Christmas Eve Plans

I cannot remember the last time both myself and hubby had Christmas Eve off work - in fact I don't think it has ever happened! We have hit lucky this year and intend to make the most if it.

We're just spending the whole day at home with back-to-back Christmas films and music.

Inbetween movies we are going to make some gingerbread cookies for the tree (and one for Santa).

We hope to have lots of visitors throughout the day and will have mulled wine, Buck's Fizz and mince pies on the go.

We are slow cooking some lamb for supper and hubby will be preparing the turkey.

As night falls we will sprinkle reindeer dust on our lawn, enjoy a bath and our Christmas Eve hamper of treats from elf on the shelf (new pjs, book and chocolate coins). Then we'll leave treats for Santa and the children will hopefully not stay up to late while I enjoy champagne, chocolates and our new Russel Brand DVD.

Oooooh can't wait! Think I'm more excited for Christmas Eve than the big day itself! What are your Christmas Eve plans this year?_


Christmas evenings at Beamish

I made a conscious decision to only take my children to see Santa once this year after Santa overload last year. As usual, I did lots of research and decided that a Christmas night at beamish was for us.

Tickets were £12 each (including our 3 year old) so £60 in total. Very steep however I believed it would be great value for money and worth it.

The attraction is open from 4pm-9pm on their Christmas evenings and tickets must be pre-booked. We left our home in South East Northumberland at 3:30pm and it took about an hour to travel due to heavy traffic.

We arrived at the main entrance at 4:30pm and were invited to enjoy a glass of warm mulled wine (juice for children) and mince pies. This was all included in the admission and a lovely unexpected touch.

We were all very keen to see Santa and asked a guide which way was best. We were told the easiest way was to walk. This took about 5-10 minutes. We joined the queue for the grotto and were slightly dismayed at how long the queue seemed. We still joined though as this was the main reason for our visit.

The queue was well organised with a refreshment stall at the beginning and various tasks for children (and adults) to enjoy at several stations throughout the queue. We really enjoyed learning to spin plates, juggling and colouring festive pictures.

The queue was however still very long and at times not the best experience with a tired 2 year old. We were very relieved to see the entrance to the grotto.

In this part of the queue children were encouraged to write their letters to Santa and they could post them in the special post box.

We FINALLY reached the front of the queue and were taken as a family to see Santa. I'm pleased to say the wait was worth it. Santa was fantastic and had lots of time for all of our children (especially our 2 year old who asked how Santa was going to come if there was no snow). 

The children received some lovely wooden toys and a chocolate toy as gifts and loved the whole experience.

It was however 7:15pm when we left Santa's grotto so the whole experience took 2hrs 45minutes which in my eyes, when we have paid £60 is completely unacceptable. Most other large attraction's have allocated time slots to visit Santa and I really think this is something that needs to be looked at by Beamish.

We waited for the bus to the town and waited and waited and waited. We had waited 20 minutes and there was no sign of anything, so along with the rest of the queue we crossed over the road and caught the tram (which goes in the opposite direction so takes longer).

We arrived at the town at 8pm so we only had 1 hour until closing and the only thing we experienced was visiting Santa! I was not a happy bunny.

The town was however lovely, a brass band were playing in the bandstand, there were barrels selling hot chestnuts (although they were sold out by the time we got there) and the street looked very festive indeed.

After a stroll around we caught the tram back to the carpark and left Beamish at 8:45pm. I

There were so many lovely events and experiences on offer, just a shame we didn't have time to experience them. These included:-

•Gerorgian twelfth night celebrations at Pockerley old hall
•Ice skating on a real ice rink
•Punch and Judy Shows at the Carriage house
•Joining a lantern parade singing carols around the village
•Watching fire eaters
•Christmas activities in the bank room. carpark and left Beamish at 8:45pm.

The parts of Beamish we did experience were all lovely. We did feel let down by how long the queue was for Santa and this had a knock on effect for the rest of the evening and did not allow us enough

Update - I contacted Beamish to let them know about the problems we encountered and I have to say they took my comments very seriously. I was offered a free return pass as an apology but more importantly they promised to change the way things worked in 2014 which is great to hear.


Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

People who know us will know how much we love our fine dining! When we are choosing where to go away for the weekend we usually base it on a restaurant we want to try! I turned 30 this weekend and I desperately wanted to enjoy the celebration at The Fat Duck in Bray-on-Thames. We even got as far as managing to secure a famously hard to get table. Unfortunately when it come down to it, the £260 per person price tag plus wine, accomodation and travel was just too much. So, after much deliberation, we decided to try the next best thing and visit Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Here is what we thought:-

Dinner by Heston is situated inside The Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Hyde Park in the Knightsbridge area of London. This is one of the most beautiful hotel's I have ever seen. Upon entering you are greeted by three friendly doorman who are happy to direct you to the restaurant areas. The hotel reception area had been decorated for Christmas. The fireplace was picture perfect!

We arrived at Dinner's reception area and we were taken through the restaurant to our table. The restaurant can seat 140 diners so is a lot larger than what you may expect of somewhere with 2 michellin stars. It is interestingly decorated though and split into areas so it still has an intimate feel. We were seated by the window with wonderful views over Hyde Park. As we were walking to our table our host pointed out the kitchen area which is all open behind glass for diner's to watch and we passed a table which was in the middle of having ice-cream made for them using liquid nitrogen at their table. Very Heston and very exciting!

Open kitchen in the middle of he restaurant.

Ice cream prepared at your table using liquid nitrogen.

We were offered an aperitif and our menu straight away. When you visit somewhere like here it is very hard to decide what to order as you are only probably going to visit once in your life! We usually opt for the tasting menu so we can sample the best of what the chef has to offer but unusually there wasn't one on offer here and everything is a la carte. I already knew what Heston's signature dishes were and my husband was happy to order these. I really needed some guidance though and our waitress was happy to advise. 

Next the sommelier approached with the wine menu. It was huge! It's fair to say most were out if our price range so we opted for a bottle of house red which was £35. We weren't frowned upon for doing this and still received personal service from the wine team throughout the evening. I found it interesting that your wine wasn't kept at your table but instead at a wine station where the Sommelier was based. The service was very attentive though and our glasses were topped up throughout the evening.

We were brought some white and brown soda bread to start which was pretty boring to be honest.

Our starter's arrived soon after. My hubby ordered Meat Fruit (c.1500)

Meat fruit, Mandarin, chicken liver & foie gras parfait, grilled bread

Designed to look like a mandarin the whole dish is edible. When you cut the fruit open it is filled with the most gorgeously smooth fois grad parfait. I was pleased we still had some bread on our table as it allowed me to dig in too. 

I opted for the Roast Scallops (c.1820) to start.

Roast Scallops, Cucumber ketchup, roasted cucumber, bergamot & borage

I ordered this dish as I love scallops but they always seem to be served the same way - with pea purée, bacon and black pudding. I was very interested to see how scallops worked with cucumber and I'm pleased to say it worked very well. I've asked hubby to try and recreate cucumber ketchup next time he cooks us a special meal. Let's see how he gets on!

For main, hubby ordered Fillet of Aberdeen Angus (c.1830)

Fillet of Aberdeen Angus, Mushroom ketchup & triple cooked chips

We were asked how we would like the steak cooked (medium-rare) and it was absolutely perfect. In fact it was the star dish of the whole evening. There was lots of it so again I was able to steal a few bites. I'm usually not keen on mushrooms but the mushroom ketchup was AMAZING. It had the same sweetness of regular ketchup but a completely different flavour. It complimented the steak perfectly though. Heston's famous thrice cooked chips also lived up to their reputation and the whole dish was brought together with a fabulous beefy sauce.

I could not decide what to order as a main course. The waitress suggested 18 hour slow cooked pork collar with dehydrated crispy pork skin and white truffle. I would not normally order this dish as it was served with spelt, onions and turnip which are not usually my preferred ingredients. I loved it though! I honestly think Heston can make anything taste great.

For dessert, hubby ordered tipsy cake. This needed to be pre-ordered at the beginning of your meal as the brioche that is used in the dish is freshly made to order. 

Tipsy cake with Spit roast pineapple

This dish was my husband's favourite part of the meal. Again, it isn't something he would normally order. 

I decided to choose the chocolate bar.

Chocolate bar with Passionfruit jam & ginger ice cream

This dessert is the richest dessert I have ever eaten. The chocolate bar was like a truffle inside all unctuous and smooth. Absolutely amazing!

We were then offered a post-dessert shot of earl grey infused chocolate ganache with carroway seed biscuit. This was lovely but after my very chocolately dessert didn't really add anything to my meal. Hubby however loved his.

We were asked if we'd like to try one of the ice creams that we had witnessed being made around the room. It would have been a lovely piece of theatre to end the evening however neither of us love ice-cream so it felt like we would have just been having it for the sake of it therefore we declined. It was rather amusing looking around and watching people eating ice cream cornets at the end of their meal in a michellin starred restaurant.

We had a little glimpse into how the other half live when the table next to us decided to take a look at the whiskey trolley! I have never seen such a thing and god knows how much a measure would cost. It was fun to watch the expert talk the table through them all.

So, our final bill was £210 for two including wine and service charge. This might seem expensive but for a 2 star Michellin restaurant it's really not. It worked out about 1/5 of the cost it would have if we'd dined at The Fat Duck and we would have spent at least £100 if we'd enjoyed a 3 course meal plus wine in a regular London restaurant anyway. We thought it was fantastic value. 

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal also offers a fantastic value lunch menu which is only £38 for 3 courses!

Set Lunch

Sample Menu. £38 for three courses. Available Monday to Friday between 12:00pm-2:30pm.





Camden markets

In my opinion there is no better place to spend a Sunday morning in London then Camden. The whole area is bustling and a hive of activity and there are some definite bargains to be had.

Camden is made up of several market areas which are all set back from the main high street which itself is full of quirky individual shops you would struggle to find anywhere else. You won't find many chain stores in Camden that's for sure. The whole area has a bohemian and diverse vibe to it and there is something new to look at with every corner you turn.

We arrived at Camden tube station at 11am (most of the markets open from 10am). It is worth noting that Camden tube station is open for exit and interchange only from 1pm-5:30pm on Sundays so using nearby Chalk farm station to depart is recommended.

The first market we stumbled upon was the 'Camden loch market' The first thing you notice when you enter is the food stall sellers shouting over at you asking you to try their food. They are very friendly and don't mind answering your questions. If you do choose to buy food from these stalls the seating area is very quirky and overlooks the lock area.

Camden lock market sells clothes, handmade jewellery and gifts and a lovely selection of bags. T-shirts were priced at £6 each and trendy vest tops were 3 for £10. Bargain prices.

Next we visited the 'Camden market' area. We bought some gifts for our children at rock bottom prices. We bought a London snowglobe, London stationery set, London notebook and London mug all for £3.30!!!! This would have cost more than 5xthis amount in other parts of London. The prices were so cheap we could buy all of this for each of our 3 children. They will be very pleased.

After all of this shopping we were ready for some lunch. We entered the stables market and were spoilt for choice. Chinese, Thai, Morrocan, Pizza, Pasta, Indian, Lenanese, Turkish, fresh seafood and traditional British. It was so hard deciding what to buy. You are allowed to try before you buy and mix and match from the stall you buy from which is good. The prices are just so cheap! I ended up choosing some spicy chicken and rice which was only £4. There are plenty of seats and tables for you to sit and enjoy your food.

The stables market is my favourite market in Camden. There is an indoors vintage market which sells some beautiful unique homeware. I also like how many of the 'stables' are actually workshops and you can wander in and watch people at work and ask questions whilst you browse their goods. There are lots of lovely clothes, bags and purses for sale too. I have been searching for a vintage teacup and saucer for months now and this one caught my eye. At £6 I decided to treat myself.

We spent a lovely 3 hours in Camden and could have spent a lot longer. If street food isn't your thing there are lots of bars and independant restaurants lining the streets and along the sides of  the lock. In the future, We would love to go back and sample Camden at night.


Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

Although I have visited before, a trip to London in December is not complete without a visit to Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland.

We didn't pre-book any attractions as just wanted the freedom to turn up and wander around when it suited us. Last year I bought tickets for the big wheel. It was a lovely treat and I would certainly recommend. The views over London are amazing and Christmas songs are piped into your pod making the whole occasion feel very festive indeed.

We arrived at Winter Wonderland at about 2:30pm on a Sunday afternoon. I had heard of large crowds at weekends and indeed it was very busy. They only had one entrance open and the queues were very long. We asked how long the wait was and were told it could be over an hour. We decided to chance it however and actually only ended up waiting for about 20minutes which wasn't bad. We were entertained by the staff's attempts at keeping the ever-complaining crowd in check.

Winter Wonderland is free to enter. You can pre-book for attractions such as Zippo's circus and ice-skating (some tickets may be available on the day but they were sold out on the day of our visit). You can also buy ride tokens for the many 'Christmas themed' fairground rides once inside. The queues for rides didn't seem too long and children and grown ups seemed to enjoy them. The Santa train that travels around the whole of Winter Wonderland seemed popular as did the white knuckle rides for those that were brave enough.

Inside it was very busy but the crowds were well controlled with Marshall's directing everybody and plenty of signposts and maps to help you find your way. I had previously heard complaints that it was very difficult with a pushchair however it seemed completely fine to me and I would say you were ok to bring one (as many people had). The crowds were a lot easier to navigate than the Southbank crowds we experienced on Saturday night.

Our first stop was the roast chestnut stall. At £4 for a small bag we didn't find this was too expensive for a central London attraction.

Then we found ourself in the market area of Winter Wonderland and enjoyed browsing the stalls. The personalised gingerbread hearts were lovely and would make a great gift. I would have bought one for our children if I hadn't have been worried about them breaking on the trip home. I did end up buying a handprinted glass Christmas tealight holder. I thought £10 was an OK price. I did hear a few people saying they were too expensive though.

Next we found ourselves in the Bavarian village which is a large beer garden made up of wooden benches and fire pits which is surrounded by wooden huts selling German beers, mulled wine and cider's. You could buy Giant 1 litre glasses filled with German beer for £9. We opted for a regular pint though and thoroughly enjoyed it. There was a live singer on the stage in the beer garden encouraging everybody to join in some festive sing-a-longs. Everybody was joining in and in such high spirits. The atmosphere was wonderful. It was safe enough for children too (not too many drunks around at this time of day). 

When we finished our beer's we were off in search of some food. There is a lot of choice and we were tempted by the German sausage stall which smelled amazing! The hog roast and crackling was also a close competitor, We finally decided on a handmade pie and chips. I opted for lamb and mint whilst hubby chose steak and ale. We enjoyed them in the firepit area of Winter Wonderland which was lovely and warm. You could also toast your own marshmallows over the fire. Our pies were full of flavour and contained so much filling that I couldn't finish mine. Certainly worth £5.50.

It was lovely to finish our visit with a final walk around Winter Wonderland as the sun was starting to set. It looked very pretty all lit up at night and somehow they even manage to make it snow! Very Christmassy. The ice skating and carousel bar looked lovely so definitely something to try next time. We walked home through Hyde Park as the sun was setting and the views were simply stunning.

Winter Wonderland is definitely an attraction to visit if you are young or old. Don't let the crowds put you off! 

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