Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Delilah's First Birthday and a Super-Easy Dog Birthday Cake

I can't believe our little bundle of fluff has turned one.  In some ways it only seems five minutes since she burst into our lives, turning everything upside down.  In others, we simply can't imagine life without her, she completes our household and comes everywhere with us.

From the very first meeting she stole our hearts.  We struggled through the toilet training, hands red raw from excessive anti-bacterial gel. Constant mopping up and disinfecting. Training her to walk nicely on her lead (ok, so that's still a work in progress) and getting her to sleep through in her crate.

Actually, it was over so much sooner than I expected.  She just fit right it. She's so laid back, happy to stay home alone if I'm out, or leap into the van to come on camping trips with us.  When we lost Ella I truly didn't think I'd be able to love another dog, but she's filled up my heart and I can't imagine life without her now.

Ruby had been planning her first birthday for months, and when the day came (slight confusion over the actual date - the vet has one registered, the Kennel Club another but we went by the date of the photo we were sent from the breeders when they were first born) she was determined to give her and her brother a birthday to remember.

Delilah was showered with cards and presents before her 'party in the woods'. I'm quite sure anyone passing would have thought we were barking mad, but hey!

I have gag-inducing memories of the annual 'dog cakes' Blue Peter used to concoct on the TV when I was a child.  Dollops of tinned meat congealed with jelly.  Ruby too had been scouring Youtube for suitable recipes, all of which involved baking, and most of which I'm fairly sure Delilah wouldn't have eaten.

Instead, I came up with my own super-easy and tasty doggy birthday cake which went down a storm, and importantly, didn't make me heave.

I picked two large beef burger patties from the supermarket and grilled them. Allowed them to cool completely before sandwiching them together and 'icing' with meat pâté.  The result was a chunky, meat-tastic pink cake, finished off with dog biscuits to decorate and a birthday candle - naturally.

Both Delilah and her brother went mad for it and would probably have wolfed the whole thing down given the chance, but I thought it would be too rich given that they're used to dry food, so they each just had a slice.

Me and Ruby had baked some peanut butter doggy biscuits too, so they munched on those washed down with a warm flask of homemade chicken stock.  Spoilt pooches!

Singing Happy Birthday to two dogs in the woods and blowing out their candle may seem odd to most people, but I think we've started a tradition!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Colour Me Happy - Autumn Crafts in the Forest

I'll admit to feeling a bit of a slump this September.  It hit me really hard. The end of a fabulous summer and amazing holidays. I struggled with the back-to-school scenario, Ruby moving up another year, her last year in her current school.  The sense of time rushing on and passing me by.  The sudden change in the weather and the days shortening.  However, Autumn has always been my favourite time of the year and now that October has kicked in, I can feel my spirits start to lift again with the promise of spectacular colours, afternoons spent kicking through crispy leaves, gathering shiny conkers, the smell of woodsmoke and bonfires, hearty casseroles and wooly mittens on the horizon.

I'm not alone,  recent research by the Forestry Commission shows that  96% of people point to beautiful autumn colours improving their mood.  In order to make the most of this stunning time of the year, they have developed a series of 'Colour Me Happy' autumn trails  to delight the senses.  Children and families can search for and hide acorns like squirrels, listen to the crunchy leaves underfoot and forage for juicy blackberries.  The trail will give your wellbeing a boost before the winter months.

Rachel Giles, Learning Manager, explains:

“Autumn is such a special time of the year, and the forest creates a wealth of opportunities to explore with all our senses – from tasting juicy blackberries, to smelling the damp earth, and enjoying the amazing array of colours of the trees. We hope that this trail will really get people excited about being in the forest this autumn, and that they will also learn something about the trees and wildlife that they find during their visit.”

There is also the chance to be part of our wonderful woodland weave. Hang your piece of forest art within the canvas to help us create a vibrant community artwork and share the growing masterpiece with us on Facebook using #ColourMeHappy.

We headed to the forest this weekend to soak up some fresh air, and I popped a few craft materials in my bag.  Collecting up autumn treasures such as acorns, pine cones, beautiful coloured leaves, delicate ferns and soft feathers, we set about making a dream catcher.  All you need is a hoop - you can use a wooden embroidery hoop, or make one from wire - some string or yarn and some beads and collected treasure to decorate.

Dream-catchers originate in Native America and are hung above the bed to filter out bad dreams.  Ruby's delighted with hers and plans to hang it in her bunk in the camper van.

Next, I set her the task of finding some tiny treasure. She hunted down teeny pine cones, delicate feathers, small pieces of fern and miniature coloured leaves to make fairy jars.  I brought along a packed of little glass jars (I bought mine from The Works and cost £1 for a packet of 6) and some packets of glitter.  We filled the jars with fairy treasure and a sprinkle of magic dust.  She's made some for her friends as good luck charms, and we think they're just delightful.

If you want more ideas such as making your own blackberry art, leaf bookmark, mini woodland weave or autumn colouring sheets, download the free activity pack from the Forestry Commission.

Disclosure: We are Forestry Commission bloggers and receive an annual pass, we were also sent a pack of craft materials for this activity.

Friday, 16 September 2016

How To Deal With Your Hound When You Go On Holiday

Since having our motorhome, we've loved going off on family adventures, and the great thing is the dog can come too.  We also often seek out places that are dog friendly and have stayed in some amazing self catering cottages and even hotels.

However, there's bound to come a time when you're going somewhere that pooch can't come.  This summer we jetted off to Crete and of course, she couldn't join us. This was the first time we'd ever left her, so it was pretty heartbreaking.

Figuring out who to care for your pet while you're away can be a daunting task and you need to find the right setting so you don't have to worry about them when your mind should be on beaches and suncream!

There are various options though, so I'm sure you can find the best solution for your furry friend. Sometimes it can be a case of trial and error though as Amanda from The Ana Mum Diary found out:

We've tried a couple of different ways with our dog.  The first was a dog sitter and this worked really well, and I felt confident leaving him.  Recently we tried kennels as it was a longer trip and though we didn't really have any issues as such, Bennett didn't eat for a few days because he was anxious. I think overall I felt more confident with the dog sitter as he seems more settled when he's in a home environment.


This is a person who has your dog in their own home while you're away.  It can be to be a more expensive option, but  it's the one we tend to choose as we've found a great sitter who we know and trust and she used to have our old dog. She has the dogs as part of the family, so I can relax knowing she's still getting her creature comforts as well as lots of interaction and cuddles.  She sends us regular pictures so we know that Delilah is happy and settled - I loved this picture she sent of her soaking up the sun!

Recommendations from others is a good idea if you're looking for someone for the first time, but there are other ways of sourcing a reliable sitter.

Penny from Parent Shaped says:

We met our dog sitter through an online company, she's been brilliant and also has a greyhound so we always know he is having a brilliant holiday too.  She is retired, always available in the school holidays and has lots of time to walk him.

Lins from Boo and Maddie has a regular dog-walker who she uses when she's at work, so she's been lucky that she'll also dog sit for holidays:

If we're going somewhere either abroad or isn't dog-friendly in the UK, we always try to leave Maddie with the lady who takes her out for walks.  She lives nearby, doesn't cost us any more than kennels and she and Maddie absolutely adore each other.  We know she'll be well looked after and get lots of walks and attention.


Lucy of Lish Concepts chooses a trusted kennel for her dog Buddy:

We have lovely kennels in the countryside near us run by two sisters who adore dogs.  They have outside and inside spaces and a large woodland area out the back for walks.  Buddy loves it and is always happy to go and come home again. I'm glad because I always worried when we leave him alone.

Tanya from Mummy Barrow picked a great kennel with added benefits:

What I look for is Cheeky's reaction when he goes. It was recommended to us the first time we used it (I think that is really important, find somewhere a friend is happy with). Since then Cheeky has loved going.  He knows as we approach where we are going and literally jumps out of the car and runs down the drive to reception.  They all know him by name,  Also they have a webcam in some kennels, so when we recommend to friends with a ver timid dog they put her in the kennel with the webcam so they can watch and see they're fine!  A kennel that really listens to you and is prepared to adapt is crucial too.

Michelle from The American Resident has found a home from home for her dog:

I use the kennels run by our dog's breeder.  She LOVES going back to her first home, almost too much!  The pros are that they already know and love her, the cons are they can see how lazy we've been with her training!

Family and friends

Using family and friends can be a great option (usually free or cheaper!) Your dog will already know and be familiar with them and they'll know all their little foibles.  The negative is that something could go wrong or your pet disgrace themselves and impact on your relationship!

Cass from Frugal Family has solved two problems in one:

We have someone in our family who comes and stays in our house with Buddy while we go away which is great because I think he's too set in his ways to be happy anywhere but his own home.  It also has the added benefit  that our house isn't empty either.

Mari from Mari's World also uses family to look after their dog:

My husband won't let Baxter go to kennels! On the occasions we can't he goes to my mum (who spoils him rotten!), and we have a neighbour who pop in when we're out for shorter periods and walks him.


This is the 21st century option! A new website offers to temporarily house dogs looking for sitters with people looking for a part-time pet.  Clearly there's a trust issue and you need to check the person out carefully, but it seems a great solution. And for the humans it's a chance to send time with canine companions without the long-tern commitment.  Perhaps they're thinking of getting a dog and want to try it out and see how it works for their family, or maybe they've lost a loved pet and aren't ready to commit again but missing a four-legged friend in the house.  You simply pay a membership fee and find your perfect match.  The service included insurance too.

What solution do you choose when looking for someone to mind your dog?

Monday, 5 September 2016

School Reviewer- School Info At Your Fingertips

Like many others up and down the country, today is the first day back to school for my daughter.  The school years just roll by too fast and she's already entering her last year in her lower school - it only seems like 5 minutes ago she was starting reception!

After 4 years at our local school, I feel I know it really well.  I'm active on the PTA, I go in and assist in class and her dad is Chair of the Governors so I feel we're in a great place to understand the workings of the school and the teaching staff.

However, to my horror, last week a post popped up on Facebook from our local council saying it was time to apply for the next school starting academic year 2017.  I'm not emotionally prepared for this, and am definitely not equipped with the knowledge to make those choices.  Information tends to come from speaking to parents with older children and visits to the school, and hours and hours searching the internet.

We live in, I think, the only county in England still to retain the three-tier school system of Lower, Middle and Upper school so it means changing schools even more often.

Thankfully, this task has just got a whole lot easier with the launch of School Reviewer, a website which brings together all the useful information into one place.  You can search for catchment areas - great if you're planning a house move, and it will be really useful to see where all our new housing developments fall for school places - then delve down deeper for each individual school and research their Ofsted inspections, academic attainments and read reviews and comments from other parents.

The site is still new and growing but as it begins to get more populated I can really see the benefit in the reviews and also the school forums where you can chat to other parents about school specific issues.  There's also a great feature of a buying and selling section where you can sell on old uniform, kit and equipment (just think of all those play costumes that only ever get worn once then confined to the dressing up box never to be seen again!) This facility is free of charge with no commission and knowing you're selling to local parents, it will be easy to arrange drop off and collection of goods, again keeping the costs down. You can communicate securely via their communication hub and liaise with your buyer or seller.

But School Reviewer does so much more too.  There's a section where you'll be able to search for qualified tutors if you're looking for extra tuition.  If you're a private tutor do register as it is a great way to get more visibility. The service is free to both provider and user and parents can rest assured that those registered have provided their full credentials and DBS certification.

Thinking ahead to SATS and exams, there are example test papers available online, written by teachers who have experience in both setting and marking the questions.  The SATS tests available are currently free so they are a great walk-through preparation for your child, allowing them to practice at home. There are also GSCE papers available to try out at £4.99 each which I think is a small price to pay for the experience and peace of mind they will give.

There's also a really informative blog section giving lots of topical tips and ideas like preparing for the first day at school.

I think this website has huge potential, but like anything of this kind it's only as good as the people who populate it. So get on there, start using it and maybe leave a helpful review for a fellow parent who's considering your school. Start listing all that uniform you've just discovered no longer fits, or take the bold step to post the first question in the parent's forum for your child's school - who knows where it will lead!

Disclosure: This is a collaborative post.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

5 Essentials to Pack for your Motorhome Trip

We've had our little motorhome for a few months now and have enjoyed loads of trips away this summer.  We're still learning and still perfecting our packing, but there's a few things we quickly realised we couldn't do without.

These are the things that are always packed ready in the van for a quick getaway, together with all our cooking equipment, and well stocked bathroom. We're lucky that it has a full 'kitchen' area with gas hob, grill, oven, sink, and fridge with a little ice box - we've even managed to take ice cream away with us to enjoy in the evening on the beach!  We have electric lighting which runs off hook up or off the leisure battery. The little bathroom has a flushing loo, sink and shower so we're completely self-sufficient - perfect for wild camping!  But there's certain creature comforts I wouldn't want to be without:

Wet wipes:

Although there is a shower, it's a bit of a pain to use and if we're wild camping we need to be very frugal with our tank of water.  Wet wipes are perfect for freshening up at times where there is no access to a shower block and these new Johnson's Top to Toe washcloths are larger than the normal baby wipes making them ideal for a quick all-over!  Shock horror - we sometimes go a day without a shower.  They're great for wiping sticky hands, sandy toes and cleaning the dog down if she's muddy. They are super-gentle as you'd expect and there's no need to use soap or even dry with a towel afterwards.

Although at home I'm not a big fan of disposables, on the road we always take anti-bacterial hand wipes and surface wipes too.  It makes wiping down the bathroom or cleaning up after cooking breakfast so much easier.

Spare lighting

As I said, we have electric lights, but it's an old van and they're certainly not LED which means they drain the battery quickly if we're not on electric hook up.  It's well worth having a few of these battery operated push lights for emergencies, as well as a good torch.  A wind-up torch means you never need to worry about flat batteries!

We also have some of these clip on book lights which are great for reading in bed, and a string of IKEA battery operated fairy lights are the best we've found for both brightness and battery life.

A good cuppa:

Life on the road is improved immeasurably by a good cuppa.  We love that we have the freedom now to pull over at any picturesque spot we fancy for a brew, rather than having to rely on dull service stations.  A good kettle is a must and we like this whistling one as it's easy to get distracted and let the kettle boil over wasting precious water and gas.

Lots of fellow motorhomes recommend this collapsible kettle for space saving.

We've always previously used a stove top moka coffee maker, but after reading The Hedgecombers great post on camping coffee, I'm now converted to the Aeropress.  It really does make deliciously smooth coffee.

For tea, it has to be a good Russian Caravan tea like this one from Bluebird. If you order quickly using the code TOTESAMAZING you can get a free tote bag and some tea infusers too.

The Perfect Frying Pan:

An overnight camp wouldn't be the same without a good old fry up for breakfast, especially if you've managed to buy some freshly laid free range eggs from a roadside stall, and maybe picked up some local bacon from a farm shop.  Space is limited on the van hob with only three cooking rings so careful planning is required. I love my divided pan, it's the perfect space saver and is always packed.  If we take our little one ring camping stove out on walks for a cook up after a wild swim, then this comes too.

I've also just invested in a Ridgemonkey sandwich toaster, having been inspired by members of a camper van Facebook group.  Much cleaner than a normal pan because it's lidded, it can be flipped over to cook both sides and is most definitely not just for toasties.  People cook whole meals on it, warm up pies and quiches, waffles and pancakes, baked potatoes, cook meat and fish and basically anything else that can be griddled.

Phone charger:

We try as much as possible to switch our phones off and have a bit of a detox, but having a charge mobile is definitely a lifesaver.  If there's a mechanical fault and we need to call a breakdown company, for checking routes on google maps, getting advice from motorhome groups and using apps to find places to stay.  We have a number of chargers for when we don't have mains power.  This cigarette lighter adapter will charge two phones at the same time and works off the main battery.

We also have a solar charger which sits on the dashboard soaking up the sun.

What are your camping essentials?

Disclosure: We were sent some samples of Johnson's wipes to try out.  This post includes affiliate links, meaning if you make any purchases I will earn a few pennies.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Preparing for Back To School With Education Quizzes

I'm a firm believer in letting kids completely relax and switch off in the summer holidays.  They work so hard at school and more and more are becoming stressed with the pressure put on them particularly if they've been doing SATS or have exams.

However, there comes a point in the holidays where my daughter becomes bored. She needs to use her brain!  We always sign up to the summer library reading challenge so I know her reading skills are ticking over, but we've been looking for something else.

Education Quizzes is perfect because it's tailored to your child's key stage level.  These bite-sized quizzes are great for preparing the brain for going back to school, and getting back into 'learning mode' before the end of the holidays.

Particularly good if your child lacks confidence, we've used many of the themed quizzes to go back over learning just completed in Year 3 and she's been really happy that she's able to get most of the questions correct.  It reinforces her understanding and gives her a boost as well.

She's also taken a look at some of the Maths and English quizzes for Year 4 which she'll be moving into in September.  She's been quite anxious this holiday about the new school year, fearful that the subjects will suddenly become hugely difficult, but she's found reassurance in being able to correctly answer a lot of the questions already before she's even started Year 4.

Like a lot of kids, Ruby loves to use IT to learn, but as a parent I do worry about internet safety.  This site is completely safe and age appropriate and there's no messaging facility for the child so you know that nobody will be trying to contact your child.

The site works on a subscription basis at £9.95 per month, with no obligation, you can cancel at any time.  Once you have the log in you can access the quizzes from any device making it perfect for learning on the go - we can take the iPad with us when travelling and she can access it from wherever.

The questions are multiple choice, and we did sometimes find on a tablet that the screen was too sensitive, meaning she sometimes hit the wrong answer accidentally, but that may be more about our tablet than the site itself.

Scores out of ten are recorded alongside each quiz, with the date it was achieved, meaning you can go back and practice areas where extra help is needed, and see your improvement.  All the quizzes are written by teachers so you can rest assured they're appropriate and accurate.  We did find some of the more subjective topics such as History and RE a little tricker because obviously not every class in the country will cover exactly the same facts, despite the national curriculum - for example, when learning about the Saxons, Ruby's class focused more on the social history than historical dates or facts. But we've found the Maths and English sections in particular, brilliant.

Each subject is broken down into topics for the relevant year group i.e in Maths for KS2 you have addition and subtraction, ordering, fractions, decimal numbers, handling data, measurement, time, multiplication and division, negative numbers, rounding etc etc.  There really is a wealth of topics covered.  You can choose PE, IT, Geography, Maths, Music, English, Design and Technology, Art and Design, PSHE, Science and Times Tables.

The levels range from Key Stage 1 right up to GSCE so there's something for everyone whether just starting out in school, practicing for their SATS, their 11 Plus or their GSCEs - there are 300 quizzes aimed at those taking their 11 Plus alone! With the curriculum and learning methods changing constantly, one of the huge benefits is that parents can be confident it's updated to show the very latest topics, unlike study aid books which quickly go out of date.

Because they recognise that not everyone can afford £9.95, they are working with schools to give full access to students.  Schools can pay on behalf of the students and benefit from massively reduced costs - depending on the school size it could be as little at £2 per year for each child.  If you work in education and would like to find out more about this scheme, you can contact them here. 

Take a look at Education Quizzes, there are plenty of free ones available to preview to before you sign up, so you can try it out for yourself.

Disclosure: This is a collaborative post.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Win a Scooter Lock for Back To School

My daughter loves to scoot to school.  As do most of her friends.

Luckily school provides a safe and secure scooter and bike store which is kept locked during the day. However, it's all too easy to pick up the wrong scooter in the mad dash of pick-up time.  They all look the same, and I'm embarrassed to say I have accidentally taken the wrong one home before.

She also likes to ride it when we run local errands to the shops or the library, and sometimes when we take the dog to the park.  Our supermarket has a strict policy on not allowing scooters or bikes into the store so we have to leave it by the door.  We live in a small town where most people know each other, but on occasions I have worried about whether it would be there when we return.

A bike lock isn't really ideal for a scooter as there's no handy place to store it, and it would mean me having to remember to pop it in my bag each time we go out.

This is why I'm so impressed with Scoot Lock.  It solves all these issues.

In bright, eye-catching colours, it makes picking the right scooter out of a whole shed of others a doddle as it's easily identifiable.  The lock remains in situ on the stem of the scooter meaning it's always with you.  It works with a combination code so there's no worries about forgetting or losing your key. And it locks it safely and securely around any handy lamp post or railings, deterring a would-be opportunist thief.

The front of the lock has a reflective badge, making scooting home in the dusk (yes, it will soon be that time of the year again!) much safer.

Fitting it was easy - I actually watched this YouTube video which shows how straightforward it is.  You are able to set the 4 number combination to whatever you like, so you can choose a memorable number for your child (just maybe not as memorable as 1-2-3-4 which Ruby suggested!) You can choose to fit it at any height up the stem of the scooter, we opted to towards the bottom as it will suit the store at school.  The lock comes complete with spacers enabling it to be fitted to any size scooter, even adult ones, and if your child upgrades their scooter, it can be removed and fitted to the new one.

The plastic coated toughened steel cable is 90 cm long making it easy to find a spot to lock to.  It is spring loaded so it safely stores inside the unit when not in use.

Scoot Lock would also be great to use on a bike or buggy, giving you peace of mind when you're out and about.

Scoot locks come in a range of bright, bold colours and there's a selection of fun stickers you can purchase to customise your lock.  Scoot lock costs £19.99, which given the cost of our expensive scooter, is a wise investment.

Lucky readers have the chance to win one of two locks by entering the following giveaway.

To enter the giveaway, visit the website and leave a comment stating which colour is your favourite. Giveaway is open to UK entrants only and closes at midnight on 31 August 2016.  Two winners will be selected at random from all correctly completed entries.

Disclosure: We were sent a Scoot Lock to review and the prizes will be fulfilled by Scoot Lock.

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