When East meets Westfield.

After counting down the days for two years, Westfield Stratford City finally opened it’s doors to public yesterday. Needless to say, I was fucking ecstatic. I ventured down after work arriving at around 5:30pm (yes, high speed is FAST). It was chaotic, as I anticipated, with people shuffling through the crowds, some deciding to randomly stop and loiter before shuffling some more. There were an assortment of people, but mainly young locals who had decided to stop by after school for a gander, not really intending on buying anything (hence the loiters). I presume the real hardcore shoppers were there at early doors.

The shops themselves were eerily quiet; the sales assistants were folding clothes with a bored expression on their face as if it was just another day. Obviously with the exception of Primark, which was manic. Strangely the clothes were not sprawled across the floor, as you would find in pretty much every other Primark in the country; a big well done to the sales assistants, that must have been hard to maintain for the full 12 hours they were open.

A not so big well done to the sales assistants in Forever 21, particularly one (I did not catch her name, let’s call her Jane) who was very rude to me. Approaching the fitting rooms with my five items, the assistant led me and another customer to our rooms. Whilst I was following, Jane grabbed me by the arm and stopped me in my tracks. She asked me rather flatly whether I had a ticket, so I informed her the other sales assistant had told me to follow. Disbelievingly, she said ‘but the other customer is with her‘, to which I responded ‘and so am I‘. The other sales assistant turned around and pointed to my cubicle and Jane strutted off without an apology. What a way to start your first day.

Another amusing experience in Forever 21 happened whilst I was browsing. A lady asked me, ‘which top do you prefer?‘. One was bright orange and sparkly, the other was black and equally as sparkly. I responded with the black top, which obviously was an insufficient answer as she pursued in asking another three times. Her reason for this persistence being, ‘you can always trust a Chinese opinion‘. Now I do not wave the racist flag very often and this was a very light-hearted comment, however I found it odd given the circumstance. Imagine if I said the same to her, ‘you can always trust the opinion of a black lady‘. That would be outrageous!

Shaking my head and brushing the awkward conversation aside, I attempted to contact a friend I was meant to be meeting. I quickly discovered that there was not one place in the centre where I could receive a signal on my phone. After attempting to call various people, I went to seek help from the concierge desk. The manager was incredibly helpful and offered me her phone to contact my friend. I could not get through as she was also in the centre and was clearly having the same issues. After attempting to call numerous times to no avail, I shuffled along to Carphone Warehouse to see if they had knowledge of any network problems. The nice, very East London, sales assistant was aware of the issue and informed me that it had been ’13 hours man’ since she last got a text.

At that point I decided to give up on my shopping venture and head back home. Sadly I did not meet the friend in the end, but all in all, my experience was positively interesting. The centre boasts of everything a shopper might want; you have the mainstream stores for a bit of stability and a selection of independent ones to throw in the mix. It is shiny and spacious, the shops are strategically categorised together and you feel at ease. Amazingly Westfield is only a 20 minute train ride for me, so I will definitely be heading back there very soon. Bluewater was once my love, but alas, I have found better…

Summer, Summer, Sun Come Shine..

Enough of CBeebies..

One of the hardest things about the summer holidays is finding cost-effective fun for the kids, and of course, yourself. As promised in my previous post, here are reviews of my top five outings in the past, in no particular order. Obviously check the prices on their individual websites before you get going, please do not take my every word as fact!

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle

Where is it? Bodiam, near Robertsbridge, East Sussex, TN32 5UA.

What is it? An extravagant castle with a moat that was built in 1385. The inside has been destroyed and is now filled with grass, however the stairs and the outskirts of the castle remains. It is situated in a quaint village with a stream running through the picturesque greenery; perfect for a picnic or a walk with the dogs.

Cheap? Adults £6.80, Child £3.40. It might work out a lot cheaper to purchase the annual membership if you plan on making a few trips to National Trust. Also, between 1st – 26th August, up to two children can get in free per paying adult/member. Don’t forget coins for parking if you are not a member.

Facilities? The only toilets available are in the car park, which is also home to the tea room and gift shop. Literally just outside the entrance of car park there is also the Castle Inn pub.

Anything else? This is one of the  most amazing castles I have ever seen. For those who want a little bit more, they also hold activities for kids; when we visited, they were firing bows and arrows at various targets for £2.50. I would also warn you, if you are talking small children, make sure you have some reins or a pram. I almost had an anxiety attack over DS attempting to run down the steep hills and charging towards the moat!

Shorne Country Park

Shorne Woods Country Park – DS trying to play with the older kids.

Where is it? Brewers Road, Gravesend, Kent, DA12 3HX.

What is it? An extensive park with beautiful gardens and wildlife. There is also a play area for children of all ages – an enclosed park for the younger kids and a large adventure play area for the big kids. DS loved the swings, but he preferred running around screaming with a football. They also have various events and activities for children to join in.

Cheap? Free entry, however there are parking charges (Monday – Friday £2.00, weekends and bank holidays £2.50).

Facilities? The eco-friendly visitor centre also has a cafe.

Anything else? There isn’t much shading, remember to bring a hat and sun-cream!

Farming World

Where is it? Nash Court, Canterbury Road, Faversham, Kent, ME13 9HY.

What is it? A farm with all sorts of animals, varying from pigs, sheep, horses, birds, llamas, goats and cows.There are also several children’s play areas for all ages and tractor rides for the bigger kids. There are lots of events you can go to, sometimes if you dress the kids in a particular theme then it is free entry.

Cheap? Adults £6, Children (3-15) £5. I took DS when he was 16 months and he loved it. He didn’t fully understand but it was a fun way to show him the drawings in the books exist in real life.

Facilities? They have a cafe that is pretty busy. We bought a pack lunch and sat in one of their many benches scattered around the farm.

Anything else? Bring the antibacterial gel and lots of wipes.

Camber Sands

Where is it? It is situated in Rye, East Sussex. A useful postcode for the Sat Nav would be TN31 7RB.

What is it? It is a lovely sandy beach with dunes. I have a vague memory of a fun trip to Camber Sands when I was a child, and on that small dose of nostalgia, we set out on our adventure.

Cheap? Of course, no entry fee! You may want to research the local car parks or whether there is residential road without parking restrictions you could sneakily leave your car at. On our outing, the local farm were charging £5 all day for cars to park in their open area, which was much cheaper than the standard car parks run by the council.

Facilities? There should be toilet facilities, and there are usually small shops and cafes around. We had fish and chips for lunch, however it is very busy during lunch time (obviously!) so expect to wait a while. DS and I were wondering whether Daddy had done a runner as he had been gone an hour and a half to get lunch! You may want to go prepared with a pack lunch or take down the post code for the nearest Tesco.

Anything else? Lots of sun cream, nappies, wipes, water, cheap sandals, a hat and an all-in-one swim suit. We found a UV sun tent helpful, as we could store our belongings and it gave us a shaded area. Do not wheel the pram over the sand, as it will probably break. We overpacked for DS and completely forgot about ourselves, which left DH looking like a lobster… For a more in-depth beach survival guide, this is a good website.

Scotney Castle

Scotney Castle

Where is it? Lamberhurst, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN3 8JN.

What is it? Scotney Castle is made up of two houses, separated by a large hill and a beautiful garden. It has a lovely picturesque moat and the ruins of an old castle.

Cheap? Garden: Adults £8.10, Child £4.95, Family £22.50. House and garden: Adults £12.60, Child £6.30, Family £31.50. Similarly to Bodiam Castle (above), it would be cheaper to purchase the annual membership from the National Trust. You can also gain free entry for kids between 1st – 26th August, up to two children can get in free per paying adult/member.

Facilities? There is a tea room, baby changing facilities and a gift shop.

Anything else? Standard sun-cream and maybe bright clothing; there is a lot to explore and you might find your little one playing hide and seek. Be wary of the moat, there is not a barrier and is very dangerous for young children.

So I guess all you need to do now is get dressed, get the kids dressed, pack their bags, pack yours, make the sandwiches, load up the car, grab the camera and the Sat Nav, lock the door… Have I forgotten something?!

A Let Down.

I have rented five properties thus far, each with different landlords/letting agencies. I would like to think I am a pro at renting now, however there seems to be a lesson to be learnt each time. As we have now fully received our deposit back, I thought I would share my experience of Heritage House and enlighten/warn any future renters.

Our previous apartment in Canterbury was a charm when we first moved in December 2009. DS was only three weeks old then and we had mould issues at our previous flat (which Connells did nothing about) so we had to lose a month’s rent and move into a new property promptly. Because we were moving at an unusual time of year, we managed to haggle our rent down from £700 to £630 a month. This was such a good price for a two bedroom city centre apartment with Whitefriars shopping centre literally seconds away.

The first 10 months of our tenancy was perfect. The lady who initially dealt with our property from Regal Estates was friendly and eager to help. She had empathised with our need for privacy, with a lack of curtains and being on the ground floor, she took our situation and made it her own. She convinced the landlord to pay for our curtains, on the condition that we chose them and DH would install the curtain poles in each room.

 

She stopped working for Regal not long before the renewal of our tenancy. There was an interim period where we were passed to various administrators and our emails were lost in transition. This is around the time the cistern in the toilet broke and was leaking water. Concerned that our water bills would increase, we contacted Regal on several occasions to alert them of the issue, however this came to no avail. They eventually called a plumber months after we initially emailed them, who did not fix the situation. Many correspondences and visits from the plumber later, our cistern was finally fixed 6 months down the line.

This issue did not end there. Our fresh water and waste water bills arrived soon after, which both had doubled in cost from the same period as the previous year. We raised this issue with Regal, highlighting the section of the tenancy which states the landlord should be liable for any cost incurred by the tenant, due to a fault in which the landlord did not rectify within a reasonable time frame. This was dismissed as they counteracted our claim with their ‘professional’ advice from a plumber, who had spent only five minutes reviewing the toilet. They said we may have had more showers, increased our usage of the washing machine or had more dirty dishes to clean, owing to the fact we have a growing baby. I did not appreciate this attempt to use my baby to subside the issue.

During this meeting I had with the manager of Regal, the new lady who took over my property sat there quietly, almost cowering behind her boss. I spoke off-topic and asked whether it would be possible to have a rolling contract when it came to renew again, to which she responded,

“I am not sure, I would need to ask the landlord. I see you have previously paid 3 months rent up front, I’m not sure if that was because you came from a foreign country?”

Funnily enough, speaking with clear diction in an English accent, I am not a foreigner. I did email this manager later on in complaint of her rude ignorance, incompetence and lack of customer service. Unsurprisingly, she did not respond.

After this occasion, we decided to seek the ‘professional advice’ they were so keen on. South East Water check our external pipes and the toilet, to conclude that they are all in order and it was most probably the broken cistern which caused our overpriced bills. Despite this, Regal have not compensated us for their incompetence, nor have we received an apology.

The next issue we came across was when the lock on our front door broke. DH attempted to dismantle the lock to fix it, ignoring the fact that he is not a locksmith. To no ones surprise, he could not put the lock back together and we had to call Regal to resolve the situation. The locksmith came the following day and spent only a few minutes putting the pieces back together and fixed what had originally gone wrong. We later received a bill from Regal for £35, half of the overall bill, because DH had dismantled the lock. Regardless of DH’s naivety in thinking he could fix the damn thing, the locksmith would have needed to dismantle it anyway. His work was definitely not worth the total cost of the bill. Lesson for the future: If something breaks, do not bother trying to resolve the issue yourself.

I find this whole experience with Regal shocking and cruel. It is despicable how more measures are not made to protect tenants; the tenancy appears to be solely made to safeguard landlords, who have no qualms in manipulating you for your money. I do hope that enough pressure is put on the government to rectify this, as it seems the demand for rental properties are soaring.

Caffeine Kick.

I have been an avid coffee drinker ever since my husband (boyfriend at the time) introduced me to this ingenious legal high four years ago when he worked as a barista. I soon became a part-time barista myself whilst studying, learning the tricks of the trade. Little did we know at the time this work experience would stand us in good stead for the coming years.

Our old Russell Hobbs espresso machine no longer available to buy, it was £79.

Back in the day, we first started drinking coffee because we enjoyed it. We would visit various coffee shops, rating them on their service, skill and the end product. There were a number of things I would look out for:

– If the grind in the portafilter was left in the grouphead for longer than 3-5 seconds, causing the coffee to burn. Once in the grouphead, the espresso should be poured almost instantly.

– If the barista has prepared the grind in the portafilter and left it in the grouphead, for the same reason as above.

– If the espresso shot has been pre-poured and left standing. After 30 seconds, the espresso shot is dead and should not be served.

– If I have ordered soya (which I often do as I am lactose intolerant to milk), it should be heated to 60 degrees Centigrade otherwise it burns. Soya heats up much quicker than ordinary milk, which is often missed by untrained baristas.

My usual preference is a black Americano, which is not hard to make at all. You can usually judge how good/bad a coffee shop is just from examining their black coffees; if you are capable of ruining a drink which only consists of an espresso shot and water, you really should find another profession.

We still enjoy the luxury of drinking coffee from a shop, however our coffee intake has increased since baby DS arrived. We obviously cannot visit a coffee shop numerous times in a day, the expense of that would be ridiculous. We have had a Russell Hobbs espresso machine for approximately two years now, but it has recently died on us. It was good whilst it lasted, producing a fast and efficient way of drinking coffee without the grind you would find at the end of a cafetiere. It had a 10 bar pump, meaning the pressure was not great enough to make more than one milk based drink. Costing £79 placed it in the lower price band of coffee machines; they usually range from £70ish to well over £1000. Though it is worth mentioning that the machines priced £500-£1000+ are bulky, awkward to clean and could probably perform just as well as one a little cheaper.

Gaggia Baby Black R1855/60 £199.95

It is now time to invest in a solid machine, which hopefully will last a bit longer. We have opted for the Gaggia Baby, an upgrade from our previous machine. After much research, reading reviews on various websites, making price comparisons and visiting Bluewater to see the products in three dimension, I think we have found the one.  It is sturdy, has a 1300W output to ensure the water is heated quickly, 15 bar pressure and it comes with a professional portafilter. Gaggia produced the first espresso machine and supply companies such as Caffè Nero. The machines are meant to be reliable and are renowned for its durability.

I hope this investment pays off. We have bought a Brita water filter to prevent lime scale and ensure our machine runs as smoothly as possible. I cannot wait until it arrives, because life is more fun with a kick.