Early Man – film

Just had a fun evening watching the DVD of Early Man – and modelling these extremely similar characters from the film, out of plasticine. We used kits that Aardman (the creators of Early Man and Wallace and Gromit) produce, so you get some simple instructions and the right amount of each colour to make your figure. But of course you could go wild – wilder than these cave men –  and create your figures in all kinds of colours and shapes from whatever lumps of plasticine you may have lying around your home. Move over Nick Park, I say.

As for the film – it’s a good one to watch as a family, it’s funny and engaging and you can pretend it’s educational, as the subject matter is part of the syllabus at primary schools.

According to the National Curriculum, a fascinating document if you haven’t read it!!, “Pupils should be taught about changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. This could include:

  • late Neolithic hunter-gatherers and early farmers, for example, Skara Brae
  • Bronze Age religion, technology and travel, for example, Stonehenge
  • Iron Age hill forts: tribal kingdoms, farming, art and culture”

… which ties on very nicely with the film. Although actually I think it’s a sneaky way of making a film about football!!

Anyway, my 11 year old son has written a review so you can see what he thought of it – in his own words:

“From the creators of Wallace and Gromit, Early man is a hilarious movie about the prehistoric times, where the Bronze Age comes in and drives a group of Stone Age hunters out of their valley. In a valiant attempt to reclaim their home, Dug (the main character), challenges Real Bronzeo, who are the best football team in the known world (at the time) to a game.

Hard training is put in, and a mysterious painting is uncovered, however it soon seems unlikely that Dug and his friends will be going home.

And all the while the Bronze ruler is bathing in gold (I think it’s bronze actually. Ed) , and it looks like he can’t be stopped from taking all the money from citizens in subtle ways. But the real question is: who will win the game? And will these Early Men get to keep their home in the valley.

Review courtesy of Not a Notting Hill Boy, Alexander Darcy

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Snow days in W11


Snow falling Notting Hill 2018Snowy day Lansdowne Road Notting Hill

Dog in Snow

Snowscape Notting Hill IMG_2384

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Portobello Stars

Margarita, Portobello Star

You my have noticed that our local gin producers (four friends and bartenders who created their very own gin blend at the Portobello Star at no 171 Portobello Road back in 2011) have now moved the Ginstitute – and their distillery up the road to no 186.

Meanwhile the Portobello Star – which has been a pub or bar since about 1740 – of course lives on. It is now a cocktail bar that offers rum, whiskey, and vodka-based cocktails as well as those based on gin!

And as well as the extremely well-stocked bar downstairs, cocktail master classes are held upstairs in the Apartment on the first floor. On our evening there, we were shown how to make a cocktail by Nick – a bartender but actually one of the managers these days.  As well as teaching us the various ingredients that blend together to make a Cosmopolitan or a Mai Tai, he also explained how to rim a glass with salt for a Margarita, how to shake a shaker efficiently – without injuring anyone, and how to pull the shaker apart again so you can pour your drink. ( This is not as easy as it looks as it creates some kind of airlock during shaking – see how much there is to learn!).

The masterclasses are a perfect night out for a small group of people (they recommend between four and 30) – whether for a hen party or after office team building. You will learn something, they can provide food – tapas or burgers – and of course you get to drink your creations afterwards which might have some appeal!

If you happen to have your own cocktail shaker and a couple of large bowls full of crushed and cubed ice then you might like to try this recipe – based on the Portobello Star Master class.

Making a Mai Tai, Portobello Star, cocktail master-class

How to make a Mai Tai

Fill your cocktail shaker with cubed ice and pour in:

1 shot Bacardi carta blanca (12.5ml)

1 shot Goslings black seal rum

1 shot Triple Sec

2 shots lime juice

Add a spoon or 5ml of Plantation OFTD (Old Fashioned Traditional Dark rum)

a spoon of Dissaronno (an Ameretto-like liqueur)

and a spoon of egg white

Shake hard and pour over a glass of crushed ice ( using a special strainer to keep the ice cubes in the shaker!)

Decorate with mint and orange twist and a cherry.

Mai Tai at Portobello Star, Notting Hill This is one I made earlier! You may want to try this at home… and as specific ingredients are unlikely to be in the average drinks cabinet – you will be pleased to know that you can buy individual shots from the ground floor bar and take them home – so you can still impress your friends with your sophisticated cocktail-making skills.

Alternatively you could let the bartender do the work and enjoy an evening of cocktails at the bar. They offer a good deal between 4pm and 9pm, with two cocktails for £12!  If you do, I would recommend the Fappening, we didn’t make this ourselves – almost certainly because it would have involved me using a blow torch to make the creme brûlée style topping . But it is a mix of toffee apple bourbon lime juice , gimme, apple juice and egg white and is seriously drinkable – especially if you have a slightly sweet tooth!

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Toy heaven – where your teddies and train-sets are rehomed

The Toy Project recycled toys sold for charity
If like me you are both amazed and appalled at the number of toys your children have accumulated over the years – but are loathe to bin them and cannot wait for summer to donate them to the school fair – then I have found the answer.

The Toy project charity that recycles toys and sells them to fundraise for vulnerable children

Jane Garfield, Co-founder, The Toy Project

I’ve come across a wonderful initiative called The Toy Project. This is a charity, based in Islington, entirely run by volunteers who will repackage your preloved toys and give them to children who need them or sell them on in their toyshop ( open Tuesdays to Saturdays). Somehow grouping together a handful of collectibles in a pretty box (recyclable of course ) makes them look desirable in a way they just don’t scattered across your kids’ bedroom floor or worse wedged inside the inner workings of your vacuum cleaner. They also run a great project called Loved Before where children write an information sheet about their teddy or bunny which is included with the gift.

The money raised from all of this all goes towards helping children. The Toy Project supports children in hospital, sending in face painters and providing other activities; and provides play therapy for bereaved children. They provide toys for dads in prison to give to their children; and for the children of mothers who have survived domestic violence. They support many schools, nurseries and play schemes including  vulnerable children including those from the nursery at Grenfell Tower.

The Toy ProjectAs well as recycling old toys, the project  also accepts donations and new toys to sell – or give direct to children in need ( actual children rather than the BBC fundraiser ).

I find my Lovelies are much more willing to give up their toys if they know where they are going ( usually to a friend or charity shop) and that they will be loved by another child. And the Toy Project certainly believes that getting involved helps children understand the importance of helping others – as well as recycling.

You can find out more about how to donate either as an individual or a business or as a group of friends or colleagues at thetoyproject

The toys donated do need to be on good condition – but not absolutely perfect !

Really –  what’s not to like?

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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!


PS Santa 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!



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.


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


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


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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