Top Toys and affordable presents for Christmas 2017

Toy Fair 2017 Top 12 dreamtoys

Yes Halloween is over and so Christmas is in the air, The shops have filled their windows with tinsel, baubles and fairly lights – as well as a few carefully chosen must-have gifts. And so of course the toy manufacturers are ready for their predictions of what will be the best sellers this Christmas.

I’ve been going round these Toy spectaculars since my oldest was in a pushchair and happily trying out the latest Baby Annabel ( she’s now 13) and it’s great to see how the old favourites evolve each year – as well as having a sneak preview of the annual surprises. This year there really was a surprise and I will be very interested to see how the combination of Charades and a blow up doll does in the Christmas charts  (who says toys are just for children!?) – but more of that later!

FurReal Toy TigerWe now spend an average of £120 per child at Christmas and I’m always slightly gobsmacked at how much retailers think we can afford to spend on our nearest and dearest. But in fact this time only one of the toys in the Top 12 costs more than £100 –  and that’s the FurReal roaring tiger ( actually called Roarin Tyler but I don’t think the name does it any favours!!) It is super cute: super soft and responds to being tickled under the chin, opens and shuts its eyes and so on. What’s not to love. It’s selling at £134.99,  but I don’t think the  price tag will necessarily put people off. It really is rather adorable – especially of you have a child who loves tigers! And much less trouble than buying your little ones a puppy!!

Lego’s offerings that make the Top 12 predicted bestsellers are always at the steeper end of the price range  ( though they have plenty of cheaper sets around the £10 to £15 mark).  This year it is a Lego BB-8 from Star Wars with moving parts (£84.99). Personally I rather preferred the Lego Friends Sunshine Catamaran, which comes with little Lego people and tiny dolphins as well as the boat. I love boats – but I fear I may be accused of conforming to gender stereotype as I think Lego Friends are aimed at girls. Still when those girl minifigures are not in their bathers,  I know for a fact they are in their space scientists gear.

Moving to safer unisex ground – for toddlers and preschoolers there’s Paw Patrol’s Sea Patroller – another boat but this time on wheels ( technically called a land sea vehicle or a duck I believe)  with a crane, flashing lights and an anchor to help you rescue wildlife or sailors in distress! ( £69.99)

The Enchantimals Playhouse Panda Set is another fun one for younger children to make the Top 12 – as is the PJ Masks Headquarters Playset –  the place that  the latest superhero characters, Catboy Owlette and Gekko hang out and plan ways of catching trouble -makers. (£49.99)

But the list also contains plenty of mid price range toys as well great stocking fillers forLOL Surprise stocking filler all age-groups. One of my absolute favourites is LOL Surprise (although, again I don’t think the name really helps sell this). At first glance, these are plastic balls containing collectable mini dolls – but wow are they so much more than that. They are the answer to parent prayer-and-despair over buying gifts that are unwrapped and discarded within minutes, as our insatiable offspring move onto the next big thing!

So how do these toys keep children’s attention? What is so great about these tiny dolls? Well they are cute, but that is not the secret. The secret is the packaging – which is part of the surprise. These balls are wrapped in seven layers of plastic and each layer contains a small surprise –  including accessories for the doll you are yet to receive. It’s a bit like pass the parcel – except you get to keep all the treats and don’t have to pass it on or share. Perfect for preventing birthday girl or boy tantrums! The wrapping comes off in strips so it’s not that quick and it takes about five minutes to get to the centre! Fantastic idea and at only £9.99. So worth it!

hatchimals stocking fillersFor the same price Hatchinmals have colleggtibles (ughh) where you have four eggs that you rub until they warm up and then the eggs hatch to reveal the collectable inside. This wasn’t the version that made the Top 12 in fact  – these are much bigger and are interactive, although they go through the same hatching process before you nurture them through babyhood to childhood. Each apparently has their own unique personality – yep I think we have all experienced that on a human scale! This larger version costs £74.99 and is called Hatchimals Surprise ( would anyone like to hire me to rename some of these toys!?) Again quite cute , soft and furry!

Fingerlings are another winner and again at £14.99 just about priced for a stocking filler Fingerlings stocking filler– or a present for your friends’ children, where spending £50 isn’t on the cards. They make monkey sounds; turn their heads and have eyes that blink – mixing the interactive with the cute factor!

Along the same lines ( though not a Top 12) are the Bush Baby world sleepy pods – £12.99 – for a bush baby with moving eyes and waggly ears – spent ages as a child trying to make my ears waggle so I could be like my dad – maybe I should get one and spend some more time trying to master the skill!

Fidget Cubes are a tribute to people power – as they were brought to the market with the backing of 155,000 people on Kickstarter. Perfect stocking fillers (£9.99) and they fulfil all your child’s fidgeting needs: they spin, flip, glide, roll and click. Brilliant!

In the same vein – kind of – the Rubik’s cube has made a come back – actually it has never gone away I’m told, though it first hit the streets in 1980. It’s £12.99 – perfect price for stocking fillers of very affordable present. It could keep the kids off the ipad for quite a while trying to solve the puzzle – although the expert I met did it in 2 minutes. I would not believe it had I not seen it with my own eyes!

The Original Stretch Armstrong – first introduced to children in 1976- is also back on the shelves and has made it to the Top 12 this year  ( £21.99) It’s a stretchy superhero/crimefighter that can be tied in knots and then reverts back to its original shape. Well  I guess it’s better than letting the kids loose on a snoozing grandparent, relaxing after a glass of seasonal Sherry!

Laser X game shootingTo keep them active,  there’s the Laser X for 2 players (£49.99) – even cheaper if you buy it for your two kids to share! Yep I’m picturing the faces of my kids being told they have one present between two this year – but still I watched Bad Moms last night – a must see –  but top tip. DO NOT watch it with your kids unless you want to put your hands over their eyes while the leading characters explain the difference between a circumcised and uncircumcised man. You have been warned!! It is a 15,  but seriously!

Anyway back to Laser X – a one up on similar games, because when you are hit by the other player the light on your receiver changes colour – so there can be no arguments! The boys I saw playing with it were having loads of fun – but it would appeal to girls and grown ups too – so a good choice I think ( and for those who like shooting at their siblings it neatly avoids the problem of Nerf pellets getting lost!)

Nerf have of course updated their blast gun to the Modulus Regulator this year (£69.99). But their  toy that has made it to the Top 12 is the Nerf Nitro Longshot Smash (£21.99) where you blast a car up a ramp where it flies through the air over obstacles before landing the ground – a sort of Evel Knievel set up – if you remember him!

Last but not least in the Top 12 is Toilet Trouble.  It’s designed along the same lines as Pie Face, where you keep turning the ratchet and you are never quite sure at what point you will get cream slapped in your face. With this new game, you keep flushing the loo and you never quite know when…. I don’t want to think about it really …and all for £17.99. Obviously kids will find this HILARIOUS.

In fact they are likely to laugh almost as much as I did when I stumbled on Who’s theWho's the Dude inflatable doll charades game Dude (£24.99) This is the one where you play charades with the blow up doll with a beard and shades ( he’s a dude after all). So instead of acting out the sport or scene from a movie or whatever yourself – you use the dude to do it. Questions and scenarios come with the game – this is family entertainment after all – and it is strictly forbidden for players to invent their own movies to act out!

If you have found any brilliant toys – especially affordable ones –  or stocking fillers –  out there feel free to add any suggestions!

Happy Christmas Shopping!

Santa

PS Santa’s seems to be  enjoying playing with Aquabeads – but he’s not allowed to have favourites so Shhhh!

 

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Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons

Sitting in your arm chair in front of a log fire in a post Christmas haze, you may already be dreaming about the Summer ahead: running around bare-foot on a beach somewhere healthy and in top physical condition.

As a happy compromise you might want to watch other people running around having adventures, while you enjoy another comforting glass of mulled wine. If so you will be looking for a nice traditional film to watch full of wholesome family fun – and luckily for you the new version of Swallows and Amazons is now out on DVD so you don’t even have to struggle to the cinema!

Although this film from director Philippa Lowthorpe (The Other Boleyn Girl, Call the Midwife) is a modern interpretation of the Arthur Ransome book, it retains the period feel of the book and the original film – admittedly with the additional twist of  bit of pre-war adult espionage in the Enid Blyton Famous Five tradition which is not in the original book!

If you don’t know it, Swallows and Amazons is the story of the Walker family who go on holiday to the Lake District. They borrow a small sailing dinghy ( Swallow) and head to an island in the middle of the lake. Their mother ( a woman with nerves of steel I presume) allows her four children ( the oldest is 12 , the youngest 6 or 7) not only to sail unaccompanied,  but also to camp out overnight on the island. So far the best possible fun for children, a middle class parental anxiety attack for us 21st century urbanite adults.

Once you have got over your panic attack and put yourself in the mindset of family life in Britain in the early 1930s, you can relax with your children and enjoy the adventures of John, Susan, Titty and Roger as they lose their provisions overboard,  try to survive by foraging and discover the island has already been claimed – by pirates!

And the pirates – Nancy ( played by the rather wonderful Seren Hawkes) and Peggy want their island back and they take to the water in their boat Amazon to reclaim it.

The cast includes Raph Spall as Andrew Scott, the grumpy man on the houseboat with a SHHH secret – who also turns out to be Nancy and Peggy’s uncle) and Harry Enfield as the farmer who lends the Walker children his boat for the holiday.

The rather lovely Kelly Macdonald plays the children’s very easy going mother.

The nostalgic innocent tone is little different from the 1974 film version – (where Virginia McKenna played the mother). But the sub plot of Uncle Andrew being an undercover British spy certainly adds some drama – and some chase sequences which the original did not have.

Although I am a purist when it comes to film adaptations – it is luckily a long time since I read the books over and over again as a child and the added drama didn’t spoil the film for me!

It’s beautifully shot, a great advert for the Lake District, an easy watch for all ages groups and I hope will bring a new generation of children to reading Arthur Ransome’s series of adventure stories!

 

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Summer Reads for Children

Summer Reads Book Tour

The Summer Reads we haven’t read yet!

We were very excited to be invited to take part in the Summer Reads Book Tour – organised by HarperCollins and have been romping through the fantastic books we have been given.

Officially we are reviewing: ” Goodly and Grave in a Bad Case of Kidnap” rated 8 out or 10 by my 10 year old – and so here, without further ado, are his thoughts on the matter.

GOODLY AND GRAVE in a Bad Case of Kidnap,  by Justine Windsor Goodly and Grave

Reviewed by Alexander Austen, aged 10.

The book Goodly and Grave by Justine Windsor is a great tale about a young girl named Goodly, who is taken away from her parents by Lord Grave after a game of cards. She is taken to a magical place where she becomes friends with all the people living there. However, soon she discovers that something is not right. She is taken on a journey that changes her forever.

The main setting is a magical mansion. It is very cool because there are secrets everywhere. It reminds me of houses that we have visited like Syon House or Osterley Park, which are the the nearest big stately houses to where we live. They are very big and fancy and have very elaborate designs, like the magical mansion.

My personal favourite character is Lady Red, because she is very mysterious. She also makes a good entrance from the beginning. She has fiery eyes and is known to wear a red dress. She is also frightening. She is similar to the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland in that she has a very short temper and wears red. All of the other characters including are also amazing, like spying elephants and talking birds. There are also two librarians that can go through magical fireplaces to a library that holds yet more secrets including a very special book.

This book keeps you guessing until the end and is impossible to put down! Great plot and a must-read for other kids who are around 10 years old like me!

Another book is going to be released and I am very excited to read the second story in the series!

THE END

 

Summer ReadsI haven’t read the book myself, but I can confirm that it was read cover to cover pretty fast and only put down for meals, school and sleep! Since then Alexander has read another three of the Summer Reads from HC and I have now insisted that he stop – as the Summer holidays haven’t even started yet! But if you are as keen as I am to get your child’s face out of a screen and into a book, then you will be thrilled to know that I have the 10 Summer Reads to give away to the first person who answers these questions correctly.

Many people have been celebrating the life of Michael Bond this week, the author of Paddington Bear. As Michael Bond was one of HC’s most popular children’s authors – and his latest titles one of these Summer Reads,  my questions are based on his life. The books will go to the first person who answers these questions correctly.

When was the first Paddington Bear book written?

How did Michael Bond get the idea of Paddington arriving at the station carrying a small suitcase, with a luggage label round his neck?

And finally name three books that Michael Bond wrote that were not based on Paddington Bear.

Please write your name in the comments section below to tell me that you have entered the competition. And email your answers to notanottinghillmum@gmail.co.uk. The closing date is August 1st at midnight. Thank you

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grenfell Tower

There are no words. And yet so many have been written.

Many friends of ours have lost friends, classmates and family. Our thoughts and prayers are with them; all those that I have met in the last weeks, desperately searching for loved ones and some still hoping – against hope – and all of those men, women and children who have lost their lives.

What happened has been, and is, unbearable.

But it is true that the community, people in Notting Hill and North Kensington ( I consider it to be one and the same)  – from all backgrounds and walks of life –  have shown an incredible level of support and kindness to each other. And I believe that we are all determined in our own different ways to continue with that support wherever it is needed or wanted, and, whatever our politics, do everything in our power to ensure that this cannot happen again.

There will be prosecutions and an inquiry into how and why this fire spread so quickly and killed so many innocent people. And all those affected must be allowed to have their say. This has been promised and we as a community will continue to insist on this. Those of us not directly involved are still neighbours, colleagues and fellow parents on the school run of the people who are.  The donations, the fundraising, the numbers of volunteers all show how deeply people here care – and I am proud to be part of this warm-hearted community. Of course many from outside the area have also provided huge amounts of help.

The last thing we need now  though is people who do not live here, using this tragedy for their own ends, with little concern about the long term damage they are doing , trying to create division and turn people’s terrible grief and understandable anger into hatred.

Most people affected seem to want to continue to live in this community – and they will need our support in all kinds or ways for years to come and we will be here for them.

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Not a Notting Hill Mum and Mr Darcy learn animation – in the style of Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the two strings

Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

To mark the release of  Kubo and the two strings on DVD, the latest animation from Laika studios who made Coraline and Boxtrolls, we were invited to an animation workshop run by Chocolate Films in central London –  which showed us just how painstaking and time-consuming animation actually is.

Animation workshop, Chocolate Films

Mr Darcy gets animated

First we made origami paper birds – these were to be our puppets. Then we were given a ready made set – about the size of a TV – with a camera rigged up in front of it and instructions on how to press the button, work the software and view the shot you had just taken on the computer before taking another. ( They did try to break us in gently). The puppets could only make small movements between each shot – or  frame – or the animation would look jerky when speeded up.

In the end, after Mr Darcy had insisted we take defined roles as director, first AD, animators and, er button pusher, and that we decide on the story ( the fight between Clinton and Trump represented by the red bird and the purple bird – as decided by the youngest crew member Alexander! No I promise it really was his idea!) it took us about an hour and 20 minutes to make a film that lasted a few seconds ( 16 to be precise!) And you can watch Hillary vs Trump here!  We at the Austen/Darcy studio are very  proud of our animation debut of course. But surely this can’t be the technique real animators use – when it takes so long?!? Yes readers. It is! Mr Darcy and I can testify to the truth that this really is the stop motion technique by which animated films such as Kubo are made. And if it’s hand drawn animation you’re after, then each drawing is photographed with a slight change made each time. Fortunately they didn’t suggest that or we might still be there.

Though the experts at Chocolate Films made it as easy as they could for us, the labour-intensive process certainly gave us all renewed respect for the animations we have watched – particularly Kubo and the two strings, which also features origami figures ( they are not exactly child’s play to make either!)

Set in a magical Japan, Kubo (Art Parkinson), is the story of a boy with supernatural gifts who accidentally summons up vengeful spirits from his past. During the day, one -eyed Kubo supports his sick mother by telling stories which are acted out by bewitched origami figures that fold and unfold themselves into different shapes , charmed into action by the music from Kubo’s magical  lute – also called a shamisen.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS


Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

At night though,  his mother tells him he must stay hidden in the mountains as his evil aunts and his grandfather,the Moon King are after him and his other eye! One day Kubo stays out despite his mother’s warnings ( yep he is a child!)  and his scary, witchy aunts, pounce.  Kubo’s mum – also a sorceress – sacrifices herself to save him, sending him on a journey accompanied by a crotchety monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai turned stag beetle (Matthew McConaughey). They need  to locate a magical suit of armour worn by Kubo’s missing father in order to defeat the vengeful spirit. Well it is fantasy after all.

The film was loved by critics and parents when it came out in September – but having experienced only a little of what it must have taken to make it I was ready to like it all the more – while still not quite believing that anyone has the patience top do this for years on end. As the Variety film critic noted: “one shouldn’t take for granted the skill required to create exciting action sequences in a stop-motion film” – trust me – we won’t!

Kubo and the Two Strings is out on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms now, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK)

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Christmas Carols at the Royal Albert Hall

Christmas tunes have been pumping – or piping – out (depending on the genre) for weeks now,  but with only a week to go things are getting serious and it is time to bring out the real thing-  proper live carol singing! And if you really want to bring out the big guns in the carol singing world, then you can’t do much better that the Royal Albert Hall, John Rutter, The Royal Philharmonic and the choirboys and girls from St Albans Cathedral.

It’s the second time we’ve been to this concert and I was surprised, looking round, how few families there were. It’s certainly not for younger children as they would find it too long and get fidgety – but for 10 plus and maybe younger it’s a lovely way to celebrate Christmas.

I wouldn’t miss out on the Candlemas or Christingle services for the world ( and St John’s Notting Hill has it’s candlelit carols this Sunday (December 18th) from 6.30pm. )But however good the church organist – and the organist and new organ at St John’s are out of this world – it’s hard to beat the Royal Philharmonic orchestra accompanying you and and several thousand others in singing Oh Come all ye Faithful – or the 12 Days of Christmas.

The Albert Hall has more than 5,000 seats and most appeared to be taken – but John Rutter had no trouble keeping his potentially unruly “People’s Choir” under control,  despite the complexities of either men or women or choir only singing various verses!

The concert is a mixture of traditional carols (Hark the herald angels sing, God rest you merry gentlemen) , seasonal orchestral pieces ( Bizet’s Farandole,) and some of John Rutter’s own compositions including the very beautiful A child’s prayer sung by the choristers from St Alban’s cathedral.

The Bach Choir and soloists Elin Manahan Thomas and Melanie Marshall added some stunning duets, glamour and humour. Because this concert is far from stuffy – despite the splendour of the setting it has the atmosphere of Last Night of the Proms, with the crowd entirely behind the performers who wear christmas headgear for the second half, plenty of chance to sing a long, some humorous lighter music such as Rutter’s The Heavenly Aeroplane and  Bugler’s Holiday by Leroy Anderson – and even a quick music quiz aimed at this unsurprisingly musically literate audience!

I particularly enjoyed A Child’s Prayer; the very sprightly Unto us a Child is Born; and the orchestra’s rendition of Delius’s Sleigh Ride with plenty of bells and changes of tempo it was clear that John Rutter was enjoying the ride. And though not in a church we still got to hear the organ as Andrew Lucas gave a brief but dramatic performance as Count Dracula ( you needed to be there) !

It’s a lovely traditional, but fun, evening out and if you are thinking of booking next year,  I believe that the show is also repeated in Birmingham at the Symphony Hall.

I may have lived in Notting Hill for almost 20 years – but I do know that there is life outside London!!

 

 

 

 

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Affordable Christmas Presents and the Top Toys of 2016

Beaie Boo's mini

Every year the toys get more incredible: more interactive, more technologically brilliant, more  creative, and  – understandably perhaps –  more expensive. So every year when I go to the unveiling of what will be the Top Twelve best selling toys that Christmas,  I like to look at what else these manufacturers are making that is affordable –  as a stocking filler or presents for your children to give their friends, or gifts that can be requested from relatives without embarrassment at the cost! Anyone can sell something cheap, cheaply. So  I like to look for things that look like a proper gift – it needs to cost around £15.

I don’t understand the obsession with Beanies – and yet I know it to be true.

Is it their big eyes, their crazy colours or the fact that you can get so many different Beanie owlanimals chances are they will have the species that your particular child loves – be it pandas or dogs,  seals or penguins. And beyond the desire for the favourite creature, as interpreted by TY’s creative department with sparkly ears or multicoloured coat, is the desire to collect these Beanie Boo’s.

I am also a fan – because they are a toy that will give genuine and lasting pleasure and the medium sized beanies are around £10 to £15 depending where you shop – which is good for a proper present that will be enjoyed! You can get smaller ones too for stocking fillers as in the picture!

Barbies have come in for a lot of criticism over the years  for their thinness and the pinkness of their clothes and accessories. Personally I think girls have far more sense than to want to look like a doll made of plastic with legs and arms that move in scary angles and a head that will sometimes spin 360 degrees. However, some are determined that they are damaging and the manufacturers have certainly worked hard to introduce dolls that are a better reflection of our diverse population with a variety of fashion styles.  Probably best to check with mum before buying for a Goddaughter – however they are around £15 and if they are what a child wants then they seem good value so they make my list!

Finding Dory goldfish are great for bath-time -and great for stocking fillers –  and you can get them in a coffee pot like in the movie if you want to spend a bit more. ( £19.99)

ShopkinsShopkins Shoppies (dolls) are part of the the current must-have collectible series of toys for little girls – the dolls come with a theme such as pancakes or sushi. ( £14.99)

 

 

 

Another popular new collectible perfect for stockings are these cute Disney Tsum Tsum – they are squishy plastic rather than the plush variety adn you can stack them – much harder than it looks actually!  They also do an Advent Calendar.Disney Tsum Tsum

 

Star Wars never seems to lose its popularity – look out for the Star Wars Lego Advent Calendar for your little one if they are a fan but buy early they sell out in early November.

And I’ve just seen a Stormtroopers outfit going cheap at £15 at the Disneystore online – not my thing but wanted to share the love with the parents of diehard fans!

Lego is a good one for the affordable present list because while their best sellers are always more expensive – check out the lovely Friends Amusement Park Rollercoaster Lego rollercoaster for a mere ( £89.99) they do sell lego at every price.

The Creator range with an Ocean Explorer, Lakeside Lodge and Supersoarer are all under £15 and will keep your children busy for a few hours at least!

 

Under £20

SelfieMic

There are a few toys in the Top 12 Dreamtoys that come in at under £20 and so would fit in the affordable toys for some people. One that is very much on the money is the SelfieMic (£19.99) it does what is says ( you make your own music videos) and will no doubt be loved by children and hated by their despairing parents in equal measure. There are also a couple of games priced at £19.99 that everyone will be talking about that you will probably get for aroudn £15 – Silly Sausage by John Adams and Speak Out by Hasbro. Both predicted to be best sellers this Christmas. And while we are on games the ridiculously popular Pie Face is back – this time with two facespaces that cane be splattered with cream – double the trouble!

Other new toys under £20

 Gas Out is also new and involves playing cards, a character called Guster,  and farting – what’s not to like if you are a child! Soggy Doggy is a board game involving showering a toy dog! There is a Play-doh Ice Cream Castle or Stretch Armstrong a stretchy doll that can be pulled four times his original size for the younger ones or a  Real Baking Chocolate Pen for Bake-Off fans.

Old Favourites under £15.

Twister, Monopoly, Labyrinth, Bananagrams are all old favourites and great for getting the family off their screens and round a table  ( or all over the floor for Twister). Just wear headphones to drown out the initial screams of deprivation. All are available for between £10 and £15. Orchard Toys and Ravensburger do some great games and puzzles for younger children – Tip the Ship being one of my all time favourites! And for stocking fillers don’t forget the Rubik’s Cube for less than £10!

Remaining Top 12 Predicted Bestsellers this Christmas ( over £20) 

Shopkins Kitchen Flair £24.99

Snuggle My Dream Puppy £49.99

Nerf strike elite Hyperfire £49.99

Star Wars Rebel U- Wing Fighter  Lego £69.99

Hot wheels ultimate garage £89.99

Thomas and Friends Sky High Bridge Jump £99.99

Hatchimals £59.99

Paw Patrol Air Patroller £39.99

 

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Here be Dragons

Torch the dragon

It’s odd how effectively something – or sometimes lots of things – can be hidden in plain sight. Take dragons, for example. You would have thought that it would be pretty easy to spot a fantastical creature like a dragon, especially somewhere as uncompromisingly prosaic as the City of London. But pause for a second to consider that one of the emblems of the City of London is, in fact, a dragon, and then lift your eyes from pavement level, and you quickly realise that there are hundreds – if not thousands – of the beasts scattered all over the City. Apparently dragons have been included in the City’s coat of arms since the 17th century – something to do with St George and his cross, which is an even older emblem of the City – and now two of them appear in each rendition of the coat of arms – which themselves appear on every street name sign – as well as at 10 locations around London to mark the boundaries of the City. Who knew?

Dragon on London BridgeSo it was that last Saturday Mr Darcy and the two Darcy sproglets found themselves gathered with a small group of fellow dragon-hunters outside The George Inn in Southwark, at the start of the Torch Dragon Tour, a 5.73km (according to mapmywalk.com) perambulation through the streets of the City. Accompanying us were one historian and television presenter – Suzannah Lipscomb, taking time out from preparing for a new series about Elizabeth I – a nice PR chap called Matt, whom the sproglets christened, mysteriously, Mackintosh – and a small blue fire-breathing dragon called  Torch , part of Hasbro’s FurReal Friends range of really rather cute toys. (Incidentally, there was another nice chap on the walk who was doing some interviews for radio. Girl sproglet must have thought he was really rather cute too, as he ended up being called FurReal himself. I expect he would have preferred Torch – it sounds a bit like a Gladiator, for those of you old enough to remember that quintessentially 90s show – but actually he didn’t look fierce enough.)

Having stopped briefly at The George to note down the dragons being pinioned by St George on the pub signs (they were kind enough to open the gate so we could nip in andGuildhall dragon tour have a look), we set off on our meandering route. Suzannah paused every few minutes to deliver nuggets of information about the City of London and its denizens, a surprising number of whom seem to have come to a premature, and usually violent, end. Boy sproglet was very excited to discover that dragons popped up on all the City street name signs, and covered his piece of dragon scoring paper with five-bar prison gates in about five minutes flat. “This is brilliant,” he said. “I’ve counted over three hundred dragons already.” He looked a bit crest-fallen when it was explained to him that there wasn’t a prize for the largest number of dragons spotted, but consoled himself by scaling back on a bit on the dragon-twitching and going off to stick Torch dragon stickers on Mackintosh and FurReal instead.

Meanwhile, we were all discovering something else about the City of London, which is that the entire place shuts down at the weekend. In amongst the titbits about the City: “Stand Dragon touron the actual place where Thomas Cromwell was actually beheaded! ” or “Cock Street is so named because it was where prostitutes used to stand up and be, er, counted!” – Suzannah was promising a stop for coffee and a bun. Unfortunately, the only commodity to be had in Leadenhall Market (and Bishopsgate, and Cornhill, and Gresham Street, and Guildhall) was tumbleweed, so it was an increasingly parched gaggle of walkers that eventually stumbled into a grand and exquisitely expensive coffee house in Cheapside. Thus suitably fortified by caffeine, we moved on past St Paul’s and Newgate, and so to Smithfield, where two of the largest and fiercest dragons we’d seen sat atop the main arch (bringing a new dimension to flame-grilled steaks). A final group photo later and we all piled into taxis to take us to the elegant and very non-mediaeval Soho Hotel, where everyone enjoyed an excellent lunch – and left with their own, very sweet, fire-breathing blue dragon.

Torch smoke breathing dragon

POSTSCRIPT

Jane Austen would like to thank Mr Austen for attending this event with our children, while she was indisposed due to a mild form of influenza.

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Remembrance

Remembrance Notting Hill Remembrance Notting Hill

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Not a Notting Hill Mum abroad

Removing the hair braids from Amelie’s hair … a very visual ending of the carefree seven week Summer holidays. When I say “carefree seven week holidays” obviously I mean carefree for the kids. Not their poor mother (that’s me!) .

My holiday of choice was driving hundreds ( thousands?) of miles over a month: to central France, to Cornwall, to Suffolk. When I say “we” I actually mean “I”. The children learned to map read – by necessity. Thank the Lord for sat nav, but you know if I’m at the roundabout I need to know NOW,  not when the signal comes back into play. And there is more than one way from Calais to Orleans –  ( e.g you don’t have to go via Paris you can you via Rouen). You have to admire the thing’s persistence, but really telling me to “turn around where possible” for 50 km was not helpful. I pulled the plug after a bit but when reconnected it still wanted me back on the motorway! Being a luddite I still buy Map books and they came into their own… apart from helping us catch the ferry on time,   the children now have some sense of where they actually were during the Summer.

Looking back of course we had a great time in between the long drives. A stopover in Paris and a trip on the batobus taking in Musee Dorsee, the Eiffel Tower ( and the armed police and military),  Notre Dame and the  Seine. Two days later, in the very untouristy Auvergne we were swimming in lakes; walking; picking fruits and digging up vegetables for lunch in our friends’ garden;  (spending £50 on mosquito repellents and creams) buying scented candles and soaps and all the time practising our very rusty French.  On the journey home we saw the lovely Orleans,  visiting a chateau, cathedrals and discovering a lovely brasserie. Now a huge fan of Airbnb, where I found a great place to stay right in the centre with a fabulous hostess, Elizabeth, on hand for advice and recommendations of the best places in town.

In Cornwall, we kayaked and body boarded (when I say we I mean they); ate fish and chips; visited the totally fascinating East Levant tin mine ..and I restored some wrought iron furniture and did some grouting (in return for friends cottage)

In all our weeks  in many locations we never had the best of the weather, but neither did we have the worst. The hottest days always seemed to be those earmarked for long journeys. And boy did we travel.

The long holiday ended with the inevitable hell of buying shoes, stationary and new uniform. I laughed aloud as I heard other mothers voice the frustration I was feeling. To one snivelling boy:  “No. You cannot have a treat while we are here. Why on earth do you think you deserve a treat. It’s me that needs the treat.”    Or ” Where has you sister disappeared to now?”. Quite. Thanks Peter Jones for putting the toy department right next to shoes and uniform and still expecting kids to be ready to take their turn whe n their number finally comes up !  Everyone leaves it to the last minute,  cos the kids grow like Topsy with all that water and sunlight over the summer .   The downside is most of the sizes and styles have sold out. The opposite of that old Yellow Pages advert boasting “all of the colours in all of the sizes.”

Anyway on the very last day I found I would be deprived of my son’s company, as he went back a day earlier than his sister. So I said to my Teenager-at-twelve – “So darling, we can spend a lovely relaxing day together. Some reading,  some music practice and perhaps a trip to an exhibition. Shall I see what’s on at the V and A or we could do one of those one hour museum tours?”

Alexander (Teenager-at-ten) replied swiftly

” No offence mum. But I’m so glad I’m going to be at school.”

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Knickers and other underwear

Victoria and Albert Museum underwear exhibition

The V&A’s exhibition of underwear, Undressed, a Brief history is a fascinating look at how and why these garments came about,  from crinolines and corsets to modern day bras and butt separators ( not sure that is the correct technical term, but try visualising it and you will know what I mean!)

The show has had mixed reviews including one that complained that the mannequins were all facing coyly away from the spectator – patently untrue and anyway since when were showroom dummies coy!  I for one enjoyed the insight given into the imagination of the 18th and 19th century designers as they attempted to contort the human form into the latest fashionable shape. And I learned plenty of fascinating facts: that lycra was invented in back in 1958 – way earlier than I thought; that the design team at Agent Provocateur are all women; and that men’s shirts were considered underwear back in the 18th century and the only parts designed to be seen were collar, cuffs and the front. Some ornately pleated sleeves were not made to look interesting but so they fitted under tight jackets more easily.

I loved the silk cami-knickers embroidered with hunting scenes ( this is a fashion statement not a political statement), I was intrigued by the crinoline with the collapsing derriere allowing one to sit down and the evolution of the dressing gown as a way of allowing a woman to have breakfast comfortably before having to be squeezed half to death in a corset  and I loved some of the underwear as outerwear, seen above, fashioned in more recent years.

As well as enjoying the exhibits it was a good opportunity for people watching. There were a few fashionistas… and lots of men at the exhibition –  presumably it’s less embarrassing for a man to be seen looking at women’s underwear in a museum than it it in M&S or indeed Ann Summers. But before you getting any ideas,  there was nothing kinky about this collection of under garments.  There was one outfit in rubber and a few things in sheer silk, satin and chiffon but absolutely no whips or handcuffs. This is 50 shades of pink and beige – not 50 shades of grey. More why y-fronts? than why KY?

The focus is on the  relationship between underwear and fashion and the development of materials to help support and contort the human form over the last 350 years.

Unusually the underwear is arranged over two floors – which makes the exhibition seem more compact and user friendly somehow – and it’s not as claustrophobic as some of the V&A’s exhibition rooms.

After 18 years in Notting Hill I never tire of the Victoria and Albert museum, weaving your way between extraordinary sculptures and artefacts from all around the world – just to get to your exhibition of choice and of course if you don’t find the latest showing to your taste, it does have one of the most amazing tea-rooms in London.

 

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Chinese Lanterns at Chiswick House

magical lanterns

Triffid size flowers,  flamingos at the water’s edge,  giant squirrels, giraffes, pandas in a bamboo forest and a vast Chinese dragon –  the display of illuminated lanterns at Chiswick House in West London is seemingly never-ending. This is the first Magical Lantern festival to be held in the UK and coincides with the celebration of Chinese New Year.

It takes around one and a half to two hours to wind your way through the grounds gazing at the rows of kangaroos, antelope, zebra and giraffes – a reminder that Chiswick house was once home to exotic wild animals –  or admiring the outsized native woodland creatures such as squirrels and swans

The link to China is never far away with huge Ming vases, a life size pagoda  and a small terracotta army glowing in the dark.  In the Year of the Monkey, the story of the Monkey King is told and there are statues representing all the animals from the Chinese Zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

There are also some rather outlandish cartoon characters – multi coloured toadstools, huge crickets on see-saws and a Cinderella coach and horses. But in some ways the whole event is slightly surreal set in the grounds of  of an 18th Century stately home.

As well as the free-standing lanterns, hedges and trees are adorned with coloured lights,  many changing hue as you walk past. And there is an arch of lights as you walk away from the dragon and the main house. A little garish for me, but the number of lights allow the selfie takers some self illumination!

Half way round there are a few stalls selling hot drinks and an inspired marshmallow stand where you can toast your own massive marshmallow over charcoal burners after choosing from flavours such as raspberry and champagne or mango and orange.  OK so they are £1.50 each but it was an unusual treat and let’s face it cheaper than a Costa coffee that we all buy without even thinking!

For the children the highlights were undoubtedly the pandas , the huge squirrels and the 60 metre dragon. I loved  the host of flamingos reflected in the water, the terracotta army and the pagoda. But the whole event is full of wonder – and a really great evening out for everyone – the younger children clearly excited by being outside in the dark and enough characters and animals for everyone to find something they love.

Tips on how to enjoy the festival even more than we did

Entry is form 5pm until 8.30pm. The grounds close at 10pm.

It’s a photographer’s paradise and if it’s a serious passion it’s worth bringing a small SLR if you have one. At the very least make sure you have full battery on your phone. It is also a selfie’s paradise!!

Wrap up warm – hats and gloves – you are outside and it is night time!

If you book online it’s cheaper during the week than at weekends

There’s no parking on site and quite a walk from the tube at Gunnersbury – check out nearby roads for parking but bear in mind the Festival Entrance is next to Rustic House Gate, situated just off the westbound A4. The other gates are shut!

There is food and drink available at the start and finish of the tour – as well as half way round. If you don’t have gloves having a warm coffee in your hands at the start could help!

 

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