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I have to admit, trying to find a cottage for a week's holiday in Northern Ireland was quite a challenge. My internet research uncovered loads of sites, and it was a question of too many to choose from. I wanted a well kept fairly contemporary decorated home somewhere close to Portrush/Bushmills area, and it did seem that there were plenty to choose from. One site that I hit a few times was the Imagine Ireland website. As the name suggests, Imagine Ireland book self catering/cottage holidays across the whole of Ireland, and they also have some properties in the UK and even in France. They have been trading since 2002, so a reasonable on line history. I finally settled on a particular property in Bushills (property no 9708) and sent off an on line query. I particularly liked this website as it did have what looked like up to date inventory on line. Many properties are individually owned and of course it can be a challenge sending emails or making calls to see if they are available for the week in question. We had decided that we would drive north to Troon and get the Troon-Larne ferry, as it is a short crossing and the total journey would be no longer than travelling from Holyhead. I asked Imagine Ireland to price that for me as well, as it is not a route that is heavily discounted by P&O and it was quite an expensive week with it being Easter. Imagine Ireland are actually based in Skipton, Yorkshire - something I did find a little unusual, but I guess there is plenty of demand from Brits going to our nearest neighbour. The website search engine is more than adequate and I did not encounter any real frustrations. The dates themselves can be fixed or flexible. It is often better to use flexible dates for catering accommodation as not all cottages offer short lets e.g. of less than a week, and of course arrival dates can vary between owners i.e. Friday/Saturday etc. You can further filter the results by specifying a minimum number of bedrooms, and whether or not the accommodation takes pets. The search engine returns results in three ways, as a list view, including the key features of the accommodation, simple photo view so you quickly see which accommodation appeals to you, or as a map view, which I did use extensively to whittle down my selections. My first interaction with Imagine Ireland did not go quite to plan. I had sent in my online query, from the property page I had chosen, including some free format text asking about the ferry pricing. I received an email back fairly quickly, stating that they did not offer ferry bookings unless it was part of a package - frustrating as I had selected a property and dates therefore I thought this would have been clear at their end! I sent off another email, in the evening, slightly frustrated as I could not complete my booking that day. Next day I received a call from a lovely lady who apologised for the misunderstanding, and who listened to my requirements and with whom I made the booking. The ferry price was particularly attractive to me - it saved me around £50-£60 on the best deals I had seen which was fantastic as the accommodation was fairly pricy with it being Easter/Royal Wedding/BH week. I received a simple email confirmation which gave all the details we needed about the accommodation, arrival times and contacts, and the ferry itself. My interactions with the company by telephone were excellent, and they were extremely helpful and accommodating and had a natural friendly telephone manner throughout - so perhaps the first email was a bit of a blip. They called me back to cross check the booking details ( my ferry details and accommodation details did not match up perfectly as we had additional accommodation arranged elsewhere in both Scotland and in Belfast). We also decided to change the vehicle we were taking on the ferry, and again this was changed very easily and no additional costs incurred. Incidentally their customer service line is open until 7pm six days a week. I did pay by credit card and there was a small surcharge for doing this, which is becoming more commonplace. It equated to about £15 for my booking which was valued at about £650 in total. I decided to pay this as I had saved on the ferry anyway and credit card does give more protection than debit card. As I booked fairly last minute I paid in full on my first call, however I believe balances are normally due 8 weeks prior to travel. Imagine Ireland also have a voucher scheme whereby you can prepay for BB accommodation across Ireland and then be more flexible with your travel on visiting Ireland. They also have a holiday brochure if you prefer to browse the old fashioned way instead of dealing with it on line. Overall I was very pleased with Imagine Ireland and I would definitely use them again for future self catering accommodation. As an aside, property 9708 - three bedroom terraced home in Bushmills was also a beautiful contemporary property, spotlessly clean on arrival and in a great location for town and within easy reach of the Antrim Coast attractions - also highly recommended.
I first heard of Blackberry Wood after it was named campsite of the year in the Cool Camping book for England. Fast forward a couple of years and we finally got our opportunity to visit. We actually booked for five nights from Sunday to Friday in May. The campsite does offer online booking, about 13 months in advance but its recent fame has meant that weekends do get booked up very quickly and were practically booked out, as were most school holidays, by January. The campsite takes only about 20 tents, and one of the key attractions of the site is that these are in their own individual glades, of varying sizes, but ultimately very private, while at the same time not being too far from each other. The price for five nights in May was £95, which is a little on the steep side but a price we were willing to pay - finding sites which are geared for tent campers, and do not consist of masses of tents are few and far between. We paid 50% deposit with balance due on arrival. I must say it was difficult to get a real feel of the place from their website (www.blackberrywood.com) as it is (unusually) mostly animated with very little information, although past guests are invited to post their own holiday photos. I had learned from the website that it is essential to let the site know in advance if you have a particularly large tent, of over 5m x 3m. The website states that a failure to do so means that you will not be allowed to pitch until everyone has arrived, an inconvenience no-one wants. I did wonder if the campsite would have a long list of strict site rules as well as this. We took our Outwell Virginia on its first ever outing, and its dimensions are fairly close to that maximum. However, by the same token, I could see from the availability on the website that they were fairly quiet Mon-Thu and hopefully we would not encounter any difficulties, and indeed these fears were unfounded, with barely any rules that I was aware of. The real appeal in the site was the fact that the 20 or so pitches were in glades in the woods, which all had their own individual pitch names, depending on their location or surrounding flora or fauna e.g. Minty for a pitch near to the mint bushes. The campsite also allows campfires, again not always possible, although I understood that the facilities may be a little basic, with no electric hook-up, my most pressing problem being how I would dry my hair each morning. The campsite is located close to the South Downs and the delightful village of Ditchling, which in turn is close to the towns of Lewes/Brighton. We arrived shortly after the designated check in time of 3pm and were greeted by the owner Tim, who took time to highlight the local walks and village pubs within reach of the campsite on foot, and advised us to wander through the glades and pick a glade we liked, having made a recommendation of Avalon. Wheelbarrows were lying about and we could use these to wheel our gear to the chosen glade. He also advised us that the cast of Wicked were also there for the night in the main field, approximately 21 campers, but they had been advised they needed to be quiet and not disturb other residents! We wandered through and soon found Avalon, and we fell in love and bagged it! It was a good sized plot, easily able to take a couple of large tents, and like all the glades, there was a campfire area, with makeshift seating (tree trunks), 360 degree tree walls, but still easily reachable from the second car park, and close to the toilet blocks and sinks. We pitched. Although we pitched our large tent in around 20 minutes, the ground was hard, due to the compressed stone that was beneath the bark layer, and in no doubt due to the dry weather recently. In fact, one of the wonderful aspects of glade camping like this is that we were relatively sheltered from the elements, whether that be rain or excessive sun. My main reservation with taking our Outwell Virginia tent instead of our Outwell Bear Lake was that I felt the canvas Bear Lake was a far superior tent to deal with hot/wet weather. In fact the shelter of the glade meant that the polyester Virginia tent never got too hot, which was a blessing given the recent heat wave. The real beauty in Blackberry Wood is being able to really retreat and enjoy nature away from daily life and all its stresses and strains. Instead it was great to be outdoors enjoying the birdsong until sunset, to cook outdoors, enjoy a fire and observe the local pheasants and other birdlife around our glade. The facilities of the site itself were minimal - logs were available for a reasonable £4/bag, and there was a small "store" open daily for essential items, should you have forgotten anything essential. The buildings around the site including the shower-blocks and toilets were very simple basic construction - think toilet rolls suspended on tree branches which have breached the broken glass above the toilets, and you will be on the right lines. In fact the shower-block nearest to us was also open to the elements as there was no actual roof. The toilet "walls" are plastered with posters identifying the local wildlife i.e. birds/bats/hedgehogs etc. This is not the place for you if you cannot live with basic facilities for a few days. Showers were 20p - something I don't mind paying for as it does make you consider water usage which is no bad thing, although I was comfortably able to shower and never ran out of water before I wanted to step out. The only electric plug socket I found that worked was in a small kitchen area/first aid area adjacent to a shower block, but on the upside travelling midweek and out of season meant we never once waited to use the facilities, and I would highly recommend a midweek and not a weekend stay if you really want peace and quiet, as I imagine it would be much different on a full Friday/Saturday night. We had decided that the point of staying here on this trip was the end in itself and we were not about to spend our days too far away from nature - we just wanted to enjoy the local area at a snail's pace. Ditchling was a few miles away and easily reachable for fresh croissants for breakfast as well as having a wonderful but pricy delicatessen if you wanted to have breakfast cooked for you. The local pub served the delightful local English wine, and we did make a couple of trips to Brighton, mainly as OH had never been. We also made a picnic of local produce and the local English wine and simply found ourselves on the common and enjoyed our surroundings. There was a small downside in that some families did tend to be noisy until late into the night, i.e. 2am on a couple of occasions. I wasn't overly perturbed by this, although it did annoy OH a bit more than it annoyed me. Overall a great experience and I would definitely go back and revisit - a perfect place to relax and recharge the batteries and to kick back and enjoy the simpler things in life. I hope you enjoy the photos
How Important is Social Networking to me? Hmm. Judging by the picture shown here, this clearly refers to online social networking, and not physical social networking, and so I have answered this accordingly. Just under than five years the likes of Facebook did not exist - unless you were at a certain university which allowed you to join - it did however open its doors to the masses in late 2006. I have of course played an active part in other online communities including Dooyoo and Ciao, (this is my 250th review on dooyoo!!) and the occasional spin off forum, an interest which in itself has led to the occasional meeting or two. For friends and family the main method of communication was the telephone, followed by email, and occasional letter/postcards/cards. Even further back, around the year 2000, Friends Reunited was a popular way of seeking out old school friends, and even old colleagues and neighbours and was certainly one of the earliest social networking sites and quite revolutionary; the company was even valued at £175m at its peak. However this site seems to have run its course - many profiles from my old school friends have not been updated in ten years. I joined Facebook, perhaps one of the most popular and well known social networking sites, back in the summer of 2007. I seem to recall that one of my sisters sent me a link. In the early days and weeks of course, I did very little with Facebook, not quite seeing the attraction in sending people pixellated gifts and "poking" them for fun. How times have changed. Nowadays Facebook is one of my favourite sites, and I visit it several times a day - often made easier with the introduction of smartphones and the various phone apps. In fact, for wasting time surfing the internet, Facebook seems to have taken over, and I spend more time there than on the main review sites, acquiring around 220 "friends" in the meantime. The "FRIENDS" Thing... Many who do not particularly like/use/understand social network sites often criticise this strange habit of adding "friends" to a network, to socialise with them online? Why not simply communicate in the old fashioned way - face to face/on the telephone/via letter or email. Surely if these people were important to you, then there are better ways to keep up with their news? In fact my own hubby has uttered many of these objections, despite having his own Facebook account in all that time. Well of course, remember 20 years ago, most of us did not have personal email address or mobile phone, in fact most of us would not have had an email account at work either. Going back to your parents/grandparents age, then they most possibly did not even have a telephone at home. In fact I don't think we had one at home until the mid 1970s. Our communication patterns are constantly evolving, although the internet has really accelerated the pace. Added to that, the way we live our lives has changed - a job used to be for life - now many of us change jobs every few years. I physically cannot keep up with everyone I have ever worked with, or even those who I have ever worked with who I was closest to - but Facebook helps to at least know the headlines about what is going on in their lives - good or bad, if they choose to share it - and I choose to read it. And families are more widespread. I myself have lived in almost 20 different addresses already. I used to have sisters in all four corners of Britain - now I have a sister and other close family and friends in Australia/Canada/America, who I can communicate with daily, for free. In terms of my own "friends" on Facebook then, then by and large these ARE people I have met in real life as it were, although a quick refresh of one of the many fun applications - Friend Wheel - would suggest about 10% are friendships formed through review websites - although I have met many of those 10%. By far my largest network of friends is through work, and my most recent employment, although I have been able to use the site to reconnect with people I worked with in Australia over ten years ago. I also have a reasonable family network and around 5% of my total is old school friends, which is a relatively small number, of those I was/still am close to. A quick refresh of another application would suggest that around 7% of my friends are neither male or female, but I guess we all have a few indecisive friends like that.. Use of Facebook.. I do use Facebook quite a lot, often it can be something simple such as an update on my day (good or bad), or to share a comment, or add to a current news issue - funny or frustrating. I maintain and share a lot of photos on line, usually from holidays or special occasions, or even just local shots. There is of course the facility for others to share their photos and "tag" individuals in the photos, effectively meaning those pictures can be seen by anyone in the network. I am not so keen on this, and tend to avoid sharing personal pictures of others for this reason. I do play a few games online as well, either alone or with others. In the early days, I think the main game played was scrabble (or some version of it) but nowadays I have been hooked in by Zynga and joined the hundreds of millions who play the dreaded Farmville, Frontierville and Cityville. I'm very sorry, to all my "friends" for the thousands of alerts these programs generate - but you can block these status updates in your news feed you know.. As well as games, there are literally thousands of other quizzes/applications which you need to sign your online life away to subscribe to. I use less of these now mainly because of the potential security surrounding them, there does seem to be an increase in dodgy links lately, which I want to try and avoid. But just as with the member side of review sites, many of these are quite fun ways to find out a little bit more about your friends and colleagues. I also like to see other people's statuses, and this can often spark off a conversation on line, or even a trigger that it is probably about time we meet up again. I have to say I have one close friend who has an account but is very inactive. We live some distance apart and meet up about once a year for dinner and overnight stay at each other's houses etc. On my last visit it was quite bizarre - although never active, he knew exactly what had been going on, where we had been, all the key things I might have shared over the year, he obviously used the site in a limited way to read status updates etc...it was quite strange, not to have as much news as we normally have however! I do use the messages facility for sharing more private messages, either with individuals or with small groups - just in the same way as email really. Finally as organisations and companies can also have a Facebook page, I often subscribe to these too - that way I can see how they interact with customers, which is important if I want to do business with them, and can take advantage of any special offers and the like. My last employer has an official page and this was also great for keeping up with news in other areas of our estate (Hotel Company with 21 hotels). I think one of the main downsides of face-book is that you do need to be careful what you are posting and who is reading it - important from a career point of view. There have been many cases of individuals who have found they have been sacked for making negative comments about their employer, or for going sick after a night out or other such cringe worthy stories. Obviously adding your employer in the way I have done above does mean I need to be extra vigilant of what is posted - presumably my employer now know about my Farmville habit, but haven't held it against me. Surely there are other sites beside Facebook...? Well of course there are, and I use a few others selectively. There are literally hundreds of sites though including MySpace, Bebo etc, the likes of which I have never delved into. The site I use for professional networking purposes is Linkedin. This is an essential site for professionals, for networking, you never know when that next job is coming from. There are different levels of membership for Linkedin, and some of these can cost about the same as a phone contract per month, but I only have the basic free account, which is more than adequate for my needs. I am a hotel management professional, and the site is excellent for maintaining links to old colleagues, key recruitment agencies and the like, and again for subscribing to company feeds, to keep track of who is on the move. You can technically link to anyone, but information is much more secure on the whole. I have about 110 contacts here, and with their contacts, the potential network can be considerable. The focus is definitely on the career, and your profile can be adapted as to the kind of contact you want i.e. just getting in touch, reference requests, consulting projects, new job opportunities, that sort of thing. I have found it to be a much more professional way of staying in touch with people, particularly those that may be able to assist in the career in the future, and likewise I hope that it helps those that have worked with me in the past. Again the site has its cynics, including some of my colleagues, however my brother in law, who works in a niche field, and was looking to emigrate to Australia was able to make contact with someone key down under, secure an interview and then a job - by contrast the company saved considerable head hunting fees. It is an invaluable site to me, although I don't spend more than five minutes once or twice a week here. I also have a TWITTER account - this is the one that seems to be most favoured by the famous, with some high profile twitterers including Jonathan Ross, Stephen Fry to name but two. I have to say, TWITTER has largely passed me by - the principle here is you simply are able to update your status with one liners, or 140 characters of text- now in principle this is similar to the Facebook status update, which I love, but I have never found the attraction in twitter, in fact if I try and log on I have usually forgotten the crucial information! Finally, I also use some more "traditional" forums to a degree. Currently I frequent about three, although tend to lurk at one rather than contribute. I contribute to Money Saving Expert and the Consumer Forum, and typically I find my contributions are in the Mortgage/House buying/Savings and Employment sections, which is in an advice giving capacity in the main. In the employment section, I have read/advised on more issues where someone is up for a disciplinary/dismissal for their facebook activity than I care to count - and I cannot make that point strongly enough.I have been contributing to these for a relatively short period of time, about six months, but I have contributed to other forums over the years, in a similar degree. I lurk at www.britishexpats.com which is a forum ran by, and with information for, you've guessed it, expats - or those who aspire to emigrate. I was introduced this by my sister who is a senior user and resident visa expert for Australia on the site - I joined as applying for a permanent visa is also something we have given plenty of consideration to over the last two years. SO: How important is Social Networking to me? I think it is very important, and I do spend quite a bit of time on my various favourite sites each day, but mostly spent on Facebook. There is no doubt it is changing communications completely - I must have had over 50 birthday messages a few days ago, but by contrast only two cards in the post...(I hear you say awwww, but it's probably sign of age..!), and I do think that I should spend less time online. But, on the other hand I am keeping in touch with 220 people in some form, and this would be impossible to do face to face or even via telephone. My oldest contact is 75 while my youngest probably 18. So I think Facebook and my other favourite forums might remain in my life for a bit longer yet. But I will let you know when I have conquered Farmville. However, you do need to think carefully how you use it, who you "trust" and which networks you subscribe to in particular (university, city, employer) as you could leave yourself unwittingly wide open for your information being shared with strangers.
This travel guide - The Best of Britain - Northern Ireland is the first in the Best of Britain titles that I have purchased. It is a reasonably weighty book, at 355 pages but I figured this would be fairly comprehensive for our ten day stay in the region. The book, published by Crimson Publishing, is one of a series of around ten that cover the main touring hotspots of Britain and Ireland. The author is local to the area, in this case Mal Rogers, an Irish man who studied at Queens, Belfast and played in a folk band before becoming a journalist, who writes regular travel columns in the Irish Press. The cover price is £12.99 although I managed to get it for £8.64 via amazon.co.uk, and I feel this represented excellent value. The book has a small full colour glossy section at the front, followed by around 8 subsections on green/white recycled paper - representing a facts section, followed by Belfast, and then each of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland. I mention the paper colour as hubby's only slight grumble was he felt the print in some of the green boxes was difficult to read - I must point out he is of an age where he needs reading glasses but is in denial, and I had no such problems. My first read through the book, prior to departing on holiday, was exciting, and it really gave me a good flavour of the key attractions/places to visit - so much so that I was starting to think the holiday would not be long enough and mentally started planning a return trip! The initial glossy pages highlight the top ten must see attractions in the region, of which we managed to tick off five, and there was also a "secret" top ten, which is compiled by locals. I have to say we endeavoured to find one of these, a monument near Bushmills, and were unable to do so, even after asking about it at the local distillery. Generally though, the book seemed reasonably accurate and up to date and we didn't encounter any problems as a result of following its information. It was easy to thumb between the various sections i.e. counties, and this meant that the second read through was easily digested, with typically 40 pages or so for each county - and unfortunately we weren't planning to cover all six in our stay. In the theme of "The Best of..." each county had a top ten of unmissable things to do, and I particularly liked the interviews from locals in each region - a column of quick fire questions as to the best places to eat, and visit etc. Each region also had a section on what to do in wet weather (not needed at all!), and where to go with children or indeed where to go to avoid them. There was also a useful Places to Stay section for each region, useful for a return visit as we had already booked a cottage, and places to eat, which we tended to consult on occasion. We also made use of the city/town street-maps in the key towns and cities we visited. The book is jam packed with information for tourists including information of historical interest, some occasional humour in the text and it was an invaluable companion. My only criticism was it is slightly heavy for lugging around in a handbag for a week, and a pocket size version might be preferable, although there was no part of this book which I felt was surplus to requirements, it was packed from cover to cover with material which we genuinely wanted to read - not something that all travel guides can claim. I will certainly consider this series again on my next UK holiday. www.crimsonpublishing.co.uk (input BBS at checkout for 10% discount) Recommended.
The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is one of the Antrim (Causeway Coast) must see attractions. The bridge itself is accessed near to Ballintoy, which is only a few miles from Giant's Causeway on the north coast. The bridge is now under the care of the National Trust (NT), which is great for those with membership as of course it means free entry - otherwise adult admission is £5.60 (Apr 2011) with the usual concessions available. The bridge itself is a suspension bridge, made of rope and wooden planks, which crosses "The Atlantic", or more accurately about 75 feet of it, between the mainland and Carrick-a-Rede Island. The bridge itself stands 30 metres above the sea and the rocks below. We visited in late April, on a gloriously calm sunny day. We arrived at lunchtime and were able to park up easily in the spacious car park, which is free to all, I understand. There is a nice lawned area nearby and we opted to stop and picnic here after the walk. There is also a NT café and shop area which has some wonderful black and white photos of the bridge during its construction. Access to the bridge requires walking approximately 1.5km from the car park and ticket office, along the side of the cliffs. The walk itself is pleasant and part of the experience, indeed we took around 45 minutes to walk the return journey, resting occasionally to take in the view (and rest the legs which were rather wobbly for a good hour or two after the ordeal of crossing the bridge!) Would be bridge crossers need to have a moderate level of fitness, mainly as there are 180 steps down to the start of the bridge area - which of course means 180 steps up on your return. The steps down are in three sections, including a final "ladder" section before you join the bridge, which would be approximately 30 steps, I guess. For this reason, it is not suitable for those in wheelchairs, although the path is passable until the first flight of steps. You may also encounter NT staff who sometimes wander along the path selling ice-creams to the walkers. You can see from the pictures of the bridge, that it has a very simple structure, and is made from rope with just sets of wooden planks along the middle for walking along. The bridge was originally used by salmon fishermen, to allow them access to the island for the best catches, and therefore the bridge was erected and taken down at the start and end of the fishing season. Nowadays it is not used for this purpose, as unfortunately the salmon catch is nowhere near where it used to be. Because of its lightweight construction, only 8 people are allowed on the bridge at one time, however this needs to be self managed by the bridge crossers. There are NT staff on either end controlling the flow to the Island and back again. Eventually, the terrifying moment comes when you need to actually step on the bridge and walk over. I have to say it was absolutely terrifying. The bridge did wobble, even on a very still day, and I have heard tales, from clearly much braver friends than I, that they crossed it in wind and gale..It does of course take less than a minute to cross, but it was a very terrifying minute! My hubby had walked over much quicker than me, meaning I had no one ahead of me for several metres, which was frightening in itself, he was dealing with his own issues, namely the two women in front of him wanted a photo - so they stopped, meaning he had to as well! The worse part of crossing the bridge is that there is only one way back.... On our return trip, we were behind a family with 2 adults and 3 kids. The kids were a little scared, meaning poor father had to cross and return three times, holding their hands and only holding on himself with one hand. My advice, do not take kids with you unless you will be able to cope with doing the same! Of course braver souls seem to get their kicks from gently making the bridge wobble..Both hubby and I had jelly legs on our return, and I am sure we were not the only ones, judging by the way people congregated before beginning the 1.5km walk back to the car park. The island itself is small, and there is a path to the top, and you can spend a few minutes or as long as you want admiring the view and the flora and fauna. On your return, for an additional £1 you can get a certificate confirming your bridge crossing. There is an alternative walk back, which takes about five minutes longer, but does have slightly fewer steps, and it also has a great vantage point for taking some bridge pictures, as taking them while on the bridge is generally not the best idea. I have to say I found the experience a bit scary, and I don't think I would choose to go over this bridge ever again. That said, I do think it is a must do attraction in the area, and so I still rate this five stars. I advise to take a picnic and traverse the bridge on the sunniest, driest, wind-free day that you can! Take heart that no one has actually fallen off the bridge; although rumour has it some people have had to be rescued by boat. I certainly could have imagined that it could scare some people enough to have to practically crawl back over it.
Although the red sightseeing buses are very familiar in many towns and cities in the UK and Ireland, I don't often make the use of them, particularly as if I think I can get around on foot or on regular buses, then this can often be a far cheaper option. We did take a tour option around Dublin many years ago now, and as we had barely 24 hours in Belfast recently, we decided this might be the easiest option to see the many sights in the city, and give us a real flavour of the place. We arranged our tickets with our hotel concierge, on the morning of our tour, which was on Easter Saturday. We were picked up a mere 10 minutes later from the hotel, on a small shuttle type bus, which took us to the first pick up point, on High Street. Any hotel with concierge facilities will be able to organise this for you, or alternatively you can visit the ticket point on High street or around the city, or approach the many ticket officers in the city, e.g. around City Hall. Our ticket price was £12.50 each, which we felt was reasonable for this particular tour. There are 20 stop off points along the tour, which typically takes 90 minutes to go around. We decided we would go and complete one full circuit and then decide if we wanted to get off anywhere on a second loop around, as time was at a premium for us - we only had 3 hours in the city before we had to leave for the coast. Thankfully it was a dry day, and we duly sat upstairs at the back. The upper deck is part open air and part enclosed. We did stay in the open air for the full duration, but it was very windy up there, and I was a little cold - definitely take a warm jacket with you unless the street temperature is particularly high. I think it was about 15-18 degrees that day - so a little cooler than it has been recently. We were able to get plenty of pictures on our tour - although sometimes this might be a little difficult, if the bus is on the move. The tour of course has a tour guide who was very friendly and informative and clearly had 90 minutes of Irish jokes lined up together with historical facts. For me the highlights of the trip were to be able to spend some considerable time in the Falls Rd/Shanklin Rd areas of the city, and witness the many tens of murals that adorn the gable end walls, and to see for myself some of the divided areas of the community. Stormont was also another good stop off point - the bus is allowed into the grounds, although a security officer does do a quick search at the entrance point. Belfast is also the city which built the ill fated Titanic (She was ok when She left Belfast...), and the tour stops at the dock area where you can see HMS Caroline, and disembark for dock walks, the mighty Samson and Goliath yellow cranes on the H&W site are visible from some distance away. There were plenty of interesting buildings around the tour, including the Crumlin Road jail and courthouse, and several churches/St Anne's Cathedral and the Grand Opera House. The architecture in some of the many beautiful buildings suggest that this was a wealthy city. The Opera House is close to the Europa Hotel and the famous Crown Bar, and all have suffered bomb damage in the past, with the Europa Hotel having the unfortunate claim of being the most bombed hotel in Europe. George Best was one of the cities more famous residents and the tour goes past his first football club, as well as out past the George Best Airport and he also has a mural in his honour. Tickets for the bus are valid for 48 hours, so are well worth it if you can afford to take a more leisurely approach than we did. They can also be combined with the Titanic walking tour, and children receive a complimentary colouring pack. Overall an enjoyable way to get a taste of Belfast - we will be back!
The Giant's Causeway, on the Antrim Coast, probably needs very little introduction. It is one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites, and is one of the premier attractions in Northern Ireland. It has also been one of the main reasons that I have wanted to visit this area for some time now. The Giant's Causeway is currently under the care of the National Trust (NT), as is Carrick-a-Rede Bridge, and so if you take out membership you are already starting to recoup some of the costs in visiting this region. Thankfully this wonderful site has free entry, although you do need to pay for car parking, which is £6 - but free to members. Entry to the Giant's Causeway is via the main ticket office. At the moment there is some building works going on, as a new visitor centre is being constructed, said to cost in the region of £18m. We did not find there was any significant disruption during our visit however. The usual National trust gift shop is located here, and adjoins the hotel next door, which houses a smaller shop. Car parking is worth further explanation - if you visit during the busier periods of the year, then you may need to plan this in advance. It is most likely the site car park will be full, so you will need to make use of the park'n'ride options to the site, including the one at Bushmills, and this one is recommended during the period of the visitor centre works. There is a third car park nearer the attraction, which involves a steeper descent/ascent. We opted to go first thing and arrived before the attraction was technically "open" and so were able to park without problem. You have to pay for the park and ride services, again free for NT members however. The added bonus about going early was that there were very few people around initially we appeared to have the place to ourselves - we picked a Tuesday morning rather than a weekend to avoid the crowds. There are two ways to get down to the actual causeway itself - either walk along the path for around 15 minutes or so, or take the NT passenger bus, for a nominal amount. Obviously walking is much better and gives you the opportunity to take in the overall view and take some photographs. The causeway consists of around 40000 stone columns, many in a hexagonal form but this is not uniform as there are also plenty of columns with 5/7/8 sides. Legend has it that these were part of a stone path to Scotland, which was ripped up by the Scottish Giant Fingal to prevent Finn MacCool from reaching him. The great Finn MacCool was also thought to have created the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh by ripping out a great clump of earth and throwing it at his enemy. Geologists however, confirm that the columns are part of an ancient lava flow, and were created by contracting of the lava and rapid cooling - think about the patterns formed when some mud dries and it starts to make more sense. The same formations are also visible at Staffa in Scotland - also under the care of the NT and the site there is known as Fingal's Cave (where he fled to - of course) It's possible to spend a couple of hours or more down at the site, simply wandering across the many stones, or finding your own spot and simply observing them, listening and watching the waves crash along the shore. Although in places, the columns are several metres high, it is generally easy to walk over them, although care will be needed in the more uneven areas, and you do need to think of your route back. The stones which are most washed by the sea appear black and visitors are advised not to walk along these, as there is an obvious slip risk. There are several stones to look out for, including the rather bizarre Fingal's boot, the Organ, the Camel and the Wishing Seat. Surprisingly, for a site which is so unusual, it was not documents until the late 17th century and it was designated a UNESCO site in 1986. Its protected status is crucial when you consider the diversity of the area - the cliffs, shores and marshlands surrounding are home to 200 species of plants and 50 different bird species. If you can hold off on your visit until the new visitor centre is open, then you can look forward to enhanced trails, a well design visitor centre which will be sunken into the ground with grass roof and will display more information e.g. on erosion challenges, wildlife, and archive information from the site. Visit www.agiantcause.com for information, or if you want to sponsor a stone. A magical place and one of the many highlights that make a trip to Northern Ireland very special indeed. The Causeway Coastal route has also been designated one of the world's great road journeys and is an extremely popular walking destination.
We recently stayed in the Belfast Hilton for a one night stay at the beginning of a nine day holiday to the Northern Ireland coast. Although my family is from Dublin, Belfast had remained an elusive destination, one that had been on my "to do" list for years. In the end, it was only to be a one night stay with around 36 hours or so in the city at the most, and we wanted a nice hotel to mark the beginning of our holiday, which was to mark both our wedding anniversary and my birthday within the same week. Working in the hotel trade, I tend to use a third party site to determine pricing, but book direct and this was no exception. Five star or excellent four star was a definite requirement. I had identified the hotel from one of the "top secret" destinations and could have secured Bed and Irish Breakfast for around £84. In the end I booked on line and upgraded to a Corner City Suite room, which included B&B and access to the executive lounge on the 11th floor each evening, for £126 on a Spring BB 1 night special rate via the website. I did only book about ten days in advance, so considered this was a reasonable rate for a five star hotel in the city with upgrade. Parking, like many city centre hotels, came at a premium, in this case an additional £18 for 24 hours, however the car-park space was easy to locate and secure a space, it being a bank holiday Friday on our arrival day, and the city was fairly quiet. The car park is attached to the hotel, and the Hilton itself is adjacent to the Waterfront Hall, which was part of the redevelopment of the area some years ago now. The area still feels very corporate though, although there were one or two restaurants in the region, nothing was open during our stay. This is perhaps the only negative aspect for the Hilton for leisure purposes, although we could walk to the City Hall and central area within 5-10 minutes. We arrived a little later than we expected but still a good 90 minutes before the designated check in time, however we were checked in efficiently and welcomed to the city and the hotel at the Hilton Honors check in desk - although my card for that particular club expired some years ago. Our room was the corner room on the sixth floor. The room is spacious, modern and airy, and its best feature were the floor to ceiling windows on two sides of the room. The room overlooks the river and the famous H&W yellow cranes from the docks area, and was an ideal photo opportunity. Knowing how these things work, I had let the hotel know that this holiday incorporated our wedding anniversary celebrations, and we had a small platter of fruit and wine on arrival and later on we received a plate of brownies and cookies, beautifully presented, at turndown service. The room would be best described as a junior suite, as it does not have a separate bedroom. I was particularly impressed by the toiletries - six nice tubes of a contemporary looking Crabtree and Evelyn brand, and two soaps all duly swiped (not something I normally bother doing)! The room had a large corner bath although the shower was the over bath variety and not separately. We also had an excellent music system. We didn't dine in the restaurant in the evening, although the restaurant is light and airy, with nice views over the water and it did look tempting, and was reasonably priced for a five star hotel, however it was very quiet with most leisure guests tending to opt for dining out. We did make sure we visited the 11th floor executive lounge for complimentary drinks and nibbles, which were well worth paying the upgrade for as the lounge, which was full and could typically seat around 35-40 seemed to be the place to be to make the most of the evening. Our waitress in the lounge was outstanding, extremely friendly and welcoming while at the same time making sure everyone was topped up with their favourite tipple. I did stick to wine although the OH took the opportunity to try a wee dram of the famous Bushmills Irish Whiskey - measures seem to be larger in Ireland, but this was a particularly generous measure! We did enjoy breakfast, and I have to say this was one of the best hotel breakfasts I have had in a long time, and I don't say that lightly. It was buffet style and fairly busy, but the continental breakfast side was excellent, and there was plenty of choice on the hot plates, which were refilled regularly, and the eggs - always the sign of a decent breakfast - were excellent. We had an early afternoon drink in the main hotel bar on the ground floor. This bar had a nice cocktail list and I opted for a Mojito which was £5.95 which is reasonable for a five star hotel, large wines were from £6.95. Overall I found all the staff to be excellent and there were 1-2 who I would gladly have on any hotel team of mine - the concierge being the other excellent member of staff we encountered although all front of house staff were friendly. As we only had a short time, we decided we would go on the city tour bus, which the concierge arranged for us on our departure morning. Recommended
My recent trip to the Ashiana near Newark was inspired by their Groupon offer, which was available for purchase for 24 hours only, quite recently. For £21, prospective diners could have a 3 course dinner for 2, to the value of approximately £56. I had never purchased via groupon before, but a similar offer in my more local Indian had been very successful, and it would seem that there were few restrictions. The voucher was duly delivered by email, and we made a table booking for 2 for early evening midweek. The restaurant is a conversion from a former pub in the North Muskham area, which is close to the Great North Road and the A1 near Newark. The restaurant, rather unusually also includes ten letting bedrooms, which are laid out motel style behind the restaurant. I did not have the opportunity to view these, although on line reviews generally score highly. Nevertheless, given the lack of accommodation in the immediate town, and the close proximity to the A1 and the East Coast Line, I would imagine these are suitable budget accommodation for midweek travellers who do not want the formalities of more corporate accommodation. However, our main reason for visiting was for an evening meal. The restaurant consists of a large dining area, which can cater for over 100 covers at a time. The interior design was contemporary, utilising white table runners and leather high back chairs that are typical of many modern interiors and restaurants. There is a large seating area before entering the restaurant, which is suitable for pre dinner drinks, or for those simply waiting to pick up their take away. Drinks were not included in our prepaid offer, and we ordered wine and beer while perusing the menu. The menu did have plenty of the traditional favourites, but also plenty of very different dishes which neither of us had tried before, or even heard of necessarily. The only limitation to the full menu on the offer was seafood which was charged at a small supplement. The wine by the glass was the Stowells variety, which was a little disappointing for me, however hubby had already ordered a beer, so a bottle of wine from the wine list would have been a little excessive for one. The stowells was a pinot grigio, and it was reasonable enough however. On to the food. I ordered a starter of Kumb Phudhina Tikka (which I had never heard of), and OH ordered a mixed kebab starter, again not something he normally chooses for a starter, but we were trying different dishes. The normal price for the starters varied between around £4 and £6, with his being nearer the upper end of the range. Both were absolutely delicious and a good size portion, not too large as to prevent you from wanting to eat your main course, which can happen a lot with Indian food! We both opted for a lamb main course, mine being Lucknavi Pasanda, and his being the Lamb Methi Aursag. The presentation of all the food was very good, on contemporary crockery e.g. teardrop style side plates and starter plates. Again portion size was just right, in fact we cleared both curries, and were satisfied. My pasanda was absolutely gorgeous, with a lovely rich texture, and the meat was excellent and plentiful. Both mains were £8.95, excluding rice or other accompaniments. I don't think I have ever had a pudding in an Indian restaurant in my life, although it was included with the special offer. The waiter brought across the pudding menu, which consisted of the normal suspects of Movenpick icecream, or a variety of frozen desserts, however we were also advised that included in our offer we could have a type of pistachio or mango Indian icecream, which we both opted for. This was very nice and refreshing to finish the meal . We only paid for 2 rounds of drinks and a peshwari nan, and this came to a total of £15. Together with the initial layout of £21 for the voucher via groupon, I think this represents excellent value for a full three courses. We felt the service was also very good. The restaurant was quiet, mainly as we had gone early evening midweek, and we enjoyed pleasant chat with the waiters/managers, although the service attention was not intrusive either. Although I had seen the Ashiana on a previous trip to the area, I doubt I would have gone especially to dine there had it not been that I was prompted by the special offer, however I do highly recommend, and as it is only 15 minutes from home, I am sure we will be back in the future. They do have other restaurants, which I understand are mostly in the NW i.e. Preston/Leyland. Recommended http://www.ashiana.net/newark.html
Quinta da Casa Branca was my five star base for my recent visit to Madeira. The holiday itself was a last minute affair, booked about two weeks before departure. We selected the 43 bedroom hotel specifically for its small size, accepting that there might be slightly less features than in a massive hotel, but we would rather have had a more peaceful surrounding. In any event the five star rating and also ranked as one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, we felt this would be a special treat. We did book a package holiday, something I have done on about 2 other occasions in my life. The price for two adults, late November, including flexible dining (3 nights half board), Bed and Breakfast, flights from Manchester, airport parking, and taxi transfer was £1222 for two adults for one week. I had checked direct pricing from their website - http://www.quintacasabranca.pt - but there was very little in it in terms of savings, and it was easier to have the one stop shop. We arrived at the hotel around 8pm, following a transfer time of around 25 minutes, and our check in was straightforward. We were the only guests arriving on our particular flight and were greeted by name. However, wherever we went in the hotel for the remainder of our stay, all staff automatically greeted us and knew our room number automatically - granted the hotel was not fully occupied, but I get the feeling this is the normal standard of service at the hotel. The hotel is about 20-25 minutes walk from the town centre, and a similar distance from the Lido area, all downhill. (Madeira is a very hilly place!) However there are several international (cuisine) and local cuisine restaurants within five minutes walk, particularly on the walk down to the Lido. Two bus routes run right past the hotel, and many others at the bottom of the first hill, and it is easy enough to get into town and back. A taxi trip back up the hill was approximately 5 EUR. The accommodation at Casa Branca is mostly on one level, with rooms overlooking the gardens and with their own patio area. The room itself had all the features that would be expected of a five star hotel, and was nicely decorated although it is the grounds and the public areas that make Casa Branca the hidden gem that it is. We enjoyed a complimentary bottle of local red wine in our room on arrival, which was most appreciated. The mini bar was reasonably priced. The shower was a dustbin lid type showerhead over the bath, and the complimentary toiletries, while not a brand I am familiar with, did feel like they were of a reasonable quality. Housekeeping was carried out daily and there was never a shortage of spa/pool towels as well as the regular bath towels. The double wardrobe was ample for our clothing for the week, and I found the interior light a well thought out touch. We were on half board for three nights, and it was great to see that the Restaurant da Casa Branca was in the top ten lists in the main guidebooks for food on the island. AS we were on an inclusive menu, I didn't get to peruse the a la carte menu too closely, however the table d'hote menu was fantastic on all three nights, the choice was rather limited with only two options for each course, (a meat and a fish dish for main) however the quality was exceptional, in keeping with a fine dining restaurant. The wine list was fairly extensive, and was comprised purely of Portugese wines, we typically paid £25 EUR for a bottle, although these did vary quite significantly, that price being reasonable entry level price for a restaurant of this calibre. I didn't see a vegetarian option on the inclusive menu, however. Breakfast is taken in the Garden Pavilion Restaurant, which is adjacent to the Quinta, and also in a separate building from rest of hotel. The buffet choice was ample, and there was also an a la carte breakfast choice which included omelettes, pancakes, and eggs to order, which we opted for each day - all included in the normal tariff. The Garden Pavilion was also open for lunch, which we enjoyed on two days, choices being sandwiches, salads and pasta. The hotel had a third bar/restaurant in the main hotel - the Deck Bar. This was a simple bar close to reception, which was at a raised level to the bedrooms, and the glass walls meant there were exceptional views of the mountains and down to the sea below. I have to recommend the home made scones, these are made to order, meaning there is a 20 minute delay - something I don't think I have ever experienced before for a scone, but it was worth the wait , and reasonably priced at 4.50 EUR for two scones with jam and cream, ideal to share. The Deck Bar also offered a full afternoon tea menu. Finally a further large lounge provided a perfect area for relaxation, and included a library area for books and games and complimentary internet access via the hotel computer. If you are looking for a holiday with some peace and quiet, then this hotel offers this in spades. Granted this was not top season, but we rarely found any areas of the hotel crowded, and in fact enjoyed the Spa/Gymnasium/Jacuzzi areas (indoor) and the outdoor pool area to ourselves on almost every occasion we used them. The real uniqueness of this hotel though, is in its design and landscaping. When approaching the hotel it is easy to wonder where in fact the rooms are, as they blend gently in to the landscape. The gardens are lush and full of fantastic flowers and plants from all over the world, but are dominated by Bird of Paradise plants, and Aloe Vera plants as well as Banana plantations. Gardeners are extremely thorough in their weeding of the main lawn areas, so particular that they could take all day to cover a relatively small area, ensuring that they look absolutely perfect. The pool area is practically hidden away and surrounded by wonderful plants, but it still incorporates fantastic facilities including sun loungers, showers, and a lovely sitting area. Even some of the public lavatories within the hotel have glass ceilings, giving a real feeling of outdoors while simply sitting on the lav! To summarise, while this hotel was a little more expensive than the other two options we considered, and was also slightly further away from town, the unique peaceful surroundings, and top notch food and service made it worth paying a little extra.
And here we are again close to completing another year, so I thought it was high time I looked back and reflected on the year gone by - for me it was a reasonable year, certainly better than the last three or four, however I believe the plans I have put in place for 2011 will ensure I can be true to myself and chase my own dreams a bit more! January-February - started cold and snowy, the main events in my life were that my close friend was about to adopt three children, and we were closing the sale on my Dad's house, buyer was playing a few games, sister dead-lined them and they came up with the monies in the end to conclude the sale at the beginning of February. It was a relief that the pressure was off us a little, as none of us live anywhere near the house. Since found out from the next door neighbour that new neighbours have done a lot of work, would love to see the changes, (if I have the courage to knock on their door and ask for a tour...! ) Sister and Bro in law joined me in the hotel (Work) and we had a nice meal together and all stopped over. At work, I took on temporary responsibility for a third hotel and Shropshire became part of my fortnightly commute for the next couple of months. My husband's aunt had to have an operation and her leg amputated, regrettably it got infected and the prognosis was not good. In 2007 her husband and her youngest son had died within six months of each other. Hubby was also feeling very ill one Sunday night, I took him to emergency doctors who admitted him with kidney stones, he was in excruciating pain, City hospital was miles the other side of Nottingham and generally a depressing place to be. My friend finally had the three children (eldest 5!) to come and live with her for the first time, and the following week we all met up in Buxton, at the christening of the child of another friend of ours. The kids were wonderful, and looked gorgeous in their best church outfits! I think the death of my father had made me aware of our own mortality, and how important it was to enjoy life NOW! Work continued to dominate my time, particularly as I was away from home a lot as well as the normal demands, and after a couple of week's deliberation I decided to put my notice in. I had to give three months notice, which meant I would finish in Mid May time. We headed down to Kent for out annual conference, an event which I ended up buying a £400 dress for, the most I have ever spent on a dress, including my wedding dress! I definitely need to get out more. I made the decision to hand in my notice, take some time out for myself and then look for something a bit more local to where I live. March-April Regrettably Auntie died early in the month, her funeral in Macclesfield was the day after Mother's day, which was also her birthday; she died quite young, early 60s. Later that afternoon we visited Stepping Hill hospital where my stepson's second daughter was born, life seemed to go full circle that day. A perk of my job is I receive a 2 night voucher for 2 people for dinner bed and breakfast at any of our hotels (I also get cheap accommodation at other times). We had decided we would use my 2010 voucher to stop in our fantastic iconic Manchester hotel and become tourists in our own home town for a couple of days, as most previous visits had been for other family reasons. We booked the trip, but on the day of travel we both felt a little icky. (We had norovirus the previous November, would not wish it on worst enemy). We thought if we travelled to Manchester we might feel better the following day. WRONG! We were both totally wiped out again, and didn't leave the hotel for three days - what a total waste of my freebie! A few days later, I was called to a meeting with my company who basically asked me to go away and reconsider my decision, and to cut a long story short, over the next few weeks I did agree to stay on a new package with a slightly altered structure, a pay rise, and working two days from home. What have I done! We took a one week camping holiday to the Isle of Wight, somewhere we had not been before. Although the car blew its turbo about five miles from home, meaning we had to limp back home and reload into the other car before setting off south, we eventually got down to Hants to stop the night prior, and then took the ferry over. It was a fantastic campsite, and a great holiday. We enjoyed a lovely Afternoon Tea at one of the hotels on the Island for my birthday. We also had the opportunity to go on a one day boating trip on the last Sloop in the Humber, a great experience. We joined a local community group and are trying to raise funds for a wind turbine in the village - the profits raised will be ploughed back into community projects. May-June At work, I had negotiated for a few weeks off, although I agreed to do one specific task each week, from home, which would typically be 2 days. This meant I didn't have to travel to work at all for a three week period. In hindsight, this didn't give me the real break I was craving, and it left me a bit short of holidays for the rest of the year, with one week booked off for exams in October, and Christmas. We took a two night cheapie trip to Stratford upon Avon in the hotel, and we also did a fantastic camping trip to Bath/Stonehenge, an area I had not previously visited. Sis and Bro in Law visited Australia; both got jobs and announced they would be leaving in July. We had our annual Village show in June and the Community project I am involved with had a stall for the first time, put together by my hubby and I. Feedback was mostly encouraging, a few NIMBYS as is par for the course! Jul-August We decided we would get a few niggling jobs done in the house, and while in the Saracen's head in Southwell, we wrote a list. It came to £25K!! Although to be fair, that included contingency for roof work and a sum for a new (additional) bathroom. We papered the dining room and got new blinds, and it looks fabulous, hubby repainted the handmade kitchen units, and replaced the handles and it looks far more sophisticated; and we got the second bedroom decorated and carpeted and it is absolutely gorgeous now! We got a cast iron bed (Next) from eBay for a tenner, and a new coffee table for same. We still need to get some bedroom furniture though, and cannot get a builder for the bathroom for love or money. We headed off to a hotel in Crewe for a one night stay as we had booked a camping trip in Derbyshire but we were outbooked! Had a fantastic night in Crewe, gorgeous room, and one of the best hotel meals ever. Met nephew and his wife the following day at their house for a catch up, turns out he had a job offer to in New York from his employer which they were deliberating. Decisions decisions! (He took it in the end!) We celebrated the 24th anniversary of meeting at home, with a lovely three course dinner, and far too many cocktails! Discussed options for 25th next August... Sep-October Probably the toughest part of the year for me. At work I have two budgets to write and this year the format changed making some parts take three times longer than normal. Last year I only had one to do, this workload was impossible, and I flagged it but got no support. I was working from 8am until 2am most days (thankfully I was working from home) and I was under a lot of stress. As no one else in the company in my role had two to do, I don't think I was being taken seriously, especially as I have fewer staff in my department than in similar units. I ended up visiting the doctor and she signed me off for two weeks, and she would have signed me off for more. I went back to work after two weeks, having done my exam in the meantime, but I knew then it was time to make a significant change. No-one discussed the absence with me, and the pressure continued until end of November, when the task was finally completed. I headed down to London to attend a revision school and while I hated it last year, the tutor this year was fantastic, and for the first time the course started to knit together for me. It was a wise investment as without it I am not sure I could have done so well in the exam when it came. I took my exam in Lincoln in the middle of October and celebrated with a nice evening meal in a fabulous city centre curry house. Freedom at last! We did a mystery shop visit at a local pub, in next village, which we had kept meaning to try, but never found the time. It was absolutely gorgeous inside, fabulous food, and we have been back about six times since. On a lighter note, my friend and hubby and the three children came to stay for a weekend, it was nice spending time with them. We visited a local farm park and spent the whole day there, and went out for a nice dinner in the evening at the new found local. I also secured Take That tickets for Croke Park in June! (Although now these are up for sale..!!) Nov-December The first part of November was dominated with work as above, but by the end of the month we had completed the presentation, and two days later we jetted off for a last minute holiday to Madeira. We were extremely lucky as we missed the worse week of snow, leaving the day it started. We were almost held up by Spanish Air traffic control on way home, but were re routed and delayed just one hour. Holiday was fantastic, it was the first time we had been overseas for several years, and had a simple sun holiday, quite expensive in our five star hotel, but it did make me want to rush straight back home and book another one! I went back to work and a week later handed in my notice (again!) so I now finish at end of Feb, and I won't be talked out of it this time. Regrettably four days after I handed in my notice, and two days after my husband had his annual appraisal at work, HE was called in and advised due to restructuring, his position was changing and they were amending his salary. To say we were devastated would be an understatement, at the way it was done, the timing, and the fact the whole thing seems unfair. However we will fight the decision in the New Year, but at the same time, cut our cloth accordingly. Thankfully we had not gone mad for Christmas, having just had a big holiday, and we are not in a bad position really. I received confirmation I had passed my exams, in fact I got the highest result I ever had, despite the stress right at the time of taking them! We had a quiet Christmas at home, just the two of us and the best part is I still have another week off. Overall, it was an ok year, although I still feel like I have not achieved much for myself personally, however next year I am determined to make sure my time off is put to productive use! I am hoping for six months off, and a trip down under! And a fantastic location to celebrate that 25th anniversary of course. 1) What did you do in 2010 that you have not done before? Had a full afternoon tea for the first time! 2) Did anyone close to you give birth? Quite a few this year. Stepson had their second child, two of my nieces had a baby within a couple of weeks of each other, and a third niece had her fourth child in early December. At work, two colleagues had babies within 1 day of each other too. 3) Did anyone close to you die? Hubby's Aunt, at the beginning of the year 4) What countries did you visit? Madeira and UK! 5) What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010? More time to myself, more sleep, more energy and less exhaustion! 6) What dates will you remember from 2010? Possibly the election, and the subsequent change in government, (although I cannot remember the exact date!) Personally, the holidays and the trip on the Sloop were the best days of the year for me. 7) Did you suffer illness or injury? Only the winter vomiting bug during my hotel stay in Manchester in March. I was also off work with work related stress in October, due to sheer volume of work, which might explain my current situation better. 8) What was the best thing you bought? A Tag Heuer Watch. Two actually, I bought one for hubby for birthday and saw a lovely one for me as well, so I bought two! 9) Whose behaviour has merited celebration? I think the leadership and strength of character shown by the Chilean Miners was one of the best stories of the year. 10) Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed? The words and actions of one or two, one source due to their desire to cause trouble and create malicious rumours, and the other due to their total lack of thought and their selfishness in never considering their impact of their actions on others. That's as much as I am saying! In the village, someone sabotaged our anemometer mast - I just wish people would establish the facts instead of making assumptions, and there is no need to cause criminal damage to property regardless of one's beliefs. 11) Where did most of your money go? Quite a lot of disposable monthly income went into home improvements this year, as we did quite a few jobs. 12) What song will you remember from 2010? I can't say I will remember any, not massively into the latest music hits! 13) Compared to this time last year are you happier, fitter, more productive? I think I am about the same, although I know this is going to improve in 2011 14) What do you wish you had done more of? Exercise! 15) What do you wish you had done less of? Commuting! 16) What was your favourite TV programme? Similar to previous years really, i.e. Apprentice, Mock the Week, HIGNFY, Location, Location, Location. I watched some daytime TV this year, due to working from home and I got quite into Doctors! 17) Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate last year? No 18) What's been the best book of 2010? I haven't read so many books this year, but my colleagues got me into the Twilight Series. I still haven't read the books, only seen the films, but I will opt for that as I will read them shortly... 19) What did you want and get in 2010? More work done on the house! 20) Who was the best person you met? I don't think I particularly formed any new friendships in 2010, but meeting my friends' kiddies and seeing how their life has changed has been special, given the ten years of heartache and trying for a family they went through beforehand. 21) Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010? Follow your Heart There you go.... Sorted... thanks for reading and enjoy 2011!!!!
Although the Old Volunteer in Caythorpe was refurbished almost one year ago, we somehow never managed to make it for dinner there until a little over six weeks ago. Since then we have visited five times in total, four times for dinner, and once for a cheeky wee glass of wine after work. Situated just a couple of miles from my house, it has quickly become my restaurant of choice in the area - and we are quite spoiled for choice around both banks of the Trent close to where I live. The Caythorpe in question is located at postcode NG14 (Notts), with the pub being in a fairly remote location as you enter the village. There is usually adequate parking at the side or rear of the restaurant, and the rear car park has outdoor seating, although we have not had the opportunity to sit outside, given the time of year. What you cannot miss, are the fantastic old apple trees in the grounds. While on the subject of outdoor seating though, there is a very attractive outdoor seating area adjacent to the main restaurant, and which also serves as a secondary entrance/exit. This area, which would seat approx 16-20 is heated with external patio lights, so it is possible to sit outside even at this time of year, and of course makes it slightly more comfortable for the smokers. However, most will enter through the front door, and the contemporary décor will not disappoint. The décor is contemporary, using woods and green/brown tones together with brick fireplaces, making it warm and inviting. The use of colours and textures, slates, wood and tile all add to that designer feel. This is not for you if you enjoy the old fashioned décor, although we liked it enough to copy some of the colours into our kitchen! The pub is mostly given over to dining, in 2-3 key dining areas, although there is a cosy seating area for pre dinner drinks, or simply for those who want to have a drink only. You may find yourself sitting on a large chunk of a tree-trunk instead of a stool however! On to the food. We have eaten here four times now, once as a table of seven including four children under six, and on the other occasions a rather more orderly table for two. Normally, for a midweek meal, we would typically have a one course and our first meal order was for the beer battered fish, and for the Old Volunteer Burger. Both meals were top class, and well presented, utilising the small copper pans which are trendy in pubs of this type over the last few years. The Old Vol has plenty of midweek offers to encourage midweek dining, and one such offer is a "two for one" on pizzas before 7pm, which we have also taken advantage of, making this a midweek dinner for around £4. We have also taken advantage of the 2 courses for £10.50 offer before 7pm. On this occasion, both hubby and I opted for Bubble and Squeak starter served with a poached egg and hollandaise, which was to die for, and retails at £5.50ish normally. I then had the fish again, whereas hubby opted for steak. His only criticism of the steak was it was served on a wooden board, rather than a plate, a trend he is not overly keen on. The children's option consisted of a three course meal for £5.50. This was excellent value, as the food was essentially the adult food, but slightly smaller portion, so no junky kids food here. The three children we dined with had the prawn cocktail starter/soup starter, and then all had fish and chips, which was almost identical in size to mine, although I can also report that they all cleared their plates to the same degree I did! It is worth joining the Old Vol mailing list (or follow them on Facebook) as this means you may get more offers. For example, we received an offer to be a restaurant critique - we could get our main course free if we ordered a starter and a pudding, on selected midweek nights, to celebrate the new autumn menu. This was a great opportunity to try more different courses. I opted for a scallop starter for £7.50, which included three scallops dressed with a peach puree, apple, and a lemon sorbet, so certainly a fruity choice, but very tasty. For main I had a seafood linguine, served with chorizo sausage. On initial presentation, I thought it looked quite tomatoey, but it was delightful, portion size was adequate without being over-facing, and had ample mussels and prawns as well as chorizo. OH had a seabass dish, and he stated it was the best seabass he had ever tasted, I didn't get to taste it, but it did look delicious, and the plate was clear - which is as good a testimony as anything. This was a fairly expensive option at £16.95 normally, but he said it was good value for money, he would have been happy to pay that. A large glass of wine is around £5.70, which is slightly higher than a run of the mill pub, but it doesn't add a lot to the cost of a meal out, and it is worth it for the great ambience and surroundings. Service has always been very attentive, but friendly and not too fussy, staff are always immaculately groomed, and knowledgeable on the menu choice, so are able to answer questions on the menu with confidence. The Old Vol appears to be the first restaurant in the group which is north of the Watford gap, as the owners have several sister hotels in London, as well as Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire and Berkshire. They seem to enjoy hosting events, although I have not had the opportunity to attend any yet, but there is plenty going on most nights of the week. They are ahead of the game with their use of emarketing and the internet, and it is possible to book a table on line, and we have always had a prompt response to enquiries. In summary, The Old Volunteer is highly recommended. http://www.theoldvolunteercaythorpe.co.uk
A week's camping holiday in the Isle of Wight, and as good as an excuse as any to try out some different eating experiences. I had seen a brief glimpse of the Spyglass Inn in the Island tourist magazine, but have to confess it was not the reason that we called in for our first visit. The pub is situated on the Esplanade at Ventnor, a popular tourism spot, with fantastic views over the English Channel. It was exactly these views that captured our attention and we decided to give it a go for our anniversary luncheon. The pub itself is privately owned and provides extensive outdoor and indoor seating for dining and drinking. As well as ample seating in front of the hotel itself, there is an adjoining building called The Boathouse, which is also available for dining - inside and out. This means the Spyglass can cope with the busier summer crowds. The entrance sign - Well Behaved Dogs and Muddy Boots Welcome - certainly lets you know that there is no air of pretentiousness at the Spyglass but a place where everyone is welcome, families or couples, and all day dining is certainly a bonus, especially as this is not the normal kind of chain food all day dining experience. That said, there was a bit of a breeze on both occasions when we ate there last week, and you'll need a good fleece at this time of the year if you want to enjoy your meal out of doors. There are three separate tables which are slightly protected by the weather due to the design of the porch and these are definitely the prime seats for this time of year. On to the food itself, and a brief glimpse of the menu at the entrance had done enough to assure me that we would find something to enjoy, there is plenty of choice for casual dining. Seafood dominates the main menu, with the Captain's Platter and Admiral's Platter being the most expensive dishes, the latter seafood festival coming in at £60 for two and requiring 24 hours notice. However you cannot get more local with lobster and crab being caught in the bay. On my first visit I opted for Scampi and chips, something quite traditional, and I was not disappointed, for just under £10 I had a huge portion of scampi, so much so that I could not even manage most of the chips! Hubby had the home made fisherman's pie, which contained white fish, smoked fish and prawns, and was covered with a good layer of potato and cheese. The content of the pie itself was absolutely packed with fish, and again this was just under £10. It is the view itself which makes Spyglass so appealing, although the food was excellent as well. It is a place where you can easily spend a couple of hours catching your breath, people watching, enjoying a hearty meal, and just watching the boats go by on the horizon. The pub was absolutely packed out for lunch, and again when we went for an evening meal a few days later, which is always a good testimony as many restaurants in the town were not yet open for the season (visited April 2010). As well as seafood, there are other pub grub options including steaks, an ample range of burgers, vegetarian options and lighter bights such as baguettes. On my second visit I opted for Macaroni Cheese with Crusty bread and salad, and this was to die for, while hubby opted for a chilli burger. On our second visit, we initially secured our original seats outside, but decided it was a bit nippy and we opted to dine in the Boathouse itself. The Boathouse and the pub itself are full of nautical memorabilia in keeping with the location. There is limited parking directly outside the pub itself, although there is a car park about 85 yrds up the hill. (pay and display) If the view isn't enough to keep you occupied, then there is often live music playing in the evening or even at the busy lunchtimes, and details are available on the up to date website (www.spyglassinn.com) All in all, this was perhaps my favourite dining experience of my time on the Islands, and given the breadth of the menu choice I am sure it will be appealing to most. Recommended 10/10
Time to round the year off again, 2008 was my annus horribilis and I did promise myself that 2009 would be a lot better - so was it? January, and it didn't actually start off so good. I had been complaining of toothache for a number of months, in fact I had been due to go to the dentist to have a tooth filled in November, but my Dad had took ill and I had to stop back at his house an extra day to ensure he got the right medical and social care. In fact he was taken into hospital that day and died eleven days later, so the dentist was at the back of my mind. By the first week in January, I was in total agony, and nothing would relieve the pain, so much so I went to A&E at 5am in the morning, and followed that by a visit to the emergency NHS dentist in Nottingham where I waited four hours before having the thing extracted in about 20 minutes. This almost cured it, but then I got dry socket and by this time was back at work so had to visit the NHS emergency dentist in Hull who gave me some very strong medicine and a week later all was well again. That was Jan week 1!! February, and we took off to Scotland for a week. We had lived in Scotland for around thirteen years, until late 2005 but we had not been back on holiday since that time. One of the little perks of my job is that I get a voucher for two night's accommodation and dinner in any hotel so as soon as I received it, I booked a couple of nights at a hotel near Glasgow. I also contacted an old hotelier friend of mine and she did me an industry rate in a fantastic suite in a Troon Hotel, which was close to where we used to live. So we had a nice week driving around visiting all our old haunts, had lunch in the Stair Inn, and drove past all our old houses, which numbered four in total! The weather was quite nice, given the time of year, and I got lots of nice photographs with my new digital SLR camera. I also headed to Stratford earlier in the month on business, but it coincided with my elder sister's trip (I had booked her in) and so I got to spend a few hours with her catching up and having coffee. On my return to work after my week's holiday, I was officially in a new role, and would now look after a wonderful country house hotel in York. March and April March was largely uneventful, I was extremely busy at work, in the new role, and was extremely busy at home as I was studying as well. Having extra responsibility meant a bit more travelling, and the number of nights I was away from home was on the increase. I was also starting to feel some pain, although I of course ignored this for some months as you do..! My passport ran out in April, although this wasn't a problem as we had only planned UK holidays for the year. We had decided to book a new experience and we headed to South Wales, for the first time, on our wedding anniversary for a stay in a Mongolian Yurt. We had one week's holiday in the Yurt, and we explored South Wales extensively, I also celebrated my birthday there with champagne and an outdoor bonfire. Our return home coincided with the bank holiday in May and around this time I visited my sister who told me they were planning to emigrate to Australia. We had decided to put our house on the market, the intention being to downsize so it gives the opportunity to give up work more easily, as I was really feeling the pain of commuting and finding it hard to put myself first with so little time and so much workload. We are quite fortunate that we live in a very desirable village with one of the best schools in Nottinghamshire, and we bought a run down house, so despite the economic downturn, the improvements to the house meant it had held its value on the previous year's valuation. The sign went up in late April and we were besieged with viewers, however most were not in a position to put in an offer as they had not sold their own, others did not like certain aspects e.g. lack of a driveway (long story - part of original land was sold off) or opposite a pub (village pub) or no ensuite (Victorian house with features does not include ensuite!). We had found a more modern house in the village, great size and would leave us practically mortgage free so I was hoping we could bag it, but alas, after its own sale fell through three times, it finally went in August. May and June My workload (I do love my job) was piling up on me and something I have always had difficulty with is getting a proper balance. This isn't helped by my working a long way from home, as I have a trade off between staying away overnight, which is cheap and means I get slightly more sleep, but is boring and not particularly healthy, or commuting, which is tiring, and expensive. I was choosing more of the former, and working quite late. The stress was piling up, the hours I was working were ridiculous and this eventually resulted in quite an explosive meeting which was meant to be my six monthly personal development planning meeting, and not a moment I was particularly proud of in my career....! I did take a long weekend though, and we went camping in North Yorkshire for a few nights for a bit of rest and relaxation. My sister and brother in law came to stay at the hotel for a few days to improve their golf July and August Unfortunately for me, all my holiday was front loaded and so from my week's holiday at the end of April, my next big time off work was going to be mid October almost six months later. So the stress continued with workload and lack of work life balance and I was willing for the house sale to give me the freedom to escape the rat race and have more me time. It never materialised. We decided to invest in a driveway as that was the most common reason for lack of an offer, and so work began and was completed in ten days, and it totally transformed the house, and was much admired by all, particularly as we are directly opposite the village pub! Surely now the offer will come. August was also the month for our mini dooyoo meet. My sister had offered to cook dinner and be host and we met two other dooyooers for the first time, and had a lovely weekend. Myself and my husband had driven the 2.5 hour journey in a huge luton van however as we were due to pick up a piece of furniture and the van hire company had let us down....We looked like we were about to take all her furniture not just one piece! The following week and we had a wedding to attend - that of my Niece. She had got married in Florida with her sisters and partners going over, but they had the evening reception on their return. We stayed the previous night in a fantastic hotel suite in Manchester, it was simply heavenly, and unfortunately we only had the one day to enjoy it so I made a mental note to book again for a two night break and not see anyone! The wedding was lovely, I spent the night at my other niece's house so it was nice to spend time with her young son. Both girls are now expecting and so there will be new additions to the family in 2010. Before heading into Manchester we had stopped off at my late father's house. As no one lives close I was conscious that it would be falling into a bit of a state of disrepair. We had had an initial cheeky offer from the agents. I hadn't been in for some months as my husband had done the previous visit alone, and it did shock me a little and strike me how much work was needed just to sort everything and make and we needed to do something to try and move things along. Since then we have all been back and managed to sort through possessions, as well as giving a lick of paint and have cleared it, and thankfully a sale is progressing and hopefully will conclude in the New Year. September and October Late August and September is always busy for me at work as it is time to prepare the following year's budget and I have a significant piece of work with business planning and sales budgeting. Never a good time as it is also a time for revision for studies with exams in October. I took advantage and booked on a weekend revision course, similar to one I have done in previous years, but the weekend was a disappointment, with a poor lecturer, and I felt I would have learned more at home, as well as not having forked out over £200. I intended to write and complain, however I had no time to do so! Exams were mid October and life seems to go on hold. I took three days off beforehand, and as soon as I got into my examination room in Lincoln and turned the paper, I knew I had done enough to get through, in the end I got quite a strong mark. Phew. My friend Claire and her husband also visited me at the hotel where I am based and we had a lovely evening and dinner, they were quite anxious as they are going through the adoption process and the social workers had identified a family of three children who were being assessed as suitable. The next few weeks were tough for them, the anticipation and the waiting, but they have finally had confirmation that the children are to be placed with them in the New Year. It ends about five years of process although I suspect the hard work is about to start now. She has asked me to be a nominated guardian in the even something happens to them - let's hope she stays fit and healthy then as not sure I could cope with three kids at once at my age! November and December Time to relax a little after the exams. Work was still extremely hectic, due to the budget presentations, which unfortunately for me coincided with the anniversary of my father's death so not a good time, particularly as I was literally working until the small hours in the days up to the presentations. In any event, everything went very well and I could finally breathe a sigh of relief, particularly as I had a long weekend booked with four additional days off work I headed to Buxton with Claire (above) on the first day to catch up with an old friend and we had a lovely afternoon - unfortunately I caught the norovirus as did Claire, and we both passed it to our husbands and anyone else who had the misfortune to catch up with us before we got the first symptoms and my holiday was effectively spoiled as we had both never felt so ill and couldn't even go out for days. I couldn't believe it, so badly wanted that holiday! In early December my sister gave me the news that she had got her visa for permanent migration to Australia. We had considered it earlier in the year, but didn't think we would be able to do it. We did a bit more research and have decided we can do it, so we intend to put in an application in the New Year. So in hindsight we are glad the house never sold as all being well, we intend to take it off the market now for another year or more. We had Christmas at home this year and the best of it is we both have another week off, finally time to focus on myself for what feels like the first time this year - and the new Wii Fit is going to take a pounding as I make the most of the time at home and try and create a fitness regime which I can take into 2010..Happy New Year Everyone! 1) What did you do in 2009 that you have not done before? Slept in a Mongolian Yurt! In Wales. 2) Did anyone close to you give birth? Quite a few, one of my best friends had a little boy in March, and in almost the same week two of my colleagues gave birth, one girl and one boy respectively. In 2010 there are a few more births in the immediate family, three to be exact. 3) Did anyone close to you die? Thankfully after four funerals in 2007, three of them family including my Mum and my Dad's death in 2008, I haven't had to attend any funerals in 2009 4) What countries did you visit? Scotland and Wales! We hired a Yurt for a week in South Wales, and it was a fantastic holiday. I haven't been out of the country this year at all, indeed my passport even ran out in April. My last overseas holiday was in 2008 for my 40th, when I went to Bermuda. I hope to be going further afield in 2010 (assuming I get my passport photos done..which is this week's task..!) 5) What would you like to have in 2010 that you lacked in 2009? More time for myself and better fitness/wellbeing 6) What dates will you remember from 2009? None in particular, I cannot say it has been that eventful a year. 7) Did you suffer illness or injury? Yes, although nothing dreadful thankfully. I have been attending QMC hospital to investigate a neurological problem, and a couple of weeks ago we both got the winter vomiting bug which made us as sick as I could ever remember, there has never been the case in 23 years that we were both off work at the same time ill...and neither of us could get out at all - makes you realise how vulnerable the elderly must be..! 8) What was the best thing you bought? I bought quite a lot more camping gear, although we only managed to get one additional short break in after the Yurt holiday before the autumn. I have been considering camping in France next year, and at least we have enough gear now. We also just bought a Wii and Wii Fit - only had that a week or so, but hoping I can stick to a routine with the Wii Fit at least! 9) Whose behaviour has merited celebration? I cannot think of anyone's in particular. 10) Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed? MPs mainly. As a collective. How some of them have justified their exhorbitant and ridiculous expenditure as it was "in the rules" is beyond my comprehension. I do understand they have expenses and I do believe that some papers do not report fairly when they talk about expenses, but some of the stories that have come out are disgraceful and greedy. 11) Where did most of your money go? Apart from the usual bills and so on, I have managed to save a little this year, so more there than anywhere else. I haven't been widely extravagant this year, although spent some money on home improvements as well, including a new drive, and professional decoration of the lounge. I just spend £1200 on two limited edition Rolf Harris paintings, so they are my most exciting purchase (apart from the Wii). I find running two cars to be quite expensive and we wanted to fix that as part of the downsizing plan, which hasn't materialised yet! 12) What song will you remember from 2009? I actually don't even know the song that well but pleased that someone knocked X Factor from the top spot this year, as it is getting far too formulaic. 13) Compared to this time last year are you happier, fitter, more productive? Probably happier, but 2008 was not a good year so that would not be hard; not necessarily any fitter, probably less so, and not sure what more productive means, but I wouldn't think there was a major change there. 14) What do you wish you had done more of? Looking after myself! 15) What do you wish you had done less of? Work and having to stay away such a lot (2 nights a week minimum) I have done over 100 nights in hotel rooms this year, and that is excluding my holiday periods (which were actually spent in tents, now you camping cynics might see why!!) 16) What was your favourite TV programme? I like Dragon's Den quite a bit, but other than a couple of soaps, I don't get to watch much television. 17) Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate last year? No, I don't hate anyone, disappointed in a few people perhaps, but not hate. 18) What's been the best book of 2009? I am ashamed to say I hardly read any books in 2009, working hard and OU studying in my spare time, means little time for books this year. I read about seven on holiday in a week, but nothing that memorable. 19) What did you want and get in 2009? I think I knew it was happening at the end of 2008, but I did become a regional manager with responsibility for an additional hotel within my company in February. The additional hotel is in York. 20) Who was the best person you met? I met a few new colleagues, and had some nice evenings dining and getting to know each other, one in particular I connected very well with, alas she is moving on now.... 21) Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2009? I really need to consider myself and my own needs and FOLLOW MY DREAMS instead of compromising them for the sake of others. There you go.... Sorted... thanks for reading and enjoy 2010!!!!
I have owned my Toyota Avensis TR 2.2 D-4D for just over one year now and have covered around 25000 miles, having purchased an ex demonstrator model on an 08 plate in Nov 08 with just over 1500 miles on the clock. I commute quite a distance to work and use my car for business trips around twice a month and so my driving is mostly motorway or fast A road/dual carriage way driving, with little heavy town driving in my normal routine. When shopping for a car, I was quite broad minded in the kind of car I was looking for, yet remained disappointed in most of the major brands until I got to Toyota, the car that initially caught my eye was a very sporty Auris model. However the dealer in Lincoln also had a selection of elegant looking Avensis lined up in a row, all with low mileage and all seeming to offer a lot of car for the price, compared to the smaller hatchbacks we had been considering. Since owning the Avensis I have referred to it as a 'grown ups' car, it essentially is a sensible mid market car, (for a slightly older hopefully sensible driver...!) A hatchback that looks like a saloon. In an ideal world I wanted a diesel (for economy as I do cover quite a high mileage, this year has been average) and an automatic but this combination still seems out of range for me, or involves buying something just too old and dated for what would still be a significant chunk of money (e.g. old Audi A4, Vectra etc.). We were trading in our 2001 Alfa Romeo 147, which we had taken around the clock in the previous five years, and which although much loved, was going to be expensive to get through its next MOT, so while I normally try and sell cars privately and maximise the profit, in this case it would not have been worth the effort for a few hundred pounds more return. In the end we received £600 for the Alfa against a purchase price of £13.3K which included carpet mats, blue-tooth telephone system, mud-flaps and 12 months tax (£145 in Nov 08). The cars were discounted some way from the regular selling price as it was the end of the model range, in fact I feel I got a reasonable deal as a quick search of used car sales on Autotrader across the UK one year later and the cheapest price I can see for the identical model is still around £12K. Comfort and Drive - this is very important to me given I commute 55 miles each way to my main place of work and 89 miles to my secondary location. I have been particularly concerned with the seat squab after having driven a company Vauxhall Astra for 12K miles in three months a few years ago - the most uncomfortable vehicle I have ever driven....! The Avensis is never going to be a car that real driving lovers will lust after, but it feels solid and luxurious, and comfortable both as a driver and a passenger for longer journeys. It is the first car I have owned that has had a six speed manual gear box which is useful for maintaining economy and while I found it strange at first, it is second nature now, (although I then start looking for seventh occasionally...) cruise control is also fitted as standard, the car's target key market evidently being the company fleet market. The diesel engine itself is shared with the lexus and while I don't have experience of the smaller engines, motoring journals would seem to suggest that the 2.2 is the engine to go for. I particularly like the spaciousness of the Avensis, both rear legroom, and even the boot space, which is absolutely huge and ideal for UK holidays. It reminds me very much of the boot of the 1997 Audi A4 I once owned - pretty cavernous. The rear seats also fold and so it is possible to carry long loads to a point, although my boot-space still looks like new. Our model includes a built in Satellite Navigation system, similar to our outgoing 2001 Alfa Romeo. I do also own a separate Navman, but an inbuilt system does seem to avoid the small problem of the would be opportunist thief given portable satellite systems are in most cars these days. The Sat Nav system itself comes with a 178 page instruction manual which of course has never been read. I did think I would have to as we could not work out why the navigation system would sometimes work and sometimes just would not work...eventually we realised that it won't work (other than to hit the "home" button) if the car is actually moving. I understand this safety feature although if there is a front seat passenger then it becomes mildly annoying. The system is up to date, with postcode options although I tend to just use street name and town wherever possible, and it will reroute or recommend a reroute if there is heavy traffic ahead, a feature which my navman and Alfa system did not have. The car is really quite long, and it does take some time to adjust to that, particularly as our other car, a Scenic has much better visibility when reversing, and is much shorter. A diesel is never going to break the record for 0-60 performance but the Avensis manages this in just over 9 seconds, and has a top speed of 130 mph with 148BHP, low torque of the diesel engine means that the Avensis can more than hold its own in traffic. The car itself has a five star ncap rating, and has a total of nine air-bags, which makes it among best in class. Fuel Consumption - The official fuel economy figures for the 2.2 D-4D 150 6-speed manual are 37.2 mpg (urban), 57.6mpg (extra-urban) and 47.9 mpg (combined) with 156g CO2 emissions per kilometre. I don't recall ever achieving anything like the extra urban figure, as it is not the kind of driving I do , however I easily achieve 45mpg, which I think is acceptable for a car of this size and on budget for what I wanted my car to achieve personally. Servicing and Reliability - the Toyota warranty requires that the car has a full service every 20000 miles and an oil and filter change every 10000 miles. As I had actually done 10000 miles 3 months after acquiring the car last year, then servicing costs were a concern to me. My local dealer does offer interest free payment options for signing into a three year servicing option, which includes a 10% saving off the list price, although this was not an option we went in for. We did omit the official 10000 mile service for reasons of costs, especially as it was only three months after our purchase, however we did undertake a basic oil change. Thankfully, the garage had actually done a 10000 mile service when we bought it, despite the fact the car had barely any mileage on it! Our first big service then was undertaken at around 22000 miles. This 56 point check cost us £266 in total, including a complimentary carton of oil for topping up in the interim, which I felt was a nice service touch. We had reported some sponginess in the breaks and play in the handbrake, and when we picked the car up a few hours later we noticed that they had completely replaced all the disc pads free of charge. The car is a group nine insurance, which makes it very affordable for a mid range family vehicle. I do need to replace the front two tyres soon as they are showing some signs of wear, which is probably the only negative, for 25000 miles driving. Overall I am very pleased with my Avensis. I do intend to keep it for several more years, and no doubt will take it around the clock, but the car represents an excellent mid range family car, offering both comfort and space, and at a price which is not dissimilar to a higher end family hatchback.