Monday, 9 March 2015

Things to do together for Mother's Day

These days, we all have far too much stuff. So I'm not going to compile any sort of gift-list ahead of Mother's Day, as recent research has shown that people appreciate experiences much more than yet more material crap to clutter up their homes. You can either buy your mum a pair of tickets so she can go along to one of these events with a pal, or better yet, go with her, then she gets the best gift of all, some quality time with you! Here's my pick of some of the best forthcoming events that would make great gifts.

A circus life for me: Nell Gifford in conversation with John Mitchinson
16th April 6.30pm-8.30pm at The Idler Academy £20
If you're a regular reader of my blog you'll know I'm nuts about the eccentric Cotswold's collective that is Gifford's Circus. You can read about one of my recent visits here, and you can also see an interview I did with Nell myself here. If your mum has a birthday coming up in the summer, then this would make a great two-part gift; the talk as a Mother's Day present, then tickets to the circus itself for her birthday.
(Nell pictured above. Not with John.)

Divine Terrariums at The Indytute
11th March 7-9pm £65
Terrarium-maker and founder of Botanique Boutique, Alyson Mowat runs a terrarium making workshop with The Indytute, which I think would be a perfect mother-daughter 'date'.

This brings me to my latest project, which I thought I'd sneak in here, though I should have blogged about it yesterday for International Women's Day really. I've set up Occupy Me, a site which is designed to provide career inspiration for women of all ages, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the reality of more unusual jobs; the sort you don't get told about at school. Currently on the site are interviews with professional terrarium-makers like Alysonbeekeepershula-hoopers, astrophysicistsfire-scientists and more. It's a real labour of love so I'd hugely appreciate your feedback- you can follow us on twitter here.

How to Academy: How to Travel and Explore
17th March 6.45-8.30pm at the Tabernacle
Travel writers, historians and explorers recount tales of their adventures at this event- perfect for mums who might finally be starting to organise holidays of their own rather than always doing what the kids want!

5x15 and The Guardian celebrate exceptional women
12th March, 7.30-9pm £20 at The Royal Geographical Society
If you didn't manage to make it to any of the IWD events over the weekend, then this will make up for it. Featuring children's author and illustrator Judith Kerr, historian Jung Chang, forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, activist Nimko Ali and DJ Annie Nightingale.

The School of Life
I couldn't pick just one event here, as there are so many great ones, depending on what your mum is interested in. 'How to stay calm', 'How to disagree' and 'How to relate to your family' could all be relevant!

The Folio Prize Fiction Festival at The British Library, 20th-22nd March and Penguin's Little Black Classics at The Book Club on 29th March would both be great for bibliophile mums. If she's more scientifically minded, then try the next Salon London which celebrates science, art and psychology; the theme on 8th April is Revolution.

Let me know if you end up going to any of these events!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Romance in the city

So... Valentine's Day. Love it or hate it, I thought I'd offer a few tips on truly romantic London spots to visit. Don't try to go to any of them today- surprise your other half with a 'Valentine's Day' treat next month, when everything will be quieter, cheaper and reeking slightly less of desperate commercialisation. 
I'm always telling you guys how I still discover new London gems all the time- well earlier this month, I found a real corker. My mum came to town and we visited  Leighton House , the former residence of Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederic Leighton ( even if you're no art buff you'll recognize his most famous work, e.g Flaming June ). It's an absolutely incredible building- all traditional Victorian house from the outside, but inside, transformed into a shrine to Leighton's passion for all things middle eastern. The hall is entirely clad in stunning Islamic tiles in opulent blues and golds, surrounding an ornate water fountain. There's even an intricately carved wooden balcony upstairs that looks down onto the hallway.

The house is romantic at the best of times, but especially right now, given the current exhibition: A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection. If you're a fan of Victorian art then this is an absolute must-see; it's all beautiful female nudes and the like by artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, John William Waterhouse, Edward Poynter, John Strudwick and John William Godward- all friends of Leighton's. Also on display is the stunning 'The roses of Heliogabalus'  by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It depicts the decadence of the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus who suffocated a number of his guests beneath an avalanche of falling rose petals. Romantic, eh? To really evoke the atmosphere, the whole room where the painting is on display is scented with Jo Malone's Red Roses. People might criticise this sort of thing for being a bit gimmicky, but it actually works pretty well, and I do think that art galleries and museums have to start exploring new ideas like this if they're going to compete with all the other entertainment options we have these days.

Another gorgeous London house to explore is Dennis Severs House in Shoreditch. The residence is a sort of living time capsule, capturing the lives of a family of Huguenot silk-weavers from 1724 to the dawn of the 20th Century. Again, I think this place is doing exactly what museums should be doing these days; creating a multi-sensory experience that beats watching a movie at home- imagine the sets of Punchdrunk productions, just without the actors. Every little detail has been considered, from the type of tea that's brewing in the pot on the table by the fireside, the tobacco that's been left in a disguarded pipe, even used chamber pots underneath the beds. It's authentic, to say the least. The exclusive silent night visits are particularly special.

My other favourite museum/residence in London has to be Sir John Soane's eccentric abode- next month they have a Cocktails and Candlelight  night there which would make a great date.

If you're already been on a few dates and fancy something a bit more intimate, I'd totally recommend one of London's spas. The gorgeous, art deco Porchester Baths (above) is my personal favourite, though it's certainly a bit shabby round the edges these days. If you want something with more modern luxuries, I'd opt for the  Ironmonger Row Baths, where they have wonderful scented steam rooms and herbal tea on tap.

I'm a big fan of places in the city where you can get back to nature. The Barbican Conservatory is one of London's best kept secrets; it's only open on certain Sundays- tomorrow, for example, 11am-5pm.

For more wonderful conservatory inspiration, visit the new Bourne and Hollingsworth Buildings - I really want to try their brunch menu ( maybe the perfect place for the morning after...?)

A stroll around Richmond park is another lovely London weekend activity, visit the wild deer then pop into Petersham Nurseries for some of their great food and drink.

 Kew Gardens is an obvious one, but still a classic (here I am at Kew a few summers ago). They currently have an orchid show on til March- orchids being by far the sexiest flower around- think The Secretary, Adaptation etc. You can see some more pics from Kew in this post.
Hampstead Heath is another favourite for romantics, but whilst most people stick to the side of the heath where the ponds are, I'd recommend venturing a bit further to the Hampstead Heath Pergola. It's a bit run down but I think this only adds to the romantic atmosphere there.
And very briefly, if you're after classic romantic restaurant choices, my top recommendations would be Sketch, Brunswick House and Les Trois Garcons ( below).

Re-reading this, I realise that I've actually been to more of these places with my girlfriends than I have with my husband ( who hates any sort of 'organised romance'). So feel free to ignore any Valentines associations and read this post as just being about some gorgeous places to go in London. Go enjoy them with your lover, your friends or by yourself!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Big News

Photo by Roland Heap, on holiday in Fuerteventura this month where we stayed in another great AirBnB find.

So, you may have noticed an absence of the normal 'New Year's resolutions' or '2014 round-up' sort of posts over here- this is partly because I wrote this last year and didn't want to immediately contradict myself by writing something that was all about all the amazing things that happened to me in 2014. But they did. So I'm going to really quickly just drop them in here; we moved house to a new flat I'm so happy in, we got married (sort of), I turned 30 (managed to avoid having any sort of party by getting wed the weekend before!) and finally, at the end of September I found out I was pregnant! So that's my big news and I've been putting off writing about it for a few reasons. I'm really wary of going on about it when I know lots of people aren't fussed about babies, but it's such a huge, life-changing thing that it's hard not to let on how much of my mental and physical energy it's consuming. Anyway, after feeling a bit reluctant to write about it, I have since looked online for good blogs about pregnancy and having babies and whilst I've been recommended a few good ones, the majority are so face-palmingly awful that I feel it's my duty to write something honest and I hope helpful for anyone out there googling away and coming up with sites that refer to your baby as 'the little alien growing inside you' or your breasts as 'those bouncing beauties' - both real examples from big pregnancy websites. As if I weren't already feeling nauseous. See also sites that insist on talking about your baby in baby talk e.g 'now that your ickle bundle of joy is the size of a lemon' etc I am a grown woman, thankyou very much. So, as an antidote to some of the more saccharin content out there, here are some of my experiences so far:
(If you're not preggers or remotely interested in ever being so, you may wish to tune out, but please don't unfollow me, as I plan on still posting about London events, my travels, arts and culture all as usual, just with the odd baby rant snuck in here and there.)

My emotions 

As some of you know, I have narcolepsy and cataplexy, both of which have been largely controlled by medication since I was in my teens. About a year ago my narcolepsy got a lot better and I managed to come off the drugs I'd been on for that successfully, but I was still on my cataplexy treatment at the end of this summer when we were starting to seriously think about trying for a baby. So, first step was to wean myself off those pills. This was a bit rough, though not nearly as bad as it could have been. My symptoms came back a bit, but nothing like how severe they were when I was a teen- I used to literally hit the floor anytime I felt a strong emotion, whereas now I just tend to go a bit shakey, I won't be able to keep my voice steady and may need to sit down. The pills I'd been taking acted as a muscle stimulant, but they also used to be prescribed as an antidepressant, which I wasn't aware of until recently. So suddenly I find that I've been on antidepressants since I was 14. Needless to say, when I came off them I was a bit emotional. I got really down for a while and started comfort eating which is a trap I've fallen into in the past. This only served to make me more worried because I didn't want to start a pregnancy overweight, but I just wasn't in the frame of mind to be making the effort to exercise and eat well. I was depressed, basically. Somehow I had enough clarity to realise that what I needed was to just hurry up and get knocked up, so that then I would feel motivated to start eating well again and hopefully all the hormones would soon sort me out. We were incredibly lucky and managed to conceive very quickly, and it turned out I was right, as soon as I was pregnant I felt much better- this may also have been down to my body just stabilising after coming off my medication.
I did still feel like I was on a bit of an emotional roller coaster though- the first trimester is partly wonderful because you're so excited and it's nice to have this secret with your partner, but also awful because you can't tell anyone your news yet. You can't explain why you're so tired and if you have any early worries (I had some early bleeding which it turns out is pretty normal, but obviously still worrying) you can't share them. I wasn't depressed anymore, but God, was I emotional. ANYTHING could set me off. Things that made me cry- and I mean, properly, bawl my eyes out included:

  • The music video for Taylor Swift's Shake It Off.
  • All the behind-the-scenes videos of the making of Taylor Swift's music video, Shake It Off.
  • The David Attenborough Life show that was on BBC
  • The android advert at the cinema (Why?!It's not even sad!)
  • Any charity adverts on the tube showing children in Serbia or female activists in India etc
  • 'A Mother's Prayer' by Tina Fey, almost destroyed me as my mum has her own tale of me pooping up my back which she loves to tell.

I was a Goddamn liability for a couple of months.

Bodily Functions

The one thing pregnancy will make you realise is how amazing your body is. Not because of the whole 'making a new life' thing- that's ace, obviously, but a bit weird- see Alien reference above, but because you suddenly notice all the stuff your body does for you all the time that you're never grateful for. Unfortunately you notice this because it's now paying all of it's attention to Baby and you are left having difficulty doing the most basic things. Examples include:


Pretty straight forward, right? No longer. I was so incredibly bloated in my first trimester and still suffer from it a fair a bit now ( am coming up to 20 weeks). I can't eat anything fried or my stomach balloons. Seriously- in the morning I could still have a fairly flat stomach and by the evening I'd look six months pregnant- and it was all gas. I've had about 10 weeks of nausea which has been FUN. Some women produce excess saliva in early pregnancy which makes everything taste awful, especially drinks- I found I couldn't stomach plain water at all because of what I have named 'claggy mouth syndrome' and was brushing my teeth and sucking mints all day long.


All the time. Peeing. Always. And you better start doing your pelvic floor exercises, because otherwise you even start peeing when you sneeze or cough, or if you have the nausea badly, as you throw up. FUN.


No-one tells you about this, but you get really constipated during pregnancy. Food stays in your stomach longer so the baby can get all the nutrients, but this slowing down of the digestive process can leave you all blocked up. If I don't have a bowl of muesli every morning my entire digestive system just stops working.

Sleeping (and a bit more about eating/nausea)

Apart from feeling terribly tired for a few weekends right at the beginning of my pregnancy, I haven't noticed that much more tiredness (but then I am narcoleptic so I'm not a very objective judge of 'normal' standards of wakefulness). I have been finding it harder than usual to sleep well at night though. I can't have a big dinner later at night because otherwise the bloating is so uncomfortable it keeps me up for hours belching like a teenage boy. In fact, one of the bits of advice I found useful for helping the nausea was to eat a little, often rather than your normal 3 proper meals. It's a weird sort of nausea- not like when you're sick and can't stand the thought of eating anything, more that I had to eat exactly the right thing at exactly the right time or I'd feel sick. I found little packets of veggie sushi were the perfect size and really hit the spot- I usually needed something salty but with carbs that weren't going to make me all gassy.
Other things that make sleeping tricky- restless legs, or in my case, restless arms. I'd never experienced 'restless leg syndrome' in my arms before but apparently it's a thing and God, it's maddening.
I'm also getting to the point now where I need to buy one of these pillows as it's hard to get comfortable at night.

Maintaining your body temperature

I've found myself getting cold really easily, especially in places that are now 'extremities' e.g my belly. I usually get the restless arms thing when the tops of my arms have got too cold and I'll have to sit and massage them or have a warm bath (careful of having a hot bath early on in your pregnancy- I made that mistake and had some bleeding which was terrifying, but everything turned out to be fine).


Probably my first symptom, before I'd even missed my period, was having incredibly sensitive breasts. They went on to become so sore that it actually hurt to try and put a bra on. Which was lucky really, since they grew two cup sizes in the space of about a month so I didn't have any bras that fitted anyway. Between this and the bloating and the peeing and the constipation and the tiredness, you don't feel super sexy in the first trimester. During the period where I was super emotional, I did find I got some horny urges, but they were fleeting, unpredictable and sometimes confusing ( e.g watching chef Nigel Slater's documentary on the history of cake on TV- suddenly very horny- enlist help of husband- afterwards realise that I was actually just HUNGRY). Even now when I feel physically fine most of the time, it's kind of hard to get into the right frame of mind for sex. Without wanting to turn this blog into the sort of site Cameron will have shut down, let's just say that if your sexual tastes tend to be a little less vanilla and a little more 50 Shades of Grey (I haven't actually read it but I've read the actual good stuff like The Story of O etc) it can feel a bit wrong getting it on when hours earlier your husband was lovingly taking the time to talk to your baby through your stomach. Which is all very frustrating because you're actually super sensitive with all the extra blood flow down there- pregnancy is when many women first achieve multiple orgasms.

It's also hard to feel sexy the more you start to look like this:

Don't worry, I still have arms.

The Fear

However happy you are to be pregnant, you're going to experience The Fear. I feel hugely blessed- or rather very glad that I've always been so sensible and rigorous about birth control- that I'm having a baby EXACTLY when I want, at a time in my life when I feel supported, loved and as ready for this as I'll ever be. But there are still moments when you think 'GAH, what the hell are we doing?' This is it now- no more putting ourselves first for the next 20 odd years. That's scary- I think it may even be slightly scarier for someone my age who has had ten years of being very independent and basically, selfish, than say, women who have babies very young and have almost never really experienced being their own boss. Having said that I feel like I have lots of support that will hopefully make it totally possible for me to still do some work ( though I also have enough support to be able to NOT work, which is a ridiculous luxury), travel and have a full life.
There's also that niggling little fear about, you know, pushing a baby out of your body. I'm really lucky in that I have a mum who has had very straight forward, uncomplicated births for me and most of my siblings (the youngest had to be induced and so was a bit trickier, but my mum was 40 by this point), so I haven't grown up hearing horror stories about births the way many women do. However, I've still been a victim of the media and Hollywood constantly propagating this image of childbirth being Godawful, so that when we started trying for a baby, I realised I was pretty scared about the whole thing. Luckily at around that time I met up with a friend who'd just had her first baby and had used hypnobirthing techniques, and she was so reassuring. Sure, it's never going to be FUN, but hypnobirthing teaches you how to maintain a positive frame of mind throughout the process, which then in turn makes the actual physical side of things work better, faster and with less pain. Basically, if you get scared when you're going into labour, then you end up feeling more pain and labour goes slower- if you relax yourself ( that's what the breathing techniques etc are for) then everything will be much easier. I'm massively simplifying here- if you're interested I would recommend reading about some hypnobirthing experiences on the Gas and Air blog. I'm currently doing The Calm Birth School's online hypnobirthing course which includes relaxation mp3s and so forth- I'll do a full review of it once I've finished the course and given birth!

Here are some of the blogs people recommended to me:
This post by Beauty writer Caroline Hirons

One thing that makes it hard to find good pregnancy blogs is that they have a limited life span- unless you're a midwife maybe, no-one's going to write about being pregnant all the time. So even if you start a pregnancy blog as soon as you're pregnant, that only gives you 9 months to get good at blogging before you're done, and it naturally evolves into a parenting/baby/toddler blog. Which is fine, but perhaps a reason there isn't so much great reading material out there about early pregnancies. Some of the best bits I've found have been dedicated posts about it from experienced writers whose blogs are usually about something else entirely- e.g Caroline Hirons' brilliant post.

If you've written about being pregnant or being a parent, or know any great blogs and sites, please do leave links in the comments below. I hope not to bore you too much with preggers stuff in the coming months- I'm due late June, FYI. As always, thanks for reading.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Baths and burgers in Berlin

There are two things I've now found which help in getting through the winter in London- one is obviously a sunny holiday somewhere (Ib and I are off to Fuerteventura next week, thank goodness!) and the other is a quick stint somewhere bloody freezing. In November we popped to Berlin for a long weekend; a wonderful city, but God, it was cold. Coming back to the UK, though grey and drizzly, London felt positively balmy!

My husband has been to Berlin a few times without me and has always sworn that I'd love it, so we decided to go for a long weekend so he could show me around his favourite spots. I organised the hotel- the wonderful Michelberger which is probably the 'coolest' hotel I've ever stayed in; they have The Big Lebowski playing on a loop on TV screens in the corridors! But otherwise Ib took care of everything; he speaks basic German and knows what transport to get everywhere, which made it feel like a real holiday for me; I didn't plan anything but instead just let him be in charge. Often when I'm doing travel writing on a trip, it can feel not entirely holiday-like as I'll take responsibility for organising everything to make sure we get the best deals and see all the good stuff. It's nearly always worth it, but just the same, it was nice to have a weekend where plans were entirely in my husband's hands.

We stayed in a very basic room which felt quite hostel-like; small but with a clean, minimalist look and comfortable bed. There are some more exciting rooms available for slightly higher rates, such as the library room, pictured above, literally lined with books!

This is the gorgeous restaurant attached to the hotel- you have to walk through a little courtyard full of Christmas trees to get to it. Breakfast was wonderful- including all my favourite elements, from homemade granola to bacon and eggs. Huge brownie points for the fact that they have proper PG tips as their English breakfast tea; a wonderful surprise since it's often virtually impossible to get decent tea in Europe.

There are fabulous little touches all over the hotel, like these wee vintage photographs on the walls.

And you can also tune into The Big Lebowski on the TV in your bedroom!

The main reason Ib wanted us to visit Berlin was to go to Liquidrom; an amazing 'spa', though I use the term loosely, as it's not really like spas as we have them in the UK. They have all the normal facilities; saunas, plunge pools, steam rooms and so forth, but they also have a wonderful outdoor, salt water hot tub which is an utter delight, particularly when the air temperature is zero degrees or below! The other best bit is a wonderful, swimming pool sized, salt water floatation tank- the only place where you're obliged to keep your swimwear on. You float around amongst soft lights as a DJ plays relaxing music that you can hear under the water; it's idyllic and you can easily spend an hour in there without noticing any time pass. 

In the rest of the building people wander around in various states of undress. Anytime I visit places where nudity is the norm- Burning Man is another good example - I start off a bit shy but soon remember how good it is for your self esteem. It's positively enlightening to see how different everyone's bodies are; real un-photoshopped bodies that remind you that everyone has a bit of cellulite, some broken veins or stretch marks. All the Germans there were so incredibly comfortable being naked; I didn't once feel like I was being leered at or objectified. And this is in a place that has a bar, so most people have had a drink or two. Can you imagine this working in the UK? Men would get off-their-face drunk then try and grope you in the back of the sauna. Ew. 

The bar serves great drinks as well as comfort foods like pizza and pies which are perfect for when you realise you've worked up a huge appetite just getting hot and cold in and out of the water. You can then sit and enjoy your food and drink on a lounger underneath a blanket. It costs 20 euros for two hours which is just about the right amount of time, and it's open til midnight. We went on our first night in Berlin, and then, sad as it might sound, in a city famous for it's nightlife; we then went again on our second night! It's that good.
Other Berlin tips include Burgermeister- which does what it says on the tin. Amazing burger joint worth a visit, though there's no indoor seating, so good for take-away or perching outdoors in the summer. We didn't have time to go to all the museums Berlin has to offer, but we did visit the Pergamon Museum which has an incredible collection, particularly of ancient Islamic art. 
Have you been to Berlin? Do leave your tips in the comments below, as I'm keen to go again, perhaps when the weather's a bit warmer!

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