30 December 2010

Christmas Day in Saltwell Park

Christmas Eve

It's become a tradition on Christmas Eve to set up some landing lights (tea lights in glass jars) down the front path, so Father Christmas can see where he's going. We also scatter some glittery reindeer food...

...and inside there's also a glass of whisky and a mince pie, to reward Father Christmas for coming down our non-existent chimney. He really is rather good at getting past the gas flue and the chipboard.

16 December 2010


As is traditional, we've made our gingerbread house (when I say made, I don't mean I made the whole thing - I cheated and bought the sides/roof/chimney in IKEA). We used royal icing to stick it together, and then attached a whole load of sweeties to the roof. The girl liked that bit very much.

It does seem to be listing slightly, and a week on, the smarties on the roof have turned suspiciously white. I suspect the cat, who has a record of previous offences.

In other news, M's also written a letter to Santa. Apparently she wants some shoes for her (Barbie-sized) riders. Bless.

09 December 2010

On breakfast

Breakfast in our house tends to be a speedy affair, sandwiched in between waking up, slinging on some clothes and heading out on the school run. At the weekend we're a bit more leisurely, but most of the time it's a hit-and-run.

I've tried making breakfast exciting, with offers of eggs on toast, baked beans or porridge, but what the troops really seem to want is cereal, muesli and yoghurt or toast and something. (Actually, what they really want is croissants, chocolate muesli or pain au chocolat, but that's strictly a weekend treat).

The toast-and-something tastes are clear:

Orb: peanut butter, marmalade, honey
Me: homemade jam (currently working my way through a jar of blackberry and apple), Marmite, marmalade
M: Marmite, marmalade, strawberry jam or Nutella

Usually, it's never the twain shall meet. I don't go near peanut butter, Orb wouldn't dream of letting Marmite touch his knife. None of us have ever tried peanut butter and jelly. I suggested it, but the chorus of boos was overwhelming.

This week, however, we've had a bit of a taste test. The nice people at Whole Earth sent us a couple of jars of peanut butter - crunchy and smooth. So we thought we'd give them a go. Orb's been spreading it on his toast with wild abandon as you'd expect, and M has nicked several bits of his slices, which I think means the crunchy stuff has been a hit. I had a go...but for breakfast, it just wasn't me. Too sticky. However, in a sandwich with either cheese or banana for lunch - now you're talking.

As we say in our house, "two thumbs up good".

03 December 2010

The Collings go to Denmark

You might remember back in August we disappeared off to Denmark for a holiday - as guinea pigs for VisitDenmark. Here's a video we made about our trip!

If you want to follow what happened in more detail, here's the links to the blogposts we wrote at the time:

12 August 2010: The packing begins
15 August 2010: Ferry-tastic
15 August 2010: Denmark! (Grenaa Strand campsite)
16 August 2010: Denmark day 2 (Grenaa)
17 August 2010: Denmark day 3 (Kattegatcentret)
18 August 2010: Denmark day 4 (Dansk Landbrugsmuseum)
19 August 2010: Denmark day 5 (Jambo Feriepark)
20 August 2010: Denmark day 6 (Saltum Strand, Aalborg)
21 August 2010: Denmark day 7 (Aalborg Zoo)
22 August 2010: Denmark day 8 (Faarup Sommerland)
26 August 2010: Denmark - the verdict

02 December 2010

Too much snow

I may have had enough of the snow now. I've got Christmas cards to write, presents to wrap, and a small girl to shoehorn into a costume for next week's nativity play at school. Enough with the snowflakes!

Other things I haven't had chance to do yet (mostly food-related):

  • an exciting peanut butter taste text (the nice people over at Whole Earth have sent us some to review...but the sledging has kind of got in the way a bit)
  • make our Christmas cake (I'm going back to the 2008 version)
  • build the annual IKEA gingerbread house (learning from previous years, we won't be putting smarties on the roof, as the cat likes to lick them!)
  • make mince pies (we did the mincemeat on stir up Sunday)
  • make some crafty crackers (although this year, we'll be using tissue paper - it took superhuman levels of strength to pull last year's lot)
Eek. That's quite a lot to get done over the next couple of weeks...

01 December 2010

Snow! (part 3)

So far this week, we've gone sledging:

...built a snow cat:

...and spent quite a while excavating the car and attempting the school run. M went to school by sledge on Monday, which was jolly hard work. I don't think I was a husky in a previous life.

28 November 2010

Snow! (part 2)

Dusty Springfield lion (left by the house's previous owner, I hasten to add):

The icicles are still growing...

26 November 2010

Knitted decorations!

Not content with making Captain Jack a knitted stocking (and finding some chocolate mice to go in it), I've also knitted a star. This might not sound much, but it's very exciting - it means I have finally learned how to increase and decrease stitches properly!

Anyway, I'm very glad it's finished, as the small girl is desperate to put her Christmas tree up on December 1. We've already made little paper birds to hang from the branches - and if the weather stays cold and snowy this weekend, I suspect there might be some craft/glitter work going on (as well as some sledging).

19 November 2010


No, nothing to do with Alan Partridge. Think 80s synth-pop instead...

After many, many years of waiting (so that'll be *mumble* years since I was 10), I finally got to see A-ha in concert on Tuesday, at the Newcastle Arena, before they retire for good. Here's the Arena beforehand (can't you just smell the anticipation of hordes of middle-aged folk?)

I don't think there was anyone under the age of 30 in the audience, but there were a surprising number of blokes (several of whom knew all the words, and were dancing and waving their arms about). Lots of leather jackets, but not many leather wrist bands (a la Morten circa 1987).

And here's the band onstage, complete with a rather snazzy video wall, which they made good use of:

I think it was probably one of the best gigs I've been to - for a start, I knew all the words to every song, and there was the added bonus of the soundtrack to my teenage years being played in front of me. I'd not heard some of the songs for years (I have the albums on cassette, which isn't wildly practical these days) - and had forgotten how magic things like Manhattan Skyline were.

15 November 2010

Knit one, purloin several

I'm definitely at the simple end of the knitting spectrum. Over the last couple of years I've managed to make two bags, a ballet wrap (which took *ages* due to the increasing/decreasing stitches nonsense), a hat and a baby blanket. I can cast on, cast off, knit and purl - and that's about it. Anything more complicated than knitting two stitches together has me scratching my head and reaching for the manual.

So I was really pleased to be sent one of the latest books by Quadrille: Simple Knitting, by Erika Knight. Finally, I thought, I might have something to help me decipher those evil knitting patterns, and give me some nice ideas for projects that are not blanket-shaped. (My last project was a cot blanket for my baby niece, who arrived three weeks early...cue some late night knitting sessions).

The book is beautifully photographed, and has some excellent (large and clear) line drawings which illustrate the techniques required. My favourite bit is definitely the stitch library, which shows you in detail what the different stitches look like when worked up into a test square. As I never really know what moss stitch or whatever should look like when I'm making it, that's going to be very useful. I also love the glossary of knitting pattern terms and abbreviations - there's no way I'll ever remember what k2tog tbl means when I come across it. I thoroughly recommend the first half of the book - it's ideal for people like me who know a little bit, but really could do with some help.

Where the book falls down for me, though, is in the projects section. There's just not much there I'd like to make - frankly, life's too short to knit a dishcloth, even if it is in moss stitch. My other gripe is that quite a lot of the projects tend towards the expensive, even if you do ignore the yarn suggestions - one of the cushion covers, for example, uses 6 balls of wool. Even if you do find them in the charity shop at £3 a time or on ebay, it's still not particularly cheap. I dread to think how much 28 balls of Rowan Classic Baby Alpaca for the stripe throw would cost.

However, I do like the rag bag (made with strips of fabric) - it's at least (a) cheap and (b) not in ecru or beige, the dominant colours of the book. And it's one of the simpler patterns - there's 10 that are relatively easy or for beginners - the rest rapidly get more complicated, involving socks, cabling and fair isle (but not all at once!). I might get that far by 2020...

The verdict? Well, I like it, but with reservations. I suspect there are better books out there to inspire people who have never knitted before - but for those like me who have a vague idea what they're doing but need a bit of help along the way (and who love ecru cushion covers), this would be quite a good place to start.

09 November 2010


I've been trying to do lots of new, exciting (and/or terrifying) things over the last couple of months. I figured now that M was at school, I'd have a bit more space to give some new things a go. So far that's included:

  • playing netball again for the first time since I was 15 (sadly, it now takes rather longer to recover from a training session than it did then)
  • buying a mountain bike, and zooming along some very level forest paths
  • going to see a couple of radio shows recorded for the Radio 3 Free Thinking festival
  • going to a speedmatching event run by the lovely people at the Media Trust, and meeting some amazing local charities

Coming up over the next month:

  • I'm going to the Newcastle Arena to see A-ha play their farewell tour (they'd better be good - I've been dying to see them live since I was 10)
  • on Friday, I'll be giving a seminar to a group of academics about editing and proofreading journal articles
  • I'm heading to a workshop to learn how to make knitted Christmas decorations
Phew. I'll be either thoroughly exhilarated, or completely terrified by Christmas...

04 November 2010

Games, games and more games

The nice people at Random House sent me another book to review this week. It's not a kid's story book this time - but a compendium of games, aimed at all the family.

365 Everyday Games and Pastimes is written by two brothers, Martin and Simon Toseland. It really does contain 365 games - everything from seasonal specials for Christmas or Halloween to games for long journeys or children's party favourites. The games had to be practical, easy to learn and need a minimum of equipment to be included - so the most complicated thing you require seems to be a cricket bat.

The instructions for each game are pretty clear, though for some of the more complicated ones it would have been useful to have more diagrams. There's some line-drawn illustrations scattered throughout the book, but more would certainly help, and might lift the design, which is on the dull side. In fact, that would be one of my major criticisms of the book - that the retro theme on the cover isn't really followed through in the design and layout of the inside - which is surprising, given the recent success of retro books like The Dangerous Book for Boys.

There's a reasonable index, and the book is well-written - but not exactly compelling reading. A little bit of humour would probably have gone a long way, and maybe enticed people to read on further than they would otherwise have done when searching for a particular game or category. It's very definitely a book for adults too, which is a shame - I think a lot of 10-year-olds would be put off by the dryness of the text.

But, having said all that, it does have an excellent collection of games. We'll certainly use some of the card ones (we can never remember the rules to anything), and give some of the car ones a go.

31 October 2010


Actually, not quite as spooky as this (taken at the Science Museum in London). The lightbox tables in the cafe are really weird.

22 October 2010

Mildred Hubble, eat your heart out

It was spooky dressing up day at school today if you were in the reception class. The playground was hilarious - small witches, pumpkins, skeletons and vampires everywhere you turned. But what I found a bit sad was the fact that all the costumes were obviously bought, and really elaborate. I don't remember this as a kid at all - when we had to do Halloween costumes for school or Brownies they were all homemade - you were a ghost in a sheet, or a witch with a black cape and a paper hat. I know people don't have as much time these days, but it's a bit sad that the ingenuity has been lost.

And anyway, we didn't have the requisite £10 spare to spend in Sainsbury's or in Tesco. So M went as Mildred Hubble (from the fantastic Worst Witch book), in decidedly homemade attire. To follow our example, you'll need:
  • some school shoes
  • stripy tights (these are M's school tights)
  • a grownup long-sleeved black top (this one used to be Orb's, before it shrank in the wash. We later customised it with some gold star stickers)
  • a red sash (this one is a piece of ribbon I was bought for the Jubilee in 1977 - it's red with white and blue stripes! It's amazing what you can hoard for 33 years...)
  • a witch's hat (I caved on this one, and bought it for £1.99 in Sainsbury's - I figured a paper one probably wouldn't survive a day at school)
Total cost: £1.99. Total time to make: about 10 minutes, by the time we'd found all the bits and pieces in various wardrobes and boxes. Bargain.

20 October 2010

Cat in a lunchbox

This is what greeted me at 5am yesterday morning, as I blearily lurched around the kitchen before catching the early train to London. Little blighter...what you can't see is that she's actually sat on M's lunch, as well!

15 October 2010

A busy week

On Tuesday, I made some rash and wild predictions about how I would get to the allotment this week. Sadly, that just hasn't happened yet. But all is not lost. While procrastinating, I've found these eclectic yet edifying links:

12 October 2010

Gardening ahoy!

It's a funny old thing being a freelancer. Sometimes you're stuffed with work - so much so that you end up working all hours and juggling six projects. Other times you're much quieter - and then the guilt kicks in that you should be doing more, along with panic that nobody will employ you ever again. There doesn't seem to be a happy medium.

I'm currently in a slightly quieter period. For once, it's nice - finally I have a clean(ish) house, I don't have to work every evening, and I get to spend some time with M when she comes home from school.

Look - I even got out into the garden in the sunshine, and cleared back the undergrowth!

Later this week I may even get to visit my sadly neglected allotment and cut back the chard mountain, in between the school run, cleaning the house, the laundry and ballet lessons. Actually, I might go back to work for a rest...

07 October 2010

On yer bike

This week has been all about the bicycles.

First, M learned to ride her new Islabike without stabilisers - and proudly tootled off into Dalby Forest on her first foray off-road. We've been really impressed by the Islabike - it's incredibly light and easy to pedal, and the child-sized grips and brakes are excellent. We were also really impressed by the grin on the small child as she finally 'got' it, and zoomed off through the puddles...

Next, Orb and I decided to find a bike each too - on the grounds that M's new-found enthusiasm for two wheels should be encouraged, and that it would help us all get out and about in the fresh air at weekends.

However, it's quite a while since we've done this cycling lark. I last had wheels at university - an ancient road bike that I painted bright green, which gradually had all its useful bits like panniers and bike lights nicked. Bike theft was rampant in Cambridge - you never knew if the thing would still be there when you came back from the library or teetered out from the pub. Everyone used to turn up to lectures carrying enormous bags - not of books, but bike saddles, clip off lights and baskets.

Orb, meanwhile, sold his bike as a teenager to buy his acoustic bass...so hasn't cycled for years either. In a burst of poetic justice, he's put his Kurzweil piano on eBay to top up the bicycle fund (hopefully his bike will weigh a darn sight less than Wilma).

Anyway, after a lot of research, we picked out the ones we liked. I ended up with a second-hand mountain bike (a Trek 3700 since you ask) from eBay, which has 21 gears. Given my last bike had three, this might be overkill, although I'm quite looking forward to the prospect of hurtling down and up a few hills. I suspect I'll be shouting "wheeeeee" as I head downwards, which may not be quite the done thing...

We shoehorned my bike into the back of our car to bring home (never try this in an Audi A2, folks). Orb's hybrid, however, arrived in the post today in possibly the largest cardboard box I've seen for some time, with a rather harassed courier man staggering under the weight. Once he's assembled it, it will be excellent, but for the moment it's in the corner of the dining room in about 300 pieces. I can recognise the pedals and wheels, but that's about the limit of my bike mechanic skills.

Now all we need to find is a couple of helmets, and a means of transporting the bikes. Central Gateshead really isn't conducive to cycling with a small child, so we're thinking forests, parks...in fact, countryside of any description. Whether we can actually remember how to ride the damn things, remains to be seen...

26 September 2010

Days out, no 3, 456

Yesterday's outing was a birthday special treat for one of M's friends, held at Walby Farm Park in Cumbria. It's not somewhere we'd ever come across, as it's a fair drive (almost an hour and a half) from Gateshead, tucked away near Carlisle, the M6 and the fells.

The farm's your standard kid-friendly visitor attraction, like many others across the country. There's farm animals, an adventure playground, a soft-play and slides inside, and even a maize maze. But I liked the attention to detail - there's lots of signs explaining the farm animals, and work around the farm - and the very non-moneygrabbing feel. Too often you can wind up paying an entrance fee, and then forking out lots more once you walk through the door for trips on this and goes on that. Here, the entrance fee was pretty reasonable (£5.95 for adults, slightly less for kids), the food/drinks/ice creams weren't extortionate, and the only extras were a jeep barrel ride across a field.

Aside from the rather fantastic indoor slides (which are suitable for larger kids and adults too, hurrah!), M loved the go-karts, and almost ran off with one of the very cute guinea pigs. Sadly, Rustle the cat would have made short work of him, so we had to leave him there. We also got pretty lost in the maize maze, and totally failed to complete the challenge of finding the Roman 'tents' hidden within. I blame the map.

All in all, it was a good day out (and it really is a full day - including a picnic, we stayed for 6 hours). Might have to go back to play with the guinea pigs...

20 September 2010

Extraordinary measures

We hopped up to Belsay Hall yesterday (not literally, obv), to catch the last dying days of their Extraordinary Measures exhibition. Belsay's a great place to go with kids in tow - it's got extensive grounds you can picnic in, there's a 14th century castle to scramble around, and the house interior is gloriously empty, and free of tutting curators.

Best of all, though, they have the most fantastic art exhibitions. Years ago we went to the Sitooteries exhibition of pavilions, and more recently Picture House, which had the spooky Hereafter mirror which showed you images of past objects and previous visitors layered with a time-delayed ghost of yourself moving around.

Extraordinary measures was equally appealing. We loved the Slinkachu 'day trip' photographs, and were fascinated by Ron Mueck's realistic sculptures - especially the 2m tall wild man. It all had an Alice in Wonderland feel - you never knew if you would feel enormous or tiny in comparison to what you saw.

So we took our own large and small photos in the quarry gardens:

That last one's quite terrifying...

14 September 2010

Days out, no456: Souter lighthouse

It's not quite as 'iconic' as Fraggle Rock, but Souter lighthouse is great for a cheap day out.

You have to pay to go in the lighthouse itself (unless you're a National Trust member), but there's all sorts to do in and around the grounds that's free. [I should point out, we thoroughly recommend going inside - it's fascinating. You can see the old lighthouse keeper's cottages, climb to the top of the tower and see the light, and most importantly dress up in pirate costumes.]

We like:
  • visiting the vegetable garden and playing spot the vegetable
  • clambering over the pirate ship and train in the walled garden
  • buying ice creams in the shop (mini Milks are only 40p)
  • following the cliff-top path along and then down to a fantastic pebbled beach - there's lots of scope for skimming pebbles, rockpooling and general scrambling about
Usually it's blowing a force 9 gale - there's lots of space for flying a kite too.

13 September 2010

Cats, dogs and mice

The lovely people at Random House sent us Three by the Sea last week. It's the latest picture book by Mini Grey, one of our favourite children's authors. I can recite Biscuit Bear word for word, but never tire of reading it as the illustrations are so funny. (And any book that ends in a cake shop will always have pride of place on our bookshelves).

So we had high hopes for Three by the Sea. And we were right. It's another fabulous book, illustrated in the inimitable Mini Grey style (check out the brilliant book titles in Mouse's kitchen - it's her attention to detail that I love). What I also love is that the story is as good as the illustrations - so often you find that you're reading absolute drivel, even though the pictures are beautiful (Angelina Ballerina, take a bow...).

Anyway, back to the plot: three friends (a cat, a dog and a mouse) live in a house by the sea - until a mysterious stranger (a travelling salesman) shows up. He offers each of them a special free gift...but it turns their world upside-down. It's a tale of friendship, loyalty and making compromises - but without any of the schmalz that can often accompany themes like that. In fact, it's laugh-out-loud funny, both for adults and kids. M read it with me, laughed like a drain, and immediately demanded it again. And again. I can see I'll soon be able to recite this one too...

UPDATE: There's a lovely set of pictures on The Guardian website, with Mini Grey explaining how she creates her images: www.guardian.co.uk/books/gallery/2010/oct/01/mini-grey-gallery

11 September 2010

The perfect Saturday

1. Matinee film at the Empire cinema in Newcastle

At £1 per ticket we don't really mind too much if the film isn't wonderful. Today's (Planet 51) wasn't bad - plot/characters not brilliant, but gorgeous visuals of a 1950s-style alien planet. Definitely worth £3.

2. Buns from the Chinese bakery

Bread Point, just on the outskirts of China Town in Newcastle is the place to go. £5 buys you an enormous box of buns - filled with ham/sweetcorn, sausage, Taiwanese chicken, char sui pork, pork mince and our favourite, 'peanut milk'. It's probably some tooth-rotting conglomeration of peanut butter and condensed milk but we don't care.

3. The allotment in the sunshine

Some weeding, digging up of things and picking is usually the order of the day in September. Today I dug up potatoes and beetroot, and picked yet more chard, and a huge punnet of blackberries. It was beautifully sunny, and there wasn't a slug in sight.

4. Bicycle riding

M's learning to ride a bicycle without stabilisers on. She's just about mastered balancing and freewheeling after a lot of riding up and down the street - next stop, adding the pedals back to the bike for some proper riding.

5. Strictly Come Dancing

It's back! The perfect eye candy while eating 'telly tea'. I'm looking forward to seeing what Ann Widdecombe makes of Craig Revel Horwood.

6. Making blackberry and apple jam

See 3. It was a *lot* of blackberries. There are now five jars on the kitchen worktop, gradually cooling down. I may need to try some out on some toast before I go to bed...

31 August 2010

Cake finale

Gateshead Library
Gateshead Library,
originally uploaded by Simon Preston.
You might remember we created Gateshead Library out of cake a while back. Here's the official portrait!

26 August 2010

Denmark - the verdict

We had a fantastic time in Denmark, despite the rather rainy weather. We especially liked the Baltic coast - the beaches are lovely (and very family friendly), and it's slightly less windy than the North Sea side. (Although, if you're into kites or action sports, the wind and North Sea beaches would be right up your street).

But whatever the weather, there's acres of things to see and do, and endless Danish pastries and ice creams to feast upon. We may have come back about a stone heavier than when we left.

Would we go again? Yes, definitely. We rather like the idea of travelling to Esbjerg and then driving across to Roskilde and Copenhagen, stopping at some islands en route. Although I'm not sure we'd camp again. That's no reflection on Danish campsites, which were staggeringly clean, well looked after, and packed to the ginnels with facilities. It's more the fact that we've rather fallen in love with the idea of staying in a little log cabin on the edge of a pine forest...

Huge thanks must go to Visit Denmark who arranged our trip, and to DFDS Seaways for the ferry crossing. Look out for our video on the Visit Denmark website shortly....

22 August 2010

Denmark day 8

We've had the most ridiculously enjoyable day out today, at a place called Faarup Sommerland. It's a theme park - but before you get all overexcited, there wasn't a Disney princess in sight.

The place is set in woodland (good for keeping the wind at bay), about 5 minutes' drive from where we're staying. Its theme, such as it is, seems to be woods/logging/squirrels/goldmining...that sort of thing. We thought it might be good for a couple of hours of wandering around, and going on a few rides - boy were we wrong!

M started off by riding an Icelandic pony, and followed this up with a little light dodgem boats, a carousel and assorted biplanes (the sort that go round and round and up and down). We bounced a lot on trampolines, and climbed a bouncy volcano.

One of the things we really liked about this place was that there were a lot of active things to do, as well as rides to sit in. There were lots of playgrounds, an enormous climbing spider web (like at the zoo), and a fabulous action trail/treasure hunt, which took you out to a pirate ship moored in a lake via various devious means (usually involving slides, rope bridges, catwalks and hauling boats across lagoons).

As ever, there were lots of places to picnic. All of Denmark seems to bring at least three hampers of food and a couple of jugs of coffee with them for lunch - hence the natty little handcarts at every attraction, which can usually be hired for a nominal fee. They're also very useful for transporting tired small children.

After lunch, M and I braved the Falken - a huge rollercoaster that she was only just tall enough to ride on. I don't think I've ever been on anything so enormous (my last rollercoaster experience was the Mousetrap at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, about 20 years ago). It was wooden (so very noisy), hideously fast, and thankfully over in less than a minute. We both agreed it was completely terrifying (there may have been quite a lot of screaming on the way round), but brilliant.

To recover, we made Orb transport us round a lake on a pedalo, while we watched the ducks cruise past. After that, it was time for the aqua park. We hadn't taken swimming cozzies with us (the weather hadn't looked that great early on in the day), so M ended up in the pool in her t-shirt and pants (and had to be dried off on my vest). There's lots of slides/fountains and a pirate ship for littlies to play in - and some rather cool looking huge slides for teens and grownups.

By this point, it was about 4pm. Ice cream time! Given that the lovely people at Visit Denmark had given us free tickets into Sommerland, we felt justified in spending the best part of £10 on some completely enormous ice creams. Ice cream seems to be very popular in Denmark - two scoops is the minimum you can have, and several chaps were tucking into cones with four. We made do with two, with maximum sprinkles. And then felt rather ill afterwards...

To finish off, we went white water rafting (hilarious, but very very wet), and M had fun driving round a Danish village on an electric lorry.

We eventually crawled home, tired but very happy!

21 August 2010

Denmark day 7

We’re going to the zoo, zoo zoo
How about you, you, you?
You can come too, too, too
We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo.

Daddy did indeed take us to the zoo – Aalborg Zoo, to be precise. It’s on the outskirts of the city, so about 40 minutes away from where we’re staying. We thought it would be good for a couple of hours, but in fact, we did 'stay all day'.

The zoo is fairly traditional – most animals are in large caged areas, or at least have a moat between you and them - as opposed to a safari park. The monkeys/baboons/chimpanzees looked happiest with this arrangement – they had huge enclosures to swing about in. The big cats (lions, tigers) didn’t have quite so much space, while the zebras/giraffes/elephants had enormous paddocks to play around in.

The polar bears were fantastic to see up close - I'd never really got a sense of their size before, despite seeing the animatronic Bjorn the Polar Bear at the Sage at Christmas. Their enclosure included an enormous pool with glass sides, which enabled you to see them underwater. One of them was ‘playing’ with a huge car tyre, and the chunks taken out of it with his teeth and claws were very impressive.

The African Village section of the zoo was excellent - it gave you some really good background on the savannah animals, and it was nicely done with reproductions of village buildings. I can imagine that this gets used a lot for school visits. We loved the elephants nearby - who looked to be enjoying themselves kicking water around in the mudholes, and spraying the people watching.

We all had different favourites among the animals – I thought the polar bears were amazing, Orb liked the giraffes, and M loved the goats. What can I say. We take her halfway across Europe, show her all sorts of exotica, and she goes for the goats. In her defence, you could at least get close up to the goats and stroke them, which you’re never going to be able to do with an elephant.

We ate at the zoo at lunchtime, having run out of ideas for picnics. The self-service restaurant was very quiet - I think most Danish families are the picnic type. M picked a Danish hot dog (called a Fransk hotdog), I had the salad of the day (broccoli, raisins, pine nuts and red onion), Orb had a massive cheeseburger, and we all shared some chips - for 145 DKK. Can't imagine London Zoo being that reasonable. The food was all freshly made, and tasted great.

The other good thing about the zoo is the marvellous children's playground - with a huge, spidery rope climbing frame. M spent ages there, and was very proud of climbing up to the second level of ropes and bouncing around. There's also little things for tinies - slide/seesaw etc.

All in all, it was an excellent day out. The entrance fee is 120 DKK for adults (about £13), and 65 DKK for kids, so it's probably not a place to go just for a morning - but there's certainly enough to keep you occupied for longer.

20 August 2010

Denmark day 6

It was sunny this morning, so we seized our chance and headed down to the beach at Saltum Strand. I say down – because that’s exactly what happened. The road goes down to the beach, and then onto the beach, and then along the sand…and you can drive your car up to the sea! Here’s the A2, looking rather incongruous amongst the North Sea waves and sand. It’s really not used to it.

It was incredibly windy, which made us wish there had been space in the car for the powerkite. We have an 8 footer, which would probably have dragged us down the beach and out to Norway without any problems whatsoever. But in lieu of such excitement, we put up our beach tent, and proceeded to manufacture a rather stunning sandcastle, made from the cement-like North Jutland sand.

The sand dunes were a little more sheltered, and great fun for running up and down. We found shells, seagrass, and all sorts of strange pebbles brought in by the waves.

For sheer excitement, we drove 5km along the sand to the next beach exit at Blokhus, fording some small streams along the way. At Blokhus there were a couple of fish vans at the entrance to the beach, so we stopped by the marauding seagulls and had a look. We could have taken the entire contents of the stalls home with us, but that would (a) have bankrupted us and (b) made the caravan smell terrible for the next 10 years, so we restrained ourselves and bought what looked like some salmon fillets.

(We ate these for tea with some potato salad and sautéed courgettes – and discovered that the salmon was possibly the best hot smoked salmon in the world. Mmmmm.)

It started to rain after lunch, so we headed off to the nearest big city, Aalborg, for a bit of a wander round, and a look at the latest range of Lego. Aalborg looks like it’s quite a fun place, especially if it was sunny. There’s lots of cafes and shops (I had to be restrained from going in the cookware ones), some beautiful old buildings, and a fjord-side location.

After visiting a toy shop or two, we can report that the Danish range of Lego is pretty much like the English range – only a bit more expensive because of the exchange rate. Bafflingly, Schleich, who normally make models of farm animals, have a range of Smurfs. Who knew?

But then it started to pour down, so we travelled home, back to the cosy van. The campsite's filling up a bit with weekend visitors (who seem to have permanent pitches here), and it was quite busy in the communal kitchen/dining areas. These are as nice as the ones at Grenaa Strand Camping by the way - sadly there's just not enough of them.

The nice people at the Danish Meteorological Institute are promising only 1mm of rain tomorrow. They've been pretty reliable on the forecast front so far - let's hope we finally get a day that stays sunny...

19 August 2010

Denmark day 5

Today’s been a day of travelling, which means putting the foldy beast down and up. Thankfully it didn’t rain – that’s one of the problems with folding down a caravan like ours – you have to have a dry roof and walls, or everything else inside gets soaked when it folds. Which means a lot of wiping with a squeegee and towels.

I took a picture of the bathrooms before we left Grenaa Strand Camping – they're just as impressive as the kitchen set-up. Apart from the showers, which are designed for 6’6” blond Danish chaps/Vikings, and spray cold water onto mere mortals of 5' 7".

But showers aside, we liked Grenaa Strand Camping – the woodland setting is beautiful, the beaches extraordinary, and the facilities excellent. Out of season in the middle of August, it’s amazingly quiet – perfect if you want to get away from it all. We were sad to leave.

But leave we did. After packing everything back into the car (M was just visible in the back seat under a huge pile of duvets, soft toys and notebooks), we headed a couple of hours north to North Jutland. We’re staying at the Jambo Feriepark in Saltum, on the North Sea coast.

The area’s not as wooded as Djursland, and has a different feel. For a start, it's certainly far windier - we saw hundreds of wind turbines as we travelled along the motorway. Putting the caravan up was also a tad on the challenging side.

The Jambo Feriepark is a bit smaller than Grenaa Strand, but feels like it has far more caravans – here’s the view from our front door. Weirdly, they all seem to have the same awning...pegged out onto decking. I think most of them must be permanent.

Jambo's got more of a holiday park feel with rules and regs for this and that, and more facilities, like an on-site restaurant and indoor badminton courts. M loved the huge bouncing pillow (like a giant trampoline), which I had a sneaky go on too. She and Orb also hired a large tricycle, and roamed around the site. Here they are, giggling like loons:

Instead of cooking, we tried out the restaurant/café, and had some pretty decent pizzas (after five days in Denmark, we give up – we can’t eat any more pork!). Aside from the mad shower policy (it's 8 DKK for 3 minutes, which must make them the most expensive showers in history), the place seems pretty good so far.

18 August 2010

Denmark day 4

After a brightish start (and a chance to dry out everything that got soaked yesterday), it's been drizzling on and off all day. Danish drizzle, it turns out, is pretty much the same as Gateshead drizzle, only warmer.

But, undeterred, your intrepid crew got in the car and headed half an hour west to the Dansk Landbrugsmuseum at Gammel Estrup - the Danish national agricultural museum. Odd choice, you might think, for a bunch of townies, but maybe we're going soft on the countryside in our old age. And anyway, I grew up in the depths of East Anglian Fenland, which isn't so far removed from the Danish countryside round here.

The museum turned out to be an excellent choice. Our other alternative was going to see the rainforest biodomes in nearby Randers, but as we'd been to the Eden Project recently, we thought that agriculture would be more fun - and we were right. The museum has several indoor sections, full of exhibitions about farming and life in the countryside. We particularly liked the one about farm life from the bronze age onwards - especially how the farm kitchen had changed over the centuries, which takes you through four different mock ups of a kitchen. But there's also an entire hall full of combine harvesters and old agricultural implements, a fascinating exhibition about beekeeping (including some live hives), lots about butchery, and a current temporary exhibition about country fairs, including this rather natty chap:

Outside, if the weather had been better, are a whole host of animals, a smithy, orchards, kitchen gardens and a playground. There is inside play stuff too, including a remarkable children's farm complete with tractors and small cars.

We also found time to have a tea party in the garden:

This time, the museum was much cheaper, at 85 DKK (£9.50) for an adult, and with kids under 18 free. You also get admission to the Gammel Estrup manor house, but we spent so long at the agriculture museum that we didn't get round to looking at anything there - it really is a full day out, especially with smallish kids. Be warned - if you're there in Danish school holidays, there seem to be lots of free events on - but now the kids are back at school, it's pretty quiet.

Foodwise, we took along a picnic - and there were lots of picnic tables both inside and out which you could use. We felt we had to try out the museum cafe - for research purposes, natch - and can report back that the coffee and cake option (48 DKK) is pricey, but definitely worth it. Homemade cake, warm from the oven, and the largest jug of proper coffee you've ever seen rounded off a lovely day out. Recommended.

In other news, we popped into Aldi on the way home, and can report that it's definitely a cheaper alternative for basic supermarket stuff. Cheaper, in that it's more comparable to Sainsbury's prices at home, rather than the Fortnum & Mason price of a standard Danish supermarket. However, they only accept Danish credit cards.

Tomorrow it's time to pack up the foldy beast (hopefully not in the pouring rain), and trek north to the tip of Denmark - North Jutland.

17 August 2010

Denmark day 3

Today has mostly been about the rain. Not content with thunderous storms the other night which kept us awake for hours, it's pretty much poured down all day. I suppose we should be thankful we're not underwater, unlike Copenhagen.

But, there seem to be lots of things to do in Denmark when it's wet. We decided that we'd go with the water theme, and headed to the Kattegatcentret in Grenaa - it's a massive aquarium, stuffed full of sharks, stingrays and fishy creatures of all kinds.

The sharks made the most immediate impression - there's a huge tank as soon as you enter, with a tunnel underneath that you can walk through. Here's one friendly fellow...

M and Orb had lots of fun stroking the fish in the touchpools - the crabs were a bit nippy, but the rays were beautifully soft. We also saw some very cute seahorses, the obligatory Nemos (clownfish), and a bunch of red piranhas clearly planning world domination.

Outside there's some seals (and a chance to watch them being fed), and what looked like a fantastic children's playground with an octopus slide - sadly it was too wet to try it out. We did have a go at building lego lighthouses, which was excellent. We fully approve of the Danish obsession with lego, wo yes.

All in all, it's a rather good day out, although it is at the top end of the budget. It's 140 DKK for adults, 70 DKK for children - that's about £15.50 and £7.75 respectively. We took a picnic for lunch (as did most of the Danish families we saw), which saved us some cash.

Once home, it was still raining, so we decided we'd roadtest the campsite kitchen/dining room/tv lounge (one of several at Grenaa Strand Camping). As I said before, they're beautifully clean, and absolutely enormous. Here's a glimpse:


No fish gutting here!

Orb and M chilling out with some tv:

It seems to have stopped raining for now, which is a jolly good thing, given the foldy beast has sprung a leak. We may require a spot of filler...