Sunday, 21 August 2016

Book reviews - Belle and Sebastien and The Castle of Inside Out

Today on the blog I'm sharing two lovely new children's books from Alma Books, both aimed at young readers aged 9-11 years old. 

Belle and Sebastien and The Castle of Inside Out

Belle and S├ębastien: The Child of the Mountains by Cecile Aubry was first published in 1965 to coincide with the internationally successful television series of the same name. It tells the story of Sebastien, the son of a gypsy woman who is found as a newborn baby in the Alps and brought up by Guillaume and his grandchildren Angelina and Jean. Belle is a beautiful white Pyrenean Mountain Dog who has been neglected and passed on from owner to owner until one day she escapes from a kennel. Sebastien rescues the runaway Belle from angry villagers, and they form a lifelong friendship, embarking on many exciting adventures in the mountains.

The book has been newly released in hardback with some lovely illustrations by Helen Stephens. It's a classic book which will definitely still appeal to children today, all about friendship and adventure.

The Castle of Inside Out by David Henry Wilson introduces us to Lorina, who is led by a black rabbit through a wood to a magical land where she finds a race of green people who are all overworked, starving, and subjected to the toxic fumes billowing out of a nearby castle. It sounds like a familiar story, and indeed it has been described as Alice in Wonderland meets 1984 (Lorina and her sister in the story Edith even share their names with the sisters of Alice Liddell, inspiration for Alice in Wonderland).

Lorina decides to gain access to the castle for the poor green people, and within its walls she meets the 'insiders' - selfish creatures that treat the 'outsiders' as slaves. Along with the captivating story, the book has plenty of wonderfully detailed illustrations by Chris Riddell, which really bring the story to life.

I received copies of these books in exchange for a review.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Book review - Ada Twist, Scientist

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts is a new picture book, and a follow up to the sucessful Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect.

Ada Twist, Scientist book review

Scientist Ada has a boundless imagination and has always been hopelessly curious. When her house fills with a horrific, toe-curling smell, Ada knows it's up to her to find the source. Not afraid of failure, she embarks on a fact-finding mission and conduct scientific experiments, all in the name of discovery. But, this time, her experiments lead to even more stink and get her into trouble!

Ada Twist, Scientist inside

Although the book champions girl power and women scientists (inspired by real-life women in science like Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie) it also appealed very much to Harry, who didn't seem to notice that the book was about a girl, just that it was about a 'scientist', which he what he wants to be when he grows up. It's a lovely story about a little girl who is curious to learn about everything, and her supportive parents that do everything they can to help her in her quest.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Making some simple, colourful bunting for the garden

I was sorting through the craft cupboards recently and came across some fabric paints and crayons left over from previous projects. So I decided to come up with a craft that we could use them for, and settled on some simple homemade bunting for the garden. It's not intended to last forever and to be honest will probably only last for the summer, but it's a lovely decoration while it's there!

Bunting in the garden

We made the bunting using scraps of old fabric, both plain and patterned. The plain fabric, like a lot of my fabric, comes from a pillowcase. I buy very cheap ones from Asda where they cost about £2 for a pair. I ironed the fabric so we had a nice flat surface to work on.

We cut out plenty of flags, mine measure around 19cm x 15cm but they aren't exact. We decorated the flags using both Fabric Crayons and Fabric Paint (affiliate links). When the paint had dried I set the paint by ironing it for a couple of minutes on the reverse.

Homemade fabric bunting

I was rather proud of my letter J, and the children copied me with flags for their own initials. Mia decided to decorate her flags with the current family obsession, Pokemon. Harry came up with the idea of advertising a bug hunt challenge, and he made scavenger hunt leaflets to keep in the summerhouse.

Bunting in the garden

They are hanging across the entrance to our vegetable patch, and I love watching them fluttering in the breeze!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

Nearly four years ago we took the children to Alton Towers and we had a lovely day. This summer we returned with our now slightly older children (7 and 5) and we were interested to see what had changed, especially with the opening of the new CBeebies Land. To be honest, our children are at the upper age range of the area, and CBeebies isn't really on at home any more, but Harry is pretty timid when it comes to rides, so he was perfectly satisfied with what was on offer.

CBeebies Land is a redevelopment of the Old MacDonald's Farmyard. I'm fairly sure that the only new ride in the area is the Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure (which replaced a similar family rollercoaster).  It's the closest land to the main entrance which means that it's not too far to walk, and it's also part of Early Ride Time and opens an hour before the rest of the park. This means that if you pre-book tickets online, are staying in the resort hotel, have a Merlin Annual Pass or Alton Towers Annual Pass, you can enter at 9am.

The Get Set Go Treetop Adventure gives you a nice view across CBeebies Land and it a gentle ride, but exciting for little ones as it is so high up.

Alton Towers CBeebies Land view

There's also a large outdoor play area - Tree Fu Tom Training Camp - which we spent quite a bit of time in, although some of the area was unfortunately under construction.

Alton Towers Tree Fu Tom playground

Some of the rides get very popular so it's worth heading for these first. Postman Pat Parcel Post is a little track ride in a post van around Greendale, and the In the Night Garden Boat Ride is another ride which can have quite a queue. It really is a lovely ride though and was my favourite. Both children have loved watching In the Night Garden, and I think even very young children that are familiar with the show would really enjoy this ride.

In the Night Garden boat ride

The other popular ride is the Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure, which Mia rode several times. There are also some nice walk in areas - Nina's Science Lab was empty and had some fun little science experiments to try, and Charlie and Lola's Moonsquirters and Green Drops indoor play area was small but fun, especially when not too busy. 

Alton Towers is spread over a large area, and you do need to be careful when planning your route as you can end up walking a long way. The gardens in the middle are lovely, and if you have a baby that needs a walk with the pram to aid with a nap it's the perfect spot. There is also a SeaLife Centre in the park which little ones love.

If you are only visiting Alton Towers for CBeebies Land then unless you have a Merlin Pass or other discounted tickets it can work out quite expensive for what it is. CBeebies Land itself reminded me a lot of the Peppa Pig World area that is part of Paultons Park in Hampshire, except that I've found Paultons Park to have more to do elsewhere in the park for small children.

Unfortunately many of the rides elsewhere at Alton Towers that we thought the children would enjoy were closed (planned closures for the season). The Charlie and the Chocolate Ride was closed, as were Hex and the Driving School. This meant that the only other ride in the rest of the park that Harry was really up for was Duel (although he did really love it and went round it seven times as there was no queue) and we also went across on the SkyRide a couple of times.

Mia and I went on the Congo River Rapids, which she enjoyed, although we had to queue in a deceptive line for about 40 minutes so she was pretty fed up by the time we got on. She also enjoyed the Runaway Mine Train, and there was only a short queue so she was able to go on it a few times.

Ram and I were very keen to ride the new Galactica rollercoaster, which we would have done using our Parent Queue Share ticket (which means that one adult queues once, then the second adult can enter through the FastPass line), but that broke down early on and the queues would have been too long for us to wait later. We only rode on Nemesis with the pass as we thought it was a bit unfair on the children to have them waiting around for us, but it's a good system if you want to ride some of the faster rollercoasters. You need to get the Parent Queue Share ticket from the Resort Box Office shortly after you enter the park (and you need to have the children with you).

So we spent most of our time in CBeebies Land and that was where the children were happiest. I was really impressed with the theming of the area, everything was really fun and colourful, and it's a lot of fun for little ones.

We visited Alton Towers using our Merlin Annual Passes (that we paid for!)

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Making a holiday scrapbook with Fellowes (with video)

I was recently challenged my Fellowes to recreate a craft using some of their products. Having recently returned from a fantastic family holiday with lots of fun days out, I decided that the children and I would work together to create a holiday scrapbook so that we can look back and remember the great time that we had.

How to make a holiday scrapbook logo

This was our inspiration - Crafting with DIY Blonde - Memory Book:

And I made this short video to show how we made our scrapbook:

Here's a detailed look at some of the pages that we put together. We are all so proud of the finished product! It was a real team effort, with all of us contributing pages for the places that we went and the things that we saw.

Holiday scrapbook pages

Holiday scrapbook cover

I was sent a selection of Fellowes products in exchange for this blog post and video. 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

We recently made a trip up to the north of the country to visit some of the places covered by our Merlin Pass which aren't within easy reach of our home on the south coast. The other day I wrote about the Merlin Pass attractions in Manchester, and today I'm going to share the fun that we had visiting the Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool. On our trip to Blackpool we stayed in the Premier Inn at the airport and found that it was an easy drive into the centre, parking each day in the Houndshill Shopping Centre.

We visited all the attractions apart from the Blackpool Dungeons. Although we've taken the children to the London Dungeons and they quite enjoyed it, we felt it's probably best saving that one again until they are a bit older, and besides there was plenty more to keep us busy!

Most of the Blackpool attractions are located inside the Blackpool Tower itself, and the Sea Life Centre and Madame Tussauds are only a short walk away, so it's easy to visit several in one go. Jungle Jim's, the Tower Circus and Blackpool Dungeons can be booked in advance so it's probably a good idea if you are visiting during a busy period, although having said that we were able to walk straight into the Circus and Jungle Jim's at a time convenient to us.

Blackpool Tower

The Blackpool Tower Eye

Your visit to The Blackpool Tower Eye begins with a 4D cinema presentation which was a great introduction to Blackpool as well as the Blackpool Tower. Then we ascended by lift to the very top of the tower, where we were greeted with views across Blackpool and the North West of England. There is a solid-glass Sky Walk where you can walk out onto a 5cm thick glass viewing platform and look straight down onto the Promenade below - it was pretty terrifying! You can walk all around the tower and walk up to two higher open viewing platforms, and there is plenty of signage to explain what you can see.

Blackpool Tower Eye glass floor

The Blackpool Tower Circus

Performances of the Blackpool Tower Circus have been running since 1894, and this year marks the 25th year with the Endresz family at the helm. You can check the performance details on the website - Blackpool Tower Circus show times - as the circus doesn't perform every day, although during the summer there are often several performances in a day. It's included with the pass, but you need to obtain a ticket from the desk prior to the performance for the specific show. Tickets are unreserved seating, so it's a good idea to arrive in plenty of time to secure a good seat.

The circus is hosted by Mooky the clown and Mr Boo, and the children found them both hilarious. The circus lasted nearly two hours with an interval, so it was a long show, and there was a good variety of circus acts to entertain and amuse us.

Blackpool Tower Ballroom

We only popped in here as it was included in our passes but it was a lovely place to visit. The Wurlitzer organ was playing (you can check this before you go in) and even though it was late in the afternoon there were people dancing. We sat watching for a few minutes, and I can see that it would be a lovely place to sit for afternoon tea!

Blackpool Tower Ballroom

Jungle Jim's Soft Play

We visited Jungle Jim's soft play area twice, and the children loved it. It's a large soft play frame with a jungle theme. Adults aren't allowed onto the play equipment itself but you can supervise from nearby walkways within the frame. Ours are old enough to go around it themselves now (which is lovely!) but there is a smaller area for younger children if you want to stay with your child.

Because the sessions have limited numbers there was plenty of room to play, and plenty of spaces at the tables and chairs to sit down. Drinks and snacks are available but there is no obligation to purchase anything. The sessions last for an hour, which we found was plenty, and the first session of the day lasts for an extra 15 minutes as well as being a lot quieter so it's worth aiming for if you can.

Blackpool Sea Life Centre

Blackpool Sea Life Centre is a short walk along the promenade from the Tower. This summer, all the Sea Life centres are taking part in a Finding Dory event with an interactive trail where you can find out about the real life versions of the characters. There are letters to spot in the tanks, and if you complete the trail you will receive a little reward.

We've visited quite a few of the Sea Life centres now and must admit that they are all broadly similar. The children still really enjoy visiting though and there is always something new to spot. The Seahorse attraction was particularly interesting, and Harry was very interested in the new Jurassic Seas exhibit as he's always been fascinated by fossils.

Blackpool Sea Life centre

Pirate Adventure Mini Golf

When we came out of the Sea Life Centre it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Pirate Adventure Mini Golf located underneath was also included in our passes. There are 12 holes spread over two levels and with lots of pirate themed obstacles it was a really fun course to play.

Pirate Mini Golf, Blackpool

Madame Tussauds Blackpool

Madame Tussauds Blackpool is located right next to the Sea Life Centre. It's a smaller attraction than the London Madame Tussauds, and because of this we found it much less busy, meaning that you can spend longer looking at the individual waxworks and their themed areas. You can 'meet' characters from Coronation Street, TV stars like Harry's idol David Attenborough, and royalty including William and Kate.

Madame Tussauds Festival Fields

Our favourite area was the Festival Fields, where Mia spent ages doing kareoke to Let it Go, and they both had fun changing the light displays around Ed Sheeran, Olly Murs and Justin Bieber.

The Blackpool Tower Dungeon

As I said above, we didn't visit the Blackpool Dungeons on this occasion as our children (aged 7 and 5) are still quite little. But it looks like a fab attraction - a similar format to the London Dungeons but with a local twist.

All these places to visit certainly meant that we had a busy few days in Blackpool! We still had time to sit on the beach though and explore the town, we particularly enjoyed spending time in the arcades on the 2p machines and even managed to just about break even with some strong willpower to not put all the winnings straight back in again!

2p machines in the Blackpool arcade

I'd definitely recommend Blackpool for a short break!

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Merlin Pass attractions in Manchester

At the beginning of this year we purchased Merlin Passes for the whole family. We've had them before, and because we are lucky enough to live within reasonable driving distance of many of the theme parks in the south, as well as being able to get up to London for a weekend from time to time, they work out great value for our days out.

However there are lots more attractions up in the north of the country that aren't within easy reach of our home, so this summer we booked ourselves a few nights in both Manchester and Blackpool, and along with a stay at either end with Ram's parents in Warwick we were able to tick loads more of the Merlin attractions off our list!

Manchester is home to two Merlin attractions, both located in the intu Trafford Shopping Centre - the Legoland Discovery Centre and Sea Life Manchester.

The Legoland Discovery Centre

A couple of years ago we visited the Legoland Discovery Centre in Berlin and loved it, so we knew that we'd enjoy the Legoland Discovery Centre in Manchester, and we weren't disappointed! Your visit begins with a visit to the Lego Factory. Children can press buttons and turn knobs to make the machinery work and at the end they are presented with their own souvenir brick to take home. Then you come to the Kingdom Quest ride where you can shoot at Lego villians on interactive screens.

You exit the ride into Miniland, where you can see models of the local landmarks - not just Manchester but Blackpool was also represented, which was really fun to see having just come from there.

Blackpool made from Lego

There is a display for the Lake District and even Alton Towers. Many of the Miniland features are interactive, so you can play a game of football against a friend, take part in a horse race, and make various things move around.

Legoland Manchester mini land

Then you enter the main area, where you can build with bricks to your heart's content, as well as build and race cars down a selection of different race tracks. You can test your buildings in an earthquake simulator, and build away in the Lego Friends house.

Legoland Manchester brick pit

There are also regular building workshops where you can build your own model following instructions from a Lego demonstrator. The creations are available to take home for an extra £3, which we thought was reasonable enough for Harry to spend some of his pocket money on!

Legoland Discovery Centre building workshop

There is also a large soft play area, a 4D cinema with regular showings, and two more rides - the Merlin's Apprentice where you need to pedal as fast as you can to raise your seats into the air, and Lego City Forest Pursuit, where children can drive their own Lego police car around forest paths to capture robbers. Finally children can test their ninja skills in the Lego Ninjago Laser Training Camp as they try to find a safe path through the laser beams.

Legoland Discovery Centre car ride

We spent a couple of afternoons here and the children absolutely loved it, I wish we had one closer to home!

Sea Life Manchester

We've visited quite a few of the Sea Life Centres now and to be honest they can be quite similar. However we found that Sea Life Manchester is definitely one of the best, it seems much more modern and there was a great deal more to do.

The whole centre was beautifully decorated and themed and there was plenty to see. Harry was particularly fascinated by the new Octopus Hideout as we've been watching videos about octopuses at home but he had never seen one close up. There was also a lovely Coral Reef exhibit with a clown fish tunnel for children to walk (or for adults to crawl!) through.

Manchester Sea Life clown fish tunnel

In the middle there is a good sized soft play area which is the first one that we've seen in a Sea Life Centre and definitely a huge plus. Sometimes we've found that we speed through quite quickly, but having a stop in the soft play in the middle definitely broke things up a bit and added a good half hour to our visit. It's a great idea, especially for the very little ones.

For the first time Mia was brave enough to put her hand into the rock pool and touch a starfish, I still couldn't make myself do it though! We also enjoyed some interesting displays about sea turtles that were really informative, and then saw an actual turtle in the underwater ocean tunnel.

Manchester Sea Life ocean tunnel

Along with the other Trafford Centre attractions, like Paradise Island Adventure Golf and the Odeon cinema within the centre itself, and Chill Factore within easy walking distance, we found that staying in a hotel adjacent to the centre gave us many more ways to entertain ourselves than just shopping. On our visit in the summer holidays we also found this great outdoor sandpit just outside both these attractions which the children loved! Manchester is a bit of a trek for us, but we are really glad that we made the effort to visit for a few days.

Sandpit at the Trafford Centre
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