Sunday 29 November 2015

Deck the Halls - My Top Five Christmas Decorating Themes

Decorating your home for the festive season doesn't need to break the bank. Re-using those family favourites year after year and adding some fresh on-trend items from stores such as HomeSense which offer great value for money, mean you can have a home to be proud of when friends and family drop in for mince pies and mulled wine.

I've rounded up some of my favourite themes from interiors store HomeSense:

Copper Dream

Metallic tones in copper will be the must-have look this season for the fashion-conscious Christmas stylist.  Add in a few copper accents to your existing stash of decorations to bring your look bang up-to-date.

Large candle holder £6.99, Studded reindeer £9.99, Copper jar £3.99, Copper beaded bauble, Copper bauble £5.99, Large copper star £9.99

Woodland Wonderland

Bringing nature indoors is an age-old tradition, and including some rustic items such as these to a green and budget-friendly assortment of holly, ivy and foliage collected from the garden or a woodland walk will give you a calm and traditional Christmas feel.

Silver tree stand, Wooden star box £12.99, Acorns £3.99, Bear head £16.99, Wooden star

Scandi Christmas

Scandinavian style is embraced again this year, with red and white themes and natural wood leaving us dreaming of log cabins, roaring fires and glasses of hot glogg.

Metal hanging hearts £6.99, Red hanging hearts £3.99, Wooden heart £6.99, Sledge £7.99, Snowflake candle holder £5.99

Glitzy Gold

Ever since the Three Wise Men brought the gift of gold to the manger, this tone has been associated with Christmas decor.  Go for all-out decadence with these glitzy pieces.

Snowflake wall panel £12.99, Gold vase, Gold Angel Wing £14.99, Gold heart £5.99, Gold wooden snowflakes £9.99

Folksy Christmas

Embrace all things colourful and fun with these whimsical homespun decorations.

Merry Christmas garland £12.99, Painted bird, Paper heart £7.99, Multi coloured star £3.99, Paper tree £7.99, Multi coloured garland £6.99

Find your nearest HomeSense store here.

Which is your favourite look this year?

Disclosure: Post in association with HomeSense.  Images courtesy of HomeSense, image items not to scale.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Win A Christmas Star on DVD - Brand New Christmas Movie

A heart-warming and uplifting movie at Christmas is all part of the tradition in our house, the whole family snuggled up in our onesies with hot chocolate and popcorn.

This year's movie to see is A Christmas Star which is out in cinemas now, and released on Blu Ray and DVD on 23rd November.

Staring Pierce Brosnan, Suranne Jones and Robert James-Collier, narrated by Liam Neeson and guest cameos from Kylie Minogue and Dermot O'Leary there's plenty of household names.  But there's also a host of up-and-coming stars like the fabulous Erin Galway-Kendrick.

From Belfast-based children's charity Cinemagic and Signature Entertainment, celebrating the charity's 25th anniversary, this is their most ambitious project to date.  The innovative film production gave budding young actors the chance to work and star alongside movie legends and learn from the best.  As well as this, over 40 trainee crew aged between 18-25 were given the opportunity to learn the trade and be mentored by film professionals in a wide range of roles from directing to camera operation, music and production.

Cinemagic patron and Oscar-winning writer, Julian Fellowes, said: “I am proud to be associated with the fantastic work that Cinemagic has been delivering for twenty five years. We are told on every side that it’s time to lower barriers and cross frontiers and this is exactly what Cinemagic is doing.” He added: “Young people, from every type of background and culture, are being encouraged to explore the world of film for themselves, first hand. We want them to break through the glass ceilings and walls that surround them, and see for themselves what it’s really like. Whether or not they continue to live or work in the Arts, there can surely be no better preparation for seeking and finding the right life.”

A Christmas Star tells the heartwarming story of Noelle, a spirited young who embarks on a magical journey to save her friends and family. Born in dramatic circumstances under the Christmas Star, Noelle believes she has the gift to perform strange miracles. When conniving developer McKerrod threatens her peaceful life she teams up with a misfit gang of local kids to save the village from demolition.  However, one by one her friends lose faith in Noelle’s abilities and she is left to fight McKerrod on her own. The town’s future hinges on a final showdown in Belfast’s historic Stormont building as Noelle implores politicians, her friends and the watching world to believe in the true meaning of Christmas…love.

For your chance to win your own copy on DVD, simply complete the Rafflecopter below.  I have three copies to give away, so three winners will be chosen at random.  Open to UK entrants only, the giveaway will close at midnight on Sunday 29th November 2015.  Winners will have 7 days to respond, or I reserve the right to pick another winner.  Prizes will be supplied and dispatched by the PR company, the owner and author of this blog will not be responsible for prizes not received.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Lake Vyrnwy Hotel - A Room With A View

We spotted this hotel, nestled up on the hill overlooking the spectacular Lake Vyrnwy in North Wales when we visited back in the summer and I made a pledge to myself that we'd stay there.  This October half term, after a week in a self catering cottage, and days of glorious autumn sunshine trekking about the beautiful Snowdonia countryside, we finished our week with a nights stay at the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel and Spa.

The lake itself is in quite an isolated location, and although there are several ways to access it (it's actually pretty close to the English border so easy to visit from Shropshire and The Midlands) I'd thoroughly recommend driving the mountain pass route from Dinas Mawddwy. Its such a spectacular drive across the heather covered mountains, looking back down the valleys dotted with waterfalls.  In the summer sheep graze on the wild bilberries amongst the purple heather, and in the autumn and winter there's a bleak, barren beauty to the landscape, untouched by human life.  You drive for miles without a glimpse of the modern day, with the exception of the road you're travelling on.  It really could be a scene from any point in history.

Arriving at the lake, the magnitude of the expanse of water opens out before you as you take the picturesque lakeside road around the perimeter.  Autumn time is just stunning with the gold, copper and russet reds of the trees, a plethora of pheasants ducking out of the way of your car and outdoor lovers cycling the path or sailing on the blue waters.

The fairy-tale tower dominates the view of the lake, giving a Bavarian feel to the scene.  It's actually rather inelegantly used as a straining tower for the reservoir, but we preferred to tell tales of maidens and princesses!

Like many of the large reservoirs, there is a sad story of how the original village here was flooded so the people of Liverpool, some 70 miles away could benefit from clean drinking water.  It is said that in high summer, when water levels are low, you can still see remnants of the old village beneath the 5 mile long stretch of water.

The area now has an RSPB reserve and is teeming with wildlife.  I have never seen so many birds as I saw on the feeders here.  It's well worth popping in to speak to the amazing staff in the RSPB shop who offered all kinds of tips and advice (special shout-out to Jan and Sioned who were fabulous).

As you approach the driveway to the hotel, you're struck by the Victorian country-house grandeur of the building.

Passing the walking sticks and green Wellingtons in the boot rack at the porch, you step onto the beautiful parquet flooring of the reception hallway with its imposing, sweeping oak staircase, traditional carpet and brass stair rods.

We arrived earlier than the 4pm check in but the staff were happy to take our bag and we took full advantage of lunch on the verandah overlooking the lake. There were couples enjoying a quiet drink, some partaking of a delicious looking afternoon tea, some sat in the leather armchairs by the cosy log fires in the drawing room style bar, and others just sitting enjoying the birdsong and the spectacular view.

We took the secret path from the hotel car park down to the lake to explore, and walked across the magnificent arched dam which has stood here since the 1880s, the first large-scale stone built dam in Britain.

Returning to check in, I was keen to see the view from our bedroom before the sun set.  I was not disappointed.

Opening the door, I literally caught my breath, the architrave of the window framing the lake view like a water colour painting.

So often you book 'sea-view' or similar rooms in hotels and you have to crane your neck, lean out of the window and stand on one leg to catch a glimpse of what you've paid extra to see.  Not here.  When they say 'lake view' they really mean it.

The vista here, surrounded by thick forest and the Berwyn mountains doesn't just change season by season, it changes minute by minute as you watch the changing colour of the sky and the movement of the clouds reflected on the inky black mirrored water.  It's hard to tear your eyes away from it.

We had booked a family room in the Victorian part of the hotel.  There are executive rooms with balconies in the newer extension, but we wanted a real feel of the traditional building.  Our room was furnished with solid, dark oak antiques such as the huge double wardrobe and substantial chest of drawers.  We had a deluxe king sized bed made up with Egyptian cotton white sheets and a put-you-up child's bed at the end.  It wasn't a huge room, but there was ample space for us and the en-suite was very spacious (again with views of the lake from the window).

My daughter loved the quirky take on the 'do not disturb' signs - a small cuddly toy which you leave outside your door. Aptly ours was a Welsh dragon.

We were supplied with all the mod-cons we needed - a hair dryer, TV, tea and coffee making facilities (with proper Welsh tea and real filter coffee) and free wifi, although we struggled to get any connection anywhere other than in the downstairs lobby, and even then it was rather intermittent.  Like large swathes of North Wales, there's limited 3G here (and you can forget 4G!) so it's worth bearing in mind if a connection is important to you.

Dining at the hotel is a rather formal affair, with guests expected to dress for dinner.  After a week romping up mountains we pretty much only had our walking gear with us so we decided to give it a miss - plus it was Halloween and Ruby had other ideas!  I must say though, the aroma wafting up the stairs from the restaurant suggested we were missing a treat.

Due to it's location, there's not a lot of dining options nearby, although there is the more relaxed sister bar and eatery The Tavern Bistro next door. But we were lucky to have found a local event going on in the village celebrating Halloween and had a brilliant evening at their fireworks display, complete with BBQ, huge bonfire and pumpkin and fancy dress contest.

Returning to the hotel that evening, the hotel windows were giving a cosy glow of the warmth inside.  There was the smell of wood smoke and the distant unmistakable aroma of fireworks in the distance. Inside, fires were roaring and guests were enjoying drinks in the bar settled in front of the log fires.

We retired to our room and I was insistent on sleeping with the curtains thrown wide back and the window open so I could awake to that beautiful view again. As ever, getting Ruby to sleep in a shared hotel room was a bit of a nightmare, so we resigned ourself to a night of TV and room service.

When she eventually crashed out, we feasted on a local meat and cheese platter and freshly made sandwiches before lights out and peaceful sleep enveloped us all.

The next morning as I sat up in bed, the sight from the window was somewhat disorienting.  Where had my beautiful fairy-tale tower gone?  Where were the trees?  Someone had stolen it in the night and replaced it with a thick white blanket.

I had been warned that in the mornings the lake is covered by dense mist which slowly swirls Harry Potter style and eventually lifts leaving just a few wisps in its wake.

We fell out of bed, pulled on our clothes and walking boots and sneaked out of the hotel while most were still sleeping.  The Old Man was in search of a clandestine early morning swim and I was just happy to be breathing the lung-burning crisp autumn air and crunching through the leaves with nobody but the pheasants.  It was the perfect way to build up an appetite for breakfast.

A quick shower and a change of clothes and we were seated for breakfast.  The tables are laid in the restaurant to take full advantage of the morning views and it is the most amazing memory sitting quietly, sipping coffee watching the mist slowly dissipate and the tower emerge.  In the hour that we sat for breakfast, the sight just kept on changing and getting more and more beautiful.

Breakfast itself was delicious, if fairly slow and even then our order wasn't quite right.  But really, it didn't matter, I was very content to while away my time there.

Checking out at 10:30am, we still had a while to explore before the day-trippers started to arrive on what turned out to be the hottest November day in generations.

Our stay in this piece of paradise certainly lived up to my expectations.  If you're moved by beautiful scenery then this hotel should definitely be on your list.  I truly believe it has the best views in the whole of the British Isles. Perhaps it's a hotel for a romantic retreat rather than one for young children though.  The staff did everything they could to make us welcome, but some of the other guests gave the impression that they'd prefer it to be child-free, which was a shame, or perhaps I'm being over-sensitive?  Maybe I'll go back just with the Old Man, and perhaps try out some of the spa treatments next time.

Monday 9 November 2015

Give as you live: Christmas Wish List for Foodies

Have you heard of the website Give as You Live?  With many of us set to begin our online shopping for Christmas presents, why not give twice this yuletide by signing up?

The shopping website with a heart has over 4,000 of the world’s biggest retailers gathered in one place and exclusive deals for registered users, Give as you Live lets you make your Christmas shopping smart and socially responsible. Every time you shop through Give as You Live, a percentage of the sale commission is paid to charity on your behalf – you can choose your favourite charity, or Give as you Live will donate it to their charity of the month. On average 2.5% of every purchase goes to charity. Whenever you buy, you’ll get an email the next day confirming how much you’ve donated.   Shopping never felt so good!

I've come up with a wish list of fabulous gifts, all of which can be found with retailers registered with Give as You Live.

This pick from Bodnant's store is not exactly typically welsh, but it's a fabulous store that I like to support, and given that I've just returned North Wales, my spiritual home, seemed very apt.  

Perfect for any gin lover, this hamper includes 2 bottles of Two Birds gin, along with two Fentimans mixers and a selection of gourmet sweeties.  I'd be delighted if Santa left this in my stocking.

Check out this store for loads of fabulous foodie treats and support a great British business.

I recently reviewed this kit and it's perfect for foodies, jam makers, chutney makers and anyone who experiences gluts of seasonal food such as allotmenteers, home growers and farmer's market addicts.  Long trusted in the US, Ball mason jars have just arrived in the UK and are being exclusively retailed by Lakeland.  The kit is simple to use, and contains all you need to start home canning.

Although I have a hand-held spiralizer rather than this model, it's revolutionised my cooking.  Using vegetables instead of pasta and noodles to create healthy, low-fat meals is simple.  Safe and easy to use, it has non-slip rubber feet and a special holding device to keep the vegetable or fruit securely in place while you turn the handle, ensuring fingers are kept well away from the blades as you create perfectly formed curls and twirls. Food prep has never been so much fun, so add some spiral-shaped magic to your cooking and conjure up all sorts of tasty, twisty dishes such as butternut squash noodles with fresh pesto or spiralled apple, fennel and smoked chicken salad.

For those who enjoy specialist teas, this flask has been designed for 'on the move' tea drinking. The flask is designed for flowering Chinese teas to show off their beauty when they unravel and are increasingly useful when driving, walking or being on the move and away from home. Although it is designed for the flowering tea bulbs, It can be used for any loose tea.

This store offers all kind of foodie delights, and has a great selection of specialist loose leaf, herbal and Chinese flowering teas.  Perfect for those friends who love to instagram their cuppa! This stunning fine tea gift set is a great way to sample flower teas. It contains:

Jasmine Green Tea Pearls 20g - Enough for 100 cups
Damask Rose Buds 10g - Enough for 50 cups
Orange Ruffle 3 Pieces - Enough to make 1.5 Litres of tea

Do check out the Give as You Live website and sign up before starting your Christmas shopping, and take a browse through their registered stores - it's a great way to discover some new and independent retailers. And follow the #MerryGivemas campaign to see what treats other bloggers have found for their wish lists.

What do you think to my choices?  Will any of them make it onto your Christmas list?

Disclosure: This post has been written in association with Tots 100. I have been compensated for my time and entered into a competition with other bloggers compiling wish lists.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

A Home from Home Holiday Cottage in Shropshire

Sometimes, you just strike it lucky on a Google search!  Recently I was looking for hotel accommodation for us and our extended family to stay a couple of nights in Bridgnorth while we went up to visit our new puppy.

The best hotels were already booked up, and it was proving expensive to put all five of us up for 2 nights, so I started looking for self-catering cottages instead.

I struck total gold with Garden Cottage and knew instantly from the website and photos that it would be perfect for us.  But it was only when we arrived that I discovered what a gem it really is.

Nestled in quite possibly one of Bridgnorth's most charming Gerorgian streets, the most famous of its previous inhabitants being Thomas Telford who designed St Mary's church at the end of the street.  The listed double-fronted, chequer-brick town house is impeccably presented, inside and out.

The owners live next door, from where they also run a discerning bed and breakfast business, so collecting the keys is no trouble, and they are on hand should you need anything. Parking can be a bit of an issue, but the owners organise a free parking permit for you in advance, and the weekend we were there we had no trouble parking outside the house.

The hallway is spacious, with plenty of room for us all to hang our coats, leave our boots and dump our bags.  There's a beautifully presented downstairs toilet and shower room, handy if you have full occupancy of six guests.

At the front of the house is the elegant but comfortable sitting room, with wood-burning stove.   The owners leave a generous supply of wood, kindling and matches for cosy evenings in.  There's plenty of room to all relax in the evening and watch TV, or perhaps play some of the board games that are provided.  There are French doors at the back leading out onto the charming back garden, from where you can see the verdigris dome of the church - as Ruby described it, a 'mini- St Pauls'. All the furnishings are beautiful, really heavy-weight,  lined curtains in period designs.  You get a real sense of luxury here.  

The owners have furnished the house with gorgeous antiques and quirky vintage trinkets, and I really 
appreciated the sturdiness of the furniture and deep patina of the dark wood.

The opposite front room is a very handy study, complete with a computer for guests use, wifi and ample reading material to keep you occupied. So if you're the sort that has work to do while you're away (guilty!) then this is perfect.

What I loved most about this place is that it really feels like home.  So often I stay in places where the owner has clearly never spent a night in their accommodation, or they'd notice the little niggles and missing equipment.  But here, everything has been thought of.  You really could very happily live here permanently - in fact browsing through the visitor book I see someone did live there for several months when their own home was flooded.  I couldn't think of a nicer place for a home.

The kitchen is well stocked, both with gadgets/crockery/cutlery but also with essentials that you'll need such as tea, coffee, sugar, oil, condiments etc. There was even some food in the freezer and cereal in the cupboard.  I personally hate arriving at a cottage to find no tea bags and one measly loo roll!  Here there was tin foil, kitchen roll and plenty in the cupboards - they'd even left us a freshly baked carrot cake.  It's the little details like that which really make a difference I think.

There was tonnes of room in the open-plan kitchen diner, perfect for a family to cook and enjoy and meal together.  Ruby was most excited about the basement, which was huge, and houses a tumble drier and airer.s  I couldn't help ponder what I'd turn the space into if it were mine...

Upstairs there are 3 large bedrooms - two doubles and a twin with en-suite, as well as the Victorian style family bathroom.  So with a total of 3 loos and 3 showers, there was no arguing over whose turn it was!  Decorated again in period style, with antique furniture and heavy drapes, all the rooms were beautiful and restful. Because the street has the church at the end, there's no through traffic and is incredibly quiet at night.  We all slept soundly, and it's amazing how just a few streets away you're in the centre of town with all the shops and pubs, yet in Garden Cottage you hear nothing.

This really was one of the nicest places I've stayed in the UK.  I didn't know this part of the world at all, but Bridgnorth has so much going for it, it's well worth a weekend visit.

The town itself has an olde-world charm, with beautiful shop fronts, independent stores, antique shops, a thriving market and an abundance of traditional inns and pubs to chose from if you're in need of sustenance.

Take some time to explore the castle ruins and the formal gardens which overlook the lower town.  Take in the views of the River Severn, and visit the Severn Valley Steam Railway.  Further afield, there's beautiful rolling countryside, Ironbridge, Much Wenlock (birthplace of the modern Olympics), Wyre Forest and West Midlands Safari Park.

For enquiries about Garden Cottage visit