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A meeting with Santa: at his own home

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“I’ll never forget this trip as long as I live,” said my little boy, giving me a hug.

That solitary comment certainly made it worthwhile: we were on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Lapland to see Santa. That’s right: the real Big Fella.

It was a magical trip and one the children will look back on with fondness.

After weeks of reading up on the different companies that offer Santa trips, we chose Esprit. It had a good choice of trips, wasn’t the cheapest or most expensive but – most importantly – has a good reputation and offered a private meeting with You Know Who.

There are choices of day trips, two night stays and three night breaks. The thought of flying three and a half hours into the Arctic Circle, only to return after 48 hours was too much.

For us, Santa’s Spectacular was the best option: a three night stay in the delightful town of Saariselka, staying in the Hotel Riekonlinna.

There would be an activity day, a 25 minute coach ride away from the resort, where we would enjoy a short husky ride, a reindeer sled ride, play ice hockey, toboggan, do a spot of ice fishing, watch a traditional Saami ceremony and drink enough warm berry juice to keep the cold at bay.

There was also a chance for the children to show off their artistic talents and do an ice sculpture and enjoy a spot of skidooing.

Of course, the extra day meant we had lots of free time. For us that meant tobogganing – seven hours. That’s a lot of trudging up Europe’s longest tobogganing run (1.2 km if you climb right to the top). But we did it because it was free.

We could not justify forking out for optional trips. A one-hour husky sled ride cost £89 per adult and £65 per child (aged 2-11), while one and half hours’ snowmobiling would have been an extra £370.

But tobogganing was such fun, I frankly didn’t care. Ploughing face first into a four foot deep snow pile because you can’t control the small plastic tray you sat in produced streams of raucous laughter.

The snowsuits, thermal socks, gloves, hats and boots handed out upon arrival kept us toasty warm and as they got rather damp from the snow ploughing, snow angels and snowball pelting it was great to have the drying cupboard in our hotel rooms.

The Hotel Riekonlinna stands at the end of the tiny town’s high street, close to the toboggan run. It is cosy and friendly with a bar that serves expensive drinks (a small local beer costs €5.30. Finland is notoriously pricey).

There is also a restaurant that serves a half-decent buffet breakfast – the usual array of breads, cereals and fruit, as well as a hot selection – but dinners didn’t hit the spot with many of the guests.

The choice was limited and strict vegetarians might get very hungry. And only one pudding.

The bedrooms, although in need of modernising, were spotless and very comfortable. A bit too comfy: who’d have thought I’d have had the window open all night in the Arctic Circle in December?

But the children didn’t care about any of this. Why would they? What they were interested in was seeing Santa.

As we travelled in a sled behind a snowmobile on our activity day through a forest to Santa’s house, there was evidence that elves were definitely up to no good. Abandoned gifts and a tipped up sleigh gave the clues, but soon we saw them outside a festive-looking wooden chalet.

After a minute of play – with them stealing our hats and having snow shoved in our faces – we were ushered in to a lovely, warm room, festooned with decorations and gifts. And there he was. Santa. And he had my children’s letters to him in HIS HANDS.

As he walked through the door, he exclaimed their names and they could barely speak. My son (8) was in total awe. How on Earth did Santa get our letters?

My daughter, who is ten, was rendered completely confused by the experience. As a Year 6 pupil, she is *on the cusp* with Santa. But there is no denying she loved the brief two-minute meeting with Santa – as well as the lovely gift of a reindeer in traditional Lappish costume.

So, was it worth it? It’s a heck of a lot of money for we grown-ups and I wouldn’t do it more than once. But it’s a lifetime of memories for youngsters – and that’s priceless.


Jayne Howarth and family paid for their three-night Esprit trip to Saariselka, flying from Manchester to Ivalo.

They stayed at the Premier Inn, Manchester Airport prior to the 6am flight to Ivalo.

Written by CommonPeople

December 21, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Where’s my sense of humour: it’s behind you! (pantomime review, Cinderella, Wolverhampton Grand)

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The auspices for the evening were not good.

We were getting ready to go out and do our bit for the Great Panto Review for www.havealovelytime.com, but son (8) was intransigent in his desire not to leave the house – unless he could take his DS.

“It’ll be boring. You’re just saying it’ll be funny,” he whined.

“Cinderella is FOR GIRLS.”

I relented, the DS was shoved into my bag.

But guess what happened? Within the first three minutes of the curtain rising at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, he was on the edge of his seat. Within five, he was smiling from ear to ear.

Ten minutes in and he was rolling in his seat.

His older sister – who harbours dreams of being an actor – was similarly struck.

Yes: they laughed and laughed and laughed.

Janette Krankie and Ben Stock: Buttons and Ugly Sister. Photo, Alan Wood

Panto is a British tradition: old fashioned entertainment with plenty of innuendo for the adults and toilet humour for the younger people in the audience.

Without doubt, the star of the show was Janette Krankie, who played Buttons.

A veteran comedian of the stage, she is a star ad libber and even when corpsing was able to come up with some show stopping remarks.

The children were screeching when Buttons sang his song He’s Always Picking On Me, thanks to the liberal use of face pulling, eye-crossing and gesticulations.

(At this point, I’d like to point out I have never been a fan of the Krankies and always found the little boy routine unnerving.)

Stefan Dennis – who played Paul Robinson in Neighbours – was the evil Dandini, a facially-twisted baddie with designs on being King, while Tamworth’s 2007 X-Factor semi-finalist Niki Evans played the Black Country Fairy Godmother with considerable aplomb.

Stefan Dennis as the dastardly Dandini. Photo, Alan Wood

Cinders was the sweet Danielle York – a charming young woman with a sweet voice who was dwarfed by the giant Nic Greenshields, Prince Charming.

But, of course, humour is the name of the game, rendering the actual story fairly redundant. We were bombarded with jokes and japes, thanks not only to Buttons and her uncanny impersonation of SuBo and Ozzy Osbourne, but the superlative Ugly Sisters Trinny and Susannah, played by Ben Stock and Nathan Kiley, whose costumes became more outrageous as each scene passed.

As tradition dictates, we had the audience participation (“Oh no, it isn’t!”, “Behind you!”, “No, don’t go there!” etc), the “fandabbydozy” from the Krankies, the local jokes (Why is Telford like Mars? It has no atmosphere. *Badum tish*) and topical references (Jedward).

Oh – and apparently some commoner girl ends up marrying a prince. Who’d have believed that?

Fact box

Jayne Howarth and children were guests of Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, Lichfield Street, Wolverhampton. 01902 429212.

Cinderella runs until Sunday, January 31, 2010. Tickets cost between £11.50-£23.50.

If you have enjoyed this post, please consider donating to our Great Panto Review charity fundraising initiative. You can do so here.

The idea is to raise money for a charity called NACCPO, which helps provide respite and support for families with children with cancer.

Written by CommonPeople

December 19, 2009 at 6:09 am

Are eco cleaning products worth the money?

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ecover Wow! Look what I’m going to review for you all. Thanks to those people at Ecover, I’ve been sent powerful degreaser (how did they know?), multi-surface cleaner, window and glass cleaner and all-purpose cleaner.

They have even sent some Flash, Mr Muscle and Cillit Bang to test it against.

It’ll take a little while to use them enough to test, but at least you know now that I’ll be a busy bee for a while cleaning and testing.

Do expect a fair and honest appraisal, though. I’m not in the game of giving praise where none is due!

In the meantime, if any of you have used these products (there are a couple I have used before) and would like to comment, please do so.

Happy cleaning.

Written by CommonPeople

October 15, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Reviews

Kew Gardens: a marathon, not a sprint

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It turned out to be a bigger task than first anticipated.
As we walked over Kew Bridge, moving from Brentford to leafy Surrey, we thought: a family day out at Kew Gardens. Lovely. How difficult could it be?
But when we barely crawled out six hours later, we realised just how huge this venerable botanical garden was.
And there were still some areas we hadn’t explored.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which are celebrating their 250th anniversary this year, are massive: 326 acres to be precise – that’s the equivalent of 150 football pitches. It’s no wonder we didn’t quite get round to seeing everything.
The statistics, too, are mind-boggling. There are 30,000 different species of plants to see (the largest living plant collection in the world), as well as 14,000 trees, including seven (known as old Lions), that date from 1762 when Princess Augusta first created the botanical garden.

Judging by our aching feet and legs, we saw quite a few of them. But there were still a few tantalising corners that remained unexplored, including the Wildlife Observation Centre and stag beetle logger.

Normally, I would not dream of recommending a day out to a botanical garden if you have small children in tow: once they’ve seen a few trees and walked through a couple of hot houses, they have had enough.

But Kew is different. There are plenty of activities to keep younger people amused while their parents take note of the varieties of plant species.

Climbers and Creepers, an indoor play area with a horticultural theme, is a good little bolthole for when you need to have a sit down and let your young charges let off some steam. A play area is being redeveloped and should open this and there are plenty of interactive boards for the children dotted about for them to read.

While not specifically for children, mine loved the latest addition to the gardens, the innovative Xstrata Treetop Walkway, was inspired by the Fibonacci sequence.

Standing at 18 metres high and 200 metres long, the walkway gives you a bird’s eye view of the gardens and some fabulous distant views – including Wembley Stadium – of London landmarks.

This summer is an ideal time to visit the gardens as it celebrates its 250th year as a world leader in conservation and horticulture.

There is a fascinating exhibition detailing the work that its 200 scientists are carrying out with 800 partner organisations in more than 100 countries to conserve seeds of rare plants. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank has more than 1.5 billion seeds from ten per cent of the world’s wild flowering plant species.

Kew is also working with Albrighton’s David Austin Roses to re-plant the rose garden behind the Palm House, which dates back to 1848, to its original footprint by William Nesfield.

The new rose garden will feature ‘Rosa’ Kew Gardens, a celebratory rose – thornless with a profusion of white and yellow flowers – for Kew’s anniversary.
There were no roses where we were staying at Holiday Inn, Brentford Lock, a 40-minute walk from Kew (or ten minutes on the bus, we discovered on our return), but a nice enough view from the revamped canal basin where ducks swam and cormorants swooped.

While it may not be the most obvious place to stay in London, the four star hotel, which specialises in Asian cuisine, is just five miles from Heathrow Airport and a rugby ball’s throw from Twickenham.

A sparkling new building at the end of the dull Brentford High Street, it offers a standard of accommodation you expect from a chain. The bar and cocktail lounge would not be out of place in any trendy city and the restaurant serves decent food, albeit not a vast choice and there is a good children’s selection.
The rooms were spacious and comfortable and there was a menu for guests to choose their perfect pillow. Not that we needed it. After all that walking, we slept like logs…

Jayne Howarth and family were guests of Holiday Inn, Brentford Lock, which is offering a Kew Gardens package to mark the 250th anniversary of the botanical gardens. Standard rooms cost from £72, including VAT and breakfast and a ticket to Kew, while the standard doubles are from £85 and include two tickets. Parking costs £10 per day. For details, visit http://www.holidayinnbrentford.co.uk or telephone 020 8232 2000.

Kew Gardens is open Monday-Friday 9.30am-5.30pm and weekends from 9.30am-7.30pm. Glasshouses, galleries and walkway close earlier. If not staying at the Holiday Inn, Brentford Lock, admission is £13 adults, £11 concessions and children under 17 free, if accompanied by adults.

This piece appeared in the Express and Star on July 14, 2009

Written by CommonPeople

July 15, 2009 at 9:01 am

Wolverhampton author makes book prize longlist

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Wolverhampton children’s author Paul Dowswell has won a place on this year’s BookTrust Teenage Prize longlist.
His book, Auslander, is vying for the prize with 12 other titles. They are:
Exposure by Mal Peet
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
The Vanishing of Katherina Linden by Helen Grant
Solitaire by Bernard Ashley
The Ant Colony by Jenny Valentine
Bloodchild by Tim Bowler
Ostrich Boys by Keith Grey
Furnace: Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith
The Graveyard by Neil Gaiman
Tales of Terror from the Black Ship by Chris Priestley
Numbers by Rachel Ward
Three Ways to Snog an Alien by Graham Joyce.
The shortlist is announced in September and the winner, who will win £2,500, will be announced at a ceremony in London in November. Last year’s winner was Ness’s book The Knife Of Never Letting Go.
The prize was launched in 2003 to celebrate modern fiction writing for teenagers.
Former judge, author Matt Whyman, has described the prize, which is judged by a mixed panel of adults and teenagers, has, “fast become the benchmark for quality young people’s fiction in the UK.”
Booktrust, a charity, is run with the support of The Reading Agency, which publicises the Teenage Prize in libraries across the UK, primarily through coordination with public and school library services.
It is now inviting young writers to enter a short story competition to win a place on the judging panel for this year’s prize.
It is challenging young writers aged 11-16 to write a 500-word short story with the title President for a Day.
The deadline for competition entries is July 27, 2009. The guidelines and entry form are available for download from the website http://www.bookheads.org.uk
The authors of the four best short stories will win a place on the judging panel for the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2009.
They will join Times journalist Alyson Rudd, author Marcus Sedgwick, librarian Judi James, writer and translator Daniel Hahn and Aniketa Khushu, a young judge whose short story won her a place on the judging panel last year.

Written by CommonPeople

July 1, 2009 at 5:06 pm