Wednesday 29 April 2015

A Charming Chapel Retreat with The Landmark Trust in Snowdonia

This Easter holidays we headed back to Snowdonia to celebrate my birthday.  For the first time, we booked a Landmark Trust Property, and stayed in the charming Ty Capel just outside Betws-y-coed.

I've always wanted to live in an old church but given that I'm not likely to ever be able to afford to buy a converted chapel, holidaying in one is the next best thing.

Hidden away in a remote and small hamlet called Rhiwddolion just above the popular North Wales town of Betws-y-coed, this former chapel and school is one of three Landmark Trust properties  here rescued from ruin after it was abandoned following the end of the slate mining industry here.

Surrounded by rocky outcrops, magical oak trees dripping with moss and lichen, sheep in the surrounding fields and the constant and reassuring flow of the stream as it ambles down the hillside and cascades over small waterfalls, this is truly a place to get away from it all.

There are some downsides and if you're a high maintenance kind of person, then this probably isn't for you - you can't drive up to the doorstep, you won't find a hairdryer or power shower and you definitely won't be able to watch your latest obsession on Netflix.  But if you embrace it, enjoy it's tranquility and rediscover the joy of sitting in front of an open fire reading a novel, or playing Monopoly with the kids, then you'll be hard pressed to find a prettier location.

Built in 1860 as a school and chapel, this building served the mining community and was headed up by the lively Bard Griffith Hugh Jones, a lover of music who introduced a brass band, a choir and even it's own eisteddfodau.  He served here for 50 years and in 1892 the chapel was extended and an open-air auditorium added for special performances.

Derelict cottages overgrown with brambles and nettles scatter the valley, bringing a sense of other-worldliness.  Ty Capel is the first property you reach as you follow the quaint footpath from the forest road track.  A delightful walk in good weather, through the trees, passing a kissing gate, across the wobbly slate stone footbridge over the stream, before the climb up the hill.  That said, it's not so much fun in the pouring rain and howling wind, slipping on the muddy path while trying to get your luggage to the house. Forget your townie wheeled suitcases, haul everything onto your back and trek like a mule!  It was a good 10 minutes from the car to the door, and if you travel as heavy as we do, that meant an hour of unpacking the car with 3 round-trips for the Old Man.  You'd definitely struggle with young kids and a pushchair would have no chance.  It's slightly frustrating given that there's a very clear road track that goes past all three of the Landmark Trust properties so someone clearly regularly drives up there following a different route, but cars are forbidden for guests to protect the footpaths and even the housekeeper does everything on foot.  The plus side of course is that there's no traffic noise and kids can play safely.

Once the car's unpacked, it doesn't take long too settle in.  A large hallway allows plenty of space to hang your coats, waterproofs, dog leads and kick off your muddy boots.  There's a welcome tray waiting in the kitchen with tea and coffee (a pint of milk in the fridge would have been nice, and if you haven't brought any with you it'll be a trip back to the car and a few miles drive to Betws-y-coed to the nearest shop.

As with all Landmark Trust properties, renovations are sympathetic and in keeping with the character and age of the property, decoration authentic and furniture carefully sourced to blend in.  I was worried that a religious building might feel a little austere for my taste, but I found it utterly charming.  You will find running water (supplied by the stream) and electricity but that's about as far as the nod to the 21st century goes.  The heating is via electric storage heaters and of course the huge open fire, and we found it very warm and cosy.  There's an electric oven, toaster and kettle in the kitchen but you won't find a microwave or other electrical gadgets.  It was well stocked with cutlery, glasses and cooking utensils, and although small I found it easy to cook breakfast each morning and dinner most nights.  The open shelves make beautiful displays of the dinner service and there's enough serving dishes to host a grand dinner party should you want to.

The sitting room/dining room area is very spacious and although there's armchairs rather than a sofa, it's comfy and relaxing.  The large dining table is perfect for family meal-times or for playing board games in the the evening. The property boasts a fabulous open fire with one of the biggest grates I've seen so you can get a huge roaring fire going in the evening and settle down in front of it.  Because of the high ceilings, there's a real sense of space and airiness.

The MOST charming thing about this holiday property though is the sleeping arrangements.  Set up a staircase off from the living room, the bedroom is a galleried mezzanine overlooking the living room.  Three single beds all in a row were so much fun to sleep in we felt like the Three Bears - clearly this arrangement wasn't set up with romance in mind, but remember - you ARE in a chapel!

Set in front of the three stained glass upper windows, you awoke each morning to a fabulous view.  The wheel back bedsteads reminded me of my nan's dining chairs and the reassuring weight of cosy wool blankets, counterpanes and sheets tucked in with hospital corners had a real sense of nostalgia.  We all slept like logs, I think Ruby found it reassuring to have us next to her, but we didn't have to suffer the restlessness of her wriggling about in our bed.  I actually really liked the sleeping arrangements!

There's an antique chest of drawers but no wardrobe (although there is some hanging space under the stairs downstairs) so mostly we were living out of our bags that we tucked away under the beds.

The bathroom continues the wood panelling theme that's throughout the property and it's a pleasure to lay in a hot bubble bath gazing up at the trees through the tall window.  Fill the bath and you'll notice a slightly coppery green hue to the water.  There's no shower but you will find a plastic hose attachment for the taps so hair washing isn't too much of a chore.

Even the hound was catered for with her own dog bowls - one less thing to lug up the hill!  Unfortunately she was recovering from an operation so couldn't fully enjoy the surroundings, but it was great to be able to let her use the garden, which is mostly sunken and secured with a stone wall all round.

Staying here really felt like stepping back in time to a simpler era.  We loved all the little details, original features, pretty etched and stained glass windows and Victorian artwork.  

Of course, if you venture out there's plenty to do nearby.  Betws-y-coed is always popular with lots of tea rooms and gift shops. There Swallow Falls and Fairy Glen are close by, and Llanberis is only a short drive away, the gateway to Mount Snowdon whether you chose to do that on foot or via the steam train. Snowdonia's newest tourist attraction Bounce Below is close too at Blaenau Ffestiniog and here you can enjoy giant underground trampolines in a former slate mine.  You'll also find the famous Ffestiniog steam railway here.

If you want to eat locally I can recommend the Bistro Betws-y-Coed, unassuming from the outside, and with slightly dated decor, look past that to the amazing menu offering delights such as cutlets of Welsh lamb marinated in Snowdonia honey and balsamic with minted mash potato and traditional lava bread sauce or pan fried breast of pheasant served with butcher's handmade black pudding cake, braised red cabbage and cream of mushroom and Welsh Penderyn whiskey sauce and desserts such as lemon flummery with toasted oats and raspberry cream.  I had a fabulous birthday meal there and from the entrees through to the homemade mint fudge served with coffee after the meal I loved every single morsel of my 3 course dinner.  There's a great selection of local ales and whiskey too.  Book ahead as it's very popular.

If you enjoy walking (and frankly why come to Snowdonia if you don't) then there's a glorious walk from the chapel, through the mysterious Gwydyr forest to Lake Elsi which at the time we visited was teeming with toads.  As you approach through the wood, you hear before you see the Llyn - the peculiar sound of hundreds of seagulls nesting on the lake's island makes you wonder if you've taken a horribly wrong turning somewhere and are not in fact miles inland.  This is a popular spot with mountain bikers, dog walkers and families. Climb to the top of the hill by the monument and enjoy the view.

Ty Capel sleeps 3 plus a travel cot.  It's available from £155 for 4 nights.

Further information and booking here.

What to bring:

Your dog, a good book, stout walking boots and a sense of adventure. Also bring firewood, newspaper and kindling as there's none provided and the logs from the local garage were soaking wet and going mouldy! Whatever you bring, make sure you can carry it.

What not to bring:

Your laptop (there's no wifi and rarely even a phone signal), DVDs (there's no telly), high heels - you'll never get up the hill!

Linking up with Time Traveller.

Monday 20 April 2015

You know your partner's a runner when...

1. There's a whole closet drawer dedicated to Lycra.

2. You need to find room in the kitchen for the boat sized containers of recovery shake powder.

3. They take all the fun out of food by referring to it as 'fuel'.

4. The Strava app has a better idea of where your other half is at any given time than you do.

5. There's generally a pair of trainers dangling off the washing line being aired.

6. Underwear is now selected for how supportive it is, not how attractive it looks.

7. Nipple chaffing is now a real thing that can apparently be discussed in polite company.

8. Your lovely bubble baths are shoved out of the way in favour of Epsom Salts. 

9. Your bedroom always smells faintly of Ralgex.

10. Going out clothes and proper shoes are forsaken in the holiday luggage in favour of running kit.

11. You can no longer walk past a sports shop without having to go in for 'a quick look'.

12. The most expensive footwear they own is a pair of trainers.

13. PB & Jelly now means 'personal best and an energy gel'.

14. Their legs are considerably browner than most people considering it's only spring.

15. You realise that the only way you're ever going to get to see New York/Paris/Sydney is if they get a place on the marathon there.

16. You can't find your best wine glasses because your cupboard's full of sports bottles.

17. There's random safety pins all over the house from holding race numbers onto their Tshirts.

18. They have a total meltdown if they can't find their earphones.

19. You now know it's not just horses who can give off steam.

20. They wear plasters on their nipples.

21. You've gone right off pasta.

Despite all this, and everything I say, I'm hugely proud of mine as he runs his first full marathon, the London Marathon this weekend.  If you'd like to sponsor him you can find his Just Giving Page here - he's raising money for Oxfam.

Update... He did it, he did it!  3 hours 57 minutes and 54 seconds.  Not bad for an old man on his first marathon and he's raised over £800, so thank you all who donated.

Friday 17 April 2015

Helping children who are suddenly bereaved

Every year in the UK, hundreds of people die suddenly, leaving families devastated.  Disasters such as road accidents, murder, suicide, heart attack and other fatal illnesses can affect anyone.

Bereavement is a difficult subject and the sad reality is that in the UK a parent of a dependent child will die every 22 minutes, leaving 41,000 children without a parent each year. In addition to this, currently in the UK 309,000 children aged between five and 16 years old have been bereaved of a parent or sibling.

If tragedy were to strike and you lost your partner, your parents (your child's grandparents), one of your children (your child's sibling), or your child suddenly lost a school friend how would you cope?  How would you ensure that both your own grief and that of your child was handled effectively? Perhaps you're a godparent or a named guardian in a friend's will - how would you cope if you found yourself caring for a child who'd been suddenly bereaved?  Where would you turn?

The Co-operative Funeral Care have partnered with CHUMS (the Child Bereavement, Trauma and Emotional Wellbeing Service) to offer the a number of films as a free resource to local schools, medical professionals, community groups and bereaved families. The four animated films include ‘Our Year Since Dad Died’ and ‘Our Year Since Grandma Died’ and look at issues young people face when losing a parent or grandparent. 

The launch follows on from the success of The Co-operative Funeralcare’s Amy and Tom books, which are a tool for bereaved primary school children and distributed free to over 25,000 family liaison officers, schools, bereaved families and medical professionals across the country.

The tools deal practically with an array of issues a child may face including:

  • Disbelief and denial
  • Shock
  • Managing new and strong feelings
  • Dealing with the 'why' questions
  • Explaining the role of A&E and the emergency services and how and why they may not have been able to save the person
  • Coping with the trauma of witnessing the death or incident
  • Survivor guilt
  • What happens with organ donation
  • Dealing with whether to see the body
  • What happens at a funeral
  • What happens after death
  • Fear that others will die

The Co-operative Funeralcare is the only organisation in the UK to make the animated films available free of charge to key people and organisations in a position to support bereaved children such as teachers, medical professionals and community leaders.  

The short animated films have been produced by Angel Studios and are available for free on request from The Co-operative Funeralcare in your local area.

Disclosure: This post has been written in association with The Co-operative Funeralcare.

Thursday 16 April 2015

A wood cabin stay at Church Farm Ardeley, Hertfordshire

Church Farm is absolutely my new favourite place and we've been here a fair few times over the past year or so.  It's so close that in all honesty there's not really the need for us to stay over, but we never want to leave at the end of the day so I'll usually book for us to camp.

We've stayed in our tent a few times, but with the weather being a little cooler it's great to have the option of their wooden lodges.  They're also perfect if you're not a hardened camper, don't have all the gear, want to stay with a group of friends who are not campers or just want to get a flavour of camping for the first time.

Given that they have toilet and shower facilities on site, an absolutely superb cafe serving breakfast and lunch and an exquisite pub - The Jolly Waggoner - over the road serving excellent meals, you really can just chuck your clothes and bedding in the car and be done with it.  No extra camping paraphernalia is required, making it ideal for a last minute getaway.

There's a number of cabins dotted around the farm in various different woods, but both times we've stayed in a lodge we've booked into Beard's Oak which is a young wooded area with small and sapling trees.  There's a number of cabins in this location so perfect if there's a group of you staying, although both times so far we've had the whole area to ourselves.  Other cabins are more secluded in other woodland areas of the farm but be aware that access by car is not alway possible to the remoter ones, depending on how wet and muddy the ground is.

The cabins themselves are very basic.  Each one comprises of a comfy double bed (bring your own pillows, sleeping bags or duvet and sheets.  Some are large enough for families and have single camp beds too - check online.  There's a wood burner in each lodge, a blind on the window for privacy - not that there's generally anyone around, but it keeps the morning sun out too.

If you want to take your own gear, there's room for it - we've had 3 of us, a camp bed, the dog's bed, our portable toilet and our camping stove as well as all our overnight bags in one comfortably.

The first time we stayed in a lodge it was February and bitterly cold with snow on the ground.  We snuggled up under duvets in our onesies with hot water bottles, but after 20 minutes of the wood burner pumping out heat, we were all stripping off layers it was that toasty.

From Beard's Oak you can hear the owls hooting, you might catch the sound of the sheep in the fields and in the morning you're likely to glimpse a pheasant or two strutting around.

An overnight stay will cost you £8.50 per adult and £5.50 per child (under 5s free) in camping fees, plus between £20-30 extra for a cabin.  Camp fires outside your cabin are allowed although you do need to pay £10 for permission and logs and kindling are on sale in the farm shop.

We love our cosy nights in the cabins, perfect for a romantic night away, a family adventure or a group trip.  Head over the road to the Jolly Waggoner for a great meal, local ales, vodka made on the farm and a cosy fireside welcome.

In the morning, head over to the Farm Cafe for a hearty breakfast (including vegetarian and gluten free fry ups) before visiting the animals on the farm.

What to take:

A torch and battery operated nightlight (we take our Ikea battery fairy lights which are excellent and last ages longer than any camping lamp).

A portable loo is good if you want to avoid the trek to the compost loos or the flushing loos on the main farm complex in the middle of the night.

What not to take:

Electric gadgets will be useless as they're not mains connected.

If you're cooking for yourself, due to bio security reasons you can't take meat from external sources on site.  Buy bangers from the farm butcher's counter or save yourself  the hassle and dine out at the Jolly Waggoner or in the farm cafe.

Linking up with Time Travellers.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Spring Greens - Next Kid's Clothing

We've reached that stage where my daughter is adamant she'll choose her own clothes and outfits, and the constant battle that ensues with her not wanting to dress like a little girl, and me not wanting her to dress like an adult just yet.

It's not often now that we agree on an outfit so when we do it's cause for celebration.

On a recent shopping trip we popped into Next and we both fell in love with their new season's kids section.  There's so many different looks to choose from and for Ruby who has now taken a firm stand against 'wishy washy pastels' the bright bold colours were really refreshing.

I love the vibrant greens she picked out and this outfit is a winner for us both.

The pretty cardigan with it's crocheted daisies is perfect for chillier spring days.  

Daisy cardi available in white, yellow or green £13-19

The skirt has a fun mini pom pom trim around the hem, and is a riot of colour meaning we can mix and match it with navy, cerise pinks, purple, yellow or orange.  

Flippy Skirt £10-16

Is there anything that heralds the arrival of warmer weather better than the sight of little toes? These sandals have a lovely retro feel with their cutout detail and Ruby says their really comfortable - personally I feel the ankle strap is too short, it only does up on her on it's last hole and pushes her foot forward a little too far.

Sandals, available in green, white or pink £12-15

Take a look at the Good Life, Bright as Day and Hello Spring collections which are my favourite - I've already got my eye on quite a few other pieces!

Linking up with Wednesday's Wardrobe.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Travelodge - quality stays at budget prices

I must admit, I've always been something of a snob when it comes to hotels, believing you get what you pay for.  I'm all for grabbing a bargain, but not if it compromises our holiday or overnight away.

Travelodge have recently spent £57m refurbishing their hotels and I have to say, from our recent stay at their Birmingham Airport location, it really shows.

Travelodge Birmingham Airport
Image: Travelodge 

From only £31 for a double room (advance booking rate) I can honestly say there was very little to set it apart from a hotel room at four times the cost.

All the staff that we came into contact with were extremely amenable, all asking us about our stay and offering any help we needed.  I'd like to praise especially the guy on reception who was exceptionally welcoming and helpful.

We were visiting Birmingham to see Disney on Ice at the Genting Arena, NEC and this hotel is ideally situated, only about a mile and a half away - don't be tempted to walk it though as the route is down a duel carriageway - trust me! Instead, the reception staff will book you a discounted taxi which costs around £5.50.

If you're visiting the NEC, arena or flying from the airport, then this is an ideal base.  In fact, our room overlooked the runway and Ruby had a great time watching the planes take off (it's situated right next to the control tower so for any budding plane spotters it's perfect).

Travelodge Birmingham Airport runway view

That said, we weren't in any way affected by noise during our stay.  I guess they don't have night flights from Birmingham and that, together with excellent double glazing meant we all slept undisturbed.

The beds in Travelodge hotels are all designed exclusively by Sleepezee and have over 900 individual pocket springs.  We did find the beds firmer than we're used to, but all had a comfortable night's sleep.  Ruby's bed was a single and she was a bit put-out by that - usually in family rooms she's used to sofa beds which give her more room, but given that she was asleep within 5 minutes of hitting the pillow it obviously didn't bother her that much!

Travelodge Birmingham Airport Family room

Travelodge Birmingham Airport  room

Travelodge Birmingham Airport  room

Travelodge Birmingham Airport Family room

Travelodge Birmingham Airport tea making facilities

In the room you'll find everything you need - a colour remote TV; bedside lights; a desk, temperature controls; hanging space and coat hangers; tea and coffee making facilities (they are much more generous with their consumables than other more expensive hotels we've stayed in and were happy to provide sachets of de-caf when we asked).  There's a good sized en suite bathroom with a lovely powerful shower and everywhere was spotlessly clean and fresh.  Toiletries are provided in the form of wall mounted pump dispensers, I guess to reduce the cost of disposable individual bottles of shampoo and shower gel.  There were plenty of soft, white, fluffy towels for us all.

Travelodge Birmingham Airport en suite bathroom

Travelodge Birmingham Airport en suite bathroom shower

The only thing that seemed to be missing was a phone.  If you needed anything from reception, you couldn't ring down, but let's face it, when was the last time you used a hotel room landline? Ok, so there was no mini-bar either, but again, who pays mini-bar prices these days?

As we were pushed for time, we decided to eat in the hotel bar area rather than at the venue.  This was a good choice as it meant we could avoid the crowds and the over-priced takeaway food options at the arena.  The food is not going to win any Egon Ronay awards, but it was cheap and cheerful and filled us all up nicely.  There was a good kid's menu offering 2 courses for only £4.95 which is excellent value and we chose the nachos at £6.95 to start,  piri piri half a roasted chicken at £8.75 and a chicken salad at £7.95.  They also had a pizza option you could eat in your room.

Travelodge Birmingham Airport food options

Travelodge Birmingham Airport food options

The bar area was spacious and airy, with a contemporary feel to it and they offered a good selection of wines, beer and soft drinks.

Travelodge Birmingham Airport lounge area

Travelodge Birmingham Airport lounge area

Travelodge Birmingham Airport bar

Travelodge Birmingham Airport lounge area

Breakfast is served in this area in the morning and it's an extra £6.65 per adult if booked online in advance.  There was a wide selection of hot and cold foods and again the staff were very attentive at clearing tables (and mopping up spilt milk - sorry about that!).

Travelodge Birmingham Airport buffet breakfast

Travelodge Birmingham Airport buffet breakfast

Parking's not included in your stay, but there is a NCP operated car park right outside priced at £7.50 for 24 hours and you can come and go within that period for no extra.

Travelodge Birmingham Airport reception area

In the lobby area there's vending machines offering quick snack options, a cash machine and an electronic checkout facility, but you'd miss the delight of speaking to the staff if you use that, which I honestly think is one of the biggest selling points of this hotel.  All the team seemed young, but very passionate about their roles and eager to help.  They were a real asset and credit to the company.

Our stay has certainly opened my eyes and changed my perception of 'budget' hotels and next time I'm looking for an overnight stay or a weekend away, I'll definitely be seeking out a Travelodge.  They are ideal for families as kids not only stay free, but get free breakfast too.

Disclosure: We were invited to stay for the purpose of this review. All opinions and images (unless otherwise stated) are my own.

Linking up with Time Travellers.