even looking up horse riding on the internet for me. They weren't able to offer the price I had located on the internet however so I returned there to finalise my booking. Their own website advises that a room for two is priced from £130, which presumably would have been the standard room, so well worth hunting around for a good deal. It also suggests that a minimum of 2 nights must be booked at a weekend whereas we were able to book just the one night.
              On arrival the friendly receptionist quickly located our booking and asked the normal questions about wake up calls, restaurant booking and newspapers and then showed us to our room. Checkout and payment was also efficiently handled.

              Reception and the corridors and stairs are all painted in quite a dark blue colour with dark wood floors or a fairly weathered blue carpet on the stairs which can appear a bit gloomy. It is clear inside how old the property is as you feel a little drunk as you climb the sloping uneven stairs. As it is so old it has not been possible to install a lift. The ground floor was mostly level but there is even a step to access the newer block, so I wouldn't recommend this as somewhere to stay if you have mobility difficulties.

              **Our room**
              The hotel advertises that its ethos is 'relaxed friendly service in quirky surroundings'. As we were shown into our room we were definitely met with quirky surroundings. Our first impressions were that it was vast and also very red. The room was in the attic with three dormer windows as well as a smaller window in the end wall, that all provided good ventilation once opened as it was stifling when we first arrived. There is no air conditioning. The sloping walls were all painted in a historical red colour with a white ceiling and lots of old beams. A large ornate rug really set off the cream carpet and made the room feel cosy. Furnishings were all in dark wood or black wrought iron and red blinds and white bed linen and lamp shades finished off the soft furnishings.

              An entrance hallway leads into main part of the room and a large wardrobe is in here as well as a suitcase stand. The main room has a voluminous Queen size bed with a wonderfully comfortable mattress and feather pillows that we both had a really good nights sleep in. The headboard and pictures on either side are rather erotic carved features and possibly a little unsuitable for sharing a room with your teen, but great if it's your wedding night! My daughter found the mattress a little on the hard side on her daybed, but she seemed to sleep well enough on it and being wrought iron it looked really good. We did have to request reception to bring the bedding up for this as it hadn't been made up despite booking for three. A cream wooden fretwork folding screen brightened up the look of the room and could also be used to divide the main and daybed if more privacy is required. Other furniture included a fun oversized armchair, bedside tables, a dressing table / writing desk and mirror, a chest of drawers with a flat screen TV on it with temperamental reception, and a coffee table with tea and coffee making facilities and bottled water. There was also a complimentary bottle of a locally made spirit. Despite being an attic room there was plenty of headroom.

              The en-suite bathroom carried through the beamed and red theme and contained a large bath with shower attachment - there is not a wall mounted shower as the bathroom is within the eaves with no proper wall to fix one too. The toilet was the only thing that let this room down; the water pressure just wasn't adequate and several flushes were always required! A pretty shelf above the sink contained miniature toiletry bottles - shampoo, conditioner and bath / shower gel, shower cap and vanity set and a hair dryer was also provided. Towels were plentiful and thick and fluffy and I should also mention that the white bed linen which is apparently made from best Egyptian linen felt thick and had a wonderful fresh newly laundered smell.

              A welcome note from the manager was left on the bed which basically hoped that we had a good stay and offered assistance if required and reminded us that we could buy tickets for local attractions for a 10% discount at reception - shame we'd been to the paying attraction that we wanted to do before checking into the hotel! A useful folder is also included in the room with details about local attractions and a bit of history of the area and the hotel as well all the practical information that you need to know such as breakfast times and emergency numbers.

              All in all we were really pleasantly surprised by this room and found it to be clean and comfortable with everything that we needed.

              **Is the food as good as the room?**

              In a word - yes - we enjoyed both the evening meal that we ate in the bar and our breakfast. A quick glance at the restaurant menu revealed that this was somewhere to go for a special meal as it is a bit pricey, so we opted for the bar as it was serving traditional bar food at slightly higher than average prices and fitted better with our requirements. The bar is open to the general public and seemed to be a very popular place, but we did manage to secure the last table at about 7 o'clock. As with the rest of the building it retains its rustic feel with dark uneven wooden floorboards and stone walls and fireplace. Service was quick and friendly and we were very pleased with the quality of the food.

              My husband and I both chose a ploughmans which came served on a wooden chopping board. I was a bit concerned about the hygiene of serving on wood as I know that that bacteria can be harboured in the wood, but we seem to have come away healthy. This cost £11.25 plus £3.50 each for the pot of chips that we chose to add. It consisted of pork pie, New forest scotch egg, Godminster organic cheese, salad, chutney and bread. It was good that everything appeared to be locally sourced, but if I was being picky I would have liked a bit more seasoning in the scotch egg and I found the pastry a little chewy and some more bread would have been good. The cheese was delicious and I enjoyed the salad leaves but it lacked any other salad content and I felt that there should have been some tomato and cucumber included as a minimum. That all sounds very negative but it was well presented and I did really enjoy it. The chips which were served in a little silver bucket were chunky and crispy and perfect for how I like them. My daughters battered fish and chips came served with mushy peas and tartare sauce in little pots and she really enjoyed her plentiful portion, as did her Dad who polished off the leftovers. This cost £12.50. A good range of drinks was available, but surprisingly they had run out of lemonade, which I've never come across in a pub before.

              The menu choice is limited, but I think that this was a positive as they could concentrate on preparing this food well and as it was busy they could serve quickly. Puddings such as crème brulee and chocolate brownie and ice cream all cost £6 but we were too full to contemplate these. There are no starters on the menu but some of the side orders could be used as a starter if required and sandwiches are also available for about £6. Food is served over lunch time and from 6 - 9.30pm daily and they also serve afternoon tea from 3 - 6pm which would be lovely to eat out on one of the benches in the garden in summer.

              Breakfast is served in the tastefully decorated restaurant. The bluey green painted woodwork and booths with red and white striped seats and the dark wooden floorboards felt very restful and this was a beautiful room with French doors leading onto the patio and views of the boats in the marina. There are lots of paintings in this room of sailing vessels and some of these are labelled to show ships that were built at Buckler's Hard.

              A table was laid out with assorted cereals, miniature pastries and a bowl of fruit salad which disappointingly seemed to be almost exclusively apple. Orange and cranberry juice was available in jugs as well as a banana smoothie, which my family tell me was delicious. Tea and coffee and toast were brought directly to the table by the waitresses. I felt that these elements of the breakfast were lacking and I would have liked to have seen more fresh fruit choices and yogurts and possibly some delicatessen items. A good array of cooked breakfasts was also available however such as muffins with salmon and egg and bacon sandwiches. We all chose to have the full English cooked breakfast with fried eggs. This was tasty and although not huge quantities it was nicely filling. The eggs were perfectly cooked with the yoke runny and a very thoughtful touch was that of the two slices of bacon one was more well done than the other to hopefully cater to all tastes. My husband complained at the lack of baked beans but in my opinion that was a good omission and another good omission was that they had run out of black pudding. These breakfasts are available for £14 for people not staying in the hotel.

              **Summary**

              We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at The Master Builders House hotel. We loved the historical interest attached to the building and the outstanding location. We were impressed with the size, comfort and cleanliness of our room and also with the friendliness of the staff. As there is so much do in the New Forest that we didn't have the opportunity to do on our short stay I'm absolutely sure that we will be re-visiting the area and we will definitely try to stay in this hotel again if we can access a good price like we did this time. I would recommend it to anyone else wanting a good base to visit the New Forest.
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                01.03.2013 14:06
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                An excellent, but expensive, tour of some of the real sets from the Harry Potter films.

                Have you devoured every page of the Harry Potter novels? Have you waited with great anticipation for each new film to be released? If so, the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studio tour should be a must on your wish list of places to visit this year. To be honest even if you are just moderately interested in the series, I think that this is an attraction well worth visiting as there is so much to experience. With about 80% of the tour being indoors it also makes this a perfect winter day out - something for which I was extremely grateful when I visited on a freezing cold sleety Sunday in February.

                What makes the tour feel so good is that you are in the actual studios where the vast majority of the filming of all eight of the Harry Potter films were shot. These are the real sets, the real props and the real costumes - no US style mock ups here and as Harry, Ron, Hermione or Draco lead you around the whole world of Hogwarts, Privet Drive and the Burrow, to name but a few, are really brought to life. I can't wait to watch the films again and spot the sets and I'm sure I'll see them in a new light now.

                The Warner Brothers studios are located in Leavesden in Hertfordshire, just outside of Watford and are sign posted from junctions 19 and 20 of the M25, from which it is a couple of miles away. We found it easily using their sat nav directions, but there are also clear written directions. The huge creamy yellow warehouse type structures that form the studios are located on an old airfield site and there is therefore amply parking space right outside.

                **Tickets please**

                A word of warning - tickets must be purchased on line in advance, so don't turn up expecting to just go in as no tickets are sold onsite. Adults are £29 and children £21.50 with family tickets also available for £85. You can also buy a ticket that gives an audio tour and souvenir guide. You will need to select a 30 minute window timed entry slot and can opt for your tickets to be posted to you or print an E mail receipt and collect your ticket from machines in the car park. My opinion is that these prices are a little high, and although we spent nearly 5 hours here, it is an awful lot to spend for a family and as such only myself and my 18 year old daughter went as the rest of the family were not so keen so the cost couldn't be justified.

                **You've arrived at the world belonging to Harry, Ron and Hermione**

                The big decision we faced was whether to have an audio tour or not and then whether to have one each or to share. I'm glad we did opt to have one each as there is way too much information to share. They were easy to use and contained so much interesting information. However boards and TV screens around the various sets were also really informative, so they are not essential. I would only recommend the audio tour if you have about 4 hours to spare, are really interested and have no children with you as they will get bored. The other family that we visited with ended up moving at a much faster pace with their younger children, so we lost contact with them. If travelling as a group I would just use the onset information and this should be perfectly adequate.

                Firstly you will be escorted into a welcoming area, followed by a cinema where Harry, Ron and Hermione tell you a bit about life filming at Leavesden and how it was home to them for 10 years. I was really interested to know how they managed their education as well as time on set here and how the crew were like family to them. And then the moment arrives when the doors to Hogwarts open and you enter the Grand Dining Hall, laid out for dinner with the staff (well models of them) on the dais at the front. It really is just as impressive as you'd expect it to be.

                Up until this point staff have escorted your tour and they give more introductory information in the Hall, but once you leave the Hall and enter the main studio area you are free to roam at your own speed taking as long as you like to explore. The audio guides then begin, as do the children's' passports. The passports are a fun workbook for children to answer questions, spot golden snitches on the sets and collect stamps - I even had a go myself! Children particularly seemed to like the embossing stamp machines. A few of the displays have interactive elements and there is a fun area where you can fly on a broom or in the Weasley's blue Ford Anglia in front of a green background and have your photo taken (£12 each decreasing in price with multiple purchases). Children seemed happy but I can imagine that you would whizz around quite quickly with youngsters and not really get your money's worth. I certainly wouldn't take any child who doesn't know the films well.

                The main studio is like a huge aircraft hanger and contains sets from all of the films and also many individual props and explanations of how things like the rotating stair cases work. My favourites had to be the boy's dormitory with Neville, Dean, Harry and Ron's beds in and the kitchen of the Weasley's home, the Burrow. I loved the fact that the characters / actors had personalised their bed areas over the course of their seven years at Hogwarts and found it really amusing to know that the set had been designed with beds to suit the eleven and twelve year old actors; by the time filming ended there was no way the now adult size actors could fit in their beds so they were always filmed in a curled up position.

                The burrow was the most fun and interactive set as by pressing buttons you are able to set the knitting needles knitting all on their own, the washing up brush scrubbing a pan, the chopping knife cutting up a carrot and the iron ironing; lucky Mrs Weasley having these labour saving devices! This set was also the brightest and most colourful and included so much detail. I particularly liked the food boxes with names like 'Cheery Owls'. Even without audio guides there is a good hour and a half's worth of time to be spent looking around this area, but I won't spoil the surprise by including too much more about individual exhibits.

                Only leave this area when you are totally sure that you have seen everything that you want as once you progress through to the backlot you won't be able to return. I was itching to get out to the backlot as through the glass doorway I could see the bright purple 3 story high knightbus and I really wanted to see this despite the sleet! You are able to stand on the conductor's platform and look into the beds but sadly can't go any further. The same with no 4 Privot drive, you may knock but not enter. You can however sit in another one of the blur Ford Anglias and pose for a photo - by the way did you know that 17 and a half of these cars were used in filming altogether! Hagrids motorbike is also great for taking photos in. The bridge which features in the later films is also here but we couldn't walk over it as it was too wet.

                Back in the warm again you progress through the Creatures room. I found this fascinating, especially watching 3 films that show how various creatures used in the film are made. They are easy to watch films ideal for keeping children's attention and feature one of the dwarf actors who played a goblin in Gringotts bank. It was great to see how some of the animatronics work and how Hagrid appears so big and even Dobby is here to see. Don't look up to the ceiling if you're easily frightened!

                Diagon Alley comes next. This set is still in-situ and ready to be used again if needed and is every bit as wonky and magical as I envisaged. Peer in the window of Olivander's wand shop or choose and owl, go to the apothecary and don't forget Weasly's bright red joke shop with its puking pastel figure out the front - gross!

                The logo of the studio tour is 'where secrets are revealed'. The last point on the tour is the piece de resistance and I think visitors are supposed to keep this secret too, so as not to spoil the surprise for future visitors, so I won't reveal any more other than to say that it has a real 'wow' factor and is mightily impressive and was used throughout each of the eight films. You really should go and see what it is for yourself.

                After seeing and hearing all that is on offer at the studios I can really see why these were such big budget films. Everything is made with such fine attention to detail and is so intricate.

                **Can I have a souvenir please?**

                I couldn't believe my eyes when I picked up something to buy in the shop. I'd planned to take some every flavour beans and a chocolate frog home, but at £8.95 and £7.95 respectively I quickly returned them to the shelf. These were small packets and I cannot see how these prices can be justified, except that there were queues at the tills so someone must be happy to part with their well earned cash. A few other examples are a robe costing £75, a small cuddly owl £12 and a mug £12. The shop is really big with pretty much any kind of souvenir you can imagine and you have no choice about going in as the tour exits through here. It may be worth priming small children first to avoid a tantrum or an expensive bill.

                **Butterbeer or a cake please**

                A good sized cafe is located in the entrance lobby with some lovely looking muffins and cakes for £2-3 and costa coffees and other drinks at about £2.50 for a small size. They also serve soups, salads and sandwiches. We chose to take a picnic as the time of our tour would mean that we were only in the lobby for what would be either a very early or very late lunch and there is a covered outdoor picnic area half way round. The tour is one way only so if you choose to go out to the cafe you cannot re-enter. There is also a small refreshment stall by the picnic area in the back lot. Again you cannot use this area, other than at the point where the tour passes through it. I really can't see why you can't walk to and fro between the parts of the exhibition, but I guess they are trying to control crowds and keep things moving. We brought butter beer from here, as that felt like an essential part of the Harry Potter experience - a strange somewhat sickly butterscotch kind of taste, but my daughter loved it. This costs between £2.50 for a plastic beaker to £6.50 for a souvenir tankard.

                The main toilets are located in the lobby and there are others in the largest studio area, which seemed to be plenty, but I'm not sure what you'd do if you were taken short in the back lot of second studio area. Both times I went into the toilets there was someone wiping down the sinks and dryers and they were spotless.

                Wheelchair access is good throughout the tour.

                **Summary** A visit to the Harry Potter Studio Tour gives a fascinating glimpse into the process of making a Harry Potter film. I totally recommend visiting here to anyone who loves the Harry Potter stories and has watched the films. Some sets are missing that I had really hoped to see, but they really have included a good amount to make your visit worthwhile and enjoyable. It is a shame however that the prices are so expensive, especially in the gift shop.

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                  14.02.2013 09:43
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                  Traditional gorgeous jaffa cake taste, but in a slim rectangular biscuit.

                  When standing in the queue at a Marks and Spencer store, this double pack of M and S own brand jaffa cakes, forced themselves into my arms along with my other purchases. We were en-route on a very long journey and they seemed like a perfect in car treat. At £1.39 for the 2 packs I thought that they were well priced. Each box contained 11 biscuits / cakes with a total weight of 125g. I'll refer to them as biscuits in this review as despite their name they do seem more of a biscuit than a cake to me.

                  The packaging is quite over the top, with the biscuits lined up in a heavy duty moulded plastic tray and then wrapped in cellophane. A rectangular cardboard box then keeps these safe and yet more cellophane seals the two packs boxes together. The outcome of this though is that the biscuits do reach you in tip top condition with none broken, but they certainly aren't environmentally friendly, although the box advises that all of these materials are recyclable. The box is a thin rectangular shape; not what you normally expect from jaffa cakes, but then these biscuits aren't your normal round shape but a rectangular shape too. Orange is the key colour on the box - what else would best suit such a fruity orange flavoured treat. We are told that the contents are golden sponge topped with tangy orange and half coated in dark chocolate - mmmm that sounds good and the pictures of the biscuits look tempting too.

                  Full ingredient and nutritional information is provided, but the key one that I expect we all want to know are the calories - that'll be 45 per biscuit - not too bad for a treat I think. The packaging does tell you the total recommended amount per day but to be honest I'm never going to do the sums of how many biscuits I could eat on a daily basis and I would really value the use of a traffic light system to tell me if they are high or low in fats, salts etc. In terms of fat though if my maths is correct I could eat about 50 of these per day and be within recommended levels! Sugar is high too, as you would expect.

                  Other useful information is that they are not suitable for people with a nut allergy, but this is due to the manufacturing facilities and they do not actually contain nuts. I don't have a nut allergy but I do find this highly annoying as I believe food production factories should have specific guaranteed nut free areas to make nut free products in order to give allergy sufferers greater freedom of choice of food to eat. They are however suitable for vegetarians and contain no artificial colourings and preservatives, always a positive thing and they still manage to have a long shelf life - over three months on my pack. Other allergy sufferers should be warned that they contain cows milk, eggs, soya, wheat and gluten.

                  **And on to the important bit**

                  Who's ever heard of a jaffa cake being oblong in shape? It's just not right - they always have been and always should be round. They should also be bigger than these teeny weeny little rectangles, which measure a mere 5 x 3cm and are incredibly thin - not quite wafer thin, but only ½ cm. However, I can forgive these short comings in shape and size as they taste absolutely sublime. The balance and consistency of the light sponge base, the thin orange jelly layer and the sumptuous dark chocolate is in my opinion, perfect. The sponge is probably most present as an alternative texture to the gooey jam and rippled chocolate, rather than a distinctive taste. It is about half of the overall depth. The jam layer is very thin, but the tanginess makes this the most dominant flavour and it is very sweet, although not too sweet for me, but I do have a very sweet tooth and they may prove too sweet for some. I expect this is why they are made small, but personally for me one, or even two was just not enough, which does reduce their value for money somewhat. Finally the chocolate is a rich dark colour and it tastes bitter with an obvious high cocoa content and indeed cocoa mass is the top ingredient in the chocolate. I believe there has been no scrimping on using the best ingredients, for example, free range eggs are used, and these own brand biscuits rival the original McVities jaffa cakes exceptionally well in taste. Because of their delicate proportions and thin layer of sponge I may actually go as far as saying that I prefer them.

                  I do recommend these and at about 6p each compared to McVities which are selling for 10p each with Ocado, they still seem well priced despite their smaller size. I am sure that I will buy them again, but only as a treat as there is nothing healthy about them (except that they contain 5% orange juice - do you think I could get away with counting a packet of these as one of my five a day). Despite them being the wrong shape I still have to give them 4 yummy stars, losing one for the excessive packaging. Actually I think M and S have been quite brave changing the shape - they're growing on me.

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                    18.01.2013 15:29
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                    A beautifully written childs eye view of the blitz in Scotland.

                    I read a review of Mavis's Shoe by Sue Reid Sexton last year and immediately put it onto my Amazon wish list as it looked as though it would be a book that would have an impact on me. And low and behold on Christmas Day there is was under the tree.

                    I had not heard of the author before and looking at the book I can see no indication of her having published anything prior to this which was released in 2011. It seems that she has since written a dramatisation of the book which has been performed. I am sure that she will be an author that we will hear plenty more from in the future as this is a truly moving and brilliantly written book.

                    **Just another war story?**

                    Set in 1941 Mavis's Shoe recounts two awful nights of bombing, by the Luftwaffe, of Clydebank in Scotland. This really is not just another war story, however. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a pretty harrowing read that undoubtedly led to an increase in my understanding of what it would have been like to have been caught in this ferocious nightmare where all but 7 houses in the town were damaged or destroyed, but there is something very different and special about this book.

                    Lenny (Leonora) is the main character in this story and everything that is recounted is from her perspective, reading a little like an autobiography even though it is fiction, albeit based on sound research of a very real episode. She is 9 at the time and we first meet her as the air raid sirens are starting up on the 13th March, the first day of the air raids. She has lost her little sister, Mavis, who has run off, after they had a run in with some 'bad boys' while out playing. As the bombs rain down Lenny runs up and down their local streets desperately trying to find Mavis and then her Mum too, who had been at the pictures with a friend. How can she have lost her little sister in the first place? She is only four, and now there is such danger and horrific sites to be witnessed and she feels so worried and guilty. The one thing that she does find on her search is a shoe identical to Mavis's.

                    Mavis's shoe takes on monumental importance throughout the remainder of the book as the search for her precious sister develops in a number of ways. She can never be parted from it.

                    I felt as though I was right there with Lenny every step of the way as the days progressed since the siren sounded and Mavis disappeared. Her emotions are portrayed so clearly and seem so real that I could always understand exactly why she took each course of action that she did and why she responded to the other characters in the book as she did. I can also picture her so clearly with her singed almost nonexistent hair, borrowed dress and hat with the daffodil fixed into it.

                    Lenny was lucky because she was taken in and cared for by Miss Weatherspoon, who she cheekily, calls Miss Weatherbeaten throughout, who used to be a teacher at her school and rescued her in the immediate aftermath of the first night of bombing. Along with Mr Tait, the scary old neighbour with the wooden stick for hitting children, she guides Lenny away from her desperate hunt for her family, and they walk out over the hills while yet more bombs fall over the town, eventually arriving at Carbeth.

                    Carbeth, prior to the war was a holiday retreat for the Glasgow city livers and consisted of wooden huts, which were commandeered to house the many people trying to escape the Blitz. Into one of these huts the escapees are deposited and so starts the rest of Lenny's story.

                    I didn't really take to Miss Weatherspoon; her character seemed quite complex and possibly double sided, but Mr Tait is portayed exceptionally well and it is clear to see how Lenny comes to look on him as such an important figure in her little world. He knows what is right and she trusts him implicitly and he is her real friend. There are many more characters that appear once Lenny is living at Carbeth who all play an important part in how she behaves and how she becomes integrated into this artificial community. It is so interesting to see how this new community pull together to re-establish their lives.

                    However, no matter how much Lenny integrates and how many people are looking out for her, no one can replace her mum and Mavis and she spends hours looking at that shoe and singing old favourite rhymes, remembering them and working out how she can get them back. She feels safe at Carbeth and with its rope swing, hills, woods, shop in a bus and her new school, all she wants is to bring her whole family here to live.

                    The book is beautifully written. Nothing is over written or over described. It is simple and childlike but I feel that I know exactly what Clydebank and Carbeth were like and I know just enough to piece together the horrors that Lenny has seen. The cover of the book adds to this and is presented perfectly. Despite being a paperback it is a luxurious glossy feeling book. Do try and read this in paper version and not on an E reader as the cover really does add to the whole reading experience. The front is poignant; flames rise behind gutted buildings at the top with the bottom being taken up with a close up picture of a little brown leather shoe lying on its side on a cobbled pavement beside shards of glass and remnants of bricks. Opening up a flap, much like the sleeve of a hardback book alongside a quoted paragraph from the book there is a real photograph of a smouldering demolished street with a wrecked tram at the centre and people obviously searching for their loved ones or property. Inside is a scene that Lenny clearly describes on her search, looking out of a ruined house with just the range set into the thick wall and the copper kettle intact on it and the Singer sewing machine building outside where her Mum and Mr Tait worked. Inside the cover of the back flap is a photograph showing one of the huts at Carbeth. As you can imagine alongside the prose these really help to set the scene and help your imagination understand Lenny's world.

                    The book is just over 400 pages long with fairly large print and I raced through it quite quickly. Despite the potentially distressing content I found it an easy book to read. I liked being able to follow Lenny's journey on a map provided at the beginning and there are also some factual notes at the beginning and end. I feel privileged to have been given insight into another culture, and particularly that of Carbeth, and a small piece of the history of the UK. I highly recommend reading it and will be suggesting to my teenage daughters that they read it too as I think it presents life in the war in a way that they will easily be able to understand. I think that it should appeal equally to both males and females.

                    ISBN: 978-1-84934-105-9
                    Published by Waverly
                    RRP - £7.99

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                      27.12.2012 14:16
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                      Bright cheerful candles for decorating a birthday cake, but the flames were disapointingly dull.

                      When browsing the cake decorating aisle in Asda looking for inspiration of how to decorate my daughters' 13th birthday cake I saw these brightly coloured candles which looked like they could be far more fun and vibrant than the normal run of pastel coloured candles. The fact that they promised to have coloured flames as well, would, I thought add, an extra bit of excitement when it came to light them. Along with a packet of brightly coloured jelly beans and some coloured balls I had high hopes that I could make a fitting cake for a newly turned teenager, and the positive comments from her friends seemed to confirm that the candles had helped to achieve this.

                      The candles come in a small rectangular box (12x10x1cm), much like you would get colouring crayons in, with a slot cut out through which the candle colours could be seen. The box is purple with a wealth of colored stars and swirls and the flames drawn above the slot are in colours to match the candles that they are above, emphasizing the print that states that the flames burn the colour of the candle. They are made by Home2Bake which I had not heard of before, but contact details are given as well as instructions for how to use them and a safety warning about dripping wax and keeping out of reach of children. Inside the box the candles are protected by a ridged clear plastic pocket.

                      The twelve candles are divided into four colours - three of an orangey pink colour, three dark yellow, three of turquoisy green and lastly three grass green. It seemed a bit strange having two shades of green but the colours did work well together. One of the things that I found particularly good with these was that they don't have separate candle holders; I have a box full of these and I always find it a bit of a pain trying to find a matching set. These candles are set into a clear plastic circular socket which then becomes a prong which you stick directly into the cake. This prong is 4cm deep so sits very securely in the cake. All but one of my candles were snugly fitted into their holder and felt safe, although you can pull them out to keep if you wish too - mine are heading for the bin though as I can see no further need for them. It does not say that they are recyclable although the outer box is.

                      Another positive to this type of holder is that it seems far less girly than the normal floral holders and was much better suited to a teenager. I think that I would be happy to use them for a boy too. The candles themselves seem an average height of 5cm.

                      **Lighting Up Time**

                      Nobody seemed to notice my error of only having twelve candles on a thirteen year olds cake - should have brought a second pack - ooops! Twelve candles was quite a lot to light in one go, but fortunately most of them lit up first time and the wick seemed to be a good length. I watched quite eagerly as they burst into flame, expecting vivid flickering lights to appear. They looked pretty yellow and normal to me, but maybe they needed time to warm up. We let them burn down for a short while and peered closely at the flames. If you searched closely a feint tingle could just be discerned, the orangey pink one being the most noticeable. My daughter has pronounced them very disappointing candles as she had seen the packet and was expecting something special to happen on the top of her cake. They seemed to burn down very rapidly. Sometimes I get away with using a candle for a second time but I only have about 3cm of wax left after just over a minute of burning.

                      The pack of twelve candles cost £1.97 in Asda. That works out at just over 16p per candle. Compared to their most basic pack of 10 candles with white floral holders this is obviously quite expensive. I wouldn't buy them again for the flame effect, but if you didn't have this expectation, I do think that they are a good colour selection and help to create a cheerful and fun cake, so I will probably end up buying them again.

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                        18.11.2012 10:18
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                        Beautiful food in relaxing surrounings in this old thatched pub in a quaint market town.

                        The Thatch is a pub/ restaurant situated on the lower High Street of the beautiful market town of Thame in South Oxfordshire, just 12 miles from Oxford. I had never been in The Thatch before as I always assumed that it was a very expensive place to eat and that I would probably be out of my comfort zone eating here. Several years ago the pub was purchased by Raymond Blanc, famous chef of The Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons, as a prize for a chef competition that he ran. I believe it was at this time, in 2007, that it was given a full refurbishment and although the competition winners have since moved on, it is still run by The Peaches chain founded by one of the inspectors of Blancs show.

                        As my daughter's 18th birthday approached we asked her to choose where she would like to eat out on the big day and she requested to book a table at the Thatch. This seemed a suitable occasion to try out a restaurant that was a little more up market than our usual pub meals or pizza restaurants and I searched on line to check out their menu to ensure there would be things that we were all likely to enjoy. I was pleasantly surprised that the dishes were not quite as pricey as I had anticipated, ranging from £11 for sausage and mash with the sausages coming from our prize winning local butchers right up to £40 for a 17oz Aberdeen angus steak, but there was a reasonable and varied selection in the low teens. Reassured, I went ahead and booked from the web site link, which was a quick and easy process and I immediately received a confirmation e mail with a further one to remind me of the booking the day before.

                        With the heavens well and truly open we drove to the restaurant and were lucky enough to find parking on the opposite side of the High Street and there were also one or two other spaces at 7pm, but as this is a residential area these fill quickly. They do have a very small carpark at the rear and in the nearby Upper High Street, where the shops are located, there is a large free short stay carpark. The pub, along with the other buildings in the High Street is beautiful to look at; a typical white tudor building with black beams and of course a thatch roof. There is a patio garden area but as it was dark I couldn't do more than peer out at it, but I'd like to sit out there for a meal or drink in the future.

                        We were given a choice of tables to sit at either within the oldy worldy part at the front of the pub, which is traditionally furnished or in the rear extension which has a much more modern design, but still a very warm and cosy ambience with pale bluey green walls, oak floors and turquoise velour seating. The square oak wooden tables are tastefully laid with a tealight and real plant on each. Place settings are not laid but side plates are stacked with glasses clustered together and a heavy black pot matching other crockery that later appeared, contained a plentiful supply of cutlery. The front felt more pub like so we chose the more restaurant feeling extension with its high ceiling and sky lights and patio doors - it must be lovely and light and sunny in here in daylight.

                        The waitress offered to take our coats and asked if we would like water before choosing our main drinks and food, which were both nice welcoming touches. It makes a real change not to have to ask for a water jug and also to find it chilled and with lemon slices. As well as the main menu a specials board was brought to our table, explained and then left for us to peruse. Bread and olives were also offered at this point. I had already decided that I would order one of their very interesting looking deli boards but was undecided between the fish one with herring, squid and salmon amongst its offerings or the vegi one containing breaded mushrooms, hummus, pitta, cheese straws and plenty more, both costing £11.50, but the minute the specials board arrived and I spotted my all time favourite of moules and fries my mind was changed. Apparently Thursday night is mussles night at the Thatch while they are currently in season and they cost £12 as a main or £6 as a starter served with bread and not fries. It was a good choice - they were all perfectly cooked, the sauce delicious and the thin french fries light and crispy. They were served on a deep plate on a wooden platter with a pot of fries and one of mayonnaise. I also accepted the complimentary bread to mop up my sauce and this was obviously freshly made and delicious. Added to this my finger bowl and bowl for empty mussel shells I really could have done with a bigger table - it's just a good job that I was the only one taking up as much space.

                        Two of our party also chose from the specials board - Chicken Kiev at £14. My husband said this was perfectly cooked - not dry at all and also not swimming in garlic sauce. The chicken cut was on the bone and they also had a large portion of green salad and tomato and a separate bowl of chips; larger chunky but still crispy chips this time. My daughter was not as thrilled with this and described it as being a bit fatty, but she still ate it all. A cauliflower, courgette & cheddar cheese frittata with a watercress, red onion & sunflower seed salad for £11.75 was the final choice for our party and was pronounced to be very tasty but very filling. She had also ordered a side of chunky chips for £3 to go with this.

                        We had deliberately avoided the starters as we wanted to leave room for puddings. The starters which ranged from £4 - £7 did look very inviting and as well as the more usual soup and pate options there were also more unusual things such as butternut squash, pear and chestnut salad and a pigeon breast.

                        Onto the desert selection though; autumn fruit pudding, treacle tart, crème brulee with hazelnut shortbread, and a chocolate brownie as well as icecreams and a cheese board were on offer. My daughter and I asked if we could share the chocolate pudding and my husband chose the autumn fruit pudding and the birthday girl thought that she would wait to have birthday cake back home. The staff had other ideas however and realizing that it was her birthday (the 18 badge she was wearing and the request for her first legal alcoholic drink in a pub were a bit of a give away) brought our puddings in individual bowls served on a wooden platter along with an additional crème brulee with two candles on it and proceeded to encourage our fellow diners to join her in a chorus of ' Happy Birthday'. I hadn't expected this at all from a higher class establishment but we really appreciated this touch and we all enjoyed tucking into our centrally placed puddings having a taste of each. The portions were good and they could all be rated as the best of that type of pudding that I've ever tasted. It was so much nicer than all having our individual puddings.

                        The quality of all of the food was superb and looking on the website it is clear that they go out of their way to use local ingredients and minimise the air transport costs of importing ingredients. The menu that we chose from is their Autumn one, so I assume that they change it with all of the seasons to offer food which is at its freshest at all times. With 5 starters, 8 mains and 5 deliboards as well as the specials, the menu is quite limited but this did mean that I felt reassured that my food was fresh and it also seemed to be cooked to order, although the waiting time was quite acceptable. The lunchtime menu looks to be fairly similar to the evening one, but there are also toasties. They are also open for coffee and cake from 10am - now that sounds very tempting.

                        On the way out I popped my head around the door of the ladies. The three cubicles all looked clean and there was also a changing area. They also have a private room that looked to seat about 12 that can be hired for meetings or functions. This has views across to the other historic buildings in the High Street.

                        We all thoroughly enjoyed our meal at the Thatch. It did feel more of a treat than a regular pub meal and we felt really well looked after by the waitress and other staff members; they really did seem to want us to have a good evening out. The little bit of extra money for the meals was well worth it for the level of hospitality and the very pleasant surroundings, but we in no way felt out of place at all. We spent £80 in total including two soft drinks and a beer and a red wine spritzer and were more than happy to leave a tip. We'll definitely go back again when we have another special occasion to celebrate.

                        29-30 Lower High Street,
                        Thame,
                        Oxfordshire
                        OX9 2AA.
                        Tel: 01844 214 340
                        thatch@peachpubs.com

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                          01.11.2012 14:13
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                          A relatively small zoo with a varied selection of animal enclosures set amongst pretty gardens.

                          For forty years the Cotswold Wildlife Park has been a place that I have periodically visited and it was definitely popular with my primary school as the location for school trips, to the extent that by the time I was eleven or twelve I was pretty fed up with going here as I knew it inside out. When I had my own children the visits recommenced and our latest visit was on a beautiful Friday in August when we introduced my 2 year old nephew to the animals here. He absolutely loved it and ran excitedly towards the different animal encounters. It maintained his interest throughout the whole day and he didn't even need to have a sleep as he was so busy. My own teenagers still enjoy it, probably as we didn't overkill it for them with so many visits as I was subjected too, and it was their choice for where we took their cousin for a day out. I think they would have still been happy to go here again even without the attraction of entertaining a little one.

                          **Location**

                          The Cotswold Wildlife Park as its name suggests is in the beautiful Cotswold region of England about a 30 minute drive to the West of Oxford and near the pretty town of Burford. It is located on the A361 and also is easily reached by car from Swindon and Cheltenham. The park is not serviced by a bus route. As you enter the park you will drive past llamas and antelopes before reaching two pay kiosks. Make sure you have your money or cards in the car with you and not in the boot as you pay from the car before parking. It was a busy day as we arrived just after the ten o'clock opening time but the queue quickly dispatched as extra mobile ticket sellers were also taking entrance money. We were then directed to the nearly carpark. This is a large grassy area of parkland with lots of large shady trees and compacted earth driveways across it. I'm not sure how this would fare in wet weather, but there was no sign of mud and churned up ground so I assume it has not been a problem. There is a smaller paved carpark too which was being used for people with mobility difficulties but maybe is used for others on quieter days too.

                          **What is there to see*

                          Once parked there are several different ways into the park so no matter which area of the park you are in you are not far from your car so it is easy to pop back for picnics etc. As you have paid before parking there is no issue with re-entry to do this.

                          The parkland where the animals are housed is based around a large Cotswold stone country house. The cafe and a brass rubbing centre occupy the ground floor of the house. One of the things that I was so pleased to see and hadn't remembered as vividly from past visits was the beautiful planting that exists throughout the park. I was almost more interested in looking at the bright and cheerful displays of flowers that existed throughout the park than the animals - they obviously take a huge pride in the appearance of the park; there are great swathes of tall beautiful but not too formal plants.

                          Our first stop was the rhinos as these were the animals that my nephew was adamant that he had come to see. They share a large open area with the zebras which would once probably have been the front lawn of the house. There are three rhinos and quite a few zebras including a cute two month old foal. The Cotswold Wildlife Park is famous for its collection of four giant tortoises who live near the rhinos and were surprisingly active during this visit. One is new, but the other three have been at the park longer than I've been visiting and I don't think they've changed at all!

                          Continuing on we passed camels as we headed for the lion enclosure where you have a great view of the lion and lioness through glass panels. Giraffes are a new addition to the park since we were last there and I was very impressed with the visitor experience of their home. A walkway has been built alongside the enclosure leading you up to a height where you are eye level with these tall beasts, both indoors and outdoors. I have never been so close to a giraffe's head before.

                          Cheetahs are the last animal in this area and by now you are at the far side of the rhino lawn and have a great view of the house with the wildlife in front. Ostriches are on your route back towards the house and we then diverted into a woodland walk area where there were many types of exotic looking ducks as well as the more colourful flamingos and even some 'big bad wolves' that our little 2 year old was so impressed with that we had to make a return visit. Wallabies, tapirs and some strange pig type animals were all also living in this section of the park.

                          Next came the children's farm area where we spent a long time and it was definitely the favourite part for a small boy. Indoors there are large pens with rabbits , guinea pigs and chickens and cows. These animals are free to wander into their outside pens but as it was so hot we found them inside where it was cooler. Outside you can head into the goats area and play with the goats. Lots of small kids (goat and human) seemed to be having great fun running and rolling down the little hillocks in this section. Shetland ponies, donkeys and some incredibly noisy pigs who had spotted lunch on its way were also popular here with the children. Signs encourage handwashing at the sink provided after touching the animals.

                          Back in the stone outbuildings of the house we had a quick trip into the reptile house spotting an assortment of iguanas, snakes including the most deadly black mamba, baby crocodiles and two large crocs. As it was so hot the only other indoor area that we chose to go in was to see the bats who occupy one of the barns, but because it was so dark we found it quite hard to see them. I usually enjoy the insect house even though it is fairly small. I'm fascinated by the ants as they carry their enormous cargo of leaves in a long procession across their tank and also love to see the tarantulas and other spiders and butterflies. I think there is also an aquarium. In the centre of this courtyard area are more tortoises but of a much smaller variety this time and also some gibbons that were great fun to see leaping around.

                          The walled garden was another area that we definitely didn't want to miss as the penguins live here with feeding times at 11.00 and 4.00 and they're always fun to watch diving in and swimming. Meercats and birds are also to be found here and as we entered one walk through aviary we were surprised to find a gorgeous little owl right in front of us just waiting to pose to have his photo taken. This garden is one of the most spectacular from a horticulture point of view. Spiky cactus and hot bright colours are visually striking as well as lush lawns and foliage so I spent quite a bit of time photographing these. Quite a few of the smaller monkey species are popular as you leave the far end of the walled garden and then a lemur walk where you can get right up close to the lemurs, if they'll let you, as you wander through their habitat. We were told that as it was after lunch nap time and warm the lemurs weren't quite as active as normal, but we were happy with the ones we saw. A mother was sitting nursing twin babies and then decided to walk off with one clinging to her front and one to her back; this definitely needed to be photographed. We also saw one leap right up onto the wooden rail that edged the path giving the people walking past a start. Be warned that this closes at 3.30 so don't leave it too late as it would be shame to miss this. It will also be busy at 12.00 when the keepers give a talk.

                          After seven hours worth of activity on a perfect summers day we were too tired to visit one area of the park where if I remember correctly there are large birds such as vultures and monkeys as well as the train station. I can't believe we missed going on the train, but we did wave to it many times throughout the course of the day as it wound its way around the various areas of the park. It has 4 quite large coaches so appeared to fit lots of people on at any time, but didn't have room for buggies so we would have to have left this behind at the station. It costs £1 per person for a trip around the park.

                          **Need an icecream**

                          A day at the zoo wouldn't be complete without an icecream and these along with other drinks and snacks can be brought from the cafe in the main house, a kiosk just outside the walled garden and one near the camels. There were icecream van type soft cornets or assorted lollies and I had a really nice tub of a locally made icecream. I failed to take notice of the prices though as this was Grandpa's treat.

                          The cafe sells a good selection of food with things like sausage and chips for about £6 and a variety of sandwiches. The menu looked to have a reasonable selection at prices that I would have been happy to have paid had we not have taken a picnic. Tea was £1.30 and coffee £2.00 with fridges of cold drinks with juice cartons and fizzy drinks from a dispenser at £1.50 and also bottles of alcoholic drinks such as cider at £2.80. There appeared to be plenty of seating inside and wooden benches outside which could be used for those eating in the cafe or for picnics. It is an ideal place to take a picnic as there is no shortage of pretty shady spots to sit out on the grass and throughout the park there are benches to stop at.

                          **Other facilities**

                          Toilets: we found these located in the same areas as the food kiosks. The ones I used at the cafe and walled garden were clean and I didn't have to queue despite it being a busy day at the park. They contained baby change facilities. My Dad reported that the mens at the cafe smelt really foul towards the end of the day.

                          Paths: pathways generally are a compacted sandy coloured material which was quite smooth and easy to push the buggy over. We saw a couple of wheelchairs and a mobility scooter moving around without difficulty. The Young Disabled Unit that I used to work in came for trips here regularly as they found the facilities to be good and as there are no hills at all it is easy to access all areas. Wheelchairs can be loaned from the Manor House.

                          Shop: on this visit we avoided this at all costs as we didn't think we'd ever get my nephew out again as he loves toy animals and the shop is full of those. The shop is close to the carpark and very large. It also usually has clothing items and other souvenirs such as T towels and ornaments with animal themes.

                          Playground: I've always liked this playground that sits next to the cafe. My girls were disappointed that the slide that they thought was huge has shrunk and had to be persuaded that they had grown. It was also taped off, presumably because it is metal and it was very hot. There is also one of those old style rocking horses that I used to love and a circular climbing net as well as swings and much more. A carousel ride costs 80p for a very short turn.

                          **Admission*
                          The park is open from 10am and all visitors must leave by 6 although most facilities close at 5. Last admission is at 4.30. From October to April it closes at 5 or dusk.
                          Adults cost £13 and children 3 - 16 and OAPs cost £9
                          My daughter has a Blue Peter badge and this is one of the places that she was able to get in for free. Unfortunately they do not accept Tesco day out tokens for payment. People who are blind do not have to pay. There doesn't appear to be a family ticket but you can buy season tickets with a family one costing £220.
                          These prices seem very reasonable for a full day out. Most of the viewing areas are outdoors so I would recommend going on a dry day to make the most of your money.

                          Address: Bradwell Grove, Burford, Oxfordshire. OX18
                          More details can be found at http://www.cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk/in​dex.htm

                          **Summary**

                          The Cotswold wildlife Park is not a huge zoo and doesn't have every type of animals, for instance there are no elephants, tigers or bears. However it does have plenty of animals to keep you amused for a full day out and all in picturesque surroundings. The enclosures seem to be a reasonable size and I didn't have any concerns about the welfare of the animals. It is perfect for small children and adults who will also appreciate the surroundings and is also recommended for older people and those with mobility problems as the area to walk is not vast as it is with larger zoos such as Whipsnade. Most age groups from toddler to teen, parents and grandparents were present in our party and we all thoroughly enjoyed our day out here. Despite the weather now being a bit cooler The Cotswold Wildlife Park would make a great day out at any time of year.

                          This review also appears on Ciao under my same user name, Melissa Ruth.

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                          • Clairol Nice n' Easy / Hair Care / 63 Readings / 63 Ratings
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                            25.10.2012 15:41
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                            A home hair dye kit that provides good coverage lasting 6 - 8 weeks.

                            Much as I would like to have my hair coloured professionally the cost of a haircut alone is pricey enough, so when the grey hairs in my fringe were becoming too prevalent for my liking I began to explore the idea of using a DIY hair colouring kit. The choice available on the shelves in Superdrug was fairly bewildering, so I sought advice from a friend who I knew coloured her own hair. She recommended Clairol's nice n easy and even offered to do it for me first time around. This was really helpful as although the instructions are clear there's nothing like a bit of personal experience to help out when trying something new and especially something with the potential to go drastically wrong! That was a couple of years ago and as I have been quite happy with the results I have remained loyal to this brand over this time, although I have tried out several different shades.

                            Nice n Easy comes in a vast number of shades from the most platinum of blonds through dark blonds, ash colours, auburns, chestnuts and black so I think you would struggle to not find something to suit your individual preferences. The shades are numbered with the lower number being the lighter shades. I find this quite useful as sometimes it can be difficult to tell which will be darker for instance of an ash or champagne shade. A photo on the front of the box models the shade as well as the entire lid, but I find that three diagrams on the back that demonstrate various different current hair colours and how you can expect this dye shade to leave your hair looking if it is already a certain colour, are the most useful.
                            The dyes are available in a semi permanent or permanent form, which is stated in reasonably small print on the box, so check carefully. My review is of the permanent variety. Other than the shade we are informed that these products contain colour blend technology, or in other words that tones and highlights are built in, that it is long lasting (up to 8 weeks) and that it will cover 100% of grey - hip hip hooray - just what I needed! The usual warnings are given that allergic reactions may be caused and not to use if you have a rash, sensitive or damaged scalp or if you have had a reaction to a hair dye or henna tattoo in the past. Eyebrows and eyelashes should also not be coloured. There is a list of ingredients on the underside which include large quantities of unpronounceable chemical sounding things that I have no idea what their purpose is, but I guess any product which is going to permanently change your hair colour is going to contain nasty sounding elements. This is why it is so important to read the warning the first time you use this.

                            **What's in the box**

                            Each kit will contain a pair of plastic gloves (strong thin surgical type gloves that enable you to use your hands dextrously still, as opposed to the marigold type), a pot of colour activating crème which has a spout type lid through which you will apply the dye to your hair, a blue bottle of colour blend formula which you will need to add to the activating crème once you're ready to apply and a conditioner. Finally there is an instruction leaflet.

                            One of the most important things on the instruction leaflet is the advice to carry out an allergy test 48 hours ahead of use to ensure that you won't have an adverse reaction. The step by step instructions are clear and include a diagram as well as written instructions.

                            **Ready steady go**

                            Are you messy? Well I am, and using this product could be a perfect way to ruin clothing and soft furnishings, so the first thing I do is dye proof my work area and myself. I place a waterproof mat on the floor and an old towel over the chair that I sit on in front of my bedroom mirror and then dress in my painting clothes! Maybe I'm a bit over cautious but I do get it everywhere. I put moisturiser around my hairline to prevent staining of my skin and have an old flannel to hand to wipe up drips. After mixing the 2 components together it is time to get going.

                            Wearing the gloves I apply a generous amount of the dye to my parting as this is the area where my roots show through the most and then continue to part my hair at about 1 - 2cm intervals working out from my parting spreading the dye over the roots of the whole of my head. I make sure that I also apply plenty on my hairline of my forehead and as I wear my hair up in a pony tail a lot I'm also really careful to ensure that the hairline in the nape of my neck is well covered. The first time that I use any dye shade I use the entire contents at once also applying it to the length of my hair and then I leave it in situ for the 25 minutes that it is recommended. It does advise that for stubborn greys or for ultra light blond shades the dye can be left on for 45 minutes, but I've never needed to try this and am usually promptly rinsing off after 25 minutes to maintain as natural a colour as possible. I ensure that I use an old flannel to wipe any dye from my skin to make sure that I'm not left with purply brown skin around my face.

                            If I'm using a particular colour for a second application or more I follow the directions for root application. In this case I stop applying colour when my roots are all covered and wait for 20 minutes before applying the remaining dye to the length of my hair avoiding my scalp and then rinse it off after just a further 5 minutes.

                            I always use the contents all up, but if you don't need it all it should be disposed of as a sealed container of this could burst if kept.

                            Once all of the dye has been rinsed from my hair I use the colour seal conditioning gloss. The tube advises that it contains 6 weekly treatments. This is a really thick rich feeling white conditioner and I apply slightly more on the first use leaving about 2/3 of the tube for the remaining weeks.

                            **My experience**

                            I don't enjoy the process of dying my hair and find it a chore that I wish I could put off for longer, but as I hate my roots showing I do find that I end up doing this about every 6 weeks rather than the eight weeks that it is supposed to last up to. The colour has in no way faded over this time, it's just that even though I've always thought that my hair grows slowly, I do end up with an unsightly greyey brown root line which I definitely feel needs covering by this time. I may try their root touch up in the future to see if I can prolong the time before colouring my hair.

                            I don't find it hard to use these products and the speed at which I can apply it has reduced with practice to about 10 minutes. I used to find that my arms ached holding them above my head for so long. The dye has a chemically ammonia type smell to it but it is not too over powering and it does not have any adverse effects on my breathing which can often happen when I'm using cleaning chemicals. Occasionally my eyes will smart slightly when using this even though I'm not aware of any having actually gone into my eyes.

                            I've been growing my hair lately and it is now shoulder length and I'm finding that the one pack is just covering my hair, but if I grew it any longer I would then need to use two boxes per application and it would then becoming pretty expensive. With a short bob in the past I easily covered all of my hair and had plenty extra to apply to the main root areas that show.

                            I've read some hair colour reviews that suggest that some makes can take forever to rinse out and that even on subsequent washes there is loss of colour and staining of pillow cases etc. There have been no such problems with this and within a couple of minutes the water is running clear from my head ready to apply the conditioner. The conditioner is wonderful. It has a gentle flowery smell and is a real treat to use as my hair is the softest and smoothest it ever is after using this.

                            I do need to be careful when using the dye as it is a fairly runny liquid and can easily drip. I often end up with brown patches on my legs that need to be wiped away. I've never left any dye on my skin to see what the permanent effect of spills would be. The old towel and flannel that I use do have brown patches on them that don't come out with regular washing so do avoid having anything around that could be damaged. Ideally I would apply this in the bath but as I am not clever enough to apply it in the right places without a mirror I'm unable to do this.

                            I've always been pleased with the end result and feel that the colour on the box is a pretty good likeness to what I end up with on my head. I do find that if I continue to use the same shade repeatedly it gets lighter each time which obviously reflects my technique where I am probably applying to far more than my roots in the initial application. I think that it must be easier to apply this correctly to somebody else than on yourself. The colour also lightens with exposure to harsh sunlight, just as my natural hair does. I don't have as much variation in tome as I used to when my hair was natural and professional hair colouring will probably always give a more natural look, but overall I'm really pleased with the effect that I get and I'm definitely not tempted to change to another brand. There are sufficient similar tones to be able to swap regularly to get out of the lightening of colour cycle. Best of all the grey is well and truly hidden!

                            I only ever buy nice n easy when it is on offer as it frequently is. Asda are currently (Oct 2012) selling this for £5 per box and Superdrug have an offer of 2 for £9.99 or £5.99 each plus reward points. It is also £5.99 in Boots. This seems good value when compared against the cost of a visit to the salon. I give it 4 stars.

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                              20.10.2012 17:14
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                              The Moorish palaces and gardens in Granada make an impressive and scenic day out.

                              I had read that the Alhambra was one of the top 100 places recommended to visit 'before you die' and also heard comment that this historical site should be made the 8th Wonder of the World. On a recent trip to the Andalucía region of Southern Spain I was therefore keen to include a few nights in the beautiful city of Granada to enable us to visit this landmark, which since 1984 has been a UNESCO World Heritage site. Having now visited I have to agree that it is a truly outstanding place to visit, due to the sheer beauty of the site, the historical interest and the architectural wonder of how and why parts of it were actually created.

                              The Alhambra is a castle / palace complex which sits at the top of a hill beside the river Darro in Granada. It is roughly divided into two main areas, the Generalife which is predominantly gardens which overlooks the main building area that consists primarily of the Alcazaba, Nastrid Palaces and Carlos Vs palace.

                              **Alcazaba**
                              The name Alhambra means red or crimson castle. This seems a pretty good description as the oldest part, Alcazaba or the 'Red Fort' as it is also known is made from stone with a definite red hue to it. It is this part of the complex which is most visible from Albycin, the Moorish old town part of Granada. The Red Fort is the oldest part of the Alhambra and originally dates back to 900AD although it has been modified over the years. The buildings that can now be seen were constructed from 1237 when Muhammad 1 of Ahmar founded the Nastrid dynasty. Its purpose was as a military barracks and it takes the typical form of a castle with large rectangular turrets and ramparts, some of which you can walk around. Much of the internal area of the castle is no longer complete with just the foundations visible, but this clearly shows the cramped living quarters of the barracks.

                              I found this to be the most tiring area of the whole Alhambra to visit. It consists virtually entirely of stonework and there is barely any shade or greenery. You are outside in the full sun throughout this area, whereas most other parts of the complex include internal areas or shady gardens. For this reason I passed through quite quickly and declined the opportunity to climb to the top of the highest Watch tower and chose instead to take a rest and drink break in a shady garden area just outside. My husband took the climbing challenge however, and I now regret backing out of this as he appeared at the top very quickly and told me that, unlike Warwick Castle in England you are winding around perilous staircases for ever making your way to the top, it was a straight easy staircase to the top. He took panoramic photos so that I could see the amazing views over Granada and the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains. No matter how hot and tired you feel I would recommend making that climb as it really looked well worth the effort - sadly I had reached a point where I wasn't allowed to turn back and find out for myself.

                              **Nastrid Palaces**

                              For me the Nastrid Palaces are the part of the Alhambra that makes it stand out from anywhere else that I have ever visited. They consist of three palaces that were built between 1314 and 1391 by the Muslim Nasrid rulers, who continued to rule from here until 1492 when the Alhambra was surrendered to the Catholics. Christian monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand then moved in and used it as a Royal Residence. They are located next to the oldest Red Fort area and are partially hidden away beside the domineering Palacio de Carlos V. You will need a timed entry ticket for these palaces otherwise you will not be permitted entry. This was a little annoying as it prevented us from wandering around other areas at a leisurely pace as we were worried about finding the palace within the vast complex, so whizzed by areas along the route to reach it. However, I totally see why this is necessary as if there were huge crowds of people inside at one time it would be harder to appreciate the immense beauty of the construction and even harder than it already was to take photographs that are not spoiled by hoards of strangers walking across them. Once in however you may take as long as you like to freely stroll around and ooh and aah and gasp at each turn you take. We chose our timed slot one hour after our main entry time; I think 1.5 hours would have been better as we would have had more time to orientate ourselves and enjoy the route. At a brisk walk it takes a good twenty to thirty minutes to reach the palaces form the main entrance as it is at the furthest side of the complex.

                              The palaces consist of a series of large high roofed rooms with courtyards between. The rooms are empty with no furnishings, but there is still more than enough to look at; walls and archways have the most intricate carved mouldings that I have ever seen totally covering them as well as multiple mosaics and columns. Ceilings are wooden and again ornately carved and often domed with marble floors. The level of craftsmanship is so skilled and really needs to be seen to be believed. The courtyards are breathtaking in their simplicity and elegance, particularly the Patio de Arrayares or Court of Myrtles where in the foreground you survey neat box hedging lining either side of a large rectangular pool with the imposing castellated Comares tower in the background and the red tiled roof and intricately carved arches of a cloister type corridor just in front. This is an image that is widely used when depicting the Alhambra and indeed it is adorning my screen saver as it is just so atmospheric and sums up the magnificence of these buildings. The smaller Patio de Arrayeres is so pretty with its central fountain and small box hedging symmetrical features. The largest courtyard, Patio de Leones, was sadly having restoration work carried out so there was quite a bit of scaffolding and the famous fountain where water comes from 8 lions head was partially covered. It was still obvious how elaborate the decoration was in this area.

                              **Palacio de Carlos V**

                              A huge square stone building opposite the Red Fort and next to the Nasrid Palaces is the palace built by Charles V after he visited there in 1526. This is the time of the Spanish renaissance and is considered to be one of the most important architectural works of that time. We were sorely tempted to not look inside; after having already spent quite some time in the Nastrid Palaces and the Red Fort we were starting to feel a little jaded and felt ready to slow our pace down and enjoy the gardens. However, we felt that we should at least poke our head through the door and make sure that we were not missing anything spectacular. We were shocked; the square stone palace was not home to another series of rooms and courtyards. Unbelievably a colossal circular structure with an open roof takes up the entire internal space, just like a Roman coliseum. We couldn't help wondering why it was disguised behind the square walls as it would have looked stunning without these. It didn't take long to quickly walk around this, so it is worth stepping inside those walls, although it has nothing to hold your interest in the way that the Nastrid Palaces did. A museum is housed in the outer area but we were too tired to entertain perusing this and it costs an additional 3 Euros each to go in. It would have been interesting to see some of the artefacts from the Alhambra though and is something that is probably good to do on a second visit.

                              There are numerous other buildings within this main area including a church, a convent, the baths of the mosque and many houses, as the Alhambra did once house many residents. As you walk around the walls there are also some areas undergoing archaeological investigation.

                              **The Generalife**

                              Although there are gardens as you walk to the palaces from the main entrance, the Generalife which means, 'Architect's garden' is where the main formal gardens are situated and from here there are glorious views across the valley to the palaces. Many of the views have vibrant flowers in the foreground, making a complete abundance of photo opportunities. The Generalife is a distinct area and a separate path needs to be taken to this shortly after leaving the main entrance. It was formed to be a recreation area for the Kings of Granada so that they could escape official routine. It is important to follow the one way route around this area as there are turnstiles that you will need to pass through. We made the mistake of not following this and had to retrace our path , only to walk down it again later on our way out; as much as it was beautiful to walk around we were almost dead on our feet by this point as the gardens were the last part of the Alhambra that we chose to visit, so it is good to be aware of this.

                              The gardens are formal and arranged as though they are individual rooms and there is a good contrast between types of planting. I loved an area that had tall purple spiky flowers which looked so beautiful against the green background. Walkways have a mass of different colour blooms of every type and colour. There is also a large open area where they had a stage and seating. It was the Corpus Cristi festival while we were there so I'm not sure if the staging was related to this or if it is there all of the time. The water garden was very interesting with its fountains at points along a long thin water channel and rows of scented roses lining it. It was full of lily pads, slithering among which were quite a few snakes, which held our attention for a good long time. After spending time in other barren parts of Andalucía it was refreshing to see the amount of water used in the Alhambra which is distributed from the Royal Water channel via a water staircase. The presence of fountains and water features really helped to keep us cool and everywhere looked very green and is definitely well tended. The one way route leads you to the Casa de Amigos which was a guest house. We didn't go inside as we wanted to sit quietly and enjoy the restfulness of the gardens. Water features heavily again in the courtyard of the guest house and pomegranate trees in full bloom with their bright red flowers were a highlight for me, on our visit in June.

                              The pathway that leads back from here towards the exit is a covered walkway of oleander trees. They were only just beginning to come into bloom, but having seen other oleanders with their bright pink flowers and scent this should be spectacular later in the summer. This shady walkway was very welcome and led onto a wooded area to cool you as you head for home. I would have loved to have spent more time in the Generalife as it is so tranquil and with many shady spots to sit I could happily have whiled away a few more hours had I been on my own.

                              **A few practicalities for a trip to the Alhambra**

                              Booking tickets: The Alhambra is open for two or three sessions per day from 8.30am until 2pm and 2pmto 8pm and sometimes it will be lit for an evening visit. We chose an afternoon visit as 8.00 seemed very early and we wanted to make good use of our hotel breakfast too. More tickets are available for the morning than the afternoon however. Full tickets including the palaces were sold out when we arrived but garden only ones were available. Fortunately we were aware that pre booking is strongly recommended, so we were not disappointed. If you haven't been able to book ahead then I would still recommend a garden only ticket as you can easily spend a few hours here alone. I had heard reports of long queues for tickets but I saw no sign of these and perhaps it is only in the mornings that this happens.

                              I was quite bewildered when I looked on line for tickets as there seem to be so many sites and package options. We have the Lonely Planet, Discovering Spain book and this recommends using www.servicaixa.com which offers online booking in English. This turned out to be part of Ticket Master so I felt reassured that I was using a reputable booking site. Booking was straightforward using a credit card and I was able to print out conformation. This confirmation does not however give you entry.

                              Instructions on the print out advise that you should take the credit card that you booked with to a ServiCaixa terminal and gives a link to find locations. I found an appropriate cashpoint machine earlier in my holiday but although it had an option for printing event tickets it did not find mine. As soon as we reached Granada I therefore went to the Alhambra and found a row of machines outside their entrance and my tickets printed as soon as I inserted my card, and very pretty ones they are too. Job done or so I thought! Look carefully at your tickets when they are printed - they should all have a barcode on as this will be swiped at numerous times throughout your visit to ensure you only visit each area once.
                              Our child's ticket had no barcode and we were refused entry and had to go to a separate queue to have our daughters age verified. Looking back at the web site now I see that it does state that proof of age is required for children and pensioners, but I had to make a stressful trip back to the hotel to get my daughters passport before a ticket with a bar code was printed for her. So be warned - take a passport if you are taking a child as you will need to prove their age. I would also recommend doing this prior to your entry time when the ticket booths are quieter.

                              Ticket prices: We paid 14.3 Euros for our adult tickets and 9.3 for a 12 - 15 year old, for tickets to all areas of the Alhambra. I believe younger children were free. There are however numerous sites offering tickets with guided tours. A time will need to be chosen for entry to the Nastrid Palaces and tickets must be collected at least one hour before this time. Compared to National Trust properties in England these tickets seemed superb value for money.

                              Information: Audio guides are available for hire at the main entrance. We toyed with whether to get one but as there was quite a long queue we decided against. They cost 6 euros each and 4 euros for just the Nasrid palaces. If you change your mind you can also pick one up outside the palaces too. I'm glad now that we didn't get one as I think we would have dwelled too long in each area listening to copious amounts of information and would have probably seen far less overall before exhaustion set in. I had read quite a bit before we visited so had some background information which seemed sufficient. Guidebooks are plentifully available.

                              You will be given a map before entering which shows marked routes around the site, but as we headed straight for our timed ticket for the Nasrid Palace we found we missed out on some parts and back tracked later, but in doing this we missed some areas altogether due to turn stile systems and bar codes only letting you in once. We were a little lost initially as didn't realise that the map showed some garden areas outside the walls, so originally took a wrong turn. The different areas are sign posted though and once we got to grips with the map it was fine. A potted history is also provided on this as well as tips for planning your visit.

                              Toilets are clearly marked on the map in four locations, included ones for disabled visitors. These were clean and there were plenty of cubicles. There are also several cafes and gift shops. We didn't use the cafes as we'd made the most of that plentiful hotel breakfast, but ice creams and lots of water kept us going in the heat. There are lots of drinking water fountains, but we were a bit dubious about using these so stuck to bottled water.

                              Access: We saw several visitors in wheelchairs and many of the paths are accessible but it is an ancient property so there are also an awful lot of steps. We did notice that guides were opening doors to allow access for wheelchair users that the general public could not use, so they obviously make efforts to maximise the areas that can be seen. I would recommend visiting even if you have mobility difficulties as there is so much to see even form the main paths, but be aware of long distances that need to be covered.

                              **Finding the Alhambra**

                              By car:
                              It's a huge building dominating the skyline of Granada - I thought we'd see it for miles off. Not so - we drove around Granada for 1.5 hours without any trace of it - no sign post and certainly no commanding buildings. Our sat nav is a bit out of date and kept trying to send us down bus and taxi only roads or tiny cobbled streets which we could barely turn the corner in. We made it eventually, by luck alone. The road leading uphill to the Alhambra is actually at the most Western part of Granada and the road up to it is just before you leave town and start driving up into the Sierra Nevada mountains. There is plenty of parking at 14 Euros per day.

                              On foot:
                              The walk between the Alhambra and central Granada is steep to put it mildly but very pleasant. From the Plaza Nueva which is bustling with tapas bars follow the pink signs and take the narrow pedestrian only street, Cuesta de Gomerez, with its gift shops on either side and follow this up through the large stone gateway. After this take the left uphill fork of the windy road - this is the steepest part but is shaded by trees and streams of water trickle down either side to cool you and the oldest of stone benches can be used for a rest. Part way up you will come to one of the gates into the Alhambra, but not the main entrance and there is an impressive fountain here to cool off in. The final part of the route is following the walls and gardens of the Alhambra until you come to the ticket office on your left. It takes about 20 minutes, but is a really pretty walk. The number 30 bus and hundreds of taxis will all be waiting eagerly to take you up if you think this is too much for you.

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                                04.10.2012 14:23
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                                A perfume free combined cleanser and toner.

                                I find the whole beauty process a bit of a chore, but appreciate that in order to keep my skin in good condition I do need to follow a cleansing, toning and moisturising routine on a daily basis. I have never been loyal to any particular brand and so usually scan the shelves for the best offers available and was pleased a number of months ago when I spotted this combined cleanser and toner from the well respected Simple range of facial care products. As well as meaning that I only needed to buy one product to do the job of two, a cleanser and a toner, so saving money, I also realised that this would cut down on the number of processes in my nightly routine, a big bonus!

                                The latest bottles that I purchased (August 2012) were particularly good value as they were part of a Boots 3 for 2 offer. Its normal cost is £4.99 and of course if you buy form Boots you will also earn advantage points bringing the cost down further, but it is also available from other supermarkets and chemists. This offer was great for us as both of my teenage daughters also have a bottle of this in their room, so I was able to stock up for us all.

                                Simple have been manufacturing skin care products for fifty years and their main selling point is that their products contain no perfume or colour so are ideal for people with sensitive skin. I therefore had no hesitation in trying out this product but did wonder if it would be as successful as using a separate cleanser and toner, but it was worth a try.

                                The Simple packaging is also simple and minimalistic. My 200ml bottle is see through so that the clear liquid with little air bubbles is visible through it; great for knowing how much of the liquid you have left. The secure flip top lid is a mid shade of green and for some reason it is not possible to unscrew the entire lid, not that I've needed to as it is not difficult to squeeze the last remnants out of the bottle. The bottle squeezes quite easily without needing to exert too much pressure and the lid can be opened with one hand.

                                Most writing is in shades of green giving us the name of the product - pore minimising toning cleanser, the Simple logo and we are told that it is kind to skin. Bright pink writing lets us know that it contains vitamin goodness - don't try eating it though! The vitamins included are B5 to restore soften and smooth the skin and vitamin E which moisturises. Other ingredients are Witch hazel which is one of the main toning and pore tightening ingredients, chamomile which has soothing and softening properties and geranium which is used to condition the skin and help it regenerate. These ingredients are all well known to me and ones that feel natural and that I have no concerns about applying to my skin. Unfortunately there is also a relatively lengthy list of chemical sounding ingredients.

                                **My experience**
                                I have been using this product regularly for about 6 months and am on my 3rd bottle. It is at night that I choose to use it as I'm always in a hurry to get to bed so that is when I appreciate its dual role. I apply a 20p sized blob to a cotton wool pad and wipe this over my skin. This will clean about half my face and I then repeat for the other half and then again for my neck. There is no discomfort or stinging when using this and it feels mild, unlike some stronger more astringent toners. The clear liquid has a thin gel like consistency and sits well on the cotton wool neither soaking in nor running off. It does leave my skin feeling very dry and I definitely need to use a moisturiser immediately afterwards, but I would always expect to do this after using any cleanser or toner. My skin is not particularly sensitive but I have not noticed any irritation at all and neither have my children.

                                The cotton wool always ends up looking a bit grimy, especially in this hot muggy weather when I've been outdoors a lot and got a bit sweaty, so it is seems to be doing the job that I want it to. I rarely wear makeup, but when I do this removes it adequately. I find it very refreshing and cool on my skin. It has a very faint and pleasant perfume which I assume must be from the camomile and geranium and this adds to the fresh feel.

                                I have been impressed by this skin care product and love the fact that it cuts down on the list of things that I have to do when getting ready for bed, but still leaves me feeling that I have taken suitable steps to look after my skin at the end of the day. I haven't noticed any great difference from when I used separate products so hope that it is as effective. I have recommended it to my daughters and would also recommend to others. It is not an expensive product compared to many others but as I don't have experience of using top of the range expensive skin care products I cannot compare its effectiveness to these, so you may be disappointed if you are more passionate about beauty products than I am.

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                                  22.09.2012 10:53
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                                  A beautiful riverside walk with a tearoom at the end selling very tasty food.

                                  Walking along the East Lyn river from the small coastal town of Lynmouth in North Devon to Watersmeet has to be one of my favourite walks in England. Not only is the walk through beautiful surroundings but there is also the added bonus of a quaint typical English tearoom at the point where the East Lyn and Hoar Oak water meet at Watersmeet House.

                                  Watersmeet House can only be accessed by the general public, by participating in this riverside walk, although there is a track which is used by staff and deliveries to reach the tearooms. Prior arrangements can be made by people with disabilities to use this track and the limited parking at the tearooms by calling 01598 753348 during the opening hours of 10 - 5.

                                  **The Walk**

                                  The starting point that we normally take when walking to Watersmeet is to park in Lynmouth, either in the public pay and display car park or the National Trust free parking area which is sign posted from the Countisbury Hill side of the bridge. This parking area at the start of the footpath to Watersmeet however is tiny with only 7 spaces so the public one may be a safer bet, although we struck lucky on our latest visit so saved ourselves a few pounds.
                                  The East Lyn is a beautiful river with numerous large boulders in it which the river courses over. After some heavy rain recently the river was roaring through at quite a pace and with great energy. In 1952 the rivers that converge at Watersmeet as well as another that also enters the sea at Lynmouth causes horrendous devastation after storms destroying buildings and killing 38 people, so it is wise to be cautious of the power of these waters, but normally they are safe and pretty to walk alongside.

                                  The walk starts on the left bank of the river, so from the public carpark you will need to cross the bridge and follow the bank - you'll see a map of the country side that is managed by the National Trust when you reach the national Trust carpark and this shows the route to the tearoom as well as numerous other paths that can also be taken. Watersmeet is well sign posted from this point as you follow the path along the left bank and then over a pretty wooden bridge to reach the right bank. As you reach the tearoom another bridge will need to be crossed to enable you to either take a break here or continue on to further destinations.

                                  The path splits at one point allowing you to take either the riverside route or the woodland route and this also means that it is easy to turn this into a circular walk which is always preferable for me as I like to see a variety of surroundings. There isn't much difference in distance whichever route you take, both being signed as 1.75 miles, but there is quite a difference in terrain. I would recommend that the riverside route is not only the less strenuous route but it is also the prettiest and most interesting. Having said it is less strenuous, it is certainly not a flat easy walk and sturdy shoes are a necessity in my opinion. Better still are wellies as like us you will then also be able to paddle at some of the quieter points on the river and stroll out to a rock to sit on and sunbathe. This is one of the things that we love best about this walk and we spent ages playing in the water on our latest trek. We did see some people walking in flip flops and open sandals but this must have been quite hard going as there are numerous steps, steep slopes, rocky and uneven surfaces not to mention mud and puddles. On the woodland walk I would even go as far as saying that adventuring with this type of footwear could be extremely dangerous. This part of the route has very steep climbs up and down with treacherous sheer drops to the side. I am not very sure footed and struggled a bit managing some of the downhill slopes needing a helping hand to ensure that I stayed upright. Needless to say this route is totally unsuitable for anyone with mobility difficulties and I would have been concerned to walk here with young children as I would have been terrified of them falling over the edge. The riverside route however is perfect for a walk with children, and it's a fun route with lots to see along the way. I remember doing this walk many years ago with a buggy; we must have been insane and had to carry the buggy for quite a bit of the time. A back carrier would be a sensible bit of kit to have unless you want to make life really hard for yourself.

                                  Watersmeet can also be walked to from Countisbury Hill and along the Hoar Oak river from the village of Rocksford, but I've never tried these so cannot comment. We have however continued up the East Lyn to Hillsford Bridge which is signed from the tearoom and this is well worth doing for the outstanding views of waterfalls; they really are impressive. This again is a reasonably heavy going stretch of walk uphill with sheer drops down a long long way, but perfectly manageable for anyone with average fitness. It is a further ¼ mile to the viewpoint and ½ mile to the bridge - best done to work up an appetite for the tearoom rather than on a stomach full of cream tea!

                                  **The Tearoom**

                                  Watersmeet House is a picturesque cottage and is run as tearoom by the National Trust and also includes a small shop selling the normal National Trust things such as books, outdoor clothing, sweets and biscuits, tea towels etc. There is only a small indoor eating area with three tables. This whole outing is really only recommended in fine weather as the footpaths become treacherous in the rain, so I doubt if there is much custom on a rainy day. Outdoor seating however is plentiful on a patio and a large lawn with round wooden tables, some with umbrellas.

                                  The food is as you would expect from an English tearoom with Devon cream teas of freshly baked scones, local clotted cream and strawberry jam. Three of us had these and they were delicious. The surroundings always contribute to the taste of a cream tea and sitting overlooking the river on a sunny day was just about perfect. As neither my daughter nor I drink tea we had to request soft drinks instead to be included in the £4.95 price. That was not a problem, but the lady did seem to get very confused about the numbers with and without tea and I overheard another customer struggling to make her wishes clear as well. Hospitality was perhaps not quite as good as it might have been, but it was busy and a queue was building so I think the staff were under a bit of pressure.

                                  I loved the look of Cornish pasties and salad that were brought out to other customers as we arrived. Sadly though they had run out when we tried to order these. My other daughter had a hot sausage roll which she really enjoyed. Toasties for £3.80, sandwiches for 3.00, soup for £3.50, ploughmans for £7.50 and delicious looking quiches for £5.90 all looked good too and the cakes looked amazing and huge ranging from £1.50. I don't think I'd have been disappointed with anything that I had ordered from here.
                                  There were three toilets in the ladies which aside from muddy floors from the countless walking boots that had passed through were clean.

                                  **To finish off the walk**

                                  A day out at Watersmeet can be nicely finished off with a wander around Lynmouth. This is a tiny town with a pretty little harbour. Shops are of the gift type with lots selling icecreams and boxes of Devonshire toffees to take back home for gifts. I enjoyed looking around a couple of galleries and most moving of all is the memorial hall which contains photographs, newspaper articles and film of the 1952 flood. You then can't help trying to match the photos to the current landscape and see what is missing. Fortunately the flood defences are now improved so you should feel in no danger of being the victim of flash floods again in the town.

                                  **Summary**
                                  This is a beautiful walk that I always look forward to doing if we visit Exmoor. The babbling river makes an idyllic setting for photographs especially where there are waterfalls and rapids and the tearoom makes a perfect end point.

                                  This review also appears on Ciao under my same user name - MelissaRuth.

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