Sunday, 1 May 2016

Hello, May 2016

The fifth month of the year has already joined us.

As I always say, the past month has flown by.

April began with the most beautiful, sunny weekend in Hertfordshire. I finally went to the Harry Potter Studio Tour, and had a day out at Paradise Wildlife Park. De Vere Theobalds Park Hotel was the setting for the weekend, and I had the most relaxing, wonderful time.

Later in the month, my wonderful friend Laura RAN THE LONDON MARATHON. I'm so, so proud of her, and was tracking her throughout the whole course, getting a little emotional when she'd done it.

I also saw Disney's stunning new adaptation of The Jungle Book, and had plenty of lovely, relaxed meals out.

It was an action-packed month, as usual, with these things joined by a busy month at work, and the final appointment of my 6-week intensive counselling course for my anxiety.

In amongst all that, the month has just slipped by.

May looks set to be a good one, too.

I've got a few plans and evenings out coming up, followed by a whole week at the seaside in Kent, taking a real break from everything to just slow down and relax in amazing company.

My parents are off on an incredible trip to Sri Lanka to celebrate THIRTY years of marriage, and I can't wait to hear about their adventures (and get a bit jealous). My sister spent most of April in Indonesia visiting monkeys and Komodo dragons and volcanoes, so maybe I need to up my game!

Hopefully May will bring some sunny days, as I'm struggling with the fact the weather just can't make up its mind what to do at the moment!

I'm ready for you, May. Welcome.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Paradise Wildlife Park, Hertfordshire

We stumbled across Paradise Wildlife Park by accident.

A brown sign at the side of the road en route to a weekend getaway said it was only a couple of hours away.

Reviews online told us it was a great day out.

We booked tickets online, and headed towards the park on a sunny Saturday morning.

It's a trip to the zoo, but on a smaller scale. It has animals from big cats to wolves, zebras to snakes, and you feel so close to all of them. The way the enclosures were built meant many didn't seem like 'enclosures' at all, and the staff all over the park were clearly so passionate about the animals they looked after.

The first thing we went to was a talk on red pandas, who were just beautiful and the keeper seemed almost giddy with excitement as he told us about the species, their lives in the wild, and what is being done to protect them.

The big cats were so regal-looking, and high up walkways allowed you to walk around and look down into the enclosures. There were so many talks going on throughout the day, and we listened to ones on big cats, penguins, the red pandas and wolves. There was also a reptile house and a small farmyard on the site.

The cheetah talk was fascinating, as they explained she is partially tame to allow them to carry out routine procedures like immunisations without putting the animal to sleep, as this can be dangerous for big cats.

Throughout the day, though, there was very strong emphasis on the fact there has to be SOME human contact for reasons like these, but that they are still wild animals, and this human time is minimised as much as possible.

The talks went into exactly how the park operated and exactly what the conservation processes were for each species, giving an insight into the landscape as a whole rather than just listing facts about each animal.

If you have children, this day out could go on even longer. There were huge play areas, with activities and slides of every kind to keep children of all ages entertained, as well as multiple food outlets and the opportunity to feed the farm animals. 

Even without touching these elements of the park, we spent a good three or four hours strolling round the park, taking in as much as we could. 

The beautiful weather finished the day off perfectly, and I'm so pleased we stumbled across this gem of a day out.

I've spoken to other people since who live nearby and just love it, so it's definitely worth considering if you're in the Hertfordshire area.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Reading List #39

Where do you get your inspiration for which books to pick up next? I’m in need of new ideas!

Here's the latest round-up of things I've been reading:-

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

Twins Marion and Shiva are born in 1950s Ethiopia to an Indian nun and a British doctor, and grow up in a country on the brink of revolution. This is a family epic, set against an interesting, complex history. When their father is in surgery, there are some stunning descriptions of the physicality and mortality of the human body, and using the biology of the body as metaphors for life. You can feel Marion’s pain sharply throughout, and there were some heart-breaking moments. Worth a read.

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

In Iceland, in 1829, a woman is condemned to death for murdering her husband. A family take the woman in, and a priest is tasked with absolving her. This was a good story, but I didn’t enjoy the tone and voice at all. I couldn’t connect to any of the central characters, either to like or dislike them, which meant I struggled to keep engaged. This book was hugely hyped when first released, but for me personally it was a bit of a let-down.

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

I’ve wanted to read this ever since I fell in love with the musical, especially once I heard it was actually very different from the popular musical. Eponine, for example, does not exist in Hugo’s novel. It’s an incredibly detailed novel, at times maybe a little too much so – the bishop’s tale at the beginning takes up over 100 pages – but it was beautifully written. Marius’ character is much more developed in the novel when compared with the musical, and is a much more likable character, with a real backstory and reasons for his actions throughout. There are very long battle scenes from Waterloo onwards and it is a long, heavy read, but I’m very glad I’ve now read it.

12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup

In 1841, Solomon, a violinist, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Taken from a family in New York to the cotton plantations of the Deep South, he spends 12 years in captivity, and tells the story of living under his various masters. This is a personal tale which also gives an overview of the period and condition of slaves. He can view some of the wider issues, and see some of his masters as men he respects. He maintains the constant conviction he can be free once again. This was a fantastic read, and a real insight into slave narratives like many I studied at university.

Any ideas on what I should pick up next?

Monday, 25 April 2016

The Making of Harry Potter: Warner Bros Studio Tour

Where do I even start?

This visit really was one of the most magical ways to spend a Friday evening.

I've been meaning to visit the Happy Potter Studio Tour for years, and my excitement levels leading up to the day were huge. The first book came out when I was about 7, so I well and truly grew up with the world of the Harry Potter books and then films.

The ticket was £35, which is more than reasonable when the average visit takes about 3 hours...

When we were told people tended to take 3 or more hours to look round I was a little dubious, but I had no idea quite how much was actually there!

The tour begins with a short film about the making of Harry Potter, after which the doors to the Great Hall at Hogwarts are revealed. Walking through the Great Hall was just incredible, and the Studio Tour houses lots of sets just like this one. There's the Gryffindor dormitory, the potions classroom, the Weasleys' house, and many more.

Costumes were displayed throughout, with little explanations and anecdotes about how certain sets, props and costumes were used or created. There was the opportunity to fly a broom in front of a green screen, and information on the hugely talented teams behind every stage of the production of the films.

We walked through the Hogwarts Express, each compartment kitted out to represent a different film. We used screens to make the magical household tasks happen in the Weasleys' kitchen. We saw a board describing all the different animals who played Hedwig, Fang and Crookshanks.

It's truly amazing to see so many sets and costumes up close, and to be able to admire the incredible detail of every one. I loved little quirky facts, such as that the wand boxes in Ollivander's shop all feature the names of people working on the films, and each box was hand-painted.

There was then a section all about the creation of the many different creatures of Harry Potter. There were explanations on how the mechanical elements worked, on how concepts were developed, and you could examine close up the 'creatures' that were brought to life on camera.

We walked down Diagon Alley, we admired tiny models of every set and architectural drawings of how they would come to life. We saw the work of the incredible artists who helped to create the visual spectacles Rowling had written about.

And then the final masterpiece.

This huge model of Hogwarts was used to shoot external scenes, and watching on screens as this model transformed into scenes from film after film was truly breath-taking - I've never seen anything like it.

This visit honestly surpassed every expectation. There is so much to see, and I have so much admiration for every single person who was involved in bringing these incredible stories to life.

Since my visit, I've re-read all seven books, and now intend to re-watch all eight films  - is there really any other way to spend your time post-tour?

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Jungle Book

I knew I was excited about seeing The Jungle Book.

It surpassed all my expectations.

Last night, I went to see the new film of The Jungle Book, both excited and apprehensive. The Jungle Book was THE film for me when I was younger. I watched it again and again. The new version could have been incredible or a disappointment.

It was incredible.

Visually, the film is just stunning. The shots of the jungle landscape, the animals, the huge expanses of land and tiny details of the jungle are beautiful. I loved the camera angles, pulling together sweeping shots of the landscape and jumpier shots, sometimes seen through the eyes of Mowgli, which built the moments of tension.

The way the animals have been done is phenomenal. I have no idea how the CGI techniques work but they were all so convincing, and the way their mouths moved when speaking fit perfectly with the rest of the animal. Every face had a personality, and the movements of each animal were so majestic. Clearly a lot of work had gone into the way each creature was portrayed.

Neel Sethi as Mowgli is a complete shining star. He captures the cheekiness of the young boy so well, and moved at one with the animals. Bill Murray's Baloo was as lovable as the original animated character, and Ben Kingsley's protective Bagheera was beautifully played.

Idris Elba as Shere Khan was brilliant casting - that rich, deep voice in combination with the tiger itself built a great villain. The wolf pack was well done too, with the cute cubs, the strong protection from Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and the fierce mother's love from Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o).

'The Bare Necessities' and 'I Wanna be Like You' featured in the new film as well. I have to admit that King Louie's song felt a little forced, but I really enjoyed Baloo and Mowgli's fun, casual rendition of 'The Bare Necessities'.

Overall, I was so impressed by this remake, and thought the way it had all been put together was breath-taking. I would gladly watch it again right now, and may well have shed a teeny tiny tear at the end (if you've seen it, think of the moment on the baby elephant...).

Thursday, 21 April 2016

De Vere Theobalds Park Hotel

A few weeks ago, I had one of my very favourite weekends in a long time. The setting was Hertfordshire, activities included the Harry Potter Studio Tour and a wildlife park, and the sun had got its hat on.

The venue was De Vere Theobalds Park Hotel, in Cheshunt, and that's what I'm writing about today.

The approach was beautiful, with a long tree-lined drive leading up to a building which looked almost castle-like. It was a beautiful building, and set in lush, green grounds.

The one thing I will say, which was a recurring theme, is the whole hotel needs a little bit of love. It was one of those places which feels like it maybe looked incredible 10 years ago, but little details are being ignored.

Take the room, for example. The bed was big and comfy, it had all the usual comforts, but there were marks on the bedhead and around the TV that just made it all look a bit worn. There was also a tear in one of the towels in the bathroom, which I wasn't too impressed about!

It was still a nice room, but I just expected a little more having stayed in other De Vere hotels and been blown away by the standard.

It was also absolutely boiling hot in the room, meaning we needed the desk fan turned on at all times.

 Breakfast was tasty, a very standard hotel buffet breakfast, and the room service dinner we had was delicious. However, again attention to detail let the hotel down a little. A drink was brought, then the wrong drink arrived, then there was no salt in the salt cellar... I did request that the tray charge be knocked off the bill, which was done as an apology for these problems.

As you can see, the grounds were beautiful, and it felt like a true escape from the city. Since living in London, I've learned just how important it is to escape for some proper fresh air every now and then!

Strolling round the grounds was a lovely way to spend Sunday morning - it was quiet, the sun was out, and there was nobody else around. The weather made the whole weekend feel even more like a holiday.

I started this post by saying this was one of my favourite weekends ever, and it was, but that wasn't because of the hotel. It was because of everything else that made up the weekend, including the beautiful weather.

The hotel did give us a nice setting to stay in, but it was in need of some real TLC which did let it down.

It by no means ruined the weekend - the bed was comfy and the grounds were quiet, which are probably two of the most important things - but the hotel could have pushed itself over the edge into being fantastic had a little more attention been paid to the details.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Reading List #38

This list is a real mixture of old classics and newer discoveries, along with things that have been on my ‘to read’ list for years.

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

This was a really gripping ghost / mystery tale, narrated through journal accounts of multiple characters. I had been meaning to read it for a while, after hearing years ago there was also a musical version of the story, but it sat waiting on my shelf for so long I’d almost forgotten. The book built up the suspense well through the delivery of all of the separate accounts, some of which had more to say than others, and some who were a lot more certain of what they had seen than others. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read that’s quite like it, and it’s worth a try.

Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver

Dellarobia makes a life-changing discovery on the failing Appalachian Farm… and I can’t really say much more than that without revealing too much. This novel contains themes of nature, climate change, class and poverty, and each of these are incredibly well handled, especially the class angle. Overall, I thought the book was a little too long and drawn out for the amount of plot within it, but it was a careful and intricately woven read, with moments of real beauty.

The White Queen, Philippa Gregory

It is 1464, and the houses of York and Lancaster are at war. Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian widow, marries warrior king Edward IV of York. This was a brilliant portrayal of the Wars of the Roses as a backdrop to a tale of betrayal and loyalty, with a fascinating main character. I got completely swept away in it.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I was a real latecomer with this one, and had actually seen the film before I read the book. I enjoyed the book 100% more than the film. So who is Gatsby? There’s not much I can say about the story, both because I don’t want to reveal anything, and because so many people already know and love it! This is a stunning love story, and the tempting question hovers of what is behind the beauty of the glittering parties. This novel captures an era of glamour and mystery, and I can see why it’s heralded as such a classic.

What should be next on my list?

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