Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Martian review

One of the best things I have ever acquired is my Cineworld Unlimited card. I've always been a huge film fan, but they are just so flipping expensive to go to now, you'd have to remortgage your house to go more than once a year. So for just over £16 a month, I can happily toddle off to see any film as many times as I like. Getting discounted snacks is also a bonus (although my diet might disagree. One benefit I hadn't utilised until this weekend was the Unlimited screenings. Every month, card holders can book to see a film in advance of its release date. Having been either unavailable on those nights, or just not that keen on the film, I hadn't bothered. But on Sunday, The Martian was showing, so I decided to go along.

Based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir, The Martian introduces us to Mark Watney, astronaut and botanist, who has been stranded on Mars after being struck by debris during a storm and presumed dead by his crewmates. Waking up to total isolation and likely starvation (that's if the injury he acquired during said storm doesn't take a turn for the worst), his prospects are looking a little, well, terrifying. At this point I would probably have lied down and awaited my impending doom. But Watney gets to business. He rations his food. He sets about growing potatoes using some less than pleasant methods. He tries to make contact with NASA And he starts a one-man mission of survival. All the time documenting his progress on his shelter's video feed, and denouncing his commanding officers' taste in music.

Matt Damon is the perfect casting for Watney. Resourceful, determined and pretty bloody funny, Damon brings the character a warmth and depth that makes you root for him. Demonstrating a guy who's only coping mechanism is to talk to his 'audience', he spends much of the film addressing us, developing a real connection with the people watching him, making you care. The moment when he welcomes his first budding plant, the symbol of his hopes at surviving, is truly touching, and he doesn't ham it up or play the emotion card. He is simply a man trying to live until someone can save him.

Watney's screen time is interspersed with scenes of his crew, currently on their long journey home and mourning their friend, blaming themselves for his 'demise' and waiting patiently to return home to their loved ones. Jessica Chastain plays mission commander Melissa, shouldering the burden of knowing that she ordered their departure, leaving one of their number behind. She does this brilliantly, again, without overacting the emotion.

Meanwhile we also see NASA HQ, announcing the demise of one of their own, then coming to the slow realisation that they had been premature in their assumptions. They crack on with a rescue plan, desperately trying to establish how to bring a lone astronaut home from 140 million miles away. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig and Jeff Daniels  are the big hitters making the life-saving decisions, squabbling amongst each other, but putting on a united front. For various different reasons, they all want to bring their boy home, and it's enough to force them to work together. It would have been nice to have more time with these characters, all fantastic in their own way, but with so much happening, it would be impossible to extend their presence. They provided some of my favourite moments. Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean verbally sparring on whether to inform the crew members of their crewmates' survival, Kristin Wiig as the under pressure PR agent trying to put a positive spin on NASA effectively colonising Mars without meaning to, and Ejiofor's mission director Vincent's email conversations with an increasingly hacked-off Watney using some rather colourful language that the whole world is able to view.

Rather than just trying to mesmerise the audience with crazy science and breathtaking scenery (it still does both), Ridley Scott has given us a film with a lot of heart, and a great hero. I found myself holding my breath at certain parts, holding on to the arms of my seat. You don't just watch Watney trying to survive, you're there with him, willing him on. Every character, whilst being flawed, makes you want them to be successful. You like these people, you see what they're up against, and you're sure as hell thankful you're not the one making their decisions. The scenery is spectacular, the soundtrack is spot on, and the humour/drama balance is just about perfect. It's one to watch.

The Martian comes out in UK cinemas on Wednesday 30th Sept 2015.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Literary love

*A warning. I will be talking books here, they may be books you have read, they might not. They may be newer stories, or old ones. I promise I'll try not to include spoilers, but I apologise now if one or two slip out.

My bookcase is overstuffed. Gone are the days when the books lined up neatly next to one-another, smartly displaying their spines and hinting at the wonders within. Now it resembles a post-war battlefield, with novels scrambling on top of recipe books, autobiographies buried under a mountain of Harry Potter. It makes me ridiculously happy. Because the more chaos on the shelves, the more books are living on them. I would rather this than the dreaded Kindle. I know, I know, many of my friends LOVE theirs, preaching to me about their benefits. But something about them feels off, there's no personality there, and no smell. Stories should smell, whether it's the crisp 'new book' whiff when you first open the cover, or a musty, old, mysterious pong emitted by a dusty old tomb. Either way, books should whiff in my world.

I loved reading since I was little. I consumed my lower school library at an alarming rate and had to resort to either re-reading the same stories or begging my parents to buy/loan more for me. Not much has changed really.

My reading is going through something of a renaissance. I got into a loop of Philippa Gregory's Cousins War novels, and George R. R. Martin's monster Game of Thrones collection. There is not one thing wrong with this, both authors have produced some of my recent favourites, and I'm silently willing Martin to hurry up and finish the next book before I have a heart attack about Jon Snow.
But I decided it needed to drag myself into some different literature.

I used to be part of a (now non-existent) book club. Hosted by 2 lovely ladies who work at my local Waterstones, we used to congregate at the store after closing once a month and discuss our recent reads. I met some truly great people and read some brilliant books that I otherwise probably wouldn't have stumbled across. Unfortunately due to dwindling numbers the group stopped. I'm still holding out hope it will reconvene in the future. So I am now holding my own one-woman book group, making it my ambition to read any text my ink-stained fingers can grasp hold of. Starting with the pile I had left from my book group.

One of the best books I have ever read stemmed from joining my fellow book lovers in the back of Waterstones. Songs of Achilles had been catching my eye for a while. When it was my turn to suggest the list of 6 books we would be choosing to read that particular month, there was no hesitation, it went to the top. Luckily my fellow members agreed and voted it in. Author Madeline Miller gives her take on The Iliad tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, and how their relationship blossoms despite their obvious differences. The character development is brilliantly executed, making you really care for them and offering a depth to Achilles character that I've yet to find elsewhere. Rather than just portraying him as the doomed hero, she demonstrates his ability to love, to care and to be torn when his loyalties are being tugged in more than one direction. She made him more human. I am a fan of Greek mythology, and sometimes find it difficult to enjoy the take of others on these characters. But Miller has an obvious affection for them, taking a well-known and well-worn story and giving it new life, delivering it with compassion and enthusiasm. Once I read a book, I tend to pass it on, either because I want to share the story with somebody else, or I just want it out of my house because it's a disappointment. This one has stayed firmly tucked away on the shelf, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future.
Once I've finished a book, the perusal of the shelves begins again, and I have to find something to take my mind away from the previous read. A few weeks ago I found a copy of The Night Circus looking forlorn in the corner so I decided to rescue it. Instant favourite. In a whimsy-filled, modern day fairytale, Erin Morgenstren has created some of the most vivid, enticing imagery I have ever read. A unique idea, her story follows a competition between the proteges of two magicians, Marco and Celia and the mysterious night circus that acts as their arena. Initially not even knowing who their opponents are, the circus is created by their collective talents, introducing a wealth of exotic, wonderful characters. It is beautiful, mesmerising in it's detail, charming in its heart. Please don't be fooled by it's 'fairytale' description, it is an epic tale of love, an enchanting slice of fantasy, it whisks you from wonder to wonder. Another one that will be staying on the book shelf, and if Le Cirque des Reves appears in a field near me anytime soon, I'll be the first in line for tickets.
I have consumed many a book in recent months, some I have loved, some I've liked, some I've given away hoping never to see them again (Room, I'm looking at you here). I won't throw them all at you now, but I will write about more of them in the future. If you love a good book and enjoy reading, please take a look at the 2 above. They are incredibly different to each other, and different in general. I received so much pleasure from reading them both, I'd love to share that with you :)  

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Baking, Colouring and Bedtime Stories

I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front the past few days, and it is, I'll admit, due to the fact I have been inordinately boring this week. As much as I love being here, there and everywhere, life (and work) will interrupt the fun occasionally.

That's not to say I haven't enjoyed my week. Having a lovely meal cooked by, and spending some quality time with, my best friend has been a highlight, as was reading her gorgeous little girl a bedtime story (everyone loves a good fairy story right?). That combined with a bit of Bake Off made for a lovely evening.

Tonight I'm assisting in the making of a good old Victoria Sponge Cake for a Macmillan Coffee Morning. I'll be using the 'all in one' method a la Mary 'Bezza' Berry. As in literally launching all ingredients in the food mixer in one fell swoop and letting it work its magic. I enjoy making more intricate fare, but sometimes there's nothing more satisfying than bunging a load of flour sugar and butter into a bowl without worrying about knocking the air out of it or being too heavy-handed.

Once the baking magic is complete I'll be settling down in my PJs to Game of Thrones and possibly a bit of colouring. Yes, I have joined the adult ranks of the colouring book world, a guilty pleasure I'm not too embarrassed to admit. The artwork in my book (Animal Kingdom by Millie Marotta) is so intricate in its detail, you really feel like the artist. Which is no mean feat in my house, whenever I draw it looks like an attempt made by the foot of an over-excited elephant with glaucoma. I am slightly concerned that, as the nights get darker and colder, I'm going to forget how to socialise and will become an arty hermit. But I'm prepared to run that risk.

Other than that, I'm looking towards the weekend. I'm planning on getting some winter planting done, and perhaps a visit to the cinema. Anyone out there with an Unlimited Card, there is a preview viewing of The Martian showing on Sunday. Reviews are looking good, so I may pop along. I'll let you all know what I think! Book tickets here if you want to see it for yourself - http://www1.cineworld.co.uk/blog/unlimited-screening-the-martian-movie/

Monday, 21 September 2015

Apples, pumpkins and rugby (not all at the same time)

I don't know about you, but I could definitely use a few days off to recover from the weekend. It was hectic, packed to the rafters with goings on.

First up was watching England cruise their way through the opening game of the World Cup and a cinema trip on Friday night to see The Visit. If you enjoy kooky, off-the-wall horror flicks, it's worth a watch. A 'found footage' film, it focusses on the very first meeting between 2 siblings and their grandparents, the elders having been estranged from the mother of the children for years. It has some serious comedy value thrown in, usually down to Ed Oxenbould, who plays younger brother Tyler.

Saturday was spent viewing every rugby game I could get my eyes on, attempting to bake my first eggless cake for a friend (I think I seriously need practice, while it tasted ok, it was as flat as a pancake), and the boring bits like housework, but the less said about that the better. Aside from boring laundry, the rugby was brilliant, a cracking start to the World Cup. And with nearly every team I cheered for being victorious, I was pretty pleased. Of course I had to indulge in a Guinness when cheering for the Ireland lads, I'm sure they wouldn't have won otherwise. On top of all that my football team won away from home, so a good sporting weekend all round!

Then on to Sunday. It was a chilly start that morning, and having the time on hand to be lazy about breakfast, I went for porridge. I love how versatile porridge is, plus you have the added benefit of just how long it fills you up for. I went for the slightly unhealthy choice and added a large dollop of golden syrup right in the middle of my bowl, with some grated nutmeg for good measure, to really set me up for the day.

After that we decided to venture out into the glorious sunshine and try to track down a community orchard ' had heard about last week. It took some searching (and some assistance from a very kind woman who spotted us wondering around like lost children), but we eventually found the Park Wood Community Orchard in Brickhill. Tucked away behind some allotments, it opens up off of the side of a track, and you are suddenly besieged by fruit-laden branches. It's utterly gorgeous. Over 250 types of apple, pear, plum (all British varieties), fig, cherry, medlar, mulberry, blackberry and walnut reside in Park Wood, and it's open for anyone to visit and help themselves, asking (quite rightly) that you only take what you need.

We had a lovely morning strolling through the trees, admiring all the different fruits on offer and chatting to the others who had heard about it and decided to visit. I really could pick just one variety, so I grabbed a few different types of apple and a handful of pears. I'm planning another visit next weekend, with the view of making some pies and crumbles from my pickings. There has even been talk of attempting some cider making, but, being reliant on the cost of renting a press, I'll keep you posted on that.
Once we had bid farewell to the orchard (for this week at least), we headed back home. My folks had had a couple of days away and we had house sat for them (or should that be cat-sat?), so I thought it'd be nice for them to come home to something tasty. I had found a can of Libby's pumpkin puree in my cupboard which needed using ASAp, so naturally pumpkin pie was the way forward. If you haven't tried pumpkin pie, it may not look or sound like the most appealing thing in the whole world, but let me assure you it is like a plate full of autumn. My first attempt at making this orangey-brown delight was met with a certain amount of reticence, no-one wanting to be the first to try it. It is now a family favourite and is always a great bargaining tool if I need someone to do me a favour. I will hold up my hands and admit that the pastry is shop bought. I normally make my own, but it never comes out quite the way I want it to. I'm too hot-handed for successful pastry making, and I'm sure Mr. Hollywood would have a field day in picking apart my attempts. So shop bought it was.

The filling is really simple - 250g pumpkin puree (homemade or canned), 2 tbsp maple syrup, 125ml cream, a healthy dose of cinnamon & nutmeg and 2 eggs. Whisk all together, plonk in your blind-baked pie case, and pop into the oven on gas mark 4 for 50 minutes, or until the filling is firm and a golden orange colour. Serve warm with whipped or squirty cream. Not only does it taste magical but it will leave your house smelling amazing for hours afterwards. If you really want to attempt at making your own pumpkin puree, I commend you, but it is a hugely lengthy and messy process. Libby's is ideal, and is now available in a few supermarkets as the demand for American exports has increased. I try to keep a couple of cans tucked away for a rainy day. If you can't get hold of it, or any pumpkins for that matter, butternut squash is a perfect alternative.
Keep an eye on the post, there are more photos to follow. I hope you enjoyed your weekend as much as I did!

Friday, 18 September 2015

Thali & Tandoor

 I love when you receive a message from a great friend that you're not lucky enough to see much, suggesting getting together. Especially when said friend suggests going for a curry! I adore Indian food, but with my gorgeous pal being Indian, she usually fancies something different, Indian food being just, well, food in her house.

But this week she found herself on my wavelength, fancying Indian fare cooked by a different hand. So off we ventured from work to see where we would end up.

A particular restaurant has been on my radar for some time. Opening in early 2014, I kept noticing it on my way through that part of town. With a fresh, modern look and great reviews coming out of its ears, Thali & Tandoor seemed to be a definite on the 'Must Visit' list.

 Offering 'ghar ka khana' or food from the home, Thali & Tandoor boast that they offer a unique insight into Indian cooking, providing home and street foods from the subcontinent, as opposed to the Asian/European hybrid dishes you find being served up in your standard curry house. Online reviews and feedback from pals that have been previously all stated the same thing - this place is great.
Having met straight from work, we arrived at the restaurant early, and for the main part of our visit, were the only customers. Eager to eat, we began scouring through the menu. It is pretty impressive, with a varied selection of different styles of dish, and providing amply for vegetarians. We decided on our dishes and waited patiently to place our order. And waited. Having been the only people there, we had expected to be served swiftly, but it did take quite a while to even order our drinks. This set the tone for our visit, with lengthy waits tainting an otherwise pleasant experiences.
However we did eventually order, and the food was quick to arrive. Our starters - vegetable somosa chaat and onion bhajia fritters - were lovely, and indeed different from what you would expect. My fritters were served in a heated cast iron trough, with a tomato, cucumber and onion salsa spooned on top and a rich house sauce drizzled all over. The perfect size for a starter, it really whet my appetite for the main. The combination of flavours was perfect and beautifully presented.

For our main dishes, we settled on saag aloo, paneer, pepper and sweet potato shashlik, naan bread and tandoori roti. Again, presentation was lovely and appealing, the food smelled great. We did have to ask for part of the dish, the sauces, to be served as it had been forgotten. As with the time we had to wait before ordering, this was a small hiccup, and one that, had they been exceptionally busy, you could completely understand. But at this point, only one other party had settled down at a table. It was also a relatively integral component to the meal itself, so it was a pity that we had to wait for it.

The main dishes did taste good, but unlike the starters, they didn't feel quite as special or as diverse.

The time came to get the bill and pay, but again, we were left unattended for a good 15 minutes before our attempts to garner attention were spotted. That said, our server was lovely and couldn't have been more pleasant.

Once we had paid we stepped out into the evening and discussed our experience. We both agreed that, whilst palatable, having to wait for lengthy intervals to order drinks, order food, receive the bill and pay did interrupt the enjoyment of the evening, and the food wasn't quite delectable enough to make it worthwhile. That said, it is a beautiful space and I can imagine in busier periods it has a great atmosphere, and others have sung its praises on review sites and in passing, so perhaps a future visit and being a bit more experimental with our choices could persuade us otherwise. But with so many other exciting restaurants opening up in this area, that could be a while off.

Regardless of where we go, when in each others' company we will always enjoy ourselves, and, reminiscing about past events and evenings out, we took a stroll along the river back to the car and aimed for home.

 Follow the link to see Thali & Tandoor's menu for yourself - http://www.thaliandtandoor.co.uk/food.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Past travels: Dublin

Recently, I've noticed a lot of my friends posting photos up of trips to Dublin on Facebook. It seems they've all been paying a visit to the Emerald Isles over the past few weeks, and I'm more than a little jealous!

I've been to Dublin a couple of times, and loved every minute of it. It's a beautiful city, and a welcoming one at that. I've never been somewhere that immediately felt so much like home (I'm an O'Brien so that might be something to do it!). The people are a huge part of this, always eager to talk and make a new friend, sharing their local knowledge of where to go and what to do. Ireland is genuinely one of the most welcoming countries I have visited.

I've done the tourist thing. I've visited Temple Bar, shopped on Grafton Street, been to the Guinness Storehouse (amazing, recommend it, want to live there with my face underneath a beer tap in the Gravity Bar). But I was also lucky that I was staying with bona fide Dubliners, and got to see more of the 'local' side to the city as well.

One of my favourite places on my first visit was the Cobblestone pub. Found on King Street, it's an authentic Irish pub, with sessions 7 days a week. The atmosphere is fantastic, the beer is good and the music is wonderful. Don't be fooled by it's exterior appearance, inside is a warm and relaxing bar. It's a far superior experience to the tourist trap of Temple Bar and offers a true taste of traditional Irish pubs.

Another brilliant pub to visit would be O'Donoghues. One of Dublin's oldest pubs, and renowned for it's music, O'Donoghues oozes character. Again, with 7 sessions a week, and a bar lined with partially poured pints of Guinness ready for the next customer, it's a must on any trip through the city. 

There is more to Dublin than just pubs and Guinness (although they are pretty good reasons to visit in my opinion). St Stephen's Green is the park found in the city centre, a tranquil green space amongst the bustle of the city. It feels more like rural Ireland than a city park. Found at the end of Grafton Street, it offers some respite after a busy day's shopping. It is beautiful, with sculptures, water features, memorials and a lake bursting with wildlife. Have a stroll around, or take a seat on one of the many seats and take in the views, definitely visit.
Of course, when in a city, I shop. It would be rude not to. A must on my hitlist is Avoca on Suffolk Street. Named after the town in County Wicklow where it first began, Avoca Handweavers is a mini department store with a difference. Unlike to standard, regimented look of larger stores, Avoca is a treasure trove of hidden gems, bowls and baskets overflowing with jewellery, scarves, trinkets and toiletries. A vintage feel resides in the store, everything perfectly pretty. A cafe can be found upstairs, and, since my last visit, a deli and food hall introduced in the basement. It's seriously dangerous to look at their website but I'm going to share it with you anyway! Check out http://www.avoca.com/.

Shopping takes it out of me, meaning it is a necessity to seek out sustenance. If you find yourself on Grafton Street and you're feeling a bit peckish, pop into Bewleys. Currently closed for refurbishment, if you are heading to the area in a couple of months, you'll be able to catch it in its newly decked-out glory. Previously (and I hope it is retained), a small theatre was found on the top floor, offering lunchtime shows, and provided an evening venue for cabaret, jazz and comedy. On the middle floor a more formal restaurant, and the ground floor a coffee shop, Bewleys has character, and a great full Irish breakfast.

If you are feeling cultural, try to visit Trinity College. Channelling the same sense of peacefulness as St Stephen's Green, Trinity is beautiful. Parliament Square is framed by the Public Theatre, Regent House and the Chapel. It's worth the visit just to look at the buildings, but Trinity also offers Ireland's biggest research library, comprising of several buildings. The Old Library, the original building, is an imposing, fantastic creature, home to the famous Book of Kells and the Trinity College Harp. Packed with history, Trinity is too beautiful an opportunity to pass up on.
If you find yourself fancying a trip away, whether it be a day trip, or a long weekend, Dublin is definitely worth the journey. I'd love to travel around Ireland more to discover other places to fall in love with. I don't know if I've convinced you to pay it a visit, but I might just take a look at some flights for myself...

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Plums, plums, plums

Harvest time is upon us, and with it comes an opportunity to get creative with all the gorgeous fruit and veg floating around. Having already pilfered rhubarb from my kind-hearted workmates, and raiding local sloe bushes, I'm starting to drive everyone I know half mad by asking them if I can pay a visit to their fruit trees, or asking for advice on where to find certain fruits so I can go foraging.

But it's thanks to Freecycle, (and a lovely couple with an overactive fruit tree) that I now have a rather large amount of Victoria plums to play around with. Plums are one of my favourite fruits. They are incredibly versatile, and will adapt to pretty much any dish or drink you see fit to create with them. Plus they're perfectly delicious eaten as they are. Having perused my local Freecycle page, I came across someone desperate to get rid of the crate-loads their tree has produced this year. So now I have a bag full residing in my fruit bowl, and another tucked away in the freezer (alongside the rest of the rhubarb and some gooseberries).

It would now appear that my weekend may, prematurely, have a plan put in place. And that plan is plum-shaped.

I've always wanted to try my hand at making plum wine, a rich, fruity drink that would make a great gift for someone. That's if you can bear to give it away. Frozen plums, this is what you will find yourselves being used for in the near future.

For now, I'll settle myself to the task of turning the unfrozen batch into yummy, plummy jam. Jam can be incredibly easy, or a complete pain in the rear, but I've found that my success rate with plum jam is pretty good (however I'll be staying away from figs in the future. At least in a jam-like capacity).

Jam is essentially 3 ingredients - fruit, sugar and water, the water not always being necessary. I really do advise equipping yourself with a proper jam pan, a preserving thermometer and a long-handled wooden spoon if you are planning on making a lot of preserves. They make life so much easier, particularly when finding the setting point of the jam. Also, be sure to check whether the fruit you will be using is high in pectin, or is it will need an additional boost. Plums are naturally high in pectin, so just using preserving or jam sugar will do.

  • Wash and stone 1kg of plums, but do not discard the stones, they'll come in handy later. Cut out any bruising on the fruit and place them in your pan with 150ml water. Bring to the boil.
  • Once boiling, lower the heat and allow to simmer. At this point, use the wooden spoon to begin to break the fruit down. Continue to simmer for 45 minutes.
  • Whilst the fruit is simmering, remove the kernels from the plum stones using a nutcracker. Blanch the kernels in boiling water for a couple of minutes then drain. Now remove the pan from the heat and add 1kg sugar and the kernels. Please note that you don't have to use the kernels, but some think that it improves the flavour of the jam. However, if you don't want the hassle of removing them, or don't like the idea of leaving them in, then feel free to skip that part.
  • Stir the sugar through the fruit thoroughly and return to the heat, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring back to the boil, skimming the surface of any 'scum', until the jam reaches 105c or setting point. This is where a preserving thermometer comes in handy. If you don't have one, place a small amount of jam on a plate and allow to cool slightly. Once cool enough to touch, push the side of it gently with your finger. If the jam wrinkles, it has reached it's setting point and you can begin to jar it. If it doesn't, allow it to continue boiling for another minute or two and then try again.
  • Once you have reached setting point, you can jar the jam. Make sure you have sterilised any jars you are using. You can put them into the dishwasher, or wash with very hot soapy water then place in the oven, on a low/medium heat for 30 minutes, keeping them warm until you are potting the jam.
  • Once your jars are filled, place a wax disk on top of the mouth of the jar and seal tightly with the lid. Once these have cooled down you can add any label, lid cover or ribbon that you fancy. Make sure you date it. Store in a cool, dark place. 

Autumn fun coming up

As much as I enjoy spring/summer, I am very much an autumnal girl. Everything from the colours, cold and clothes suits me down to the ground. I look forward to not being so uncomfortably hot that I can't have a hot meal or a cup of tea, and I love the innate sense of cosiness the season brings.

Mostly, I look forward to all the great events ahead of me. I have many a tradition for autumn, including Apple Day, the CAMRA Ale Festival season, Halloween, and, of course, Bonfire Night. My Alton Towers trip (see my previous post about this little yearly visit of mine) usually comes around a little later in the year, coinciding quite nicely with Halloween and their Scarefest extravaganza. Alas, it wasn't to be this year, so I'll have to save my scares up for next year (although I'm still recovering from attack by giant pumpkin...) https://www.altontowers.com/things-to-do/scarefest/.

If you're looking for something social to do as the days are getting shorter and colder, why not try some of these events, or similar ones taking place in your area.

Apple Day at Bromham Mill
Apple Day has been a favourite day out of mine for a few years now. It is a national day, but Bromham Mill is my go-to spot to join in. A celebration of all things apple and orchard, it has a real country fair appeal, with food, music, dancing, stalls selling local crafts and produce, competitions (including terrier racing - adorable and hilarious) and the obligatory cider bar, again selling locally made cider of varying strengths, from mild apple juice to 'I can't remember my own name'. If the weather is on point, there's nowhere better to spend an autumn Sunday afternoon. If it's raining, well, you get wet but still enjoy the atmosphere and fun going on around you. Apple Day this year is taking place on Sunday 18th October at Bromham Mill. Entry is £5 for adults and £3 for concessions. If you are in the Bedfordshire area I urge you to pop along and take a look. If not, google events in your area. It's a quintessentially British affair and thoroughly enjoyable.

CAMRA Ale Festivals
This is my 2nd year as a fully fledged, card-carrying CAMRA member and about my 9th year of visiting their beer festival in my area. I love beer and cider, admiring the effort and craftsmanship required to make a good product, and the creativity it takes to make some of the weird and wonderful products out there. CAMRA fight for the smaller breweries, the artisans and the right of the customer to get what they pay for. On top of all that they promote some bloody good drinks, so I'm on board!
The festivals are a rowdy but enjoyable experience, with food, drink and music all around, as well as traditional games and even the occasional Morris Dancer. The festival season has started today, beginning in York, and will be taking place all over the UK. See here for more details of what's taking place in your area - http://www.camra.org.uk/events. Events are free entry for CAMRA members.

It is pretty much a given that you will know of, or be able to discover, certain spooky delights taking place in your area for Halloween, particularly those of you reading from Ireland or the USA. As you have probably guessed by my picture at the top of this post, I mildly enjoy Halloween, (I'm completely lying, I LOVE IT!). One of my favourite things to do is see whether my local cinema is showing any vintage horrors for our viewing pleasure. Failing that, I'm quite happy to stage my own living room cinema, get some friends over, whack the lights off and see who hides behind a cushion first. All with popcorn and appropriate Halloween-style munchies thrown in. This year, a Chilli Festival will be taking place in my home town, at the Harpur Suite in Bedford's town centre, so that may be on the agenda for daytime high jinx, before doing something spooky in the evening. Nearer the time, I'll be following this post up with Halloween recipes, films to watch and places to go, but whatever you decide to do, have fun, be safe and be scared!

Bonfire Night
Ah Bonfire Night. That special time of year when we celebrate someone failing to blow up Parliament. Although these days I have a feeling Guy Fawkes would have been considered more of a hero. Anyway, whatever your reason for celebrating, or whether you throw a scarecrow in the guise of Guy on your bonfire, there will be much going on around the 5th November. It's been a few years since we indulged in having our own private fireworks display at home so I will more than likely head down to the Bedford Blues Rugby Club and get my fix there. However, if you don't fancy the hustle and bustle of getting in there, try some of the surrounding villages and towns. For a full list of events visit http://bonfirenighttraditions.co.uk/england/bedfordshire/. Anybody else wishing to take a peek try http://bonfirenighttraditions.co.uk/england/.

In amongst all the bigger events, this is the time of year that local bars and restaurants go all out trying to get us to visit, battling the wet weather with a multitude of sociable goings-on. Look out for gigs, jam nights, quiz nights, film festivals and craft events in your area.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Instagram account

As mentioned in a previous post, I am building up my collection of social media accounts! Only Twitter and Facebook left, and my take over is complete!

Having already set up Pinterest, I have now registered on Instagram and can be found at https://instagram.com/lilysalittlebitofeverything/. As with all things, it will take me a while to get everything uploaded, but I will do so ASAP, and will be adding photos from all of my outings, recipes, baking attempts etc. There will be photos that may not make it onto the blog, so you will be seeing things that others won't.

Please follow and enjoy all that is to come!

The Noodle Kitchen, Newquay

I've left my yearly holiday a little late this year, I'm not heading off until late October. I'm an autumnal kind of girl though, so this suits me just fine! Instead of bikinis and sun hats, my jeans, boots and jumpers will be making the journey to Cornwall with me.

I adore Cornwall, it is beautiful. The gorgeous beaches and stunning scenery would be enough for me, but there is also hundreds of things to do, go to and see.  I had wanted to go for years (having fallen in love with it courtesy of one Daphne Du Maurier's story telling), but never seemed to find the time, until 4 years ago.
Beautiful scenery that keeps me coming back
Each time I have been, it's been to visit Newquay. Slightly more tourist filled than I'd necessarily like, we found a lovely B&B there and fell for it's laid-back charm. On my last visit, I discovered a lovely new restaurant and cocktail bar (new to me at least), The Noodle Kitchen. Offering healthy, pan-asian cuisine, it's a nice alternative to the traditional pub-grub and fish & chip culture of British seaside resorts. That's not to say that tradition is a bad thing but it's nice to have a choice!

Having wandered through through the town centre one evening, we found ourselves out the Noodle Kitchen reading the menu. Having already eaten, it was the extensive cocktail menu (http://www.thenoodlekitchen.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/cocktail_26-06-14_landscape_white.jpg) that lured us in.

On reaching the top of the staircase, the restaurant opened up before us. Modern yet cosy, the bar to the left and the restaurant to the front of us, we were greeted at the door and, having explained we were there for drinks only, were shown to a table in the bar area and left to peruse the menu.

Having chosen and ordered our drinks (a Singapore Sling and a Mai Tai) we sat back and enjoyed the atmosphere. With incredibly friendly staff, gentle music on in the background, soft lighting and the hum of happy diners behind us, it was truly relaxing. We were able to watch our drinks being made, with the bar manager making it look like performance art. The cocktails were delicious. So delicious in fact, that we stayed for one (maybe two) more, and, with friends visiting us the next night from St Ives, visited again.

Our friends also loved it. It's such a nice place for quiet drinks with friends. You're able to enjoy the buzzing nightlife, but not be drowned out by obnoxiously loud music. It drew in quite an eclectic crowd during our visits - couples on dates, family outings for dinner, groups of friends, and, on one occasion, an enthusiastic hen do carrying all sorts of paraphernalia.
Our 2nd round (or was it 3rd...)
On our last night, we felt it was only right to indulge in dinner there. There dinner menu is as varied and impressive as their drinks list. The food was healthy and delicious. I can strongly recommend the Katsu Curry.

We'll be staying in St Ives during this next trip down south, and I'm seriously looking forward to discovering new places to visit, but I must admit, it's incredibly tempting to travel for our dinner for one night!

Take a look at The Noodle Kitchen website at http://www.thenoodlekitchen.co.uk/, and see for yourself how lovely it looks.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Root veg crisps

It's that time of year again where I pack away my summer threads and start unloading my hefty winter jumpers, boots and scarves. It's also around about September where my diet starts to change. Gone are the light salads for lunch, instead I start whipping up batches of soup or stews, anything to keep the cold out and the warm in.

As mentioned in my Roasted Lentils post last week, I've been trying to consider healthier options when it comes to food. Another recipe I've been toying with is for root veg crisps (or chips for anyone outside of the UK). Instead of frying, these are roasted, and offer a wider variety of natural flavour when compared to your bog-standard potato variety. There are so many different types of vegetable to choose from: sweet potato, beetroot, parsnip, carrot, butternut squash... something for everybody's taste buds. Again, as with the lentil recipe, you can toy around with any number of flavourings, sprinkling paprika over your selected veg, maybe choosing chilli powder to add a kick, or just going with good, old-fashioned sea salt with maybe a pinch of black pepper.

First things first: choose your veg. I personally like the flavours of beetroot, parsnip and sweet potato, but choose what you think you'll enjoy most.

Pre-heat your oven to 200c/gas mark 6. Whilst waiting for the oven to heat, peel your vegetables and thinly slice. They really need to be wafer thin, so if you have a mandolin use that. If not, cut into the vegetable at an angle with a very sharp knife, as this will give you the purchase you need to get the slices really thin. You can also use a vegetable peeler and create long strips or spirals for a decorative feel.

Place the slices onto some kitchen towel and press out as much excess water as you can, being careful not to damage them.

Place the slices in a mixing bowl and coat with a tablespoon of olive oil and whatever seasoning you are going with. I usually go with simple sea salt. Get your hands in there to ensure all the slices are evenly coated.

Lay out the slices on a baking tray in a single layer. Place in the oven for roughly 15-20 minutes, flipping them over about half way. Keep an eye on them though, depending on your oven they may cook at a different pace. Paler vegetables turning a deep golden brown is a good indication that they are done. It can be harder tot ell with darker veg.

Once cooked, remove from the oven and place on more kitchen towel to cool.

Remember, if you are using veg such as carrots, they are likely to need a lot less time than some of their hardier cousins, so please keep a watchful eye on the oven.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Being a proud Geek

I am a self-confessed geek. Always have been, always will be. I love comic books, Marvel, DC, I collect POP figures and Buffy was my hero. And I'm not alone. The geeky masses have been on the steady incline for some time now, building pace thanks to the explosion of comic book movies and TV shows in recent years. I'm already giddy with excitement for the 2016 film releases, with the likes of Deadpool, Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman etc. to look forward to. It really is cool to be Geek these days. That hasn't always been the case (and still frequently isn't), with anyone being slightly alternative to mainstream seeming easy pickings for more conventional folk.

Earlier this year I discovered Den of Geek, a website dedicated to all things geek, providing reviews, updates on film and TV show progress, book reviews and what's up-and-coming in Geek-dom among other things. I love it's good-natured humour, and it allows me to truly indulge my geek side. I enjoy nothing more than paying a visit to the site each day to see what they're talking about. But what has really hit a chord with me is their Geeks v Loneliness page. The team at DoG have begun a series of articles tackling a variety of problems, from online bullying to facing depression. Today's latest offering is simply about the benefits of taking time out of your day to just say hello to someone, be it friend or stranger, and the positive impact this one little word can have on somebody's day. They've actively encouraged everyone who reads it to pop up in the comments and say hello to each other. And it's worked beautifully.

It's observations such as this that really highlight the good heart of this site and all those involved in it, readers included. Many a conversation has been struck up between DoG fans, offering advice, support, or just a listening ear. There's a genuine sense that you're surrounded by good people who give 2 figs about whether or not you are ok. That might seem strange. This is, after all, an impersonal internet site, no physical interaction and often no accurate name or photo on the profiles of the people who visit. But as stated in today's article, it takes human beings to put those words onto the screen. Many have commented about how these articles and attached comments sections have helped them through their day. That's no mean feat, and really should be commended. It makes me feel proud to be part of that community, and of my geek status.

Check out the site at http://www.denofgeek.com/

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Marianette's Charity Quiz Night

Anyone local to Bedford will know that the White Horse on Newnham Avenue has a long tradition of hosting fundraisers and raising money for charity. That had long been the case whilst Nigel and Sue were manning the helm, and it appears that new landlords Rod and Angela are keen to maintain this. Find out more about the White Horse at http://www.whitehorsebedford.co.uk/.

Last night they hosted a charity pub quiz night on behalf of the Bedford Marianettes, a highly successful local musical theatre company who have been performing for over 50 years. They produce two musicals a year, formerly at the Civic Theatre and the Corn Exchange, but now take up residence at Trinity Arts & Leisure (http://www.bedfordmarianettes.org.uk/). I was invited to attend by one of the Marianette's regulars, who I was lucky enough to perform with in a show last year. As it was for a good cause, and it had been a while since I'd indulged my quiz-loving side, I decided to go along, taking some friends along with me. 

We had a great night, with many a hilarious guess at answers we had no hope of getting right (deciding that the war between the UK and Iceland must have been the Cold War. Well it made sense to us...), and the occasional good-natured accusation of ageism (no-one on my table had been born in the 1970s, so the 70s music round was slightly stacked against us. We did however hold our own in the 90s/00s round). Needless to say we were not victorious, but we didn't come last either, so I'm counting it as a success. A raffle was also held, and supper was included. Around £400 was raised on the night too, which was fantastic.

Regardless of the charitable benefits, it was lovely to spend the evening in good company in a charming environment. The White Horse has always prided itself on great customer service and being a true community pub. It has a great atmosphere, and everyone, from staff to customers are truly friendly. They run quiz nights on Sundays and Tuesdays, so try and make your way down there. Keep an eye open for their fundraiser nights too.

The Marianettes will be performing Sweet Charity this season at Trinity Arts & Leisure from the 20th-24th October. Find tickets at http://www.bedfordmarianettes.org.uk/#!sweet-charity/c17rf.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Healthy snacking - Roasted chickpeas

Having started my first 'desk' job nearly a year ago, I'm quickly learning the pitfalls associated with spending your working life sat on your backside - said backside has a tendency to increase in size, along with everything else on your body.

I try to be as active as possible both at work and home, but exercise isn't always enough. Luckily for me, I work with a creative vegan who is always happy to share her uber healthy foodie ideas.

My biggest problem is snacking. In previous jobs, I've always been on my feet and on the move for a majority of the time, so picking at food was either not an option, or not a problem seeing as I burned it all off pretty quickly. Now, I'm comfortably ensconced at my desk, with a habit of absentmindedly chowing  down on anything that comes to hand, (usually of the chocolate variety, but I don't like to discriminate, crisps, cakes and biscuits are also welcome!). I know, the easy answer is to grow some self-control and simply stop, and for the most part I have, but there are always those days that come along where you can't be held accountable for what your hunger makes you do. So I started to question my friend about healthy, alternative snacks, something different to the fruit and raw vegetables that I had started to rely on to keep the chub away. She suggested a chickpeas recipe she has used, and I thought I'd give it a try. There are quite a few versions of this recipe out there and the beauty of it is that you can alter it to suit your tastes.

What you need:

  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • seasoning of your choice - cayenne pepper, chilli flakes, garlic salt, paprika etc.
  • Water for boiling
  • Salt and pepper to taste
First, you need to prep the chickpeas. Empty them into a sieve, and rinse under warm water.

Pre-heat your oven to 200c/180c (fan)/Gas mark 6. Place the chickpeas into a bowl and drizzle with the olive oil. Using your hands, make sure all of the chickpeas are coated.

Now flavour with the seasoning of your choice. You can use whatever flavours you like, so be creative. I really enjoyed the garlic salt taste, and the paprika flavour. Ensure the spices you are using evenly coat all the chickpeas.

Spread the chickpeas out evenly on a baking tray and place in the pre-heated oven for 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir them on the tray. Return to the oven for a further 12 minutes.

Once you have removed them from the oven, allow to cool. You can then box them up into snack-like portions ready for work or just when you feel peckish.  

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Personal pin-cushion jars

It's around this time of year, I usually start to think about compiling all the necessities I need to make my (whisper it, it's far too early to talk about this) Christmas hampers. Don't panic, this is not a Christmas post. I'm far to preoccupied with the approach of autumn, Halloween, Bonfire Night and all that slots in between. 

By saying I made these, I mean really made. Nothing shop-bought entered those hampers last year, with each little gift lovingly (sometimes) crafted in my kitchen (I didn't stretch to actually weaving the baskets though, I'm not that good). Due to time constraints I won't be making them this year, but I have been thinking about some of the goodies I made. Very few of the actual products were, in fact, festive, and I tried to add a little something especially personal to the recipient. The gifts themselves could actually be given for any occassion, or no occassion at all if you're just feeling particularly generous. I've already posted about the wine and Cranberry vodka I made on a previous post, and let's face it, those would be happily received on any day!

For one particular hamper, the one I wanted to give to my mum's best friend, I decided to make a pin cushion Kilner jar. She is a dab hand at crafts herself, and is always stitching, sewing or creating something wonderful, so I thought this useful little creation would come in handy. 

I'm certainly not the first person to attempt making these, and I won't be the last. I apologise now for the slightly unfocussed photo, it was taken some time ago, before I decided to embark on the life of a blogger.

Firstly, decide what you would like to fill your jar with. This is one of the great things about this particular home-made wonders, you can tailor it to anyone. I decided on pastel coloured buttons and ribbons, which suited the style of craft that my friend normally makes.

Next is the trickier part, actually making the pin cushion. It's not too hard at all, unless you're inept in operation of a glue gun. 

You need to select the material for your pin cushion. I went for red gingham, I'm a traditionalist at heart, and it really does look adorable. In order to make the cushion, remove the disk from your Kilner jar lid, place a good amount of wadding (any local material shop or habberdashery should stock it. I found mine in Hobbycraft) on its top surface, making sure you have enough there to support your pins and prevent them from scratching the lid, place your chosen material over the top and flip it over. The trick is to have enough excess material so that you can glue it down, but not so much that it's impossible to secure. I left about 1cm of material around the rim of the disk, and then folded it into pleats, gluing it to the underside of the disk. I used a hot glue gun I found in Hobbycraft for a very reasonable £5, glue sticks provided - http://www.hobbycraft.co.uk/hot-melt-mini-glue-gun/567346-1000.

Allow the glue to cool and set completely before returning the disk to the lid ring. Another fantastic thing about these jars is that you can easily replace the material, just pop the disk out, remove the material and replace with a fresh piece.

Once you have secured the lid back on the jar, pop your chosen pins into the lid. I went for pearl topped ones because they look decorative, but you can use any of your choosing.
Again you can make these to look however you want them to, and for any purpose. It still makes me smile when I walk into my friend's house and see this, perched on her shelf, filled with new goodies waiting to be used in her latest project.
The end product. I did warn you it was a bad pic!

Pinterest page

I'm slowly making my way around the social media sites right now, building pages all in support of this blog. On the advice of friends who have blogged, do blog, or are just much more tech savvy than me, I'll be setting up Twitter and Instagram, but first on the hit-list was Pinterest. I love Pinterest, and have found so many amazing posts and helpful articles on my private account. I'd really love it if this blog could do the same for someone else!

If you fancy a look and would like to follow, you can find the page at https://www.pinterest.com/lilysalittlebit/.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Foo Fighters at Milton Keynes Bowl 06.09.2015

I'm a huge music fan, always have been. Brought up by parents with differing tastes (The Jam, Blondie and The Who on one side, Green Day, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet on the other), it's safe to say my taste is eclectic.

I'm lucky enough to live near the Milton Keynes Bowl. Anyone who hasn't attended an event here, it is, quite literally, a huge grass bowl, with a stage in the middle of it. Huge gigs have taken place here in the past few years. I've managed to catch Bon Jovi, Nickleback, Take That (told you, eclectic taste), and Green Day on their mammoth Bullet in a Bible tour (I was right there at the front, you can probably here me declaring my undying love for Billie Joe on the DVD), all a comfortable 25 minute journey from my front door.
The scene behind us in the giant bowl
So, it was with excitement of epic proportions that I was given tickets for Foo Fighters' second date at the Bowl. Ask my workmate, I sat at my computer mute for a good 5 minutes when I got the email. The silence didn't last long, I ended up bounding around, not quite sure what to do with myself (think kid on Christmas morning finding out they're going to Disneyland, should give you a fair idea).
The Foos have topped the aforementioned wish list for a few years. I love them, pure and simple. I've worshipped Dave Grohl since his Nirvana days, Nevermind still being one of my all-time favorite albums, and he didn't disappoint. Still having to sit through the tour (having broken his leg and prompting many a 'Break a Leg' t-shirt purchases ever since), a throne has been built for him. A smoke-spewing, laser-shooting, light-up fiasco of a chair, all designed to travel around the stage looking like a Robot Wars' Sir Killalot-cum-Iron Throne bastard-child, ensuring the happiest man in rock still gets to do his thing, and has plenty of material for his between-song banter with the crowd, and the band. Taylor Hawkins' leggings were a big talking point on stage. I'm just jealous he carried them off better than I ever could!
The now-famous Foo Throne

To say they were brilliant would be an understatement. Playing enough of their current material to keep the show bang up to date, but not disappointing the life-long fans by throwing in plenty of songs from their hefty back-catalogue, it was a sight (and sound) to behold. Highlight of the night for me was 'Best of You', elongated by about 10 minutes due to the crowd's more than enthusiastic contribution, Grohl kicking back to have a drink and, wide-eyed, take it all in while we did the performing for him. It was nice to see that, after 20 years together, the band can still be taken aback by the sheer dedication and love their fans have for them. It was a serious goosebumps moment, with the audience holding the song together, phone lights raised in the air (the new-age lighter), everyone joined in that moment by their absolute joy of just being there.

Mobiles become the replacement lighter at rock gigs

Fantastics renditions of Arlandria, These Days, White Limo, and Everlong were also memorable highlights of a fantastic experience. Not failing to mention the brilliant support from Royal Blood, a band I've vaguely listened too, but would happily go out and grab their album now. Iggy Pop was also present and on great form, strutting his topless stuff around like the stage was his catwalk.
Iggy in his semi-naked glory

I'm so glad I finally got to experience the Foos live. I'll definitely be going when they come back to Blighty!
The curtain ripples as the band tease the crowd before bursting onto the stage

Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Game

I went through a phase years ago where the only video (yes, that long ago!) I'd watch was Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance. I just loved it. The dancing, the costumes, the music. I could never understand how the dancers moved so quickly, and they all seemed to be having an amazing time.

On Friday, I finally got my chance to see it on stage, and I fell in love all over again. Along with my mum, I went along to the Dominion Theatre at the show's penultimate performance before embarking on their European tour. It was my first experience of the Dominion. Such a beautiful theatre, ornately decorated, it has an almost TARDIS-like effect, it's facade not quite giving away just how spacious it is inside.

Having made our way to our seats (in the Freddie Mercury suite which made it just that bit cooler), we settled in and waited in anticipation.

The show started with a film, depicting River Dance's journey, from its inception, to the global monster it has become. It's incredible to conceive just how successful this show has been, and Flatley's dedication to making it a success shone through.

Unfortunately, he only appeared in this and a pre-recorded video of him dancing, but wow can he still move! His replacement for the role of the Lord was James Keegan, and an incredibly worthy one he was too. He had the right charm and charisma to carry the role, as well as being a fantastic dancer. The entire cast were brilliant, their energy was infectious and they quickly had the audience cheering them along. The story itself was a remake of the original - effectively the same story, but with the inclusion of new songs and some new choreography to freshen it up. It was lovely to see a story I've loved since I was a child played out in front of me, and personally I was really glad that they didn't change too much around.

Two violinists and a singer completed the line-up, performing whilst the dancers changed costumes (or were applying ice to their feet, if they were sensible). They certainly added to the performance, but there was a certain amount of watch-checking that came with them, everyone eager to continue watch the main event. The violinists, while undoubtedly talented, had very little to do with themselves, except strut around the stage a few times. The music was brilliant and did add to the feel of the show, but it did feel as though they could have cut down by a good few minutes. But again, this was an opportunity for the dancers to take a much needed break, so their inclusion was understandable.

The singer again felt like a distraction more than a cohesive part of the show. The songs always felt somewhat maudlin and sluggish, as they usually fell in after a particularly high-voltage dance number. Whilst her voice was good, her inclusion just didn't feel strong enough to compliment the show.

That aside, we had a fantastic time. A wonderful show, with a healthy dose of nostalgia for any long-time fan. The effort and dedication that is injected into this show shines through. If you find yourself in the right part of Europe over the next few months, try and catch it. Dates can be found here: http://www.lordofthedance.com/tour-dates/europe/.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Annual Alton Towers visit

I love theme parks. I love roller-coasters. I generally just enjoy being scared. Weird I may be, but it's the way I am! Each year we take a trip to Alton Towers. It's my favourite theme park, with its creepy demeanor and beautiful grounds. I know it hasn't had the best time of it recently, with the terrible accident on the Smiler. But I genuinely feel that they dealt with it in the best way they could. Had they been slower to shoulder responsibility or to admit liability, I don't think I would have returned. However I admired their reactions to the incident.

So, with the sun shining, the radio on, and the morning rush hour traffic out of the way, we embarked on our journey. Anyone making their way to Staffordshire from the south any time soon, be warned, you will come across no less than 26 miles of M1 road works (not a soul in sight yesterday, but I digress), so it may be an idea to take an alternative route.

On arrival, it became quickly apparent we had chosen a particularly fantastic date to go. With some schools already back in session, many more due back this week, and most parents in hyper-drive, buying new uniforms and P.E. kits, it was strangely quiet, almost eerily so. There were no queues to be seen, so what would usually be the rush to get a spot waiting for your favourite ride, instead found us taking a leisurely stroll around the park, grabbing a bite to eat, then pootling over to the nearest ride. This found us at Duel, a laser quest for the undead. I'm usually a dab-hand with a laser gun, but mine wasn't working, so I lost out on a few precious shots and therefore lost the battle. That's my excuse for losing and I'm sticking to it!

Then we made our way to Air, one of my favourites. Again no queue to be seen, so we effectively walked straight on to it. The same can be said of Nemesis, Hex, Rita and Thirteen. It made for a really nice experience. There was no pushing or shoving, no dreary wait for 2 hours for a 30 second ride. Just people having a relaxed meander around the park.

We stopped off to try the offerings of the new Nitrogenie ice-cream stand. Ice-cream made, while you wait using nitrogen to freeze the ingredients as they are needed. We both opted for the Oreo vanilla cream flavour, which was delicious. I'm now planning on throwing a packet of Oreos into my ice-cream maker and hoping for similar results!

In the past it has taken us 2 hours to hit 2 rides, meaning that we've often had to miss out on something due to lack of time. This time around, we had been on every ride we wanted to get on in under 3 hours. The Smiler being closed does go some way to explain this. Taking advantage of the free time we had, we took a stroll around the gardens. I try and do this every year, simply because the grounds are so pretty, but it is sometimes difficult to with the time constraints. If you find yourself in the park and with enough time to spare, I really recommend having a look around. There's an incredible array of flowers and plant life, not to mention all the wildlife flitting about. We caught the grounds at a great point in the year, everything is still very much in bloom, but the hint of autumnal colour is just starting to creep in.

We decided to make our way to the front of the park and have a try at the crazy golf course, something I've never done in previous visits. Not badly priced, you can play 9 holes for £4 a person or 18 for £6 a person. We opted for the 9 hole game, my golfing tolerance only stretches so far, even if it is of the crazy variety! Once you have your clubs, balls and mark sheet, you have a decision to make - east or west. To the east you have the simpler course, to the west the more complex. Naturally we went west. Each hole is based on a ride in the theme park, getting more complicated and ridiculous as you move on. Starting at a (in retrospect) relatively simple Nemesis based hole, you are quickly moved on into the realm of loops, bridges, swirly metal bridge thingamys, giant teacups, hollow oak trees and trick shots. 9 holes took roughly 35 minutes to complete, and involved a lot of hysterical laughter and retrieving of golf balls. Well worth a visit if you find yourself tired of rides!

Finally feeling that we had exhausted all that was on offer, we started the trip back. That hasn't stopped me checking out this years' Scarefest offerings (https://www.altontowers.com/things-to-do/scarefest/). 3 mazes and 2 other installations will be taking place from 17th Oct - 2 Nov for this years' Halloween celebrations and I must admit, I am quite tempted...