Thursday, 19 December 2013

Christmas Winter Wonderland

I always love Christmas time and the build up to the big day.  I love all the pretty lights going on and the little Christmas fayres that pop up everywhere.  The excitement of seeing Santa when you are out and about.  The general good spirit of everyone and also the many places to stop and have a festive drink with either live music playing or the classic Christmas songs being pumped out from every shop or pub.  As we have 2 kids we always enjoy the tradition of visiting Santa somewhere so that they can give him their Christmas lists and this year was no exception.  

This time we decided to take them up to London, Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland.  
I think it was as much for me as it was for the kids.  We did, a few years back, do something similar in Brussels, but I had never been to London at Christmas time before, so I was really excited.  
Luckily we had a school inset day at the beginning of December so it meant that we could go up for the day and it wouldn't be too busy.  We parked in an underground car park on Park Lane, which was literally underneath Hyde Park - we couldn't have been any closer!  As soon as the kids saw the park we got a joint "Wow!".  

Entrance to the Winter Wonderland is free, yes free.  The fairground rides are expensive though, so be prepared to get through some money!  I was really impressed with the whole thing, it is such a beautiful setting and it all looks so magical and wintry.  It's like a kids dream come true, which looks great in daylight but looks amazing in the dark.  We were very lucky going on a Monday as it wasn't very busy at all during the day, we didn't have to queue more than 5 - 10 mins for anything, if at all. 

Our first port of call was to visit Santa in his Grotto.  
We thought it was best to get this done before the queue got big, although to be fair it never did.  He was really good, he took time to read their lists and talk to the kids about it and they had loads of pictures taken - they loved it.  
We then had a walk round to see what was there and choose a few things to do later on.  It is a large area and it's filled with food & drink stalls and German market stalls selling all sorts of crafts and gifts.  It all looks lovely and very tempting.  There are loads of ride on things for all ages and some awesome big rides for the brave big kids :)

We had made a decision to do 2 of the main attractions that are there, we chose:
The Giant Observation Wheel  

and the Magical Ice Kingdom 
but the others include an Ice Rink, Circus & Cirque Berserk.  The giant wheel was very good value for money, it was £20.00 for a family of 4 and we had about 15 mins in it.  The view from it was really good, all the main sites can be seen which was good for the kids to see.  We also did the ice kingdom.  This again was £20.00 for a family of 4 but unfortunately our kids were so cold in there that they couldn't wait to get out.  It did warn us that it was -8 degrees and we were wrapped up, but even I have to say, it was flipping cold.  At one point I thought I'd got frost bite in one hand as I had to take my glove off to take pictures with my phone.  The sculptures though were amazing, to think that it's all ice - it is a sight to see. 

As it was going to be a long day we decided to take a break and walk the kids down to Buckingham Palace,  as they had never been to London before, and we wanted them to see something else while we were there.  If we had thought about it all a bit more we should maybe have took them on an open top tour of London first and then do the Wonderland, but we didn't, so we'll have to do that next year ;)

It really wasn't far to walk down to Buckingham Palace and it was nice walking through Green Park.  We had lots of pictures taken in front of the gates and on the fountain, 
and from there we could see Big Ben and the London Eye.  On our walk back we walked up to Oxford Street to have a little look and stopped for hot chocolate to warm up, as it was cold.  By this time it had now become dusk and the whole of Winter  Wonderland was lit up :)
There was live music playing everywhere and the atmosphere had changed from in the daylight - it was even more magical and exciting.  It had really come alive and also got busy.  After doing a few of the children's rides and walking round the rest of the bits that we hadn't seen earlier we found the ice rink.  It really is beautiful and next time I will definitely be booking that up.
 We then found a Bavarian bar with live music playing,  so we stopped to have a beer to finish the day off.  You could tell that the night was just getting going and it was going to be great fun.   I have to say that I didn't want to go home, if I could have, I would have stayed all night but sadly we did have to get the kids home for school the next day.  I think if we go next year I might look at staying over for a night so we can do a lot
more and enjoy the buzz of London. 

Since then we have been to a few local Christmas Fayres and seen Santa in several places.  The kids & adults  have had Christmas parties, we've watched the pre-school nativity and we have done our Christmas shopping.  Everywhere looks lovely all lit up with twinkling lights and decorations and a lot of fun has been had by all - already.  Now we can sit back and enjoy the holidays, bring on the celebrations! 

All of us at Acorns would just like to wish all our past, present and future guests, Facebook  & Twitter followers and blog readers a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous & happy New Year x  

We would very much like to see you all soon 

Mel, Fred, Isabelle & Sophie

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Homemade preserves - you really can't beat it!

If any of you have been following me on Facebook & Twitter you would know that recently I have been experimenting and enjoying making my own preserves. It is something that I am really getting into and so far everyone who has been lucky enough to try some of them, have throughly enjoyed them, especially my B&B guests.  

I started off with the very easy to make blackberry jam.  

This all started because we have a lot of blackberry bushes growing down the side of our garden and this year was an amazing year for the amount and the size of blackberry's.  As we have always encouraged our kids to make the most of and appreciate seasonal fruits and veg that we can have fun harvesting ourselves, they were very keen to get out there and start picking this abundance of fruit.  Obviously this then resulted in a huge amount of fruit sitting in my kitchen and me wondering what to do with it all.  I hadn't made jam for about 10 years, but thought I did it then - so I can do it again now.  The first batch went really really well, it was surprisingly easy and Sophie & Isabelle helped so it was another great family activity.  The very next morning I put a jar out for the guests to try and it was an instant success, they loved it and over a few weeks ate most of it.
As the kids were still busy picking more & more blackberry's I made a second batch of this jam, but unfortunately this time I was a bit too eager and it ended up a little bit on the runny side, although the taste was still very yummy.  The guests got to try this too and finished it all, so I guess the consistancy didn't really matter as long as it tasted good. 

After realising that I had hit on something here I decided to try a different flavour so the guests had a choice. I decided to use more ingredients that we had growing in the garden and made rhubarb & strawberry jam. 
 Unfortunately the strawberry's weren't mine but the rhubarb was, and now I will never be stuck for what to make with it.  This jam was a delightful surprise, I had been a bit unsure as rhubarb can be sour but put with strawberries it was amazing.  Again another success with the guests, it didn't last long.

The great thing about making my own jam is that the guests really do appreciate that it's not shop bought, something that I have put effort into to make myself and use where possible ingredients that I have grown myself.  It's something that alot of people don't or can't do at home for one reason or another but everyone can just go to the supermarket and buy jam.  It's also been a great coversational topic as everyone is suddenly interested to hear about my homemade products.

Next I wanted to experiment with something a little more unusual, something that isn't your normal supermarket jam and I found a great recipe in a book that one of my friends lent to me - plum, orange & ginger jam.  The recipe didn't actually have ginger in it but as I was getting a bit more confident now I decided, what the hell - give it a go.  I'm not actually very good at following a recipe to the letter as I either don't read it properly and think I know what I'm doing or I might not have exactly the right ingrediants but something similar and think, it'll do.  So far - so good!  This jam is really nice but could possibly have done with slightly more orange in it, but other than that it's also been a great success.  I still have a bit left but if you want some you'll have to book up quick!

Moving on to something slightly different, my tomatoes had started to die off in the greenhouse a few weeks ago so I decided to pull them up and with all the green tomatoes I would make chutney.  Again I hadn't made this for maybe nearly 15 years but not wanting to see anything go to waste it was time to try again.  It is a lot of chopping but not really difficult.  The smell was really good while cooking but I have to say that we haven't tried any yet as it recommended that you jar it and leave it to mature for a few weeks, so we are still waiting.

So by now my confidence has been growing with every guest that has eaten my jam and complimented me on how lovely they all are, so I felt it was time to give marmalade a go.  I have never done this before and had the idea in my head that it's difficult, I don't even know why, I just did.
I was pushed into to doing it by Fred, who whilst out shopping bought a box of clementines that had been reduced as they were nearing the end of their shelf life and it would be far too many for us to just eat as fruit so I thought, right that's it - marmalade here we go.  I searched on the internet to find a clementine marmalade recipe as I wasn't sure you could even do it with clementines, but sure enough you can.  Again doing my usual trick of not reading the recipe properly jumped straight in.  Boiled them for 3 hours in water as it said, then realised that this was a 2 day process, as they then had to stand overnight in the pan before starting again.  The next morning I read on that you then have to pulp all the flesh through a sieve - bit of a faff I have to say and then alot of boiling to get to the setting point, as I was determind to make sure that this marmalade was spot on.  I have some lovely regular guests that are marmalade lovers and for them aswell as myself I wanted this to be my best effort yet.  
Well I have to say that I have amazed myself and it is delicious, it's nice and firm and the peel strands are very tasty and just the right thickness - it is most definitely my best yet :)
One of my regular workmen is staying again at the moment and he's one of the marmalade lovers that I mentioned earlier, he gave it the taste test last week and loves it, I can't ask for anymore than that. 

I have been approached now by several people asking me if I sell my preserves and have had to answer with, not at the moment as I don't have enough to sell.  My guests are busy eating it all and the whole purpose has been to give them something that they don't get at home, a bit of a treat.  Although I am now considering starting to make bigger batches and then I could sell them if there is a demand, we will see.  Maybe if enough people ask me I could be persuaded:)

The amazing popularity of my jam & marmalade with my guests has really suprised me but I am now so glad that I made that first batch.  Since I started offering my own jam, no one has used any of the bought portions that I still offer in the breakfast room, funnily enough.  I do now intend to carry on and make all my own jams for the breakfasts as you clearly, really can't beat homemade jam, I don't care what anyone says.

I know it's not rocket science but I am feeling very pleased with myself

Monday, 23 September 2013

Childhood memories brought to life

Last weekend we made a bug hotel in our garden and watching the kids building it & enjoying it, it just reminded me of when I was a little girl....

I can't quite remember at what age it began but I was probably even younger than Sophie and the happy memories will last with me forever.  
My Dad & I would spend hours together in his greenhouse or working in the garden.  It was our quality time and to me - the best times, which I now treasure immensely.  Sometimes we would be busy sowing seeds, as my dad was a believer of doing everything from scratch, not only because it was cheaper, but because he could, and he liked to follow the whole cycle from start to finish.  We would spend hours pricking out from the seed trays  to pots when they got big enough, and then obviously from pots to planting out in the garden.  Sometimes though we would just sit in the greenhouse, out of the wind or rain, and watch the plants & garden grow and enjoy it. 

We had quite a large garden that dad split into 2 so that we had a vegetable patch at the top and then an amazingly manicured lawn area with borders close to the house.  Dad was very proud of his lawn in particular, but also of all his gardening, and he used to get so many comments about it.  There were a couple of  years where he opened the garden up to something like the open gardens scheme and everyone that came loved it.  He was very particular and a perfectionist in the garden, like he was in his work.  I remember he used to have an electric mower which had a heavy roller in the back so that when you mowed it you got the definite stripes up and down (just like the football pitches) and they had to be straight!  It did look nice when he had done it, I have to say, but he didn't like anyone ruining his lawn.  He used to stop any women walking on it in high heels and mysteriously my swingball ended up broken after a couple of times being used - mmmm??? It did always look beautiful through the summer though, full of colour and immaculate.  Although I'm not quite as dedicated as him I do still aspire to be like him and have a garden as beautiful as his, even though I prefer a looser style.

Because we had the veggie patch we always had something from the garden to eat and I remember vividly eating the peas straight from the pod and the tomatoes straight off the vine and how good they tasted, it's something you really can't beat and I believe that all kids should experience this.  Dad's homemade pickled onions were always amazing too and we both used to enjoy a bit of the vinegar from the pickle jar poured on melted cheese on toast - yummm!  Eventually though as he got older he gave up the veggie patch and turned that into more manicured lawn with ornamental beds cut into it - another project that we did together.

Another large part of my memories of gardening with Dad was the amount of butterflies that we used to have in our garden and although I used to catch them in my net (unfortunately not realising that I was adding to their decline) I used to love seeing them and running round the garden after them.  Looking back too I remember so many bees, caterpillars and all sorts of bugs in general and it's because of these memories that I have now made a conscious effort to do what ever I can to help nature and all the wonderful natural things I took for granted when I was little. 

For a huge part of my life the one thing we both shared was our love of gardening, even when I was a difficult teenager, which I'm sure I was.  I would still find some time to help him, and still enjoy it, it was never a chore.  I am thankful that we shared this passion and that what he taught me has stayed with me, so that now I'm passing it on to my kids. I have always included my children in my gardening as I want them to grow up with the same memories that I have and I think it's important for them to appreciate how things grow, where our food comes from and how important insects & bugs are in the whole process.   

This year in particular the kids have helped sow, plant and also harvest all our fruits and vegetables from our veggie patch and it's been great seeing them enjoy picking them and trying them the same as I used to with Dad, even if they don't like them in the end.  It's like seeing my memories played back again through my children now and it's really, really lovely.  We have eaten our fruits & veg raw & cooked, we've made jam, we've frozen some for the winter, we've made Ratatouille for the first time, I plan to make chutney and also kept some as seeds for next year, ready to do it all again. 

 I must admit that I'm not such a perfectionist when it comes to gardening but I think that isn't such a bad thing as gardens can be too tidy.  Since we have lived in this house I have been planting wild meadow flowers to encourage the bees & butterflies and also leaving weeds that flower, where as Dad never had weeds!   I've made a decision that if the bees and butterflies like it, it can stay, what ever it is.  
Just the other day "we" as a whole family built a bug hotel in the garden.  It was great fun and something that we've all done together to help nature - giving nature a home.  
It wasn't hard and hopefully it will make a small difference.  The kids think it's great, Isabelle has always been bug mad right from being able to walk, but Sophie's not so sure, hopefully this will encourage her to accept them and enjoy them for what they are.  
Watching the kids taking part and enjoying being in the garden, making things and growing things always takes me back to when I was little and for a few minutes I feel close to my Dad again, which always makes me happy.  Sadly my kids never knew their Grandad Binder as he passed away the year before I was pregnant with Isabelle, which does sadden me, but I'm sure if you can look down, he is up there watching over them and enjoying them loving nature just the same as I did, and saying "Melly, get rid of them bloody weeds!" 

I do miss my Dad a lot, but at least in a way I keep him alive in the things that my family & I are doing :)  Quality time with your kids is precious aswell so if you can find something special like this - make the most of it.


Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Looking back over the summer

I haven't blogged much this summer I know, but to be honest the weather - for a change, was just too flippin good to be sat in doors :) 

In & around Lyndhurst, such a well placed part of the country to make the most of good weather, we have had so much fun.  The forest is the ideal place for simple walks, cycling & picnics.  The seaside is ideal for a gathering of friends having fun, paddling, swimming, making sand castles and then to top it all off sunset bbq's on the beach, there's something quite beautiful and special about the light of the setting sun on the beach and I think this is going to be one of my favourite memories from this summer time.

As for attractions, we are a family of season ticket holders for Paultons Theme Park so we spend many an afternoon there for just a couple of hours doing a few of the rides and the splash park, the kids always really enjoy it.  
This year we re-visited Furzey Gardens, which we went to a few years back when Isabelle was probably about Sophie's age now.  They both really enjoyed the search for fairies and fairy doors, which Isabelle had no memory of from the first time.  We managed to find about 32 out of 38 which was pretty good going.  It's a great place for young & old, the whole place has a magical and tranquil feel about it.  

We also fitted in a couple of brand new things this summer too, we managed to get reduced tickets to Snowtrax through Wave105, this was great fun.  I had looked at doing it before but had never actually got round to it.  We did the Ringos & Skibobs, they are both very different ways of getting down the slope but both really great fun, the ringos are like big round tyre inner tubes basically that you sit in and get launched down the slope.  Then the skibobs are like sit on trikes but with ski's on the bottom rather than wheels and you steer them down the slope.  The ringos are quicker and more thrilling but the skibobs are more controllable.   Then when you have finished there is a great log cabin style eating & drinking area which all adds to the experience, you can almost imagine you are on the side of a snowy ski slope somewhere in the Alps.  

The other new place we visited was Longleat, again it didn't cost much as we used our Tesco points for it.  It was an awesome day out, the weather was great and it isn't that far from us really, just over an hour away.  It is probably the best attraction I have been to that involves animals, other than our safari trip to the Kruger National Park, SA.  We got there literally just as it opened and we did the drive round safari bit first, this was great and I got some great shots of the lions. 

 I really liked the giraffe area too as it's a raised platform over a valley which means that you are strangely at eye level with the giraffes.  Also in this area there was an African village which included tribal dancing and the start of the Deadly 60 safari.  This kept the kids busy looking for clues in all the enclosures to make a secret code at the end, a great bit of added fun for them.  Once we had done the safari we parked the car and wondered round all the other bits.  It is so large that you do struggle to fit it all in in 1 day, but we did, just.  There is a train ride, boat trip on the lake to see the old silverback gorilla on his island, a massive play area, the Deadly 60 Challenge, a maze, falconry display, animal handling, all sorts of animals in different enclosures, and also the house & gardens.  A truely great day for all of us and we would certainly go back again.  My kids are still talking about it loads.

In addition to this we visited the Bournemouth Air Show on the beach.  This is a great weekend event that takes place every year and includes everyones favourite planes doing thier stuff but the real surprise this year was the Night Air.  They had a fantastic early evening Flying Circus Display which was basically 2 planes display flying but with fireworks coming off thier wings, really really effective and at the same time there was a concert on the beach which carried on till late.  A great day & nights entertainment all for free. 

The other thing that we managed to do during the holidays was a couple of camping trips, these are always great fun as we go with several friends and their children and it's just laughter, fun, bbq's and beer - what more can you ask for? 

So looking back at this summer and the school holiday period we have had a fantastic summer.  We have spent lots of time with all our great friends either out and about or at home having bbq's in the back garden and just making the most of what we have around us.  We have had many, many laughs at each other and with each other, created lasting memories, friendships and new traditions and I do feel really lucky with what we have and what we've done - long may it last. 

Acorns of Lyndhurst B&B
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Saturday, 27 July 2013

The "Good Life" & simple pleasures

I know the summer isn't over yet but just sitting back in our sun drenched garden and looking over what I've achieved so far this year it's really quite satisfying and I thought I'd share it with you.

At the beginning of the year I decided to double the size of my little veggie patch and have a proper go at growing my own veg this year, as last year's effort were pretty poor really. 
So I decided to grow my usual runner beans, carrots, lettuce, peppers & tomatoes as I'm comfortable with them but then I also decided to try potatoes, peas, broad beans & courgette.  My strawberry's, chives, mint and rhubarb were already there, they just got relocated. 

In March I very excitedly bought my seed potatoes and left them chitting in the house in anticipation, but the weather was so cold and miserable and not owning a greenhouse it meant that I wasn't able to get on and sow any seeds or crops, and I was beginning to think that maybe I was going to fail miserably again this year.
The weather did finally start to improve a bit and I took a chance on getting my veggies started.  I had some advice from a very nice head gardener that was staying with us for a weekend and I used his experience & knowledge to the full. Once all the sowing was done we made the decision to get some hens, as we thought it would be nice to have fresh eggs everyday for us and to share with our guests for breakfast.  Also we had an opportunity to buy a secondhand greenhouse from a friend which we did, as tomatoes and peppers definitely grow better in a greenhouse.  These 2 decisions did result in virtually the whole garden being re-arranged to accommodate them.  The shed was moved - there is a funny movie of the shed move, check it out How to move a shed and converted into the chicken house & run and the greenhouse was installed in the place where the shed had been.  

The weather then did sort it's self out and everything took off.  My gamble with the weather for my early potatoes really paid off as I started digging them in early June and they have been fantastic.  Considering I have never grown a potatoe before in my life I am really pleased with these.  We still have some left to dig but basically they have provided us with lovely tasty potatoes for about 6-7 weeks now.  
My strawberry's and lettuce have been prolific, the lettuce basically was because I went a bit mad with the seeds not thinking that they would all be ready at the same time, but I'm sure my friends have appreciated them!  The strawberry's did very well - probably the best they have ever done. 
I had never grown broad beans before either and I have been really pleased with these too, although they did get infested with black fly which I think may have ended their production a little earlier than if they hadn't had black fly - i don't know? The kids really liked them though, which was a bit of a surprise as I remember as a kid hating them! 
My rhubarb hasn't done very well, I'm not sure why, but we have now moved into the runner bean, pea & courgette stage.  It's quite nice to have a constant cycle of something.  Very soon now we should start getting some tomatoes, they are just about starting to turn.  To keep the cycle going a bit longer I have sown a second batch of lettuce, not as many this time, so they should keep us going to the end of the summer.  We still have some apples on our little apple tree still to mature and then the big finale of blackberries that are prolific at the bottom of the garden, they really are doing well this year and will certainly be a bumper crop to look forward to. 

On to the hens......
We finally got 4 Rhode Island Reds on Wednesday this week which was very exciting as it had seemed to take forever to prepare their house and run.  The kids were really looking forward to this and I have to say have virtually moved in with the hens since they came home.  I think deep down we didn't really expect to get any eggs for a few weeks, thinking that they may need to settle in first but to our surprise the first morning about 10ish the first egg was laid, what a result.  The kids again were so excited and thought it was amazing. They are very quite birds and I must admit you almost wouldn't know they are there, but they are lovely and have already become part of the family even after just a couple of days, and it's great that on top of being lovely they give you something everyday.  So far only 1 hen had been laying the egg but today 2 have laid so each day it's getting better & better.  We are going to purchase 2  Light Sussex hens next week to add to the family as a bit of variation and in total that will hopefully be 6 eggs a day. 

As I said at the beginning, sitting in the garden looking at what we have and what we are being rewarded with everyday really is very satisfying and enjoyable.  All it takes is a little effort and a bit of space and it's amazing what you can do.  I am loving this summer for everything that I have achieved and nurtured, even down to the increase in numbers of butterflies and bees that we have enjoying our garden.  
So lets hope that the summer sunshine continues and maybe I might have inspired or encouraged someone to have a go next year!


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A day at the races

Salisbury Races Family Day 

Last Sunday a gang of us took the kids to the family fun day at Salisbury race course.  I had never been there before so wasn't quite sure what to expect really, but Rosie had convinced me it was going to be a good day out.

The weather was absolutely fantastic the whole day and suncream was most definitely required, for some more than others though (Jane & Rosie) We managed to get there for about 11.40am and the gates opened at 12.00pm so that wasn't bad, it's only about 25 miles from Lyndhurst.
The entrance fee was a mere £6 per adult, kids under 16 are free, and on top of that all of the kids were given a voucher for a free 99 ice cream each, bonus!!!!
Once we got in we set up our picnic spot in between the toilets, kids entertainment and the big TV screen so most things were covered.  As we were 4 families we took up quite a bit of space compared to everyone else but I think we chose well.  Out came the picnics and the drinks and the men then wondered off to check it all out.  One of us, Graham would say he's a regular horse gambler and likes to give the impression that he knows what he's doing, so he was itching to get betting.
Almost next door to our picnic spot was the children's entertainers that did a bit of Punch & Judy, magic, singing, dancing etc that seemed to be going on all the time.  All the kids stuff was free to use but the craft/activity tent had to be reserved due to limited spaces.  Beyond the craft tent there were bouncy castles and trampolines, and if you were prepared to queue for it there was a face painting tent as well.  So plenty going on all day long to keep the kids busy with the addition of the regular excitement of watching the horses thunder down the track.

During the day there were 7 races and I believe the last one was around about 6pm and as it was such a lovely day it all seemed to go by so quickly, I could have stayed there all evening as well.  From memory I had at least a place in the first 6 races, sadly I missed out completely on the last race but in one of the races I got 1st and 3rd, woohoo! 
All the men decided to follow Graham's lead and go for the accumulator but sadly non of them won on it, Fred & Ty dropped out on the first race and then Tim & Graham lost around about the 5th race.   Graham was very quite really throughout the day so that probably meant that his choice of horses wasn't going so well, especially when in one race his jockey fell off - on a flat, straight track for god sake!!!!! We did all have to laugh - a lot!  I think overall though we all probably either broke even or made a couple of quid, and considering all except Graham were only betting £1 or £2 each way, we didn't do bad.

I have to say that the excitement as you stand near the fence and watch, hear & feel the horses thundering along and then realising that your horse is in with a chance, it really is great.  I thoroughly enjoyed my first day at the races and I would certainly recommend it to anyone, but especially families, as the kids were so well catered for that they didn't ask for anything the whole afternoon and they slept so well that night. 


Thursday, 6 June 2013

My social media journey

Back in November last year I was given an amazing opportunity by Bournemouth University  to be part of their DDBU digital marketing & social media project.  

When I applied for it, I have to admit that I didn't really know what it was I was signing up for or even if it was really something that I wanted to do, but I knew I needed to open my eyes to new ways of advertising for my small struggling to be noticed Bed &Breakfast business - Acorns of Lyndhurst. 
As I was actually only offered the last place due to someone else dropping out at the last minute I had missed out on the introductory and familiarisation session, so on the first actual meeting I felt very nervous & a little out of my depth.  I walked into the room and immediately noticed that I was going to be part of a team consisting of My New Forest, which is only part of the official New Forest Tourism Board who promotes everything & everyone in the area extremely well by using all the latest media's already!  Then as we mingled and introduced ourselves it became even clearer to me that I was the weakest link in the room, the others are: Exbury GardensHotel TerravinaThe Greenhouse Hotel,  Daisybank Cottage B&B New Forest Coastal CottagesForest Leisure Cycling, Snowtrax  and Julia's House.  In my mind all of these business's were well established and already using social media very well, and then there was me, the only thing I had any idea of was Facebook but even that was extremely limited.  I sat there and thought "what am I doing here?" 

The session was lead by Dr Philip Alford & Maureen McAllister who are extremely knowledgeable on marketing and social media but quite down to earth, normal, really nice and friendly people.  After listening to everyone else in the team I began to realise that although they were all already using social media and some SEO they still didn't really know what they were doing with it and that they were not quite so far ahead of me as I first feared and they were all so lovely. 
Our team or cluster was created - AppsFab! 

We each were assigned a final year marketing student to work with for 4 months of the project and my student was Stephen Manns, a really nice young man who clearly had his work cut out being stuck with me.  Philip & Maureen each gave a presentation and by the time they had finished I was so excited & fired up about the prospects of this new opportunity that I could hardly wait to get going -  the transformation was amazing!
The only problem though, was that once I got back home and was all alone, the task actually seemed overwhelming and because of my lack of understanding I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall and I went back to being very  frustrated about the whole thing.  I had been shown the possibilities but I didn't know how or what to do with it. 
I did however have the support of Stephen at the end of an e-mail and between us we managed to get the ball rolling.  We changed my Facebook account, to be a business page rather a person, created a Twitter account @acorns_bandb - which at the time I absolutely hated with a passion.  I just could not get to grips with the lack of visibility and the coded messaging thing.  A blog was created Mel's blog - which I love doing.  My website underwent a make over and I learnt a lot about SEO which is quite empowering actually.  I started to feel like I had taken control of my destiny now rather than sitting around waiting for something to happen. 

In between our official sessions we organised cluster meetings which I have to say were invaluable to me.  I learnt more from just talking with my team mates about what they were already doing, what they did and didn't like and what they thought was a good idea, than I did from anyone else really.  Don't get me wrong though Steve, Philip & Maureen were great and helped me a lot, but my team mates had experienced and were still experiencing the exact same things that I was experiencing and sharing that knowledge is what kept me going.  I knew I could ask these people anything and someone would be able to help.

The main role of the student in my opinion was to focus me and my business on a couple of specific goals so that a strategy could be put in place.  The goals we decided up on were: to integrate Twitter, Facebook & Blogging into the business, target specific audiences via the website makeover and a quarterly e-newsletter campaign and to address the SEO of the website.  At the end of the students time with us they had to submit a report as part of their final year assignments therefore making the collaboration beneficial to both us.  By the time Steve left me we had made some significant improvements but his report did highlight that I still have a way to go, this was never really a quick fix, but a long term strategy.

The final session with Philip & Maureen was yesterday - June 5th and this was all about us giving a short presentation to them showing our journey so far and looking on to where we want to be in 1 years time.  This date had been torturing me ever since it was mentioned because I wanted to do something different, exciting and challenging.  I wanted to create something that I could proudly put my name to and use it as an advertising tool as well as my homework.  After a lot of beating myself up about the lack of ideas Fred & I came up with the idea of an acorn growing and being symbolic of my growing on the project.  He showed me the tool to make a film and after many hours of taking pictures in the New Forest, carefully choosing the right ones, editing, choosing the right soundtrack etc, the rest is history ........check it out 
 Acorns of Lyndhurst digital marketing & social media case study
On the day there was only 5 of us presenting as sadly along the way we lost a few members, but the standard of all of the presentations was amazing, I am proud of all my team mates but especially David, Nina, Cheryl & Nigel you were AppsFab! 

I have to just mention though that I did blow them all away with my film and even reduced Maureen to tears. I am not very good at speaking in front of a crowd so the whole idea was freaking me out a bit. David went first and did a launch of his new website, Nina was next and amazed us with her statistics and her amazing blogging achievements, then it was me. 
I was really worried at this point because my piece was so far, nothing like anyone else's, and certainly not as factual or statistical and I thought I'd got it all wrong.  Anyway I stood at the front my heart in my mouth and said a few words to introduce myself and where I was at before I started this journey, then Maureen loaded my film.  My heart was pounding, I could hardly stand up and I was too afraid to look round but I could tell that everyone was stunned.  I had a very quick glance round to Philip who was jigging to the music so I took that as a good sign.  As it came to end I felt myself getting all emotional and everyone was cheering and clapping, Maureen came straight over and hugged me with tears in her eyes and I knew I'd done ok :)

Cheryl did a really nice visual presentation using her logo - the daisy & daisy chain, it was a really good way of using what she already has and building on it, then for the finale was Nigel.  Appsolutely fabulous, normally Nigel is quiet and unassuming just taking it all in, but he found his voice here - he broke out into a rap!  The footage will be released soon as it is a must see, but it was great.  He had crowd (us) participation, humour and individuality, he just completely took us all by surprise and what a way to end a fantastic day.

I think that doing this presentation is one of the most emotional and proudest things I've ever done and although I keep saying it, I really do mean it, without the team including Steve, Philip & Maureen, I never would have done any of it and I genuinely thank you all so much.

If you would love to read your comments about any of my blogs, or if you have any similar experiences why not share them too?

Monday, 13 May 2013

Caribbean Princess

I have a niece, Jo, that has been working on cruise ships for the last 8 years and yesterday was the first time in all that time that she has docked in Southampton.  She has wanted to show us her boats ever since she started, so yesterday, she arranged a family day on board the Caribbean Princess for us. 

Wow, as we pulled up at dock gate 4 the sheer scale of this ship was amazing.  This was the first time I had actually been up this close to one and they are awesome things.  At 19 decks high it is like a skyscraper on water.  Jo & Matt came down to meet us, there were 7 of us invited on board -  Rachel and her fiancee Anthony, my Mum, Fred, Izzy, Sophie & myself.  

After clearing security with these dodgy people we embarked via a mountain climb up the gangway which was very steep due to height of the tide.  The main arrival area and central promenade was very impressive and everybody greets you as you walk through, Rach even managed to have a chat with the Captain to make sure he knew what he was doing.  

Our first stop was the crews quarters where Jo & Matt's cabin is.  It's quite interesting to see both sides of the operation and how different they are.  As soon as you go through the door that separates them there is instantly no carpet, just grey painted metal walls and doors and everything is very industrial.  You have to negotiate the M1, the main route straight though the middle of the ship where there's trolley's rushing everywhere carrying luggage and food supplies etc.  The cabins obviously are tiny, usually without a window and where 2 people share the tiny space, but Matt has been upgraded to a rather nice double cabin with sea view for him & Jo, as he was recently promoted which came with a few nice perks.  
Next on the whistle stop tour was weaving our way through the ship up to the sun decks and pools - the pools unfortunately had all been emptied as the day before they had encountered a storm and the water had been sloshing about the ship, then right up the top to deck 19 where the basketball court is located - it was very windy up there,  through to the nightclub which is right at the back of the ship in the odd looking spoiler type thing and then back down to the salon, where Jo works doing her teeth whitening and then round the spa & gym. 

Rach obviously hasn't got the hang of the machines in the gym, a bit like the cooker!  The view from here though is amazing and I think it would inspire anyone to do a bit of a work-out.

We were then treated to a fantastic buffet style lunch with so much food to choose from that you just didn't know what to have.  You could have as much as you like and you could just keep going back for more.  Unfortunately after lunch Jo had to go back to work, but as arrival day for her is just being in the salon for advertising and demonstration purposes we were able to go up with her.  She even talked Rach and myself into being the clients for the teeth whitening demonstration.  Before we took part though Matt took us on the final leg of our tour, the shopping arcade, the central promenade where the daytime entertainment takes place, the casino, theatre and his office.

 It seems that there is always something going on all the time in the central promenade area and it's just a lovely place to sit and have a drink watch everyone go by and just take it all in.  There is a lovely relaxed & comfortable atmosphere on board, it's not all formal and posh like I had imagined, although it is all very beautiful and quite luxurious.

After going up & down stairs, in and out of lifts and getting slightly dis-orientated we ended up back at Jo's salon for the finale.  At this point Rach was starting to back out of teeth whitening due to a fear she has of dentists and was trying to get everyone else in there instead of her, but Jo persuaded her and in the chairs we were.  I have to just mention at this point that Jo hadn't really explained the procedure other than I just paint this stuff on your teeth and you sit under a lamp for a few mins.  So as soon as we laid in the chairs, side by side, we started giggling about the white coat Jo was wearing making her look like a dentist & that Rach didn't really like that look, Jo was trying to be professional like she would with normal clients but normal we are not!! Jo then pulls out this scabby looking ripped towel to put over me and of course that started the banter about the six star salon and from there it just went down hill rapidly.  
Jo then proceeded to start with me as Rach was giving her grief, this therefore made me the guinea pig with an unfair disadvantage, then she produces this plastic, springy mouth guard thing and tells me to put it in my mouth just inside the lips to hold them out the way.  Well, I was already laughing so much that I couldn't get anything inside my lips, let alone this springy plastic thing.  After a few failed attempts and hysterics, and Rach nearly wetting herself watching me,  I managed, but that wasn't all - I also had to wear some silly orange glasses too.  This wasn't quite the look or the experience I had signed up for and I think at this point Jo was getting fearful for her job and wishing she had chosen someone else as we were being too raucous! 
After laughing so much that I was actually crying with tears streaming down my face it was my turn to laugh at Rach, but as I say she had the benefit of being second and managed with hardly any trouble.  She still looked ridiculous though, we both looked like Wallace from Wallace & Gromit!!!!  

As I was first I was able to
wind Rach up a bit as she has a fear of anything dental and I found it hilarious to pretend that it was painful.  It was almost impossible to talk with this thing pinning your lips back so everything sounded silly even if it wasn't and the "more cheese Gromit" was hilarious
between us we didn't stop laughing through the entire treatment which incidentally takes about 40 mins and would cost around £90.00 on the ship or on land £250.00.  Afterwards you have to obviously rinse your mouth out and again I just had to wind Rach up one last time and as I spat out into the basin I shouted out "oh no my teeth have fell out!"  Rach's face for a second was a picture along with a few mumbled swear words

After all the mickey taking and messing around I have to say I was really impressed with the results, it definitely works, my teeth are very noticeably whiter and it was great fun, Thanks Jo.

If you want to have a giggle at us check out the video clip on my Facebook page, it is funny.

The time on board really did just fly by and as it got close to the time when we had to go it was quite sad, I would have liked to have been staying on board a little bit longer but I still don't think I could cruise.  I enjoyed this day as the ship was virtually empty and we had plenty of space to wonder around in, but I'm sure that when there is the 5,000 people (guests&crew) on board that it carries, it's not quite the same and for me that is the reason why I won't be booking up - Sorry Matt.
A massive thank you to both Jo & Matt though for getting us on board and showing us how lovely it is and we look forward to seeing them both when they dock again in a few weeks time.