Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Travel Round Up

Happy Tuesday!

Having caught up with colleagues today about holiday plans for the rest of the year I realised that I naturally head to Facebook to show photos of where we have been if anyone is looking for suggestions. It was halfway through a Facebook search that I realised our blog is actually a way better source of information. So excuse the link heavy post but I thought I would share our travel stories with you too.

This is a quick round up of some of our travel posts in case you are looking for your next travel destination......

Naples: This southern Italian city is famous for pizza but it's location on the Bay of Naples overlooking Pompeii makes it an ideal location for a mini break or as stop off when exploring the Amalfi coast.

Here is our list of things you need to know before going: blog post

Paris: normally a weekend destination this is what happened when we spent a whole week exploring the city, and the extra days meant we discovered a whole new part of the city. And when we went back for a spring weekend, here.

Santorini: The picturesque Greek island that is built on the ridge of an active volcano makes for a wonderful holiday destination if you like sun, sea and stunning views. Famous for it white houses and wonderful sunsets this is everything a romantic destination should be.
Here's where we suggest you stay, click here.
And our top 10 tips for your visit.

Barcelona: This European won us over, not on my first trip but our third. You have to check out Sagrada Familia, it is wonder to behold. It's the only city that i've been to that has a beach a short walk from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping streets. Plus the Tapas is delicious!

Stuttgart: If you want a great mini break, you like beer, cars or you just want to discover somewhere new then this German city is worth checking out - it's architecture is beautiful.

Iceland: It's cold, it's like no-where else and if you are lucky enough you may spot the Northern Lights here. Even if you aren't lucky you can make your own luck by visiting the natural hot springs or checking out the geysers.

Jerusalem: Not top of everyone's to do list but with the right tour guide this place is incredible and jammed with history. The beach is nice too :)

Javia: This coastal spot on the Costa Blanca is driving distance to Valencia but offers the perfect beach getaway.

Rest of the world
Sydney: There is a reason this city is loved by everyone that visits. We stayed on the Manly side of the harbour while visiting friends but made sure we spent at least a day in the city as well visiting the surrounding areas.

Koh Samui, Thailand: This beach paradise was the destination of one of our friends weddings and allowed us to spend us week in paradise. That was until Laura got bitten by a dog.

The Great Californian Road Trip including LA,  Yosemite, Death Valley, Disneyland, Vegas, Highway 1 and San Francisco Part 1, San Francisco part 2 and San Francisco part 3. We even put together a highlight video: here

Egypt: We spent less than a day in Egypt but managed to see the pyramids, float on the Nile, check out a mosque, learn how to make paper and see the Sphinx.

Canada: It is possible to get to Canada for a fairly reasonable price right now and we seriously recommend you check it out. We loved Toronto and Niagara Falls was breathtaking, and deserving of it's wonder status.

Boise, Idaho: Potato capital of the US, Rocky mountain region and all round beautiful place. This state experiences all 4 four season so whatever time of year you visit you can expect something different.

New York: We loved New York and going at Christmas time was extra special. Although take our advice and don't spend New Year in Times Square here's why.

Moscow: The most unique travel experience we have ever had. The language was a challenge but the trip was worth it and the memories we made will last a live time.

UK Based Trips
Birmingham: Our home city but before we moved here we fell in love with it's mixture of old and new buildings, city and country. Great for a day trip - even better to live in.

The Great Northern Road Trip: From Manchester to Falkirk to Aberdeen we managed 277 miles in a day. Then to the top of Scotland and Loch Ness before reaching the stunning Isle of Skye.

Here's why Manchester is worth a visit.

And if you are up north Liverpool, home of the Beatles and so much more should be on your to do list, here's why.

Stratford-Upon Avon: Shakespeare's birth place it is quintessentially British, packed with history and a great place to spend the day.

Hebden Bridge: A beautiful, Yorkshire village that is dog and LGBT friendly. A perfect place to appreciate the beauty of Britain.

Wollaton Hall: This Nottingham country house is famous for featuring as Wayne Manor in Batman films but we discovered the grounds are filled with deer and the house has it's own museum. Worth a day trip.

Stone Henge and Glastonbury: A wonder of the world and a world famous festival within miles of each other make this an area to check out. Add in rolling countryside and hills that allow you to see for miles and this is a great place to visit with dogs and friends.

The Cotswolds: Perfect for wandering around beautiful villages, getting fresh air and feeling British this area of the country has so much to offer. Time it just right and you see fields of lavender or stroll up Broadway Tower for wonderful views.

Cambridge: A city full of history, magnificent buildings and the River Cam where you can punt and admire a different view. If you have a day and can make it to college city do it. This posts lists why!

Loch Lomond: Driving distance from Glasgow this area is so pretty they wrote a song about it, we even finished our wedding with the line 'on the bonny bony banks of Loch Lomond'.

 Happy Travels

Monday, 24 April 2017

Review: Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, UK

Bank holidays are made for getaways. You know if you can travel when the traffic is not ridiculously chaotic.

Our destination for the April Bank Holiday was Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire - not too far from Leeds and Keighley. Described as a bohemian, creative market village with a cute shopping centre and stunning surroundings it was an ideal destination. Their tourist website is here.

It also got voted as the lesbian capital of the UK by the BBC but we saw little signs of why exactly that was although a few rainbow flags were spotted.

We were staying in an Airbnb with friends. The hosts had allowed us to arrive whenever was convenient so we checked in just after lunch. The nearest supermarket was in Sowerby Bridge a quick 10 minute drive away and that was our first stop to stock up. There were a few co-ops in the village and plenty of cafes if you are without a car.
The Hebden Bridge
Hebden Bridge is also very dog friendly and that proved very handy when exploring the village. It was a short walk from our Airbnb via a canal to get to the heart of the village and on arrival we were greeted with independent gift shops and cafes as well as a tourist information centre. Our first stop was the famous Hebden Bridge followed by the tourist information centre to improve my local knowledge.

We were the 'dead' centre of town in our Airbnb, our neighbours were 'dead' upset (sorry)

With guidebook in hand I was informing my party of the history of the town from it's original days as a packhorse route that provided weary travellers with inns and food on their journey to flourishing days as a wool market before declining as people moved to the nearby cities for work. It's resurgence came in the 60's and 70's as creative types moved to the area in search of inspiration and tranquility. As transport routes improved it soon became a great country location for those working in Leeds and Manchester. Today is still has it creative side and tourism is on a steady increase.

We spent the Saturday in the village enjoying what the shops and cafes had to offer including the cream tea at the Blitz cafe that was delicious and the Lampost Cafe  that had dog friendly cakes on offer, so we splurged on treats for the dogs after their walk.

A relaxed Saturday left us with plenty of energy to spent the Sunday exploring the area. That meant a walk in the beautiful surrounding hills.

Hardcastle Crags
The picturesque walk I had in my mind was sadly over shadowed by mist and rain but with map in hand Laura and I decided it was still worth exploring even if it was just to give Bisbee a walk. What we should have done is gone to Hardcastle Crags a scenic woodland valley with a visitor centre, what we did was took our paper map and headed to the hills. I secretly hoped the weather forecast was right and that the rain would move on to leave behind a nice clear day. It did not.

As we ascended the hill behind our Airbnb it felt good to be out in the fresh air but as we started the woodland part of the walk our initial positivity started to wain. The path was thin and steep and in order to walk it safely we had to do so single file. With the promise of ruins and interesting sights ahead we persevered. After an hour we started to find the map directions harder to follow, whimsical directions like 'left at the great oak tree, or step through the hole in the wall as you look towards the valley' started to seem confusing and harder to align with what we could see. One wrong turn in particular took us to the very top of a hill into a farm that had two Alsatian dogs ready to chase us off - thankfully an electric fence protected us but it had our hearts racing.

The start, the middle, the end
After two hours the rain still hadn't subsided and we were almost completely lost so we decided to head back into the woods and down towards the stream to see if we could get our bearings. Thanks to my wonderful wife's sharp eye she spotted a bridge that sounded like one of the points mentioned on the map. The only problem was it was way down the hill and the sheer drop did not seem like a good idea, We tried right - dead end, we tried left - complete bog and so then we went back to the farm and tried a different route. Eventually we made it to the bridge almost an hour later.

Our adventurer, me sherpering Laura and  one of the many precarious bridges
Some 4 hours later we took our friends up on the offer of a rescue - it was the first time we had seen a road. The frustrating thing was it a 4 minute drive from the Airbnb but would have taken us 34 mins to walk. Be warned the hills around Hebden Bridge are steep. Steeper than they look. And not easy to navigate in the spring/ when wet. Maybe wait for the mud to dry out.

The map that caused the challenge, the bridge that saved us, the Bee Boles (old beehives) we got to see and the somewhat misty view we enjoyed

The steep slopes down had been harder to navigate that the pathways going up. Often the path became a bog. Often that bog would be ankle deep. Laura's walking shoes eventually became mud clogs and that made them super slippy so the scene would often have Laura gripping my shoulders as I slowly guided us both down - imagine someone learning to ski and there you have Laura trying to get down. Thankfully Bisbee was happy bounding in whatever direction took her fancy and our slow pace seemed to provided more time for her to explore.

After the 4 hours we were greeted with a home cooked roast and it tasted SO good. We love that Airbnb's really are a home from home and allow you to cook when and what you want. Our evening was spent watching films on TV.

While it was an experience it is one I am glad we attempted, next time though i'm sticking to the well trodden tourist tracks.

The canals crossing the village, the variety of things to do and the restaurants to try should keep you entertained for a weekend getaway and the fact that the houses and village lay out have barely changed over time add a sense that you have stepped back in time. If you can, take a walk up The Buttress (a very steep packhorse route) to enjoy views over the valleys.

We plan to make the trip back to visit Hardcastle Crags but until then we will reminisce on bank holiday visit and discovering a new place.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The Average Girls Guide To Yoga

Back in January we wrote a blog post on how we planned to start yoga and did a quick round up of what we discovered from our first session. You can check it out here.

That was a little over 6 months ago and since then yoga has become part of our regular activity. If diaries allow we have yoga twice a week and occasionally add in a de-stress session for good measure.

This post isn't to try and convince you to try yoga it is our guide to what we have got from yoga and if that inspires you to try it then great. If it just provides a bit of insight into what yoga is then that's all good and if you already yoga and you can think of any points to add by all means share them.

A year ago I didn't even think that I was a yoga type of person - I'm glad I didn't let that stop me trying it.

Put simply Yoga is: a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India (thanks wikipedia)

Or as I like to call it focused stretching.

Every session starts with us finding our breath, what this means in reality is actually focusing on breathing and slowing it to an equal inhale and exhale. Even if you aren't doing yoga this way of breathing can really calm you down. The theory being that if you are focusing on controlling your breathing you can focus on little else.
Our studio

Once everyone in the class has found their breath it is then about focusing on being in the practice. I really like how our yoga teacher always starts with the same mantra - 'you can't change what as happened in your day or your week, you can't start on tomorrow and worrying about the future is wasted energy so focus on now' - or something like that, I tend to be too zen to take notes.

The classes can be big, small, mixed sexes, single sex, hot, relaxed, warm, intense, by candle light, beginner, intermediate or advance. They can wake you up, energise you or relax you. This is what I am really starting to love about yoga, it is so many things and often so many things in the same class.

Not only that but it is truly for everyone. (I read this post that I loved on the subject Fat girls do yoga too).

And you can do it anywhere - we even tried it at sea! Tried being the key word, see here.

In the three months we have been attending classes I have seen men and women in their 80's attending the same class as me and doing it just as well. That's the thing, almost every move has a 'version' based on your level. Sure if you can swing your leg above your head and casually hold it there then go for it but in most cases the easiest pose will start at a lower level - lift your leg for example. Our teacher always says 'yogi's' choice and lets us pick the level.

Here's where my stretching comment comes in, every move in yoga is about stretching. From the tips of your toes to your finger tips in a class you will work everything. The core will be a central focus as that's where the strength comes from but take last nights class we balanced, we twisted, we stretched backwards, bent forwards, we stretched our legs, our arms, our necks - in fact I'm not sure what we didn't stretch. And because it is just you working with your body it is all done within your capability range. I am astonished by what my body can do.

The other thing that never fails to surprise me is how one class I will pulling out new poses with ease and then when I try it again a few days later my body can't get there. This is what meant by 'go to where you are feeling it' and it is a phrase I focus on. Nothing in yoga is about failing, it is all about trying and if one day your body is feeling it and allows you to forward fold with a leg behind your back then go for it.

Looking around it is also interesting to see that some people are flexible in one pose and stiff in another. Everyone is different.

The breath is the key to success though and even if all you do in a session is breath and stretch a little you will still feel the benefit.

In any class the focus is always inwards too so while I was ready to be intimated by the pro's a few sessions in I realised by focusing on them I was actually losing focus on my practice. I still look around to ensure I'm doing it right but it's more to check I haven't misheard something. In our new yoga studio the teacher is easier to see as the classes are smaller but as the teacher often walks around helping people get the pose right they are never the main focus.

Since starting yoga I sit up straighter, I have core muscles that I forgot about and I feel fitter. The stretching is something I do at home after a session at my desk and it feels so good. Who knew that something that is ultimately simple could make such a difference.

I am also learning a new language. While even those who have no clue what yoga is can joke about the downward dog, I now complete my vinyasa with it. In our flow class we focus on going from a pose to high plank, dropping the knees, entering cobra then rising to downward dog and it all makes complete sense. After the initial cat, cow, happy baby poses we are now in eagle, reverse warrior, warrior III (that looks like a T), tree, half moon, and I enjoy ending in shavasana (or corpse pose = lying on your back) if you are interesting in checking out more poses see here. Kalimukti.com is an online yoga platform and has shared 78 beginner yoga poses (helpfully in alphabetical order if you remember a name but not a pose).  There are also online classes available if you want to try yoga at home with guidance.

A vinyasa or flow or moves

The points I raised in the blog post after 3 sessions are still true but over time I have figured out why a yoga body is so rocking. It isn't necessarily skinny but it is strong - in mind and body. I hope with continued focus and work I can claim a yoga body too - as well as a healthy mind :)

If you want to try out a few simple poses before attending a class (you don't need to) but here's some to try: http://dailyburn.com/life/fitness/beginner-yoga-poses-workout/ or check out Kalimukti for a free trial.


Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Growing Up. It isn't so bad right?!

Have you heard that phrase 'growing up is a trap'? I never wanted to grow up. I was never one of those kids who couldn't wait to be older or get away from my parents. I had a sense that life got harder and not easier so I was in no rush.

Getting older hasn't been half as bad as I though though, it's been more of a roller-coaster than I expected but the ups have been better than any childhood dream and the downs have been more about facing reality than hitting rock bottom.

I don't feel like I rushed to grow up but I don't feel like I am youngster any more, growing up just seemed to happen and I hold Laura mainly responsible :)

Catching up with Uni friends recently I was asked questions that forced me to take a look over my life in a way I hadn't for a while. It had been 9 years since we had all been together. 9 years! I can't quite get my head around that as a decade sounds like such a long time but it seemed like only a few weeks since we had all met up in a local pub.

In 9 years one of my friends has managed to have 2 kids and achieve 6 years of happy marriage, while another is engaged and has bought a house but doesn't really see a future in their current job. I have married the beautiful Laura, bought a flat and a house and brought the wonderful Bisbee into our lives. Oh and managed 3 jobs and a year in Australia. How can 9 years boil down to those short sentences though?! Are they achievements? Are they what defines us? Or are they just social markers that people relate to? After we had listed our short sentences we ordered lunch. It seemed formal almost. If that's what 9 years of living was defined as how boring.

After the ordering was complete we started again, this time rather than the short overall explanations we started talking about what we enjoyed, our interests and ridiculous things that we'd been through - it was like 9 years had never happened. As we recounted stories of travel and funny work moments it was as if we were back at Uni, talking about people in different classes rather than our jobs. For all our personal achievements that had stacked up over the 9 years I think the greatest achievement was that we hadn't changed much at all. The crude, rude, sarcastic sense of humour that drew us together some 15 years ago was still there. The one liners, the wit and the amusing stories flowed and i'm sure people on other tables wondered what was so funny.

Time flew.

The two questions that got me thinking most were: 'so what do you enjoy doing?' and 'If you had a weekend with no plans what would you do?' Simple questions but how often do we get asked them? I honestly don't remember the last time that someone asked me. What would your answer be?

Growing up can seem to be all about responsibilities. Marriage/ relationship commitment takes work. It takes time to see family and friends. Jobs require you to turn up and fill most of your days. Bills need paying. Life needs planning. Nothing just happens. And so to take a moment and think about what I would do was refreshing.

My answer: To maximise the weekend I would leave Friday night, the plan would be to spend the weekend exploring, ideally the UK countryside to see some stunning views. We'd drive and make it a road trip. Laura would manage the music and the route and Bisbee would be enjoying the fresh air out the window. We would drive for 4-6 hours to make it feel like a getaway and end up in an AirBnB. Our own space. We'd discover a dog friendly pub for dinner and share fruit ciders while snuggled by a fire eating hearty English pub grub. The days would be spent just being together and enjoying the fresh air. If time permits we'd catch up with friends (and hopefully a dog) or family on the way back who would want to hear all about the trip so we'd get to relive it and pick a highlight.

I'm simple that way all I really need is the wife, the puppy and a bit of travel. And that's why growing up isn't half as bad as I thought. I never thought I would be lucky enough to find someone who entertains, encourages and engulfs me in love the way Laura does. I never thought I would find someone I wouldn't get bored off. I learnt from early relationships that I needed to be challenged and that if I had to make every decision it would never last. Thankfully Laura and I are a team. We know our strengths and our weaknesses and everything in between. Growing up with Laura has made growing up pretty amazing.
My Everything

And travel, travel has made growing up WAY more interesting than I ever thought. I'd traveled as a kid but to the more popular destinations - Spain, Tenerife, Scotland, but we had never explored the way Laura and I do now. Trip Advisor wasn't a thing, people didn't share travel reviews unless it was the back of a postcard and flights weren't as affordable. Now we feel like we know a place before we even get there and the challenge is to find the hidden gem. And I love it!

On that note we are off have a weekend filled with my favourite things in Hebden Bridge for Easter and i'm already excited. We are also planning our Vegas trip in May, we are heading there with family to celebrate my Mum's 60th so it will be a new experience for us. It turns out there is still so much of Vegas we are yet to see, even after: Vegas for Laura's 21st and our Bachelorette!

So this Wednesday, with the sun shining, the flowers starting to bloom and winter looking like a distant memory maybe take some time to figure out what you would do with a free weekend.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Review: Reading FC Hospitality

It's been quite the weekend.

Last year we celebrated my Dad's 60th Birthday by organising hospitality for a Reading FC home match. As a loyal Royal it made sense to give my Dad an experience he would love and remember - and watching football was something we could all enjoy.

We purchased 6 places in the 1871 suite. The package was £62 + vat per person and included:

  • Place at a table in the 1871 suite for dinner
  • One course gourmet 'pub lunch'
  • Access to a cash bar
  • Match day programme and team sheet
  • Match day entertainment

On the day we arrived and were shown to our table, impressed at the view our day started well. Unfortunately a power cut had meant that a full menu wasn't available and for some reason the bar was under-stocked so we only had access to beer and soft drinks unless we went to another area.
We tried to stay upbeat but with limited service it put a dampener on the day. The highlight ended up being the seats and the result - something that would have been the same if we had paid for regular seats.

For my Mum I think meeting Kingsley and Queensley!

After we got home we agreed that rather than just complain between ourselves we would provide feedback to the club.

My Mum took the initiative and rung the hospitality team eventually being introduced to Adam Benson - Commercial Director.

From the moment Adam heard our story he was apologetic, kind and caring. His customer service was exemplary. He offered my Mum and our family the opportunity to attend another match to give us a chance to see what Reading FC hospitality is really like.

This time we had a place in the Vice Presidents Suite (£85 +vat).

The experience was amazing. 2 days later we are still talking about what a wonderful time we had.

Like before we were welcomed and shown to our table. This time we had:

  • A chef assisted carvery
  • Half time and full time refreshments
  • Availble bar
  • Premium seating
  • Match day programme and team sheet
  • Car park space

The carvery was delicious, the bar fully stocked and the experience at a different level. The lemon meringue pie for dessert was so good I persuaded everyone in my party to have it. Unlike before where staff seemed somewhat confused every time we asked a question the staff here were anticipating our requests, so when faced with an empty plate where pie once was they disappeared and a whole new pie appeared.

The only disappointment was that I filled up on the first two courses that I left no room for the cheese on offer.

While the Vice-Presidents Suite was smaller than the 1871 Suite and didn't over look the pitch it had a nice atmosphere and the staff were attentive. Fitting 10 people our table was a slight push - the other 4 people on our table were all men and as we tucked in a corner there wasn't much room to spare. One of the ladies working quickly arranged another table and allowed us to spread out so problem solved.

After dinner we made our way out to our seats and I can honestly say in all my years of going to games with my Dad I don't think I have ever had such a good view. Sat directly on the half way line, up by the TV cameras it was exactly where football should be watched from. Reading also put in a great performance winning 1-0 against a team just above them in the league. Happy day all round.

Our experience was enhanced by simple but effective service, blankets were provided to go outside - perfect for the under-dressed members of my family who hadn't anticipated the cold evening. At half time we had biscuits and tea/coffee on offer - exactly what we all needed and at the end of the match vegetable soup greeted us. Delicious and warming.

We were having such a great time that we stayed almost 2 hours after the match. We took part, and won, the pub quiz so our table shared a bottle of champagne. A great end to a great day.

We met old players and a childhood hero of mine - Michael Gilkes - who played for Reading when I was a kid.

And as chance had it 3 members of the Kaiser Chiefs were also in the Suite with us (you may remember I Predict A Riot and Ruby). As the champagne flowed I may have fan-girled.

Adam had ensured our experience didn't end there though.

He had organised that we could all stay overnight at the Madjeski Hotel at the ground. The gesture was much appreciated as we had come down from Birmingham and my sister and boyfriend had come from London. While neither location is a million miles way not having to get home after the match was great. We were able to relax and catch up as a family and as timing had it my Mum had just celebrated her 60th so it was celebrations all round.

The hotel stay included access to the on site health club so we started our Sunday morning with a swim and sauna before indulging in breakfast. It felt like being on holiday.

While we got our experience as a gesture of goodwill I would highly recommend spending the extra to do this experience over the 1871 Suite. We plan to head back on other occasions and if you are looking for a company event or prize for someone this would be perfect.

For all the years I sat in my season ticket seat I never imagined what was on offer in the hospitality area. I am almost more impressed at what the Madjeski Stadium can offer having seen behind the scenes that I ever thought I could be staring out at the pitch.

If you want to check out the full hospitality offering see here.

Thank you Adam and the team for making my Dad's 60th and our day unforgettable.