2016 in Review

What can I say about 2016? It has been a strange year, but one where we got things done. A year when friendships got stronger or just disappeared completely. Where we did things and they actually happened. It has been a good year with plenty of memories, and as a family, one I know we’ll remember. Especially H now she’s at the age where your memories stick with you.

Here’s our 2016 in review.

The 1st January was spent in Brighton. We traditionally go to the seaside at the start of the year to get some cold air and breathe again. We usually alternate between Brighton, Eastbourne and Bognor Regis and it’s usually very closed and quiet apart from the odd Fish & Chips place. I like it because it’s cold, closed, dark and fresh and crisp; nothing like bringing in a new year that way every year.

We took out Historic Royal Palaces membership and headed to Hampton Court early on in the year, showing H somewhere I used to love going when I was her age. My Auntie Florrie lived in Teddington and that whole area was somewhere we spent a lot of time when we visited London back in the seventies.

H had her first horse riding lesson. It’s too expensive to keep up, unfortunately. She loved it though.

Horse Riding at Deen City Farm

I had always wanted to visit Kensington Palace as it intrigues me. You’re visiting somewhere next door to the almost-untouchable current Royals. Anyway, it was an interesting place. HRP membership covered that.

Hampton Court

March and we were back to Hampton Court as my friend got an invite to preview the Magic Garden, so we popped along. It didn’t disappoint!

Hampton Court Magic Garden dragon and water sand play area

March also brought H’s first proper gig – Adele at the O2. It was both of our first time going there. I booked us a hotel nearby so we didn’t have to get all the way home afterwards – and had a brilliant evening. H loved it too! Adele is one of her favourites and I’ve enjoyed working on her records for these last few years.

The following day we took the Thames Ferry to the Tower of London using our HRP membership to get in free. Again, loads of fun and we got our money’s worth.

Easter was an Emmett’s Gardens and Chartwell visit, as our National Trust membership was getting a bit unused, and National Trust always have the best Easter Egg trails. It didn’t disappoint.

Our Merlin Passes were also quite neglected so we made our first trip to Legoland, choosing a rainy day which was a bit cold. It seemed to work, and we got on most rides without a queue. We even managed Mia’s Riding School three or four times in a row before I had to stop.

When your gas boiler is switched off for safety reasons, Leaky Flue Safety Warning Gas Boiler

April brought the weird stuff. We found out we had a carbon monoxide leak at home, which explained a lot of things. Forgetfulness? Tick. Feeling sick a lot? Definitely. Just being sick without any reason? Been there, done that. Our boiler was taken out of action and a plan was set, to get central heating put in when we went on holiday in July. Mainly as it would be so disruptive so we wanted to be away from it all. Every morning I had staggered to work like I was hungover, wondering when the virus would shift. It had never occurred to me it was this. Once the boiler was shut off I never felt like it again. We’ve since bought more carbon monoxide alarms. Too close a call. But why did it affect just H and I? I think because Shaun falls asleep downstairs and would often leave the heating on. I’d go to bed at 11pm and eventually come downstairs to shut off the heating at 2am. Because the leak was in the loft, both H and I were exposed to it more than Shaun as he was downstairs.

That’s my only explanation.

I got out to some gigs in April too – Lush reformed and I had a rare night out. Just getting onto a train and going across London was making me pretty nervous. It was a great night, I had far too much to drink, and the night was to be repeated a month or so later but with Shaun while H went on a sleepover.

Getting to work became an issue. Southern Trains were becoming increasingly rubbish and I was having a lot of palpitations. One day I got into work and burst into tears which isn’t like me at all. One word – perimenopause. I’ve done several things to calm the symptoms, they still happen especially the anxiety, but I’m learning to control it. I had a Mirena fitted which is helping a lot too. I had a journey home with the best train driver ever.

Wembley Stadium players warm up

May also brought our annual trip to Wembley to watch the Women’s FA Cup Final. It’s good fun, cheap and I’ve already bought tickets for next year – they’re on sale now – and kids go free. It’s a great atmosphere!

We also saw Horrible Histories at Hampton Court – a great setting for a great show. H and her friend M really enjoyed it.

We popped to Kew to view Kew Palace on our HRP membership. Don’t forget to print out your 2 for 1 vouchers beforehand like we did… you don’t get in free to Kew with HRP, you get a discount. 2 for 1 works out a bit cheaper too – meant we had more money to spend in the shops there!

June brought our second trip to Wembley. I bought tickets for England’s last friendly before the World Cup. H has finally seen Harry Kane play football (and Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker). Next season we’ll try a Tottenham game. We missed the National Anthem thanks to it taking forever to get into Wembley, but caught the majority of the game.

harry potter tour broom training

June also brought our trip to the WB Studio Tour. H is a fully-fledged Harry Potter convert now – she has seen all the films and knows more about each character than me. She has also read my books more than I have… We all really enjoyed it – even Shaun who tolerates it (and usually falls asleep in the films). We’ll be going back when we can save enough money – maybe for Hogwarts at Christmas in 2017.

June also brought a trip to Southampton to see the touring production of Mary Poppins on stage. The production was nowhere near London so we decided to make a night of it, and booked into the Ibis there (which H loved as it had a bunk bed over our double bed). We had seen it way before H was born, and loved it again. Zizi Strallen is an excellent Mary.

BML with mary drinking fizz

June also brought BritMums which I really enjoyed, hanging out all day with Mary who is excellent company.

July brought the Bottersnikes and Gumbles preview where we interviewed one of the characters and found out the recording didn’t work. My memory was still a bit rubbish so I can’t remember anything he said either. I fail. H was interviewed for CBBC but it wasn’t used (I thought that might happen, she was quiet).

Yurt Life at Kingsdown Centre - wonderful setting!

July was also the start of our holidays, heading to Cornwall again. We stopped in Weston Super Mare on the way down, wandered around there and made the most of late evening beach walks, donkey rides, fish & chips and relaxing.

The following day we arrived at Hallagenna Cottages in St Breward, and had a lovely week there discovering loads of new places. Up the road at Coombe Mill The Boy and Me gang were staying. H and The Boy both got on famously, so next year we’re going back to Coombe Mill to stay!

OMG We're Staying at Coombe Mill next year face

I love Cornwall. Great beaches, great weather and having a proper holiday is always a good thing.

On the way back to London we stayed in a Yurt at the Kingsmead Centre which was loads of fun!

We used our Merlin Passes and visited Weymouth Sea Life on the way back to London.

H in front of the Disneyland Castle

August arrived. We had a short break to Paris planned which didn’t break the bank. We stayed near the Eiffel Tower for a couple of nights. After that we headed to Disneyland Paris and H didn’t have a CLUE! She also got in for free as if you’re six, then that’s what happens. She was seven the following day – and it counts from check-in date. We also managed to do Jedi Training Academy. So that was her surprise 7th birthday treat. We had glorious weather and needed a month to recover afterwards.

In September H moved up to Junior school. She has settled well and is loving it. Her confidence is growing too which is great. She also started Brownies and had moved up a level in swimming at the end of summer to Stage 5.

Because it was a new school we didn’t do a huge amount in September, although made it to Hampton Court again.

H and Milo the Giant African Millipede from Wild Fangs

October was busier though, with H’s birthday party which she really enjoyed.

At the end of October we headed back to York to see my mum, staying there for the first time in a long time. H loved spending time with her nana, and I loved stopping and recharging my batteries. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the whole of half term off, so we took H out of school for two days so she won’t get her 100% attendance this term.

We visited Fountains Abbey with my sister and her boys too.

We also found time to visit Alton Towers which I’d spent plenty of time at in the eighties. I recognised parts, but not that much really, although I’d occasionally have moments where I’d say “Hang on? Wasn’t The Corkscrew there?” and be right.

Fireworks at Carshalton Ponds

November was Bonfire Night which was fun – we stayed by our local ponds and had great views, rather than enter the park and have some views. The end of the year is all about saving money! I booked a ticket for Blogfest earlier in the year and attended but it wasn’t the same. I don’t think I’ll be going next year.

We went to Epsom Downs and saw the supermoon which gave me lots of silhouette photos I do love to take. We planted Miffy Tulips, and got some mesh to put over our plant pot so the foxes won’t dig it up. H did her Brownie promise and remembered it, and I wore my leaders uniform for the first time and felt like I had confidence to do it.

December. We had the school fair (which H helped me on the stall with – see, this is a new confidence she’s found. She used to hide behind me), she has moved up a level at swimming to Stage 6. She has lost two more teeth taking it to 10 total, and is almost there with her handwriting at school, holding out for a pen licence.

Completely unexpected, but H was Star of the Term as voted for by her teachers. She ran up to me incredibly proud in the playground. Their note sums it up. I love that the unexpected things make everything feel even better.

A photo posted by Jo Brooks (@mumfriendlyjo) on

We went back to York for the York Panto which was Cinderella. H got her name read out in the shoutouts part of the production which she loved – and she got a Wagon Wheel! I am still persuading her not to eat it…

We had two visits to see Father Christmas. One was at Chessington Garden Centre and the other at Tottenham’s ground. Of the two, the Tottenham one was the best – he was really warm, fun and engaging and had H chatting. I asked him if he could make sure Tottenham win the league for my present and we all left feeling cheery (but I don’t think he’ll have much luck with that, another good season would be good).

We’re finishing the year off inviting neighbours around to our house. This is a big one for us – until now I’ve felt like our house is too small, though a friend did it last year and made me realise it could be done. Then we had H’s party which proved over 20 people could be in our house with room to spare. My biggest problem had been our heating. It was fine us living here with the crappy heating which I always hated and felt like it only warmed the landing upstairs and our front room – but now we have proper central heating. This house is welcoming again… though I suspect our 1st January trip to the seaside may need to be postponed by a day… that and I’m sure our car won’t make it there and back!

So what will 2017 bring? I know my aches and pains and anxiety aren’t going to go away, but I’ve found if I keep myself busy it helps it not be at the forefront of my mind. I’m going to progress with my training to be a Guide Leader though I’m still not sure I want to be in charge. But we’ll cross that bridge…

We’ve taken out Historic Houses Association membership so at some point we’ll get to Hever Castle which we’ve wanted to visit for a while. We’ll probably need to buy a new car as ours is on its last legs.

See you, 2016. You’ve been busy.

Our 2016 Memberships and Passes

We’re pretty organised when it comes to having memberships and passes for various places. It makes life easier when you can turn up somewhere having already paid. So I thought I’d go through our current ones.

National Trust, Scotney Castle, membership and passes

National Trust. We’re still National Trust members. As far as membership and passes go, this is the one we’ve had the longest at six years now. We make our money back each year and there’s a neverending supply of places to visit. It costs us about £100 a year.

Our Summer - Tintagel, membership and passes

English Heritage. We’ve had this for over a year now as part of Shaun’s CSSC membership. The Civil Service has corporate membership which gives you a discount in the gift shops. We’ve used this a lot and visited some fantastic places. We enjoyed Tintagel in Cornwall when we stayed nearby. This costs us £4 a month.

Legoland Windsor Taylor Swift Legoland Windsor

Merlin Passes. We’re coming to the end of our second year of Merlin Passes. We were planning on going to Chessington or Legoland for Christmas this year. But Merlin have doubled the price making it and it’s expensive. It’s not worth it. We have enjoyed visiting places like the London Dungeon, London Eye, Chessington and Thorpe Park as well as SeaLife in Weymouth. With the price hikes and paying extra we won’t be renewing these ones next year. They were fun but we can get discounts via Shaun’s CSSC membership if we choose to visit a Merlin attraction. We still have one last trip to Alton Towers to go this year, another surprise for H! This costs us £360 a year.

Hampton Court, H on dragon, Hampton Court Magic Garden, membership and passes

Historic Royal Palaces. We took out this one on a whim and it has been brilliant. We’ve visited Hampton Court so many times this year. The best part is that you can visit the majority of the palaces in any weather, and there’s plenty to do. We’ve loved the Magic Garden at Hampton Court. I want to go back to Kensington Palace now I’ve been watching ‘Victoria’ on ITV every Sunday! Having this membership has made history so interesting for us. This cost us £90.

NUS Extra. I’ve signed up to do a course in writing a children’s book which is going slowly. I have my idea and it’s written, but I need to make the time to complete the course. The course means I’m eligible for NUS Extra membership, and it has been brilliant so far. I get 10% off in Superdrug and the Co-Op, and some excellent discounts at Pizza Express too. There is an option to add Gourmet Society membership to it but I didn’t. Then again, Shaun gets it with his CSSC membership so we’re covered if we ever need it. This cost £12.

Painshill Park, membership and passes

Historic Houses Association. This is one of the memberships and passes I’m considering for next year. It would cost around £100 for the three of us but has a lot of properties around the country. We’re staying in Cornwall, we visit York too, and of course nearby there is Painshill Park.

So this is all at the moment. I think it’s a pretty good variety of places to visit and things to do. On the horizon I’m looking at Disneyland Paris passes. They make it worth it if you visit for five days and also offer some good perks and discounts. I also like their FastPass system as everyone can use it.

Do you have any memberships or passes you use that we haven’t covered? Come and suggest them in the comments below.

Shrek’s Adventure

Shrek’s Adventure opened recently at the South Bank in London, and as we’re Merlin Premium passholders we got a chance to go and visit. Read on to find out what we thought.

Shrek's Adventure waiting room

Shrek’s Adventure is the newest Merlin attraction at London’s South Bank. It seemed an odd choice for Merlin – what exactly would it involve? Information is scarce, though there are trailers up on the official site. Being Premium Merlin passholders we got a special green ticket invite to book tickets and try it out, and despite the site crashing, we managed to get tickets for last Sunday.

We had no idea what to expect. Information is scarce on the Shrek’s Adventure website other than mentioning a 4D bus ride – it seemed like there was quite the surprise element to it all.

TOP TIP. Watch Shrek at least a week before you plan to go. We didn’t, so forgot a few of the references. We also forgot H wouldn’t remember ‘I’m A Believer’ which does feature – oops.

Your timeslot is carefully monitored by someone at the door dressed in a pilot’s uniform (think Scooch at Eurovision), and when it’s your turn you’ll head into the building, past a security check (where we were also handed three limited edition Puss in Boots pop badges) and an x-ray which showed up funny things, the obligatory photos in various poses, then onwards to the main area – but you’re not there just yet. After walking down a corridor you’ll enter an area where you’re asked to wait to take a lift down to the next floor.

The timeslot before us were just heading into the lifts, so we knew there would be a bit of a wait, and once we were downstairs we could hear them shouting out something. Soon enough it was our turn – where we were greeted by another actor in a pilot’s uniform, but this time a bit of audience participation – and our turn to do the aforementioned shouting. You’re probably a good 20 minutes in by this point – so be prepared for the queuing.

TOP TIP. The staff made sure to mention the toilets are at the entrance – so make sure you go before you start rather than relying on finding somewhere once you’re in there.

shrek's adventure far far away

Were we excited – YES! So we made it known, and once the group before us had moved on, we entered the main room, a large room where Princess Fiona greeted us, had us doing a singalong of ‘I’m a Believer’ and directing us to the bus for Far Far Away.

Much has been said about the bus ride – and it is really impressive. You’re given an amazing 4D experience riding in the bus and meeting a few Dreamworks characters along the way (you can see parts of it on the YouTube video below).  H’s face was a picture! Shaun and I both got splashed and H thought it was magical – not being able to work out how they did it – she was convinced we had definitely driven somewhere. I wish it had been longer – definitely the highlight!

Things don’t go to plan which is where things begin – you’re set with the challenge to locate Shrek and find the magic portal to get back to London. This is where the people in charge of each room (there are ten rooms in total) must be really on the case – once one set of 30 people have vacated a room, the next lot are in. Each room has different scenarios, stories, activities, participation – this is an adventure, after all.

The most refreshing thing of all was being asked not to take any photos. The uniqueness of Shrek’s Adventure is not knowing what is coming. I loved the surprise element of it all.

My only criticism of Shrek’s Adventure is that it seems like the sort of place you’d only go to once – when you know the story, that’s it. I’m hoping they’ll change things around a bit, as what might make you jump or be unexpected won’t be a second time. How long could it stay open? Why just Shrek and not a Dreamworks Adventure? I don’t know, but I know I enjoyed it, and wondered how it would work, and now having done it, it makes sense. All the characters I remember from Shrek made an appearance, and most of all, H loved it.

Shrek at Shrek's Adventure

You get to meet the big man at the end too – and everyone gets a turn. There are also other Dreamworks characters – we got King Julien – and plenty of photo opportunities with scenes from Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. Again, H was very happy – and at this point you can get your cameras and phones out again.

King Julien at Shrek's Adventure

At the end you get an opportunity to buy a book with the three photos taken at the start plus more taken on your journey – all logged via a wristband you’re given at the start. I liked the book – it’s quite nice and sturdy, and with our Merlin discounts it was £20. You can buy more photos for an additional £10, but we didn’t bother. On the way out there’s the merchandise stall, where H spent some of her pocket money (on a proper bark pencil, branded Shrek) and we treated her to a magic wand pen. There was plenty of merch for the other Dreamworks characters too and we made the most of our passholder discount again.

Shrek's Adventure Skipper K and Rico

For Shrek’s Adventure we were able to prebook for £1 on our Premium passes , though you can just turn up and get the next available slot – but as the numbers are strict you may end up waiting if it’s busy. Standard passholders can get into Shrek’s Adventures for free from January next year.

The official Shrek’s Adventure website is over here. Tickets can be bought from £23.40 which seems like a lot, but the whole experience is over an hour, and if you compare what you get price wise to the London Eye, then it’s good value. It is also available as part of a combination ticket for all the Merlin attractions around the South Bank.

Legoland Windsor

We visited Legoland Windsor last Easter (2014) when it was fairly busy. Since then we’ve had Merlin passes bought for us as our family Christmas present so we decided it was time to revisit.

Legoland

Legoland Windsor is an extremely popular theme park, as you’d expect. It has been open this season for just over a month now but we have reason to go back another time.

We wanted to try and get to some of the areas we hadn’t been able to get to last time as well as revisit some places we liked. We were meant to go over Easter but H was ill, so we ended up going a week later – and this actually was a much better plan. It was pouring with rain as we left home, the kind of rain that would put anyone off going anywhere, especially an outdoor theme park. The rain was due to stop between 10-11am, and turn into a pleasantly warm day – so it was worth risking.

We made it to Windsor in just over an hour, there were no queues into the park and we got parked up and inside really quickly. Once inside I activated our free Wifi in an attempt to follow the Lego Movie trail (we only found Emmett and Benny, though Shaun thought he spotted Wyldstyle) heading straight to the Imagination Zone which we had enjoyed last time. We decided to aim towards Lego City, which was pretty rammed. In fact, most things seemed to have long queues in this area so we decided to try another time. Instead we headed to Atlantis, mainly as the queues had been so prohibitively long last time we wanted to see if it was do-able. It was – we were on the ride within five minutes!

Legoland atlantis

H loved Atlantis too – we all did, being in a submarine-like vessel going “underwater” amongst sharks and various fish, as well as Lego models. The ride was quite short, but it was good being so close to everything – it got a big thumbs up from us!

After Atlantis we decided to head towards Squid Surfers – with a quick detour to Dino Safari which H and I went on, again queueing for no longer than ten minutes. Squid Surfers was my favourite ride last time, mainly as you get to press buttons on the outside and squirt the riders – or more often than not, yourself! Once we got to Squid Surfers Shaun and H decided to go on there, and this was probably the longest queue of all the things we decided to go on, at around 20 minutes. Shaun and H got on the ride while I stood squirting them. Whoops. They were drenched. I didn’t realise I was THAT bad..  Afterwards we stopped for a burger and chips before heading down the street that is now Heartlake City (from Lego Friends) – which makes sense as most of the range seems to have shops and places to eat… no plastic croissants or bagels though.

Legoland

Last year there was an area you could drive diggers (which H enjoyed) which is now being made into Heartlake City. H LOVES Lego Friends – so we know we’ll be going back at some point when it opens (currently May – it’s all boarded up at the moment). This also meant the little train that goes around Legoland Windsor isn’t working as the station is being done up as well.

H was still pretty wet, especially on her feet so we needed to buy her some new socks (using our Merlin Passholder 10% discount) – the stores at the entrance had a decent enough selection. None of the shops in Heartlake City had them – which is kind of weird as it’s next to a lot of the water rides.

After that we wandered towards Land of the Vikings and Knights Kingdom, where there were more rides to go on, and a play area which gave us a sit down while H climbed all over it.

Legoland

It was around now it struck me – Legoland Windsor was so quiet that nobody was really using Q-Bot’s – their paying queue jumper thing which winds me up every time I see someone using it. It was really pleasant. Everyone got on the rides quickly, and everyone who works at Legoland is cheery and asks how your day is going, sounding like they geniunely care (rather than because they’re being told to say it).

There was a small table to build a Lego Robot for £3.50 which H did on her own and enjoyed, we found a coin squashing machine to add another coin to her collection, we got lost in the maze, and finally persuaded H to go into the Lego Star Wars area, as well as the Viking’s River Splash (again, a five minute wait at the most, and a handful of Q-Bot users by then who were probably cursing wasting their money on them).

It was a really enjoyable day – and we got a lot of rides we hadn’t done before out of the way. There are still a few we haven’t done, but I was pleased we were able to do quite a lot. We’ll be back at the end of May once Heartlake City is properly open unless we get an exclusive Merlin deal (I doubt it) – H is super excited to go, and I’m hoping it’ll be open then!

Chessington in the Rain

Chessington World of Adventures is just 30 minutes up the road for us, and is somewhere we’ve never been – that was until we bought a Merlin Pass, which started today. Of course, it was pouring down for most of the day, and while the whole park isn’t open until March, we did wonder if it was possible to still have fun, so here’s my review of Chessington in the rain!

Chessington World of Adventures

Chessington in the rain is probably not the first thing on someone’s mind when thinking of something to do on a rainy day. We would have gone the following day except H has a party – and really, we were curious what was there. It’s all well and good looking at maps online but you only really get a feel for a place once you’re there. As Premium Merlin Pass holders we could do lots of things at no extra cost, though actually to be fair there’s only a few hours in the day you can do it anyway, so most things were achieved!

chessington in the rain

We spent the bulk of our sheltered time in two places – the All-You-Can-Eat buffet (which came in at £20 with our Merlin discounts) and the SeaLife area which looks small, but packs a lot into the space – and which we enjoyed very much. Add to that a discount in the shop afterwards and I can see how we’ll end up making our money back on our passes once the season gets into full swing.

3- jellyfish

SeaLife – deceptively small, and plenty inside, including jellyfish, which I love watching. The stingrays got pretty close too, and H got to put her hand in the water to have a shrimp tickle her hand which she started off nervous about, and found it quite fun in the end.

sealife tickly shrimp

We wandered around the grounds – most shops were open, and the remnants of the Christmas displays were still out – Christmas songs over the speakers, which I know will change in a day or two when it will just be Zoo Days. The monkey area at Amazu (which also had the most gorgeous of capybara’s) also has the treetop walk, which H slipped over in – Shaun kept her company up there, but with it being wet the slide was closed, so they didn’t stay there too long.

There were reindeer although we missed the meet and greet, and donut stands which couldn’t keep up with the demand (always a good excuse to tell a cold and tired five year old when she’s desperate for some), as well as a Gruffalo show at the Africa Stage which lasted for around 25 minutes.

gruffalo chessington in the rain

We arrived around midday and stayed until closing at 3pm – it was nice to get a feel of the place, and actually, Chessington in the rain is absolutely fine – there really is plenty under cover to do. There was a lot more we could have done as well, we’ll be back to do that as soon as we can!

Chessington’s website is here