As you know, every year I try and remind myself that life should be about snapshots, and not about stuff. When we’re old and grey, we won’t look back on our lives and remember that nice sofa we bought in the sales in 2015 (ahem), we’ll remember time spent with family and friends, visiting incredible places and enjoying new experiences.
Our girl’s foodie weekend away in London
So I forgot to tell you about the weekend before last! My buddy Erica and I decided we’d plan a girly weekend away. A foodie weekend in London suited everyone, so Erica came down from Scotland with her gorgeous daughter Erin and we headed off on the train to London.
Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to Raymond Blanc’s beautiful Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. I’ve wanted to visit for ages, so I was beside myself with excitement. As I drove up, I dithered outside the front gate in my car, not really knowing what to do, and instantly, a friendly gentleman in an immaculate suit rushed out to help, escorting me to the reception and driving my car off to park it for me. First impressions? Pretty darned good.
What have you got planned this autumn? It’s the perfect time to get out and about, I always think – crunching through piles of golden leaves and wrapping up, getting out and discovering new places, all looking beautiful in their glowy autumn colours. To give you a bit of inspiration, I’ve teamed up with English Heritage to give two lucky winners a fabulous 12 month English Heritage family membership.
As a family, we’re pretty divided when it comes to phones. Mr English is a sworn iPhone devotee. The rest of us are mad on Samsung. At the moment, Charlie and Sam both have a Galaxy S4, and I’ve got an S3 (I did have an S4 too, but then Sam dropped his in the sea on a Biology field trip and he was so gutted I gave him mine – motherly love eh?).
We’ve tested a few cars in the past, most notably the Honda CR-V that we drove around France, and really love doing it (basically, a lovely man appears on your doorstep with a brand new car and gives you the keys, leaving the car with you for a week – what’s not to love?). This time, Honda asked if we’d like to try their new Civic Tourer 1.8 i-VTEC SR manual and, being a big car loving family, we jumped at the chance…
So recently I got invited to a very swish private screening of the third series of Sky Living’s drama, Scandal. If you’re not already hooked (bet you are), it stars the gorgeous Kerry Washington (who we all remember most as the blind lady who dated The Thing in the Fantastic Four, but who was also amazing in Django Unchained), as White House fixer Olivia Pope. It’s full of intrigue, secrets and cover-ups and is seriously good.
So how did the evening pan out? I’m not sure you’ll believe it…
We’re lucky enough to live about a half hour train ride outside of London. I visit the capital quite a lot and during the summer months the big tourist attractions like the London Eye, the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace are obviously the perfect places to visit. But what if you want to strike out and see a bit more while you’re visiting, take advantage of easy car hire in London with Avis, or head off on the train? Here are my top five places just outside of London that are perfect for a day trip:
So we started January 2013 with a bit of excitement after my Dad’s Christmas Day proposal to his partner (by the way, the Dodgy Centre of Gravity reared its ugly head again after our cheese and wine tasting night when he’d had a few too many and fell over putting his shoes on at the end of the night).
In February, I travelled down to beautiful Blagdon to meet up with my Yeo Valley chums and have a nosey around their wonderful new HQ, and went on the adventure of a lifetime with my five bestest chums when we sailed the Caribbean on the frankly fantastic Liberty of the Seas (we’re Royal Mums, ambassadors for the Royal Caribbean brand and we take our job VERY seriously). As you know, I’m big on spending your time and money enjoying experiences that you can cherish, rather than stuff, and this was right up there, believe me. I came back with aching ribs from all the laughing (the horse riding through the surf in Jamaica might have added to that a bit, but oh, riding through an azure sea is one of my most treasured memories). I also felt incredibly lucky to have shared an incredible experience with such incredible friends. I love you guys.
April saw birthdays galore. Charlie turned 15:
And Sam celebrated his 18th with karting, a party at home and a pretty epic double chocolate curly wurly cake…
Then there was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding…
In May, I headed out to the Cote d’Azur to experience the gorgeous Chateau Saint Martin in Vence:
July was beautifully sunny and we spent a wonderful day aboard the Independence of the Seas. The boys adored the FlowRider and it was lovely to meet up with all my besties and their families:
I also spent a lovely weekend with my friend Erica doing an amazing foodie tour of Edinburgh. Foodinburgh 2014 is already in the early planning stages!
August was MENTAL with nearly three weeks of it spent abroad, in beautiful Brittany…
and then with the boys on the INCREDIBLE Disney Magic – a real trip of a lifetime:
We even managed to squeeze in a day in Barcelona with wonderful friends after desembarking:
In September, Mr English and I squeezed in a quick weekend at Nutfield Priory…
and then in October, we headed off on an immersive wine cruise of Europe on the really quite gorgeous Celebrity Infinity…
and then all that travelling squealed to an abrupt halt. Because this little dude came along…
In November, Glam C and I went to Hogwarts Christmas at the Warner Bros Studio Tour:
and before we knew it, it was freezing, wet December then… bloody January again! (to quote Flanders and Swann). We had a wonderful Christmas lunch at the Chequers Inn at Weston Turville: a seven course Christmas extravaganza with some amazing wine that really was festive, fun and very relaxing. My favourite course was this stonking turbot with a huge crevette:
So here’s to 2014. What’s on the agenda for this year, then? More travel, certainly, more time spent with family and friends, loads of exams for the boys, more eating, more cooking, more relaxing, walking in the woods with our gorgeous new pupster and… who knows? My wishlist still includes Las Vegas (Britney, b*tch!), Australia and Thailand.
Thank you to each and every person who has stopped by to have a read, followed me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, or just blundered here via Google. I’m immensely grateful. Wishing you a very happy and restful New Year. May 2014 bring you peace, happiness and new experiences galore xx
So this week I took my lovely friend Glam C to the sneak preview of the brand new Hogwarts at Christmas event at The Warner Bros Studio Tour just near me at the Leavesden Studios.
As you know, I’ve visited the tour before (click here for my top ten tips for visiting the tour) but this time was extra special as everything has been decorated for Christmas.
I’m not going to give you too many spoilers, but Hogwarts in the snow is breathtaking, especially with the time lapse day to night lighting. Look for the teeny footprints. NOT flattering taking pictures lit from behind but hey ho…
Ooh, and we bumped into Amanda Holden too (rubbish photo – it was a bit dark), who is lovely.
Originally Friday 15th November to Monday 6th January 2014, Hogwarts in the Snow has now been extended due to popular demand and runs until 12th January. Warner Bros tell me they’re nearly sold out so if you want to go, BOOK NOW!
On our recent trip to The Grove Hotel, we’d arranged a visit to the Warner Bros Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter at Leavesden Studios. The tour, based in the studios originally used to film the series, has some absolutely amazing things to see and do – loads of props and costumes, sneaky peeks behind the scenes and much more. It’s a difficult one to review as I’m conscious that I don’t want to spoil it for you if you’re planning a visit yourself, but here’s our top ten tips for visiting the Warner Bros Studio Tour:
If you want to visit the tour, you MUST book. They don’t accept any walk-ins at all and we saw quite a few people who had paid a lot of money to travel from London who were turned away at the ticket office. You cannot buy a ticket at the studios.
2. Check prices
There are options for family tickets which work out better value than buying single tickets. At the moment, the adult ticket is £29, child is £21.50 (age 5 to 15) and under 4s are free. The family ticket (two adults, two children or one adult, three children) is £85.
3. Invest in the audio visual guide
The guide costs £4.95 and basically narrates your journey around the tour to you through headphones. It’s narrated by Draco Malfoy, which is a rather lovely voice to have in your ear as you wander round the tour. It’s invaluable as it stops you missing bits out and also is full of really interesting facts too. Oh, and if you buy the guidebook, don’t look at it as you’re queuing – it contains lots of spoilers!
4. Check the website before you book
There are often special events – for example over the summer holidays (Friday 26th July to Monday 2nd September) there’s the ‘Summer Spells’ special events where you can learn more about some of the famous spells from the series and take part in wand choreography lessons.
5. Be prepared to queue
The staff let about 100 people in every half hour, so you might queue for a short while.
6. Take your time
The tour is SO exciting, and there’s so much to see that the temptation is to rush round everything. However, once you’ve left the first studio, you can’t go back in, so if you discover you’re pretty quick round the second part, you can’t go back! This is another reason why the audio visual tour thingy is worth the money as it encourages you to pace yourself.
7. Hogwarts Castle
Don’t rush past the model (you won’t want to anyway, it’s beautiful) as the lighting is adjusted from night to day over a 4 minute cycle – perfect for pictures.
8. The shop
Be aware that the tour filters you out into the shop, so you’re going to have to be prepared to run the ‘can I have this? Can I have that?’ gauntlet. If you’ve got younger children it’s worth setting a budget before they’re exposed to all the goodies!
9. Food and drink
There’s a café in the foyer which serves decent food and drink, but if it’s a nice day, bring a picnic as there’s a nice picnic area by the carpark that you can use. You can also buy a drink and a snack in the outside area after the first studio – you can also buy butterbeer here and see the Dudleys’ house and the Knight bus where you can hop on and take photos!
10. Look out for hotel deals or store your luggage
The deal we reviewed was an overnight stay at The Grove. You’ll find more information, and prices, here.
Whether you’re travelling locally or you’re flying in from abroad, ABC Selfstore in Camden have a range of luggage storage facilities to make your trip around the Warner Bros studios more enjoyable and less weighed down!
I’ve also got a family ticket for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour to give away courtesy of the Current Accounts team at NatWest! Just leave a comment, telling me your favourite scene/quote/character from the Harry Potter movie series and the winner will be chosen at random. Usual English Mum giveaway rules apply. Giveaway ends at midnight on Friday 2nd August 2013.
**THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED – THANKS FOR YOUR ENTRIES – THE WINNER OF THE FAMILY TICKET WAS JOANNE BLUNT**
As a Mum to two fabulous children under the age of 5, I am always looking for places where we can play, be challenged and have fun. ZSL Whipsnade Zoo has ticked all 3 boxes with Hullabazoo Adventure Play, their brand new outdoor play area nestled in the middle of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.
On Sunday, we piled into our car and drove over to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo which is just over an hour for us. We were invited, courtesy of the lovely and talented English Mum, to preview the Hullabazoo Adventure Play. As we approached the Hullabazoo area, which is just behind the Sea Lion enclosure, I was pleased to see some really lovely wooden towers and structures making up the play space. In this day and age, everything seems to be primary coloured plastic and it was quite comforting to see a quality built wooden play place.
Ella took off the minute we entered Hullabazoo and headed straight for the Zip Line to have a whirl. Sam was begging to be let out of his pushchair and proceeded to tackle every mini-hill he could find before finally attempting to climb everything his sister tried. What I loved about Hullabazoo was that Ella (nearly 5) and Sam (18 months) could both be entertained and challenged by the various areas. There are cargo nets, slides, bridges, ladders, a zip line, swings, a round-about, balance beams and climbing frames which are accessible to most ages (with a bit of support for the youngers). We could have spent a long time in the Hullabazoo area had the steam engine not been beckoning! You will be pleased to know that the Hullabazoo Adventure Play is included in the price of your entry ticket to the ZSL Whipsnade Zoo so you won’t have to pay any extra to have a zippy-good time!
Hullabazoo Adventure Play is located at the heart of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, next to the Hullabazoo Indoor Play and the Child’s Farm. Hullabazoo is suitable for children of all ages and will be open for 364 days of the year. Hullabazoo opens to the general public on Saturday 25 May which is just in time for the Bank Holiday Weekend!
The Café Bebe family gives ZSL Whipsnade Zoo’s Hullabazoo Adventure Play a big thumbs up. We definitely have to return to explore the area more as I spent the entire time taking pictures and video of our visit. I didn’t even get to have a go on the zip line!
It’s my birthday shortly (not a hint, I promise) and although I can remember sunny days, cloudy days and rainy days, I’m pretty sure it’s never snowed before at this time of year.
Yesterday we drove down to Surrey to visit Thorpe Park for the opening party for their new hotel, The Crash Pad, and to experience the new backward twist to The Swarm, their amazing winged roller coaster. The Death Wish Dude is a coaster nut, so we took him with us as our coaster-tester, along with his friend, James. The snow was really coming down by 6pm and as we crawled along the M25 at about 20 mph I had visions of us being snowed in and spending the night in the car.
Anyhoo, we made it, and the incredibly friendly Thorpe Park staff made us very welcome. We checked in to our Crash Pad room and were impressed with what we saw. Don’t, under any circumstances, expect a hotel room. The Crash Pad is more like the Yotel in that it really is just a place to lay your head: a double bed, two single bunks, and a small en-suite wet room. That’s it. No floor space, no wandering around room, just a place to crash and go. Oh, and a word of warning? The top bunk has no rail. Do not allow a restless sleeper up there – the Dude came crashing down at around 3am – luckily unhurt!
We thought it would be fab if you have to travel a long way to spend time at Thorpe Park – you can book packages which include two days’ park tickets, one night in the Crash Pad and breakfast included. There’s also evening entertainment provided and the bar area is lovely. A fab idea and pretty good value too. We also thought it would be ace to book an overnight stay during one of the Fright Nights!
In the bar we bumped into Shane Richie, who we’d met at Disneyland Paris when we went for my 40th birthday (you may remember the ‘photograph of the ear‘ debacle). He’s so lovely and we all wandered around the park in a big gang. Kat (lovely Jessie Wallace) was there too I was a bit starstruck, to be honest, but they’re so down to earth and friendly. At one stage Shane took over the announcing on one of the rides (then ran away before getting on).
We were lucky enough to have access to the park after closing time, and the fellas went on everything, at least twice:
There was also the small matter of a stolen banana. This was absolutely nothing to do with me, but these two shifty-looking characters were caught on CCTV:
SWARM is blimmin’ amazing. Hubby and I went on once but the boys rode about five times – both backwards and forwards!
After a fabulous party, with a DJ, entertainment, nibbles and a free mojito bar, we headed to the Crash Pad. It was really lovely and comfy (bit awkward when one of the kids isn’t yours, but then that’s our fault). The only problem was when we woke up – no hot water due to frozen pipes. The staff were amazing again, rushing around and getting us bottles of water, but we decided to head home and save our park tickets for another day.
This really is the perfect place for teenagers. To be honest, it’s such good value I think I’d probably book a separate room for the teens, then let them loose around the park while we chilled and pootled about a bit more. The food options are good at Thorpe Park and there are plenty of non-adrenaline-rush things to do too!
And yes, the banana was returned to its rightful place, unharmed. I promise.
About Crash Pad
Two day packages start from £64pp, including breakfast (based on 4 sharing). Click here for more info. The Crash Pad opens 28th March 2013.
Living, as we do, just a 45 minute train ride away from London, you’d think we’d be popping to the capital all the time. In fact, we very rarely do, so an invitation to come and spend the weekend in London at the Thistle Hotel, Marble Arch was the cause of much excitement here at English Towers. It was also, I have to say, a rare pleasure to spend an entire weekend together, blighted (or blessed) as we are with two teenagers with very active social lives.
Getting there was easy: train into Euston, then two quick tube rides took us to Marble Arch underground station (don’t throw things, but I honestly didn’t know that this was right on Oxford Street) and a short walk (literally less than 100 yards) and we were there. The Thistle is really tucked away (discrete signage is all you can see from the road), but it’s a real Art Deco beauty, with a proper ‘Gentleman’s Club’ vibe of polished wood, brass and leather and amazing glass ceilings in the lobby area.
Checking in was easy (and incredibly polite) and we were soon in our rooms: the boys in a lovely twin, and us two doors down in a double. I’m not sure if they’ve been recently refurbished but again the vibe is quite masculine – not unpleasantly so, just a nice mix of beiges, browns and creams with sumptuously thick curtains, dark wood and soft leather chairs. The bathrooms were spotless, very heavy on the marble and, I’d say, a bit dated, but still fabulous. The service is fantastic – within five minutes of checking in, one of the boys had put the iron (turned off, thankfully) onto his bed where it had unloaded a load of water all over the place, soaking his bedlinen. Someone arrived within five minutes, whisking the soggy stuff away and replacing it while he was in the shower – he didn’t even notice it had been done.
After a quick (complimentary) drink in the executive lounge, we headed down to the restaurant for dinner. The Marmor Grill has a compact menu at a pretty good value £21 for three courses including a glass of wine. We found it easy to pick something that everyone liked and again the service was immaculate and unobtrusive. My prawn and crayfish cocktail with avocado and whisky marie rose sauce was delicious and the beer battered cod with hand cut chips and mushy peas was top notch. We forced down dessert (well, there was bitter chocolate tart AND knickerbockerglories!) and waddled back up to the room. Obviously being right on Oxford Street, it’s not the quietest place in the world, but we slept well in our huge, comfy beds.
The next day saw breakfast served in the Executive Lounge (everything you could possibly want: coffee, fruit, pastries, full English…), buoying us up for a full day’s shopping (‘Nike Town! Adidas!’).
Although we only shopped, I’d say the Thistle would be a great base if you were headed to the capital for dinner and a show, or if you’re just chilling, it’s a short walk across Hyde Park to the Science Museum – something we’re definitely planning on coming back to do.
Massive thanks for Thistle for putting us up (and putting up with us).
A standard double at the Thistle Marble Arch is £130.80. Click here for more details or telephone 0871 376 9027
Executive lounge access is with executive rooms only and includes private check in/out and complimentary continental breakfast and bar.
Back, then, from our wonderful weekend, we’ve had time to reflect upon Guernsey, and what it can offer the traveller – be they family, couple, group or solo.
The first thing that struck us both, having enjoyed each other’s company, sans children, for the first time in a good few years, is that it’s a wonderful place for a weekend getaway. But then, it’s good for everyone. Before I explain why, let me tell you a little about this teeny island nestled off the south coast of England, nearer, in fact, to Normandy than the UK:
Although Guernsey has strong ties with France (it was, in fact, French up until 1066, but I won’t bore you with a history lesson), Guernsey is not French. Nor, is it English: it’s a self governing crown dependency, if you must know. The population, and I found this amazing, is about the same as, say Rugby: 62,000, spread across an island that is just 30 square miles. Guernsey is a bit like a wedge of cheese, with high cliffs on the south east side, sloping down to level ground on the north west. There are huge tides here – meaning that the sea goes out a really long way, also meaning that the waters are very clear and clean, meaning awesome shellfish and happy sea bass, as well as making the water lovely for swimming.
Which brings me neatly on to why Guernsey is a fabulous summer destination for families. Just a 45 minute flight from Gatwick (we flew Aurigny, who were amazingly courteous, ran like clockwork, and cost about £100 return per person), or a short ferry ride, and you’re on an island that boasts better weather than the UK and the most glorious, clean beaches. What you won’t get is the ‘kiss me quick’ hat, tatty seaside resorts that put a lot of people off holidaying in the UK. Guernsey is, well, classy. In the harbour town of St Peter Port, the little boutique shops, restaurants, cafés and immaculate streets reminded me of Marlow, a well to do town, proud of itself, but in an understated way.
So I thought what I’d do is give you a perfect weekend in Guernsey (tried, tested and scoffed by my lubly Hubby and I) to give you a taster. If you can make it for a week, even better, but here’s my perfect weekend:
Getting there: fly Aurigny.com from Gatwick and pick up a hire car at the airport, or ferry over from Portsmouth with your own car.
Accommodation: there’s everything on Guernsey from very posh five star hotels to lovely B&Bs (for fab beachy holidays, check out Waves, which is very stylish self-catering accommodation on glorious Vazon Bay, or stay in St Peter Port where there is a wide range of hotels – check visitguernsey.com for more info). We based ourselves in St Peter Port, but being such a small island, everywhere is easily accessible.
On arrival, have a drive around the island – you can’t really get lost – if the sun’s out, seek out the glorious beaches, often hidden away down little ‘park and walk’ lanes, or strike out along the stunning cliff paths and on the way, check out all manner of Nazi bunkers (from the occupation, more of this later), Neolithic tombs, The Little Chapel and much more. Stop and see what people are selling in their ‘hedge veg’ stalls – makeshift shops where the locals sell their fruit, veg, flowers and – in lovely Mandy Girard’s case – cheese from her herd of Golden Guernsey Goats. For lunch try The Hideaway at the Best Western Moores Central Hotel, Le Pollet, St Peter Port, for excellent local crab sandwiches and home made cakes, all served on a gorgeously sunny outdoor terrace.
In the afternoon, have a wander around the cobbled streets of St Peter Port where there is amazing shopping. If you get tired, pop in to the Ship and Crown pub on the harbour front, for a pint of the local Rocquette cider and check out the shipwreck photos in the bar.
In the evening, book a table at Red Grill House on the harbour front. Be prepared to be stunned by their amazing wine list – several pages long – but don’t worry, the staff are very friendly and knowledgeable should you need help choosing. They also have a fabulous array of steaks, sold by weight, and generally have fresh fish of the day. Leave room to share their incredible tarte tatin before waddling along the twinkly harbour front back to your hotel.
Head to the beach!
Bimble over to Sausmarez Manor (pronounced ‘Summeray’, five minutes’ drive) where there is a great farmers’ market on a Saturday morning. Afterwards, explore the manor house and take a leisurely walk around the grounds where you’ll discover all manner of sculptures as well as beautiful gardens.
Head off to Herm Island (herm.com) on the ferry from the harbour and spend a day enjoying gorgeous, Caribbean-like beaches on a proper Famous Five island complete with bracken-edged cliff paths and azure water. There are no cars on Herm and only 60 odd residents, so it’s a really peaceful place to while away the day.
We were escorted around the island by the lovely, and very knowledgeable Jonathan Watson who showed us all the accommodation on the island: from the 40-bed White House Hotel, perched above the harbour, with its Conservatory Restaurant (amazing wine list) and its attached Ship Inn brasserie, to self catering cottages and log cabins. There’s also a campsite with shop facilities during the summer (they’ll even get your shopping in for you so it’s there when you arrive). You can walk the cliff paths around the island in about a couple of hours, or if you fancy a shorter walk, cut across.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the Mermaid Tavern and order the home made fish finger doorsteps with fat chips, battered with the local Herm Ale – you won’t be disappointed). It’s a truly fabulous place to spend a holiday, where you really can let the kids have as much freedom as they want, but if you can’t manage it, do spend a day there (take note of the last ferry times, otherwise you’ll find yourself castaway!).
Back on Guernsey, book a table at Christie’s, tucked away on Lower Pollet (which runs parallel to the harbour front). There’s an amazing atmosphere on a Saturday evening (ask for a booth at the back overlooking the harbour terrace – make sure you book!) – order a dozen oysters while you peruse the menu (their Tennerfest menu – loads of the hotels and restaurants do menus for a tenner during this six week period – is completely fabulous).
If you’re up for a few cocktails, head back to Red (just two minutes’ walk) and go upstairs to their cocktail bar, where the doors to the terrace are open in the summer, and quaff a few cocktails while watching the boats bob on the harbour. I recommend the Bramble (gin, blackberry liqueur.. other stuff…). I do not recommend drinking three.
Nursing a slightly aching head, why not wander along the harbour to Castle Cornet, a real boys-own castle (hold your ears for the firing of the noon day gun!) complete with turrets and cannons. The castle houses five museums with all sorts of interactive stuff kids will love, plus, you can stand high up on the fortress roof surveying the sea and pretend to be Jack Sparrow (or not).
If you’re flagging, pop into Boulangerie Victor Hugo for amazing pastries (59 Lower Pollet, boulangerie.gg).
Don’t miss the La Vallette Underground Military Museum, also walking distance from the harbour. Set in actual tunnels used by the Nazis for storing fuel during the occupation, the place is an amazing trove of memorabilia, not just from WWII, but right back to Victorian times. Kids will love the plethora of uniforms, guns and medals and adults will, as we did, find some of the things (letters home from family members sent to prisoner of war camps and tales of life during the occupation) very poignant. A moving place and well worth a visit.
For your final lunch, head to Le Petit Bistro, just on the corner of Le Truchot and Lower Pollet where you’ll find good wines (or great coffee) and adorable French staff. Feast on ‘Le Club’ sandwiches with extra ham or smoked salmon and share some frites. Delightful.
Finally, head sadly to the airport and vow to return to spend time in the summer on some of those spectacular beaches.
For more information on Tennerfest, which runs until November 11th this year, click on tennerfest.com
Huge thanks for our Gold accredited guide Gill, who was a mine of information and answered all my stupid questions, and to Visit Guernsey for sharing their beautiful island with us. I’d keep quiet if it was mine.
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