Maternity leave…is it really just a year-long cake break?

Last year was a big year for our family. Dad drew his pension, my Grandma joined WhatsApp, and I gave birth to our son. And along with baby Tom, the majority of my pre-conceptions about birth, parenthood and maternity leave were shattered.

Just over three weeks ago on a pitch black and cold Monday morning, I hit the M65 and headed for Bolton. The Monday after the Christmas break is a pretty bleak commute at the best of times, but I’d not worked a proper day since last February and I’d just left my baby at nursery for his first full day without us. My maternity leave was officially over. And I was still upset that Sara Cox had been passed over for the Breakfast Show.

But I’d given myself a pep talk the previous night and told myself that I still had plenty to contribute to the work place despite the fact that I’d forgotten how to talk in proper sentences. I’d not worn heels since 2017 and I got halfway down the M65 before remembering I wear glasses to drive. Considering the week before I went back to work baby brain made me accidentally drive INTO Burnley bus station terminal, I’m amazed by how well I’ve readjusted to civilian life so far.


My happy little boy

So here is a summary of what maternity leave was like for me, and my ridiculous preconceptions about how I’d spend my time.

When you finish for maternity leave, before the baby is born, you should be napping

Yes, this is when you should be sleeping. Everyone tells you to sleep, and you don’t, because you’re not that tired, and you don’t have to get up for work for the first time since you were a teenager, so f**k sleeping! I’m off to lunch with everyone I’ve ever met, and when I’m not at lunch, I’m going to be texting people making arrangements for lunch.

Once I didn’t have to go to work, my energy levels went through the roof and for a time, I had the best social life ever (of someone who doesn’t drink or go out after 6pm). When I realised that all ten series’ of Friends were now available on Netflix, I put the energy I’d been using on lunch dates into watching ALL of them before the baby came. This included watching the last ever episode, bouncing on my birthing ball, whilst in what I now know to be advanced labour. The only nap I had of note was when I tried to watch ‘Once upon a time in America’ and nodded off. Well, I wish I’d stayed awake, because I now know that the chances of me watching a four hour gangster epic this side of retirement are slim.

Make a detailed birth plan

Once you’ve wasted the last free time you’re going to get for 20 years watching 90s sitcoms, you then have to physically give birth. I think that is why they tell you to rest beforehand. I knew it was going to be a bit of an ordeal, but as a planned and methodical person, I was expecting it to be an ordeal in the ways outlined to me by trained midwives on my antenatal classes. I wrote them all down in my file, I read several different lists of how to pack my hospital bag, and I was PREPARED. It was going to hurt, but it was going to hurt during contractions that followed a pattern, and labour that had a structure. My inner drama queen had given lots of commuting daydream time to that wonderful moment after the pain stopped when I was handed my baby and became a mum, instantly head over heels in love whilst Chris looked at me in stunned admiration for my heroism and bravery. I’m not about to go into details about my labour, because no one wants to read that and I don’t especially want to think about it, but let’s just say, I didn’t get that moment. The adoring moment I had dreamed of was replaced with someone shouting “DO YOU WANT SKIN TO SKIN?” quite loud whilst shoving my newborn onto my boob, when I was absolutely banged out of my mind on spinal drugs that I hadn’t planned. I’ve perhaps embellished the last bit, but then I was quite high. All I’ll say is, your neatly handwritten birth plan that says you’d like everything to mosey along quietly with no drugs goes out of the window after a certain amount of time.  I found 36 hours was a good time to change tactics.

You’ll be desperate to show off your baby


One week old

Most people actually tell you to batten down the hatches and keep the mobs at bay, but having been round to close friend’s houses very shortly after they had their little ones, I’d assumed I’d do the same. The fridge had even been filled with prosecco. Well, I now realise that me turning up with a bottle of fizz as a gift and then drinking it all myself whilst talking about being hungover, is probably not what my dear friends wanted 36 hours after giving birth. Sorry Ailsa, twice. I didn’t want to see or speak to anyone for a good couple of weeks, and this really surprised me. As a hugely social person I thought I’d be putting an announcement on Barrowford then and Now then flinging open the door. But when it came down to it, the thought of having others bear witness to the fact that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing was just a bit too much. And that is completely fine.

Babies keep you up all night because…

What are they actually doing in the night? This is not a question I’d actually given any thought to. Along with how to breastfeed, how to use the steriliser, how to get a baby to sleep, how to dress a baby correctly for the temperature…I’d basically learnt all about what size vegetable my baby was that week and then spent the rest of my time pissing about on Not on the High Street looking for nursery pictures. I hadn’t really given why I’d be so tired much thought. Imagine my surprise when I found out our baby couldn’t sleep because he’d feed (I knew that would happen), then have to be helped to trump for at least half an hour. Every 90 minutes. After a week of that, you finally understand what everyone was talking about. The first few months of parenthood are like a never ending Monday after Beatherder.img_e3484

You will get obsessed with poo

I didn’t get remotely obsessed with poo. I’m pretty ambivalent about poo to be honest. I’m sure there were a few moments early on that I’ve forgotten about, when a panicked WhatsApp will have been sent checking that the colour/texture/frequency of said poo was OK, but other than that, the poo party pretty much passed me by. That’s not to say I have enjoyed the occasions where I’ve had to stop a screaming infant rubbing his own hands and feet through his poo, then into his mouth, usually when I’m in public and haven’t packed my changing bag properly. But it’s all just part of the day job now. One thing I will own up to, and it apparently happens to everyone no matter how you fight it – you will send an excited text to your other half the day your baby does their first solid poo, and you will genuinely be really, really pleased for them . It must be like watching Countryfile and wearing fleece pyjamas, it comes to us all eventually.

Feeding your baby is the most natural thing in the world

Breastfeeding your baby is not the most natural thing in the world. If getting your boobs out three times during ONE brew in Booths is natural, then I’d been living an unnatural life. (I didn’t drink a hot brew over my feeding babies’ head by the way). Constantly wondering when you’re going to have to reveal yourself in public does not make going out in the early days much fun. There are a variety of ways you can disguise it, perhaps by using a scarf, which is all well and good until your Grandma whips it off you during Sunday lunch because…you know I can’t even remember why she did it, but I’m glad I was facing the wall. I gradually built my confidence by never being too far away from a café or a friend’s house where I felt comfortable feeding. Having a baby just before a heatwave also helped. When you’re permanently feeding you get quite quickly blasé about where you do it.


The start of the process…

All that aside, once I got into the swing of it, I did really enjoy breastfeeding. However about a week after you get to the point where it’s easy and comfortable, it’s pretty much time to start weaning them onto solids.

And if breastfeeding felt unnatural, so does feeding the most precious thing in your life lumps of stuff that you’re convinced is going to choke them to death. Luckily this feeling doesn’t last that long.





Your baby will love baby groups and you should go to one every day

Unless you’re Tom, and then you don’t like any of the activities I expected or wanted him to like. Baby massage – slept through the first session, cried for the remaining three. Mum and baby exercise class – got into it five minutes before the end. Usually after a crying fit and having to go to the side for a cuddle and a feed, by which time we’d missed everything apart from lunges. Babybells – where do I start? I’m surprised anyone would enjoy lying on their back whilst their mum and 19 other women waggle puppets around, pretend to be a goat and listen to baby trance music. Baby Spanish class – learnt from my mistakes and went to the park instead.


A post-park high

So if like me you thought your maternity leave was going to be spent traipsing round baby groups in various combinations of mum and baby fancy dress, posing for selfies, eating cake, making friends and writing fun mum blogs about your experiences, be prepared for this not to happen. You may end up like me, who spent most of 2018 dashing out of baby classes red faced with a wailing baby, leaving a trail of muslin destruction, only to have Tom recover from his distress quite literally the minute we walked out of the door. Some babies don’t like forced fun, just like their dads…



Your baby fits around you and the things you like

Things I said me and the baby would do on maternity leave whilst Chris was at work include; going to the pub on summer afternoons and chilling out with pals and babies having a jolly nice time. Going on big long walks with the baby in a special baby carrier. Going to the Cotswolds to visit my family. And my favourite, going to London on the train all on my own to visit Fran whilst she was on maternity leave too.


Tom’s no. 1 fan, Joe

One day I tried to go to the Lakes for a day out. I got as far as Ingleton and had to sit on the car park of a café on the A65 with a distraught, teething, diarrhoea covered infant, trying to administer Calpol whilst he thrashed around, wondering why the bloody hell I was naïve enough to think that going to Windermere for a day out with a partially weaned, teething baby was a good idea. We turned back, the me that had once had the confidence to jump out of a plane seeming further and further from the version of me I resembled that day.

So is the party now over?

Yes, maternity leave wasn’t what I was expecting. It certainly wasn’t just a year-long cake eating extravaganza, but nor was it two hours sleep every night, and rain every day, and being cooped up inside alone with a baby that wouldn’t settle. Certain things would have made it easier; such as realising that Booths sold hot Aberdeen Angus burgers in April and not in November, but many things made it the best year of my life. Primarily, being lucky enough to give birth to a little boy who spends most of his day smiling. The heatwave, and having and meeting lots of lovely people to spend my days with also helped. On many days there was crying, frustration, worry, being covered in milk and spit, and being unable to get out of the front door for hours because everything was going wrong. But there were also endless cuddles, pints of shandy in the sun with friends, staying in pyjamas until lunchtime, conversations with new mum friends who had no expectations of you and were so kind, and the unending joy of your friends and family falling in love with your baby.


There was the occasional Ploughman’s lunch…

They say that you are never quite the same person you were before you became a mum, and I think that’s probably true. I am now the proud owner of both a handbag sized brolly, and, one nail grown long specifically for the purpose of getting bogies out of my son’s nose so that he can always breathe properly. And if that doesn’t make me a mum, I don’t know what does…


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A love letter to Scarborough (and a bit of Filey on the side)

People say all kinds of stuff when they’re pregnant, I think mainly to stop themselves going under about the fact that life is about to completely upend itself. I have friends who when pregnant said they would still do a number of things; exercise, speak in a normal voice, go to festivals, read books that weren’t about not being able to find your dog/cat/giraffe, go to the Trafford Centre, wash, wear proper bras (OK I’ve digressed into my own aims there). But then slowly but surely the infants take over and we’re all exclaiming in a voice five pitches higher than our own, that it’s definitely not my giraffe, whilst texting a friend that of course we won’t be going to the pub that night. Or for about ten more years.  Well we said we wouldn’t be giving up our holidays, and whilst we acknowledged that our holidays would probably be quite different, there was no way in hell we were spending the five years that we weren’t bound by school holidays not going anywhere.

With these thoughts ringing in my ears, I somewhat reluctantly set off on our second family holiday to Filey. I have to be honest, I couldn’t be arsed going. Chris had made the uncharacteristically financially reckless move to fund a week’s trip. He had a week’s leave, and he was going to make the most of it. Personally, I was still a little bit too aware of how difficult our last holiday was without the proximity of all my local cafes, the park, and I’ll admit it, child friendly mates to break up the long days looking after a newborn. I’d got to the point where if I was going to be getting up three times a night and couldn’t get drunk, I’d kind of rather do that in my own house, with all my things, and lots of mum pals around the corner to join me on the park when it invariably got too much the next day. This behaviour was deemed miserable, ungrateful and incredibly negative.

So with that in mind, I’ll get all the moaning out of the way before I go on to wax lyrical about what a beautiful place the North Yorkshire coast is. Firstly – how bloody expensive is going away in the school holidays? We spent more for a week in a caravan in August than we spent for two weeks in one in June. The site was non-comparable, we were by the main road running through the site, and they didn’t empty the recycling for the whole time we were there – presumably because they were far too busy dealing with the many families that descend to the coast at summer.

However, I sorted my face out and reminded myself that Chris didn’t have the benefit of being able to walk round the park all week like I did, and I should enjoy our break rather than whine about being tired all week. I’d not been to Filey since I was about 7, when we rented a cottage in the nearby village of Hunmanby. My memories of that trip are of horse riding, learning to swim, and drawing a picture of Filey Brigg for show and tell when we got back to school in September. The Brigg and the walks in the country park that surrounds it are really pretty and accessible for all. We had a slightly hairy walk out to the end of the Brigg one day which made me somewhat uneasy due to the pounding wind. As scenic as Filey is, I do think a week spent just there would have been a bit limiting – even with our reduced ability to get out for long. The promenade is great for a little stroll with the pram, and there are a couple of pleasant little ice cream stands and places to get chips, and to be honest I’d have liked it just fine…had we not been to Scarborough. And this is when my negative, miserable behaviour shifted.

Because I bloody love Scarborough. It’s got everything. I’d have gone every single day of the holiday if only I’d have not felt a bit tight on Filey. The minute we drove in to the North Beach and saw all the amusement arcades and chippys set back into the hill, I knew I was going to love it. I’ve always appreciated the naff British seaside town. Possibly from a childhood of summers in Mablethorpe, or perhaps I’ve got low standards, or perhaps I’m just incredibly patriotic in that I don’t think you can beat eating chips whilst looking out to sea, whilst a 2p machine dings in the arcades behind you.  Scarborough has everything I’d expect from a seaside town, perfectly balancing the tacky and slightly naff, with retro cool, art-deco, beautiful British history…and of course fantastic chips.

The coastal Scarborough is split into North and South beaches, flanked and divided by the castle above them. A couple of miles of coastal parking join the two, and we parked midway on all of our visits to do great flat pram walks in both directions. Loosely put, go to the North beach for donkeys, boat trips, slot machines and a lot of noise, South beach for views up to the castle and an ice cream in quieter surroundings. Both sides were well worth a visit. We found a quirky chippy up a little side street off North beach, but any number of them can be found on the front. We were disappointed that we’d already eaten when we spotted a ‘famous’ chippy that had been ranked best in the area on a TV programme like ‘The Trip’, or similar.

Scarborough is exactly the kind of place that I envisaged visiting when I was planning a family, probably because it reminds me so much of how we spent our summers growing up. I didn’t go abroad until I was around high school age, and before that all we knew were caravans, fishing nets, whole days spent reading Famous Five books, wearing jumpers on the beach, Mr Whippy, dodgems, and most importantly, a big family spending time together having fun. As an adult I now know how precious that time off work must have been for our parents and other relatives…and as a parent I know how bloody hard it must have been looking after me, my sister and my three cousins. I’m sure they spent many a night drinking themselves stupid after we’d all finally gone to bed, (responsibly of course).


Scarborough’s South beach

Just driving through Scarborough reminded me of playing bingo with my Grandad when I was too young and timid to shout if I’d got a full house, of getting lost and my Grandma running down the beach to find me, of doing headstands outside the caravan, and of being treated to ‘grown-up’ meals out at Dave’s Diner, of which I’m sure Scarborough will have an equivalent. I’m sure there will have been many cries of “I hate you” and many, many sugar crashes, but I really don’t remember them.

Whilst we were still incredibly limited on this trip; with a baby who was too young for suncream, sitting up and eating using a method that didn’t involve me stripping off, when Tom is old enough to enjoy himself, Scarborough is exactly where we’ll be coming. As well as being able to make him wear fancy dress until he is old enough to argue with, one of the things I’m looking forward to the most about Tom growing up is being able to sit with him on a slightly cold beach with some ham butties and a can of pop, building a sandcastle. I’m sure we’ll take him far and wide when time and money permit, but he will always know the value of a good old fashioned British seaside holiday. And as nowhere does a pint and a packet of bacon fries better than a Yorkshire pub, Scarborough, we’ll see you next year.

For Grandad Ray…who loved a pint and the seaside more than anyone xx


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Notes from a small island, Part 2: Five go to Arran

It was our third family holiday in under three months, and as such we breezed out of the door a mere 15 minutes later than our scheduled leaving time. Yes, we smashed the steriliser just as we were about to walk out of the door, but cross words were evaded due to the ticking clock, and before I knew it we were on the M6 heading North just as Chris Evans introduced his news bulletin.

We were heading off to Arran for five nights, courtesy of George & Nik kindly agreeing to loan us their holiday home again. Dad and Carol had made the journey there on the Saturday, and after a slight disruption to the ferries had made it onto the island and started chilling the beers.

Whilst we may have got quicker at packing a car full of baby paraphernalia, we hadn’t got any quicker at getting ourselves out of the door generally, unless bound by a ferry running on a reduced timetable. We’d warned Dad and Carol that we wouldn’t be keeping the same pace as on our previous jaunts as a foursome. Despite the fact that Balmara is in a relatively remote part of the island with no pubs within walking distance, having a five month old doesn’t exactly lend itself to long afternoons in the pub. Or late nights, long steep walks, relaxing meals…or any of the things we’d previously enjoyed doing. Chris and I knew that the Arran we would see this time would be a much reduced version of our trip last year.

We were right in many respects, but not to its detriment. Having a baby makes everything take longer, that is unarguable. It also makes you demolish cake bars, no longer care if you have sick on your clothes, attend classes where grown adults pretend to be goats, and rock from side to side even when your baby is in bed – but that is for another blog post. What it also makes you do is take the time to look at your surroundings and appreciate them more fully. Yes, this is because getting from A to B takes so bloody long, but also because you can do so much less at this stage of parenthood, you take what you can get. I went on my friend Kath’s baby shower earlier this month (and a big welcome to the world twinnies, who arrived safely whilst we were on Arran), and I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed an afternoon tea more. When you get used to throwing cold crumpets down your neck because you may not eat again for a few hours, having three hours to yourself to eat tiny sandwiches is suddenly the equivalent of your first decent meal after a week at a shit all-inclusive.

I digress. The Arran we enjoyed last week was a calmer, less mountainous, and certainly less boozy one, but what we did see I took the time to take in. Brodick last year was the place where the ferry docked and home of the co-op. But Brodick is actually a stunning harbour town, flanked with forested hills, and the highland fells that run through the centre of the island peeping above. As you approach Brodick, the picturesque Holy Isle juts out off the mainland at Lamlash, home to a Buddhist retreat and wildlife in abundance. On our previous trip Brodick was simply where we entered and exited the island, and replenished our beer supplies. The day Carol and Chris climbed Goat Fell, Tom, Dad and I walked the length of the front, admiring the views out into the hills, and back towards the mainland. It was the only consistently dry day of the week and a pleasant stroll along the coastal road was all the better for the sunshine. We stopped at the Little Rock Café for a snack, went onto have delicious homemade cake, and had we been willing and able, would also have been able to enjoy a drink from the licensed bar. Yes, the photos they sent from the top of Goat Fell did bring a pang of jealousy that I can no longer just take off whenever I want, but the Snickers cake pretty much made up for it.


Similarly, last year on Arran, despite Blackwaterfoot being our nearest village, we only really went there to use the public bins. This was such an incredible waste. Having been granted an entire hour to ourselves, (the first hour we have had to ourselves as a couple since March), we chose to go down to the Kinloch Hotel for a quick couple of drinks. Last year we ruled this out; because why would you drive down to a local hotel when you can stay at the house, drink your own gin and not have to drive? As Tom was pushed around the golf course by Grandad and Carol, Chris and I were necking Amstel, staring out to sea and trying to remember how to speak to each other without discussing feeding, nappies or my unshakable fear that I’m ruining Tom’s future prospects by not taking him to enough sensory groups. The views out to Kintyre and beyond were incredible, and once you take the time to enjoy your time in Blackwaterfoot you see what it has to offer. It’s also home to the Arran Butcher, a bucket and spade shop, the Blackwaterfoot Lodge, which stocks a great range of gins (for next time – we haven’t visited yet), and Shiskine golf club, which serves homecooked food and you can bring your own beer. Not bad for a tiny village that we previously just drove to with our empties.


Other trip highlights were the return visit to the Little Rock Café for a full Scottish breakfast, watching catch up TV on George’s massive, crystal-clear TV instead of in installments on my phone whilst Tom naps, and finally, the drive back to Brodick on the last day when the sun treated us to a gorgeous view down into the bay.

IMG_3804Yes, we didn’t see or do a huge amount, but this trip reiterated everything I found when we visited the island last year. Arran is a simply stunning place and one worthy of many repeat visits. It’s also proof that Chris and I are capable of leaving the house when we say we will. After six months of some of the latest departures I have ever known, this small step suggests that we might just be starting to get the hang of this…

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The Llyn Peninsula with a newborn: Our first family holiday

I don’t suppose I’ll be the first woman who gets pregnant, and then makes a mental list of all their less than favourable traits, in the hope that they do not pass them onto the baby. For me, as well as wishing for a healthy and happy child, I didn’t want him or her to be irrationally scared of the dark, at 5, 35, and probably still at 65. I wanted them to be adventurous with food, and not denounce whole food groups without trying them, just because they looked weird. I didn’t want them to be dis-proportionally concerned with what others thought of them. I didn’t want them to have my wonky teeth and varicose veins. But predominantly I hoped that our baby wouldn’t grow up to be an inane worrier like I am, which of course would mean becoming less worried myself.


My first holiday!

Now Tom is here, I think I’m managing to strike some kind of balance. Yes, if he starts crying I’m generally fussing over him within 3.5 seconds. I will routinely reel off a list of questions of things that have piqued my concern during the day, the minute Chris gets through the door. These range from the sane and balanced; “if that rash doesn’t go, shall I ring the doctors?”, to bordering on unhinged; “do you think his big toe is too big?”. Between us we’ve misdiagnosed a few common baby ailments: tetanus (a small cut whilst nail trimming), measles (dribble rash), and my personal favourite; trichotillomania, a hair pulling disorder (self-soothing). However we’re managing to get through most days now without ringing 111, sending my Mum blurred photos of imagined rashes on WhatsApp, and turning up at the out of hours doctors because he’d spat quite a lot of milk up.

All that said, (and I’m getting to the point now, I promise) – nothing will make new parents more fretful and discombobulated than spending their first family holiday in a caravan in North Wales, during the most intense and prolonged UK heatwave since 1976. When the hottest temperature in the UK (at that point) during the heatwave was recorded in Porthmadog in late June, that’s exactly where we were. I imagine it’s a very nice place, but I wouldn’t really know, as my memories are of desperately trying to find some shade to feed Tom for the third time in two hours, having to change him on the ground in a gravel car park because Chris’s car was like being in a greenhouse on the equator, and eventually, of giving up to having a pleasurable day out and going for a walk round Aldi because it had air-con.


Porthmadog harbour

Whatever preconceptions I may have had of what our trip would be like…many gorgeous family photos of us, Tom in the lovely new clothes people had bought him, day trips around coastal North Wales and its famed beaches, and Chris and I enjoying a beer on the decking once Tom was in bed – I can assure you that these were all quashed once the thermometer approached 30. For a start, Tom didn’t wear clothes for a fortnight. I wore the same dress for days, until I’d wiped so much sick-up off it with baby wipes, I’d started to disgust myself.

Day trips used to mean being out for most of the day, usually taking in a relaxing meal, a decent walk, and a good few drinks. Day trips on this holiday meant being out on average around two hours, taking in a visit to somewhere with air con (I can provide a list of supermarkets on the Llyn Peninsula), and walking for around seven minutes before I became convinced Tom was going to burst into flames. There was no sitting on the beach. Large parts of each day were spent lying under the tree next to the caravan trying to keep us all cool. I have never been on a holiday before where talking to Siri for 20 minutes was classed as a reasonable afternoon activity. There was no sitting on the decking. Tom wouldn’t go to sleep, because it was like putting him to bed in a microwave. When he finally went to sleep he woke up again, several times. The monitor beeped constantly at us to tell us it was too hot in his room (really?!). None of this made for a relaxing decking experience.

Now I don’t want to be accused of moaning, but it was too flaming hot. That said, we did still have an enjoyable family time. The Llyn Peninsula is a beautiful part of the UK, and one we’ve foolishly overlooked in favour of the Lake District time and time again.

If you’re thinking of visiting, and especially if you’re thinking of visiting with a newborn in a heatwave, here are my recommendations and top tips:

Hafan Y Mor holiday site (Haven) and Pwllheli

Take the time to walk round the site, particularly along the coastal path at the top of the site. We did a walk one morning at 7am due to the heat (did I mention the heat?), and the views across the sea to the Snowdonia range were unrivalled. Do check the site map when booking and book one of the areas that has a version of that view if possible.

Do not forget to take enough beer for your first night, until you’ve been to the supermarket. It is nearly £8 for four cans of Heineken in the mini market. Do not use the launderette, take travel wash. It is £6 a wash and smells strange in there.

Pwllheli itself has a lovely promenade, and a decent walk you can do from the harbour and town centre area, right to the other end of town. Whilst there are some lovely looking homes and impressive coastal townhouses, the whole area by the beach does have a bit of a ghost town feel to it. There are a couple of little pavilions along the way to get some shade and feed your baby, if like me, this is what you spend a large part of your holiday doing.


Pwllheli promenade

Morfa Nefyn

On paper, Morfa is a small village with few attractions, bar what has to be the best view from a golf course I have ever seen. Visitors can park by the club and take a short pram friendly walk through the course and onto the headland, with views out across the bay. The main draw of this walk is the Ty Coch Inn, a traditional pub on a small beach that can’t be reached by car if you’re a member of the public.

Whilst we didn’t have a drink there due to, of course, the heat, and the crowds – I am certain that BT (before Tom), we’d have happily spent a good couple of hours there enjoying watching the fishing boats twinkle in the sunlight on the bay. AT (after Tom), there are plenty of lovely benches you can frantically feed your baby on, with your other half hovering over you with a parasol, whilst everyone else sits in the sun and drinks. Which are broadly similar ways to spend the afternoon.


Don’t pull up on the car park directly next to the beach to feed your baby in the shade, discover that he’s pooed all over the car seat, change him and clean everything up, by which time you’ve lost interest in Abersoch and just want to go back to the caravan and lie down. You may find you accidentally spent half an hour there, but didn’t pay for a ticket because you didn’t consider it properly parking. You will return home to two parking fines, one in English and also one in Welsh. You’ve been warned.


Home to a castle, a short promenade, and both the best chips and best ice cream I ate all fortnight, Criccieth was my favourite place to visit in this area. A small town overlooked by its castle on the hill, this little place had it all. The beach was lovely, and there was also a big grassy area for sunbathing and picnics if sand isn’t your thing. You can have a very pleasant stroll if you’re pram-bound, and the homemade ice cream cart on the front was an absolute winner. I had an elderflower and raspberry blend and it was delicious. Head up the hill to the chippy on the right hand side. It has a brief opening window at lunch and tea, but well worth making a trip to.


Barmouth has been on my ‘must visit’ list for a number of years. A very special place to my friend Sarah, it was a priority for us to go and have a look at the place she holds so dear. Whilst we didn’t make it on the walk she recommended, the prom stretches nearly 1.5 miles and as it was a slightly cooler day, we still had a long walk and really enjoyed the views out to sea and behind us into the Cader Idris mountain range. Barmouth itself was the liveliest place we visited, with the usual seaside attractions but not the tacky edge of many resorts. I saw a funfair and a candyfloss stand, but no stag dos. This seemed a good combination.


Again, on paper there isn’t a great deal here, but we spent a gorgeous afternoon with an uncharacteristically sleeping and settled baby at the National Trust property on the hill, Plas yn Rhiw. We ate really good butties, it was licensed (though we didn’t indulge), and all in lush tree filled surroundings looking out to sea. It’s also got an art gallery and is home to the tallest tree on the peninsula. Well worth a visit.



Aberdaron has a beautiful little beach on the southern tip of the peninsula, which is both a nice drive from Pwllheli and a lovely destination. For such a small place it has a disproportionate amount of places to get a drink, have a snack and buy a bucket and spade. It’s also home to an incredibly small promenade, around the length of a supermarket aisle. It was just about long enough to partially walk off a piece of cake from the café by the river, and stretch our legs before getting back in the car.


Towards the end of our stay the weather cooled off ever so slightly, and we felt brave enough to venture a little bit further. We drove into the Snowdonia National Park and into Betws-y-Coed. Whilst the town itself is predominantly outdoor shops and a convenient base for walkers setting off into the mountains, it’s a pretty place to stroll around. It is hugged by dense trees on all sides, which rather than making you feel hemmed in, felt to me like being in the heart of a beautiful forest. If you walk up to the top of the town there are a number of different trails through the woods.

All told, I think we did pretty well to spend a fortnight in such intense heat and still see and do as much as we did. The area has so much to offer, for all types of holiday and visitor. I could easily imagine how we could return as a group of family or with different friends, on a serious walking trip, or again as our little family of three for some relaxation and quality time together. It’s so accessible from Lancashire that even with stops for feeding, and to free Tom from his polystyrene prison, we did the journey in around four hours.

Despite my initial reservations about Haven, we enjoyed it so much that we’re off to their Filey site tomorrow. The weather is looking far more appropriate for the school holidays – slightly grey, damp and under 20C.

My final words of advice – if you are planning to take your 12 week old baby on holiday in a heatwave, try and also do it during a World Cup. It is the perfect excuse to sit inside on a hot day, eating crisps and drinking the occasional Aldi lager, without feeling remotely guilty about it.

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There ain’t no party like an army party

I think we’re all sometimes guilty of generalisation. Not in a Clarkson way, but if you get invited to a party on an army base with your brother who is in the forces, and his vodka loving wife, you could be forgiven for presuming it will probably be a boozy evening. Having said that, I didn’t expect to spend the evening drinking toffee vodka from a spoon whilst dressed as Sandy from Grease.

We made the trip down to Southampton last month to see my brother and his family for the first time in two and a half years. Everyone’s busy lives, the distance between us, and the fact that our parents live in Cyprus now has meant that we haven’t seen them since my nephew Jan’s christening at the end of 2014. We were really looking forward to our weekend, more so when we found out it was Ben’s summer mess ball and that we were to be guests. Chris less so when he found out it was movie themed fancy dress…

I love fancy dress. Any opportunity to get dressed up like an idiot is right up my street, though we were conscious of finances and the fact that we were going camping on the Isle of Wight straight after our weekend and couldn’t hire anything, so we decided to see what we could patch together from the fancy dress tub. After spending a fortnight trying to find a film that had leading characters in shellsuits in it so we could revisit our look from Sally’s 80s party, we admitted defeat and realised we might have to throw a bit of money at the situation. When someone suggested Sandy and Danny from Grease we thought that would be easy enough to do with what we had, i.e. we could both wear leather jackets and not have to worry about it too much. Long story short, with our makeshift outfits we realised we were going to look shit, so made a quick emergency stop at a fancy dress shop for some wigs and teamed with my sister’s shiny pants, we didn’t look half bad.

And thank God we made the effort. I’ve been to my fair share of fancy dress do’s but the effort people had made when we got to the base was unbelievable. The effort that had gone into the evening was pretty unbelievable really, and when I was handed three tokens for gin cocktails, I was already declaring it the best party I’d ever been to.

There was a man dressed as a scout walker (yes, I had to look this up), who had made his own costume with an inbuilt fan and optic full of Southern Comfort. There was a man who’d come dressed as an Oscar, in a Morph suit. I had to ask who he was too, but once I had all the answers these were the standout get ups. As for the entertainment…well the whole mess was decked out like a Hollywood set, with cardboard cut outs of famous characters that were crying out for drunken selfies. There was a casino, with free chips. A band, a gin bar in a horse box courtesy of The Little Gin Company, a laser quest which Danie and I ran squealing round later, and a Scalextric set up for teams to play each other. Food came in the form of build your own burgers, in a tent set up with every kind of burger topping and salads on one side, then ice creams and mini chocolate toppings on the other. Transport was free and door to door, whenever you fancied leaving. And to top all this off, it was £1.22 a pint. All in all there were all the right ingredients for a very entertaining night, which is what you want when you don’t know too many people – cheap booze and a dark inflatable you can run round with a laser gun.

I’d always assumed that army dos would be a bit ‘lads, lads, lads’, and this was partially confirmed when Chris started drinking out of a watering can but also not true at all. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and I think genuinely pleased to meet new people and share their experiences with them. Everyone was there to have a good time and celebrate the work they’d done over the year with their partners and friends, and we were proud to have been invited to be a part of it. We left pretty early to get back for Jan so missed out on any more potential watering can misadventures, and drinking toffee vodka out of Danie’s Mary Poppins ‘spoonful of sugar’ medicine bottle was the height of our mischievousness. All in all it was a great night made better by having the chance to spend time with Ben and his family and friends after such a long time apart.

Furthermore, it’s confirmed what I already suspected after their wedding…go to a party with soldiers and you’re going to do some drinking. And at £1.22 a pint it’d be rude not to!

Thanks to Ben, Danie, Billy, Alex and the British Army for a great night.

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The Isle of Wight…sandy beaches and saucy postcards

For those who read my last blog, you will remember me talking about spending summer Saturdays at the cricket club. Well when we weren’t there, we were in a static caravan in Mablethorpe. Our family is pretty well versed in the tradition of the Great British summer beach holiday. If it involved a caravan, waltzers, buckets and spades, bingo or having sand rubbed vigorously from your feet by a grandad who doesn’t know his own strength, we were happy. Once I’d read Famous Five go off in a caravan they stopped being tiny spaces where your sister was under your feet and infuriating, they were magical places where tables miraculously turned into beds and cupboards at different times of day. We’d spend our days playing on the beach, and our evenings playing bingo and on the amusements, at the circus, on the rides, or just running around the campsite. They’re all happy memories, and I think every child of the 70s and 80s has a deep wired love of a British seaside holiday. Before Majorca and Tenerife there was Filey and Skegness, and we were more than fine with that.

When we were looking for somewhere to spend a week following a trip to Southampton to visit my brother at the end of June (more about that in my next blog), we were spoilt for choice with coastal options, but sprung for the Isle of Wight as that was Chris’s childhood Mablethorpe. I’d no background knowledge of the place but liked the words that were being used to describe it, as a quirky, quaint, old-fashioned seaside resort. My sister in law mentioned over the weekend that it was a “lush place when the sun was out, but, well, a bit grim when it’s not.” Having pitched up in marvellous sunshine on Cool Camping’s Ninham Country Holiday’s site, a beautifully located site in the middle of the countryside but a 20 minute walk from the beach, with a boot full of beers, sausages and sun cream, I’d forgotten what she said until the following morning when we woke up to grey skies.


As you tend to do on the first day of your holiday, we set off for a long walk into the resort and around, making our way first into Shanklin through acres of farming fields and neighbouring caravan parks, then along the promenade into Sandown. And to be honest, it did look a bit grim. The quaint coloured beach huts that you see in photos of Brighton that probably cost as much as a terraced house in East Lancashire were all closed with the exception of a pair of snoozing pensioners. The beach was all but empty and the sea looked slightly hostile. What must have once been a majestic row of stately Victorian hotels and guest houses looked in need of a lick of paint and some were shut down, and the piers that hadn’t been washed away and not replaced following storms, were home to endless slot machines, not bingo or dance floors. It made me quite sad to be honest. I thought about my grandparents and their frequent trips down to the Lincolnshire coast in their little Cinquecento, and how they loved to take us all playing bingo and on the 2p machines. It all just seemed so quiet and a bit forlorn. The British seaside holiday is something so anchored in our traditions, and something we should be proud of and it was sad to see it so diminished. Anyway I relayed a version of this self-indulgent monologue to Chris who told me to stop whining and being negative, reminded me I wasn’t at work, and took me for a pint. My mood lifted, the next day the sun came out, and it was like waking up on a different island.


Shanklin is split into three parts. The beach, which is a mixture of shops selling resort tat of the highest quality (I LOVE holiday tat), buckets and spades and some decent pubs with superb views, a bizarre choice of lagers and lengthy happy hours. It’s the first time in years I’ve seen anywhere sell ‘saucy’ postcards featuring cartoon blondes with massive comedy knockers. It was like stepping back in time. It’s also home to the finest mini-golf course I’ve played on, a fun pirate themed one next door to Jurassic Park (you can play both for £13).


There are sound effects and you’re right on the sea front. There’s the town centre, which we didn’t venture into but has an English/Polish restaurant with great reviews that is on the list if we were to return. Then there’s the old village, a small street of thatched roof pubs and tea rooms with picturesque gardens leading down to Shanklin Chine. Here you’ll find the Christmas shop, which was open, in June, and playing Christmas music (quirky, yes?). As the week went by and the sun got hotter, the place became busier and busier with young families and a lot of older couples and groups. The beaches filled up and it was difficult at times to get an outside table in a lot of the pubs. The resort came into itself, and I think if we’d have gone in a couple of weeks when the school holidays start then my first impressions would have been very different. I doubt they’d have been of a place that had had its heyday, but a place that was continuing to serve a large population of people that appreciate and love the British seaside. Across the resorts we visited, including nearby Ventnor you can see the beginning of the trendy ale and gin scene starting to creep in, with the occasional beach cafe/bar that could sell you a lovingly garnished G n T and a cappuccino without change from a tenner. Luckily for everyone’s pockets these are found alongside the beach hotel bars that have John Smiths on special offer, and we enjoyed both in equal measure.


Quirks and the contrast between old and new aside, the scenery is quite breathtaking. The coastal road from Ventnor to Alum Bay to visit the Needles was superb. As soon as you leave the village you’re high up on a cliff road with nothing but rolling green fields to your right and the sea to your left. Every so often a campsite would pop up, with caravans and tents seemingly metres away from falling into the ocean…but what a view to wake up to. A boat trip we took from Alum Bay felt like we could have been on the Mediterranean, with the blues of the water and the yachts bobbing about.

We only had five days there so we didn’t see the whole of the island, and from leaflets we saw I can see that there are a lot of attractions and activities for young families and coach trips alike. It has many of the elements required for great family seaside fun. Our reality as a young(ish) couple with no kids was mainly beach walks and bus rides to new villages, stopping frequently for an ice cream, a beer, or on one lovely pitstop, a sparkling afternoon tea. It was as it sounds and a great way to break up the day. I recommend Vernon Cottage on a sunny afternoon for just that, and they also have a ghost if you’re into that kind of thing. Having a campsite with electric hook up meant there were always cold beers and meat in the cool box, and we spent most evenings watching bats fly round the campsite after the few other campers had gone to bed. It was incredibly peaceful.


Would I go back to the Isle of Wight? I would, but ironically for someone without kids I’d probably want to go in school holidays so the place was full of life. I’d want to predict the weather and go in a scorching hot week like we’ve just had. And I’d be writing to the Mayor of Shanklin to plead that they get some lottery funding to open a vintage bingo hall. It’d just be a shame that Grandad Ray wouldn’t be there to help me call when I’d won a line but was too shy to shout. He’s the reason after all that my summers were always so well spent, and who I spent the majority of last week remembering and missing.


We stayed… Ninham Country Holidays in Lake, £200 for ferry and 6 nights 4* camping…and they even book your ferry

We drank… all over, but the Spyglass Inn, Ventor was a favourite of mine. A pint cost similar to home, it’s right on the sea front, had spectacular views and an interesting selection of lagers.

We ate… the standout meal was at the Happy Haddock, Shanklin Old Village. Fish and chips for two cooked in beef dripping with a can of pop and a buttered teacake (I’m salivating) for under £20.



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Pendle Forest Cricket Club Beer Festival: It’s OK, you don’t have to like cricket

It’s folklore in the Blackburn family that there were some disagreements about whether my parents wanted a boy or a girl as their first born. It is claimed that my Dad wanted a boy so that he could play cricket for Yorkshire. It is also claimed that they travelled from their home in Wigan back to my grandparents in Doncaster every weekend towards the end of Mum’s pregnancy, so that hopefully Mum would give birth in the land of the white rose. Unfortunately I didn’t toe the line and was born back over the border in Wigan, female, at ten to seven on a Sunday night just in time for the pubs to open. How much of this is true I’m not sure, as over the years it’s become apparent Mum is prone to exaggeration (sorry Mumbo, but its true!). I do know though that despite being a little Lancastrian girl (which my mum was thrilled about); I was still encouraged to show an interest in cricket from an early age. I’d never make 100 at Headingley for Yorkshire, but I could help my mum make the cricket teas every Saturday of the season.

By the time I have my earliest memories we’d left Wigan via Leeds and settled in East Lancashire, where my dad had taken up playing cricket with a local team at Pendle Forest Cricket Club. We duly went to watch every Saturday, played with the other kids and helped the mums put the mini toffee crisps in the men’s teas for their breaks. It is either because of this, or despite this, that nearly 30 years later I have no interest in cricket. I do however have a great fondness for Pendle Forest Cricket Club. My dad had his 40th there, my sister still has a scar in the middle of her face from falling over during a particularly boisterous game of whip in the grounds, and since being an adult it’s been the scene of some great parties.

This weekend they had their annual beer festival, which we had missed last year due to being away. My friend Dave was home on a one night only basis from Poland, so a small group of us ventured up on the Friday night to try a few beers and have a catch up. I must admit I’d not expected huge things, despite having a big function room upstairs the bar itself is quite small, so I was pleased to see they’d kitted out the whole of the downstairs room as a makeshift festival bar and it was really busy.

IMG_9336At this point it’s probably worthwhile pointing out that I’m not the best person to review a beer festival when I don’t drink ale, and I only went on opening night. That said, they had eight different gins on, were selling burgers and possibly bacon fries too, and they’re the friendliest team of staff around – so I’m reviewing it on that basis. Now that craft ale and beards are bang on trend, I’m sure that if you said to the bar staff at some beer festivals that you actually wouldn’t mind a nice cold lager, you’d probably be made to feel the same as if you asked for ketchup in a fancy restaurant. Here there’s no judgement, and you’re just directed to the bar upstairs or offered a Peroni. I’m told that the ales were very good, and they also had a range of ciders, wine and prosecco. I made a point of trying as many of the gins as I could, including my new favourite, Brockmans, which I discovered at Franky’s wedding earlier this month. The rhubarb and ginger Edinburgh gin wasn’t my cup of tea, but I was glad they had it on all the same…as at £2.50 for gin plus mixer I wasn’t complaining.

Graham and his team have always been more than accommodating at any do I’ve organised or been to, whether that’s by letting us carry on partying til about 4am on Chris’s 40th or when 80 of us descended dressed as gangsters and molls for Captain’s 30th.

All in all it was a fun evening with a good atmosphere and the opportunity to try something new at little expense, which in my opinion is what a festival is all about. The weekend apparently carried on in the same vein with a family fun day on Saturday and Facebook posts on the Sunday to let everyone know that the bar wasn’t dry just yet. We didn’t take him up on the offer, but will more than likely add it to the list for next year…

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Could this be Bradford’s best curry?

Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, birthdays…these are the days where you go along with where the person in question wants to spend their special day. So it didn’t come as a great surprise when Dad requested that this weekend we go for a curry at the Nawaab in Bradford.

A curry enthusiast, my Dad was in his element when our family moved from Leeds to East Lancashire in the late 80s. As a business manager in a bank he spent a large part of his working day helping local people secure finance to start businesses, and support existing ones. By 1989 Nelson was home to an increasing number of Asian restaurants and my Dad was involved in helping to get several of them off the ground.  I vividly remember visiting some of his customer’s houses as guests and being dressed in saris by their daughters, sharing home-made curries and trying my first glass of mango juice.

Dad relocated several times over the years but eventually retired to Bradford eight years ago, and I was excited at what I thought would be an opportunity to try out some of the famed Bradford curry houses, where you bring your own bottle and eat delicious authentic curries that are akin to those on the sub continent. I spent time in India when Sarah and I went on our epic adventure in 2005, and I was expecting to try some new dishes and expand my palate and horizons when it came to Asian food. The reality however, is that we’ve been to the same one restaurant about 100 times. And it’s not even really in Bradford, it’s on the A650 leading out to Wakefield and is pretty much in Leeds. I’ve not even been into Bradford apart from to get a train in the whole time my Dad has lived there.

This might sound like a crying shame, a waste of the wealth of fantastic restaurants available in the city centre.  The thing is, despite the volume, our local takeaways and restaurants can be pretty hit and miss. The Nawaab has been consistently delicious every single time we’ve been there, so we’re loathe to go somewhere new. It probably won’t come as a shock that I’ve also got into that irritating habit of ordering exactly the same thing every time I go, to the point that I now can’t order anything else because it could only be a disappointment.

This is a typical visit. 2-3 beers in the Six Acres pub across the road. Head to the Nawaab. A sizzling sharing platter for three – bhaji, lamb chop, seek kebab, chicken chat, and a side of meat samosas. Several poppadoms and lashings of mint yogurt dip. Bottle of Cobra. After six years Dad and Chris finally reached an understanding, whereby Chris will be allowed to order exactly what he wants even if Dad thinks he couldn’t possibly need or eat all that rice and bread, because he’s in his 40s and can decide himself how much food he wants. But Chris will then allow Dad to call him greedy at every opportunity. Dad gets to poke fun and Chris gets to be a glutton – everyone wins. The main course is what keeps us going back though, time and time again, and that’s the delicious lamb haandi. A traditional Punjabi dish, apparently it is eaten a lot in Asian homes, cooked in a clay pot that keeps all the delicious flavour in. It’s not too spicy, it’s not creamy, its just melt in your mouth lamb in a flavour packed sauce that is just the right consistency. We always have it with the pilau rice which always gives the impression of having been lightly buttered…whatever it is that they do to it, it works. Chris pontificates for longer than necessary on which combination of lamb, chicken, balti or rogan josh to have before ordering the same thing, with rice and two chapattis. And we all leave very happy indeed.

Yesterday we decided to have a change (eek!) and try out the Sunday buffet. My grandparents were visiting from the Cotswolds and we thought there would be more variety to suit their more delicate tastes and needs. For around £12 a head you get eight or nine different starter options, a full salad bar, two different rices (including a delicious keema biryiani…yes, there’s a lamb theme going on), breads and then nine different curries. I went for the chilli chicken and garlic and chicken balti curries, a heaped plates of starters (which I could eat all day every day) and a couple of refreshing scoops of ice cream to finish off. Oh, and a Cobra. You can even bring your own Cobras if you’re so inclined, and they won’t charge you to open them. It was delicious and the staff are so accommodating, but a little part of me did miss our usual order…

I don’t have any photos of the food to share, my grandparents aren’t comfortable with mobile phones so if I then started taking photos of their dinner to put on Twitter they’d think I’d lost my mind. And to be honest the Nawaab itself isn’t all that pretty, it’s basically on a roundabout, but they have just had a lovely decking and patio area set up outside for people coming for a drink before their meal. But lack of imagery aside, if you find yourself within a ten mile radius of Tong, or Huddersfield, or even their restaurant in Spain, I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. Maybe one day we will venture into Bradford so I can at least offer some kind of comparison, but for now, I’m pretty happy with my haandi.

Note: This is Dad’s 60th pictured below, we don’t usually spend Father’s Day with his golf mates!


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Third time lucky in Austwick…a hidden treat in the Yorkshire Dales

It’s always a struggle to find a campsite that is both pleasant to stay on and allows groups. Usually the group sites are filled with lairy groups of people playing guitar all night and having fires they aren’t meant to. I know this as I’ve been in one of those groups many a time. A few years ago we were looking for a group site, but this time the guitars had been replaced with toddlers so we needed somewhere quiet, accessible and with decent facilities. Cue Dalesbridge campsite. Only a 40 minute drive away from us up the A65 and into the Yorkshire Dales, it’s a part of the world that I’d driven past many a time on the way to the Lakes and thought it sounded a little too much like Auschwitz to be appealing. What a mistake that was. I’ve stayed there twice, the first time we had the benefit of good weather, a quiet time of year and the only pub in the village being open and serving excellent food (more about this later). The only downside was that Mr P had thrown himself in front of someone’s knee at football earlier that week, so he was at home practising on his crutches.

The second time was a couple of years later, and when we discovered the bar. The same group of families and friends had planned a trip, only for them all to cry off on the Friday because it was too cold and they were enjoying drinking their wine in comfort. Undeterred off we went. However our tent had been to Beatherder a good few times by this point, and was suffering as a result. Anyone who has been to Beatherder will know that packing your tent in such a way that avoids future mildew growth, is not your priority by the end of the weekend. We were in a chilly Austwick, the lovely pub I’d been talking about for two years was full to busting and had no unreserved tables all weekend, and the tent and sleeping bag had gone mouldy. Everyone we’d left behind at home was in a nice warm pub enjoying our friend’s band, and we were sat freezing outside a decrepit tent sulking.

Off we went to try out the bar. Now, spending the evening with a group of middle aged men from a mill town in Lancashire who are playing dominoes and discussing what I now know to be a prelude to the Brexit debate might not be everyone’s idea of a good time. But it was warm and dry and they served alcohol.

Dalesbridge is a really convenient site for us, and one that definitely should be remembered by those who live on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. Too often we traipse all the way to the Lakes forgetting that we’ve got the beautiful Dales on our doorstep. Austwick is round the corner from Clapham and easily accessible for all of the three peaks of Yorkshire. The site is friendly, clean and whilst compared to some of the bigger sites it’s not as modern, it’s got everything you need. They specialise in groups and families, have got a big flat field with no drainage issues that I can remember, and they have other accommodation options if you’re not in tent. It’s also reasonably priced and they’re very relaxed about booking, though I wouldn’t take this for granted during the summer holidays.

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It’s also worth considering making a trip just for the Game Cock Inn. It’s a ten minute walk into the beautiful little traditional village of Austwick, all red phone boxes, dry stone walls and posters for the WI. I believe the pub is run by a French couple, and the menu is a wonderful mix of traditional English dishes with a French twist, and a variety of other dishes.

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As it was a bank holiday when we camped they were fully booked, and I suspect this is a regular occurrence. We called again last year, following a trip up to Coniston to climb the Old Man, which hadn’t left us sufficiently hungry enough to eat in the Lakes. We called into the Game Cock on our way home, which by now had become somewhat built up in Chris’s eyes due to his inability to ever get a meal there. It almost seemed like the same thing was going to happen again, but they squeezed us in and promptly stopped seating people for food. We’re so glad they did. As well as eating exactly the same thing as I did in 2012 and it being just as good, I got to try all of Chris’s choices and can confirm that they’re not a one trick pony.

A steak burger being held together with a very sharp knife looked the business, and tasted it too. The homemade chutney really complemented the flavours of the meat, and for some reason I’m a real sucker for a decent French dressing…which was always going to be good in a place like this.  The game pie beat my Grandma’s (though I’ll be keeping that to myself), and the malteaser cheesecake, well, I’ve sent a few tweets about it so it’s fair to say that I’m a fan. Add to this a great beer garden at the back with a children’s play area, and both Peroni and Wainwright on draught. Had it not been a Sunday we’d have been trying to get a room for the night, and waiting for the crowds to clear so we could enjoy the pub for longer. The couple on the table next to us were testament to its brilliance, given that they came most weekends and took it in turns between driving and enjoying a bottle of lovely French red.

If all of it isn’t enough to tempt you to Austwick, whether it be passing through for a drive, camping with a gang or scaling the Three Peaks, bear in mind that Austwick is home to Great Britain’s silver medallists in pickleball. And if you want to know what that is, you’d probably better ring and reserve a table now…

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Vilnius: The underground city that’s not just for cool people

I don’t usually pick my holidays on the strength of forum posts on Up the Clarets. As Neil and Dave have lived in Warsaw for several years now, planning a city break has usually revolved around finding out when Neil isn’t working and booking a £40 flight. We both love Poland, Chris especially. If he had a blog he would probably use it solely to extol the virtues of pierogi and the cost of premium lager. Having only visited Warsaw in November though, we decided to cast the net a little wider, whilst still focussing on that part of Europe. The problem with spending so much time in Warsaw is that then spending anything more than £60 on flights makes you wince, which immediately ruled Prague out. However Mr P spends a ridiculous amount of time on Burnley FC’s forum page. Within these posts apparently you can find out anything from information on player transfers, local road closures, kebab shop hygiene ratings…to Eastern European city break suggestions. And off to Vilnius we went.

I’d not done a huge amount of research but what I had seen indicated that it would follow a similar format, Old Town, river, hearty (stodgy) food and reasonably priced beer. I’d also heard it would be cold. We tend to do hand luggage only on these kind of trips, primarily because I’m practically a Yorkshire woman and would rather wear the same top all weekend and have more money to spend on food, and because Chris likes using his miniature toilet bag. One thing I’d say about Vilnius in April is that you will need a hat, scarf and gloves, all of which luckily we’d brought. You’ll also definitely need a waterproof as we arrived in rain on the Friday and unfortunately it poured it down for the majority of the day.


We’d got the airport bus into the city centre, which takes around 20 minutes and costs 1 Euro each, which quickly made us realise that Vilnius was going to be an easy city to get around. Our hotel, Europa Royale was right at the far end of the Old Town within shouting distance from the Gates of Dawn. The Gates of Dawn mark the entrance to the city by the only one of nine remaining original entrances in the city wall. I visited mid morning on the Saturday when there were large groups of tourists on organised tours and several carts selling fridge magnets and replica gates. From there you can walk the length of the Old Town, which is just over a mile or so, and end up in to Cathedral square, a huge square which is home to a beautiful cathedral and the start of the walk to what remains of the castle. From there you can see the river, and over into the business and presumably less touristy district of the city.

Our plans for the weekend were to wander around looking at the architecture, visit the castle, stroll by the river and intersperse this with plenty of stops for food and drink.

A couple of things hampered this on the first day, firstly the rain, and secondly that everything looked deserted. Vilnius is seemingly a really quiet city. But by the end of Friday night when the rain had stopped and we’d persuaded several Lithuanian students and young couples into conversation with us, we realised that everyone is just inside staying warm and dry. And getting hammered. Apparently in the summer the cafes, bars and restaurants all spill out into the streets, and quiet cafes turn into lively clubs. In the winter you wouldn’t have a clue where anyone was from the outside of the restaurants and bars. But we found them, packed into dark bars eating potatoes and drinking craft beers, and it was absolutely brilliant.

We’re the kind of people who like to size up a place from the outside, weigh up how popular it looks and even try and catch a glimpse of a meal before venturing inside. Not here. You can’t see through some of the windows as they’re frosted, and those you can see through could look deceptively empty. Some of the best bars we went into looked practically closed from the outside. And this is how we found ourselves on a walking and drinking tour in some incredibly quirky bars, including…

Alaus Biblioteka (The beer library)

If you head a couple of streets off the main road in the Old Town, you will find this fantastic bar hidden above a pizzeria. It’s a blink and you’d miss it job, but there’s no need to ever miss a bar again now we have Google maps. Rows of books face shelves of craft ales, lagers and stouts. My main complaint with the craft ale movement of the last four or five years is that it can alienate the lager drinker and make us feel a tad unsophisticated. This bar however knows that there is more to lager than Carling black label. Very friendly and knowledgeable bar staff offered a range of around 10 draught beers both ale and lager, and there must have been 200 available on display by the bottle. We went for German Pilsner, Jever, and a Lithuanian corn beer which Chris cited as the reason he slept through breakfast. It was a busy bar but we managed to get a table, and some great advice about where to go over the weekend from a local couple.

The Meat Lovers Pub

When I’d finally got Chris out of the door on the Saturday, we went for a stroll round the Old Town. It had stopped raining and we had blue skies all day, with the exception of about eight seconds of snow that afternoon. It’s a predominantly Catholic country, and as we strolled round the streets looking at a number of beautiful churches we stumbled across the Meat Lovers Pub. We ordered dirty burgers and Lithuanian sausage, and I treated myself to a Bloody Mary. All I can say is, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Vilnius when we found the beer library, being served a Bloody Mary with a skewer of bacon as a garnish sealed the deal. Not dissimilar to what you’d pay at home for the privilege, but for a capital city it was excellent value.

Leiciu Bravoras

Leiciu Bravoras is just off the Town Hall square and is one of a couple of bars/restaurants run by a brewery that offer tasting packages. By the looks of the group we watched, endless jugs of different beers are delivered with an explanation of the beer’s origin and other useful facts, plus what looked like a considerable amount of beer snacks. We observed this from the table opposite, where we enjoyed our own personal tap to pour steins of home brew, whilst eating cured meats and exceedingly spicy horseradish sauce. If you have a real interest in beer itself as opposed to just its side effects, the tasting experience looked substantial and enjoyable. We were just after a livener at this point after an afternoon spent in the Museum of Genocide Victims, which itself is well worth a visit to understand some of Vilnius and Lithuania’s history from WWII onwards.

Beerhouse and Craft Kitchen

IMG_8611.JPGThis was possibly the most deceptive of them all. From outside all you could see were empty tables, but the couple smoking outside couldn’t rave about it enough, so in we went. We went down a flight of stairs, round a corner and into a series of underground cellars filled with tables and people enjoying a Saturday night out. People sat eating herring and drinking from yet another impressive array of beers, and all in what looked like a concrete bunker/railway station/brewery. It was fantastic.

Then we went to a club. If like us you’ve not been to a club since before they introduced late licensing in pubs, Vilnius is a good place to ease yourself back in. We ended our day of exploring in the Mojo Lounge, Vilnius’s number one nightspot and according to the guide book, a place where ‘it doesn’t matter how young or old you are’. It’s the kind of club you can get a Corona for 3 Euros, they’ll let you in wearing your big coat, and you can dance to Faithless.

Needless to say Sunday got off to a slower start, and off we went to Forto Dvaras to indulge in some traditional Lithuanian stodgy dishes to clear the cobwebs. It’s a chain, but its menu laid claim to the seal of approval from the Lithuanian culture board for staying true to traditional culinary values. It was yet another Vilnius labyrinth, with what felt like hundreds of tables below ground level in more caves. We ordered chicken kiev and cepelinai (commonly called zeppelins because of their likeness to the airships). Zeppelins are almost the Lithuanian pierogi, a huge potato dumpling stuffed with meat and drizzled with fat, lardons and sour cream. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea but Mr P ate them every day with no complaints.

After a short and easy hike up to the castle for views out over the city, including the Three Crosses monument, we ended our trip by retiring to Sky Bar at the Radisson Blu hotel. A couple of thoughtfully served cocktails in their gorgeous 22nd floor bar, endless bowls of peanuts and ambient dance music later, and I could have stayed in Vilnius all month.

We flew… Ryanair, £80 return from Leeds Bradford

We slept… Hotel Europa Royale, £50 a night for a huge double room and breakfast

We drank… beer ranging from 3-5 Euro a pint

We ate… anything with potatoes and stuffed with meat, prices varied a lot but you can get a decent traditional meal for around 5 Euros and be full and content

We bought… if your family are anything like mine and expect a fridge magnet from everywhere you go, you can pick these up at the airport for 3 Euros each (if you were too busy drinking cocktails to buy them in town)

We chatted… to anyone and everyone. The people were incredibly friendly and happy to share their tips of how to make the most of your Vilnius experience. Even if you were wearing anoraks

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