Friday, 29 July 2011

London - A Review

Buckingham Palace - London Duck Tour - Rainforest Cafe

It might seem a novel experience, being a tourist in a city you occasionally work in, but I suspect a lot of Londoners have no idea what they are missing.

We have done this a few times before - made a set agenda of places to go and times to be there - but yesterday was a bit special. This time, we were going to mix with royalty.

OK, so the flag on Buckingham Palace told us the Queen wasn't actually in, but that didn't stop hundreds of people lining the streets for the Changing of The Guard. We watched the marching band come down the road and make their way into the Palace grounds. Junior wanted to take some pictures, but by the time she was ready, all she got were taxis flying past her low viewpoint.

First port of call in the Palace was the Queen's Gallery. Not an obvious choice to take a 6 year old girl, but even she was impressed by some of the paintings inside. After encountering a few sneering looks from people who couldn't believe they "let children in", we had lunch and then queued up for the main attraction, the State Rooms, and "The Dress".

Junior was very taken by the Royal Wedding and she, along with thousands of others, were queuing up to be able to see it as part of the current exhibition.

There is a "Family Audio Guide" available on the front desk. Rather than a stuffy aristocrat telling you about the history of the gilded staircase, we were treated to a fantastic guide that fell somewhere between History Channel and Blue Peter. My daughter absolutely loved it, as it was full of interesting stories and facts that kids can relate to. The Duchess of Cambridge's dress is on display in the main ballroom, and is the main reason for everyone being there. It does look slightly ghostly, but it captured the imagination of the little 6 year old, who happily barged her way to the front to see it close up.

Being the kind of people we are though, we were pushed for time. We never made it to the Royal Mews, but that doesn't matter, because at the end of the Tour we converted ticket to a year pass. So we'll do that next time.

A slightly mad dash across town took us to the next port of call - The London Duck Tour. Giant yellow amphibious craft that take you on a bus tour of the city, before driving into the river. Aside from the historical relevance of being in a vehicle that was used in the D-Day Landings, the sheer novelty factor of being able to drive into the river is something that the other tours can't match. Yes it's pricey, but it is unique.

A short hop to our final stopping point - The Rainforest Cafe. Part toy-shop, part restaurant, this is another unique experience. Certain younger members of the family are not keen on thunderstorms or animatronic jungle creatures, but in spite of this, the staff found us a "quiet" spot surrounded by butterflies.

We were all agreed that, as far as customer service goes, we could not have had a better meal. Our "safari guide" was fantastic, sorting everything out in double quick time, she was very attentive, and the simple act of bringing us the bill while we were still eating made the whole evening almst perfect. It's not cheap though - a two course meal for three set us back £75.

We returned home a 9pm rather weary, but having had another great day out in the city.

Monday, 25 July 2011

A Lesson In Consumer Power

If you works certain hours or you're off work, you've probably come across Dominic Littlewood. He seems to be on most show during the day-time, but he is best known for helping consumers bargain for goods by talking to them through an ear piece.

His theory is that, if you try hard enough, you can get all kinds of deals and sweeteners from retailers, big or small.

My wife took this to heart a long time ago, and while it is a given that you barter a bit for a house, or a car, many people would not think twice about trying to get money off other smaller items (I just don't have the nerve). Take this past weekend as an example.

I needed a new suit, so we went to Moss Bros. Credit goes to the sales guy for asking all the right questions, what's the suit for, what's your budget, colour, style. He then makes a recommendation or two, and eventually we settle on a nice suit that is already reduced from £400 to £279.

All this while, my wife is getting some good banter going. We have a pretty good routine going now, I play the fool, she apologises for my statement that the shoes he just picked out make me look like Crusty The Clown. The sales guy says that he would recommend they take the trousers up to fit, and we agree. At this point my wife comes in with "So, is there any room for negotiation?".

This is a standard line that you see on all the TV shows, and it's important that it's used on someone who can choose to answer "yes" or "no". There's no point using it on the Saturday worker from the local Uni, as he/she won't have the authority.

So the sales guy rightly points out that they were selling this at £400, so no, there's no negotiation on the suit. Fair play. I go back to the changing rooms, and when I return, I discover that my wife has blagged a free suit bag and half price off the tailoring. An immediate saving of £8.

On we go, and later in the day we go to Altimus, a specialists "Millets" type store, located right next door to Millets in Reading. Shoe shopping begins in earnest, but what we are in for is a very in depth science letter about the state of one's feet. Very informative, interesting, and free, and beneficial towards choosing some walking shoes and trainers. All the banter is there, plenty of chat and empathy towards poor little me having to come show shopping with the missus etc.

A quick use of Red Laser tells me I can get the trainers £30 cheaper on the net, so that's no good to Altimus, but my wife settles on a nice pair of Merrell walking shoes, that the salesman has craftily suggested she try with some proper walking socks. Naturally there's no point only having one pair, so she decides to buy two pairs. At this point, comes the question "Any negotiation on the price of the shoes?" Be honest, how often do you hear that? Of course the answer is no, but the follow up catches the salesman off guard:

"How about throwing another pair of socks?"

So there's my wife playing "heads or tails" for a pair of socks in a shop. And she wins. £12 saving - £20 so far.

The big one of the weekend is the mattress. If you think shoe shopping is time consuming, try mattress shopping. One is supposed to spend 10 minutes minimum on a mattress to know whether it's up to much, and there are a lot of mattresses in Furniture Village.

Cue the banter. We are lying on a giant bed that has a pop-up screen at the foot. "Ooh I could sit here all day watching telly, just need a cup of tea and I'm sorted". The salesman duly supplies the tea, and we are set for the long haul.

We decide on the one we like, we are probably there for 40 minutes or more chatting to this guy, who is very knowledgeable and very balanced in his sell. But this is a big purchase, and we never buy things that big without walking away first. A quick tour round homebase, and we return with a strategy. It turns out that delivery is £55, so we ask the question "Any negotiation on the delivery?" As it turns out, because we are only 15 minutes away, he waivers the delivery. Five minutes later, he's been talked into giving us a £19 pillow. This was a particularly relevant, as we wouldn't have taken it had it not been free. Saving = £74.

So two day's shopping, total saving = £94.

By my reckoning, we've saved enough money to buy my beer-making kit...

Friday, 3 June 2011

It's Gripped! It's Sorted!

It was a bit of a Homer present.

I bought my wife a 4x4 off road experience through Into The Blue. As luck would have it, they were doing 2FOR1 at the time. What a stroke of luck.

When someone says "Off Road" to me, my immediate response goes something like this:

Clearly you are not going to get 8 miles of sweat and terror in a former landfill site in Reading, but that wasn't going to stop us having some fun in someone else's Land Rover for the afternoon.

Our instructors, who take people round a labyrinth of trenches and hills as a break from their day jobs, were very supportive and friendly, constantly giving tips on how to navigate the tricky courses. No surprises really, as they were bringing their own vehicles for chumps like me to drive.

The motto is "As slow as possible, as fast as necessary", the polar opposite to some people's driving style, and once we'd got the hang of the low range gears, we were really able to have some fun.

I would imagine on a wet day, the course would be a completely different beast, but it was bone dry, scrabbly and rutted on the day we went. In the two hour session, including 20 minutes briefing, my wife and I drove round 3 different circuits off the course, taking about 50 minutes each. We went up hills I would think twice about walking up, drove on 45 degree slopes and down drops that put some rollercoasters to shame.

When you think about driving experiences, you usually imagine hair-raising speed, bone crunching corners, or at the very least sliding around on a skidpan. This is probably the slowest driving experience there is, but it's because it is so precise and ever so slightly unnerving that it's an ideal way to spend an afternoon with your other half.

At least you can't get told off for driving too slowly.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Wales - A Review

My wife and daughter started hatching a plan for my birthday some weeks ago. They wanted to take me away for a birthday surprise (surprising not least because my birthday is in December), but they wouldn't say any more.

It's fair to say that, with a 6 year old, you learn something new every day. Over the last few weeks I've learnt that my daughter is almost really good at keeping secrets. A passing reference a few weeks ago, in a pub, to her writing skills caused her to comment on "writing about Wales", followed by a swift hand-on-mouth "D'oh!".

OK, so the cover was slightly blown, but Wales is a big place.

Spin forward to last week, and we are in the car, with the Sat-Nav craftily positioned on the other side of the car. After crossing the beautiful Severn Estuary we turn north towards Abergavenny. My knowledge of Wales is, at best, hopeless, so it's only when we get near our destination do I finally understand why we are here.

The giveaway is the forked tail on the sign saying "Welcome to Powys", a sight I have seen counteless times from my bedroom window.

We arrive at our base, Llandrindod Wells, and set about the normal holiday game of "Find The Hotel". What is usually an epic contest of man and Google Maps versus sat-nav turns out to be an anti-climax as the hotel stands out like the Emerald City in the Land of Oz.

The Metropole Hotel is a huge, green beast of a building. The only reason I can fathom for such a colour scheme is that the owners left it to some TV comedy sidekick to go down to B+Q, while they went away to Aberystwyth for the weekend. It really is green. Really.

Inside, it proudly shows off its 144 year, family-owned heritage. What this means in real terms is that the decor looks like it hasn't been changed in 144 years either. Having said that, our room was nicely laid out and bunk beds are always a winner for a 6 year old.

After an evening of playing crib on the bed next to a sleeping daughter, we slept well til the next morning. Breakfast was suitably enormous - Baby Annabelle was even given her own high chair - and after a long swim in a pool all to ourselves, we went on our expedition.

We drove round the Elan Valley, and enjoyed the jaw-dropping views of the countryside, but it was the Friday afternoon that was the "Big Surprise". My daughter, being six, wanted me to be blissfully unaware of what was happening right up until I took my seat. This would have been a tough ask, as the sign saying "Red Kite Feeding Centre" was pretty enormous.

After a warm welcome to Gigrin Farm, Rhayader and brief explanation ("he did give the surprise away a bit there, didn't he, Daddy?") we took our seats for the main event.

Now I should say that I am a sucker for Birds of Prey in general. I'm convinced that one day, I'll be so engrossed in watching a hovering kesterel, that I will walk into a lamp-post.

This takes it to a whole new level.

Every day, at the same time, the farmer drives into a field in a tractor, the trailer loaded with meat chunks, and proceeds to throw meat everywhere. He then drives away and the show commences.

I looked up from my hide and saw hundreds of red kites. It was like something from a Hitchcock film. And then they start swooping. It's hard to put into words how amazing this sight is. What is the most breath-taking part? Is it the sheer number of birds, who come from up to 40 miles away for a guaranteed snack? Is it the spectacle of dozens of birds swooping down at any one time? Or is it the sudden silence that is drawn over the whole venue, save for the click-click of a dozen SLR cameras trying to keep up?

I enjoyed it so much that, like the birds, I was there the same time the next day, and the amazing thing was that it was completely different. The howling winds had gone, the sun was out, and the birds were fighting each other for the food. Every so often a buzzard would swoop in and just stand on the ground, porking away at the beef.

On our way home, we drove via Ross-On-Wye, and had lunch at a lovely cafe called "Nature's Choice", then we drove through the Wye Valley which, during autumn, has the most stunning array of colours (that makes me sound very old, but it was pretty), and it was a shame to have to come back to boring old Oxfordshire.

Still, at least I get my daily kite fix. Now, what would the wife say to me if I felt like leaving chunks of beef in the garden...?

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Sad Sight - a boat half underwater

Here are some photos I took of a boat being towed into Kingswear during the Dartmouth Regatta 2010. I don't know if it was competing, but as we all commented, it's always a sorry sight to see a broken boat being towed in.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Cornwall: A Review

Like a huge number of other folk, the Marczak family went South West for their Easter holidays and, in amoungst the vast quantities of Sauvignon and Sensations, there was the wonders of Cornwall to explore. If you have a family of younguns, you may find this review of interest.

We stayed at The Olde House, in Chapel Amble. This family-run enterprise comprises countless farmhouse cottages, a pool, snooker table, tennis courts, ball-pit "play barn" and "Pet's Corner", as well as all the sights and smells you'd expect from a working farm.

We stayed at Smeathers Farmhouse, positioned five minutes drive down a windy road - cycle at your peril - and completely cut off from the main road leading into the village of Chapel Amble. The village itself has a Post Office, an excellent pub called The Maltsters Arms, and a few houses. All in all, this was getting away from it on a grand scale.

The Farmhouse easily slept the 6 of us, with bunk beds to spare. There were plenty of bits in the kitchen, and the cream tea welcome was a lovely touch.

Being so cut off, it was easy to let the kids run riot outside, although the ceilings seemed to be paper thin, so they couldn't get away with much at bed time.

Out and about, we went to a few places.

St Kew golf club - Perfect for beginners and hackers alike, not especially challenging, but short enough to get a full round in without it upsetting the other half.

Hustyns Leisure Club and Spa - very nice, so I'm told, though not the easiest place to find without really good directions.

Lappa Valley Steam Railway - down near Newquay, this is hidden away, and is heaven for kids who like trains. Multiple mini train rides, crazy golf, boating lake, maze, playground, slide. Excellent fun for young children.

Blue Reef Aquarium - In Newquay town centre, tightly packed little aquarium with octopus feeding, a turtle, sharks, a walk through tunnel, jellyfish, starfish and, most crucially, steps for little kids to take around with them if they need help seeing over the top. Good value for money, and very helpful staff.

Dairyland - the twee name made me sh-udder a bit (sorry), but inside it is a properly old school farm play area. Petting areas, slides, tractor rides, pony rides, chickens roaming free, sand pits, climbing apparatus, this was a day trip in itself.

What surprised me was how close everything seemed to be. Having not been to Cornwall since I was tiny, I was expecting long hauls to all the attractions, but it wasn't like that at all. With some fun trips to Padstow and Polzeath thrown in for good measure, I really appreciated the variety available, particularly for infant school aged kids.

We are all set to book next year. Now where's that holiday form?

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Write Letters. It's The Future.

It's fair to say that we don't write letters like we used to. I know I don't. If I cast my memory back, I wrote a lot of letters when I was courting the better half, but then that was when internet was in its infancy and not everyone had the internet at home.

Aside from thank you letters, I don't "write" letters at all. I might type one and print it out, but you won't catch me sitting with a ball point pen and a pad of paper any time soon.

So it is with great joy that I am able to regale you a story I was told by a friend of my wife, who is a head teacher somewhere in Oxford. She was describing how one of her staff had been going through a book with her class, "Kasper, Prince Of Cats", by Michael Morpurgo.

From what I've heard, the cat is a statuette, placed at a table in the Savoy Hotel to warn off bad luck. The story is about a bell-boy and his relationship with a real-life black cat at the hotel, and the adventures they undergo.

So taken by this book were the class, that they wrote to the hotel asking if they could come and see the cat that inspired the story.

The hotel then wrote back and said, sorry, that part of the hotel is currently undergoing refurbishment. But we can arrange for you to see it at our club next door.

Excellent news, the teacher thought. Then came the follow up, we have been in touch with the author, and he would be happy to talk to the class via video-conference! This is unbelievable, thought the teacher.

Shortly before the trip, the hotel rang again. Sorry, they said, Michael Morpurgo said that he won't be able to do the videoconference now, because he has decided to come in person! Cue jaws on floor.

So the day came, and the children got to meet the cat, the hotel laid on cat shaped biscuits and squash, and they sat in revered silence as Michael Morpurgo talked to them about the book they loved so much.

After their time was up (they had an appointment at St Paul's to go to), the headteacher asked the hotel organiser why they had gone to such great lengths for one morning's work.

"Because you wrote letters to us. No one writes letters any more, so it stood out."

And there you have it. They get dozens of emails asking for facilities, but no one writes any more. The kids did more than just ask for something, they showed how much they wanted it, and that's something you can't do in Times New Roman. The power of the letter should not be forgotten.