Tuesday, 28 March 2017

My Bristol

So, my home city has been named the best place to live in the UK by the Sunday Times. This comes off the back of a fair bit of publicity for the city in recent years - it seems Bristol has steadily built a reputation for being something a bit special and lately it seems like every other publication is singing its praises.

As someone who was raised in the city and came back here after I become a parent, I've seen it undergo a whole lotta changes over the years; most of them good, though I have to say that I'm less happy about Bristol becoming a bit of a London satellite - just try buying a family home in a good catchment area if you want evidence of the impact of London-Bristol migration.

I also have my own personal gripes - rubbish public transport, poor secondary school provision and a pretty bad litter problem - and I do think some stuff that has been written about the city is slightly romanticised. Yes, people from Bristol may seem physically compelled to thank every bus driver for every bus journey they ever make...but that does rather depend on whether you can actually get a bus in the first place.

And, like any city, for every affluent suburban street and graceful Georgian square, Bristol has its fair share of neglected, depressed areas that don't quite fit the rosy picture displayed in the broadsheets. It isn't really accurate to portray Bristol as some sort of utopia, despite its proud heritage of inclusiveness and political agitation, and it would be remiss to glaze over the fact that many of the city's best offerings are the preserve of its wealthier residents. BUT...that's a whole different conversation.

Instead, as someone who does truly love my home city - despite taking some of the plaudits with a pinch of salt - I've collected my favourite places in Bristol and the surrounding environs. They're not the big name attractions that you'll probably already be aware of, but rather places that, if I was visiting the city for a weekend, I'd be very happy to stumble upon...

Clifton Wood

Central Clifton - with the Suspension Bridge, Georgian architecture and an abundance of chi chi cafes - is an obvious addition to any tour of Bristol, but equally enchanting is Clifton Wood, a hotch-potch of quiet little roads and steep hills lined with pastel-coloured houses. You can enjoy fantastic views over the docks from up here, plus there's a cute little pub, The Lion, to fulfill your refreshment requirements. There's a distinctly Bohemian vibe in this part of the city - it's the sort of place people make mosaics for their walls and prettify electricity boxes with painted pictures.

You'll eventually wind up either down by the docks or back in Clifton; if you hit the latter, take your pick from a variety of photogenic attractions: Royal York Crescent, the Observatory, Clifton Arcade and Birdcage Walk, to name just a few.

The Lido

Staying with the upmarket side of Bristol, there's something very charming about this place. Brought back to life in 2008, the Lido retains the character of a 1920s bathing club, with its functional swimming pool lined with retro-style curtained changing rooms. Opposite the changing rooms is a lovely restaurant - enjoying a lazy, post-swim brunch in the sunshine can almost make you feel like you're on holiday. And to be able to get that feeling in the middle of a city is no bad thing. Visit the website for more info.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

A proper old school museum - the sort I love. With only small concessions to the modern, interactive way of displaying information, this museum hasn't really changed much since I used to come here as a child. 

Housed in a beautiful neo-classical building, this free museum has a whiff of old school exploration, with its collections of stuffed animals, Egyptian mummies and rocks and minerals. I particularly like the gallery, a tranquil space hung with some impressive artworks, including pieces by Seurat and Renoir. Visit the website for more info.

Gloucester Road

No prizes for naming this legendary high street as a Bristolian must-see. Often referenced as the last great high street in the UK, there's still a defiantly independent feel to Gloucester Road, despite the presence of a couple of chains. But if you were, say, wanting to visit the street art of Stokes Croft or indulge in some retail therapy at Cabot Circus, you could swap catching the bus for a wander down this quirky, interesting road, the kind of place where you can lay your hands on pretty much anything and everything. 

Traditional hardware shops rub shoulders with San Fran-style cafes, while you can have a rummage in a multitude of amazing charity shops or browse pretty homewares and clothing in some super-cute boutiques. I couldn't live without the traditional toy shop Totally Toys (a lifesaver for last-minute presents) plus I love a nose in the pound shop and brilliant health food store Scoop Away. 

Just before the junction with Cheltenham Road hook a right up to Zetland Road and you'll come across a real culinary gem - Green's Dining Room is, in my opinion - one of the best and most consistent restaurants in the city; it's a lovely, unpretentious little place serving some of the most delicious food I've ever had in Bristol.

Botanic Garden

A relatively recent discovery, this is a really lovely place to enjoy a break from the city noise. Owned by the university, the gardens are located just off Durdham Downs on Stoke Park Road (follow the brown signs) and feature collections of unusual plants and trees. It's all very calm and civilised beyond the garden threshold - the perfect place for an undisturbed wander on a sunny day. There's a cafe on site, plus the gardens often have interesting exhibitions on show - the last time I visited the plants were decorated with pretty glass sculptures. Visit the website for more info.


I bloody love Clevedon. Home to my two best friends when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time mooching around in Clevedon in my youth. Having smartened up in recent years, Clevedon now has a beautifully restored Victorian Pier and a refurbished outdoor swimming pool, as well as a pretty pebble beach backed by elegant houses and cafes. There's a smart parade of shops at Hill Road, while Poets Walk offers gorgeous views across the water. 

And while said water might be a tad brown - the Bristol Channel isn't the most photogenic of waterways - Clevedon is a very convenient place to get to when you're looking for a bit of sea air. Just 20 minutes by car from Bristol, it's a lovely spot to sit in the sun eating fish and chips or a proper Italian ice cream from Forte's.

More Bristol Recommendations

I wrote a piece for HelloBRSTL on recommendations for things to do and where to eat in Bristol - take a look here.

Photos courtesy of Lido Bristol, Visit Bristol and Bristol Botanic Gardens.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

My Beauty Icons

A couple of weekend's back I spent a very indulgent, very unlikely to be repeated weekend at the spa hotel Ragdale Hall. It was wonderful but not very bargainista of me - I could only really justify the expense thanks to a perfectly timed freelance project that paid for my stay and a couple of treatments. Determined to relax and pamper myself to the max, I packed a host of my special luxury toiletries and two - TWO - books. One of which was the marvellous Pretty Iconic by beauty writer Sali Hughes. It felt like the perfect reading material to take to a spa hotel and I devoured it in day.

I love Sali's writing and philosophy to beauty. At a time in my life when I need quite a bit of help in the beauty department, her unapologetic position on makeup and skincare makes me feel justified in choosing to invest in quite pricey skincare and makeup without feeling vain or superficial. It's just a sad fact that you get to an age where you choose either your face or your wardrobe; nowadays I'd rather invest in the former. 

Despite ever more wrinkles and sagging skin to contend with, I still love the rituals of beauty - as Sali explains in her book, the application of skincare and the putting on of make up isn't just about making yourself look pretty; it goes a bit deeper than that and we really shouldn't feel we're being shallow or narcissistic in taking small daily pleasures in putting on our slap. What we do with our faces is entwined with our sense of self and can provide comfort and assurance in the darkest of times. And please don't get me started on the crazy notion that being a feminist and having a cupboard full of Creme de la Mer are mutually exclusive....

Anyway, do read the book and Sali's previous beauty manual, Pretty Honest - both are must-reads for beauty nerds and offer fascinating historical context for some of the world's best-loved brands, as well as personal anecdotes and interesting insights into the psychological impact of beauty care. Pretty Iconic triggered some of my own memories of past beauty loves, too - first perfumes, old faithfuls and products I still use today. So here they are - my own personal beauty icons down the ages...

Atkinson's Baby Cologne

There aren't many things more pointless than baby cologne, which is probably why an unused bottle of Atkinson's - I think it was a christening gift from a relative in Italy - was kept in a special box at home, with our hospital wristbands and new baby cards. In the way kids are wont to do, I remember taking the box out of the cupboard every so often for no other purpose than to gaze at this sweet little bottle and have a little sniff of its scent. I can still bring the smell to mind if I really concentrate which goes to show just how powerful our olfactory sensibilities can be. 

Body Shop Body Butter
I haven't stepped foot in a Body Shop for years, but I'll always have a huge affection for this brand. It reminds me of Saturdays spent happily filling wicker baskets with smellies, fruity lip balms and cute little combs. A Body Shop basket was a gift to be truly coveted back then; I have a particular memory of making one up to take to France as a gift for my French exchange - it felt like a quintessentially British present to give to a teen from Bordeaux. There are two products that particularly remind me of those carefree years; White Musk perfume (which gets a mention below) and the gloriously fruity tubs of whipped body butter - they were literally my heart's desire at the age of 14.

Body Shop White Musk

Predated only by Anais Anais, White Musk was my scent of choice in the mid to late 80s. Reminiscent of long summers and exams, I remember wholeheartedly buying into the concept of olfactory connection to memory, thus dousing myself in the stuff when revising in the hope that by having the same smell in my nostrils on exam day I'd have no problem recalling all those verbs, facts and equations. Whether it helped or not, I'll never know.

Simple Cleansing Lotion

The first proper face cleanser I bought post Clearasil. Always attracted to things that seemed to be 'natural' (a very woolly beauty term I know now) I remember using this and realising there was actually a way to wash your face that didn't make it so tight as to be completely unmovable. I can still smell lotion on cotton wool when I think of Simple, though I didn't remain loyal to it for very long, thanks to increased earning potential and the discovery of a world beyond the Gloucester Road branch of Boots. 

Clarins Beauty Flash Balm

I used a lot of Clarins in the 90s, including one of its more famous contributions to the world of skincare - Beauty Flash Balm. It's a product I'll forever associate with big nights out and dressing up to the nines to take on the best of London's nightlife. Of course, when you're clubbing till 10 in the morning, glamour quickly goes out the window and no amount of illuminating base can stop you looking dreadful in the cold light of day after hours in a sweaty club. But when I remember Beauty Flash Balm, I get flashbacks to that very special excitement you get when a big night on the town beckons. 

Stila Make-Up

Specifically Convertible Colour and eyeshadow in Kitten, the make up I wore on my wedding day and which has not left my make-up bag since. I was immediately drawn to the gorgeous packaging of this range and would spend many happy lunch hours poring over their products in the Liberty beauty department. I loved the prettiness of Stila cosmetics, with their glossy lip colours, sugary blushers and shimmery eye shadows; they seemed like the perfect match for a bride who was harbouring vain hopes of channelling the spirit of a demure Audrey Hepburn on her special day. I still use the Kitten eyeshadow - a lovely, slightly glittery, pinky-beige colour - and the Convertible Colour in rose almost every day. 

Philosophy Amazing Grace Perfume

Another one from my wedding day. I don't wear this very distinctive scent anymore, but I still have the empty bottle from my wedding - I could never throw it away. So intrinsically linked to that special day in September some 16 years ago, it reminds me of waking up to rain which miraculously cleared by the time my car arrived, of walking down the aisle in the church I'd been going to since childhood, of a dress that didn't quite fit properly and of drinking Bellinis in the autumn sun. I chose it because it seemed a graceful but unusual choice. Despite being really quite conventional and most certainly not a rule-breaker, I like to do things differently in small, unnoticeable ways - wearing perfume that is a bit niche and a bit different is one such example. 

Nars Orgasm Blusher

The best blusher I've ever tried. With its risque name and sleek packaging, it reminds me of feeling grown up, liberated and professional. Not that I was, really speaking, any of those things at the time I discovered this amazing stuff. I did, however, have quite substantial disposable funds to play around with - this was a time before kids, crippling mortgages and non-term time holidays. So making frequent trips to Space NK - just like buying £3 smoothies each lunchtime - didn't seem extravagant. Of course, with age comes the wisdom that any loose change should probably go in the savings account, but whereas I make my own smoothies now, I'm not ready to give up the Nars habit just yet. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Six Women I'd Like Around My Dinner Table

You *might* have noticed that today is International Women's Day. No doubt your social media feeds have been clogged up with well-meaning (if sometimes slightly annoying) memes, political discourse and a general appreciation of the mothers/sisters/friends/NASA scientist in your life. 

I mean, women are awesome and you certainly don't need me to remind you of it (or the fact that huge numbers of females right across the globe do not have access to the very basic tenets of equality, sadly.) 

So I'm not going to go all political or post a picture of myself in a 'We Are All Feminists' t shirt. I shall not be using the word 'bad ass' anywhere in this post. Instead, I'll be dedicating a few words to well known women, both living and dead, who I think are quite brilliant. They're not people who have changed the world through science, activism or physical endeavour - you're lacking a few brain cells if you can't see the incalculable contribution women have made to the truly important stuff in our world, and I don't want to pay lip service to women who we all know are truly incredible.

Instead, here's a little tribute to some of my favourite women on International Women's Day. They're the ladies who mean something to me on a very personal level; people I really admire and who I've looked up to at various points in my life. Basically, the women who, if I was to have a fantasy dinner party, would be the first get an invite. 

Judy Blume

Is there a girl of the 80s who didn't grow up with Judy Blume as an imaginary friend? Writer of stories tackling everything from periods to divorce, Judy's books were a mainstay of my adolescent years and I still have all my collection safely stashed in the loft. 

While I can't revisit them with my two boys (books like Deenie and Are You There God, It's Me Margaret don't make for unisex reading matter) I can't bring myself to throw them away - they'll forever remind me of long summers and the excitement and wonder that accompanies the pre-teen years. I'll always be grateful that through her writing I realised that there is no 'normal' and that it's fine to feel different sometimes. 

Caitlin Moran

Staying with the subject of periods, Caitlin Moran is the only woman who has made me laugh out loud about menstrual cycles. Never preachy, but always on point, I love Caitlin's writing. She also recently made me cry over a much more serious subject (miscarriage); is there a writer currently in existence who can deftly turn their pen to such a wide scope of subjects? Anyone who can educate themselves while helping to raise a gaggle of siblings and still manage to get a job in journalism is utterly inspiring to me. 

I love the honesty that shines through in her writing, whether she's talking about her depression or growing up in a financially challenged household. It's the perfect antidote to the glossy surface that characterises so much of what we see on social media.

If you haven't seen this already, you MUST read Caitlin's piece for Esquire magazine here(the most popular story it's ever published, incidentally) 

Audrey Hepburn

Three words: Breakfast at Tiffany's. A favourite book and film, I fell completely under Audrey's spell after I saw her bring Holly Golightly to life. Quite the most exquisite person to look at, Audrey remains my ultimate style icon. I even chose a wedding dress that I thought looked like something she would wear. 

I was already deep in love with Audrey when I found out a bit more about her back story in the Second World War so you can imagine there was no going back after that. And of course, she appeared to be a wonderful mother and dedicated the latter part of her life to humanitarian work.

Kate Bush

Now, this is a weird one because Kate Bush used to scare me as a child. But it was a toss up between her or Madonna and after some deliberation, it's got to be Kate. Why? Because where Madonna over exposes Kate Bush remains an enigma. And I love people on the reclusive spectrum. Far too complex for a child to understand, I've developed a fascination with Kate Bush and an appreciation of her music later in life. 

There is, quite simply, no one else like her. You can't compare her to anyone. She acts strangely on stage. She sings songs about unborn babies not wanting to be born because there's been a nuclear war. She's a devoted mother. But she sounds so normal when you (on very rare occasions) hear her interviewed. 

She defies all musical categorisation and every new album she makes sounds like nothing else around at the time. I can't say I like all of her music, but I absolutely adore her uniqueness. 

Sophia Coppola

Totally the cool girl at my fantasy dinner party. But a geeky cool girl who makes clever films and doesn't show off about it. She obviously had the right connections to make something of herself in the film industry but I don't think Francis is responsible for Sophia's very distinctive aesthetic. 

I love how she directs and the look of her films - I even really liked Marie Antoinette even if the critics didn't. And has there ever been a more poignant expression of mid life crisis and missed romantic opportunity than Lost in Translation?

Julie Walters

When I see Julie Walters, I feel warm inside. To me, she's just the most expressive, moving actress, able to render me utterly overcome with hysterics or an emotional wreck. 

From her wonderful turn in Educating Rita to her partnership with Victoria Wood, she has the same effect on me as Jim Broadbent - basically, the world feels like a better place with her in it. 


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Getting Arty with The Paint Republic

If you were to ask me to rate my artistic ability on a scale of one to ten I'd be hesitant to suggest I had a skill level beyond about a 5. I love art (I nearly did a degree in art history) and would love to be the sort of arty person who can effortlessly sketch a family portrait or make a beautiful home made birthday card. But in all honesty, I'm most definitely not gifted with natural artistic flair. Since starting a job at Aardman - where creative people abound and walls and desks overflow with amazing storyboards, cartoons and concept artwork - I've never felt more artistically inept.

So I was curious to hear about a new painting club that promises to show people that you can make art - actual art you might even want to hang on your wall - whatever your ability. The Paint Republic has been holding events in London for some time and has recently been spreading its wings across other cities in the UK, including Bath. 

The concept - 'Paint and Sip' - is simple; you're invited to unleash your inner creativity (and I was assured at the beginning of my session that it was DEFINITELY lurking in there somewhere) in an informal setting that involves - you guessed it - the odd glass of wine, G&T or whatever you like to drink of an evening.

By taking away any suggestion of stuffy art classes filled with earnest people and intimidating teachers, The Paint Republic makes for a much more informal way to pick up a paintbrush and learn some basics.

For my class, we were invited to have a go at painting a picture of Paris but this isn't a prescriptive art class - you can follow the leader's instructions to the letter or go a little freestyle, trying our your own technique and artistic flourishes. Oh, and did I mention your art class is most likely to be held in a bar?  See, it really couldn't be more different to your average night school art class.

Armed with a G&T and all necessary tools (everything you need is supplied) I was feeling at ease about putting brush to canvas for the first time in about 30 years. To an eclectic background playlist of everything from the Stone Roses to Spandau Ballet, our lovely instructor took us through the steps to creating our Parisian scene, a suitably impressionistic piece featuring the Eiffel Tower, background buildings and a reflection-filled river Seine.

It has to be said that sipping on a G&T in between brush strokes really helps to loosen things up a little, somehow unleashing that aforementioned creativity without you really having to try. Once I'd painted my Eiffel Tower and added reflections, I started to really relax into things and I think my technique began to improve as a result.

Another thing that struck me afterwards was just how absorbed I'd been in my painting - the simple act of putting brush into water, then paint, and then onto canvas really is a restorative balm for a busy brain like mine. For the first time in a long while I really felt lost in an activity, unhindered by mental and technological distractions - I barely glanced at my phone all evening.

After two hours, the promise of creating a wall worthy artwork was realised - everyone in the group had produced something that looked pretty darn impressive for a beginner. It felt like two hours very well spent and a refreshing change from my usual week night activities. 

It's worth pointing out that I went alone which is a big deal for me - I can be quite shy in groups and was worried beforehand that I wouldn't enjoy the evening without being able to share the experience with a friend. 

In all honesty, it might have been more fun to have had a friend to compare notes with but there was also something quite special about experiencing a couple of hours' painting unencumbered by the need for any conversation - like I say, for me the experience of being totally in the moment with my paintbrush was a very restorative thing and perhaps I wouldn't have been able to surrender myself so entirely if I'd been with a friend.

The Paint Republic also offers private and corporate events; I think the experience lends itself perfectly to a bit of light team building and personally I'd much rather paint than paintball. Public events anyone can go to are currently trialing in Bath with sessions lined up for March, April and May, all taking place at the Hall and Woodhouse Bar, located just off Milsom Street. Each session features a different painting and there is currently a special offer to get three tickets for the price of two. 

Would I go again? Most definitely. I might not quite have located my inner Monet but I really enjoyed the experience and came away with a piece of art that my family was impressed with and that I wouldn't feel embarrassed about displaying. I just need to find the perfect spot for my masterpiece...

For more information about The Paint Republic visit the website or Facebook page.

I enjoyed a free session but all opinions are my own. 


Monday, 13 February 2017

A Weekend in The Cotswolds

About this time of year I start craving a bit of a change of scenery. But with finances still slightly dented after Christmas, plus the unreliability of the weather, it always feels a bit daft to splash out on an expensive weekend away in February. I don't want to travel for hours to arrive somewhere and find a solid two days or rain or snow is forecast - I'd rather hedge my bets by keeping travel time to a minimum and choosing somewhere with a (relatively) benign climate.

Step forward the Costwolds. Just over an hour from Bristol, the villages around Cirencester offer a no-stress option if you're looking for a countryside getaway with the chance to visit some quaint towns, smart gastropubs and interesting shops during your stay. 

For our weekend's exploration of this pretty corner of the country, we based ourselves in Bibury, an idyllic village not far from the region's capital, Cirencester. Bibury has charm by the bucket-load; despite attracting vast numbers of tourists throughout the year, it retains a quiet, sleepy vibe and you can take refuge from the crowds in the surrounding countryside.

With its typical Cotswold stone buildings - including the picturesque, much photographed Arlington Row - and rustic bridges, Bibury is as quintessentially English as villages come; there are pretty pubs, tea shops and even a trout farm to complete the bucolic scene.

If you like things to be lively, Bibury may disappoint, however there's more bustle just up the road in Cirencester, where you'll find a good selection of high street shops, cafes and restaurants in a pleasant setting. But if you really are after a bit of a digital detox and the chance to roam the great outdoors, Bibury makes a great base, offering some idyllic rolling countryside to explore.

We enjoyed a lovely ramble through tranquil fields and woods, taking in the village of Coln St Aldwyns and a welcome pit stop at the very tasteful New Inn pub. When I say 'pub', this place perhaps typifies the fashionable demographic of this corner of the country - think an expensive looking, Range Rover driving clientele, Farrow and Ball decor and Bloody Marys at £8 a pop...the Cotswolds most definitely have an affluent feel about them.

Away from the celebrity associations (Kate Moss, David Cameron and Lily Allen are just some of the famous names with homes in the area) there are more 'ordinary' attractions to enjoy - traditional country pubs, quirky tea shops and charming churches aren't difficult to stumble on, plus there are several places to try your hand at watersports in the area.

It was a bit cold for us to sample that side of the area on this visit, but come in the summer and you can take to the water at the Costwold Water Park or at South Cerney Outdoor Education Centre. We kept our feet on dry land instead, visiting the nearby town of Burford on our second day, a lovely place for a stroll and a browse in the high street's selection of cute independent stores - it's the kind of place that has a shop specialising in handcrafted brushes and artisan cheeses.

Just outside the centre of Burford is one of the most exciting shops I've visited in a long while - the Burford Garden Company. Ostensibly a 'garden centre', this place ain't quite the same as your local B&Q. I'd describe it as a cross between somewhere like a Wyevale garden centre and Liberty - it's a vast space of several buildings selling not just gorgeous plants, flowers, garden furniture, pots and other accessories, but stunning homewares, clothing, toiletries and stationery as well.

To say you could spend the best part of a day here is no overstatement; there's also a toy department and cafe on site too. Given that Liberty is perhaps my favourite store ever, I could have parted with some serious cash here - like the aforementioned retail legend, it's a shop filled with a carefully curated collection of lovely things, from hippy-luxe Moroccan rugs to hand-made pottery, boutique brand perfumes and candles to vintage crockery. 

And of course, there are the flowers and plants too, which have all your outdoor requirements totally nailed. I absolutely loved the place.

We stayed in a lovely stone cottage in the heart of the village, 33 The Square, a suitably cosy and cute place to rest up after a day's exploring. It's everything you'd want from a country retreat with its real fire, low beams and beautiful aspect overlooking a picturesque square. 

With three double bedrooms, it comfortably accommodates six and feels pretty roomy for a cottage - it wouldn't be a hardship to while away an afternoon in front of the fire if the weather wasn't on your side. 

I loved the comfortable, simple decor of the cottage, with its traditional shutters, wooden staircase and cushion-filled window seats - anywhere that has a window seat is all good with me.

We'll definitely be back to this corner of the UK - on a sunny day (we enjoyed glorious sunshine on our trip) I can't think of many nicer places to unwind, have a screen detox and perhaps enjoy an expensive Bloody Mary... 

For more information and to book 33 The Square, visit the website here.*

*We enjoyed a complimentary stay at 33 The Square but all opinions are my own.
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